We Are (Not) Accepted

1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Do you ever feel like things couldn’t get worse?

Natural disasters across the globe keep ravaging particular communities.

Political discourse and partisan rhetoric are dividing families and friends and churches.

It’s becoming ever more expensive to live and yet wages continue to stagnate.

Things just feel so broken.

Here in the US we are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer. So much so that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion – it is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We are currently spending more money on national defense every year than we are on all of our programs of social uplift combined – when weapons become more important than people it is clearly a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

In ways big and small we are perpetuating a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives – the price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction. 

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear that most of what I just said is not original to me, I didn’t sit down this week and pull those thoughts out of thin air. Most of what I just said actually came from another preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever heard of him?

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Across the country, countless students will have the day off from school tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and rightly so. He was a man committed to a vision of the kingdom that others refused to see, and it cost him his life. But one of the things that we forget, here in 2020, is that shortly before his assassination, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Though he is remembered as a bastion of freedom and equality, 2/3 of the country opposed his work and words the year before his death.

It’s hard to remember this, for those of us old enough to do so, because today everybody loves Dr. King. Partly because we’ve sanitized his message, and it’s a lot easier to love someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead. 

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice to the powers and principalities in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and rampant poverty. 

But we’re far more content with simply remembering his speech about having a dream of a different future. However, that future (which we are still yearning for) is not possible without transformation. His life, and death, is an ever present reminder that things cannot merely remain as they are.

Grace is messy.

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Each of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing on the recipients of the epistles with “grace”. Even to the famously fractured Corinthians, Paul begins by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace is one of those all too important words in the church and, frankly, it’s a word we throw around all the time without thinking or talking about what it actually means.

Sometimes when I hear about grace, and even when I talk about it, it comes off like some nebulous gas that’s floating around affecting various people as they breathe it in.

Which, to some degree, is true. But grace is about a whole lot more than that.

The arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, mediating a new reality with God and God’s creation is a gift. It is all part of this cosmic plan for unending communion and it frees us from our own slavery to sin and death. It comes in spite of of our earnings and deservings and is made available to all without cost. Grace is, in every sense of the word, a gift. 

We have been gifted with a rescue from something and regathered into something we call communion.

But this gift we call grace runs counter to how we so often think about gifts today. Namely, when we receive something for nothing we almost always respond by immediately planning how to repay the gift. We want to out-gift the gift-giver. We live under the tyrannic rule of reciprocity such that we must always make the scales even again, even if it is outside of our ability.

But in the early church, grace was not about repaying what could not be repaid – grace was a reality. 

It both named the concrete gift of Jesus for the world, along with the generosity of God who sent him. And yet, it was not confined to some idea about who Jesus was, it was a lived reality in and through the ways people lived. 

The early church community gifted among themselves things like food, and money, and clothing, and healing to those who needed it the most. And they did so without keeping some sort of ledger about who owed what – it was simply done and thats it.

So whatever the gathering of Christians looks like today, it is supposed to look like a community of grace.

The gathering of disciples we call church are called to lives of generosity that is so obvious and known that only a God generous enough to give his only Son for an evil and sinful humanity can explain it. 

Grace, understood as such, changes everything, including us.

Or, to put it another way, we can’t remain what we once were.

There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about how God loves you just the way you are. Which, though true, is a denial of the power of grace working in and through us. 

The letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus show us that there is more to grace than simply being accepted for who we are. And, no doubt, we are accepted – after all, grace abounds. But we are now in a kingdom bound by that grace which means we have been changed.

Can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. work would’ve have looked like without a call to change? What good is a dream of something new if only we stay committed to the past? 

Here’s where grace gets messy: Grace is a gift, given for free. We don’t have to change or do anything before receiving it. And, we don’t have to do anything or change after receiving it. Paul will remind the good Corinthians about this – grace is less about out need to change and more about how God is already in the business of changing us. 

Were it up to us alone to change, we wouldn’t do it. It is far easier to remain the same and hold on to the old visions of the past than it is to try embarking on a different journey. Our captivity to sin keeps us firmly planted instead of taking steps or leaps of faith. But, thankfully, God will not leave us to our own devices.

God is changing us.

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Now, if you’re anything like me, we don’t particularly like all this talk of personal development or change. All the “shoulds” and “musts” leave us exhausted. Which is why it’s of paramount importance to remember the the Kingdom of God isn’t conditional. It exists whether we participate in it or not, the empty tomb remains empty whether we change or not. And yet God is using all of the means at God’s disposal to show us that our lives are being reknit, even right now. 

The world, just like us, cannot remain as it is. God won’t allow it. God is faithful, even when we are not. God believes in us even when we can’t. God is working toward a vision of things not yet seen, and God is bringing us along for the ride.

We can resist it all we want, but God is on the move.

Which is all to say that, when properly considered, the kingdom is about more than acceptance. We are at war with the powers and principalities of this world that insist on making the last laster and the first firster. Our King of kings is fundamentally different – Jesus does not rule with an iron fist or with boots on the ground – our King rules from a cross.

What could be messier than that?

I started all of this today with talk of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten quotes. He was radically committed to seeing a different world and, to some degree, knew it would cost him his life. In fact, the night before he was killed he delivered one of his most moving speeches. It was not about securing the right to vote for black individuals, nor was it on dismantling Jim Crow laws, but was actually about establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

He stood before a packed crowd that night and after speaking at length on the subject at hand he ended it all by saying this:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead. 

God’s grace is about being part of a kingdom the world doesn’t want – it’s about how God makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have been transformed through the waters of baptism and the meal at the table – we are made new.

God does not accept the current realities of the world, nor does God accept the banalities of evil that run all too rampant. But God believes in us, God will remain faithful, and the kingdom of God is at hand. We will get to the Promised Land.

What a strange and wondrous thing grace really is – for by grace we have been saved, and are being saved, even now. Amen. 

Good Times, Bad Times

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! 

I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.

But today it will be different.

This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.

To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.

What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.

Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.

And that’s okay.

After all, who can know the mind of God?

Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.

Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse. 

One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.

And what do they share with one another? 

Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.

The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.

A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.

A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.

I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.

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And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster. 

It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.

And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?

These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.

There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.

But, of course, we must speak.

We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening. 

It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say. 

Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.

There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.

There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.

There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.

Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.

These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

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To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.

And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.

For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.

And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.

Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most. 

There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor. 

But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments. 

It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.

And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.

This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph. 

God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.

Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.

Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.

I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.

Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Those words accomplish nothing.

Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.

If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.

God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.

Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.

Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable. 

But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen. 

Perspective Is Powerful

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Phil Woodson about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Christmas [A] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Phil serves in Charlottesville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including calls to repentance, 2nd Amendment sanctuaries, healing from trauma, The Rolling Stones, making peace, getting canonical, the back of the hymnal, the Logos, and a double share of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Perspective Is Powerful

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Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

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I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen. 

Advent Is A Little Lent

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Tate about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including relational leadership, Advent Hymns, highlighting tension, tempering the holidays, divine reversal, the Bible on a bumper sticker, opening prisons, The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, burning Christmas trees, and churchy expectations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Advent Is A Little Lent

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