This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including podcast statistics, popular theologians, ashy repentance, feasting on the Word, constant communion, The Holy Mountain, faithful architecture, the manifestation of mercy, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Altar Is The Whirlwind
But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us.
I, along with a few other pastors, have been leading a weekly online Bible study throughout the Pandemic. Each Wednesday afternoon we’ve gone through a particular set of verses and made the whole thing available to our respective congregations while we cannot gather together in-person.
I’ve loved every minute of it.
Talking about scripture with others has always been something I’ve enjoyed (hence being the whole pastor thing) but getting to talk about scripture with other pastors is a strangely rare occurrence. For, more often than not, clergy are tasked with talking about scripture to their church communities rather than with those who similarly feel called to do so.
Every week I’ve learned something from the Bible that I didn’t know before. This has been partly due to the fact that the pastors participating represent different denominations and therefore theological trainings and experiences. And I know that I am a better pastor for it.
Yesterday, we were talking about Matthew 9-10 and Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples to go out to proclaim the Good News. And, in the midst of our conversation, we got a little bogged down in our reflections on this particular verse: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
We, the pastors, took turns reflecting theologically about the time and space aspect of the proclamation, the event that is Jesus Christ, and how we might come to grips with the transformation wrought in the person we call the Lord.
And, here’s what I offered: “Being a Christian is often nothing more than hearing God say, ‘I will not abandon you,’ over and over again until you realize it’s true.”
The kingdom of heaven who is the person of Jesus Christ has come near to dwell among us, regardless and in spite of our earnings and deservings. While we were sinners Christ died for us – not before nor after. Right smack dab in the middle of our biggest mistake, Jesus said, “Okay, I’m willing to die for that.”
That’s a really bewildering word. Sometimes we only need to hear it once and it changes everything forever. But for others, it takes a lifetime of hearing it Sunday after Sunday before we realize its true.
I have friends who, after being married for a little while, decided to adopt a child. They went through all the proper channels and eventually traveled to Guatemala where they met G who was 15 months old. They returned home with him and their lives were properly upended with all the responsibilities that come with parenting.
A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, my friends received a phone call from the lawyer who helped them find their son. The lawyer shared that there was a family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named A, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer wanted to know if my friend were interested in adopting another son.
However, the lawyer explained, this 5 year old was allegedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to be rid of him after all, and he didn’t speak any English.
My friends said yes.
Those two boys are now about to enter high school and make plans for life after high school, respectively. They are some of the most incredible young men I’ve ever had the privilege to call friends, and my life is better for them being in it.
But I know it wasn’t easy for my friends, their parents.
In the beginning, right after A arrived, they had to sleep with him in his bed for months, all in the hopes that he would understand that they wouldn’t abandon him. Night after night they would whisper in his ear “We’re not leaving,” and “We love you,” and “This is your home.” They believed in what they were do so that we would one day realize that no matter what he did, no matter har far he fell, there was nothing he could ever do that would separate their love for him.
It took a very long time, but for a five year old Guatemalan boy who had been passed from family to family, it was the only way for him to understand what their love, what love at all, looked like.
And that’s exactly what God’s love looks like for us.
It’s a reckless and confounding divine desire to remain steadfast even when we won’t.
It’s the forgiveness offered before an action is committed.
It is what we in the church call the Gospel.
Just like my friends cradling their son in their arms night after night, God will never let us go. And that is Good News.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
It was a particularly nice day outside so I decided to walk across the church lawn to the retirement home that was adjacent to the property. A number of my members would march with their walkers across the grass every Sunday for worship and I would try to swing by for random visits whenever I had the time. On this particular day I can remember the sounds of birds chirping in the trees as I turned toward the main entrance.
When I looked up I saw Polly, one of the oldest members of the church, standing out on her balcony on the third floor. She was tidying up the little space that she had, and I cherished the brief stolen moment I had seeing her without know that anyone could see her. But then it felt a little awkward to be staring at an older woman from the parking lot so I shouted out, “Hey Polly.”
I knew she could be hard of hearing so I cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted even louder, “Polly!”
To which she quickly looked up in the sky and said, “Yes Lord?”
I started laughing so hard in the parking lot that it took me a few moments to collect myself before going into the building to actually knock on her door. And when I did she answered with a flustered look on her face and she said, “Pastor Taylor, you’re never going to believe this… but I just heard God talking to me, and He sounded a lot like you!”
The psalmist describes the voice of the Lord like thunder with tremendous power that can even break cedar trees in half. I tend to imagine God’s voice sounding a lot like Maggie Smith’s voice from her portrayal of Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series, but it doesn’t carry with it quite the weight of the psalmist’s understanding. God’s voice is apparently powerful enough that it can shake the very foundations under our feet.
Today it is all too easy to read scripture or hear it read aloud in church on a Sunday morning and immediately think of someone else for whom those words were written:
“Judge not, lest ye be judged” and our minds jump to our remarkably frustrating relative and we think about how nice it would be if they would stop being so judgmental!
However, the strange and convicting truth of the gospel is that when God speaks, God speaks to me – to us – to you. Sometimes the voice of the Lord speaks great and comforting words into the midst of our fears. But there are other times, times we’d rather ignore, when the voice of the Lord calls us out of our sinfulness into lives of holiness.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2.1-17, Mark 7.24-37). Jason serves as the senior pastor of Annandale UMC, in Annandale VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dawgs, big buts, long car trips with your mother-in-law, new names, sowing injustice, being surrounded by God, gratitude for the Word, incompatibility, and Jesus’ sighs. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Original OG
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.
It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.
After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.
At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”
Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.
But that wasn’t the case with Frances.
Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.
But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?
When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.
1 Samuel 3.1
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.
I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.
We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.
Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.
Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.
We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.
If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.
Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.
Cokesbury Church celebrated its 58th anniversary on Sunday. For our Founder’s Day we had the choir singing and clapping, we were blessed by a sacred dancer, our children marched through the sanctuary singing happy birthday, each person in attendance was given a puzzle piece to add together in order to produce an image of the church, and we had one of our former members return to offer the sermon.
It was a strange a beautiful thing to witness a church reunion for which I am the newest part. While I am still learning about all of the traditions of the church, I had the opportunity to meet so many people on Sunday for whom Cokesbury is/was their home church for longer than I’ve been alive. Before the service started I was able to mill about and observe reunions between people who had gone far too long without seeing one another, and I overheard stories about the church from the past while also listening to hopes about the future.
All in all, it was a remarkable worship service and I count myself blessed for having played a small role in it.
When the service came to its conclusion, and I offered the benediction, I stood like I always do in the narthex and shook hands with people on their way to the social hall for our reception. The food was hot and ready by the time we finished and we could all smell the delicious feast awaiting us in the air.
While I was walking around and shaking hands a man walked up to introduce himself and I made some offhand comment about how he needed to stick around for the food otherwise I’d have to eat it all. In response he smiled, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Son, we just feasted on the Word and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full in my whole life. But I’ll see what I can do.”
We can feast on any number of things: food, experiences, even television shows (aka binge watching). But how often do we feast on the Word? The prophet Jeremiah knew that feasting on God’s Word would bring a delight unmatched at any church potluck or dinner function. Jeremiah knew that God’s Word would fill his heart in a way that no relationship ever could. Jeremiah knew that when the Lord called his name it would sound better than any music to have ever touched his ears.
We feast on God’s Word whenever we worship, whenever we pray, and whenever we read the bible. And though we might try to alleviate our hunger with a number of empty solutions, God’s Word will always be there to offer us true satisfaction.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
When I was growing up in the church I loved to ask questions. I thought the beauty of what we were doing as Christians was the fact that it was never a one-sided conversation; the moments following worship or bible studies when I had the freedom to wonder are still some of my fondest memories. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”
I remember in particular one meeting in a youth room filled with old soft couches that just consumed those who sat on/in them. We were going around the room sharing our experiences of prayer and what we got out of it. One of my friends made a comment about how important it was for his family to pray before every meal remembering that God had really blessed them. Another friend shyly admitted that the only time she ever prayed was at church or in youth group because she didn’t know how to pray by herself. But one of my friends sat on his own couch with his arms crossed around his chest in frustration. When it came time for him to share he said, “I don’t understand prayer. We’re told to ask God to help us, but I never hear God say anything back. We learn about all these stories in the bible when God speaks to the people, so why doesn’t God speak to us like that anymore?”
All the eyes in the room immediately darted to our leader in anticipation of his answer. He calmly smiled and said, “God spoke his truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speak in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”
That memory has stuck with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect prayer to be like a phone conversation with one of our friends, and then become immediately disappointed when God does not speak back. However, that leader was right: God spoke God’s fullest Word in Jesus Christ (as the incarnate Word). God can still speak to us today through our friends, or even in the still small silence, but God decisively speaks in our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.
So, instead of reading scripture like a collection of stories from long ago, can you imagine how life giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was speaking to us here and now? The beauty of the bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him speak in the present.
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.
Pre-marital counseling is the best. It is one of the few places where I am actually allowed to ask the questions I have racing in my head: What was your last fight about? How do you feel about your soon-to-be in-laws? Why do you deserve to marry each other? Similarly, it is one of the few places I feel comfortable being completely candid about the church’s role in marriage and how the covenant is not just between the couple, but it also incorporates the gathered body and the Lord.
At some point during the pre-marital counseling, I challenge each couple to go back to scripture and pick a passage that reflects their relationship for the wedding ceremony. My one caveat is that (unless they can demonstrate how necessarily important it is to them) they are not allowed to pick the part in 1st Corinthians about love being patient and kind, nor are they allowed to pick the part from Ephesians about wives being subject to their husbands. So it is with those few directions that couple have been forced to go back to their bibles and find something indicative of their relationship.
A few months ago I had the privilege of bringing together Chris and Chelsea Frumkin into the joy of marriage. I challenged them to pick their scripture and they quickly replied with Ephesians 3.16: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” This verse had a particularly special meaning to the couple, because Chris has Ephesians 3.16 etched into the inside of Chelsea’s engagement ring.
What a dynamic and perfect scripture for a wedding ceremony! When we stood together before their family, friends, and the Lord I made mention of the fact that their relationship had led to such a beautiful wedding precisely because they had prayed for one another. As a couple they were not content with the status quo. Instead, they consistently went to the Lord to discover renewed strength in their relationship.
The longer I spend time in ministry, the more I realize that scripture no longer holds the great value that it once did. Instead of a people defined by the Word of the Lord, many of us are content with knowing a handful of verses that make us smile, or would be worthy of a print that we could hang on our wall or Facebook page.
As we prepare to take steps into a new week, let us reflect on the great gift that scripture is for us: What stories from the bible have shaped who we are? Is reading the bible a priority in our lives, or a last resort? If we had to pick a verse that defined our character, what would it be and why?
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
“Taylor,” he began, “I have been attending worship at United Methodists churches nearly every Sunday since I was a child and I have never heard anyone preach on the texts you chose this month.” We were sitting in the church social hall after worship yesterday afternoon when a member of our church made it known that he was still learning something new and church and growing in his discipleship. Georgeanna Driver, one of our members who passed away last week, made a similar comment two weeks ago about not knowing that story (Elisha and the she-bears) was even in the bible. It has been exciting and thrilling over the last three weeks to challenge peoples’ perspective on what the Word of the Lord can still speak into our lives today, even stories we might otherwise choose to ignore.
When I was at Duke for seminary our Dean, Dr. Richard Hays, reminded us that the responsibility of the Christian is to be constantly transformed by the renewing of our minds. Etched in the marble archway leading into the chapel, Romans 12.2 is a relevant reminder for students of God’s Word but even more so for the people who have been called to follow Christ. In today’s world/society it is too easy to remain complacent with our understanding of faith and overreact when a new person/idea challenges our faith. In stark contrast Jesus was regularly pushing his disciples into new territory with understandings about the kingdom of God.
What we do as Christians is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us. We gather on Sunday’s to hear the Word of the Lord and then live it out in the world. Worship is that time that helps in the transformation and renewal of our minds so that we may discern God’s will for our lives, rather than be conformed to the ways of the world.
Outside of worship we can be transformed through the reading of scripture. Try opening your Bible to a book or a chapter you’ve never read (or haven’t read in a long time), read a set number of verses, and then pray over them. Ask yourself: what might God be saying to me through these words today?
The Word of God is alive and speaking anew everyday, we need only the faith to hear it and live it out.