In The Know

Philippians 3.4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

A young man was singular in his focus – He wanted nothing more than to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He woke up every morning for years to exercise, he maintained a perfect Grade Point Average, and he wrote letters to his political representatives asking for their endorsements for the Air Force Academy.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he went for his annual physical as a senior in high school he learned that he was colorblind which meant his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were gone. Forever.

A man worked tirelessly for years starting as a dishwasher and eventually made his way up through the restaurant ladder. He did all of this with the hope and dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He saved every single penny he could, crafted the perfect business plan, and finally, after years of hard work, received the bank loan he would need to make his dream come true. 

And, all was well until it wasn’t. When he finally got the new restaurant ready to open, the grand opening happened to fall on the same day that the Governor required all restaurants to close because of the Coronavirus and within a few week his line of credit was gone and the restaurant was forced to close before it ever opened.

A woman lived for her family. She brought her children to church every week, sat with them night after night helping with homework, and was even happy to be a listening ear to her ever-complaining husband. She did all of the right things and was the envy of all her peers.

And, all was well until it wasn’t. In spite of her living for others, putting their needs in front of her own, her husband still ran off with his secretary leaving her, and their children, behind.

The truth of the matter is, sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off.

Life is not nearly as simple as we would like it to be, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no guarantee that we can make our wishes come true.

Paul continues his letter to the church in Philippi from behind bars with a reference to those who might offer counter-interpretations to the Gospel as he had delivered it. Like we still do today, he rolls out his resume that those reading might know who they should really trust.

Look,” he writes, “If you should be listening to anyone, it should be me! Check this: I have more reason to be confident than any of these false teachers you may of encountered. I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I’m a member of the people Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of Hebrews – I’ve never given into the temptation to assimilate to the ways of the others around me. I kept the faith of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob. And even more than that, I was Pharasiac in my observance of the Law doing all of the right things and avoiding all of the wrongs. But wait, there’s more! I persecuted the church! I made sure they knew they were wrong while the rest of us were right. I was completely and totally blameless under the Law!

Notably, of Paul laundry list of qualifications, the majority were given to Paul at birth. That is: none of them were achieved by personal effort nor could they be taken away. They are marks of prestige that came simply because Paul was born in the right place to the right people.

He was born, we might say, with a religious silver spoon in his mouth.

But then he comes to the Law – A Pharisee. This, unlike all the previous qualifications, was not something given to him at birth but rather something he chose and worked tirelessly toward. Being a Pharisee meant observing all of the commandments, it required unending commitment, and it was all about maintaining purity by staying away from anything deemed unclean.

And still, Paul has more to add: A persecutor of the church. Not only did Paul separate himself from all the bad in the world, he attempted to eradicate uncleanness whenever he found it, particularly in the early gathering of people called the church.

As a Pharisee, as someone under the weight of the Law, Paul undoubtedly would’ve looked on the idea of a crucified Messiah as an unspeakable offense, something remarkable scandalous. So much so, that it provoked him to launch a campaign of terror in hopes of rooting out the would-be followers of the one who died on the cross. 

And then comes the cherry on top – Blameless under the law. This, for Paul, was more important than anything else. All that he had done, all the rules and dietary restrictions and zealous violence, was done in the name of righteousness, of cleanliness, of religiosity.

“But,” and this is a very big but, Paul says, “whatever gains I had I count as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Paul’s world was completely upended by God in Christ.

Everything he thought he knew about what was right and true and good and beautiful was turned on its head because of the one on the cross.

Perhaps it was an instantaneous and miraculous deliverance wrought on the road to Damascus, or maybe it took Paul years of re-education to learn the truth, but nothing would ever be the same.

In Christ, Paul discovered that righteousness through ritual observance, or moral purity, don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God. 

For, Jesus, as God in the flesh, delighted in eating and drinking and having fun with sinners. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, regularly and routinely went to be with the people Paul only saw as unclean. 

Jesus, as God in the flesh, mounted the hard wood of the cross to take away the sins of the world, the very sins Paul was using to judge who was in and who was out.

Paul, with his entire religious resume, was bombarded with a delightful truth: every alternation means to perfection, or salvation, or righteousness crumbles because, on our own, we can’t save ourselves. 

Now, on the other side, only one thing matters to Paul – knowing Jesus Christ.

This is a truth that some of us come to discover whether we want to or not. Because all of our righteousness, all of our good works, don’t lead to much of anything in the end. If we could fix ourselves and the world, if we could right all of the wrongs, we would’ve done it a long long time ago. 

However, as it stands, we’re still stuck in the land of the dead.

And yet, that where Jesus does his best work.

The Good News of the Gospel, spoken to us today through the apostle Paul, is that no matter how hard to we try to rework ourselves, no matter how worried we are about getting into heaven because of our choices, and our commitments, and our convictions, we are saved and already home free before we had a chance to get started.

Or, to put it another way, God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ will always and forever be greater than our own.

And knowing Jesus Christ, him crucified and resurrected, is the name of the game. To confess Jesus as Lord is to know God in all of God’s humility, coming to dwell among us, to die because of us, and to rise for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is discovering that all other means to salvation, whether explicitly biblical or not, pale in comparison to what God has already done for us. 

Knowing Jesus Christ is resting in the Good News, the best news, that grace is not expensive, its not even cheap, its free. 

Paul, writing to the early church, reminds those who want to follow Jesus that we all fall prey to the temptation to see one another through our efforts and our failures. That, when left to our own devices, we delight in measuring the worth of others through outward signs of religiosity, spiritual disciplines, and moral observances.

For, that’s exactly what Paul’s life was all about until Jesus showed up. He relied on the Law to show him what was right and wrong, and therefore who was worthy and unworthy. 

It’s akin to how, today, we determine everything we think we need to know about someone else by the kind of job they have, or the car they drive, or by the name of a political candidate stretching across a bumper sticker on the aforementioned automobile.

What Paul was unable to see, that is until Christ blinded him and gave him new vision, was that, under the Law, all of us are unworthy, all of us are in need of help, all of us are sinners in the hands of God.

And, AND, that no matter how hard we try on our own, all of our effort will be like sinking sand when compared with the actual condition of our condition. Our righteousness cannot make up for our sinfulness.

Paul, then, writes to the Philippians because he nows lives in a world constituted by grace and not by works. He encourages them to rest in and rely on Christ’s faithfulness because that’s the only thing they really need to do. All the outward signs of sanctimonious piety don’t mean much when the Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world.

Notice: the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or the select few who manage to accuse a CV as detailed and glowing as Paul’s.

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

The Cross is God’s great and forever declaration that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus which, because he died for the sins of the world, includes each and every single one of us.

In another letter, to another church, Paul reminds the people of God that the Law exists to accuse us, to demonstrate to us what we’re really like until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and liberates us from the curse of sin without a single condition attached.

Or, to put it another way, there are no “ifs” in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus, while hanging on the cross, did not demand improvement.

Jesus, while hanging out in the tomb, doesn’t wait to break free until we all get out acts together.

Jesus, while hanging out by the right hand of the Father, doesn’t guilt trip us into more moral obligations in order to get a ticket into the Supper of the Lamb.

Instead Jesus lives, dies, and is resurrected in order to rectify and redeem the world, including us, in spite of us.

And the best news of all, Paul reminds us, that even if we continue to rebel, even if we do everything in our power to keep making a mess of things, Jesus Christ has already made us his own!

No mistake, no sin, no disappointment, no failure, and no rebellion can hold a candle to the love of God in Jesus Christ that draws us home and refuses to let us go.

So, maybe you’ve got reason to be confident in the flesh, perhaps you’ve done all the right things at all the right times in all the right places. But all of that is rubbish in the end. The Lamb of God has already taken away the sins of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Grace Is For Losers

Matthew 21.28-32

What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second son and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. 

What do you all think?

There’s this guy with two kids and there’s yard work to be done. So he wrangles them out of bed and says to the first, “Hey, grab a rake and start working on the leaves.” The kid pulls the covers over his head and says, “No way Dad.” But later he changes his mind, and goes outside to rake up the leaves.

The father also tells his second kid to get out on the lawn and the kid responded with a, “Yessir” but as soon as he got outside, he got on his bike and spent the day riding through the neighborhood.

So, which of the kids did what the father wanted?

The first who, though the call of the bed seemed so strong, actually went and raked leaves?

Or the second who, though he said he would do it, actually spent the day doing whatever he wanted?

Truly I tell you, the people begging on street corners, the economy stealing stockbrokers, the pregnant teenagers, and the squanderers of inheritance are all going into the kingdom God ahead of you.

Ahead of us.

What must we do to be saved?

It’s an interesting question, particularly for those of us habituated in a world of meritocracy. 

Do we have to be baptized? 

Is there a certain percentage of Sundays that we have to be engaged in worship? 

What amount of money demonstrates a salvific commitment to Kingdom of God? 

How many wrongs do we have to right to wind up in the right place, in the end?

That question, for some, lingers above most of what we do whether its a truly theological reflection, or we’re merely thinking about how good we have to be in any given moment.

And, in some places/churches, the question is answered with a list of things to do and a list of things to avoid.

Preachers may or may not speak about it explicitly, but it definitely shows up in preaching and teaching and also on our individual Facebook statuses and our trite little tweets – we implicitly affirm a whole host of expectations.

I’ve said it before, but the church has become a version of the next best self-help program where people like me say to people like you, “Hey, the mystery of the Kingdom isn’t nearly as mysterious as we make it out to be, and if you want to be part of it, there’s some things you all need to start working on.

“Now, you might want to write all this down, because it’s important: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, and STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

And, at first glance, this brief little parable about who actually does the work of the father seems to support a view in which we have work to do.

God in Christ has given us commandments and, well, we better follow them accordingly.

Doing, then, is the end all and be all of a life lived in Christ.

But, what if that’s actually wrong?

And by wrong, I mean dead wrong.

Notice – Jesus tells his story, dangling it out for the scribes and Pharisees and us, and then he ends with a reference to the salvation of tax collectors and prostitutes. And, by doing so, Jesus seems to be saying that salvation comes not because these disreputable characters suddenly become respectable and law-abiding and even good, but simply because they believe.

Salvation, according to Jesus here in his little aside, comes only by belief, by faith, by trusting in someone else to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own.

But, that’s exactly the problem because it all sounds too easy – it sounds too simple.

Is Jesus telling us that anyone can just stroll through the pearly gates just for having a little faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed? They don’t have to do anything else? They don’t have to right all the wrongs and only make good choices and be perfect all the time?

That sounds a little unfair doesn’t it? I mean, what about all of us who have worked so hard, and done all the right things, and followed all of the important rules?

Everybody getting in gratis feels so wrong – it runs counter to everything the world runs on.

Which, in the end, is exactly what makes it right.

No matter how much we talk about grace in the church, and no matter how much we sing about it in our hymns, we don’t really like it. It’s too… free. It lets squandering sons and delinquent daughters get into the Kingdom for nothing, all while disregarding the good people. 

You know, people like us. People who drove to a church parking lot on a Sunday afternoon.

So, we continue to offer words of encouragement about how much God loves everyone and forgives everyone, but then, for some reason, we make it good and clear that the aforementioned everyone have to clean up their act before God will do all the loving and forgiving.

We do this because we want to make it abundantly clear that church is for good people, and the world is for bad people.

Which only goes to show that we, sadly, have more in common with the Scribes and the Pharisees and than we do with those who are getting into the kingdom first. 

We’ve confused the Good News of Jesus Christ for the bad news of works-righteousness.

We’ve failed to see the how offensive the Gospel is, because we’ve tricked ourselves into believing in ourselves rather than believing in Jesus.

The problem with grace is that it doesn’t sell – it doesn’t give us a list of things to do to fix all of the disappointments we feel here and now. It’s not a Peloton that promises to slim our waistline, it’s not a mindfulness technique that guarantees to lower our anxiety, it’s not a book that insures we will feel happier on the other side. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, and no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus.

The world of winners, people like us, will invest in myriads of moral absolutes, and truck loads of self-improvement seminars, and heaping baskets of do-goodery. 

But the world of winners, people like us, refuses to opt-in for free forgiveness because that threatens to bring in all of the disreputable types.

Thankfully, however, the Holy Spirit has a knack of reminding us, all of us, that we’re all unworthy, that we’re all up the creek without a paddle, that we’re all in need of some saving.

And we can’t save ourselves.

God’s plan of salvation is that we trust Jesus. That’s it. God has already forgiven us, God has already reconciled us, God has already raised us up with Jesus. And, to make it even better, God has thrown away the ledger against us forever.

Our sins were nailed to the cross and God left them there.

If we want to keep believing the kingdom works on works, that there’s something we have to do to get what God is offering, we can absolutely believe that. But that’s not the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. 

In the end, we are saved by grace for free. We do nothing and we deserve nothing. It is all one huge and hilarious gift. Thanks be to God.

Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

The Sower Reconsidered

Matthew 13.18-23

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. 

And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”

He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.

If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.

If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.

If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.

If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.

Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.

It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.

But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.

More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.

And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.

That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.

Do we like that?

When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.

But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.

And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.

It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.

The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.

But, back to the Sower.

The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all. 

No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.

And that’s scandalous.

Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.

What about bad people?

What about people who don’t believe?

What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?

Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.

Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again. 

Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?

Nope.

Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning? 

A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.

Like Jesus buried in the tomb.

It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.

Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.

And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”

Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything. 

Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.

Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.

But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?

They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying. 

The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.

Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!

The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.

We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives. 

You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!

You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!

You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!

If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News. 

If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.

Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be. 

Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do. 

And that’s the best news of all.

It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go. 

We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.

Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.

Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.

The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.

In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.

Jesus gets what Jesus wants.

The only problem occurs when we get in his way.

And we sure love to get in His way.

Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”

But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.

You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.

Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.

That’s getting in the way of Jesus.

Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.

Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”

Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.

We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own. 

We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.

We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen. 

Uncomfortable

Matthew 13.1-13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable

Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.

Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.

Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.

Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are. 

Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable. 

Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables. 

And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story. 

We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.

If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.

But they did.

We did.

Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”

But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.

Instead, he tells stories.

That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.

In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.

Including us.

Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.

And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.

It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”

Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads. 

It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”

“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”

And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”

His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”

There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated. 

We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.

We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.

But, that’s not what Jesus does. 

Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him. 

He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.

Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”

Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week. 

For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.

There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race. 

On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations. 

The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.

For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.

The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.

Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”

Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.

“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”

“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”

“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”

But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”

The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.

A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”

So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes. 

The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.

Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren. 

Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.

Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible. 

And that work is uncomfortable. 

We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us. 

It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.

Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf. 

We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.

In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears! 

And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway. 

And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.

On Personal Pandemic Improvements

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but there has been no shortage of people claiming this is the perfect time to fashion ourselves into the the best versions we can muster. From learning how to bake sourdough bread, to losing those ten extra pounds we put on at Thanksgiving, to learning a new language – now is the moment to seize the day! 

And yet, as Christians, we know better than most that telling someone to change rarely, if ever, works. 

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One of my favorite theological writers, Robert Farrar Capon, puts it like this:

I do not seriously expect that you would never be angry just because I lectured you about your temper. We have far less power than we think to revolutionize our behavior. The real saints among us are not, as we commonly suppose, those who have conquered their vices, but those who have not allowed vice to blunt their critical appreciation of virtue. They may go on sinning, but they don’t stop confessing. Therefore, you do not need me to urge a modest reform upon you: all reforms, as you know perfectly well, turn out automatically to be more modest than anything else. What you need is a call to immodest repentance, so that when you sin, you will at least sin boldly, honoring the law with an honest breach rather than fiddling with it until it isn’t a law.” RFC, Party Spirit

Rather than becoming the best version of ourselves, now is the time to rest in the knowledge that God loves us as we are. Which, to be clear, is astounding! That’s the best news we can ever offer anyone because it sets us free from the expectations of the world and the expectations we place on ourselves. The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t so hard after all.

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Wake Up!

Romans 13.11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Oh the times they are a-changin’ 

Words immortalized by the great Bob Dylan, conveying a sentiment we all know all too well. Time, by definition, is always in a state of flux. And no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve experienced, we seem to agree that we all want more of it. Time that is.

It can be said that those of us here today live under the oppressive tyranny of time. It hovers over us in every moment, reminding us how much more we still have to do as a nearly silent clicking in our minds forces us to realize that we are running out of time. Today the demands on our time are overwhelming – homes have to accommodate for multiple work schedules, children have to balance manifold school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities are scheduled with no end in sight, doctors appointments are made months in advance with the hope we’ll actually be able to be seen on time, on and on and on. 

In our family we tried to make it work with a physical and central calendar upon which we could keep in all together, but it quickly lost its ability to keep us in line and in time. Now, we rely heavily on a digital calendar on our phones that syncs up automatically so we know who is doing what when. 

Advent-2017

And then we add the Advent season on top of all of that. Advent, for many of us, is the break-neck race between Thanksgiving and Christmas in which we have to (re)decorate the house, find all the perfect presents (and find time to wrap them), get the kids to the Christmas concert practice, actually go to the Christmas concert, coordinate schedules with in-laws about who is coming and when, and then make it to the Advent services on Sunday morning all while making it appear that we are not overwhelmed by everything else in our lives.

And then we can even add how our rapid fire sense of communication has really ramped up over the last decade such that we can communicate with anyone, at anytime, instantaneously. It has left us feeling like we should be, or have to be, connected with one another 24-7 and we measure our successes based on the number of likes on a photo or the number of retweets on a quippy line we thought up while zoning out on Tryptophan at the Thanksgiving table.

This was made very apparent to me this last week when I checked in on a particular church member to ask how they were doing and they responded by saying, “Well, as you know, we’ve been really overwhelmed since returning from vacation.” To which I kindly remarked, “Oh, where did you go?” And instead of just telling me where they went, they said, “Didn’t you see the pictures we posted on Facebook?”

Oh the times they are a-changin’.

And it is here, while completely overwhelmed by our lack of time, that Paul shows up to say, “You know what time it is.”

Do we?

I’m not sure that I do. For, I too fall prey to the nagging sensation that life is just ticking by and I’m always behind. I grow frustrated behind the red lights of traffic lamenting the things I won’t be able to get done at home. I sigh as my son drags his feet while making his way, late, to bed. And I tap my toes behind families and individuals at the grocery store as they fumble around in the wallets to pay for their items so that the rest of us can do the same.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself resenting time and the lack of it.

And Paul thinks we know what time it is?

Of course, for Paul, the time he speaks of is not the tyrannical ruler so many of us experience today. Time, for Paul, is not the fear of getting everything done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Time, for Paul, is nothing less that the transformation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Did you notice the qualifier he puts into the sentence? You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure we like the tone Paul has for us. I mean, who does he think he is telling us to wake up? Doesn’t he know how hard we try, how much effort we put to this crazy thing called life? You would think that he’d maybe have a little more respect for us than to tell us to wake up.

But, we do need to wake up. All of us. 

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

And not just to wake up out of the craziness the world has told us to experience this time of year, though we should wake up from that, but to wake up from the lie we’ve fed ourselves about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. 

Paul, here, hits us over the head, as is often the case, with the fact that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead, and his returning in the future, have overturned ALL previous perspectives placed on human life in the world.

He has this great line that we often gloss over far too quickly: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. For many of us, that moment of becoming believers came with a catch – if we believe this, then God will do this. Or if we lay aside our sins, then God will give us eternal life as our everlasting reward. Or if we promise to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then God will love us back.

But there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

A few days ago I was speaking with an acquaintance about his experience of church. Years ago he had felt the call of God on his life to plant a new church and did so using the tools of the trade that were passed onto him – basically that people need to understand how bad they’ve been in order to change and to get God to love them.

And for awhile, it worked. This church planter was able to find people near the rock-bottom of their lives and convince them to turn around so that God could finally make something of their nothing. Years passed and the church plateaued with those early converts beginning to revert back to lifestyles of their prior selves.

Until one day when the church planter gathered down by the local river with a few new disciples. He was baptizing them one by one in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then the town drunk showed up.

It was a small enough town that everyone knew he was the town drunk, and there in front of God and a whole bunch of witnesses, the drunk walked knee-deep into the river and asked the pastor to baptize him.

The pastor said, “Bill, are you ready to give up the bottle and give your life to Jesus?”

He thought for a moment, and with whiskey on his breath he said, “I don’t think I can Pastor.”

And then the pastor turned him away. 

In the days that followed, the pastor received congratulatory affirmations from his congregation. His email inbox filled up with messages about how much his people respected him for standing up for holiness. People waited in line on Sunday morning to express their gratitude for the example he was setting in the community. 

Meanwhile the pastor felt ashamed. 

He denied the means of grace to a man who was seeking it on the basis of a moral absolute. He refused the gift of God to a man unless he was willing to prove how committed he was to the cause. He believed that only the man’s improvement would warrant the baptism made possible in the person of Jesus Christ.

And the pastor felt ashamed because he couldn’t get a line out of his head, a line from the lips of Jesus, “I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

In many ways the world tells us over and over again that we have to do something to earn something. But grace is different. In fact, it could not be more different. God shows up and says, I’m giving this to precisely because you haven’t and you’re never going to deserve it!

It was that realization that led the church planter to leave the church and start over – he had grown weary with making people feel weary for not being enough. The moralisms and calls to perfection were resulting in even greater examples of self-righteousness, all while people like the town drunk were being turned away from the grace of God!

We know what time it is – time for us to wake up! It’s not going to be easy, but we all have to kick the addiction we’ve grown far too comfortable with – and not necessarily the addictions we might be thinking about. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to flush all of our religion and morality pills down the toilet, we’ve got to pour out our bottles of self-righteousness and judgment. Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than our finger-wagging and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is exactly our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place!

Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. It is on this side of discovering God’s unending love and grace for us, in spite of our deservings and earnings, that we can start to live differently. Our desires to be better, even though they might ultimately fail, only ever come as a response to what God has done and never as a prerequisite. 

That’s why Paul can call upon us to live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. He can do so not because doing so warrants God’s love, but because God’s love is such that we can’t be what we once were.

All the while remembering that even if we are quarreling or jealous or drunk or licentious, it will never remove what God has already made possible, for us, in Jesus.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of Christians. Our time has been changed. And it might seem strange to start on such a strange note, but it might be the note we need the most. That we need it is indicated by the ways in which we are struggling to keep our necks above water under the tyranny of time, or the temptations to compare ourselves and our worth based on our perceived notions of other people and their worth. 

Instead, Paul points us to something different. We’ve trapped ourselves in a nightmare of our own making, and its time to wake up, to force ourselves to destroy the systems and expectations that drive us away from one another instead of toward each other. The time has come, as he puts it, to put on the Lord Jesus, to remember our baptisms, and ultimately to remember who we are and whose we are. 

There is no hope in us. If it were all up to us, we all would fail. Thanks be to God then that our hope doesn’t have to be put in us. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 96.9

Psalm 96.9

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

Weekly Devotional Image

When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.

This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.

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However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.

Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.

Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

Ehud-and-Eglon (1)

Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

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When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

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Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Confronting Conflict – Sermon on Isaiah 6.1-8

Isaiah 6.1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Then seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

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Tell me about your last fight.” So began one of my recent premarital counseling sessions. The couple danced around the question for a few moments, claiming they couldn’t remember the last time they had a fight, but when I started to ask more specific questions the answers started pouring out. Their conflict could be boiled down to a lack of communication, and when I sat there with them I saw them begin to share things with one another for the very first time. Before we went on, I couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why haven’t you talked about this stuff before?”

The woman sat in my office with her head hung low. It took her a few minutes to muster the courage to begin telling her story, and when she started it came out like the floodgates were opening. She felt invisible to her husband, no matter what she did, he would brush it off and continue to focus on the task before him. She was afraid that she had done something wrong and didn’t know where else to turn so she came to me. We talked together about her situation, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “Why hasn’t she told her husband how he makes her feel?

We were sitting on the edge of a property in West Virginia after nearly a week on our mission trip. The young boy was from a different church, but I could tell something had sent him over the edge. His tears fell slowly and deliberately as he confided in me about his struggles. He could not longer stand being treated like an infant or a child. He had important ideas and things to share but everyone brushed him aside instead of treating him with worth. Rather than being supported in his discipled journey, he felt like he was all alone and he was worried. I listened, but I also knew that when the end of the trip arrived he would be going home to a different community and a different church so I asked, “Is there someone from home that you can share all of this with?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m afraid.

In each of your bulletins you will find a piece of paper about the size of an index card and I would like you to hold it in your hand. We’re going to have some time for silence, and during that time I want everyone to write down the name of one person that you are currently in conflict with.

Maybe your mother-in-law has been driving you crazy with her relentless need to tell you how to raise your family. Perhaps your boss continues to heed your advice, but then takes all the credit when things go right. Maybe your son has made some poor choices and you can’t remember the last time you had a decent conversation about anything. Perhaps one of your best friends is letting their backwards political opinions isolate them from what it means to be a decent human being. Maybe your pastor has been preaching all sorts of sermons that you definitely do not agree with.

So take a moment, and write down a name. No one will see it but you. When you’ve finished, I want you to hold the card in your hand for the rest of the sermon.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. God encountered the soon-to-be prophet in the midst of something important. Uzziah was an arrogant ruler, and his arrogance led to his death. Even though his reign brought economic prosperity, he neglected to respect the temple and the worship of God. It was at this particular time, in the wake of Uzziah’s death that Isaiah was called to speak.

The call is frightening. The Lord is high and lofty with the hem of his robe filling up the entirety of the temple. Seraphs, winged creatures, were flying above the Lord, each with six wings. One of them called out to another and declared, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Everything around Isaiah began to shake and tremble and the room filled with smoke. Only then does Isaiah muster up the courage to say anything at all, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Isaiah was confronted with the utter and radical holiness of the Lord. With wind spinning, floors shaking, and voices trembling, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. Have you ever felt unworthy when confronted by something greater than yourself?

When I saw my wife Lindsey walking down the aisle at my home church to meet me at the altar for the covenant of marriage, I felt completely unworthy. When I held Archer and Abram Pattie in my arms above the baptismal font and brought them into the fold of God’s kingdom, I felt completely unworthy. Every month when I serve communion here at the front of the church, I am met with eyes of Christians who have lived far more faithfully than I ever will, and I feel completely unworthy.

God’s majesty, whether through the beauty of creation, a call vision, or the people in our lives often leaves us feeling pretty feeble. When we discover the divine we can only feel that much more mortal. When we encounter the infinite, we are reminded of our finitude. When we meet the living God, we can’t help but wonder about the lives that he gave to us.

God’s call is frightening. God calls the young and old, men and women, to abandon their former and sinful ways to live fully in Christ. God called a young prophet to speak harsh truths to a community that had grown far too complacent. God continues to call all of his children to be prophetic with our words and our actions.

The call is frightening and scary enough. But when we respond, when we answer the call, the real trouble begins.

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Then one of the seraphs flying high above the Lord came down to Isaiah with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with the burning coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah was dramatically changed through his encounter. The flaming coal not only cleansed him, but it also gave the him the power to speak on behalf of the Lord. In a matter of moments he went from crying out, “Woe is me! I am lost” to “Here am I; send me!

This whole story about Isaiah’s call is a lot like what we do in worship. We come together to praise the almighty God, we pray and confess our unworthiness, and then seek forgiveness. We pray for God to give us the grace and strength to hear the Word with faith so that we can respond accordingly.

How we worship matters because it shapes us into the disciples we are called to be. Every Sunday is like Isaiah’s call. We meet the Lord in the words from scriptures, prayers, hymns, and our brothers and sisters. Through that encounter we are called to live out our faith as soon as we depart in a way that will make God’s kingdom reign. All of these things that we do on a weekly basis, they are done to attune us to the voice of God who speaks into our lives.

Isaiah’s call, this dramatic and overpowering moment in the temple, reminds us that when we encounter the living God, there is not way to know God without being changed. Like a coal coming from the altar to our lips, we are tasked with speaking words like fire. Like a frightened prophet we are given the power to cry out “Here am I; send me!

The prophet was called to speak during a particular time, to sinners in the midst of sin. If we hear something from God’s Word today it should be a similar call. We should not be afraid to names the sins of our time, just as Isaiah did when he confronted the people’s political arrogance, spiritual pride, and economic injustice.

Abraham had to confront the Lord who promised to make his descendants more numerous than the stars. Jacob had to confront his twin brother Esau who sought to kill him for stealing his blessing. David had to confront King Saul who was jealous of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah had to confront a people who neglected to thank God for being the source of all their blessings. Jesus had to confront a religious elite who no longer practiced what they preached. Peter had to confront the gentiles and welcome them into the fold of the church. Paul had to confront his own sinfulness and call others to do the same.

Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront the conflict in their lives. To be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love. To be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong. To follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

What situation are you in right now that God is calling you to confront? I believe the holy Lord of hosts is personally addressing each and every one of us in the scripture today. Who do we need to call out? Where are the conflicts in our lives?

In each of our hands we have a name that represents a conflict in our life. Some of them can be confronted with a phone call or a conversation. Some of them can be confronted with our willingness to forgive a wrong that was done toward us. Some of them can be confronted with the simplest of gestures.

It might not go well. If we take the first step to confront one of our conflicts, it might blow up in our faces. But the longer we let these names stay on paper, the longer the conflict will keep us from fully living out our identities as disciples. The longer we let the conflict simmer, the longer we will be people of unclean lips living amidst unclean lips. The longer the conflicts remain, the harder it will be to hear the living God speaking into our lives.

The voice of the Lord is saying to all of us, “Whom shall we send, who will go for us to confront the conflict?” Our answer should be the same as Isaiah’s, “Here am I, send me!” Amen.

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