Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.
I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.
I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!
Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.
What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it.
Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”
Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace.
It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems.
God is perfect; we are not.
God is holy; we are not.
We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God.
And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including friendship in the workplace, peaceful situations, political welfare, grace, ecclesial architecture, joyful noises, spreadsheets, supplicatory prayers, memory, the main thing, faith, and word wrangling. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bloom Where You Are Planted
“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
My favorite theologian Karl Barth was known for saying, “Preachers ought to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” At least, that’s what people like to say that he said. When, in fact, what he actually said was, “Read your Bibles and read your newspapers, but interpret newspapers from your Bibles.”
Things happen in the world and the church responds by casting the light of the gospel on the events of the world. To gather in this place in this way week after week as if everything that happens out there doesn’t affect what we do here is a denial of reality. But, as Christians, we know that what we do here actually shapes how we behave out there.
And yet, the work of the church is risky business. It is risky business because violence has a way of making a mockery of words.
We say, “Never again,” and then it happens again.
We say, “This is not who we are,” even though it usually is exactly who we are.
We say, “The time has come for change,” but things often stay the same.
What then can we, or for that matter I, say in a time riddled with violence?
What does it say about us, as a people, that our moral leaders are not those who stand in pulpits, or even those who sit in a pew, but those who host late night talk shows and moderate debates on cable news networks?
Have we, the church, not something to say?
“See, I am coming soon” says the Lord, “I am the A and the Z, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
This Bible, the strange new world it opens up for us, gives life and life abundant when we have scripturally shaped imaginations and live accordingly in a world that scripture produces.
Week after week, year after year, we sit before the throne of the Lord and we read God’s words. The Bible is stained with the cost of God’s love. Though we have it here on the table without blemish, currently turned to the final page, it is very much a living witness to the confounding reality of God. We read these words over and over and over again because our lives depend on them.
I don’t know about you, but for me, this week, I needed desperately to cling to the promises of God in this book. This book that points to the living God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. I needed hope because things feel so very hopeless.
On Monday morning, sitting with my family at the table with our breakfast, my 6 year old son casually asked, “Dad, what were your lockdown drills like in school?”
And I said, “Buddy, we didn’t have lock down drills when I was in school.”
It’s not as if the world of my youth was better or safer than the world today, but something has changed. And not for the better.
The next day 19 children didn’t come home from school in Texas, and neither did 2 teachers.
Blessed are those who weep with those who weep and who mourn with those who mourn. Jesus says, “I am the root and the descent of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the church say, “Come.”
Why do we beckon for the Lord?
Because we need all the help we can get.
All is not as it should be.
Jesus is the A and the Z, and every letter in between. As the divine Word of God Jesus is present in our letters and our words and our speech. Jesus speaks when we no longer know what to say.
On Wednesday afternoon, Eric Anderson and I took chairs from our children’s Sunday school classrooms, and we placed them on the front lawn, just on the other side of those doors. We did so as a witness to the 19 children whose chairs are now empty at school, and to the 2 adults who no longer teach.
When I came back into the sanctuary, I looked over my shoulder at those empty chairs and I burst into tears. And I prayed for Jesus to come.
Come Lord Jesus, rend open our hardened hearts. Come Lord Jesus and guide us in the way of justice and truth. Come Lord Jesus and rectify our wrongs.
And yet, just as I, and even we, pray for Jesus to come, the Lord calls for us to gather at the altar. It’s why churches regardless of denominational affiliation or theological posturing have altars in their sanctuaries – it is a place of holiness where we can kneel before the Lord.
God beckons us to the altar so that we might be altered. We are invited not because we are good, or virtuous, or even right. We are brought before the throne of the Lord because we are not as we should be, and God has a habit of making something of our nothing.
Judgment comes first for the household of God, Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist as a shining star for the rest of the world to follow, we don’t scoff at the world in all of its trespasses. Instead, we exist to confess the condition of our condition, we gather to the the truth.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That’s our prayer before we receive communion. It it the recognition of who we are and why we so desperately need to put something holy into us that we might become who God is calling us to be. Because if that work is up to us alone, then it will never ever happen.
Confession is often used as another way to say repentance. Before we come to the altar, before we come to the throne, we confess or repent of our wrongs. But repentance is not simply feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty about what we’ve done or left undone.
Guilt and shame don’t produce change.
In fact, more often than not, guilt and shame usually lead to more guilt and more shame.
Change comes when we discover, oddly enough, that the God we expected to clobber us with guilt instead clobbers us with grace. God does not need to destroy us in order to deliver us. God’s love really is so powerful and so strange that it is the difference that makes all the difference.
Put another way: when we come to grips with the confounding nature of God’s love for people even like us, we can’t help but live differently.
Therefore, we don’t fall to our knees in order to get God to do something. We fall to our knees because God has already done the something we need.
Karl Barth once said that only Christians are sinners. That is: only those who know how much they are loved can ever understand how much they have betrayed that love.
In other words: it is only in the light of grace that we can become strong enough to admit that we can be wrong, and then try to take steps in a direction of discipleship.
Contrary to how it might feel, or even be said in church, God is not done with us. That’s why the psalmist can cry out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” The psalmist knows that our hearts are indeed, unclean. We need something done to us. And that something has a name: Jesus.
There’s this story from Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, about his experience in a Nazi death camp, and I can’t get it out of my head:
“One evening, when we were already resting not he floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister cloud glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey hud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”
When we do this, when we gather for worship, and meet at the altar, and sing these songs, and pray these prayers, its like the beauty of the sunset reflecting in the puddles of a hopeless gray death camp. God’s grace is a thing of immense and overwhelming beauty shining on a world of sin and pain and loss.
But what we do and what we experience here does not merely console us or offer us a brief reprieve from the world with the beauty of God’s grace. It also awakens within us a holy impatience, as Frederick Bauerschmidt puts it, a faithful sense of outrage, and awareness of how beautiful the world could be, but is not.
At least, not yet.
Grace isn’t expensive, nor is it cheap, grace is free. But discipleship comes with a cost. Following the Lord means considering how God in Christ knew the deep pain and brokenness of life, that we creatures are cruel and disappointing, that things don’t often work out quite the way we want them to. And yet our God does not stand aloof from human suffering while offering trite platitudes about the beyond. Instead, God comes to us, right down in the muck and mire of life, and says “Follow me.”
Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.
This is the end of the strange new world of the Bible. These are literally the end of words. All that needs to be said is said and scripture concludes with a call for the Lord to come!
Come Lord Jesus, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee!
Come Lord Jesus! Show us how beautiful the world could be if we were only willing to take steps into your kingdom rather than the kingdoms of our own making.
Come Lord Jesus! Fill us with the grace of holy impatience because something needs to change! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”
One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea.
Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.
But the stories? They’re pretty good.
Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things.
In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.
Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.
Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.
There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”
That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.
Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.
Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.
Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.
Stories are powerful things.
But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.
I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.
And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time.
Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode.
When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.
But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!
And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.
In short, we’d love to hear a good story.
But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.
Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.
Do we really need pontificating and preaching?
Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.
The strange new world of the Bible.
We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.
That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.
But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair.
Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.
Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?
That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine.
But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.
They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.
His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.
That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News.
And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.
Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.
Peter jumps right to the point.
“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”
That’s a sermon.
The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.
How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.
This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.
But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?
In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?
And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost.
This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.
It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.
And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.
When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.
It’s just grace.
It’s a story about what Jesus has done.
For us, and in spite of us.
Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news.
When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already.
When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.
The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy.
Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.
It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.
These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house.
They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world.
They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.
But what about the other Christians?
What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?
To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.
Which, of course, is absurd.
But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.
We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble.
And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.
Every verse in the Bible is important.
That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.
Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…
That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.
Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.
The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.
Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).
How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.
And it comes down to grammar.
Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize
God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.
The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.
But we don’t like this.
Not one bit.
So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.
I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night.
She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.
I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.
It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.
We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.
And that is exhausting.
For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him.
But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren.
And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.
God chooses nobodies to bless the world.
I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.
Or someone like you.
And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.
God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.
If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.
We can’t even keep our promises.
But God does.
That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.
Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.
But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.
It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.
He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.
He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.
That only led to more of the same in his life.
Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.
An invitation that felt like an invasion.
“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”
There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary.
He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this:
“Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.”
That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own.
Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 1.2-10, Psalm 85, Colossians 2.6-19, Luke 11.1-13). Wil serves as the pastor of First UMC in Murphy, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including praying in Greek, pastoring a football team, whores in church, unpacking scripture, idolatry in symbols, the one thing needful, weeds, death, erasing the record, and the prosperity gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Three Powerful Words
In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I am leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our first of three classes on Sunday and my plan was to give a brief overview of some important words and then jump into the few passages in scripture that deal with homosexuality. However, when I started detailing what the UMC’s Book of Discipline says and then defining the different parts of the LGBTQIA acronym, it became abundantly clear that we wouldn’t have time to even open our bibles.
It grieves me deeply that we (the church) often talks about great swaths of people with the most over-generalized terms, understandings, and words. I had wrongly assumed that I wouldn’t need to spend time defining anything when in fact the overwhelming majority of our time on Sunday was focused solely on definitions.
Problematically, for the UMC, when we talk about homosexuality we use that word as a catch-all for anyone who is part of the LGBTQIA community. And so, when the Book of Discipline says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Paragraph 161F) many churches take it a step further to declare the incompatibility of anyone within the LGBTQIA community.
And yet, the experience of a lesbian is inherently different than someone who is transgender or intersex or asexual.
Considering the amount of time that was necessary to unpack the language on Sunday, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience. Below you can find the paragraphs in the Book of Discipline that address human sexuality (though mostly just homosexuality), in addition to the standard definition for all the the parts of LGBTQIA.
The UMC’s current positions on human sexuality:
“We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all person are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage…” (Paragraph 161F)
“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and church not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay member and friends. We commit ourselves in be in ministry for and with all persons. (Paragraph 161F)
“Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (clergy expectations) (Paragraph 304)
“A bishop, clergy member, or a local pastor may be tried when charged with the following offense: practices declared by the UMC to be incompatible with Christian teaching, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.” (Paragraph 2702)
What’s the difference between Gender and Sex?
Gender is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity.
Sex is a MEDICALLY CONSTRUCTED categorization. Sex is often assigned based on the appearance of the genitalia either in ultrasound images or at birth.
L – Lesbian
A woman whose primary sexual and effectual orientation is toward people of the same gender.
G – Gay
A sexual and affectional orientation toward people of the same gender.
B – Bisexual
A person whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same and other genders, or towards people regardless of their gender.
T – Transgender
Adjective used most often as an umbrella term, and frequently abbreviated as “trans.” It describes a wide range of identities and experiences of people whose gender identity and/or expression differs from conventional expectations based on their assigned sex at birth. Not all trans people undergo medical transition. This term is also used for those who express a gender outside of the man/woman binary and/or having no gender or multiple genders.
Q – Queer OR Questioning
Historically queer has been used as a slur against people whose gender, expression, or sexuality do not conform to dominate expectations. However some have reclaimed the word and identify as such.
Questioning refers to the process of exploring one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation.
I – Intersex
Adjective used to describe the experience of NATURALLY developing primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society’s definition of male or female. It is an umbrella term that covers a lot of people. Many visibly intersex people are mutilated in infancy and early childhood by doctors to make the individual’s sex characteristics conform to what society’s idea of what normal bodies are supposed to look like. Intersex people are relatively common. Hermaphrodite is an outdated and inaccurate term used to described intersex people.
A – Asexual
A sexual orientation generally characterized by not feeling sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality. It is different from celibacy in that celibacy is an abstention from sex, whereas asexual can and do have sex they just do not feel sexual desires.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I’ve been doing some thinking, which is a dangerous thing these days…
Things are pretty messed up right now. People are lobbing destructive claims about other people in their communities simply because of the color of their skin or their political affiliation. Kids are afraid to go to school because of the violence they might experience. Great sums of people are making their way through life day after day without any hope of a better future.
We, as a people, are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion. We worship our bank accounts. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.
We, as a people, spend more money on national defense each and every year than we do on all of the programs of social uplift combined. This is surely a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.
We, as a people, perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of ever 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.
We, as a people, enable gross injustices each and every day: racial, economic, gendered, and social injustices. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
Something has to change.
How are you feeling right now having read those words? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are you clenching your fists in anger about the problems we have and are planning to go out and do something about them? Or are you clenching your fists in anger because you feel like I’ve criticized our country and culture?
Most of what I just wrote did not come from me, but from another preacher, one who was responsible for many of us not having to go to work yesterday: Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say that like what I wrote that he was murdered.
When we think about Dr. King or even when we learned about him in school, he is often white-washed and whittled down to the “I Have A Dream Speech.” But Dr. King’s life and witness was about a whole lot more than one quote, or one speech, or even one issue.
All of what we do as a church was handed down to us by those who came before us. The same was true for Dr. King. His life was a testament and witness to the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead which gave him the confidence to say and believe that God could make the impossible possible.
He, more than most, prayed for his words and his meditations to be worthy of the One who hung on the hard wood of the cross for people like us.
When we remember Dr. King, just as we remember Jesus, we celebrate their convictions and challenges, and we give thanks for their joy. But we must not forget the scars they bore for us!
Dr. King was repeatedly beaten and arrested and eventually murdered.
Jesus was berated, arrested, and eventually murdered.
One of the hardest prayers to pray is one that’s even harder to live out. Because if we really want our words and meditations to be acceptable in the sight of the Lord they might lead us toward the valley of the shadow of death. But what is resurrection if not a promise that death is not the end?
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
I am sitting in my office after being gone from the church since Christmas Eve. I flew to visit family in the midwest and did my best to find some recreation during my time away. But, of course, living in another’s person house, sleeping in a different bed, driving in different cars, it begins to take a toll on you. It’s as if the disorder from our normal order just gets under our skin and there isn’t much we can do about it.
And then, having avoided the news media for more than a week, I made the foolish decision to turn on the TV to find out what I had been missing!
Some things never change.
Which led me to one of my favorite books from Stanley Hauerwas: Prayers Plainly Spoken. The book is a collection of prayers written without the pretenses often found in prayers that are prayed on Sunday morning. And, over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to this ragtag collection when I am at a loss for words.
And this was the first prayer I read having returned to my office:
“Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Of course we get tired, bored, worn down by the stupidity that surrounds us. But then that stupid person does something, says something that is wonderful, funny, insightful. How we hate for that to happen. But, thank God, you have given us one another, ensuring we will never be able to get our lives in order. Order finally is no fun, and you are intent on forcing us to see the humor of your kingdom. I mean really, Lord, the Jews! But there you have it. You insist on being known through such a funny people. And now us – part of your joke on the world. Make us your laughter. Make us laugh, and in the laughter may the world be so enthralled by your entertaining presence that we lose the fear that fuels our violence. Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Amen.”
As Christians, the new year for us began 5 weeks ago, but I also find it fitting to think about entering the secular new year with a prayer for laughter. For what could be closer to the voice of God than the sound of laughter?