The Naughty List

Hebrews 10.10

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another. 

I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?” 

Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.

Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” 

The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.

The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.

The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.

But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.

That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one. 

And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.

Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever

Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection

Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.

But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!

In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?

Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond. 

And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.

The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us. 

God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.

God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.

That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.

And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.

Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway. 

The Restorer of Life

Ruth 3.1-5; 4.13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that is may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “ A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

In the days when the judges were judging, there was a famine in the land. That’s how this book in the Bible begins. It was a time of political chaos, with the Philistines pressing in on the boundaries of Israel. Sure, the Lord raised up Judges to help guide, shape, and lead the people, but by the time Ruth’s story starts, “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

What a proposition!

And it’s here against the background of nation rising up against nation, leaders failing again and again, and a famine on a massive scale, that scripture tells of a small little domestic tale with three primary people – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. 

This is an ordinary story with ordinary people. It concerns the little hopes and dreams of a few people who easily could’ve been lost to the sands of time, and I think that’s why people gravitate to the story. 

This little book shows what Karl Barth called, “the simplicity and the comprehensiveness of grace.”

Or, to put it another way, Ruth’s story is prophetic.

It is prophetic because it tells the truth of who God is in relation to God’s people.

So here’s the story:

Naomi and her husband are Hebrews from the village of Bethlehem (ever heard of it?). But when the aforementioned famine hits the land, they are forced to leave in search of food. They go into foreign territory where the Moabites lived, and during their time in Moab, their sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. 

And things are good, until they aren’. In short order all of the men are dead. Naomi is left in one of the most vulnerable conditions possible at the time – she is a childless widow with no grandchildren. Naomi believes she has been abandoned by God because of her fate and she has no hope in the world.

Before we jump to the meat of the tale, it is important to rest in the knowledge that this story begins in the dark. That is, the threats of fear, hunger, death, loom large over our people. 

Naomi therefore urges her two daughters-in-law to stay in Moab because she will be returning to her homeland. Orpah agrees, and decides to stay. But Ruth, inexplicably, refuses to leave her mother-in-law.

Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, and all that. 

To be clear, this doesn’t make any rational sense! Ruth chooses to align herself with hopelessness. She has every opportunity to seek out any opportunities, but instead she wills to be among those considered the last, the least, the lost, the little, and probably the dead.

The women, Naomi and Ruth, return to the land of Naomi’s people and the famine has ended, but their situation makes it such that they do no have access to the newfound abundance. And yet Ruth, living into her wild recklessness volunteers to enter the fields to glean barley. She takes on the mantel of a beggar with all of the humiliation and danger that it entails.

And then Boaz enters the story. Boaz owns the field from which Ruth seeks out sustenance. He catches her taking what has been left behind by the reapers of the harvest and he orders his men not to stop her and cast her into the darkness, instead he orders her to be protected by his men!

Why? If this were a Netflix series (which, for what’s its worth, this would be a great show), Ruth would be a beautiful young woman who catches Boaz’s wandering eye. But that’s not what scripture tells us. Boaz is not captured by her beauty, but instead by her fidelity, her faithfulness. Ruth wants to know why he is treating her so kindly and Boaz says, “I know what you have done for your mother-in-law, how you left everything you knew to become a stranger in a strange land – may the Lord bless you and keep you.”

Ruth returns to Naomi with her bountiful harvest, with tales of Boaz and when Naomi puts two and two together, she hatches a plan for the future.

“Get dressed up,” she tells Ruth, “and go down to the threshing floor where the men will be eating and drinking. Find out where Boaz lies down and go to him, uncover his feet, and lie down beside him.”

What reckless advice! Sending a young single woman into such an establishment with such instructions! And yet Ruth, as noted, is bold and daring enough on her own. So she agrees to the plan that will eventually shape an entire people.

Boaz, later, having enjoyed the fruit of the vine, lies down to sleep. Time passes and he wakes up to the young woman from the filed uncovering his feet (I’ll let you imagine what that means). The details of what transpire that night are unknown to us save for the fact that Boaz and Ruth get married, and they have a son whom they name Obed (which means worshipper). 

Naomi, now a grandmother, rejoices with the other grandmothers in town as they huddle together taking turns holding this little child. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has given you this gift! May he be to you a restorer of life!”

Obed, who became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David. The end.

What a story!

And yet, why do we tell it again and again and again? Sure, it can entertain, and it is filled with all the markers of a powerful tale. It’s got intrigue, and mystery, and love, and hope. But why do we dare to proclaim this as God’s Good News for the world?

Well, in part, we tell this story because without it there is no David, the great king of Israel, the one who defeated Goliath and the one who united the people of God.

But we also tell this story because it is a story about us.

At every turn there are choices being made that run counter to the notions of the world. Ruth chooses to remain in a hopeless situation, Boaz chooses to become a redeemer to a foreign beggar, and Ruth and Boaz together become bearers of God’s grace in a world that is otherwise run on violence, selfishness, and greed.

Our world, then and now, is full of famine and death and dereliction and a host of other evils. Often, like for Naomi and Ruth at the beginning, it can feel as if God has abandoned us. But then this story which is our story, reminds us that God’s blessing often come through the simplest, and yet the most profound, means. 

When we reach out in love to help the other, it is the hand of God. 

When we forgive those who have trespassed against us, it is the mercy of God. 

When we are given hope in an otherwise hopeless situation, it is the power of God.

Today, there are still systems that actively reduce people to being among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. The great famines of scripture are made manifest by the powers and principalities that have no regard for our humanity.

And the church can break the mold of the world that continues to run on that devastation of destruction. The prophets, since the beginning, have been those who are willing to care for and reside among the most vulnerable. They did, and do, so because God is in solidarity with the “least of these.” The church has this blessed opportunity to provide a new image of a new community where there is space for everyone, where gifts are cherished, and where systems of oppression are called into question and rendered null and void. 

The church, at her best, is a storied enterprise – that is, she exists because of the story and lives by telling the story – the story of us.

Here’s our story:

Time and time again, we reject that which is offered and given freely by God.

Paradise, rejected for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from the tree. (Creation)

Unified Community, rejected for selfish desires of power. (Babel)

So God set out to make a new people in a new land through Abraham and covenant. It is God’s hope to draw all people into this new people.

But Israel, like us, will have none of it! She is just as rebellious and foolish as we are. She worships at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next. And yet, even in the midst of ruin, Israel receives the very greatest gift of all – God in the flesh. 

Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and full human, becomes all that God ever hoped for from God’s people – the obedient and faithful child, called out of Egypt, the new cornerstone of a new community made possible by peace, grace, and mercy, the Davidic king who exists to protect the poor and the vulnerable.

But we will have none of that either! On a tree in a place called The Skull, we nail God in the flesh, rejecting the elected One. He is buried dead and a tomb – utterly forsaken and abandoned. 

But then, three days later, God gives him back to us. Jesus raises victorious not only over death, but also over all of our prideful attempts to become the center of our own universes.

That is the story that is worth repeating because it is a story that repeats itself. We reject God and God is determined to elect us. We destroy ourselves and God is determined to bring about resurrection. We get all sorts of lost and God is determined to find us over and over again.

In the end, that’s what prophets do – they tell the story, they tell the truth. They open our eyes to who and whose we are. And Jesus, the greatest prophet of all, is, in himself, the story for a people who have no story. 

Therefore, when we read and encounter Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, we do so not as people to emulate literally. Leaving to go be a stranger in a strange land, getting dolled up for the threshing floor, is maybe not the best advice in the world.

And yet, we cannot help from identifying with these people. 

Perhaps you’re like Naomi insofar as you feel like you have been abandoned and that you have no hope in the world. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you would be encouraged to reach out for help, or at the very least, accept the help that might be offered to you by others.

Or perhaps you’re like Ruth insofar as you have a little boldness in you but don’t know where to direct it. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you will take that first step toward someone in your life, and become the hope for them that they so desperately need.

Or perhaps you’re like Boaz insofar as you have been blessed to be a blessing to others. Maybe God is proclaiming this story for you today such that you can open your eyes to the people in your life for whom you can be their restorer of life.

Or perhaps you don’t identify with any of them right now. But chances are, you will someday. That’s the beauty of story, we can return to the same story again and again and discover something new each time we do. 

In the end, we worship an odd God. Consider: God chooses to align things such that Ruth, a foreigner with no hope in the world, became the great-grandmother of the great King David. And, how odd, that in the fullness of time, God chose to take on flesh in that same little town of Bethlehem, through Jesus Christ, the greater restorer of life, the ancestor of Ruth.

All that we are rests on the story found in the strange new world of the Bible. It is a story we recount week after week, year after year, because through it we discover who we are and whose we are. We must tell this story in order to know and to receive the Good News.

Ours is a storied faith.

So, like the prophets before us, like the prophet that is Jesus Christ, let us tell the story. Let us tell the story when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. Let us tell the story when we are received and when we are nowhere believed. Let us tell the story until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied! Amen. 

An Ordinary Church

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

Fred Craddock was a preacher and then a teacher of preachers. Born and raised in rural Tennessee, Craddock’s contributions to the field of homiletics (preaching) are incalculable. At the heart of his homiletical teaching was a desire to bring the congregation into the sermon, rather than attempting to dump knowledge into the minds of the congregation. And, at the end of the day, Craddock was a great storyteller and his stories always pointed to the story we call the Gospel.

Here’s one of those stories:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about the church. Sometimes the preacher would call and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants – it doesn’t care about me. They just want another pledge, another name to add to the roll.’ That’s what he always said. Sometimes we’d have a revival. The pastor would bring the evangelist and tell him to go after my father, and he would just say the same thing: ‘The church doesn’t care about me, they just want another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times, until I didn’t. He was in the veteran’s hospital, down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, put in a metal tube, and the x-rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, plants and flowers were covering every available surface, there was a stack of cards 20 inches high next to the bed, and even the tray that was supposed to hold the food he couldn’t eat was dominated by flowers. And every single one of those things were from people from the church. My father saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

Church is, and can be, a lot of things. It can, of course, get caught up in the machinations of the world and start to use the methods of the world to achieve its ends. 

Stewardship drives can get caught up in dollars and sense rather than bodies and souls. New membership classes can get caught up in filling the pews rather than transforming hearts. Even food programs can get caught up in making a good impression on the community rather than treating those who receive the food with dignity, love, and respect.

And yet, the church, even at her worst, exists for others. We are a community of people who seek to live out a commitment to loving God and our neighbors. We receive the Good News in order to become Good News ourselves. It might not seem like much, but a well timed card, or a phone call out of the blue, or even a hastily put together email can be the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

Hear the Good News: Christ has a knack for taking the ordinary and making them extraordinary – things like water, and bread, and wine, and even us. Thanks be to God. 

The Strange Familiar

John 6.5-6

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.

Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.

Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).

And then Capon brings the story home:

“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.” 

Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:

Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.

Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.

“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable. 

Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Faithful Consequences

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29). Our conversation covers a range of topics including family ties, Money Heist, liturgical dance, food, the heart of the psalter, embracing the unknown, grace in parenting, theological adoption, absent sermons, and the story within the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Faithful Consequences

We Are The Stories We Tell

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Years ago there was a young man, still early in his ministry, who was appointed to serve a new church. 

At least, it was new to him.

He had gone to the right seminary, and studied all the right books, and prayed all the right prayers, and served in the right ways, and was excited about this next step in the adventure that is faith.

So with eager anticipation, he packed his bags and got in the car to go check out John Wesley UMC somewhere in Georgia.

This preacher was so excited, in fact, that when he arrived in town, before he unpacked his bags, he drove to the church. He typed the requisite address and admired the different varieties of trees planted perfectly along the road, but when came to his destination, he saw no church.

So he turned around, drove down the road once more and, again, no church to be found.

Finally, he got out of the car, and walked along the sidewalk for a closer inspection until he eventually found the church and he discovered why he missed it so many times: there was one of the oldest and most decrepit looking trees he had ever seen stretching all over the grounds with roots exposed and the church sign, plus the majority of the building, were hidden behind the tree’s long branches. 

The preacher stood awkwardly on the front lawn of the church taking in the sight of the godforsaken tree, and decided he was going to do something about it.

So he drove back to his house, found the box containing his chainsaw, and then he set out to cut the tree down. He made short work of it, moving methodically from branch to branch (he was a Methodist after all) until, before long, he took a step back to admire his work.

The sign and the building were now completely visible from the road and he thought, rather proudly, that maybe just a few extra people would be in church on Sunday morning. 

A few days later, as the pastor sat down to continue chipping away at his first sermon for the church, he received a call from his District Superintendent: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” the DS said, “because you’re being reappointed.” 

You see, the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. 

John Wesley himself had stood on the roots of that tree nearly 300 hundred years ago and preached to that community. Afterward, the gathered people decided to build a church right next to the tree in honor of the man who started a revolution of the heart, and that young pastor chopped it down.

Stories are remarkably important. Put another way: We are the stories we tell.

They contain and convey just about everything regarding who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held by and within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another, and how we obtain the collective memories of the past. We tell stories to make people laugh, to teach lessons, and to share what it ultimately means to be human.

Today we live in a time of competing narratives in which every television show, every streaming service, every website, and every social media platform are vying for our allegiance and our attention. We are constantly bombarded, whether we like it or not, with information that attempts to tell us who we really are, what we really need, and where we are really going.

We live in a time in which more people recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s than they do the cross of Jesus Christ. We live in a time in which people spend more time debating where they see the best view of fireworks, or what’s really going on in Loki, or which politician is finally going to set things right than they will consider the children in their community who have nothing to eat. We live in a time in which plenty of us would rather store up all of our treasures on earth without thinking at all about how every gift first comes from the Lord.

Right now, the world is telling us what is important and it’s not easy to discern between the voice of the world, and the voice of God.

But listen to St. Paul: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Do not listen to the powers and principalities that try to define you. Do not diminish God’s ability to radically transform your life and the world around you. Open your eyes to the beauty of the strange new world made possible by Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

Whenever people like us gather like this we are bound together in loyalty to a story that once was not our story. But, through God’s wonderful and confounding actions in the world, that story is now our story. It is a story of cross and resurrection, of the first being last and the last being first, of undeserving people being forgiven.

That story will always but us at odds with the world.

And, according to the ways of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place. People are no longer regularly attending worship and that started long before a pandemic kept us in our houses on Sunday mornings. Christianity has lost its status in the public arena, we are becoming frighteningly illiterate (biblically speaking), and young people are almost nowhere to be seen when it comes to the body of Christ.

Did you know that the average age of a United Methodist is 58?

That means I still have 25 years to go before I’m average!

Did you know that the average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone to worship once every 38 years?

The world will tell us that the church is dead, that we have to do whatever we can, however we can, to get people in our building, that we need to cut down every tree (real or otherwise) that is blocking the church from the street, that we need to abandon the past in order to embrace the future because the church is dead.

Thanks be to God then, that we worship the Lord who works in the business of resurrection, of making a way where there is now way, of impossible possibility. 

We don’t have to conform to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! 

While others might shrink away or wail in fear regarding the statistics I just mentioned, imagine what would happen if we embraced them and saw them as an opportunity for transformation? How would the church change if we took seriously the radical nature of God’s grace? What would happen if we embraced the trees and traditions of the church to reclaim the story that has already changed the world?

We are the stories we tell.

Here’s part of mine: 

I am a cradle Methodist – I was baptized when I was 19 days old at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria VA, where I was raised and confirmed. I ran the sound system for worship as a tweenager, played for two of our worship bands, and spent even more time at the church because it was where my boy scout troop met every week. As a teenager one of my dearest friends died tragically in a car accident and I found myself ministering to friends and family using words that were not my own, but words that had been habituated into my life because of the church and the Spirit.

I began feeling like this might be what God was calling me to do with my life and when I told the senior pastor at my church his response was, “You wanna preach in a few weeks?”

I went to JMU to study religion, I went to Duke for my Masters in Divinity, met my now wife Lindsey while I was in North Carolina and we have a remarkable 5 year old named Elijah Wolf. 

My first appointment was to St. John’s UMC in Staunton, my last appointment was to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I love the church, I always have and I always will. For me, the church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather with people they have nothing else in common with save for the fact that Jesus has called them his friends.

I also love the church because I believe it is the better place God has made in the world. When we pray, when we break bread, when we baptize, we are all getting foretastes of the Supper of the Lamb that goes on and on forever.

Here’s what I know of your story:

I know that the church has been a beacon of the Gospel in Roanoke for 100 years. I know that you care deeply about the Word, about worship, and about mission. I know that you pride yourselves on your hospitality, something my family and I have been the beneficiaries of over the last few weeks. I know that you believe in the work of the Kingdom and are ready for the next 100 years. 

And now God has seen fit to string and knit our stories together.

Being a Christian is all about being brought into another story, a different telling of where we have come from and where we are going, a story that we call the Gospel – The Good News. 

And the stories from the strange new world of the Bible really do shape us – they speak greater truths than simple facts and statistics, they tell us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. That’s why Jesus never really simply explains anything to anyone, but instead is forever going on and on telling stories, stories we call parables. 

At the heart of the church is a willingness to share and to learn the art of story-telling. We learn one another’s stories by gathering for worship, or studying God’s Word, or serving the local and global community. We tell stories and receive stories so that we can cherish the roots of our foundations while, at the same time, looking to the future because God makes all things new.

The story of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church is entering into a new chapter. God is stirring things up in Roanoke. God is bombarding us with the grace that we don’t deserve but we surely need. And God is doing this not because there is a new pastor in town, and God is doing this not because the church is looking forward to the next hundred years – God is doing this simply because that’s who God is.

All of this, the church, the community of faith, grace, it’s all one remarkable gift. It’s the gift of a new past, in which the mistakes we’ve made are healed and the damage we’ve done is redeemed. We call it forgiveness. In the church and in the kingdom of God we are more than what we have failed to do, we are what God has done for us.

But it is all also a gift of a new future, in which the fear of punishment is annihilated and the terror of nothingness is obliterated – we’ve been promised resurrection. 

The Church is a new past, present, and future – it is a way of life made possible by Jesus in anticipation of God doing what God does best.

The world might tell us that the church is in a difficult place. But I look out from this pulpit to all of you gathered here in person, and to all of you gathered online, and I’m not worried about what the world has to say. I’m not worried about anything because my hope isn’t in me or even in any of you, my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness – I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. 

From Riches To Rags

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 8.7-15, Mark 5.21-43). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Flannery O’Connor, special songs, memory, twitter dunking, theological deconstruction, pivotal prayers, wading vs. waiting, rhetorical flourishes, desperation, and diachronic stories. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From Riches To Rags

The End Is Where We Start From

2 Corinthians 5.6-17

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Most stories follow a common structure.

Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.

And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.

All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.

Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):

There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.

And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.

But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!

But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun. 

Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.

Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.

There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]

There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).

There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.

Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 

Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.

Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.

Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.

How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?

Now, that’s an exciting beginning.

You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling. 

TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The end is where we start from.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”

Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”

Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”

Wow!

That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?

Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.

We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!

Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.

The end is where we start from. 

That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?

No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.

If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!

We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view. 

That’s the end which is our beginning. 

Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.

And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.

We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.

We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.

Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”

The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning. 

And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.

But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well. 

That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided. 

The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.

And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.

Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.

“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.” 

Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”

And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

John 15.9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in. 

It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”

And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.

Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.

But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers. 

And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.

I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.

Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons? 

Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.

Can you remember a particular sermon?

More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered. 

Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?

I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!

Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference. 

And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.

That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life. 

God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.

When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”

Friends? 

Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?

It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”

The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.

In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.

The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place. 

Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”

It becomes something all together different.

Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.

Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross. 

But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace. 

“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning. 

In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.

Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.

It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.

We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.

We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform. 

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.

“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.

And what is God doing?

God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.

The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.

Jesus did that for us.

Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.

And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:

“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen.