This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 31.10-31, Psalm 1, James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a, Mark 9.30-37). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, pronouns in Proverbs, misapplied texts, theological thinking, healthy happiness, the realm of wisdom, the possibility of peace, secret applications, the depths of dopamine, and the connection between humility and humiliation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Understanding Mind
Tag Archives: Wisdom
Those Who Can’t Teach, Do
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 1.20-33, Psalm 19, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Street Church, wisdom, frightening faith, vision processing, preaching cliches, the sanctity of silence, communal affirmation, cross bearing, the present of presence, and mic drop moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Those Who Can’t Teach, Do
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6.10-20, John 6.56-69). Josh is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including spicy spices, Solomonic wisdom, the power of place, door holders, the agency of armor, Martin Luther, the powers and principalities, rational arguments, The Dude, discipleship, Bo Giertz, and pickles. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Subtle Allegiances
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including relay races, wicked wisdom, Christotelism, financial irony, fear, character recognition, Dead Poets Society, pagan worship, the Prayer of Humble Access, non-sentimental sacramentality, and the preaching office. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eat Me!
Preaching To Strangers
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”
And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)
However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.
Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.
But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.
Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe.
This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.
Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)
The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.
Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).
This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.
This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds.
Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world.
There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.
As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.”
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter.
When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it.
When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.
But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check.
Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”
These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure.
And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid.
Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true.
We Are (Not) Scandalized
1 Corinthians 1.18-31
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sister: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us the wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I worked hard on the sermon.
I mean, I worked really hard on the sermon.
At one point I had, on my desk, three different commentaries, a collection of Christian poetry, two Biblical atlases, and my Greek New Testament. I must’ve written three versions of the sermon before I finally felt like it was complete before and I saved the document and patiently waited for Sunday.
And Sunday came.
I walked down the center aisle tightly gripping the sermon in my hand while the congregation sang around me. I sat dutifully throughout the service, listening to the different lay people playing their parts, and when the time came to preach I ascended into the pulpit, took a deep breath, and preached my heart out.
I used my hand emphatically, lowered my voice when I wanted everyone to hang on the words, and I ended with as large and as booming of a voice as I could muster.
When I sat down I had to wipe my sleeve across my forehead because I worked up a sweat.
After the service, I stood in the narthex waiting to shake hands with those in attendance that morning and was feel rather proud of my effort.
A tall gray-haired gentleman was the first to walk over that morning, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Son, that sounded nice and all, but you used too many of them big seminary words and not a one of us understood not one thing you said.”
There’s something interesting going on in the budding Corinthian Christian community. Sure, Paul’s already proclaimed grace upon all who receive his letter, and he’s warned them about breaking off into different factions, but here, before we even get to the second chapter of the letter he addresses what we might call, status consciousness. And notice, I’m still falling prey to the temptation to use bigger words than necessary!
It’s not just about who each of the early disciples follow, but to which class each person belongs. (As if people belong to certain classes)
In our minds when we think of class divisions today we rightly consider economic disparities, or even geographical placements, but one that we often ignore (to our detriment) is the division of education. There were some who proudly proclaimed their educational prowess while putting others down and it was starting to create major rifts in the community.
“I know more than you do,” or “I’m smarter than you,” become more than childish attacks and take on a whole new version of the in crowd and the out crowd.
Whereas Jesus comes to show us how we were once all in the out crowd, and we are all now in the in crowd.
Paul puts it this way: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debtor of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demanded signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
In other words, “What makes you think you’re so smart? None of this is smart! God has made the wisdom of the world into foolishness! The religious elite call for signs and the secular folk want wisdom, but we proclaim a crucified man, dead on the cross. This will always be a stumbling block to the religious and foolishness to those outside the faith.”
Now the challenge before us, regarding this text, is nearly impossible – imagine, if you can, having never heard of Jesus or his cross. Imagine, challenging as this might seem, that you encounter someone in your life, perhaps a friend or a neighbor or even someone in your family and they tell you, “The most powerful being in all of the creation, chose to become like us, to dwell among us, and then when the right time came he was executed for all to see, and then three days later he rose from the dead.”
It’s difficult to take a step back from all of this, from a sanctuary adorned with cross, and hymns with language about the cross, and to consider how confounding the cross is.
Or, to put it in a Corinthian context, it is scandalous.
That’s the word for us today, that’s the thing we cannot ignore, how scandalous it all is. Our English Bibles, of course, render it as foolishness a la the foolishness of the Gentiles, but in Greek the word is SKANDALON.
Even in their boasting, those that had reason to boast, Paul reminds them that all of their bragging is for nothing because the word of the cross, the truth of Christ’s work, has nothing to do with our own intelligence, or our own wisdom, or our own work.
That scandal is difficult to approach – it is challenging because everything about the crucifixion from the details about the responsible parties to the words offered by those who witnessed the event carry little to no redeeming religious features.
It is not an uplifting moment even though Jesus is lifted up. Which is strange when we consider just how much of our faith and all that we do as Christians is tied up with inspirational uplift and attempts at making us feel better whether we want to or not.
So much of what I learned in school, the schooling that was required for me to become a pastor, was all about speaking the right words to make things right in your lives. It was about pushing lay people, you people, to be more faithful. It was about helping each of you to see all that you needed to do in order to find Jesus.
And yet, the scandal of the cross is scandalous precisely because it stands as a stark reminder that we are messed up, and Christ come to us anyway.
It is a reminder that no matter how smart we are or how dumb we are, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how virtuous or sinful, Christ comes to us anyway.
A few years back one of my dearest friends and a fellow United Methodist pastor (and godfather to my son), made it through 8 rounds of chemotherapy to treat his incurable cancer. The suffering involved was such that when he was told that they could no longer see any signs of his tumor he didn’t believe them. That is, until they reminded him that the cancer was still in his bone marrow and would never full be gone.
He would, and still does, rely on what they call maintenance chemo in hopes that the cancer will be kept at bay.
In the wake of receiving the good news that sounded like bad news but was actually good news Jason, that’s his name, articulated something strange about the whole experience.
He said that even though learning he had cancer meant mourning the loss of the life that he had and the loss of the future he envisioned, so too, paradoxically, finding out that he wasn’t going to die quite yet meant mourning the loss of the life he’d found while living with cancer.
Basically, he kind of enjoyed having the cancer.
As crazy as that sounds, there was a reason for feeling that way. You see, while undergoing those months of chemotherapy and the constant fear about losing his life before he expected to, he discovered that he had his theology backwards. For far too long he had believed, and to some degree articulated, a faith that required people to grow closer to God, a faith in which Jesus suffers for our sins and that’s it.
But what Jason discovered in his cancer was that Jesus joins us in our suffering, that its not up to us to grow closer to God because God is already closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that no matter what we’re going through, no matter how bleak or frightening or terrifying, God is there in it.
In church terms we call it A Theology of the Cross.
Paul would call it the scandal of the cross.
Today we might talk about how the cross is a sign of how Jesus saves us from our sins, but what Paul, and Jason, would have us consider is that the cross is where the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ meets us.
The cross is where God meets us in our own lives. In all of our suffering, in all of our sins, in our shames and pains.
And that is downright scandalous because it rubs against so much of what we’ve been taught to think and speak. If we’ve left church feeling guilty for all the things we should have done, for all the things we left undone, then we’ve missed the scandal of the cross. The scandal is that we don’t have to do anything. Because Christ does the everything we could not and would not do for ourselves.
And even more scandalous is the fact that God in Christ continues to meet us not in the mountaintops of our achievements, not in our theology degrees or perfectly performed prayers, not in our miraculous morality, but in the moments that frighten us and scare us the most.
Paul writes to the Corinthians in hopes of knocking them down a peg or two, he points to the scandal of the cross and reminds those who call themselves Christians that we really have nothing to boast about. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. No amount of education or status or health can fix that fundamental problem within us. Therefore, confronting the scandal of the cross compels us to reorient ourselves into the shadow of the cross.
All the things we lift up, right education, economic success, perfect health and perfect bodies, have nothing to do with the scandal of the cross. It simply is what it is.
The cross has always been the focus of Christianity. The cross embodies all of what makes the Good News good. And for as long as it has been the object of our worship, it has also caused offense and has been scandalous. Here within the context of our own country, we tend to push the cross out to the margins, away from view, because we prefer a more upbeat and earned and triumphalist version of faith.
This is, perhaps, because we are so obsessed with ourselves and what we deserve and how hard we’ve worked. We are moved by consumption and instant gratification. We lift up the healthy and the wealthy as the paragons of virtue and idealism. And, the more we do this, the more the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the celebrities of our culture become that which we idolize, and we ignore the plight of the sick, weak, lonely, and poor.
The word of the cross, that which confuses the religious and the irreligious alike, calls we who follow Jesus to embrace the struggle of life, to never turn a blind eye to those around us, and to remember that Christ meets us in the midst of our sins.
It’s scandalous. Amen.
Know Thy Vocation
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.
They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.
I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”
The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.
After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices:
1. Public Speaker
2. High School English Teacher
We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter.
I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.
Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.
When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect.
When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?
During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised.
All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.
It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.
Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.
Everything about the story is wrong.
We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.
Talk about being surprised.
But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.
Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.
And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”
Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can.
That’s not what they expected him to say.
Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”
Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things.
But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.
When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.
The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.
Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God.
God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.
When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives.
His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…
Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.
Do not sleep or yawn over your work.
Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.
Spare no pains.
Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.
Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.
Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus.
And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.
There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.
Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.
The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.
Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.
In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself.
Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom.
Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift.
And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.
We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us.
And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around.
Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross.
God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen.
The One Thing Needful
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
This is not a sermon I wanted to write, nor is it one I wanted to preach.
I’ve been doing this pastor thing for a good while now and, full disclosure, I’ve only preached from Proverbs once and it wasn’t very good. Proverbs is one of those overlooked and forgotten books in the Bible filled with nothing but short and brief aphorisms that sound like something your great-uncle muttered under his breath while getting his third helping of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.
“Listen to your father’s instruction; don’t neglect your mother’s teaching.”
“Listen to me and do not deviate from the words of my mouth.”
“Happy are those who keep to my ways!”
“If you stop listening to discipline, you will wander away from words of wisdom.”
That’s all in Proverbs.
And they’re good and fine. There are plenty of times that I’d like to just look someone in the eye and say, “If you would just do what I’m telling you to do, you’d be fine.” But that’s not really the way it works.
And then we lift up this collection of sayings from the middle of the Bible and assume they can speak something new and fresh into our lives about what it means to be followers of Jesus.
I was heard someone describe Proverbs like this: “Reading from the Book of Proverbs is like being stuck on a long road trip with no one but your mother-in-law.”
The Word of God for the People of God all right.
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
Years ago, when I was in my first month of ministry, hot off the heels of receiving my degree, soon after arriving at my first church, I reached out to a number of other clergy people in my community. I figured, at the time, I was only 25 years old and I could use all the advice and wisdom and help I could get, and why not receive some of it from those who had been doing it as long as I had been alive.
So I drove around town and started knocking on the doors of the churches. I spoke with pastor after pastor and invited them to join me for breakfast the following week. Nothing more, less, or else. And sure enough, the next week I found myself sitting around a table with 7 other pastors, representing a variety of denominations.
At first we exchanged pleasantries, we talked about seminaries and recent sermons, I learned about different ordination procedures and different clergy robes. And eventually I got to ask the question resting most on my heart: “I am about to embark upon a lifetime of ministry and I want to know what advice you would offered to yourselves when you were my age if you could go back in time. If you could go back, what would you say?”
For a while none of them said anything. They scratched beards, and twirled hair, they furrowed brows and considered the ceiling. And then one of them said, “If I could go back and tell myself anything it would be this: start saving money.”
And immediately the entire table erupted in affirmation exclaiming they all agreed with that pastor’s advice.
Maybe it was my naiveté in the moment but I assumed they would have offered me wisdom about what book from the Bible to avoid, or how to properly pray for those who were sick, or even what kind of hymns to sing at particular moments. But I was wrong. This ragtag group of pastors had only one piece of sage-like wisdom they wanted to offer: Start saving money.
I’m fairly certain that if any of us here were to encounter a genie in this life, one (if not all) of our wishes would be for more money, for gold or silver. And there’s good reason for that – economic prosperity is at the heart of the American Dream, it’s what motivates us to wake up early every morning to go to jobs we don’t really care about, it’s what keeps us awake at night as we worry about having enough of it.
It is so dominating in fact, that I read an article recently that claimed a significant portion of younger people in this country associate George Washington first with being on the one dollar bill and only secondarily with being the first President of the United States.
I mean, for crying out loud, my three year old has a piggy bank in our house and he LOVES to put coins in it. What in the world is he going to do with 78 cents?
Money is at the heart of just about everything we do.
On any given week we will receive upwards of 40 calls here at the church from people in our local community who are looking for only one thing: money.
I’ve counseled couples who brought unfathomable amounts of debt into the marriage without telling the other person and now they are fighting about one thing: money.
I’ve prayed with more people than I can count who have racked up so much credit card debt that they have to start making decisions about what pills and doctors they can afford all because of one thing: money.
And then scripture has the gall to tell us that wisdom and knowledge are far greater than any measurement of wealth in this life.
Now, that’s not to say that money or wealth are inherently bad. However, the love of money really is at the root of evil and those to whom much is given, much will be expected. So, you know, be careful what you wish for.
Which makes the Biblical witness all the more interesting because Jesus has a whole lot to say about money and its almost always bad. Which is not at all how we talk about it today. Money and Finances and Economics are all things that dominate our daily living and they are, at the same time, all but absent in church. Sure, I might stand up here week after week asking for you to consider offering more of your wealth to church, but other than that, it’s almost like we pretend money doesn’t exist when we’re in this place.
This might sounds like we’re in an unprecedented place, but we’re not really. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that eventually led to a church like this, was deeply concerned with the theology of money and what it meant for Christians to consider economic gains.
The 18th century was a time of major economic and social change in England. The economic inequality between the comfortably wealthy and the poverty-stricken lower classes was growing larger and more tenuous. The well to do had nothing to worry about the poor had nothing but worries. The political class was dictating all of the rules and all of the power dynamics while the rest of the people were just worried about how they were going to make it to next week.
And then the very first Methodists started popping up with this crazy proclamation about God’s grace being sufficient to upend and reorient one’s life. John Wesley himself practiced a number of methodical disciplines (which is where the name Methodist came from) and he taught those who were economically desperate about what it would look like to become more responsible, better educated, and eventually prosperous.
And it worked, so much so that John Wesley inevitably had to preach a sermon specifically about money in order to help the people called Methodist figure out what it would mean to be a people who lived under the rule of God in a world ruled by money.
He said that the right use of money is an excellent branch of Christian wisdom. It grieved him that money was a subject talked about in the world all the time, but not discussed by those whom God had called.
And yet there are times we discuss money in church, but when we do it is almost under the auspices of another fundraiser, or helping the church meet her budget. However, for Wesley, this was not the case. His concern was not to raise more money for Methodists, but to equip the people called Methodists to manage and use their money in fruitful and effective ways.
Wesley broke it down as simply as a Proverb: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
If, Wesley said, if we can adopt a three-fold approach to money by gaining, saving, and giving we then will approach a Godly and faithful way of handling our finances.
Which is an ominous and precarious place to be in the middle of a sermon. I mean, when was the last time you heard a preacher talk about money by first saying that you, the people, need to gain all you can? Doesn’t that go against the parable of the man who gained and gained so much that he had to build extra store houses for all his grain only to have it all taken away from him in the middle of the night?
This is a three-fold call but you cannot have one without the others. Earning all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not saved. And saving all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not given. And giving it all will mean nothing if you haven’t earned anything to give in the first place.
In order to approach and adopt this kind of theological discipline, we need wisdom more than anything else.
And where does wisdom come from?
Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but Wisdom will, more often than not, show up when we least expect it in our daily lives. Wisdom appears in the busy streets, in the public squares, and in the bustling intersections. Wisdom arrives in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance. And, very rarely, wisdom can even come in a sermon.
As I look back on that moment in the earliest days of my ministry, when those pastors told me the greatest piece of advice was to save money, I am grateful for their witness as I started saving from my very first paycheck, but I’ve also thought a lot about what wisdom in the church really looks like. Sure, a good piece of Wesleyan wisdom is to earn all you can, and save all you can, and give all you can. But wisdom is about more than just what we do with our money!
Wisdom is knowing what really matters in this life. Wisdom is someone thirty years ago looking out on our community and saying, “I think we need to start a weekly Flea Market.”
Wisdom is taking stock of our own life and our own gifts and starting to consider how we might use those things to better the lives of other people.
Wisdom is knowing that despite what the cultural narrative tells us, we cannot lift ourselves by our bootstraps because we have all been blessed because someone else chose to help lift us up.
Wisdom is being able to look at the situations of our life and knowing when to stay and when to leave.
Wisdom is believing that no matter how many mistakes we make and how many sins we commit that God will never ever abandon us.
Wisdom, ultimately, is not something we arrive at on our own. Wisdom is a gift from God. Much like the gift of God’s Son. It comes to a people undeserving, in strange ways both seen and unseen. It can completely upend our lives in ways we care scarily imagine. But in the end, its the only thing that really makes a difference.
Wisdom, much like Jesus, is the only thing we really need. Amen.
Devotional – Psalm 85.9
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.
We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.
After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.
Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.
Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.