How Can We Know The Way?

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.

During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.

Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.

It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing. 

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen

John 12.32

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.

But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.

Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”

Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith. 

For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.

God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting. 

Nine members of the church were killed.

The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.

He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”

So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.

A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”

So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.

There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.

And we wept.

And then we prayed some more.

How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today. 

Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.

So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.

We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices. 

And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church. 

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.

This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.

What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.

Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may.

And perhaps we must. Amen. 

Story Time

Nehemiah 8.5-6

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Most weeks we find leftover detritus in the pews after worship. There’s the occasional candy wrapper, a handful of loose change, and (my favorite) children’s drawings. The drawings are usually confined to the margins of various pieces of paper like offering envelopes or prayer cards and whenever I encounter one I am hit with waves of nostalgia.

There’s no telling how many bulletins I covered with Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and comic book heroes over the years. 

But, at some point, either from pressure applied by my parents or the wandering gaze of other church members, I gave up my artistic Sunday morning pursuits and I attempted to be a good Sunday morning worshiper. I said all the right prayers, sang all the right hymns, I stood up and sat back down just like everyone else. And yet, there were plenty of Sundays when the sermon could not hold my attention and I needed something to do.

So I did the only thing I could do: I reached in front of me, grabbed a pew Bible, and I started reading.

This is my confession: I fell in love with the Bible not because of some gifted homiletician, or from a remarkably profound experience of Vacation Bible School, but because I read the good book Sunday after Sunday while worship was happening around me. 

There’s this moment in the Old Testament when the priest Ezra pulls the holy scriptures up and the gathered people rise in reverence and then fall to their knees in prayer. Their love for the Word is palpable from the pages of the Bible precisely because they understood it to be the remarkable thing that it is. 

And yet, today, I’m not sure how we feel about the holy scriptures.

It doesn’t help that we often use it like a bludgeon against those with whom we disagree.

It doesn’t help that the words within it get cherry-picked to make whatever argument we want to make.

It doesn’t help that the Bible can leave us scratching our heads more than wanting to stand up in reverence or pull us down in prayer.

But perhaps we can reclaim a love for the scriptures when we start to see them as the strange new world that God has made for us. Or, to put it another way, maybe it would help if we stopped reading it as if it’s an instruction manual of religious behavior and instead we started watching it like a movie.

You can’t understand a movie, or say anything about it really, until you’ve consumed the thing as a whole. The Bible is the same. It is not meant to be taken apart in these little discrete segments – it is meant to be seen, appreciated, and understood as an entire proclamation. 

When you start to see the Bible like a movie you start to appreciate how all the separate parts might be entertaining or enlightening but in terms of their meaning, you cannot know what it is until the end. Each story/chapter/verse seems like it’s going somewhere, but only when you see Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave, all the sudden you start to understand what’s behind everything!

So the next time you’re in church on a Sunday morning, or watching the livestream from the comfort of your couch, and you grow bored with the preacher up in the pulpit, reach for your Bible and enter the strange new world that God has made for you. 

It might just change your life. 

Baptism By Fire

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including unquenchable fires, stereotypes, perfect worship, formation, divine declarations, gear grinding, the voice of the Lord, the open Kingdom, baptismal difference, Phillip Cary, ill-advised liturgies, and righteous clothing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Baptism By Fire

Redeeming Grace

Titus 2.11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. 

There’s a better than good chance that all of us here have heard the story before. We all know that the holy family was turned away by a greedy innkeeper, that Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angles.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t even in the Bible; we’re still ready to remember it that way. Just a few hours ago the children of this church even acted the whole thing out with pipe cleaner halos, cotton ball covered sheep, and plastic shepherd staffs.

You have to be careful giving a long stick to a 5 year old, you never know when they’ll flip it around and turn it into a light saber and cut you in half.

A few years ago, when I was serving a different church, we had one of our wisemen decide to take a nap on the chancel steps halfway through the service and he didn’t wake up until the end and he was surrounded by a bunch of people holding up candles and singing a song.

I promise there was nothing silent about that night.

Or, like this afternoon, when one of our angels came up to the chancel area, she adored the baby Jesus so much, that she decided to pick him up and rock him back and forth while the wisemen were busy following the star across the sanctuary.

Her precious parents motioned for her to put the baby Jesus back in the hay but she, I kid you not, smiled at them like an angel, and kept on rocking.

It warms our hearts to return to this story, it’s part of the trimmings and the trappings of this season. We can recall in our minds Christmases past when we’ve encountered this story in a variety of ways. And yet, if you spend even a short amount of time in the strange new world of other Bible, you can’t help but notice that all of the sentimentality is missing.

Which, of course, runs completely counter to how we want this to go. We want the cute little baby cooing up at his parents, we want him glowing preternaturally as if he’s the one keeping everyone else warm, we even want the wisemen making silly noises and faces at the baby born king. 

In short, we want sentimentality.

Why? Sentimentality rises when we are in denial of reality. It is our way of coping with an unbelievable world. It’s why Hallmark and Lifetime make a killing this time of year with their never-ending and confounding Christmas stories that all follow the exact same pattern. 

We can turn them on, and disappear for 90 minutes, while everything else is crumbling around us. 

But Christmas, the real Christmas, begins in the dark. It is not a denial of how bad things are, it is a proclamation that though things are bad, God has arrived to do something about it!

“What child is this?” That might be the best beginning to any hymn we’ve got in the hymnal, because that question is our question. All we do as a church, particularly on Christmas Eve, is our attempt at answering the question. And we get lots of answer.

The child is the dawn of redeeming grace, the child is light from light eternal, the child is the Savior, the child is Lord at thy birth.

Translation: the child is God!

But if Kurt Vonnegut is right, and people come to church not to hear preachments but to day-dream about God, then the question still lingers: Who is this God we worship?

In church circles there are these two major competing images for the Lord.

Among some, God is like a mother-in-law who shows up for Christmas dinner with nothing but judgments and expectations: I thought you were going to actually do something with your life! Why aren’t we using the family china? 

God then becomes the arbiter of bad news for bad people. We cower in fear of the One whose expectations we will never meet. We hide in shame from the One born for us. We struggle under the weight of guilt that we are never enough.

But there’s another image of God among church types.

God is like an uncle who shows up for Christmas dinner with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And when he sees us moping around he slams his fist on the table, sending the roast beast flying, and shouts, “Why all the long faces?! Have you not heard the Good News! Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all! Let’s celebrate!”

Christmas, despite its various trimmings and trappings, is a party, it is a celebration, it is the foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb to which we are invited without earning it or deserving it. 

It is the divine laughter that goes on ad infinitum. 

And this party hosted by One who turns water into wine, who drags in people off the street, who slaughters the fatted calf for the wayward child, this party isn’t in preparation -it’s not off in some distant place during some different time.

It’s here! Right now! It’s in our kitchens and in our living rooms, it’s in the aisles and the grocery store and out on the ball field.

Christmas is who we are.

It is from Christmas that our lives are ordered and re-ordered. Christmas makes intelligible all of the illegible wanderings of our days and of our nights.

Christmas is the proclamation of the great Good News that God is here! We are redeemed. No matter what we’ve done or left undone, it is no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

If Christmas says anything, it says that God comes to us!

Years ago, during one of my first Christmas Eve services as a pastor, I stood outside the doors to the sanctuary welcoming the last stragglers before the service started. And the final car pulled into the lot just as the organist started playing the first hymn.

I had a choice – either get the show on the road, or let the service start without me in order to greet the one lost sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eyes growing wider and wider as the pastor did not walk down the center aisle, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled along with the help of cane and a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and started to make a break for the front, but he grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down, and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”

It seems like, no matter how hard we try, the world just keep drowning in bad news. Just turn on the news at night, or doom scroll through Twitter for five minutes, and it seems like we have no hope at all.

Thanks be to God, then, that the hope of the world is born for us.

So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God lives with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

God is Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.

Do not be afraid; 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. Merry Christmas.

Christmas Clothes

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [C] (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the means of grace, clergy vestments, living the faith, motherhood, praise, worship music, creation imagery, Tolkien and the Ents, the Daily Office, parenting the Lord, Good News, and the Ascension in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Clothes

On The Road (Again)

Luke 24.13-24

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 of 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 the 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 are 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 woman had said; but they did not see him.” 

I haven’t been here all that long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because some of us having been coming to church for so long that we know longer know why we do what we do, or we are new enough that we just assume this is what we do without knowing why we do it.

And yet, everything we do, and I mean everything, has a purpose.

Throughout the month of October we’re going to look at some of the different things we do as disciples and we’re going to talk about why we do them. Today we begin with why we worship the way we do.

For the last 2,000 years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century and the time of the Acts of the Apostles, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to contemporary gymnasiums with folding chairs, to the comfort of our couches via the internet, worship is what we do as Christians.

Worship follows a liturgy. Liturgy comes from the Latin Liturgia which means “work of the people” and it is the work we do when we worship. You might not know it but our liturgy has four distinct parts regardless of whether we’re in the contemporary or traditional service: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth

These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specially connected with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So today, we’re breaking up the sermon into four little mini sermonettes in order to see the connections between the strange new world of the Bible and our world today.

Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, the disciples responded by breaking bread and sharing a cup during which their eyes were opened to the presence of God, and then the disciples were sent out to proclaim what they saw and heard.

So, we begin at the beginning – Gathering. 

But, when does our worship actually start? Is it when the candles are finally lit? Is it when I step up to make an announcements? Is it when the live-stream starts?

Worship, believe it or not, begins long before we even enter the building. God is actively and intimately involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in our thoughts while we’re making our way to church, in our conversations in the parking lot, and even in the silence as we sit in the pews before the first note it played and before the first word is offered.

And, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we bring our experiences and our thoughts and even our anxieties to church. They are not meant to be left outside of our doors! They are very much a part of how we worship because speaks into our experience. That is: church is not some reprieve from the greater world even though it can be – church gives us the vocabulary to understand the greater world around us.

God then continues to gather us as the candles are lit. The light here is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, the light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and our discipleship. 

Similarly, the music in our time of gathering centers us and proclaims, literally, that we have entered something different, in space and in time, than what we were doing before. The melodies and the words and even our movement are part of how God encounters us and gathers us for this work.

Because worship is work. Or, perhaps better put, worship is a habit. We do it over and over and over again to retune our minds and tone our bodies in order to be God’s people in the world. 

This is how God gather us every week, just like God in Christ gathered the disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

Luke 24.25-27

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 Jesus gathered the disciples on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on and on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. And yet, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, sharing words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks to us and our experiences today.

Our scriptures, more often than not, come to us on Sunday morning from something called the Revised Common Lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings for every Sunday on the liturgical calendar and actually unites our local churches with all sorts of other churches – there is a very good chance that what we proclaim from the Bible on any given Sunday is also what is being read in other churches both locally and globally. 

We boldly read and proclaim God’s holy scriptures in the knowledge that God will someone speak through them to us about who we are and whose we are.

However, the sermon, unlike everything else in our liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, some are sad and pensive, and some are bold and demanding, but they are always determined by the scriptures to which they point.

Karl Barth put it this way: the one thing preachers must do in preaching is open the eyes of their churches to the treasure of scripture that is spread before us, and then gather those treasures and pass them on to the congregation. 

In other words, preachers dare to speak about God. And God, bewilderingly, chooses to speak to us through preaching. 

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. So, let’s hear what God has to say to us today…

Sermon: A one-sentence sermon – God meets us on the roads of life, proclaims the Good News through likely and unlikely places, is revealed when we eat at the table, and sends us to the share Good News to all who will hear it. Amen. 

Luke 24.28-32

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 day 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, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. And, while they gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. And then, and only then, were their eyes opened to the Truth in their midst. It was only in responding to the words on the road, in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, were they able to recognize how their hearts had burned within them.

The third part of our liturgy is Responding. We do this on any given Sunday by offering our tithes and our gifts back to God, we listen to an anthem or a particularly moving song, we pray and consider how we might continue to respond to what God is saying, but the fullest and most faithful way we respond is by sharing the same meal that Jesus shared with the disciples on the road.

The holy meal is worthy of its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that when we share the bread and when we share the cup – that’s what being a Christian is all about. Through the power of the Spirit we are connected in the meal to all who have come before us, and we are connected to all who will feast long after we’re gone. It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which all of us are beckoned in our deaths, and it is where we are consumed by that which we consume. 

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by offering ourselves and feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the disciples from the road. So, let’s respond to the Lord…

Luke 24.33-35

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 who sat at the table with the Lord when the fullness of the moment was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what that was like for, whenever we gather to feast, we experience the same. 

In worship our eyes are opened to the power and presence of Jesus in our midst.

The disciples were so moved bye their experiences of being gathering on the road and of hearing Jesus proclaim the scriptures, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard.

When we are confronted and met by the power and glory of God in worship, we can’t help but go forth to share the good news with all who will hear it.

Each week we “end” our worship with a benediction and a song but our worship doesn’t really end – instead we take what happened here with us into the world as people who live and speak the praise of God.

This is how we are sent forth week after week, just like the disciples who ran to tell their friends what they saw and heard. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world…

A Place At The Table

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandoned the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defiled. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It’s rather strange how God does so many ungodly things. 

One would think, and perhaps hope, that God in the flesh would know better than to erase the sins held against us, that the incarnate Word would choose to spend time among more respectable persons, that the Holy One of Israel would follow the rules.

And yet, listen: The Pharisees and the scribes, that is: the good religious folk, those who tithed and showed up for worship and prayed their prayers, noticed that Jesus’s disciples were eating their food with defiled hands. 

Now, the washing of hands wasn’t about hygiene – it was about pious and sacred preparation and separation – it demonstrated who was in and who was out. At the end of the day it was a public demonstration about who was living properly and who wasn’t. 

So the good religious people say, “What’s the deal JC? You can’t really be the Messiah it your people aren’t following the rules!”

These Pharisees have it all together, mind you. They know their scriptures backwards and forwards, they always show up early when the fellowship hall needs some new paint, they never let the offering plate pass by without dropping something in. They want to know how Jesus, the so-called Anointed One, could get away with such irreligious behavior.

How does Jesus respond?

“Y’all are a bunch of hypocrites! You’ve let your religion become a stumbling block to those in the faith – these rules and expectations don’t make people holy and they certainly don’t make life any better, they only go to show that you think you’re better than everyone else!”

And then Jesus motions for all of the crowds to come closer because he wants everyone to hear:

“Listen up! It is not what goes into us that defiles us. It doesn’t matter what we eat and with whom. What does matter is what comes out of us. The heart is a fickle thing and leads to all sorts of suffering. Evil comes from within, and those things are what defile a person.”

It’s as if Jesus is imagining the great banquet table of the Kingdom of God, but there are only place setting for those who think they’re the best of the best and then Jesus mic drops: “There’s a place at the table for everyone but your self-righteousness keeps getting in the way.”

Contrary to how we often talk about it, and even how we live it out, Christianity isn’t a religion – if it is anything it is the declaration of the end of religion. Religion consists of all the things human beings have ever thought we have to do to get right with God. Christianity tells us that God in Christ does what we could never do in order to reconcile the world to himself.

Or, as Martin Luther memorably put it, “The law says, ‘do this.’ And it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

We, the church, don’t exist to wag our fingers at every little sin and indiscretion, we are not here to proclaim the Bad News that God will only think kindly upon us after we have fixed all of our mistakes.

Instead, the church exists to announce the Good News, the very best news, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

Christianity isn’t an arbitrary set of rules to be followed.

Christianity is an adventure in which we are always on the journey of discovering the Love that refuses to let us go.

And yet, what does that adventure ultimately lead to?

If we’re serious about transforming the world, it’s in our mission statement after all, then it has to start somewhere. Of course there is sin and evil in our corporations and in our institutions. But there’s also sin and evil in us. And its those sins that Jesus seems to be talking about with the Pharisees.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” And they asked for readers to submit answers to the question. Hundreds and thousands of people replied with all sorts of responses. GK Chesterton, essayist and theologian, responded with only two words: “I am.”

We are what’s wrong with the world.

Why? Because we are consumed with our own self-interests, because we create communities in which some are in and some are out, because we knowingly and unknowingly contribute to systems that force people to the margins, on and on and on.

How can we fix what’s wrong within us?

Well, the truth is, we can’t. But there is someone who can, and does. His name is Jesus.

Jesus shows up on the scene, eating with outcasts, healing the undeserving, preaching the Good News to those who are drowning in bad news – he offers glimpses of a future not yet seen.

And while some people love it, others hate it.

Jesus warns the crowds, and us, about not becoming obsessed with the external at the expense of the internal. Remember: this is the same guy who tells us to stop looking at the splinter in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in our own, this is the same guy who insists on dining with the wrong people, this is the same guy who, at some point, showed up in your life and my life and said nothing more than, “Follow me.”

It’s easy to point out all the problems with other people – it’s hard to look in the mirror.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, scripture says.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten that.

Basically, it doesn’t do us any good to lament the brokenness of the world if we are unwilling to confront the brokenness that’s right here in our hearts.

The Pharisees don’t like the idea of Jesus’ disciples not following the rules and so they confront the Messiah. Jesus’ rebuke of their hardheartedness, as much as it might make us smirk with religious smugness, it creates a tension for those of us who want to follow the Lord.

The tension is between the commands of God and human traditions. What is the core essence of our faith? What do we have to do to be faithful? How do we know what is what?

The church has always existed in this strange middle space, between the already but the not yet, between what the strange new world of the Bible says, and what it means to live according to those words, or better yet, the Word, today.

And maybe the tension is a good thing – it allows us to wrestle with what we’re being called to do.

There’s a reason we bristle at over-confidence in life, whether its in regard to scripture or not. Total certainty just rubs us the wrong way. There’s a fine line between confidence and self-righteousness.

Bishop Will Willimon, a teacher and friend of mine, was once asked by a newspaper about how he felt regarding LGBTQIA inclusion in the church. His response: I firmly stand by Jesus’ teachings regarding the LGBTQ community.

And, the next day, the front page of the newspaper, right at the top in big bold letters, it said, “Rev. Dr. Will Willimon affirms Jesus’ traditional teaching regarding homosexual persons.”

A small uproar ensued.

And here’s why: After they read his quote, people went looking in their Bibles to see what Jesus had to say about the LGBTQIA community and, lo and behold, he didn’t say anything.

Hmm.

And yet, Jesus does say that if our eye should cause us to sin, we should tear them out and, last I checked, we don’t have any one-eyed members of our congregation.

What, then, are we called to do?

*Ladder Demonstration*

In our little denominational corner of the world we have something we call the quadrilateral. It was developed by a man named Albert Outler who, having read through all of John Wesley’s works, posited that we have four primary modes by which we can theologically interpret what it happening and what we can do.

Those four quadrants are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. 

Scripture says the faithful can’t eat shellfish, and there are moments within the Tradition of the church that it was somewhat prohibited, the Reason was mostly likely to identify who was among the people of Israel and who wasn’t, and my Experience tells me that shrimp tacos are really delicious so… maybe I’ll eat shrimp tacos?

The quadrilateral is, admittedly, a helpful hermeneutical tool. It gives us the means by which we can interpret how to be in the world.

And yet, it is wildly problematic at the same time.

Our Experience is fiercely unreliable, because every person’s experience of the world is different. Some of the most horrific things to happen in history have been attributed to Reason. The Tradition of the church is just as varied as our own individual experiences. And even Scripture contradicts itself all over the place.

The life of faith is always a pilgrimage, a journey, that requires humility. The adventure that is called faith encourages us to let go of the total certainty we think we have over the strange new world of the Bible because it is, in fact, always strange and always new. And yet, it is our world!

When we see faith that way, not as something to be mastered but instead as something to respond to, we will be far more likely to love one another rather than attack one another.

Despite a motto of open hearts, open minds, and open doors, the church has put a whole lot of energy into keeping certain people out rather than doing the hard work of looking inward as to why we keep wanting to draw lines in the sand.

In other words, we haven’t changed all that much over the last two thousands years. We still let petty squabbles get the better of us, we are far too inclined to drop people from our lives the moment they don’t fit into the boxes of our own creation, and the Good News really just sounds like bad news. 

There is something wrong with us – we keep hurting ourselves and one another all while God is in the business of reconciliation and resurrection.

It’s really ungodly of God to keep setting the table for all of us, but that’s exactly who God is! The consummate host at the Supper of Lamb to which we are all invited even though none of us deserve it!

In the end, if anything in the Bible disagrees with Jesus, then we listen to Jesus. You have heard it was said, but I say to you… I’ve come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law… I am the way, the truth, and the life…

Think about the Transfiguration – Moses and Elijah, all of the Law and all of the Prophets, are standing to Jesus’ left and right, and what does God say? “This is my Son. Listen to him!”

And that’s exactly what we do when we come to worship. We listen to Jesus. All of this – our prayers, our songs, our silence, our sacraments, our sermons, they are all part of the work God is doing to us and with us.

In other words: There can be no transformation of the world without a revolution of the heart. So be it. Amen. 

What’s Right With The Church?

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing you praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be in Zion. O Love God of hosts, hear my prayers; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the dace of your anointed. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. 

What’s right with the church?

That’s what it said at the top of a word document on my laptop this week while I was working on this very sermon in a coffee shop.

The flashing cursor mocked me with every passing second as I sought to answer my own question: What’s right with the church?

Because, of course, all I could think about was what’s wrong with the church.

It’s archaic, it doesn’t meet my needs, it’s not relevant, it’s full of hypocrites. 

Or so I’ve been told.

There’s this statistic that haunts me, and I shared it with this congregation on my first Sunday – The average person in a Methodist Church invites someone else to worship once every 38 years. Now, there are plenty of reasons why that’s the case. It’s not easy inviting someone to church, it can feel uncomfortable, we don’t want others to think we’re making assumptions about them. But I think it’s also uncomfortable because we’ve become consumed by what’s wrong even though we, who are here right now, are the very people who go to church.

Anyway, I was sitting in the coffee shop, staring at my non-existent sermon, when I overheard behind me the beginnings of a conversation about, of all things, what’s wrong with the church!

Now, I tried to be a good person, a good Christian, and mind my own business, but they were talking about my business so I made it my business to hear more about their business.

Here’s the first thing I heard: “Can you believe he had the nerve to say something like that, from the pulpit? And he calls himself a preacher!”

Friends, I prayed it that moment, “Lord, please don’t let them be mine!”

And, thanks be to God, when I looked over my shoulder I didn’t recognize them.

So I tried to refocus, get back to the sermon, but I was hooked.

“And the people are so judgmental,” the other person responded, “They only care about themselves and their own problems.”

It went on like that for some time and eventually they went outside to sit at their own table.

I tried, I promise, I tried to work on this sermon but I couldn’t get their words out of my head and before I knew what I was doing, I packed up my things, walked out the door, and went straight over to their table.

I said, “I apologize, I shouldn’t have been listening to your conversation. But I’m a pastor myself and I just have to ask: If there are so many things wrong with the church, then why do you keep going?”

And without missing a beat one of them said, “Because it’s where I hear Jesus.”

What’s right with the church? It’s a far more interesting question than what’s wrong. All of us have examples of what’s wrong – a time we’ve been hurt, a sermon that went too far, on and on. 

The church is broken because it is filled with broken people. 

And yet, listen to the psalmist – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God! Blessed are those who sing to the Lord. I would rather be a doorstop in the house of God than live in the land of wickedness!

There must be something right with the church, otherwise none of us would be here.

I never really had a choice about being a Christian. My earliest memories are synced up with the rhythms of church life from standing on pews during worship, to dressing up for Christmas pageants, to hunting for Easter eggs on the lawn.

As a kid, my answer to the question at hand would have been: The church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a regular basis hearing about the remarkable stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults willingly make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News? For me, the church has always been the nexus of faith and joy in which I learned about who and whose I am in ways that were fun and exciting.

I am a product of the church. That is, I am who I am because of the liturgies and the scriptures and the songs and the prayers and the people who make the church what it is. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and my choices is an ever present reminder that the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us.

In other words, we like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

The church is the place where people discover the truth that God is on the move searching in the bushes of life for those who are lost. Which, to be clear, includes each and every one of us. Sure, we might experience the divine in all sorts of other spaces and places, but it is here where we learn the language to articulate those experiences. 

It might take one Sunday, it might take a lifetime of Sundays, but at some point we realize that God is the one who found us, and not the other way around.

As I got older, I might’ve answered the question about what’s right with the church by saying: the music! We’re Methodists! We sing our faith! The words and the melodies of our music are transcendent and they tune us into God’s frequencies in the world. It is a rare Sunday that I am not bowled over by some part of church music whether its because I’m connected to a memory of the past or I’m casting vision of a future in which whether or not I’m around these songs will endure.

Music gives us the space to experience what we believe and how we pray when we don’t know how to put those things into words – music gives us the opportunity to feel whatever it is that we are feeling without feeling like we’re not allowed to feel what we feel. 

Recently, my answer might’ve been something along the lines of how the church is an alternative community in and for the world. We’re different. We’re different because we believe God’s future, what we call the kingdom, is already intermingling with the present and we’re different because we believe we’ve been given a new past in which we are no longer defined by what we’ve done or by what has been done to us.

But most of all we are different in terms of story. The story called Gospel is not something we own, or control, or earn, but is simply a gift we’ve received. The Gospel tells us we’re more than our mistakes and that there’s more in store because we know how the story ends.

But if you asked me today, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: Jesus.

Jesus is what’s right with the church.

It is because of Jesus that we have hope and we have community. And hope and community are rather counter-cultural words and ideas these days. They might not seem very different, but the world provides us with the opposites: doom and isolation.

The pandemic has only furthered our division from one another, while terrifying us about whatever might come around the corner next, while we sequestered ourselves into bubbles.

But, in Jesus, we are given hope and community because the church embodies hope and community.

We call the Good News good because it is, in fact, Good News. Despite a rather sordid history, the church doesn’t exist to wag its finger at Christians for doing certain things or not doing certain things enough. 

The church exists to tell the truth! God, author of the cosmos, came to dwell among us through the least likely of families, in order to teach and live and heal and preach and provide a vision of a new reality that, when push came to shove, led to our rejection of the truth through the cross, but then Jesus was given back to us three days later and his resurrection is now our promised resurrection.

That truth gives us both the courage and the conviction to live not for ourselves, but for the sake of others. When we consider God’s humility (read: humiliation) for us, it starts to change the way we see and interact with each other. We start to do all sorts of strange things like give away food to people who are hungry, and provide friendships to the lonely, and hope to the hopeless. 

The church can be, and is, the place for life-altering blessings because the church is Jesus Christ’s body for the world.

We, today, have the blessed and remarkable opportunity to be what we’ve always been called to be: different. We, the church, model God’s future in the present. We don’t see one another through the lens of cultural controversies but instead through the mercy, grace, and love of God. 

We can do this because we have the scriptures and the songs and the psalms and even the sermons that do not exist as a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of life but instead they make our lives intelligible in the first place. 

In short, the church is called to be a community of ordinary virtues – that is, we live by grace. 

Thus, we are not just a group of people who get together for an hour once a week who happen to believe in love, and peace, and liberation, or any other abstraction. 

Instead, we are a complicated people complicated by a complicated story of a young Jesus from Nazareth who lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose for us and for the world.

Church, contrary to how we might imagine it, isn’t a noun – it’s a verb. Church is something we do and it is something done to us.

What’s right with the church? In spite of all its weaknesses and shortcomings, it is the church where we get to hear Jesus remind us about the love of God that refuses to let us ago, about the waves of mercy that never stop coming, about the grace to flourish into who God has called us to be.

This is the place where we hear Jesus tell us the things we need to hear most of all: You have value – you have worth – you are more than your mistakes – you are forgiven.

So, to those of you who love the church – make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world. In short, love because you are loved.

And to those of you are still unsure about the church – we are not yet what we can be without you. Help us make the church better. Encourage us to open our eyes to the ways in which God is living and moving and speaking in the so that we can really be the church God is calling us to be. 

How lovely is the dwelling place of the Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God because this is where we hear Jesus! Amen.

 

Eat Me!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including relay races, wicked wisdom, Christotelism, financial irony, fear, character recognition, Dead Poets Society, pagan worship, the Prayer of Humble Access, non-sentimental sacramentality, and the preaching office. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eat Me!

The Temptation of Domestication

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-14a, Psalm 89.20-37, Ephesians 2.11-22, Mark 6.30-34, 53-56). Our conversation covers a range of topics including sabbath scriptures, God’s presence, corporate worship, confronting control, the faith that moves, profound peace, crazy covenants, Taize tales, Jesus’ friends, and compassion. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Temptation of Domestication