He pulled his earbuds out.

He was working out on the crotch machine. You know the piece of equipment. The one where you exercise your thighs by pushing in and out like the levers of a pinball machine; the one that appears designed for no other purpose than to equip the exerciser for feats of ecstatic prowess.

“I was just listening to your sermon from Sunday.”

‘You can listen to sermons while you work out?’ I said.

You listen to my voice while you’re sex-ercising?! I thought.

‘Yeah, I listen to you guys’ sermons every week when I come here.’

‘It’s not repetitive, hearing it all over again a second time?’

‘Repetitive?’ he asked confused. He added another 10 lbs and started a second set on the crotch machine, and then my assumption about his Sunday attendance washed over his face, “No, I haven’t been to Sunday Church in forever. Just so busy, you know? Work. Kids. Soccer and Lacrosse.’

He closed his eyes and, in the words of Salt N’ Peppa, pushed it real good. ‘That’s why the podcast and the online giving are so great. I can get the message whenever wherever I am and I don’t need the offering plate to make my contribution.’

‘That’s great’ I said to him.

‘That’s not great’ I thought in the same instant and walked off to the locker room for what became a long sobering shower.

In fact, I run into people like him all the time. At the grocery and the pool and the barber shop. Even the chemo ward. In the checkout aisle and in the mens room at the local pizza dive, people tell me they listened to my sermon on their phone.

The numbers bear out their testimony. In my 12 years in this parish, total worship attendance has remained stable at around 600 per Sunday; however, in that time frequency of worship attendance has declined precipitously. The average worshipper now attends on Sunday morning only twice a month, every other Sunday. This trend is perhaps the most inclusive attribute of our congregation as it cuts across every age and demographic. It’s not just the soccer moms and little league dads skipping Sunday am. It’s the empty nesters too who have over the last decade decided to snuggle up in that nest and sleep in on Sundays.

The Google Analytics confirm what I see from the altar. By the following sabbath, the MP3 downloads of my Sunday sermon will be double compared to the people who listened to it live. And, I can tell from Google’s creepy stats, many in this diaspora of sermon downloaders live right here in my city.

If ‘online community’ is even an intelligibly Christian category- and I’m not convinced- ours exceeds those who gather on Sunday morning.

The factor is even larger for those church folks who interact with me through this blog; meanwhile, every season yields a greater percentage of our operating budget given not in the brass plate but from the dropdown menu on our church website.

The upside in all of this, obviously, is that stable total attendance with decreased frequency in attendance means more total people are worshipping with us. It means people who would never join a bible study will email me a question about a blog post or a podcast. It means my church’s cash flow is healthier in the lean summer months the more we don’t need to rely on the plate offering.

So, there is upside.

But what sent me slinking off into the locker room was the gut check realization that the downside is real too.

You can download my sermons from your phone. For free. In less than 3 seconds. With DC traffic, you can check off the sermon on your To Do list on the way to the store. All alone in your car.

I wonder- in the zeal to create online constituencies, nurture e-engagement, and offer convenience and constant connection have we let slip a more fundamental claim upon us?

Have we made too easy for people NOT to show up for Sunday worship and, in making it too easy not to show up, have we forgotten that we previously asked them to vow to do just that?

In the United Methodist Church, the first vow the baptized make when joining the local expression of the Body of Christ is their presence. They covenant to show up. They promise to be present for the purpose of praise.

Not to blunt the matter, Christians have a holy and sacred obligation to participate in the community’s worship and glorification of God. Consider our fascination with the Social Principles. United Methodists do not hesitate to use the language of duty when it comes to ethical issues so why are reticent to speak of duty when it comes to the liturgical?

Our reticence is even more problematic when you recall that for Christians the ethical and the liturgical are not two distinct, exclusive, or complementary forms of faithfulness. Rather the one produces the other. The one is the necessary condition for the possibility of the other. What gets lost about the Apostle Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 is his larger point that false worship of God produces vices while right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.

Worship of the true and living God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct.

The liturgical act makes possible, over time, the ethical act. It produces in us the habits that promise the possibility of becoming virtue. In other words, the commitment to show up and worship is the necessary condition for the creation of a people who can live out the social principles. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans, it’s through the Gospel proclamation that God rectifies us, puts us to rights.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism echoes Paul’s point about the formative necessity of worship. The very first article of the catechism answers that the chief end of man is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Chief end.

As in, telos.

Worship is where we discover and live into the end for which God has made us and towards which our lives, properly ordered, are directed. To make it plain, worship is where we learn how to be human.

The God you connect with in nature or on the golf course on Sunday morning never will be the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Such a God will not insist you confess your trespasses every week nor is it likely the God of the golf course will command you to do something as counterintuitive as loving your enemies.

The insufficient ‘God of creation’ produces insufficient creatures.

Only in the context of gathered worship does the Living God speak.

Why would we be shy about insisting that Christians have a duty and obligation to listen? As the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

But-

If it’s just a preached word in your earbuds absent the reception of the listening community, then it might be a good talk or a helpful teaching or an inspiring story about something God said but it is not a Word God says.

Sermons in the context of worship are live events not simply because the preacher is preaching in the moment but because this is the event in which the Living God speaks.

Here’s what’s scary in a Post-Christian context where we’re desperate for any level engagement from people:

Without the moral formation alone made possible by liturgical formation the Christians who populate that Post-Christian landscape will never have sufficient characters to be compelling advertisements for the Gospel.

 

The only consistent thing on this podcast has been the soulful voice of Clay Mottley.

I’ve been good friends with Clay Mottley since O.J. was speeding down the highway in his white Ford Bronco. He’s a sensitive and caring friend, but just as important he’s a singular songwriter. Without cliche, simple or forced rhymes, Clay captures the power and the seduction of perfect pop songs.

Clay agreed to an NPR All Songs Considered format where he’d be interviewed AND play/sing whatever occurred to us in the moment.

Including, Cancer is Funny: The Song.

And a depressing version of the Beatles’ Help.

He’s been letting us use his music gratis on the podcast so we thought it would be appropriate that he was our special guest for the #100 Interview.

#100 Interviews?!

WTF.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got at least 3 maybe more conversations with David Bentley Hart.

We’ve got Lisa Sharon Harper from Sojourners.

We’ve Emma Green the Religion Writer at Atlantic Magazine.

We’ve got the one and only Walter Brueggemann.

Plus my minion intern interviewing our pod-friend Tripp Fuller. Stay tuned.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Here then is Clay.

For the love of God, go over to his website and buy some music.

Here’s an article I wrote for Ministry Matters before, it should be noted, Bishop Lewis this year ran all over the conference, stood on chairs, and otherwise captivated with her spirit and passion, freeing conference from the drudgery that is RRoO:
Most every year the annual gathering United Methodists in Virginia will begin with someone from the floor offering a motion to remove the American flag from the venue- we typically meet in municipal coliseums. The flag, the thinking goes to which I’m sympathetic, is an idol in a context of worship where we’ve pledged allegiance alone to Jesus the King.
What none of us gathered there ever seem to notice is how there’s another dynamic at work even more subversive to the gospel and nefarious to the character of our community: Roberts Rules of Order.
I’m not sure exactly when the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches accepted giving away the spiritual practices of discernment, reconciliation, and consensus-building to Roberts Rules of Order. I do know, for example, that St. Luke does NOT tell us this in his Pentecost reporting:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, the prayers and Roberts Rules of Order. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And I know, whenever we went all-in for this unChristian practice, it was likely sometime in the 20th century. Roberts Rules of Order was first written in 1876 Henry Martyn Robert who was an engineering officer in the regular Army. 
In other words, the Methodist Church adopted a secular means of deliberation in the industrial age at the same time the Methodist Church was adopting bureaucratic denominational and congregational structures that intentionally mirrored the corporate practices of the time, which produced, as my friend and mentor Dennis Perry says:
“a conflation of effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”
Our adoption of RRoO coincided with our idolization of machines and factories. As a result, Dennis Perry argues, we seek a mass produced, top-down (what we call ‘connectionalism’) one-size-fits-all Christianity rather than a mentored, hand-crafted one; mass produced by a machine-like-culture where there is an artificial separation of management and labor, brain and brawn, producing a denomination that treats its laborers as unskilled and needing supervision:
“We trust statewide and national organizations more than local leadership.
We believe and act as if the larger organization is the real church while the local church exists for the greater church’s good.”
The impulse that gave us RRoO begat these structures and dynamics as well, structures we’ve largely left unchanged even as best practices in business have since evolved, flattened, and streamlined.

In an era where Amazon doesn’t even show me the same products it shows you, RRoO is but one of the ways we’re still trying to be Sears. 

I know in my pastoral experience generations of Christians raised on Roberts Rules of Orders has produced members of an institution not a movement.

RRoO has produced leaders who think discipleship is about raising their hand yay or nay at a meeting.

This is a devaluing of discipleship which in turn disempowers pastors into chaplains whose role is chiefly to pray at those meetings.  This is seen at our General Conference level where our bishops do not actually have the authority to lead our Church; their given only the authority to preside over parliamentary procedure.
Which gets to the real problem with Roberts Rules of Order- as any one who follows Congress knows is that it’s an inherently coercive, oppositional process for an ecclesial setting.  In this Roberts Rules of Order is but an antiquated form of the binaries lobbed on Twitter. When a challenging issue hits the floor, for instance, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit.  Not to mention the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc. which follow. The more controversial motions passed then get litigated at our Judicial Council, Methodism’s version of the Supreme Court- another troubling not very Gospely attribute of how we’ve agreed to arrange our lives.
Roberts Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing. 
The very nature of pro/con debate and parliamentary maneuvering is not dialogue and leaves the body more polarized.
As my e-friend Christy Thomas says: “Roberts Rules of Order is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world. [Christian] Dialogue is very, very different from parliamentary discussion.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. My peace Roberts Rules of Order I give you.’”
Every year the irony of United Methodists conferencing and worshipping in coliseums seems lost on us. Where the first Christians once accepted martyrdom in coliseums rather than betray their loyalty to the Caesar called Jesus, today Christians’ preferred discourse too often more nearly resembles Caesar asking the crowd for a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

In this episode of Strangely Warmed, Taylor and I talk about passive aggressive behavior as the most common Christian sin, slut-shaming, a night of debauchery and violence in seminary (Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?), and why the sacrifice of Isaac should not be read existentially because God is not a character in Abraham’s head.

The readings we discuss are Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

———————

     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

————————

The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

————————-

During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In what sense does eternal conscious torment for the ungodly in the after life mute the offense of the Gospel that Christ died for the ungodly? If God made all things good, is determined to make them good again, came in Christ for all, and died for all, then does it make sense that the all-powerful God would not in the end get what God wants? If Sin isn’t what we do as much as an anti-god Power, synonymous with Satan, then if all are not saved doesn’t that mean God has chosen not to rescue all?

These points of contention and more:

I was a guest this week on the New Persuasive Words Show hosted by Scott Jones and Bill Borror to debate the doctrine of Hell.

Check it out. If you’re receiving this by email, find it at this link.

Though it was hard, interviews like this one make me grateful and proud to be doing the podcast with my friends. For Father’s Day, we offer you this conversation that Teer and I did with Jason Jones the author of the new book, Limping But Blessed: Wrestling with God After the Death of a Child. Listening to Jason is painful but rewarding. His story of reaching out from grief to theologians like Jurgen Moltmann is edifying.

Example: His final answer to the 10 Questions.

Q: What do you want to hear God say when you arrive in heaven?

A: I’m sorry.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The narrative of God’s self-disclosure is not going on in Abraham’s head! Paul asks what can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus BECAUSE THERE ARE POWERS AT WORK TO DO JUST THAT. Naming my Education Building after Donald Trump. Bar Trivia. All this and more.

Taylor and I crack our way into Ordinary Time discussing Genesis 18 and Romans 5 plus the other lectionary readings for this upcoming Sunday.

Check it out. Share the love.

We don’t even follow the lectionary in my congregation- I’m preaching Romans all summer- that’s how much we want to help you.

So share the love.

This podcast is growing and you can help it.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes. You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

We had a great conversation with Dr. Normal Wirzba for the podcast recently. We’ve not edited the audio to post, but I thought I’d give you a peek at the video. In this conversation, Dr. Wirzba talked about food and drink as the means God has given us to experience the Triune life, sacrifice and eating, and scripture as an agrarian book.

Dr. Wirzba is a Professor of Theology at Duke and is the author of many books including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.

 

Is social justice just another altar call? Is ‘missional’ another legalism?

Scott Jones of the New Persuasive Words & Give and Take podcasts joined me for a full-fledged bromance session.

In this conversation (and it’s more of a conversation than an interview) we talk about Law vs. Grace, Donald Trump’s Senior Superlatives, Scott’s conversion and call.

Scott is also a pastor at Ascension Church in Philly, a fellow Princeton Alum, and a regular contributor to Mockingbird. Check out his podcasts, and if you’d like to watch the streamed video of our conversation you can find it on our Facebook Page.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

You’ve slacked off on giving us ratings and reviews!!!

With weekly and monthly downloads, we’ve cracked the top 5-6% of all podcasts online. 

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode.

Laugher, God as Fullness and Creation as Gratuity, and the Absurdity of Hell.

All of it comes as part of our conversation around the Trinity Sunday lectionary readings: Genesis 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, and Matthew 28:16-20.

We don’t even follow the lectionary in my congregation- I’m preaching Romans all summer- that’s how much we want to help you.

So share the love.

This podcast is growing and you can help it.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes. You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

…in which we learn to pray.

Here’s my sermon from this Sunday for the local high school’s baccalaureate service, using Mark’s text of the rich (young) man. Props to my friend Scott Jones for linking the themes of Ascension and Melissa Febos‘ memoir Abandon Me.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all here because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.

It’s no surprise that some of you are here today listening to me against your will, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me.

It occurs to me, though, that some of you might be here not against your will but by accident.

For instance, if any of you studied Latin during your West Po time, then you know that the root word in baccalaureate is Bacchus, the name for the Roman god of drunken revelry and sexual debauchery.

Even so, if any of you came here today expecting a bacchanalia instead of a baccalaureate, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait 9 months for Fraternity Rush.

Seriously, as one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you to Aldersgate Church, and I want to thank you for the invitation to speak. As a Methodist preacher, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 75 years of age.

Just kidding.

But not really.

Actually, I shouldn’t lead with an age joke.

With each passing day I’m increasingly aware that even though when I look in the mirror I still see someone about your age, when you look at me you see someone as old, dull and passionless as your parents.

Just think-

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA. That’s The University to all you who might be going to Tech.

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA.

Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, the White House was mired in scandal because of a President who might also a sexual predator. And back then the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet were incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, a new release of Star Wars had broken all the box office records.

It was a completely different world- a world you couldn’t possibly recognize.

This is my 5th or 6th baccalaureate sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure how I keep getting invited to deliver these considering the fact that I’m philosophically opposed to them.

For one thing, I’m opposed to baccalaureates because you don’t need an inspirational sermon at your graduation- YOU’RE GRADUATING! That’s exciting enough; you don’t need anyone like me adding words to it. You’re done.

You’ve been in school all day long for almost your entire life, but now you’ve made it. You’re finished. No more SOL’s, AP’s, GPA’s, SAT’s, PSAT’s. It’s all over. You’re graduating.

You no longer have to pretend you actually read MacBeth. The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will be the day your son or daughter asks you for help with their math. And you won’t be able to.

But who cares? Because you’re done. You’re graduating. From this point forward, if you can avoid a major felony you can avoid group showers for the rest of your life. You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.

But really, the main reason why I’m at philosophic odds with baccalaureate preaching is because I can’t remember a single word of the sermon from my own baccalaureate. I remember the school choir sang.

I remember a classmate read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go– ironically the person who read that still lives with his parents in the same neighborhood we grew up in.

And, I remember an aging, white-haired minister named Dennis Perry preaching, but I don’t recall a single word of what he said.

The only baccalaureate sermon I can remember, in fact, is the baccalaureate sermon I preached for West Po 10 years ago. I remember it because I made the mistake of choosing this scripture passage as my text. This one from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:

This rich young man- he’s only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels.

He’s the only youth anywhere in the Gospels. So preaching on this scripture text in such a well-heeled zip code was more than me just being confrontational. I wasn’t feeling contrary just because the program that day called me an “inspirational speaker.”

I genuinely thought it was an appropriate Gospel given my audience. He’s the Gospel’s only young person.

To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, over-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in my previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.

I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village, in Venezuela of all places.

——————————

 At first, I thought that baccalaureate sermon went alright. I got a few laughs.

I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the Fellowship Hall for the reception.

All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.

‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.

‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. 

     You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’ 

He stormed off with his family in tow.

Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.

He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’ 

And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.

I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’ 

I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.

I almost escaped the Fellowship Hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.

He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’ 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

     ‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’ 

And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’ 

I saw the vein in his forehead start to throb so I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

     ‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ 

      Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

     ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’ 

They watch the rich young man walk away.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’ 

Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.

And yet we call this story Gospel, good news, because, well, nothing is impossible with a Living God.

I left that Dad with the throbbing vein in his forehead, and I walked out to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt (this was years before hipster side-parts and Vineyard Vines) said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible passage yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look kid, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.

‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’ 

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that of all the Gospel stories the only story where it says Jesus loved someone is a story where a young person like me failed.’

     ‘Uh, come again?’ 

     ‘That’s the only story where it says Jesus loved someone’ he said. 

     ‘Uh, it is?’ 

     ’It sure is’ he said.

     ‘You know your Bible, kid. You must be a Baptist.’

He didn’t nod.

‘Sure, Jesus loves everybody, but that’s the only story where it says Jesus loves an individual and the individual he loves is a young person like me who failed. 

    ‘Huh,’ I said, thinking that would’ve made a better sermon than the one I’d just preached. 

     ‘Obviously that’s why you chose the passage, right Reverend? You wanted us not to be afraid of failing because God’s love for us doesn’t fail.’  

    ‘Oh, umm, right, yeah of course that’s why I chose it. You don’t think I chose it just because I was PO’d that they called me an inspirational speaker did you?’ 

He laughed and was about to get in his car when I said:

Hey, kid, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry tight-sphinctered looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

I don’t remember a single word of what was said at my own baccalaureate.

But maybe-

Maybe you will remember what a student just like you said at another baccalaureate where no one remembered what I said.

Not only is it not the typical cliched baccalaureate bullshit, it also happens to be true:

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Because you will, you know.

Fail.

In many myriad ways.

And sometimes in mighty ways.

You’ve grown up in a culture in which you’ve been exposed to an average of 4,000 advertisements a day- a day!

My 5th grade son did the math for me: that comes out to 26,280,000 advertisements during your lifetime.

26 million times our culture has tried to convert you, indoctrinate you, condition you to believe the lie that if- and only if- you just achieve the right lifestyle, find the perfect spouse and the coolest job, earn the biggest salary, look a certain way, drive this kind of car, live in that sort of house then- only then- will your life be a success.

Only then will you be happy.

That’s a lot of pressure.

Not to mention- let’s be honest parents, I’m one too- you all are the products of helicopter parents and tiger moms.

You’ve been told your whole life that you’re gifted, you’re exceptional, you’re above average. The world is your oyster.

Your whole young life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you set your mind on, that your life and your future and your fulfillment is yours to sieze. Carpe Diem!

But here’s what they never tell you in graduation speeches: when we tell you your future is yours for you to choose, it can feel like it’s all on you.

To make the right choice. And to succeed at it after you’ve made your choice.

That’s an enormous amount of pressure. On you.

And it can feel like the stakes couldn’t be higher because it’s your life and your future we’re talking about.

Your whole education, all your grades and testing and extra-curriculars, all your parents helicoptering over you and tigering for you, all of it has been invested in you; so that, now you can choose the life you want.

That’s a scary amount of pressure on you.

So much so, it can leave you afraid to fail.

Or, rather, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you do fail.

Even worse, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you end up with a life other than the one you or your parents anticipated.

Or when you do get that life everyone wanted for you and it’s not what you’d hoped it would be- it can leave you feeling like you failed somewhere along the way.

I think that’s why in 12 years here at Aldersgate I’ve known a whole lot of youth who’ve graduated from West Potomac only to find themselves lost and confused, depressed, and terrifically lonely.

You’re not going to remember what I said in your baccalaureate, but maybe you’ll remember what that other graduate said after my other baccalaureate sermon: Don’t be afraid to fail.

     Don’t be afraid to fail because the most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with your performance or your career or your family or your GPA or your Major or your mate or anything that’s brought you today to this celebration.

The young man said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth and God said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

When the youth heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

And God, looking at him, loved him

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has even less to do with what you do.

With your life.

So don’t be afraid to fail because God’s love for you…no.

————————

Last week, when I wrote this sermon for you, the Church celebrated a holy day called Ascension, a festival day that remembers the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

I realize you might not all be Christian. Just let the image do its work.

What’s important about Ascension isn’t just that Jesus goes up.

What’s important about Ascension is that when Jesus goes up into God, he takes us with him. He takes our humanity- every bit of every one of us- into divinity.

Your humanity has been taken in to divinity. Your life, your past and your present and your future; all of it, every bit of every last one of you- resides now in God; so that, no matter what you do or who you become, the ways you succeed or how often you don’t, your story is forever, eternally so, bound up with God.

He’s taken your story up into the story and, trust me I bury a lot of successful people, in the end, that’s the only story that will matter about you.

So don’t be afraid of failing because no matter how your story goes your story will end in the very same place.

I interviewed a dominatrix for my podcast recently.

I mention that she’s a dominatrix only so you realize that being a minister is more interesting than it sounds- even when everyone in your family wanted you to be a lawyer and thought you’d failed when you chose differently.

Anyways, this dominatrix she’s written a couple of memoirs and in one of them she puts the point better than me or that graduate in the church parking lot 10 years ago:

The story of Jonah seems a parable of what I have often suspected, that life is a great “choose your own adventure story.”

Every choice leads the hero to the same prince, the same cliff.  Every love [every choice, every joy and success, every obstacle, every failure] is a sea monster in whose belly, like Jonah, we learn to pray.

Life is a great “choose your own adventure story. There are alternative routes, but there is only one ending.

You have only one ending to the adventure called you.

It ends with the God who looked upon a youth’s failure yet loved him still.

So my word for you today is the most common refrain in scripture of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

My word for you today is this: Do not be afraid. 

I Like Big Buts

Jason Micheli —  June 5, 2017 — 1 Comment

I led with finding out I’m Jewish.

This weekend we celebrated Pentecost as well Confirmation across 4 services. Over the last 12 years, Aldersgate has confirmed 500 into the faith. My texts were all of chapter 2 of Acts as well as Paul’s big “But now” passage in Romans 3.21-26.

     After a recent cataclysmic national event that I won’t specify, I was speaking on the phone with my mother who, like many of you, had fallen into a despondent, black malaise.

“Maybe I will move to Canada” she said and sighed.

“Canada! They eat ketchup flavored Doritos in Canada- how is that a thing?! And Canada is responsible for Celine Dion and Nickelback. Think about that, Mom: Justin Bieber and Tom Ford don’t even crack the Top Ten of Canadiens for whom Canada should have to issue a global apology.

Though, Canada did give the world that babe who played Kim in 24.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is…” I said and immediately my mind wandered to the film in which Kim costarred with Raylan Givens, The Girl Next Door.

“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”

“Huh? Yeah, I’m still here. I was just…thinking. Look, forget this Canada nonsense. Mom, you hate the snow and no matter how much I begged you as a kid you never let me grow a mullet.”

“I hate mullets.”

“See, forget Canada. I’ll tell you, though, if I just had a Jew in my family tree I’d move to Israel, at their least president is actually a conservative.”

“But my grandparents were Jewish.”

“But what?!”

“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “

“But…but…but…that means my great-grandparents were Jewish.”

“Uh, huh” my mother said blankly, clearly not registering that this was a seismic revelation for someone like me who, let’s just say, is salaried and pensioned NOT to be Jewish.

“But…but…but…that means I’m Jewish” I whispered while turning down the volume on my iPhone.

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

No joke, my next thoughts, in rapid-fire succession:

1. Holy bleep, how have I not heard about this before?!

2. No wonder I’m so funny.

3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.

4. I could spin this into a book! Christian clergyman discovers his previously unknown Jewish identity. It practically writes itself.

As for the screen, it’d be the perfect follow up to LaLa Land for Ryan Gosling.

As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I pitched the book idea to my editor. I’d even come up with some snappy titles such as: Riddler on the Roots, Goy Meets God, and, my personal favorite, Trans-Gentile.

Nevertheless, my editor replied that until I actually convert and move myself and my family to the Promised Land, what I had was a good idea for a sermon.

Not a book.

Of course, that same editor came up with a terrible book title like Cancer is Funny so I figured what the hell does he know. Besides, I’ve always acted as though I’m God’s gift to the world and now, as it turns out, I really am- I’m chosen!

I’ve got to find out more about what that means! I thought.

In the weeks and months that followed, I studied up.

I researched the State of Israel’s Right of Return rules. I qualify.

I tested my DNA through ancestry.com, the results of which bore out what my mother had told me, that I am of Jewish lineage by way of Austria.

And thanks to Ghengis Khan raping and pillaging his way across Europe I also have some Mongolian in me too, and, according to the customer service person at ancestry.com, chances are, you have some Mongolian in you too.

Let that sink in for a moment.

DNA in hand, I consulted with Rabbi Hayim Herring about what books he recommends to potential converts. At his advice I read the Tanakh, Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas by Arthur Green, and To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.

And, because Rabbi Herring explained to me that Judaism is a religion that developed out of its celebrations, I read The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg, a book about the Jewish holy days.

Including the holy day of Pentecost.

Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.

——————————-

     Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.

Shavu’ot- the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.

They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.

If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.

But with my new Jew eyes, I see that that can’t be because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.

Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.

So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?

——————————-

     When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.

But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.

And at the end of his preaching, Luke tells us, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart- note the passive. They’re acted upon.

An unseen agency is working upon them too, compelling them to believe.

Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.

Maybe you Gentiles don’t know this- in the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.

It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.

On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.

When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.

So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.

Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.

Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.

They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.

What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own- God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.

Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000- it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter- who before could never get his foot out of his mouth- to proclaim.

It’s God’s doing, calling out of, creating in, Peter’s hearers, out of nothing, faith.

——————————-

      Luke shows us in the beginning of Acts what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans.

After announcing his thesis- the good news- at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul braces us with the bad news.

For the rest of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3 Paul bears down with white-knuckles and surveys the extent of our captivity, our bondage to Sin.

He says our every sin starts with the same sin as at Sinai on that first Shavu’ot: our failure to worship God, giving up God for other gods.

Our first sin also begets our wickedness and our malice. It gives rise to our greed and our lust and our violence. It spawns our slander and our deceit, our hypocrisy and our infidelity, even our gossip and our haughtiness and our hardness of heart.

Over almost 3 chapters, Paul unrolls the rap sheet of our sin until not one of us left un-indicted.

All have sinned, Paul says, religious and unreligious alike.

No one is righteous, Paul laments, not a single one of us.

No one seeks God. No one desires peace.

Our mouths are quick to curse, our hands are quick to stuff our own pockets, our feet are to quick to shed blood, Paul says.

None of us is any different than those 3,000 at the foot of Mt Sinai on the first Shavu’ot  worshipping anything other than God.

There is no distinction between any of us- we’re all ungodly.

Paul’s relentless litany of our sinfulness goes on and on for almost three chapters, an overwhelming avalanche of awful truth-telling and indictments.

For almost 3 chapters, Paul keeps raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our crimes, implicating each and every one of us.

     Until, what you expect next from Paul is the word “if.”

——————————-

     If.

If you turn away from sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you…plead for God’s mercy…

If you seek God’s forgiveness…

If you believe…

If you put your faith in him…

     If

Then

God will justify you.

Paul relentlessly unrolls the rap sheet until every last one of our names is indicted. Not one of us is righteous and every one of us is deserving of God’s wrath, Paul says.

This sounds like an altar call coming, right? And the word you expect Paul to use next is “if.”

If you repent and believe.

Instead of if but:

     “But now” Paul says.

“But now, apart from the Law (apart from Religion) the rectifying power of God has been revealed…the rectification by God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ..”

There couldn’t be a bigger but.

Martin Luther says that “but now” is a fish-hook shaped word that catches us all.

     There couldn’t be a bigger but.

It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:

We’re all unrighteous.

We’re all entangled in Sin.

But now- God.

The rectifying power of God has invaded our world without a single “if.”

The rectifying power of God- the power of God to make us right and to put our world to rights- has invaded in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The grace of God has invaded unilaterally- without prior condition or presupposition.

Without a single “if.”

There is nothing you need to do for it to be true for you.

Our justification is not God’s response to us; it’s God’s gracious initiative for us.

     As far as God is concerned, true love doesn’t wait.

If you repent, then I’ll…

     If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…

     If you believe, then I’ll…

     If you have faith in me, then I’ll…

     No. 

     No ifs. No conditions. 

“But now…” Paul announces.

God’s love doesn’t wait for us. To rescue us.

All have sinned.

All fall short of God’s glory.

But now-

All are being rectified by the uncontingent grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are no ‘ifs” just this big but: “But now…” God has done this. It’s gift. Sheer un-contingent, irrevocable gift.

It’s just like the song says.

You once were lost BUT NOW you’ve been found- note the passive again.

You didn’t find. You’ve been found not because you went searching for God, but because God in Jesus Christ has sought you out and bought you with his blood.

—————————-

     During Lent I gave up bacon.

(I know, you saw that transition coming a mile away.)

Just to see, you know, in case the UMC ever folds, if I could hack it as a Hebrew (I made it 3 days).

During Lent I also read the The Jewish Way where I learned that if I ever did convert to Judaism, then I’d need to choose a Hebrew name.

“What’s the name of that talking donkey in the Old Testament?” my wife asked pointedly.

The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg also reminded me what I’d forgotten since seminary: that the covenant (berit as my people say) God makes with Moses on Mt. Sinai on that first Pentecost, the promise God makes to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is conditional.

“You will be my treasured People” God promises “but you must keep all my commandments.”

It’s conditional.

“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”

It’s conditional.

“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”

It’s contingent.

If you keep faith in me, then I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not just on Sinai. So much of our lives and our relationships are littered with ifs.

If you make it up to me, then I’ll take you back.

If you promise not to spend it on drugs, then I’ll give you a handout.

If I’m just a better wife, then he’ll love me/then he’ll stop drinking/then he won’t abuse me anymore.

If I just get better grades, get into that college, get that job, then they’ll be proud of me/then maybe Dad will finally tell me that he loves me.

If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.

     I forgive you, but I won’t forget. 

Paul would say that’s how captives speak.

We do it with God too.

     We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences.

You are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, but first you must believe, we say.

      We move Paul’s big but to the end of our sentences.

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, crucified for you, but first you must repent.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace, but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences. We turn it around and make it conditional: If you have faith then you will be justified.

     Not only is that conditionality not Paul’s Gospel, it contradicts what Luke shows us at Pentecost and what Paul tells us here in Romans.

The whole point of Paul’s big “But now” is that by yourself, on your own, by your own power, you don’t have the capacity to fulfill any of those conditions.

Your faith, your belief, your repentance, your service- none of it is a prerequisite for God’s grace because all of it is a product of God’s gracious doing.

“But now,” Paul says, God has acted for us “apart from the Law,” apart from any of our religious doing.

Just like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost undoing the unbelief of the first Pentecost, God acts for us in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and his faith, Paul says, has the power to elicit our faith.

Jesus’ faith isn’t just prior; it’s causative.

As Paul says in another letter, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by his Holy Spirit.

As Paul puts it in this letter, in the next chapter, God calls into existence the things that do not exist- meaning, our faith.

Luke says that nothing is impossible for God, but the whole point of Paul’s big “But” is that faith is impossible for us without God.

Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.

Your faith is a sign that God has freed your will from the Power of Sin.

Which means-

Whatever measure of faith you have, whether your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as massive as a mountain, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing not your own.

It makes you proof of the God who invades our world without a single “if.”

Such that now- now as a person of faith, as a person in whom the unconditional grace of God has created faith, there is nothing you must do.

You don’t have to do anything.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right not by anything you’ve done, by what God has done.

You have been justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s not a but at the end of that sentence. There is nothing now you must do.

Rather, as a person in whom the unconditional love of God has created faith, there is now so much you are set free to do.

 

It’s cliche to whine that the Holy Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity or the most neglected. To the contrary, I think the Holy Spirit is the most manipulated member of the Godhead.

With Pentecost nearing it thus behooves me to lay down these tips.

Presumptuous,  I know. Let’s just the Spirit moved me:

1. The Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience etc.) are not ideal personality attributes that are inherent to all people or achievable apart from discipleship.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit, he most often means the “Spirit of the Crucified Christ.”

The fruit of the Spirit, therefore, describe the character and ministry of Jesus and are thus sown in us by the Spirit of the Crucified only as we follow after the Son.

2. Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is about mutual understanding amidst the differences of language and culture not ecstatic speech to exacerbate difference.

If your ‘gift’ of ecstatic speech does not lead to another’s understanding where before there was only misunderstanding- and thereby heal the fractures within creation- it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit.

It’s about God undoing Babel.

Pentecost is God’s anti-war demonstration.

Just as Pentecost originally celebrated God’s revealing himself and creating the distinct People of Abraham in the world, the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost to begin making good on the promise to Abraham: that through his family all the peoples of the world would be blessed. (See: Acts, Book of)

3. The Holy Spirit is Not IN You

The Holy Spirit is God; therefore, the Holy Spirit is not a necessary, constitutive part of you. Otherwise you would be God.

But because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is closer to you than you are to yourself.

The Holy Spirit is not the same thing as your conscience or your soul. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the imago dei, the part of you that is created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is not the little voice in your head or your own private feelings of subjectivity.

The Holy Spirit is God and, as such, only comes to us from beyond us as sheer gift.

4. You Don’t HAVE the Holy Spirit

No person (or church!) has the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a possession or even a reliable guest. The Spirit’s presence cannot be predicted and, accordingly, the Spirit cannot be manipulated into appearing through prayer or liturgy.

The Spirit can only be invited to rest upon us.

Everywhere the Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, in fact, it’s with verbs.

The Spirit DOES such that we cannot render it passive as a possession.

 

5. The ‘Comforter’ is Seldom Comforting

Though called the ‘Comforter’ (paraclete) the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son, and, like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is seldom comforting.

The Spirit  works grace in us and grace- growing into ever greater Christlikeness, which we call ‘true humanity’- is always disruptive and even painful, for ours is world that responds to love with crosses. (See: Acts, Book of)

6. The Real Gift of the Spirit

The primary gift of the Spirit from which all over gifts properly flow is the gift of God’s own self. The Spirit gives us the same delight that God is God which God has for God.

The Spirit catches us up into the never-ending mutual and reciprocal love shared between Father and Son.

7. The Spirit Does What the Son Cannot Do

Again, the primary gift of the Spirit is to raise us up into the love shared between the Father and the Son. T

he Spirit has a gift to give that the Son cannot offer.

The Spirit gives us a share in God’s own life, the Son’s eternal friendship with the Father.

8. The Spirit is Not Spirituality

The Holy Spirit reveals the Son. Any inclination or desire we have towards Christ, any hunger or curiosity we feel for God, any half-mumbled prayer or half-hearted stab at faithfulness is the Spirit’s work not our own. (See: Acts, Book of).

As such the Spirit reminds us that ours is a revealed, mediated faith. The only way to get to God is not through our own initiative, spiritual introspection or self-discovery but through God.

Thus the Holy Spirit is the opposite of Spirituality, making Christianity not a religion which is, by definition, human seeking after God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s seeking after us.

9. The Spirit is holy

The Spirit is holy, meaning, literally, ‘different.’ The Spirit is not a spirit, of which there are many. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the human spirit, team spirit or patriotic spirit. (See: Acts, Book of)

Our interior feelings are not fruit of the Spirit nor should the Spirit be confused with our own subjectivity.

This means, of course, that how one form of worship or music makes you feel has nothing to do with the Spirit.

10. The Spirit is More than What the Spirit Does

The Spirit is the love expressed in and by the community we call Trinity. The Spirit is the dynamic movement, exchange of love between the Father and Son. The Spirit cannot be reduced then to a role, mode or function like ‘Sustainer.’

And because the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mode, what you can properly say about the Father or the Son you can likewise rightly say about the Spirit.

Thus: the Spirit creates or the Spirit redeems.

 

I made an offhand comment this past week while my friend Scott Jones interviewed me for his podcast Give and Take. I said that Christians need to countenance the possibility that God could be using Donald J. Trump (who, let’s be clear and honest, is in NO way a Christian) as a Cyrus-type character.

Apparently Scott’s podcast has as many listeners as he tells me because in short order I was besieged with apoplectic responses to the contrary.

My good friend Brad is a political adman and strategist presently working on a book about the Trump voter. He’s narrow-focusing on those voters, who had voted for Obama but voted for the Donald in ’16, in the few districts in the MidWest that swung the election. Brad tells me that most Trump voters generally and Evangelical Christians in particular were under no illusions about the Donald’s character or his pretense at Christian discipleship- nor did they have any real expectations the Donald would deliver any concrete policy accomplishments.

Evangelical Christians primarily were driven by animus to vote Trump; that is, evangelical Christians knew (correctly, I’d concede) the same people who hated Trump hated them too.

A few of them- but not as many you’d guess- Brad tells me, hold out the possibility that Donald Trump is a Cyrus-like leader.

Cyrus, for those of who you skipped Sunday School, was the (pagan) King of Persia who (unwittingly according to Isaiah’s prophecy) freed the Israelite exiles from their captivity in Babylon, delivering back to the promised land and, even, helping them rebuild their razed temple in Jerusalem. In scripture, Cyrus stands as paradigmatic of God’s active but unseen agency, directing history to God’s chosen ends.

Cyrus knew not God but the Living God nonetheless used him for God’s own ends.

Might the orange-hued president with the little hands and even slighter control of his compulsions prove a different sort of Cyrus for a unique time?

Might God be using this p@##$-grabbing pagan leader to deliver God’s People from the exilic captivity of nihilistic secularism and into a new Promised Land? Or simply to appoint a pro-life court?

I get the urge- the visceral urge- to say hell no. The mere hypothesis angers my wife. A man who hated his way to the White House, often demonizing immigrants who look like my own Hispanic children, CANNOT be God’s vessel. He is anathema precisely because he makes everyone counted under Matthew 25 anathema to America.

I get the urge to say “No way.”

But-

I wonder. Does the black/white, absolute, reflexive “No” betray another conviction; namely, that God is dead or, if not dead, at the very least not an active agent?

I wonder if those who dismiss outright even the possibility of Trump being Cyrus do so because they believe to the extent that the Kingdom of God is furthered in the public square it’s up to them alone to bring it.

I wonder because- Donald aside- so much of the way we speak Christian does not rely upon a living God being the subject of our sentences.

In my parish, we will celebrate confirmation next weekend at Pentecost, and, in preparing, I’ve noticed how the baptismal vows in the tradition have “evolved” over the years.

For example, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer the questions posed to godparents came with this God-dependant answer: “I will, God being my helper.”

Here and throughout that prayerbook there was the awareness that faith itself is the creation/result of the agency of the living and active God.

By the 1978 revision of the Book of Common Prayer that same profession had been neutered to: “I will with God’s help.”

Notice how the change in the language invests considerable more trust in confessor’s unaided human ability to be faithful. Already we’re far gone from the language of Romans where only the faithfulness of Christ can elicit anything resembling faith on our part. Farther still is the phrasing in the United Methodist Book of Worship which omits the agency of God altogether from the baptismal vows. There’s only a semantic change between ‘God being my helper” and “I will, with God’s help.”

In the United Methodist Church’s Baptismal Covenant, the human being is the only active agent:

“I will.”

This is a far cry from the old Catholic rite that so believed in the Living God and God’s Enemy it included exorcism and placing salt on an infants tongue to preserve them from the forces of Sin and Death.

I will is indistinguishable from ‘I am able’ and apparently that I is capable of resisting evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms (we’re afraid apparently of saying ‘Satan’). That I is capable unaided to repent of sin and put our whole faith in Christ and serve him through the Church.

“I am able” in now way corresponds to the language of bondage and rectification and gift in the New Testament. Nor does it cohere with the language of the Holy Spirit which at Pentecost reverses our proclivity for idolatry by compelling faith in Peter’s listeners. Whenever the Old Testament mentions the Holy Spirit it does with verbs; the Spirit does because without it we cannot.

How ‘I will’ is any different than Pelagianism I’ll wait for someone to email and explain it to me.

I wonder if we resist the notion of the Donald being a Cyrus because we’ve lost our theological nerve when it comes to God being an active agent in the world?

In the mainline church we’ve certainly not failed in offering people a Loving God but have we, I wonder, offered them a Living God?

 

Is it better to say “The Holy Spirit is in you” or because you’ve been made in God’s image that “You are in the Holy Spirit?”

In this episode we talk about the lectionary readings for Pentecost. In addition to discussing ministry threads and whether XOXOXO constitutes spiritual adultery, we complain about confusing the Holy Spirit for your conscience and argue that the way most preachers and pew-sitters speak of the Holy Spirit both ignores the narrative of the Gospels and is blatantly anti-semitic.

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Immortal Combat

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2017 — 2 Comments

     Here’s my sermon from Ascension Sunday, kicking off a series on Romans.

     You probably saw the story in the Washington Post this week. I blogged about it too- as it turned an unwise move that netted me 73 colorful comments from all over the interwebs most of which contained too many four-lettered words to publish.

I didn’t know they had emojis for some of the acts critics suggested I do to myself.

You probably saw the article about how the Alexandria chapter of Washington Sport and Health this week cancelled the gym membership of Richard Spencer, the president of the Alt-Right/White Nationalist ‘National Policy Institute’.

Spencer was pumping iron in safe anonymity, when C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University Professor, recognized him and then confronted him. At first he denied his identity. But she was sure it was him. According to the other patrons, the professor lambasted him, yelling:

“Not only are you a Nazi — you are a cowardly Nazi… I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap — that this country belongs [to people like you]. . . . As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover.”

The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.

I doubt Richard Spencer was surprised at getting the heave-ho. The episode this week was only the latest in a string of ugly confrontations.

He was punched in the face on Inauguration Day by an anti-Trump protestor.

The chocolate shop on King Street near Spencer’s rented town house went bust after boycotters assumed both spaces shared the same owner.

Before he was working out at the gym this week, Spencer was leading a march of demonstrators in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Perhaps it’s because we’re kicking-off a summer long sermon series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans- the most important book of the New Testament- but reading the article in the Washington Post this week, my first thought was:

“That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” 

     I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, and I wouldn’t disagree with her characterization of Richard Spencer as a repugnant, cowardly Nazi. I’d even go father than her. I don’t know Dr. Fair but- if she’s a Christian- rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

———————————

      Now, hear me out. I’m NOT suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever beliefs he wishes to hold. 

I’m a Christian. I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe.

After all, today is the holy day we call Ascension, when the creeds shift from the past perfect tense to the present tense. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father who has given Jesus dominion over all the Earth.

Because of Ascension, because Jesus is Lord and King over all the Earth, it now makes no sense whatsoever for us to say “As a Christian, I believe ______ but that’s just my personal belief.” The language of personal beliefs and private faith is unintelligible in light of the Ascension.

Jesus is Lord- that’s a public, all-encompassing claim so, no, we’re not entitled to believe whatever we wish to believe. We’re required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus, believe what Jesus says and does, and what Richard Spencer believes grossly contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public.

By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity.

He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s an America First nationalist, which- by the way- is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot.

During the campaign he provoked audible revulsion in the NPR reporter who was interviewing him. Atlantic Magazine posted video of him leading a conference room full of disciples in the Sieg Heil salute.

In response to getting booted from Washington Sport and Health, Spencer tweeted: [Does this mean] “we can start kicking Jews and coloreds out of our business establishments?”

He has a knack for inducing revulsion.

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And that’s my problem- and your problem.

Because the Apostle Paul says it’s exactly someone like Richard Spencer for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

———————————-

     Obviously private gyms can do whatever they wish. And if it was a gym to which we all belonged then I’d be the first to say kick him out on his a@#.

But we’re not members of a club.

We’re members of a Body, a Body created by a particular kerygma, a particular proclamation: the Gospel proclamation that on the law-cursed cross God in Jesus Christ died for the ungodly and that that death defeated the Power of Death.

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon good people like you. Christ didn’t die to make nice people nicer. Christ died so that ungodly people might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church.

Where else could he go?

This is the only place. This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

I chose that last sentence with care:

This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” with a capital P and a capital S, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, the Power of Sin with a capital P and a capital S is the only way to speak Christian.

———————————

     Despite what you may think, the letters of Paul are not secondary to the Gospels, they are the means by which we read the Gospels, for the Gospels are not self-interpreting nor is their meaning self-evident.

No matter how your New Testament is ordered, Paul’s Gospel message predates the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1.16-17).

This is Paul’s thesis statement and from it he unwinds a single, long, non-linear argument. The argument itself is odd.

Like Paul’s other letters this one is addressed to a particular people but unlike Paul’s other letters this one continuously shifts focus from the congregation to the cosmic, that what concerns this little house church in Rome somehow also concerns all of creation.

The letter is also odd in that Paul sticks the salutations along with the introduction of the main theme not at the beginning of the letter but at the very end. The introduction of the main theme doesn’t come until the very end of the letter, like a final, it’s-all-been-building-to-this reveal:

  “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet” (16.20).

This whole letter, all 16 chapters of it, all the pretty parts we like to read at funerals and to stick onto Hallmark cards, all of it is driving towards this: “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.” 

     This whole letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.

That’s why throughout Romans Paul’s focus keeps shifting from the congregational to the cosmic and why the language he most often uses is martial language, the language of combat and battle and powers and invasion (4.25, 8.32 et al).

The theme of this whole letter is the defeat of the Power of Satan, and Paul’s thesis here in Romans 1 is that the Gospel is the Power by which God defeats that Power: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…”

———————————

     Trouble is-

Paul’s thesis statement doesn’t much sound like its about the defeat of anything much less the Power of Satan.

That’s because the English language lacks any equivalents to the Greek word Paul uses here, the word that gets translated throughout Romans as either “righteousness” or “justification.”

It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.

When it gets translated as “righteousness” we hear it as an attribute or adjective of God, as God’s holiness or perfection- the arrival of which to us doesn’t sound like it would be good news.

When it gets translated as “justification” we hear it as our acquittal, as God declaring us something we’re not: justified.

Neither is correct, and the problem is with the English translation. In the Greek, dikaiosyne is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names.

The only word in English that comes close to approximating dikaiosyne is rectify-rectification.

So “righteousness” here in Romans 1 isn’t an attribute or adjective. It’s a Power. It’s a Power to bring salvation to pass. It’s God’s powerful activity to make right- to rectify- what is wrong in the world.

To say that God is righteous is that God is at work to make right.

And the way God is at work in the world, rectifying what is wrong in the world, is the Gospel, the Word of the Cross. Through it, God’s rectifying power is revealed.

That word revealed– in Greek it’s apokaluptetai: Apocalypse. Invasion. 

     Literally, Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…” 

Note the present tense.

    ——————————-

     “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”

     You can only invade territory held by an enemy.

The language of invasion is the language of liberation.

For as much as we think Christianity is about forgiveness, the Gospel of John uses the word forgiveness only once and Paul never does- nor does he use the word “repent.”

Repenting is something we do.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans isn’t at all about anything we do. It’s everywhere about what God does.

It makes no sense to forgive slaves for their enslavement. Captives cannot repent their way out of bondage. Prisoners can only be freed. Liberated. Delivered.

You see- if you think of sin as something you do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

Only at the end of his long letter does Paul finally reveal the Enemy as Satan.

In chapter 3 he names the enemy Sin with a capital S and calls it an alien, anti-god Power whose power we are all under and from whom whom not one of us is able through our own agency to free ourselves (3.9).

In chapter 5 he make Sin-with-a-capital-S synonymous with Death-with-a-capital-D (5.12).

In chapter 8 he identifies the forms that the Power of Sin and Death take in our world to contend against us (8.35, 38) then he widens the lens to show how it’s not just us but all of creation that is held in captivity to the Power of Sin and Death (8.21).

And in chapter 13 he tells the Christians in Rome that they should put away the works of darkness and put on the “weapons of light” (13.12) which 7 chapters earlier he calls the “weapons of rectification” (6.13).

Then, finally at the end, he reveals the Enemy as the Power of Satan.

Cliff-Notes Takeaway:

Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation.

And only the power of this Gospel can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

    ——————————-

     Outside the Church this weekend it’s Memorial Day when we remember those who’ve fallen in war.

But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.

We’ve forgotten that salvation itself is a battle. We’ve forgotten, such that this all probably sounds strange to you.

We’ve forgotten that God has a real Enemy God’s determined to destroy (1 Cor 15.24-26).

We’ve forgotten that the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s invasion from on high and that our proclamation of his act upon the cross is itself the weapon by which the God of peace is even now rectifying a world where Satan still rules but but his defeat is not in question.

We’ve forgotten that the language of salvation is itself the language of war.

Salvation isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die.

Salvation is cosmic because all of creation is in captivity to the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, the Power of Satan whom Paul finally names at the end of his letter.

     Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.

     Salvation is God’s invasion of earth, in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as repugnant as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer (2.1).

That’s not to say you’re all as awful as Richard Spencer; it’s to say that all of us are captive, because all of creation is captive.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly (5.10).

And not one of us is safe from God’s rectifying work.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views.

It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might by assaulted by the only Word with the Power to vanquish him and create him anew.

Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:

 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

For in the Gospel the rectifying work of God is invading the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who was obedient all the way to the cross, a faithfulness which has power to create faith…’”

“[A Power]…that will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

——————————

      During their confrontation at Washington Sport and Health, Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, yelled at Richard Spencer: “I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”

The gym later terminated his membership without comment.

In all likelihood inviting him to church would be as bad for our business as the management of the gym judged it to be bad for their business.

But maybe ‘bad for business’ is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ, the weapon which surpasses all understanding.

You haven’t really comprehended the cosmic scope of God’s salvation until you realized it includes both you and Richard Spencer, both of you potential victims of the awful invading power of the Gospel of God’s unconditional grace.

I haven’t actually invited Richard Spencer to this church.

Yet.

But I did leave a copy of this sermon in the door of his townhouse yesterday.

I don’t know that he’d ever show up.

But I do know- I’m not ashamed of it- I do know that this Gospel is powerful enough to defeat the Powers of the Enemy that enslaves him.

 

In the odd world of the inter webs and podcasting, I’ve not only become fast friends with an 80 year old woman (Fleming Rutledge) but also with a podcasting pastor-theologian, Scott Jones.

Scott hosts both the Give and Take and the New Persuasive Words podcasts. He interviewed on Give and Take about my book, Cancer is Funny, as well as about podcasting, preaching, and politics (“Christians have to believe that Evangelicals could be right, that it’s possible God is using Donald Trump as a Cyrus figure).

Scott says his interview with Mandy Smith is doing better stats-wise than his interview with me so, quickly now, click over and check it out. Here’s the link.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/give-and-take/id1054531804?mt=2

 

 

My friend and my minion, Eric Hall and David King respectively, will be doing an online seminar with Dr. Eric Hall beginning June 5 at 11:00 a.m.

Suffering and God: Theodicy for Dummies 
An online seminar with Dr. Eric Hall
I thought it would be nice to open it up to all of you out there on the inter webs who read the blog too. After all, it’s free and accessible from any phone or computer.
The series will address two books: Dr. Hall’s The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Almighty and David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? This eight-part series will begin with Hall’s book and a discussion about how we go about defining God, what God’s nature is, and how God is present to us.
From there, the series will move to a discussion of the issue of theodicy, or God’s relationship to the evil around us, focusing on Hart’s book. We will be asking the very fundamental question doubters of Christian faith pose: why does God permit evil? The class will end in a synthesis discussion of the two books and their relationship with each other.

Dr. Eric Hall is Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy and Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. Dr. Hall, a Roman Catholic theologian, received his PhD in the Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate School.

We hope you will join us for this wonderful opportunity. Please email David King (dking@aldersgate.net) if interested. This is an online seminar, accessible from your computer or phone. Links and instructions for participating will be sent to those who are interested. The discussions will also be viewable on Facebook.
This class will be the first of several featuring thoughtful authors and our staff. David will also soon be doing a series with Will Willimon on Karl Barth’s slim volume lectures on the Apostles Creed, Dogmatics in Outline, and we plan to continue the series after David returns to school in the fall.