Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

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There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

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And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

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The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17

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

In those days there was no real leader, and everyone did whatever they wanted.

Sound familiar?

Everything about the setting of today’s biblical text is terrible. There was political chaos as Philistine enemies were pressing in on the flanks of Israel, the “national leadership” was worse than a bad joke, there was a frighteningly wide famine, and the last judge who sat to rule before the time of Ruth was Jephthah the Gileadite, who stirred up a civil war that killed 40,000 Israelities, including his own daughter.

The people had no hope.

In these days, we fight and bicker about who is really in charge, and most people do whatever they want.

Most things about today feel terrible. There is political chaos as we wrestle with the “meaning” behind the midterms and wonder about what will happen to our country. The “national leadership” continues to bicker about everything on a two week cycle so we regularly forget what we’re talking about. And this week marked the 307th mass shooting in our country this year. 

For the sake of context: today is the 314th day.

And it’s against that same kind of frightening and turbulent domestic scale, that we get the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

It’s an old old story that speaks profound truths even into our stories today.

The famine that broke out over the land was so terrible that Naomi and her husband and two sons were forced to flee from Bethlehem – which is rather ironic considering Bethlehem means “town of bread.”

They travel to Moab and Naomi’s husband promptly dies. The widow now only has her two sons who fortunately find Moabite wives. Their names were Orpah and Ruth. But then both of the sons die.

No ruler, no food, no husband, and now no sons.

Three widows are left with no income, no rights, and no hope for the future.

So Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, and sends her daughters-in-law back to their respective families. 

Orpah cries and leaves. But not Ruth. Ruth clings to her mother-in-law Naomi. Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.

And thus they return to the town of bread.

Ruth is a stranger in a strange land, and Naomi might as well be. The last time she was home she had a husband, two sons, and hope. Not she returns with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law.

Ruth volunteers to go out and glean in the fields and she meets the other member of the trio: Boaz. Boaz is impressed when he learns the story of this strange woman who risked it all for someone she had no reason to.

And that’s where we pick up: Naomi tries her hand at matchmaking and gets Ruth all prepared for a midnight rendezvous on the threshing room floor. Some PG-13 action transpires (or R depending on one’s imagination), and then God decides to show up in the story to give Ruth and Boaz a son, Obed who eventually fathers Jesse, who fathers David.

This wonderful and small little book toward the beginning of the Old Testament challenges many of our assumptions about what’s really important. While we might’ve stayed up late into the evening on Tuesday waiting for election results, while we might tune in to our favorite station every night for the important notes from the day, while we might flick through our Twitter feed with ferocity… the really important events of history happen in the most regular of places.

The whole of the book, from beginning to end, dwells on the small and not-evidently earthshaking interactions between three extraordinarily ordinary people.

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And that’s probably why we love the story – its why couples ask me to preach on the story of Ruth at their weddings and it’s why most of us know more about Ruth than Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, and Zephaniah combined.

In other places we read about matriarchs and patriarchs, we catch glimpses drastic and divine miracles, we learn about the prophets and the kings, and people with special missions from the Lord to do miraculous things. 

But then we get Ruth, and Naomi, and Boaz – people just like us.

If Ruth is a story about any one thing, it’s a story of hope. And not just hope that falls down from the sky like manna from heaven, but a hope that is born out of persistent generosity and care. In the characters and in the conversations we come as close as we can to the manifestation of what we in the church call grace. 

While worn down by the times in which they found themselves Ruth and Naomi clung to each other when they had nothing else. They were from different places, with different cultures, and different expectations. But in one another they found something that was worth staying with, no matter what. 

And, of course, upon first glance, it is easy to make the story all about Ruth’s faithfulness. She certainly takes an incalculable and completely unnecessary risk by sticking with Naomi. She left her home, and everything she knew, to accompany her to the small town of bread where she was certainly viewed with nothing by suspicion. 

But the story isn’t just about Ruth. It’s also about the strange and mysterious ways in which God acts through the ordinary to make the extraordinary possible. 

And yet (!) Ruth has no reason to demonstrate the immense possibility of God’s faithfulness because she was outside the covenant! She was a Moabite, a foreigner to be viewed with nothing but disdain, and she is the one who shines throughout the story as a marker to glorify of the Lord.

The story of Ruth teaches those who read it the quality of relationships that enable life with others to be decent, secure, and even happy. The three central characters are all genuinely concerned about the needs and welfare of the other in selfless ways. It therefore bombards our sensibilities and expectation about who deserves our time, who deserves our respect, and who deserves God’s love. 

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Just like the Israelites during the time of Ruth, most of us are worn down by the events of our days on a local, national, and even international scale. We are currently witnesses to cataclysmic events like the war in Yemen, the drastic and frightening effects of climate change, and the never-ending political unrest that all seem to offer only the most uncertain hope of a better and safer future for anyone.

And that is precisely why the story of Ruth is perfect for us today: in a time such as this, acts of generosity and connection open up the future that God intends for us. From continuing to break bread with the people who voted differently than us, to reaching out to the people in our community without food to eat, to being mindful of people in our midst who go day after day without hope.

When the bonds between ourselves and whomever we might consider the other are brought together we, like Ruth, begin to see the kingdom of God at work. 

Because, ultimately, this story is what the kingdom of God looks like. Not necessarily a “Kumbaya” and lassie faire attitude to the powers and principalities around us, but at least a willingness to look at someone in the eye and say, “I don’t understand you, I don’t agree with you, but I want to be for you, and I want our relationship to be built on love rather than hate.”

Ruth’s story shouldn’t work out the way it does. The amount of tragedy should’ve derailed the widows completely from any possibility of a new day dawning. But from beginning to end, everyone is brought further and further forward because of compassion.

God works in our world in and through the Ruths, and the Naomis, and even the Boazes, in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances. You don’t have to go climb to the top of the highest mountain to hear the Holy Spirit’s Word for your life, you don’t have to retreat into the solitude of a monastery to experience the profound wonder of God’s grace, you don’t have to give away everything you own to recognize how much Jesus gave up for you.

In Ruth’s story, in her time of terrible losses, and frightening trouble, and oppositional tyranny, and destructive pain, she found ways to grab hold of others and possibilities through the ordinary moments of the Spirit. 

And those moments, though small and sometimes missable, are huge because they shake the very foundations of what we foolishly believe is good, and powerful, and true in this life. 

Long before there was doctrine, and theology, and creeds, and liturgical traditions, there were normal people who discovered profound richness in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances.

The church, this church, is another place, just like Ruth’s family, where we have opportunities to learn what it means to live with people we did not choose! It is through our continued and fervent presence with those with whom we are stuck that we catch a glimpse of the fidelity of our God who is stuck with all of us.

Strangely, Ruth’s story ends not with Ruth cradling her new baby boy, but with her mother-in-law Naomi bringing him to her bosom. The whole town surrounds them in this moment and they see redemption in the strangest form: a child. Everything about their lives has been redeemed by God in this infant named Obed, without whom there would be no king David.

And, this final scene makes us think of another woman cradling a baby in Bethlehem some thirty generations later. Again, the world is in desperate need of hope. Again, a woman travels without knowing what her future will hold. And again, she holds redemption in her arms. Amen. 

We Still Need To Talk

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside.

How should we react to this? Does it make us grieve with disappointment about the state of the world? Do we feel a sense of shame for the times we’ve passed by a beggar by the roadside without offering a thing? 

Here in one sentence we have the sad fate of a man, but it is, at the same time, the entire state of humanity itself. It should go without saying that in the man by the roadside we have what “life” can make of any of us today, tomorrow, or a year from now.

Life is a harsh mistress. When all is well, we forget about those who experience a life of hell. When life is good we continue through day after day without a thought about those by the roadside. We feel surrounded by those who love us, we rest in the comfort of our own existence, and we feel the sun shining even on gloomy days.

But life can change in an instant and we never know when it might grab us by the heel, throw us to the ground, and roll us in the mud. Life exists on change, sometimes gradual and sometimes immediate – change that results in even the best being knocked off course toward a roadside of ignorance. 

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. 

Look at what life has made of the man who can no longer look at anything! Why is he blind? How long has it been since he could see? Was he given improper treatment from a doctor? Did he experience some horrible attack from the powers and principalities? Has he been in a war? Was he beaten by the police?

Life, and scripture, pay no attention to such questions.

We simply do not know. All we know is that the man has experienced misfortune, and such he has resigned himself to a life of begging by the roadside.

Can you imagine the questions in his mind as he listens to the constant footsteps of passersby? “What good am I?” “Is this all life has to offer?” “What did I do to deserve this?”

His life has ceased to be lively.

And so he begs. A blind beggar by the side of the road, among the healthy and the wealthy, the strong and the powerful. He is totally and completely reliant on those who have exactly what he does not. 

The whole world looks remarkably different when seen in the darkness of the blind, or through the small windows of a hospital room, or through the bars of a jail, or from the many places of abject poverty even here in our community. 

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The whole world looks different to an older individual who wanders around from town to town without a job and hoping for one. Or to a homeless family that tries to keep their children’s truth a secret from the classmates at school. Or to the family running away from fear of death to a new country of new possibilities.

The whole world looks different to the grieving widow who cannot seem to take a step in any direction after the sudden death of her spouse. Or to the child who continues to bounce from family to family in the foster care system. Or to the family who waits out in the cold every month at the food distribution hoping for something fresh to eat.

A blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. What can he do except accept his fate? He has been cast aside by the very life that so many of us desperately cling to, and he no longer has bootstraps from which he can pull himself up. 

He will humbly beseech each set of footsteps he hears along the road, he will pray for good people moved by compassion to pass him some coins, he will express his gratitude to anyone who offers him a scrap of food.

But under it all he is filled with a rage. Can we blame him? His world, his life, is nothing but suffering, and fear, and uncertainty. Does he curse God under his breath with every passing footstep?

So, who is right, who sees the world as it is? The blind beggar by the road side or we who are secure, happy, and healthy?

We fill our conversations with the false platitudes of self-righteous indignation. We believe we have received what we have received because we deserve it or we have earned it. We assume that God rewards those who take matters into their own hands.

And we are so sure that we are right! We continue to walk by the blind beggars, and the weeping widows, and the fractured families. We convince ourselves the the world is simple the way that it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And yet, there is something in the blind beggar by the roadside that captures our attention. Somehow, he sees the world as it is. He, in his blindness, understands the world better than we do with our perfect vision. We are deceived, but he is to be believed. 

Life is a harsh mistress, and he knows it, but we miss it.

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Though sometimes we catch a glimpse of the truth – when we find ourselves sitting in the pews while a casket sits at the front of the sanctuary, when we hear word of a friend who has fallen prey to the temptations of sin, when we hear about people gunned down in the middle of a worship service

Where is the hope in the middle of such terrible suffering? What does it mean for us to live in a world where the blind wait by the roadsides for help? Is this all life has to offer?

At best, we can place ourselves beside those trapped in the amber of despair, and we can jointly lift up our accusations against brutal inhumanity of humanity. We can raise clenched fists of rage against systems that profit on the poor while rewarding the rich. We can scream into the ether our frustrations against the insanity of war, the ignorance of isolation, and the injustice of life.

But what good does it do? It’s as if with every scream, and fist, and posture of solidarity, life continues to blow past without much of a care. We might help bring a little light to those who rest in the shadow of the cross, but mostly, it just feel like life stays the same.

But, now another person passes the blind beggar by the roadside. He too is a human being who suffers under the weight of the world. He too is a victim of the cruel fate that life tends to throw. He too will be pushed by the people around him toward the road, and eventually to be thrown out among the dead. 

He is not like others who pass the blind man. He does not walk with airs of superiority, he does not relish in the suffering of the marginalized, he does not profit off of the poor remaining poor. 

He, like the blind man, has lost the possibility of proper and holy friendships with all the right people. He, like the blind man, has suffered tremendously and will only suffer more in his remaining days. He, like the blind man, knows what injustice looks like and soon he will see it from the vantage point of Golgotha.

He comes from Narareth, but Nazareth wants nothing more to do with him. The bridges were burned. His mother and brothers consider him a crazy fool, the people of his home town plotted to kill him after his first sermon, and even those who know him best, his so-called disciples, are still arguing about which of them is the best and which one will hold all the power in the new kingdom. 

He is followed by a crowd as he passes the blind man, and yet they will all desert him and betray him when he needs them most.

Life is a harsh mistress.

And for this brief moment –  these two are in one another’s company. They see the world as it really is. They know the truth of what life has to offer. And yet they are different. 

One is disappointed and shocked by the hand life has dealt.

The Other knows the deep and indiscriminate power of what life has to offer.

One is abandoned by the side of the road with no hope of a future.

The Other will be abandoned in a tomb that cannot contain him.

One is the result of world in which individualism reigns supreme.

The Other will destroy the expectations of the world and will forever reign supreme.

So what will this Other say to the blind man? Will he preach a sermon about God helping those who help themselves? Will he sigh under his breath and mutter a “sorry about your bad luck”? Will he toss in a coin and continue walking as if unaffected?

No, this Other is not the one who proclaims a gospel of settling, a gospel of making lemons out of lemonade, a gospel of silver-linings. No, again and again, this Other promises that life must not remain as it is, that none of the darkness will outweigh the light, that with God all things are possible.

The Other will make the impossible possible while mounted on the hard wood of the cursed tree, and while breaking forth from the tomb with liberty. He will bear on himself the whole burden of humanity’s inhumanity in order that we might see, truly see, that God is the divine master of all things, that God is victorious over the old life of indiscriminate suffering, that resurrection is greater than any word offered on the side of the road or any miracle of sight being offered to the blind. 

And thus we begin to see, behind the curtain of the gospel, the truth. The blind man, and all who are like him, people like you and me, we suffer in this life and we do not know why. Most of the time we don’t even notice how bad things are until its too late. We trudge through the muck of life day after day after day, but Jesus refuses to leave us in our sad estate and wills to make all things new, not without us, but with us.

And so the Other walks past the blind man by the side of the road, and yet something happens. The blind man notices something, he feels something, he sees something he should not have been able to in the Other who walked by. And behold, he jumps from the road, he abandons the posture of weak resignation, he forgets the shackles that life has wrapped around him. 

Behold, he begins to understand the truth that we seek. God can help and God will help. 

Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!

And the bridge made possible by the incarnation and the cross is already taking form as he catches a glimpse of the future ahead. This Jesus who walks with all the suffering of the world shines a light, a blinding light among the blind, and something has been changed for good.

And Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

“Go, your faith has made you well.” 

And immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way. Amen.

Enough Already!

Matthew 6.19-21

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.

The man lived a good and faithful life. He had a loving family, a lucrative career, and he was in church nearly every single Sunday.

As he got closer to the end of his life, he heard God speak to him one day. “You have been good and faithful” boomed the voice from beyond, “and though I don’t usually do this, I’m going to grant you a special dispensation. When you die you may bring a briefcase full of whatever you want to heaven.

The man was overwhelmed by the generous act of God, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized he had an incredibly difficult decision to make. Most night he laid awake staring at the ceiling running through his possessions in his mind until, after months of deliberation, he came to a decision.

When his days came to an end, he found himself standing in line outside the pearly gates with a great assortment of people. Though, unlike anyone else, he held a briefcase in his hand. The whispers and stares followed him all the way through the line until he stood right before St. Peter.

The first disciple asked, “What’s that in your hand?”

The man proudly retorted that he and God had come to an agreement and that he was able to bring a briefcase to heaven.

Peter jumped up off his cloud, and clasped his hands to his mouth. “So you’re the one! The angels and I have been talking about you for a long time, and we’ve got a pretty good pool going about what’s inside. So, do you mind? Can I take a peak?”

The man beamed with bride as he laid the briefcase on the ground and opened it up.

Gold bars.

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Of all the things the man could’ve picked, among all his possessions, he decided to bring a few gold bars.

He looked up at Peter excited to see the look on his face, but Peter just raised an eyebrow and said, “Asphalt?”

Because, you know, in heaven the streets are paved with gold…

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth! Friends, Jesus is speaking to us throughout the centuries and the time has come for all of us to close our bank accounts, empty out all of our garages and attics, and start saving in heaven!

Right?

We’re going to spend more time talking specifically about money next week, but today we are talking about possessions, and specifically how possessed we are by our possessions. 

Check this out: Did you know that here in the United States there are more self-storage facilities than Starbucks and McDonalds combined!?!?

Think about that for just a moment, think about how you can’t go anywhere around here without the coffee seller or the golden arches, and yet there are more self-storage facilities!

The amount of space in our self-storage facilities is so ridiculously large in fact, that we could fit every man, woman, and child inside of them with room to spare.

And of the people who own a storage unit, the majority of them have both attic space and garage space at home.

Possessions

I joked months ago that this church has a storage problem because we simply had too much stuff. And so we decided to take a day to go through most of the items we had stored just to start clearing things out – Friends we had more ziplock bags full of dried out markers than I could count – we had Vacation Bible School materials from 20 years ago – we have copies of every bulletin this church has ever used. EVER.

The church is not immune to the problem of possessions.

Jesus’ little vignette in which he lays out the dilemma is one that I’m sure most of us are familiar with – but there’s some subtle wordplay that we miss. Because, in English, we translate Jesus’ words as, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” But in Greek it reads more like, “Do not treasure up your treasures.”

But why not? What’s so wrong with working hard to accumulate possessions? What’s the problem with running out of space to store all of our stuff? 

Well, Jesus would have us remember that treasuring up all of that treasure ultimately leads to its demise. Moths, rust, and thieves will consume all that we save is we treasure it away. 

And we’ve got to hand it to Jesus on this one – he’s right. The more we accumulate, the more we store, the more we possess, the more the dust accumulates, the more we run out of space, the more we can’t even really remember what’s in the bottom of that box on the far side of the garage.

But Jesus is also pushing us to a different understanding as well. He’s not just gathering the disciples around for a little advice on how to be mindful of the fragility of our possessions, but its also a lesson in the theological ramifications of treasuring up our treasures.

It, the struggle with possessions, runs throughout the scriptures. Abraham desperately wants a son, someone to pass his possessions on to. The Hebrews are delivered from slavery in Egypt only to think back on all the stuff they left back in Egypt. After entering the Promised Land, the people of God habitually lament losing the thing they care about most over and over again – not their relationship with God, but all of their stuff back in Jerusalem.

Even in the New Testament, the rich young ruler, James and John, Ananias and Sapphira, they all experience the loss (or potential loss) of worldly goods and it just about undoes them. 

Having stuff, accumulating possessions, isn’t a sin. Our things can be used for both good and evil. It’s when the love of our stuff, when we feel an intense desire to lock it up and away, that we become blind from other things in our lives. And, God forbid, we start encroaching on a slippery slope that seems to never end.

First we possess something we truly desire – but then when we see what other people have and we start doing whatever it takes to get it. It’s why the line for new iPhones every fall stretches far beyond every Apple Store.

Then, whenever we acquire the item that was pulling at our heart strings, we intensely desire something else or more of the original item and we are less inclined to share what we have. It’s why we find ourselves trading in a car for the updated model when nothing is really wrong with out current mode of transportation.

And finally we just keep consuming one thing after another, even when we are beyond full. It’s why the self-storage business is a multi-billion dollar industry and we wind up buying space just to have room for all of our stuff.

But don’t we have enough already? Are we so discontented by our stuff that the only remedy is more of it? Do we possess our possessions, or are we possessed by our possessions?

Here’s a dose of some hard truth – at the end of our days, everything goes into a box. A box that’s about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. And we can’t take anything else with us.

Do not treasure up your treasures on earth, but treasure up your treasures in heaven. Some will say that Jesus is pleading with his followers across the sands of time to treasure up our treasures in heaven by giving money to the church. And, though you can take it that way, I think Jesus is being a little more subtle. As the King of the Kingdom, as the one inaugurating the new way, Jesus knows that when we treasure up our treasures on earth, they no longer make a difference, and they start to weigh us down.

But by treasuring up our treasures in heaven, by knowing what really matters and what really doesn’t, we are freed from the tyranny of sinful accumulation and we start to see and know that we are God’s treasure.

Because, God’s heart is with us.

As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. Last week we were tasked with taking time everyday to be grateful by our time. This week we have a clean out challenge.

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We are asking that everyone set aside some time this week to get rid of some stuff. In my house we have a drawer that has a little bit of everything in it, and maybe you have one like that, and perhaps thats the project you want to tackle. Take out the drawer, go through every item, and really ask yourself whether you need it or not. If the items you discard can be used by someone else, then take them to a local goodwill or salvation army, if they can be recycled then recycle them.

Pick one drawer, one box, one closet – it doesn’t matter what it is, but go through it and get ride of some of your possessions. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the crazy and ridiculous ways that we are accumulating far more items than we could ever possibility need, too many us us are are focusing on earthly things instead of heavenly things.

So you can keep it as simple as cleaning out one place, one depository of items. Or you can take it a step farther and clean out an entire room – going through every drawer, every box, every shelf while asking what of all the items are actually giving you life, and which are holding you back.

Or you can even take it one step farther and pick out individuals whom you know would be blessed by some of your possessions. Instead of taking it to a local donation place, bring them to someone you know would love it and let them experience something that used to bring you life and joy. 

As we hear about the perennial struggle with possessions, as we begin to imagine that space in our homes that is overrun with stuff, we might become so bogged down in our worry and fear and attachment that we forget how God was willing to part with God’s greatest possession.

Because, strangely enough, God’s greatest possession, God’s beloved, is Jesus Christ. And, in God’s great and perplexing wisdom, God chose not to treasure up God’s greatest treasure but instead decided to give it away on our behalf. 

We know where God’s heart is because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We know how much of a challenge this will be because we find ourselves surrounded by mountains of stuff that shackle us to limited visions of reality. 

We know the frightening dimension of giving away our possessions because as Christians we regularly encounter the knowledge of God’s profound generosity in the gift of his only begotten Son.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen. 

#ChurchToo

Devotional:

2 Samuel 11.2

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the root a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

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“It happened…” are two of the most problematic and undervalued words in all of the biblical witness. Up until 2 Samuel 11, David has been every bit of the perfect king that we like to imagine. He was called to serve out of the shepherd fields, he defeated Goliath, and he played for the mad king. But then, at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11 we get the frightening and overlooked words, “It happened…”

What happened?

David, from the comfort of his kingly home, wanders the rooftop until he peeps upon a woman bathing and decides that she shall be his. David learns that she is already married, and yet he disregards the information, calls for her to be delivered to his chambers, and then he sleeps with her.

And then we find out she became pregnant.

The story continues to with David’s scheming to have her husband murdered on the battlefield to cover for his adultery.

“It happened…”

What happened is perhaps one of the most terrible and horrific moments in the Old Testament because we are forced to reckon with the deep depravity of humanity. David was God’s beloved and chosen king and even he was unable to resist the temptation of his sinful desires. And the result of his adultery led to more travesties in the Old Testament than can be recorded in this devotional.

The “it” that happened was nothing short of the sinfulness that was present in the Garden with Adam and Eve, and made manifest in the Cross with Jesus Christ.

Almost a year ago the #metoo movement spread throughout Hollywood and the rest of the country. Women, who for years had been forced to remain silent, came out about their experiences regarding sexual harassment and assault. From the comfort of churches many Christians witnessed the sinful exploits of the past come to the surface while praising God that it wasn’t happening in their midst, until the #metoo movement started the #churchtoo movement.

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No person, no church, is immune from the temptations of sin. If anything, David’s episode with Bathsheba is a perennial reminder of what happens when we grow so confident and comfortable that we believe nothing should be beyond our grasp or possession.

But people don’t belong to us. We belong to God.

I’ve heard it said that marital infidelity is higher in the church than in almost any other gathering organization. If this is true we should be ashamed and earnestly repent of our sin. For we know the result of sin better than anyone! We know what happens to David and his family after his infidelity! We know what happens to Israel after her infidelity to God!

“It happened” to David when he believed he no longer needed God, when he became the master of his own universe. And so we pray. We pray for our church to know the story that is our story. We pray for all who feel the temptations of sin and believe they have no need of God. And we especially pray for ourselves knowing full and well that we are just as susceptible as anyone else.