By Thine Own Rejected

Psalm 22.1-5

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

Mark 15.25-39

It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aa! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn  in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

It was early in the morning when they crucified Jesus. 

The night before he was breaking bread with his friends and sharing wine. He was washing feet and talking about the command to love.

But then he was betrayed and one by one his disciples deserted him and denied him.

He went on trial before the powers and principalities, accused of crimes uncommitted, and ultimately sentenced to death.

He was paraded through the city to mocking crowds. His weakness was such that someone was commanded to help him carry his cross, his instrument of death, all the way to Golgotha.

And in the early morning light, they crucified him.

Nailed his hands and feet to the wood, and lifted him high for all eyes to see.

One by one they came to see this “King of the Jews” and the mocked him. 

“You said you would destroy the temple and build it in three days! Good luck doing all that from up there!”

“You’ve saved others, let’s see if you can save yourself.”

“Come down from that cross you soon-to-be-dead-king, and we will believe you.”

Even those who were themselves hanging on crosses next to him lifted up their own taunts.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land and it lasted for three hours. And then, around three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and he died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I have thought about those words for a long time.

I can remember sitting in a dimly lit sanctuary as a teenager hearing those words proclaimed from a rather portly-looking Jesus in a dramatic re-enactment.

I can remember coming across them in college and wondering why in the world Matthew and Mark decided to include them in their versions of the Gospel.

I have read all sorts of commentaries and listened to all sorts of sermons just on this one sentence and, frankly, not one of them have left me satisfied.

I have been unsatisfied with so many thoughts on these words because they so often try to avoid what it is that Jesus said – they try to avoid the words that we, for millennia, have proclaimed in faith.

When I was in seminary, we debated this verse in a class. My professor wanted us to explain to him why Jesus used these words as his last. And so we competed with one another – “Well, surely Jesus meant to quote the entirety of Psalm 22nd but died before he could finish.” “Naturally, Jesus intended his disciples to understand that he didn’t really mean what he said.” And on and on we went.

That is, until my professor slammed his hands on the podium and declared, “This is one of the most important verses in the Bible! You cannot explain it away. Look at the words! Jesus has taken on our sin and he is abandoned!”

There is no good way to talk about this text. This is not a passage that leaves us walking with our heads held high. This is the depth of our depravity held high for all eyes to see.

This is, to put it bluntly, our sin.

In order for us to come to grips with the Cross of Christ, we are called to consider the gravity of sin. And I don’t just mean the little choices we make every day that we shouldn’t, or the things we avoid doing that we should do. I mean them plus all of the horrific examples that you only need a moment to scroll through Twitter to find.

“None is righteous. No, not one.” St. Paul says.

And he’s right.

Had we been there in Jerusalem all those years ago, we, like the crowds, would’ve started the week with “Hosanna” and ended it with “Crucify!”

Even his most faithful disciples abandoned him in the end.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Why did he say it?

The moment of Jesus’ death is total hideousness. In that moment Jesus experienced separation for the Father for the first and only time.

Paul puts it this way: He became sin who knew known sin. 

The condemnation that we deserved was absorbed by Jesus in totality.

Consider the strange new world of the Bible – God looked upon us and our sin and what did God do? God did not remain above and far removed from our struggle. Instead, God chose to come right down into the muck and mire of our existence. God looked upon us and our sins and God entered into our very condition, birthed as a baby to a virgin in a manger.

That baby grew to proclaim the Good News for a world drowning in bad news. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He befriended the lonely. And when he entered the Holy City we nailed him to a cross.

And in so doing, God removed the condemnation we rightly deserved.

This will no doubt cause us to wince, or simply to dismiss it because, surely, we don’t deserve condemnation. Maybe someone else like those people we saw on TV or the people who voted for the other candidate or for the person who keeps insisting on posting such reprehensible things, but definitely not us.

But we, all of us, are sinners without a hope in the world unless (unless!) we have something that can save us.

Something had to be done about Sin otherwise we would be doomed.

Something had to be done to get us from where we were to where we could be.

And that something is actually a someone – his name is Jesus.

In the Cross, justice is served. But it is also an injustice. It is an injustice because Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world. 

All of our versions of justice in this life can certainly make things better and, at the very least, bring comfort to those wronged. But it will never be true justice because the specter of sin raises its ugly head over and over again.

But divine justice is altogether different. 

We do not deserve God’s love, and yet God’s reigning attribute is love for us.

There is victory that begins on the cross (and comes to fruition in the empty tomb) in which the old word of Sin and Death is destroyed. That is our proclamation. It is, to put it simply, the Good News.

And yet, we sit in the shadow of the cross.

It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them up in our living rooms and even tattoo them on our skin – not just as a symbol of our faith, but a reminder about what we did and what has been done for us.

We lift high the cross because the Gospels remind us over and over again the bitterest of ironies – the only person who can touch us and heal and forgives and make us whole is dead. Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there. Amen. 

Write This Down

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the pros and cons of clergy couples, connect ministries, rule following, divine jealousy, the freedom of the Law, Thomas Merton, the foolishness of the cross, the S word, musical instruments, and the Temple tantrum. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Write This Down

The Devil We Know

Psalm 91.9-13

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

His hair was still wet from the baptism in the Jordan river when Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark tells us that the Spirit literally kicked Jesus out in the unknown places.

And there, for forty days, Jesus ate nothing and was tempted by the devil. 

It is a tradition in the life of the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while fasting from certain items, behavior, or practices.

Some of us give up social media, or chocolate, or unkind thoughts (good luck with that one). While some of us add new disciplines like daily bible reading and prayer, intentional silence, or journaling.

Nevertheless, this temptation story leaves us with a question: Who in the world is this Jesus?

Earlier in the gospel we read about how he was born to a virgin in a back alley of the town of bread, and how an angelic host sang the Good News of his arrival to a bunch of nobodies out in a field in the middle of the night. 

Later, magi from faraway places brought him gifts fit for royalty and King Herod was so terrified of his arrival that he ordered all of the children in Bethlehem to be put to death.

We then fast forward to his baptism by his cousin, after which the sky was torn into pieces as a voice bellowed: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

But now this Son of Man and Son of God is out who-knows-where dealing with who-knows-what.

And yet, this story tells us exactly what kind of Messiah this Jesus is and will be. It gives a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos. It helps us to know how it ends just as it begins.

“Okay,” Satan says, “If you are who you say you are, let’s see some ID. No pockets in your robe? Fine. I’m sure you’re hungry. We’ve been out here for forty days. So why don’t you make some of these stones into bread? It might come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”

“It is written,” Jesus says, “That we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”

“So you know your scripture!” the Devil replies, “I understand. And, frankly, I’m with you Jesus – you can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But what about this? Would you like some political power? Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all you have to do, and it’s a tiny thing really, is bow down and worship me.”

“It is written,” Jesus says “we shall only worship one God.”

“Okay, okay, geez. Don’t be such a stick in the mud,” the devil continues, “So you won’t show compassion to the hungry, not even yourself, and you won’t just go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. Fine. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too. So what about this? Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for doesn’t it say in the Psalms: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’? Do it and the people will be filled with faith.”

“It is written,” Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“This is getting boring,” Satan intones, “I’m getting out of here.”

Pretty wild stuff. 

The devil temps the Lord of lords and fails to catch him. The devil even attempts to use scripture to catch Jesus in the snare, but it doesn’t work. 

Now, usually, when we hear this story at the beginning of Lent (if we hear it at all) it is framed in such a way to encourage us to resist our own temptations. Lent, after all, is a season when we ditch a bad habit or pick up new ones.

And, yes, we should resist temptation – there are things we want to do that we shouldn’t do.

But if that’s all the story is meant to do, than surely Jesus’ could’ve been a little clearer about what is and isn’t permissible. If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, than wouldn’t it have been better for the Lord to add a little exhortative proclamation for the people in the back?

Do you see? This isn’t, really, a story about how we deal with our temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world, how Jesus deals with us.

Notice – The devil offers Jesus objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles. 

And yet, Jesus refused all three.

It would be one thing if Satan offered Jesus ten Big Macs, or nuclear weapons, or let your imagination run wild. But the devil didn’t. Instead, the devil presented Jesus with possibilities for the transformation of the world and Jesus did nothing.

Except, and here’s the real kicker, throughout the rest of the Gospel Jesus does, in fact, do all the things that the devil suggests!

Instead of whipping together a nice loaf of artisan bread out in the wilderness, instead of making some biscuits from the rocks, Jesus later feeds the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of wonder bread and a handful of fish sticks.

Instead of getting caught up in all the political policies to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from, of all places, the cross of his execution and then ascends to the right hand of the Father as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Instead of pulling off a Houdini-esque magic trick that would make even the crowds in Las Vegas jump to their feet, instead of jumping to certain death only to be rescued by the heavenly host at the last second, he dies… and refuses to stay dead.

We often think of Jesus and the devil as these two far ends of the spectrum – one good and the other evil. And yet, at least according to this story in the strange new world of the Bible, the difference between Jesus and the devil is not in the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those things come to fruition.

And the devil actually has some good suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself when you can easily rustle up some grub? Why let these fools destroy themselves when you can take control of everything? Why let the world struggle with doubt when you can prove you are entirely worthy of their faith?

The devil here, frighteningly, actually sounds a whole lot like, well, us. His ideas are some that we regularly champion both inside, and outside, of the church. 

Who among us wouldn’t want to give food to the hungry? 

Who among us wouldn’t like to see our politics get in order?

Who among us wouldn’t enjoy seeing a powerful demonstration of God’s power every once in a while?

But Jesus, for as much as he is like us, he is also completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and to all of us, that power, whether it’s over creation, politics, or miracles, doesn’t actually transform the cosmos.

Jesus, in his refusal to take the devil’s offers, reminds us that we, humans, are obsessed with believing that power (and more of it) will make the kingdom come here on earth. 

And we’ve been obsessed with it since the beginning.

In the early days of the church’s bed fellowship with the powers and principalities there were forced baptisms in order to make perfect little citizens.

In the Middle Ages the church require more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while the cathedrals got bigger as did the waistlines of the clergy.

And even recently, the lust for power (political, theological, geographical) has led to violence, familial strife, and ecclesial schisms.

We’ve convinced ourselves, over and over again, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more fight, if we could just get everyone to be exactly like us that everything would turn out for the best.

But it never does.

Instead, the poor keep getting poorer and the rich keep getting richer.

Marriages keep falling apart.

Children keep falling asleep hungry.

Churches keep fracturing.

Communities keep collapsing.

Therefore, though it pains us to admit it, Jesus seems to have a point in his squabble with the Adversary. Because the demonic systems of power, even those under the auspices of making the world a better place, they often lead to just as much misery, if not more.

The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection. 

The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do. 

Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what we want to do.

But here’s the Good News, the really Good News: Jesus is able to resist temptations that we would not, could not, and frankly do not.

Even at the very end, when Jesus’ hands are nailed to the cross, he is still tempted by the Adversary through the voices in the crowd: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”

But at the end Jesus doesn’t respond with passages of scripture. He doesn’t offer a litany of things to do or things to avoid. Instead, he dies.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

We Are What We Pretend To Be

What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?

This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.

And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.

As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”

Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.

So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith. 

But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.

Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…

Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness. 

The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.

Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” 

Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

Love The Sinner

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It’s sounds so Christian, doesn’t it? 

Surely, when Jesus was delivering his sermon on the mount, he summarized the whole thing with love the sinner, hate the sin.

Surely, if we Christians lived according to those six words, the world would be a better place.

Surely, loving sinners and hating sin is what the church is supposed to do!

And yet, it’s not in the Bible.

In my experience, when people, and by people I mean Christians, say, “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are almost always referring to the LGBTQIA community. For them, it’s a Christian way to say, “I love my Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual friend, but I hate that they’re Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender/Queer/Intersex/Asexual.”

In our post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the means by which we can cover our real feelings all while appearing congenial toward those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

However, over the last few years, I’ve heard Christians use the expression within the realm of political disagreement. And, frankly, its been rather amazing to see how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about the LGBTQIA community has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country.

“Well, I know that dirty rotten scoundrel is going to vote for Trump again, but he’s my brother so I still love him” Or, “If Joe Biden is elected he’s going to absolutely ruin this country, but he’s a Christian so I’ve got to try and love him.”

So, whether it’s disagreements about who can get married or who can lead the church or who should be President, love the sinner, hate the sin has become our go-to expression. 

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but in actuality it’s rather difficult to hate another person’s sin alone, without harming the sinner.

Sin! Can you believe you’re listening to a preacher talk about sin? We don’t talk about it much anymore in mainline protestant circles. 

Pastors, like me, would rather talk about God’s loving nature, God’s unending forgiveness, God’s desire for mercy, instead of God’s judgment. 

We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors than to tell you to tell your neighbor that they’re sinners. 

We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking something fresh and new even today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about – sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, repent or burn forever.

That stuff.

We’re largely afraid of sin today. And not sin as a particular set of behavioral patterns, but because talk of it simply makes us uncomfortable. I’ve heard from countless people on countless occasions how they don’t want Sunday morning to feel like a drag on top of their already difficult lives, so preachers like me talk about the Gospel without ever mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who once taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin.

And, because it has been removed from the lexicon of church, we don’t really know what sin is anymore.

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically mean “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God and from one another. Sin can be a choice, or a lack of making a choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the chief thing about sin: We all do it. 

All of us.

From the preacher preaching right now to every person listening.

We are all sinners.

But, more importantly, we are all sinners for whom Christ died.

Love the sinner – of course we’re supposed to love the sinner – that’s what Jesus did. The problem with it is that Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

And the distinction is important. It is important because if we say, “we’re going to love sinners” we will automatically view others as sinners before being our neighbors. Which, even though its true, it tends to put us in a place of judgment where we are the righteous and they, whoever they are, are not.

Loving sinners is further problematized by the fact that we already often understand and label others by their mistakes and failures and sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, or even the frequency, we are very quick to call people cheaters, adulterers, liars, etc.

Or, to put it another way, instead of seeing our neighbors as neighbors, we tend to see them through the lens of their biggest mistake.

When I started at my first church I was pretty nervous. I was fresh out of seminary, with a head full of ideas, and no real understanding of what I had gotten myself into.

Nevertheless, I found myself unpacking all my big and important theology books in my first office, all while day dreaming about what to say in my first sermon, when I opened the top drawer of the desk and found a sealed envelope with the words, “For The New Preacher” on it.

Up to that point I had not had a single conversation with the pastor I was following – the pastor had recently retired and moved away and I was therefore entering the church without any knowledge of the church.

But there was this envelope, in the desk, for me, and it was clearly left by the last pastor.

So, eager to glean anything that I could, I tore it open.

Inside I found a solitary piece of paper with the words, “DO NOT TRUST.”

Underneath which were five names of individuals from the congregation.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard I tried to forget the note, no matter how hard I tried to embrace the particular individuals in spite of what I read, my entire perspective had been upended by those three words: “DO NOT TRUST.”

The same thing happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. 

And yet, of course, Christians are called to love sinners. 

Because, in the end, that exactly what Christ does for all of us.

All of us would do well to remember that we’re in the same boat with everyone else. Which is to say, sinners are who we are. The best of us and the worst of us, we’re all sinners. The challenge with that recognition is that we are almost all better at recognizing the sins in others far before we can recognize them in ourselves.

Which brings us to the second part of the statement in question today. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

We’re mighty good at seeing and pointing out the sins in others. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are all about! There’s just something so enjoyable when we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

To bring it back to politics for a moment: We’ve seen the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the last two weeks with leaders from both parties speaking publicly about who should be elected (or re-elected) come November. And, without getting into specifics, both parties spent the majority of their conventions not talking about themselves and what they want to accomplish, but what’s wrong with the other party and how if those other people over there are elected (or re-elected) it will ruin everything. 

Judgement, contrary to the commands against it by Jesus, is our cup of tea.

And whenever we “hate the sin” we jump straight up onto pedestals of our own creation to look down about the weak.

Jesus himself spent his whole ministry with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. You know, people like us.

Jesus routinely chose to gather with the likes of the worst to break bread, to offer healing, and, perhaps most importantly, to offer them most precious gift of all: his time.

And he said to all those sinners, “Follow me.”

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Instead, when Jesus encountered the utter depravity of those in his midst, he offered them, strangely enough, forgiveness.

But we are not like Jesus. We regularly fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We see the world in all of its wrongness and we believe, deep in our bones, that the problems of the world can be blamed entirely on other people.

Even preachers, preachers like me, fall into this trap. Just take a gander at some of the sermons online throughout this pandemic, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find me, standing right here wearing a slightly different outfit, calling out the mistakes of others. I mean, this whole sermon series “That’s NOT In The Bible” is about calling to question the Christian types who use these non-biblical expressions which, at the end of the day, is remarkably judgmental!

And yet, the irony notwithstanding, saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us purveyors of judgment. It gives us the space to ridicule and belittle those with whom we disagree all while maintain some semblance of a Christian disposition. But whenever we fall back to that frame-of-reference, whenever we use it as the means by which we can justify our judgements, we fail to recognize the logs in our own eyes.

Should we pretend then that sin doesn’t exist and that we can continue merrily doing whatever we want whenever we want?

Or course not.

There is sin in the world, plenty of it. But before we go out pointing at all those sins, we all do well to look in the mirror.

Because all of us make bad choices. We all avoid doing things we know we should do. We all flock together for like-minded judgments against others. And we all keep dropping vaguely Christian expressions that aren’t in the Bible.

But, in the end, Jesus looks right at us, right into the depths of our being, and says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

And that’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we don’t deserve it.

Just look at the parables; more often than not they end with someone throwing out the ledger book, or offering forgiveness before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Just look at Jesus life; pronouncing forgiveness from the cross, or reconciling with the abandoning and disciples in the upper room, or choosing the murderous Paul to be the chief evangelist of the first century.

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and even the ones we’re proud of), God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees all of our self-righteous indignation, and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God has read all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, God knows our internet search histories and still stays, “I forgive you, log and all.”

God is there with us in the comments section of Facebook, God hears the sighs we offer in response to those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, God knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made and still says, “I forgive you, log and all.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

We say it, we read it, we might even live by it (or think we live by it), but it creates more problems than it solves. Sure, loving sinners is what we’re supposed to do, but it often results in us lording it over those we deem sinners, which doesn’t sound a whole lot like love to begin with.

Loving sinners is the aim of the church, but most of the time we fail. We’ve simply got logs too big in our eyes to do much of anything.

Thanks be to God, then, for Jesus Christ who loves us and forgives us in spite of those logs. Amen. 

God Won’t

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Doomscrolling.

Have you heard of it?

It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. 

Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.

We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.

And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.

We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.

And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.

Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?

Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?

What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?

So it goes.

And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news. 

Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.

The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.

So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

But chances are, someone has.

It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.

Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.

To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.

Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.

As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship. 

God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.

God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.

God is not an architect of divine destruction.

God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.

Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief. 

We should help in ways both seen and unseen.

But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.

Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.

Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?

What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?

And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?

Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.

He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.

And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.

He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.

They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.

Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.

They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.

Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!” 

And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”

The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.

Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.

The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”

It’s wild stuff.

Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness. 

And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends. 

Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.

I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”

Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.

Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.

So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.

And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.

God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us. 

There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her. 

So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.

The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.

A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”

She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”

She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.

And the man, well, he listened.

He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”

The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.

After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.

When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”

Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.

But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.

In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.

Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.

Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.

God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us. 

Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen. 

The Gospel According To Paul

Romans 8.1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Inclusion is all the rage in the church these days (and just about everywhere else). We have such a desire to appear appealing to as many people as possible, that we put out signs on the  church property promising our inclusiveness, we develop slogans for websites assuring visitors that they are already part of the church family, and we cultivate sermon series about how to be more tolerant of our neighbors.

But nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly.

It insists (demands) a Church exists where there is not a single distinction between us.

Because not a one of us is righteous (Romans 3).

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

Depending on the kind of church you grew up in, or saw embodied on television, talk of sin varies. In some traditions, sin is wagged at the congregation week after week in order to (hopefully?) scare people into faith. In other traditions, talk of sin is avoided at all costs unless it has to do with who should be allowed to get married or who should be allowed to become a pastor.

And yet, when Paul wrote his letter to the burgeoning church in the first century, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died.

That is, all of them.

Robert Farrar Capon, taking a cue from Paul, drops this into the laps of we religious types: “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”

Thats a tough truth to handle for those of us addicted to right-ness and wrong-ness. For, the Gospel (according to Paul) reminds us that since Christ has been raised from the dead we, who are in Christ by baptism, are not in our sins. But, at the same time, sinners we shall remain!

No matter how good we want to think we are, none of us is righteous. We all, at some point or another, do something we shouldn’t or we avoid doing something we should do. 

At the very least, we can’t even get along on Facebook or Twitter! We’re constantly doom-scrolling through the posts and tweets that set us off and even if we have the power to not respond, in our heart of hearts we know what we wish we could say.

We’re all the ungodly for whom Christ died.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter if we study the Bible every day or we’ve never even picked one up, it doesn’t matter with whom we share a bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that we’ve been baptized (deadened) into Christ. 

And that work, the work done to us, is not our own.

Our baptism, our being in Christ, is not our own pious achievement or the height of our own perfect morality. It is, what we call in the church, grace. 

And here’s the bad news turned Good News – the Gospel according to Paul, no condemnation, means we’re forever stuck at the party called salvation, the Supper of the Lamb, with people who think that certain people shouldn’t be at the party!

Whether its a denomination in-fighting about who can get married or ordained, or a country going to fisticuffs over differing political ideologies, or communities wrestling with police brutality and racial injustice, or any other thing we can imagine – Christians are stuck with each other, whether we like it or not.

Jesus has bound us together forever in the waters of baptism that destroy whatever divisions we want to create between us. Jesus, like the Father with his arm around his eldest son peaking in on the prodigal cutting up the rug inside the party, desires for us to celebrate together with the people we can’t stand. Jesus, abandoned, beaten, and betrayed, looks out from the Cross into our sins even today and says, “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The Gospel according to Paul, the verse upon which the epistle to the Romans is set on fire, is that we are all the sinners for whom Christ died.

Look, I’m not a big fan of the church insisting on its existence being predicated on making the world a better place. I happen to believe that the church already is the better place that God has made in the world. But whenever I read this verse from Paul, and all my inclusivity buttons get pushed, I can’t help but wonder how much better things would be if we acted as if we believed it.  

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Hell No!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matthew Husband about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 21.8-21, Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17, Romans 6.1b-11, Matthew 10.24-39). Matthew is an occupational therapist in Westerville, Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including advice for pastors, Liturgy of the Ordinary, the practicality of the psalms, prayerful humiliation, dying to sin, abusing the Word, and The Size of the Problem. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hell No!

The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Something happened to Stephen.

What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.

All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.

His response to the accusation?

Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.

And it gets him killed.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death. 

Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.

And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.

After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.

Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.

For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice. 

And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.

The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.

Bible-and-Flag

Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson. 

But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.

The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness. 

In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.

It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act. 

Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And we do it all the time.

We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.

And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.

But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?

That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”

We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.

I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.

A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.

And we don’t do much of that these days.

Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence? 

How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?

As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering. 

Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.

That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.

That’s the name of the game. 

And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own. 

Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.

It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism. 

This is the truth.

It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today. 

And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.

But it is.

I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck. 

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That’s racism.

That’s sin.

And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.

That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.

And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.

Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist. 

Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.

It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.

Like Black Lives, for instance.

Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.

Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested. 

Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.

After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.

But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.” 

But that’s crazy.

Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.

That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

Whether we want it or not. So be it. Amen.