This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Easter Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including preparation, in-person worship, champagne, the already-but-not-yet, righteousness, the radical nature of belief, salvific hindsight, liturgical anxieties, Fleming Rutledge, and resurrected recognition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exhausted By Easter
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ tonight!
There’s just something about Christmas isn’t there?
No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas never fails to work some magic.
Maybe its the music, or the candles, or the knowledge of what tomorrow might bring – Christmas is the difference that makes the difference.
And here we are!
Albeit, not in the way we wanted and not in the way we would’ve imagined. We’re tuning in for Christmas worship this year unlike any other. Some of you were perhaps raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but sit behind your computer or phone or iPad tonight to hear what God has to say. While some of you were just scrolling through social media and decided to stop. Some of you, no doubt, are being forced to watch this against your will! Perhaps God will have something special in store for you tonight!
Whoever you are and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you have tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the incarnate Lord who makes his blessing flow far as the curse is found.
“Do not be afraid” the angel says, “For see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
That’s what Christmas really is.
Now, it might not feel strange, with all of our sanitized nativity scenes set up throughout our homes, and our lights hanging from the gutters for the last few weeks, and Nat King Cole’s voice crooning through our bluetooth speakers.
But Christmas is, for lack of a better word, different.
And we bring to this oddest of nights all sorts of thoughts and expectations. We assume that Christmas is the time that sets everything right. You know, Christmas is the time to come home, to return to those types of memories when all was warm and bright, when everything that’s come upside down in our lives is set, at least for a few days in December, right side up.
And this year, it feels like everything is wrong.
A global pandemic.
Gathering restrictions on how many people we can actually be with.
And so, we believe, that Christmas stands as this beacon where, in spite of whatever confusion might be happening in world, tonight things are set right.
Yet, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Christmas was the time when everything was turned upside down.
Consider – It wasn’t about a perfect mother who had the right pregnancy reveal on Instagram and subsequent photos of the color-coordinated nursery and the cutest invitations to her catered baby shower. It was about Mary, an unwed mother-to-be, pregnant in an upside down and impossible way, forced by governing authorities to relocate to a city where there was no room for her, her finance, and the Logos momentarily waiting in her womb.
Consider – The message of the incarnation, the birth of the baby born King doesn’t come through the official state sanctioned media outlet, there’s no announcement in the Jerusalem Times, there’s not even a carefully crafted and endlessly retweeted tweet. It was delivered in a song sung by angels.
Consider – The Good News came not to the learned and the powerful, not to the president or the president elect, not to the movers and the shakers. It was shared first with a bunch of dirty shepherds working the night shift.
Consider – The Word made flesh wasn’t surrounded by the best medical team with a crew of doctors ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. He was placed in a feeding trough.
Christmas isn’t when everything was right – but it’s certainly when God started really turning things upside down. It’s when God shows up in the strangest and most vulnerable of ways to reconstitute the fabric of reality not to make it the way things used to be, but to set the cosmos on a course to how things can be.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s why you find yourself watching and listening tonight. Because your world might not be all that it could be. But, be warned. It is risky coming before the babe at Bethlehem, for God delights in grabbing the rug right under our feet, and when the Lord pulls, no one knows where we’ll wind up.
O come let us adore him, we sing. We come to the manger scene expecting to meet what we have already thought before we arrive. We come expecting, and perhaps hoping, for the fulfillment of our desires, the confirmation of all our prejudices and preconceived notions.
In some way, we want to know that Jesus is on our side, whatever that might mean.
But we are wrong.
For Jesus is like us but he is also totally unlike us. Jesus is the Lord made flesh.
Which makes our Christmases even stranger. We often present tonight as something spiritual or mystical. Or, on the other hand, we criticize others for making this time of year too materialistic.
But Christmas really is a reminder that Christianity is inherently materialistic. God becomes material in Jesus.
God becomes us.
Is God in Christ, then, the perfect, magnanimous, and serene figure often displayed in stained glass windows? Is he holier than thou, looking down upon us in our misery every chance he gets? Is he perennially shaking his head with regard to the disappointing efforts of human progressivism?
Or, is Jesus as Jesus is revealed in the strange new world of the Bible?
For the baby we worship tonight grows not to be very respectable at all – he breaks the sabbath, consorts with crooks and criminals, and he even insists on a public demonstration of protest by flipping over the tables in the temple.
He eats dinner with sinners. He shares wine with the last, least, lost, little, and on one memorable occasion, the recently dead.
He dies as a criminal. He becomes sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers.
And the angel says this is Good News.
What makes the Good News of Christ so good is the fact that everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ was born and for whom Christ died.
Contrary to how we’ve made it out in church, God isn’t born into the world to see if we are good little girls and boys, instead he comes to disturb the conventions by which we pretend to be good.
God isn’t born into the world to see if we are sorry for all of our sins, instead he already knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it because we’ all jump back in the sinning business just as soon as we apologize for it.
God isn’t born into the world to come and count up all of our mistakes, instead he lives, he dies, and he lives again all while throwing out the ledger against us forever.
In short, Christmas turns the world upside down forever because God in Christ comes only to forgive.
On no basis on our part.
Because we are far too gone, and up the creek without a paddle, to do much of anything for ourselves in the first place.
Christ is our only hope.
He, himself, is the Good News.
And in him the dawn of redeeming grace has arrived, the world turned upside down. Amen.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The day after the 2016 presidential election:
Thousands of angry citizens in California gather to protest against the election of Donald Trump. Though initially peaceful, the protest eventually turns violent as the crowds begin attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas is fired into the crowd, a chant starts to rise, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump!”
Meanwhile, a woman walks into a Wal-mart in the Midwest while wearing her religious hijab. She goes up and down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walks up, grabs her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab and says, “That would look a lot better around your neck! This is our country now!”
Meanwhile, a man is driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounds his car, pulls him from the vehicle, and drags him through the streets. They attack him because he has a Trump sticker on his bumper, and in the videos taken by on-lookers you can hear the young men shouting, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it!”
Meanwhile, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan form a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There are shouts of “go back to your country” and “we’re going to make America great again.”
Presidential elections tend to bring out the worst in us.
Or, to use Paul’s language, it’s times like these that we are reminded “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
Time after time, it seems this is our fate. We, that is Christians, are content to gather, whether online or in-person, with people of differing political persuasions so long as we never address those differences and then, after an election, we hope things will tone down and we can get back to living life.
And yet, as Christians, we are already living in the time after time. God in Christ made, and still makes, time for us and has quite literally changed time forever.
It’s just that sometimes we don’t act like its true.
Today Christians across the globe are gathering for All Saints. All Saints is a day set apart, a different time, in remembrance of the dead – it is an opportunity for the church to offer witness to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives.
It is a radical moment in terms of the liturgical calendar, rivaled only by the radical words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.
The so-called beatitudes have always been a source of comfort and hope for the people called church. Though, at times, we have inverted them to be descriptions of how we’re supposed to behave. We lift them up over the heads of dozing Christians and explain that if they want to join the community of saints, this is how you have to live.
But what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount, both in the beatitudes and in the descriptions of behavior following, like turning the other cheek and praying for one’s enemies, they don’t describe what “works.”
Seeking righteousness in a world full of self-righteousness, and praying for the person persecuting you, tends to lead to more self-righteousness and more harm.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t a to-do list to make the world a better place. Instead, it is a description of who God is.
The poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, they are blessed not because they’ve earned it or deserve it, but simply because it is God’s good pleasure to do so.
To put it simply, the idea behind this crazy thing called church is that we might worship the Lord as well as learn what it means to exist as a beatific community in exile where the mourning, the meek, and the merciful are blessed.
The people called church are in the world, but not of the world.
The people called church are constituted and bound not by political documents, but by the Lord of heaven and earth.
The people called church are a community that has learned that to live in a manner described by the Sermon on the Mount requires learning to trust others to help us live accordingly.
To put it even simpler terms: the object of Jesus’ words to the crowds that day, and to us today, is to create dependence – it is to force us to need one another.
But, most of us don’t want to need anyone else. We’ve been spoon fed a narrative of self-determination since birth and we can’t stand the idea of having to rely on others.
And this is why the beatitudes will never make sense to those outside the people called church. Jesus’ words are only intelligible, and therefore advisable, in light of the cross and the empty tomb.
Otherwise, they are garbage.
But in the church, we are reminded over and over again that we are dependent on one another and the Lord, and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can make it through this thing called life on our own.
The church is at her best when we can speak and hear the truth about the condition of our condition, that we are sinners in need of grace, that we are all in need of help and mercy, and that we all need one another far more than we think we do.
But that is not how we are used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we hear about it at all, it is usually a brief reflection about how there are merely suggestions for how we should live or they are only meant for the super faithful among us, the Mother Teresas and the Mister Rogerses.
In short, we’re told the Beatitudes describe the saints.
The challenge for us, unlike most sermons proclaimed and received today, is that we cannot divorce this message from the messenger. Because, unlike preachers today (myself included), Jesus did not just say these words about some group of people sometime in the future; he, in himself, is the inauguration of the new time.
Jesus is the Messiah of the beginning and the end. Through his death and resurrection he has made it possible for us to live according to these confounding words not by our own effort, but by the Spirit moving through us.
And, saints (that is: all disciples) are not those who are the super best Christians of all. Saints are simply those who have already died in baptism to be raised into a new life where the impossibility of Jesus’ words not only become possible, but become real.
Which is just another way of saying, we’re all in this crazy thing called church together.
Presidential elections may bring out the worst in us, but they also remind us of who we are: sinners in need of grace. Contrary to how the talking heads might want us to think, the world does not hinge on our elections. God has been God a whole lot longer than we’ve been picking and choosing leaders, and God will be God long after we cast our final votes.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is Lord – that means we believe that God is God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. And, pertinently, it means we believe God is calling us to live according the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which includes praying for our enemies.
Can you imagine? Christians praying for the people they disagree with?
Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow the Lord and it has been so absent during this election cycle, and the one before it, and the one before that one, and so on. Instead of praying for and loving our enemies, voters have been intimidated, people have been attacked, and families and churches have been divided.
And, perhaps we’d like to blame our politicians for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than those running, and selected, for office.
The problem is us.
Rather than seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve viewed each other through the names on our bumper stickers.
Rather than listening to and praying for those of different opinions, we’ve just shouted louder into the fray.
Rather than confessing Jesus as Lord and living accordingly, we’ve fallen prey to believing that what happens on Tuesday is more important than what happens on Sunday.
Our election of leaders will always pale in comparison to God’s election of us, precisely because we do not deserve it. We’ve been elected to salvation through Christ in spite of copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.
And Jesus calls us to a life of humility in which we pray for those whom we hate.
Jesus constitutes a people who are his body on earth to be for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, if we’re honest, we have no idea what we’re doing.
We don’t know how to be Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our Christian identities and political identities in tandem, and we do not know how to love the people we hate.
But we do know this: Jesus is Lord – and he won’t give up on us.
So today, in spite of the world spinning as it does with fightings and fears within and without, we give thanks to the Lord our God who makes a way where there is no way, who has created a new community of love in his only begotten Son, and who elected us to salvation. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Brian Johnson about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Deuteronomy 34.1-12, Psalm 90.1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Matthew 22.34-46). Brian serves at Haymarket Church in Haymarket, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio voices, the theology of Hamilton, seeing the Promised Land, Drive-In Worship, habits, poetic prose, modeling lament, Pauline distillation, combined commandments, and transfigured wholeness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Lunchables
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.
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.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
I did a funeral a while back for an older woman, and during the service people stood up to talk about how amazing she was how she always cared for everyone in her midst and how she was the paragon of virtue. We heard from grandchildren, co-workers, neighbors, it went on and on.
When the funeral was over, I mingled among the gathered people, offering condolences and so on until I met the recently dead woman’s caretaker. She was wearing scrubs, having already moved on to a new client and was only able to get away for the funeral. We chatted briefly exchanging pleasantries until she said, “You know what’s strange Preacher? Having to sit there and to listen to all these people talk about how perfect she was. Because she was the meanest woman I’ve ever met in my life. She treated me worse than dirt.”
I stood there silently stunned unsure of how to respond.
And then she said, “It’s a good thing we worship a God of forgiveness, right Preacher?”
I have a great sign in my office that says, “Live your life so that the Preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.”
I used to love how it would hang over the heads of those who came to confess yet another one of their sins. I hoped that it would convince them to shape up and start behaving accordingly without me having to say it.
But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve realized how strange of a theology the sign portrays. For, it implies that there are some people who have lived such good, and true, and virtuous lives that preachers don’t have to lie at their funerals.
But, that denies the real truth: Not a one of us is righteous, no, not one. We all fail to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths. We avoid doing things we know we should, and we do plenty of things we know we shouldn’t.
And yet, how often have we gone to a funeral to listen to someone like me, a preacher, wax lyrical about the now dead’s holy life when we all know that all of our lives are more complicated than that?
For, the real truth is that all of us are the ungodly, we are the ones for whom Christ died. And that’s good news, because it means not a one of us is outside the realm of God’s forgiveness.
Which is just another way of saying that the only way any of us make it to the Kingdom of Heaven is because we worship a King of forgiveness.
Thanks be to God.
The church has gone digital.
Frankly, it started a long time ago.
However, the recent wave of the COVID19 pandemic has forced churches across the world to adapt to the situation whether they wanted to or not.
When I first felt a call to ministry as a teenager in the early aughts, I told my pastor and he responded by telling me I would be preaching at the end of the month. He then gave me a few instructions (here’s the text, write 2,000 words, practice in front of a mirror, etc.) and the rest is history. One of the unanticipated benefits of being launched into ministry the way I was means that every sermon I’ve ever preached can be read online.
Literally through this blog.
As the years progressed I started making digital audio recordings of said sermons and now it’s not just a matter of reading the sermons online, but anyone anywhere can listen to them as well.
Therefore, to add the videocamera a few weeks ago to the typical Sunday morning experience wasn’t too much of a stretch.
It would seem, then, that going forward every sermon can be read, listened to, or watched online.
But, is it still church?
A good friend of mine, Alan Combs, recently started a new podcast called “Shelter In Place.” The idea behind the podcast is to reach out to a variety of people to discover how they are finding comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. I love the premise of it all and was thrilled to be invited on for a recent episode.
In it Alan, his friend Joey, and I talked about the challenges of doing ministry in the midst of the pandemic from live-streaming on Sunday mornings, to staying connected with church folk, to what kind of music we’ve been listening to.
If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the Shelter In Place podcast, you can do so here: Faith In The Time Of COVID
I miss worshipping in-person on Sundays.
I hope I never get used to standing in an empty sanctuary on Sunday morning while talking into my computer hoping it’s streaming clearly online. However, I recognize how important it is for all of us to maintain our distance at a time like this – lives, truly, are at stake.
Over the last few years I’ve been recording, editing, and producing a lectionary podcast in which, every week, I have a conversation about the assigned texts for Sunday morning in order to help get the creative juices flowing for preacher types and fill in the scriptural gaps for lay types. It’s been a joy to have so many conversations about God’s Word, and to hear from so many who listen about how it has helped them (re)engage with scripture.
And yet, over the last three years, I’ve come to discover something strange: A lot of us (and by “us” I mean Christians) have no idea why we do what we do as a church.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve grown up in the church and we can’t imagine it any other way, or we were told at some point and have forgotten, or we’ve never troubled ourselves to think about it, but there’s a lot we do that, without explanation, rings like a clanging cymbal – it might sound nice, but what’s the point?
This Sunday Christians across the globe will hear the story of the road to Emmaus. It is the assigned lectionary Gospel text, and it is a worthy one for the 3rd Sunday after Easter. Just like those two on the road so long ago, we’ve heard some incredible news but we’re not entirely sure what it all means. It can be one of the most powerful Sundays of the year in the sense that we get to journey with them and meet the risen Christ who speaks a word we all need to hear.
But even more than that, the story of the two on the road points to why we do one of the things we do as Christians – Worship.
Across the great spectrum of Christianity, we worship with a four-fold method: We gather, we proclaim, we respond, and then we are sent forth. And why do we do it that way?
Let’s take a look:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
The beginning of worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? It is when the live-stream finally get going? Does it begin with the first prayer?
Actually, worship begins before we tune in or even walk into the building (remember when we used to get together in-person for church???). God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while scarfing down our breakfast, while we’re waiting for the coffee to reheat in the microwave, and while we’re begging the kids to get dressed.
God continues to gather us while candles are lit, and throats are cleared, and the volume is adjusted.
Every little bit of our worship has a purpose, whether it’s the acolyte carrying in the flame at the beginning or the time of silence that marks a change in mood. Added together, those elements allow us to practice our faith.
Worship is, after all, a practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to hear and respond to the Word of God.
In most churches there is a hymn or some sort of musical setting during the Gathering. That sacred music resets our hearts and minds away from whatever it was we were doing to whatever it is that God is going to do with and for and to us.
Similarly, a time of prayer (whether silent or spoken aloud) continues this Gathering. The prayers that are offered are a sign of our devotion to the people we call church as well as a commitment to the greater community around us.
This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever.
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
After the two were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he then proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they still were unable to recognize who he really was.
The second part of regular worship is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, and we also do it because we believe God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our lives even today.
It is at this time that we read scripture aloud, another hymn may be sung, and then a sermon/homily is offered.
In many churches the scripture are picked accord to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary. The RCL contains a great assortments of scriptures over a three-year cycle and is designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture without being constrained by the choice of the preacher. We boldly proclaim the scriptures from the Bible with prayers and hopes that somehow of another God can and will speak through them to us.
The sermon itself is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted while others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to incarnate God’s Word, again, through the ways we respond and react to it.
This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited to him to stop and stay with them. And it was while they were at the table together that Jesus took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to the two. Only then did they recognize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road through the breaking of the bread and the giving of the cup that Christ became real for them.
The third part of worship is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays churches will do this work by joining together to affirm their faith with something like the Apostles’ Creed, presenting their tithes and offerings, and then gathering at the table for Communion. The holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done. We confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor. Ee are forgiven to share signs of peace with one another. And then we feast.
This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world week after week just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were opened in the meal they shared with Jesus.
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like – every time we gather for worship we are all catching glimpses of Jesus in our hymns, scriptures, sermons, sacraments, and even silences.
The two disciples were so moved by their experiences of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the scripture, and of responding with the bread and cup, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. Whenever we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, it’s as if we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it feels like with everyone in our lives.
The fourth and final part of worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While a final hymn or prayer is still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all we’ve seen and heard, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet.
This is how we are sent forth from worship, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what happened.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all.
Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.
We’re all going to die.
What a way to start a sermon!
Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”
That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.
Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”
But then it does.
Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”
And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”
In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.
But it’s not.
Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones.
It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.
Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.
Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.
Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.
Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.
The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.
And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”
They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.
And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.
The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”
Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.
“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”
This is strange stuff, even for the Bible.
The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.
God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.
God makes a way where there was no way.
And the bones live.
Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table.
Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.”
They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it.
Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.
God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!
I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.
When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.
But who did they belong to?
Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.
I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.
But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.
Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.
And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.
Basically, stories of sinners.
In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.
Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see.
Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.
The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.
And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead.
If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen.
Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
A few days before our church Trunk or Treat I received a message on Facebook from a stranger in the community requesting more details about the event. I briefly explained that the Trunk or Treat was the church’s way of offering an alternative to Halloween allowing kids to receive candy from decorated trunks in a well lit and safe parking lot. We wrote back and forth a little while until the messenger shared they had attended last year and were so moved by the experience. What I didn’t realize was that in asking for more details, what they really wanted to know was how they could provide a trunk this time around with the rest of the people from the church.
By the time we opened up the lot for kids from the neighborhood we had three additional trunks from people who had attended before but had no other connection to the church.
As I walked around throughout the Trunk or Treat, checking on the various volunteers and making sure everyone had enough candy, I was struck by the connections between what we were doing and the gift of God’s unending grace.
I know that this might sound strange, but handing out candy to a bunch of kids on a Sunday afternoon really is a lot like what we worship God for on Sunday morning. Because in just about every other part of our lives we expect some sort of reciprocity – if we do something for someone we expect something to be done for us in return. Grace, however, is completely the opposite. Grace is the unmerited and undeserved and free gift from God for no other reason that the fact that God wanted to give it.
None of our volunteers were waiting to see a child’s report card or church attendance statistics before handing them each a piece of candy. Likewise, there was no expectation that any of the children (or their parents for that matter) would be coming to church on Sunday because of what we were going. We were simply doing it because we could.
When the Trunk or Treat was wrapping up I made sure to thank the newcomers for their participation and I was surprised when they turned it around to thank me and thank the church for welcoming them! One of them said, “When I saw the joy on people’s faces last year when I brought my kids I knew right then and there that I wanted to get some of that in my life, so thanks for letting us join you.”
In the end, that’s precisely how grace works – it bubbles up from within us and starts to reach out and touch every part of our lives until it grabs hold of someone else’s life and it keeps going and going and going.