A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [B] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including older movies, promise keeping, Babel reimagined, different languages, the colors of creation, the gift of presence, holy hope, and diachronic pneumatology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Tiny Pinhole Of Hope

The Main Thing

John 10.11-18

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will life to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

I was on vacation with my extended family and decided that, as a pastor, I should still probably go to church on Sunday morning. I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches,” picked the one with the least bad website, and announced my intention to the family. When Sunday morning arrived, the only takers I had for church were my sister, my son, and myself.

So we loaded into the car and left everyone to sleep in on Sunday morning as we prepared to worship the Lord in glory and splendor.

The church was beautiful, situated right in the middle of town (a town that will remain unnamed for reasons soon to be proclaimed), and when we pulled into the parking lot we were immediately greeted by a cheerful older couple dressed in their Sunday best.

Our little trio ascended the stairs leading into the sanctuary and were immediately bombarded by two things: an oppressive wave of heat wafting from the chancel area, and a slew of congregants who could sense fresh blood in the water.

Regarding the former: the AC had apparently died and the design of the sanctuary trapped  the summer heat inside and we were to be treated to a sauna-like atmosphere for the service.

Regarding the latter: I couldn’t blame the church folk. Here we were looking like a new little family in town and they were all so happy to see people they’d never seen before.

And in that briefest of moments I had a choice. Well, I had a few. I could’ve grabbed my son and sister and made for the nearest exit so that we could find a church that had their air conditioning running. But seeing as I am a pastor, I felt that a tad impolite. Which brings me to the main choice I had: To share, or not to share, my vocation.

There’s something that happens when a pastor attends another church – people become, as my grandmother says, beside themselves. They want to pull out all the stops, and find you the best pew in the house, and they want to be their very best.

Why?

I’m not sure.

It’s not as if, as a pastor, I would ever come back on another Sunday. I have a job that requires me to be in a particular place at a particular time nearly every Sunday of my adult life.

Nevertheless, I had to choose. And, seeing as I was on vacation, I decided to truly rest, and allow the congregation to rest, and when the first person stepped forward to shake my hand, he sure enough asked what I did for a living. I opened my mouth to say something about being a librarian, or construction worker, or being a mid-tier manager at a sufficiently boring data company when my son, all of three years old at the time, stepped right in front of me and yelled, “I’m Elijah and this is my dad. He’s a pastor!”

And so it began.

15 minutes later, having received a tour that included a forgotten church library, three sets of bathrooms, and a hallway filled with more pamphlets than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, I found myself sitting in what I was assured to be the best pew in the sanctuary, next to my sister and son and the three of us were completely drenched in sweat.

We stood for the appropriate hymns, we bowed for the requisite prayers, and finally we sat back for the sermon.

I love listening to other people preach. It is so much of what I do after all, and I don’t get to hear a lot of preaching, so I settled in to hear what God had to say through this particular preacher.

The text was John 10 – I am the good shepherd.

The preacher wax eloquently about John’s gospel in general, and the importance of the various I am statements (I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life). The preacher made various allusions to Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God as the burning bush who declared I Am Who I Am.

It was all well and good, until it wasn’t.

The preacher was wrapping up the homiletical insights and ended with this: “Jesus is the good shepherd who watches out for the sheep. All of you out there are the sheep. You don’t know what to do and what not to do which is why you need Jesus. But I am neither shepherd nor sheep. I, as the pastor, am the sheep dog. Now I know that John doesn’t mentioned the sheep dog but I’m sure that he just forgot to write that part down. As the sheep dog my primary responsibility is to keep all of you in line. I will nip at your legs to make sure you know what you can and can’t do, where you can and you can’t go. So let me do my job.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen?

The church universal has traditionally observed this, the 4th Sunday of Easter, as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, four different texts assigned for each Sunday, today is all about shepherds and sheep from both the Old and New Testaments.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the perfect “life after Easter” message – Jesus returns to us, Jesus finds us, and Jesus will never let us go.

We are given an assurance from the Good Shepherd, just on the other side of rejection and resurrection, that we are loved, that we are cared for, that we matter not based on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does for us. 

Which, to be clear, is rather counter to what I heard on vacation.

Consider the sheep: The sheep cannot do much of anything for themselves or their situations. The only thing sheep can do, really, is follow. And even that can be a trying endeavor. And when a sheep is lost, it is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep. The only hope a lost sheep has is being found by the shepherd.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tell us exactly what he will do, how far he will go, to save a bunch of dumb sheep who can’t do anything for themselves. 

Jesus, to put it simply, does it all.

Jesus gets all the good verbs in scripture and yet, in Christian preaching, he often feels like an after-thought. But Jesus, even here, warns us about that possible proclamation! The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away! Jesus is rebuking religious leaders then, and now, who neglect the people of God. 

Do you see? Discipleship is all about the admission of our condition – we’re sheep; we are dead in our sins. It is all about coming to grips with the fact that we have no power to save ourselves or to convince anyone that we are worth saving.

Consider – More than 18 million children in the US live in food insecure homes. 

For the first time since the 1960’s life expectancy in the US has gone down. 

And, while people celebrated (or lamented) the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd last year, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.

I could go on and on.

We truly are sheep without a hope in the world unless we have a shepherd who is willing to do for us that which we cannot do on our own. 

Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get in Christ Jesus.

God in Christ finds us in the desert of death, not in the garden of progress. God meets us right smack dab in the middle of our sins, not in the triumph of our accomplishments. 

The life of faith is predicated on recognizing how lost we are, how our lives really are out of our hands, how if we will ever really live again it will entirely be the gift of some gracious shepherd who delights in putting us on his shoulders and carries us home.

We can call the Good Shepherd a good shepherd because while the hired hands run away at the first sign of danger, or puts all sorts of unhelpful (and unattainable) expectations on us, Jesus remains steadfast. And (!) Jesus does not merely care for the sheep within reach, but also gathers the whole flock together! 

For all of the talk in the church today about inclusion (open hearts, minds, doors), the most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners, which includes each and every single one of us!

And that’s the most important part of whatever this thing is that we call church – its about proclaiming God’s grace imputed to sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. If that’s not the beginning, middle, and end of everything we do, then we’re not really doing anything.

But, instead of making that profound proclamation, we are far more likely to be consumed by sheep dogs nipping at our legs both inside, and outside, the church. We hear it from pastors, politicians, pundits, and everyone in between. Things like: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, thinking globally, don’t drink so much, practice mindfulness, inclusiveness, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, on and on and on.

And, all of things are good and fine, we probably should start doing that stuff – but they are not where we begin. If those things are anything, they are a response to what God has already done. 

A Bishop, from another denomination (thankfully), used to be in charge of recruiting for a seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to lead the church and he would end every single interview the same way, with a role play. He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now, tell me why I should go to church…”

Every single person, throughout the years, would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.” Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. But the Bishop would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.” Then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

He recruited for years and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the musical prodigies. Church may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus.

For the church today, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. We might think the main thing is convincing other people to adopt our positions on social issues. We might think the main thing is making sure that everyone falls asleep at night with a full belly. We might think the main thing is putting on the greatest performance in the world every single Sunday. But those are not the main thing.

The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The main thing is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born to dwell among us. The main thing is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never ever stops tending to the sheep.

Friends, the only thing we’ve got that other group don’t, is Jesus Christ and him crucified, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; for us! 

People can get everything they need, except Jesus, from other places and other people. And they might even be better at that stuff than we are. 

But we’re in the Jesus business. That is: we are here to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all that we’ve wronged, that we are love in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be loved, and that, and the end of all things, we know how the story ends because we know Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Exhausted By Easter

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

The World Turned Upside Down

Luke 2.1-14

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!”

Merry Christmas!

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.”

Odd. 

That’s what Christmas really is.

It’s strange.

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.

Economic devastation.

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.

Dead 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.

For free.

For nothing.

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.

Time After Time

Matthew 5.1-12

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. 

Jesus Lunchables

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

Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re no different.

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

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

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

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

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

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

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

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

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Barth

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

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

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

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

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

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

Live Your Life So That The Preacher Won’t Have To Lie At Your Funeral

Romans 8.12-13

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.

Faith In The Time of COVID

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?

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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

 

WWDWWD (Why We Do What We Do)

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.

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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:

Gather

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 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.

Proclaim

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 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.

Respond

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 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.

Sending

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 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.