Baking(dom)

Matthew 13.31-33

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the bird of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

He put before them another parable.

Do you think the disciples ever got tired of Jesus’ stories?

“Enough with the Prodigal and the Samaritan and the Sower Jesus! Can’t you give us something clear and concrete? When are you going to tell us what to do?”

I’ve asked, albeit rhetorically, each week during this sermon series on Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom if we’re sure we want to follow this guy.

And it’s a worthy question for reflection.

After all, Jesus never seems to shut up about this stuff – the first being last and the last being first, forgiving forever, turning the other cheek, the kingdom being like a guy throwing seeds into a field like its going out of style.

But today the question is slightly different. It’s less about the King of the Kingdom, and more about the Kingdom itself. 

Are we sure this is the kind of Kingdom we want to live in? Because this Kingdom Jesus inaugurates in and through himself, it’s not very impressive.

If the kingdom we up to us, we’d no doubt pick something large, something impressive, something effective. 

Remember back in the days when we could actually have a parade for the 4th of July? The whole community coming out in matching colors, the firefighters and the ambulances, and the military veterans, and the marching bands, and the FIREWORKS!

That’s impressive. It’s a sign of power and even solidarity.

But for as much as we might want to believe that’s what Jesus kingdom is like, it’s decidedly not. 

Indeed, as the disciples and everyone else around Jesus found out, the Kingdom does not come in a way we would expect or create on our own.

It’s notable that, when asked how to pray, Jesus told the disciples to first pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. What’s implied in that statement, though not necessarily talked about very often, is the fact that God’s kingdom is not naturally inside any of us.

Which is just another way of saying, we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own.

Instead, it’s like a seed buried into the ground, or yeast mixed into flour, it must be done to us by the Spirit from the outside.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – teeny tiny, and yet when buried in the ground it grows to be one of the greatest of all shrubs. It’s remarkable, when deciding how to describe the kingdom, Jesus purposefully uses the smallest known seed at the time.

And that doesn’t square well, at times, for the followers of Jesus. We want something big and impressive and effective. Instead we’re stuck with a tiny seed. 

Even those of us who feel like we’ve got our theology all figured out, myself included, this can rub us the wrong way. 

We pray for things like greatness and we get humbled by the Lord who works in small and mysterious ways.

We ask for a sign from the Lord and we’re treated not with an earthquake but instead a still small voice.

We want God to rule by just putting the right political leaders in office so that can pass laws that will make everything perfect, but it doesn’t happen (and it never will).

We have this constant temptation to believe that we can make things right if we just work hard enough. We wrestle with a desire to bring the kingdom into being from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We think we’re responsible for, and in charge of, the kingdom.

But we’re not.

And we can’t even really see it all the time.

Notice, a mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil. Not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in the tomb was raised three days later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The mustard seed’s work happens in hiddenness, in mystery. It gets tucked away under the good soil and it becomes that which it was created to be completely on it’s own. It grows and it grows until its branches are enough to provide nests for all the birds of the air. 

And the thing about mustard seeds, a thing that many of us don’t know because we’re not sowing mustard seeds in any of our gardens, is that there’s a reason we don’t plant mustard seeds. In fact, it was a punishable offense during the time of Jesus to plant a mustard seed in someone’s field because when it grows it chokes out every single plant, it resists just about every single attempt at its destruction, and it really won’t stop doing it’s mustard seed thing once it’s planted in the ground.

Like the mustard seed, the kingdom grows and accomplishes its designed purpose in spite of everything that stands against it. It cannot be destroyed and it cannot be taken away. And it will grow in spite of our knowledge for or against it. 

Prior to this parable Jesus has been going on with talk about the great divine Sower and the field with wheat and weeds and it’s like he says, “Look, I’ll give it to you one more time. The kingdom is not what you think it is. It’s not military might, it’s not parades of power, it’s not the domination of democracy. It’s just the sun shining in the sky, birds flying in and out of the shade. It’s a seed that grows from nothing into something. The best thing you can do is enjoy it.”

And then, as if to drive home the same point from one further angle, he launches into a parable about baking.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.

Now, the parable of the leaven is barely even one full verse in the gospel and yet it contains multitudes. To begin with, we should sit on the fact for a moment that the surrogate for God in this particular parables is a woman – a female baker. All of the patriarchal patterns of the church really don’t have much to stand on. In other places Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, and quite notably, women are the only ones who don’t abandon Jesus in the end.

Moreover, without women preachers, none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection in the first place!

And the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus says she mixed three measures (SATA) of flour, which is a bushel. That’s 128 cups! And when you get done putting in the 42 cups of necessary water to make the bread, you’re left with 101 pounds of dough!

But Jesus doesn’t stop there – 101 pounds of dough are thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened. 

Unlike the mustard seed, you can’t take the yeast out of the dough once it’s mixed in. Sure, it would be pretty hard to find a mustard seed in the ground after its buried, but you could theoretically do it. But yeast? No way. The minute the yeast start to do its thing it completely transforms the flour and it cannot be reversed. 

The yeast, in a wonderfully theological sense is completely and totally hidden within the dough. Which, in a way, means that the kingdom of heaven, like leavened bread, has been with us here from the beginning and will always be here. It is among us. And no amount of badness, or even goodness, can do much of anything to it. 

The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of nothing. So intimate and immediate is the yeast with the dough and water that nothing can stop it. So intimate and immediate is the Kingdom in the world that there is no way on earth of stopping it from doing exactly what its supposed to do.

But, again, we, like those early disciples, are left scratching our heads about what in the world in means for us. Because if we don’t gather as the church for our marching orders then what are we really doing? If we can’t make the world a better place with three easy steps, if we can’t make the Kingdom come on our own, then what kind of Kingdom is it anyway?

How are we supposed to respond to this paradoxical set of parables?

Well, perhaps we respond like we do to baking – with patience. 

Ask any baker, one of the worst things we can do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And, really, good bread is made when the yeast does what it’s supposed to do without our interfering with it. 

And, please forgive this final declension into baking – how does yeast actually make the dough into the stuff of perfection. It dies and fills the dough with thousands of little pockets of carbon dioxide. And when those pockets of air are heated, the bread rises.

It’s a miracle.

Make some bread some time, throw it in the oven, and sit and watch.

It’s incredible.

And here’s the real kicker with the parable: warm carbon dioxide, the stuff that makes bread bread, is the same thing we make every time we breathe out. 

The whole of the Kingdom, operates similarly by warm breath.

Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made from the beginning of creation. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same spirit, Ruah, Breath, Wind, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.

Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his rag tag group of fearful followers hiding in the Upper Room. 

That same Spirit is breathed out on the day of Pentecost filling the church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. 

Even what I’m doing right now is only possible because of the warm breath that comes from my mouth as I speak. And, the best news of all, is that God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak. 

In the end, God’s warm breath is what’s it all about. Whether its in the bread baking in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what you’re doing right now to simply live. 

Notice too, about your own breath, you don’t have to will yourself to do it, you don’t have to think about it at all for it to happen. You simply breathe. Over and over again. 

Just like the leavened bread – its happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the Bread of life, the one we call Jesus is mixed definitely into our lives, it unfailingly lightens every single one of us. 

The job, mysteriously enough, is already done. Finished and furnished before the foundation of the world. Completed by the One who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with his final breaths before his death, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.

Which is all to say, we are as good and baked into existence right here and right now. We have been mixed into the flour and water and yeast that becomes something we never could on our own. 

The only thing we have to do is trust that Jesus will do his yeasty work. And that, in the end, when we detect the smell of fresh bread wafting from the oven of the Kingdom, we will truly be home. Forever. Amen. 

The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

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

Something happened to Stephen.

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

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

His response to the accusation?

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

And it gets him killed.

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

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

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

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

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

And we do it all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

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

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

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

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

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

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

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

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

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

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

That’s the name of the game. 

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

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

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

This is the truth.

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

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

But it is.

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

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That’s racism.

That’s sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Black Lives, for instance.

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s crazy.

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

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

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

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

Awe-Full

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.

They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.

Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.

And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.

That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.

But that’s not what happens in Acts.

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Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.

They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.

They gather together in fellowship.

They break bread and feast with one another.

And, finally, they share their prayers.

But it’s more than that. 

We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.

On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray. 

But wait, there’s more!

And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need.

Woah.

I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences. 

But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?

That sounds awful.

Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.

Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.

However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.

And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.

That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.

Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.

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This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.

Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God. 

Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money. 

But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.

Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people. 

It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.

God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.

However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.

It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,

Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.

Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.

But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?

They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.

Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.

This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.

Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise. 

Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop. 

Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.

Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.

Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.

And it drove people crazy.

It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!

And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve. 

Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.

But, haven’t we heard all of that before?

We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.

Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er. 

But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?

Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.

The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.

Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution. 

They just start living differently. 

Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.

And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?

Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?

Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?

Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.

We do things we know we shouldn’t.

We avoid doing things we know we should.

We care more about ourselves than other people.

Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.

And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway. 

It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”

That is radical.

Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.

Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.

It could change everything.

It already has.

Amen. 

Favor Fades

Devotional:

Matthew 4.12

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

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Having the favor of the people can disappear in an instant. I have known too many beloved leaders in their respective communities who took one step too far and then lost the popularity or the respect they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim, and the opinions, of the people they serve. 

Jesus was widely praised by crowds of people when he first initiated his earthly ministry, but then he was run out of town (incidentally, his home town) as soon as he claimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but in the end those kind of declarations led to his assassination.

Years ago I was asked to speak at a community gathering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to be honest, it was terrifying. How could I possibly do justice to the man who I had admired throughout most of my life? How could I find the right words to offer in memory of a preacher I still strive to emulate on a regular basis? How could I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

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But then, shortly before I was invited forward toward the microphone, I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. often said, words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to live out God’s will for, and in, our lives. Rather than sugar-coating messages of false hope, we are called to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters with every fiber of our beings.

Which is all to say, sometimes our faith will drive others crazy.

And now, in honor of Dr. King, I would like to end this devotional with a prayer from the man himself – a prayer that is worth our time and consideration particularly today…

“Thou eternal God, out of whose absolute power the infinite intelligence of the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives in the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

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. 

Tradition!

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 2.15

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 

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The whiteboard behind me was covered in names, dates, and an assortment of arrows connecting them all together. After a few weeks of Sunday school classes on the early history of the church I was trying my best to bring us up to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE. The room had quieted to frightening degree and the look of glazed eyes told me that I had lost the class. So I did what any good teacher would do – I asked if there were any questions.

For a moment the silence continued as the participants looked across the room at one another wondering if anyone would be brave enough to say what they were all thinking, “What in the world have you been talking about?” But instead someone sheepishly raised their hand and simply intoned, “What percentage of church folk know any of this stuff, and what difference does it make?”

I appreciated the question. I can remember sitting in the basement of my Divinity School doing my best to commit to memory those same names and dates on the board for a Church History final exam asking basically the same question. What does Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea and Polycarp and Constantine’s conversion have to do with what we do today?

The answer: Everything.

We are the stories we’ve been told, whether we know the stories or not. The witness of the Christian Church is the diachronic (through time) sharing of a tradition that keeps on giving. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many people know the stories of the ancient church because we are still telling them in different ways. Just take a look around the church sanctuary the next time you happen to be in one or look closely at the church bulletin – we adorn our sanctuaries and liturgies in particular ways because of what was done before us. 

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Does every Christian need to know that the Nicene Creed came out of a council of bishops who met in the year 325 who fought (literally) tooth and nail over what would unify the early church? Probably not. But at the very least Christians should know that what we say when we proclaim the creed (whether Apostles’ or Nicene) ultimately shapes how we behave.

Does every United Methodist need to know about John Wesley’s conversion moment at a meeting house on Aldersgate Street that eventually led him to theological proclamations about the totality of God’s prevenient grace? Probably not. But at the very least, the people who call themselves Methodists should know that we practice an open table at communion because we believe that God’s grace, like the bread and the cup, are given to us whether we deserve it or not.

Today, we stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of the church not because it is particularly rigid and unmovable, but precisely because it opens up for us an understanding of God’s wondrous works in our lives even today. 

Or, still yet to put it another way, tradition doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, even though some people treat it that way. 

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. 

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.