The Power of Power

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power

Artifice On The Inside

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, Mark 6.1-13). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including terrible Netflix shows, comedic criticism, Bo Burnham, knowing the whole story, kingship, omitted texts, liturgical habits, humble bragging, and faithful interactions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Artifice On The Inside

Last Things

Romans 1.16-17

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Well, I finally did it! I managed to please everyone! Some of you were happy when I was appointed here, some were happy while I was here, and the rest of you are happy now that I’m leaving!

It was more than a decade ago that I entered seminary in hopes that I would, one day, get to do exactly what I’m doing right now. I was persuaded that the church was already the better place God had made in the world and I wanted to be part of that. And when I was in school for this, I didn’t learn about the virtues of nicety. That is, I didn’t go to seminary in order to learn how to make people feel better about themselves. That’s certainly not what I felt God had called me to do. 

And yet, more often than not, it’s exactly what I, other clergy, and most Christians do all the time.

Rather than speaking the truth, in love, we are far more inclined to sweep things under the rug.

Rather than taking seriously the Biblical commandments of discipleship, we are content with letting our faith be something that happens for one hour each Sunday.

Rather than hoping against hope for things not yet seen, we rest in the presumed knowledge that things will, largely, stay the same.

But none of that is very compelling, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.

Which makes me wonder, as I often do at times like this, why are you here?

For some of you, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. You’ve grown up in the church, or it has become so much of a fixture in your life that this is just what you do.

Meanwhile, some of you are here because you have more questions than answers and you want that to change. Maybe life has dealt you a raw hand, or you’ve experienced one too many hardships, or you’re frightened about what tomorrow might offer and you look to the church to help.

And some of you are here against your will. Perhaps a friend or a family member, in the name of love, brought you here and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

But chances are, no matter why we think we’re here, we’re actually here because we want to know more about Jesus.

I mean, people still keep calling me and sending me emails with rather specific questions about a first century carpenter-turned-rabbi, the Discovery Channel is forever producing new documentaries about the person in question, and people like you drive to places like this on Sunday mornings!

But here’s the truth, a truth not often discussed: we know nothing about Jesus whatsoever except what we read in the New Testament. That’s the rather bizarre part of Christianity. Sure, I’ve been to seminary and committed my life to this and study daily, but all of you have just as much access to the Lord as I do. It’s all right there in scripture.

As Paul says elsewhere: I determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. On this, my last Sunday, I hope the same can be said of me. That is: throughout these last four years, I have endeavored to do one thing and one thing only: proclaim the Good News of God made manifest in Jesus Christ. 

But the story of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a story of scandal. It is, to use another Pauline expressing, shameful.

Consider the story, for a moment: A child born under extraordinary circumstances to entirely ordinary parents, raised in the forgotten town of Nazareth, propelled into a ministry of teaching and healing, surrounded by would-be followers who, when things got tough, abandoned him to the fate of death all on his own.

If the story of Jesus had ended with the crucifixion, none of us would be here. He would simply have been one of many who died at the hands of the state for causing too much of a ruckus. 

But that’s not where the story ends. 

In fact, it’s really where the story kicks off: Resurrection! He is risen!

And yet, that’s not often what we hear about Jesus. Instead, we’re inclined to lift him up as some moral exemplar or ethical genius. Neither of which are really true. Jesus broke all sorts of rules and it’s not a very good idea to tell people to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile unless (UNLESS) the one saying those things happens to be God in the flesh raised from the dead!

Now, take a gander at any of the epistles and you will see that there was, and perhaps always will be, an awareness that disciples are going to be tempted to retreat from Jesus in embarrassment, fear, or downright confusion. It happened prior to the crucifixion (See Peter) and it continues to happens.

And no one know this better than Paul.

Notice how he begins his letter to the church in Rome: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”

Those are strong words to the early church.

They’re strong words for the church today.

And right at the heart of Paul’s proclamation, and all of his letters, is the Cross.

For the centrality of the Cross to be so prominent in the Pauline epistles is rather odd considering how little it is mentioned or considered in the life of faith today.

There are new churches budding up in all sorts of places that have removed the cross from all worship services.

There are plenty of Christians who have settled with describing Jesus as a nice guy but never dare refer to him as the Lord.

There are loads of churches who envision themselves as yet another version of a boring civic organizing and nothing more.

And, you can’t really blame the church or Christians for doing so. In so many ways we’ve watered down the complete and confounding radicality of Christ’s death for the ungodly (that’s how Paul will refer to it in just a few chapters).

Jesus died an ungodly death for ungodly people.

That’s the scandal of the cross.

But, are we scandalized?

Most Sundays, whether online or in a parking lot or inside a sanctuary, we look like we’ve got it together. Or, at least that’s what we want others to think. But we certainly don’t consider ourselves ungodly or, at the very least, sinful.

In many ways, Paul’s proclamation is a terrifying declaration of knowing the condition of his condition. “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is but another way of saying, I am not ashamed of needing the Lord to do for me what I cannot and could not do on my own!

Do you see? Paul was at a place of recognizing how God is the one who meets us in Christ Jesus, God is the one who acts on and in our lives, God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Or, to put it another way, the Gospel is all about Jesus.

It’s all about what Jesus does for us.

Consider the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. One of them mocked the Lord just as much as the crowds did, but the other asked to be remembered.

Nothing else.

Think on that. He did nothing else. But Jesus says to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

I can’t wait to talk to that criminal in the eschaton. I want to ask him about his experience and what happened next.

I can see him walking around with the saints in glory and they’re all saying, “How did you get in?! You never went to church! You never sat through Sunday school! You don’t even know the Apostles’ Creed! How did you get in?”

And the criminal replies, “The guy on the center cross said I could come.”

I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power God for salvation to everyone!

I am not ashamed of the Gospel – I’m sticking with Jesus, I’m sticking with the church!

I know it might feel like we’ve got nothing to hold on to, but Jesus holds on to us!

The world will tell us many things, but the Gospel tells us something different – we are sinners beloved by the one we crucified. The Lord is risen from the dead and there ain’t nothing that can stop him. Jesus is Lord, God of all things past, present, and future.

Jesus does not work according to the ways of the world. He does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.” Instead, he says, “Bring to me your burdens and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, he says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners!”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and our failures. Instead, he says, “You are mine and I am thine!”

No matter what happens, Christians are people of hope. We are people of hope because the Gospel is the Good News of God for the world. We need not worry over this, that, and the other because our hope isn’t in us. It’s not in me, or in Pastor Gayle. It’s not in the local community or even in the United Methodist Church. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. God is in the business of salvation and resurrection which means that no matter how bad we are or how good we are God can and will do what we cannot. Everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ died. 

We need not be ashamed of the Gospel, it’s the only Good News for a world drowning in bad news and it is ours, for free, for nothing. 

While we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sins, Christ died for us. He has taken the responsibility of salvation squarely on his shoulders. He has just gone and done it all without us having to do anything. And he invites us to simply trust that he has done this for us, and to proclaim that trust by acting as if we really believe it. Amen. 

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.

The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

This is a difficult passage.

We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.

So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.

Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”

Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.

“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!

And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.

This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.

Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.

Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.

Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life. 

That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.

Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.

And perhaps they had a point. 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”

That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster. 

Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”

That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”

Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…

Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?

Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.

And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!

Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.

The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?

But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset. 

It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you. 

But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.

If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.

The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be. 

It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.

It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds. 

But what about for God?

God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.

Including us!

The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.

Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!

Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.

Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail. 

That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes. 

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen. 

A Trinitarian Pizza Party

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for Trinity Sunday [B] (Isaiah 6.1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8.12-27, John 3.1-17). Sara is the lead pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including book titles, color-coordination, coal callings, humility and humiliation, fireballs in the sanctuary, authoritative words, nighttime questions, and theological grammar. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Trinitarian Pizza Party

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. 

Overwhelmed By Joy

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 10.44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral pandemic pandering, vacation, disco and disc golf, the serendipity of the Spirit, songs meant for singing, virtuous obedience, conquered faith, unadulterated joy, and divine apprehension. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Overwhelmed By Joy

The (Di)vinegrower

John 15.1-8

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 

I was a kid, not even in middle school, when my family went on a trip to France. We didn’t roam around Paris or wander around Versailles, we didn’t hit up the Louvre or climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, we spent the week exploring wine country in Provence and Burgundy.

It was beautiful, the food was incredible, and I remember not really understanding anything that anyone said.

On the penultimate evening of our trip, we traveled to a Chateau situated next to rolling fields filled with grape vines. The vineyard was owned and operated by family friends who insisted that we join them for a meal. My sisters and I were on our best behavior as we received a tour of the massive estate and then I was whisked away to the gigantic wine cave in the basement. 

My father was unable to join us on the trip and, as the oldest male guest, it was (apparently) my responsibility to pick out the wine to be consumed with dinner.

Reminder: I was at the tail end of elementary school.

So I wandered the dimly lit halls filled from floor to ceiling with unlabeled bottles of wine, wine that was was grown, fermented, and produced mere feet away from where I was walking. 

The further I walked into the crypt the dustier the bottles became and, somehow, I knew those were the bottles that were the most valuable so I tried to find a few near the middle, and without having any other criteria I selected the wine for the evening.

Minutes later, we were seated around a massive dining table and our host, Bruno, pulled the first bottle I selected, swiftly detached the cork, poured a finger’s width in a glass, and presented it to me to taste.

Not only was I required to select our wine, but I had to taste it to make sure I approved of it before it could be served to the rest of the gathered table.

I lifted the glass and spun around the garnet colored liquid as I had seen my parents do before, I brought it to my nose and sniffed, and finally I opened my mouth and took a sip.

I didn’t like it, but I knew well enough to not make a face or say that I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to smile hoping the exercise would finally come to an end when Bruno insisted I then tell him what I tasted.

“It takes like… the earth,” I said.

I quickly glanced over to my mother for a reaction. 

She was crestfallen. Here we were, guests in a Chateau, drinking the wine from the nearby fields, and I told Bruno it tasted like dirt.

But before I had a chance to say anything else, a giant smile stretched across Bruno’s face and he declared to all within earshot, “Merci beaucoup! Tres magnifique!”

I had, unwittingly, payed the man a compliment.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says to his disciples on their final evening together before the crucifixion and eventually resurrection. They’ve already feasted on the bread and shared the cup, they’ve already had their feet washed by their Lord, and now it’s time for a brief discourse on what happens next, when all is said and done. 

The language of abiding has been common since the very beginning of the church because it is, in a sense, a direct command from the Lord. And throughout the centuries we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to “abide.” Prayer practices, Bible Studies, small groups, Sunday worship, constant communion – they’re all attempts at abiding with the Lord who abides with us. 

And why do we abide? We abide because Jesus is the vine and we are his branches. If we want to bear fruit in this world and in this life, then it will only be possible as a result of abiding in the One who abides in us.

Except, how can Jesus really ask the disciples (us included) to abide in him? I mean, consider when he told the disciples about being the true vine… It’s right after this little lecture that Judas will betray the Lord to death, Peter, disciple supreme, will quite literally not abide by denying his Lord when things fall apart, and the rest of the disciples will leave Jesus to die alone.

And yet, it’s these disciples who receive the call to abide.

Perhaps, then, Jesus is able to command this of the disciples, and all of us, because of his promise to abide in us, to never let us go, even though we don’t deserve it one bit.

Consider – The way the gospel story plays out runs against the grain of how we think things are supposed to go. Our life with God does not end at the cross on a certain Friday as we might expect. 

In the time called life after Easter it all comes full circle – it ain’t over between us. The Last Supper wasn’t really the last at all – in fact, it was the first! The risen Christ, with holes in his hand and a wound in his side, shows up, again and again, transforming our painful and broken lives by abiding with us. 

In steadfast and faithful love, God refuses to leave us or abandon us.

God abides.

God abides, in us.

And then Jesus says, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Fruit-bearing, then, seems to be the main point of this adventure we call church. So we establish programs and we make calls for action and we do whatever we think we can to make the world a better place.

But, that’s not the same thing as bearing fruit.

The purpose of church, though rarely discussed, is to meet and be met by God. It is, to use the words of John today, a revealing of how God already abides in us.

Being disciples, then, is not all about the work we have to do or responding to a list of requirements – being a disciple is about resting in Jesus. If anything comes from that, and it will, that’s Good News. But the only thing we are asked to do, is abide. 

The goal of the Christian life, of following Jesus who is the way and the truth and the life, who is the vine, is not amassing a set of deeds (good or bad) but simply experiencing our life as the Word made flesh so wonderfully bestows upon us. It is sitting back at the table to which we deserve no invitation, tasting the wine that is the blood of the Lamb, and knowing that it sets us free for true liberty.

Jesus did not come to dwell among us in order to display his own virtuosity. 

Sure, he tells us to be perfect as his Father is perfect, but then a few chapters later he goes on and on about how the only One we can ever call good is God alone. 

Sure, he gives us some lists of dos and donts but then when the disciples do the things they shouldn’t or they avoid doings the things they should do, how does Jesus respond? Does he kick them out of the kingdom? Does he banish them to an eternity of torment? 

No. Jesus abides in them.

Jesus comes to dwell among us in order to bring us home to his Father’s house and to sit us down as guests at the Supper of the Lamb. Jesus desires our contentedness, not our suffering. Jesus offers us the good wine, not sour vinegar.

And salvation, the thing Jesus comes to bring to fruition, it is not just a destination – it is our vocation. That is: salvation is not just something confined to what happens after we die; salvation is our calling here and now. 

Life after Easter means today.

And yet, we can’t ignore Jesus’ language with the rest of his vine imagery. It’s all good and fine to talk about Jesus abiding in us, and bearing fruit in response, but Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

We might imagine the big take away is for us to consider what, or worse: who, needs to be cut off from our lives and then go out with some pruning shears and get to work. Perhaps there’s that one relationship that keeps bringing you down, or you have a bad habit you haven’t been able to kick, or you made a mistake and the guilt just won’t go away. 

And then the church says, “Go and get to work! The time has come to cut away all that stands between you and perfection!”

But, that’s not what Jesus says. 

You see, according to the teller of the tale, God is the one who does the pruning. God is the di-vinegrower (get it?). 

It’s less about us finding what’s wrong within us, or among us, and then going out to get it all fixed and more about relinquishing what we needn’t hold on to, and let God do the work God is here to do.

It’s not about doing all that we can to become the very best versions of ourselves, but instead to consider how God is already working on us because God abides in us.

And maybe, just maybe, one of the things that God is working on, one of the things God is actively pruning, is our foolish belief that we must be able to make it on our own and that we can only trust in our strength alone. 

We live in a society that is deeply drunk on the notion of independence and making something of ourselves no matter the cost. And yet, in another place, Jesus rather pointedly asks, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose their life?”

Part of the Christian witness, something we avoid mentioning to our detriment, is that we cannot make it through this life on our own; we are desperately in need of help from one another and from the Lord.

That’s why, no matter how good of a job we do mucking it all up, God continues to bear fruit through people like us who can bear no fruit on our own. 

God, to put it pointedly, works in mysterious ways and, in the end, the wine is offered at the table for a world undeserving.

Hear the Good News: God in Christ arrives in a world, in a vineyard, that cannot bear any fruit on it’s own. It has given itself over to disease, and abuse, and pestilence, and all sorts of other failures. But the di-vinegrower tills the ground, enriches the soil, and plants the seeds that are the Word to bear fruit. 

Jesus, God in the flesh, enters into the muck and mire of this life, of this worthless vineyard, and becomes sin for us. We nail him to a tree and kill him. But then God gives him back to us.

The empty tomb is the fruit of resurrection offered freely to people like you and me for no other reason than the fact that God wants a full table at the Supper of the Lamb.

When Jesus comes, with holes in his hands and a wound in his side, he doesn’t come to see if we’re sorry. He knows our repentance isn’t worth all the effort we put into it because we continue to go on sinning no matter how many times we repent. Jesus doesn’t come to count all of our good deeds. He knows our sins will always outweigh our virtues. 

And yet Jesus comes back to us, Jesus abides in us, Jesus forgives us, and Jesus offers the fruit of salvation to us. 

For free. 

For nothing. 

We do nothing and we deserve nothing.

And yet the invitation still stands. We get to taste the earthy fruit of the vine and know that it is for us. What wondrous Good News. Amen. 

The Heavenly Buffet

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 5th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.25-31, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including vine time, different perspectives, the vocation of reading, God’s agency, Christotelism, the grammar of love, faithful fruit, the three Bs, and longterm obedience. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Heavenly Buffet