Taylor and Jason sat down for a conversation with Rev. Alex Joyner, author and a District Superintendent in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Joyner was ordained a deacon in 1989 and elder in 1993. He has served appointments in Dallas, Texas; York, England; Unionville and Charlottesville. Joyner served as campus minister at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia. He was appointed to Franktown UMC in 2005.

Prior to entering the ordained ministry, Joyner was a radio news director and on-air personality in the Charlottesville area.

Joyner holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia, a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and an additional Masters in Religious Studies while at UVA.

He’s the author of several publications including Where Do I Go Now, God?, a vocational discernment curriculum and DVD for young adults published by Abingdon Press. He is a regular contributor to Ministry Matters, the FaithLink adult curriculum from the United Methodist Publishing House, and teaches in the Course of Study program at Perkins.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. We’ll also be recording some live interviews from LA at the Theology Beer Camp.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

 

Nocturnal Omission

Jason Micheli —  January 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

Do you have to be born again to be a Christian? Here’s my sermon from this weekend on John 3.1-15.

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

———————

     Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:

If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.

No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?

If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.

You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.

But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.

If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.

Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:

Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?

     It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”

We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.

And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”

So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.

But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:

You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian. 

    If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.

You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.

According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.

You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.

If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.

We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.

———————

     We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.

Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’

You must be born again.

Or-

You must be born from above.

Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

But right there- there’s the question, right?

Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?

Not that question.

And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?

This question:

Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind? 

     Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?

———————-

    We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.

When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”

And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.

When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.

So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.

We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.

Except-

That you in “You must be born again” is plural.

It’s “You all must be born again.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.

And Jesus answers with “You all…”

Like it or not, we are in that you.

But-

Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.

After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.

Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.

When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.

So maybe-

Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.

Only-

Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.

So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.

But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?

What if-

Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.

Take it back.

From those other kind of Christians.

Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.

Being born anothen

It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.

Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.

You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”

Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.

What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.

You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.

Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.

We could push back.

And we’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?

———————

     Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.

We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.

We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.

Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”

In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.

And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.

Skip ahead.

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”

And what does John show you?

Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.

And what does Pilate say?

“Behold, the man.”

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.

And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?

Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.

Water and the spirit, the sixth day.

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?

Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week.

And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?

For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.

Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.

He breathes on them.

Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

They’re made new again.

Anothen.

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.

———————

     Chuck Norris is right.  What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.

But-

We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.

That we are.

Born again. Born from above.

All of us.

Every one of us.

Even you all.

It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.

There is no distinction.

     All of us, in our sin, were in Adam. 

     And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.

     What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.

In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.

There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.

Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.

The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.

Consider yourselves anothened.

Being born again

     It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.

It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.

It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.

It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.

It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.

It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.

     Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God. 

     It’s his work, not ours, that saves.

It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.

What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.

If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.

If we get born again.

What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.

For all of us.

So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-

The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.

Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again

And if that same someone asks you for a when-

When were you born again? When were you saved?

You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.

John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.

———————

     It’s Good News.

But it’s not easy.

What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.

Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.

You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.

You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.

You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.

You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.

You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.

And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.

You’ve got to see.

See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.

It’s about sight.

Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.

To be born again is to be given new eyes.

Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.

He should know-

Even that’s easier than to be born again

To become who you already are in Jesus Christ

To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.

 

Ryan Parker is the author of Cinema as Pulpit and contributes to the Pop Theology website. Here’s his recent review of my book:

That we have all been touched by cancer, if not personally, then relationally, is why Jason Micheli’s new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, is such an important book. It’s also my first must-read recommendation of 2017.


Thirty-something husband, father, and pastor Micheli was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, mantle cell lymphoma, that is so severe it can’t be “staged” like others. It was a diagnosis that resulted in an instant, intensive, eight-week course of chemotherapy that would wreak havoc on his healthy body and lead him to question everything he thought he knew about God and faith. It also resulted in one of the funniest and more insightful works of theology I’ve read in some time.

Cancer is funny for Micheli, in large part, because he has a seemingly indefatigable sense of humor, which, thankfully for us readers, was consistently lost on his doctors and nurses, adding even more laugh-out-loud moments to his reflections. Even in the most painful and humiliating moments of his treatment, Micheli could crack wise. But this sense of humor is not a mask, as Micheli makes himself emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to his audience, laying bare the ways in which this experience almost broke him. I found myself laughing out loud in one paragraph and reaching for the tissues in the next and challenged by his insights on faith and his theological speculations in each chapter.

Cancer is also funny in the ways ways in which it leads Micheli to re-think theology, faith, and Christian practice. At the heart of the book is a central question: “If so much of the Bible’s faith takes the form of complaint, then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief” (192). Micheli forces us to consider the ways in which our faith is often incompatible with the very God we claim to have faith in. He adds, “Since we purpose-driven moderns have transmuted so much of the mystery of faith down to its utility (Three Biblical Steps to Success in the Workplace), it’s not surprising how more often than not, our language of faith—our songs, our prayers, our cross-stitched and retweeted pieties—is meant to reassure us that, like State Farm, God is there” (190). Micheli’s book is, in a way, redeeming. It allows us to see anew all the experiences of anger, frustration, doubt, and loneliness (those times when we don’t or can’t experience the Divine—whatever either of those words mean) as potentially (inherently?) sacred and faith-filled.

At the same time, this experience of doubt should force us into a greater reliance on community, which, Micheli suggests, is at the heart of faith. He writes, “Our faith in the suffering love of God is intelligible, then, not through abstract answers to philosophical questions but only through the love of a community who suffer with us” (163). Micheli is quick to point out the particularities of the human experience and argues that, like cancer, there is no universal experience (or one-size-fits-all faith) to which we can all relate. Of course, this isn’t completely true as suffering is universal. It is so prevalent that, as Micheli points out time and time again, even God experiences it. So, as we either suffer ourselves or align ourselves with those who do, perhaps we participate in the Divine.

I’m tempted to just list all of Micheli’s insights here…all of those moments that made me put the book down and walk around. But, seriously, whether you’re professional clergy, a person of faith, or simply have a pulse, you need to buy the book and read it. In the context of his memories of fear, joy, and suffering, their impact is inimitable and undeniable.

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo (Fortress Press, 226 pgs.) is available here. For those of you in Los Angeles, Jason will be speaking at Westwood United Methodist Church on Sunday, January 22nd, at 10:00 a.m.

In our culture, the one truth imposed upon almost everybody is that you never impose your truth on others, especially your moral or religious truth. 

   But imposing is not the same thing as proposing.

Someone on Golgotha responds to Jesus’ ‘I thirst’ by holding up a sponge soaked with sour wine on a branch of hyssop.

Whoever did that for Jesus, it’s an odd thing to do.

Hyssop is a small, bushy plant. It looks like thyme or marjoram. It’s not a very strong plant. You wouldn’t look at it and think it could bear the weight of a sponge soaked with wine.

So why use it? Why at the cross? Why not a stick or a pole or a sword?

In the Old Testament, the Book of Exodus, hyssop is used to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites; so that, when the angel of death passed over their homes they would be spared judgment.

Just as Moses used hyssop and lambs’ blood to seal that first covenant so now does that same plant and Christ’s blood seal a new one. There’s more going on at the cross than the fulfillment of a Psalm or two.

At the beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist meets Jesus and declares: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.’

And earlier in this same chapter, when Jesus is judged by Pilate it’s at noon. The very same hour that thousands of passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple.

And when Jesus is dying on the cross his leg bones are not broken- even though that was the Roman practice. His bones are not broken just as the bones of the passover lamb are not broken.

And when Jesus says he’s thirsty, he’s brought blood-red wine dripping from a branch of hyssop- the same plant that marks the people whom God will save.

When Jesus says ‘I thirst’ it’s not to fulfill this scripture or that biblical passage.

It’s to fulfill everything.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called ‘the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.’ According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible ‘what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’ The blood of Jesus, says Luke, ‘makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’ And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was ‘destined since before the foundation of the world.’ 

     The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross.

     When Jesus says ‘I thirst’ everything God has ever intended is at last coming together. It’s just two words: I, thirst. But it’s everything. And, if you’ve been paying attention and can connect the dots, it CLAIMS everything.

     If this Gospel is true, it’s not simply true for me or true for you.

When we get to the cross, Christians have to bite the bullet and go against the cultural grain.

   God save us from people who bully their beliefs on others, but God save us from Christians who are so nervous about the claims of the cross that they never speak about Jesus or act as though he mattered to anyone but themselves.

Now I know what you’re going to say: Who are we to say that our truth is superior to the truths others live by?

And that’s a good question, if it’s question of ‘our’ truth. But when you get to the cross, the claim of the Gospel is, simply, that it’s the truth. It’s the true story about the world and everybody in the world.

It’s the truth that from before creation began the heart of God has been bent towards the cross and that in Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross we witness as much of God as there is ever to see. And what we see there, what we see there on his cross, is that God is thirsty. Unquenchably thirsty.

For us.

For all of us.

And I know- this all sounds like a terrifically arrogant assertion.

Unless it’s true.

 

This exegetical rant brought to by a conversation we recently had on the podcast:

The other day marked the Baptism of the Lord on the liturgical calendar, reminding me of how 10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.  As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest. When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions. There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book. So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Nonetheless, he wasn’t entirely incorrect.

 

Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary. You don’t get sent to a cross for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

He was wrong though to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels. It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism the story on the liturgical calendar this week. As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus. Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence. Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different. And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

 So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle.

A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see. 

     And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’ 

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Skeptics will tell you that you can’t trust the gospels because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Those who choose to believe the political message of the gospels has been expunged or obscured make the mistake of assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

 


Or so Jason leads in he and Morgan’s conversation with Danielle Shroyer about her new book.

Original sin, as descried by Danielle Shroyer is the ‘red sock’ in our theological laundry. In her new book, ‘Original Blessing, Putting Sin in Its Place’, Shroyer explores how we are not born separated from God as God has chosen fidelity over separation. We are not separate from God, and if we are, it’s on our end.

You can find her book here.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, Alex Joyner, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. And some more Fleming too! Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

Last chance: The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

 

 

     It’s a strange-sounding word: homage.

It’s a word that feels as though it belongs dressed up in period costumes, a word that could be found in an heirloom bible.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s light intruding upon the darkness comes at a moment in Israel’s story when all the promises of God seemed like broken memories. Not unlike the time when King Herod rules Israel and Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God’s light would shine bright and clear not just to those within the covenant but to those far outside it. A time when a caravan of nations would travel to the Promised Land to present this God with gifts and to pay him ‘homage.’

That’s how the Hebrew in Isaiah 60 puts it: homage.

St. Matthew, in his Nativity story, tells of this prophecy being fulfilled some 500 years later in the journey of the magi. According to the hymn, these star-followers were “kings,” leaders of the gentile world coming to honor the King of Kings. According to that same hymn, there are three of these “kings.” According to Christian tradition they have names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

And according to the poet TS Eliot, after having encountered the baby in Bethlehem, these star-followers returned home, “no longer at ease” in the world they had previously known.

Tradition has done much with the magi, but Matthew is mum about all of that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about the magi but he is clear and emphatic about why they’ve come: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask the scholars and priests in Jerusalem, “For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to pay him homage.” 

     And when they arrive at the manger, before they give him gold, before they give him frankincense, before they give him myrrh- they drop down onto their knees and they give him homage.

Every Christmas season I like to peruse the newsstand magazines- weeklies like Time and Newsweek– to read their obligatory cover stories about Christmas.

Usually the articles promise new discoveries and have provocative titles like: ‘Was It Really a Silent Night?’ ‘Who Was Jesus’ Real Father?’ or ‘The Christmas Story the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know.’

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the newsstand at Barnes and Nobles, and I came across a story that featured Richard Dawkins giving his thoughts on Christmas.

Dawkins, as you may already know, is an Oxford biologist and something of a rabid atheist. He’s also the author of the bestseller, The God Delusion.

So who wouldn’t want his thoughts on Christmas?

I flipped through the article and a few of Dawkins’ Christmas comments caught my eye.

“I participate for family reasons,” says Dawkins. “With a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics…so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as holiday season…understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”  

Wow, he’d be a kick-ass party guest, wouldn’t he?

Richard Dawkins is by any academic or intellectual measure a wise man. He may understand much about a great many things that would leave my head spinning. Yet, I don’t think he understands- I don’t think he knows much about that word.

Homage.

Matthew calls them “wise” men so it’s easy for us to forget that the magi don’t know any scripture. When they follow the star to Jerusalem, the magi have to ask the city’s priests and scholars what the star means.

Matthew calls them wise men, but they don’t know what Messiah means. They don’t understand the ways in which this Christ child is already and will be later a threat to the ways things are and to the powers that be. When they approach the manger in Bethlehem the true identity of the baby inside is still very much a mystery to them.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from paying him homage.

They don’t let what they don’t know, what they still have questions about, what they still don’t understand- they don’t let all that keep them from giving him homage.

Their journey, their visit, Christmas- it was about more than gift-giving. It was about more than paying their dues or finding the answers to their questions.

It was about homage. It was kneeling and bowing and submitting. Worship.

It was an act of humble commitment. A commitment that came with the expectation of servant-hood.

     Before they give their gifts, before they understand who he is or what he means for the world…they kneel before him, Immanuel- God with us, and they give him their lives.

They give him homage. 

     That’s what makes them wise. 

     Knowing God, being close to God- it’s not so much about understanding or knowing the scriptures or being a religious insider. It’s about giving homage.

When it comes to approaching the manger, it’s not about first having all the answers. It’s not about getting your junk in order before you a take a step closer. When it comes to Jesus, worship comes first.

     What I mean is…

There are things about God you can only understand once you’ve given him your life.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I know someone like Richard Dawkins would say that it’s intellectually dishonest. I also know it’s true.

It’s almost an impossible thing to do, to hand over your whole self to Christ. It’s almost impossible, but it’s easier than waiting for all your doubts to be erased. It’s easier than remaining who you are and living for yourself only.

It’s almost impossible but it’s, entirely so, wise.

Is juice for Jesus’ blood or water for Jesus’ sweat the better beverage vehicle for Eucharist? Or how about milk? Does atonement mean we suckle at the breasts of Jesus who is our life? These questions and other asides follow in the conversation Taylor Mertins and I shared with Thomas Jay Oord about his new book The Uncontrolling Love of God.

And, in truth, breastfeeding from Jesus is less bothersome to me than process theology. All the same, Thomas was a great guest and his book is great too. You can check it out here.

As we slide into 2017 we’ve already got a episodes lined up for you waiting to be edited and posted with Danielle Shroyer, J. Daniel Kirk, Jeffery Pugh, Alex Joyner, and Mandy Smith.

In the coming weeks we’re recording episodes with the likes of Addison Hodges Hart, Ched Myers, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Stanley Hauerwas, and Scot McKnight. And some more Fleming too! Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

Last chance: The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

 

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

28. How Can We Conceive of the Trinity? 

We cannot.

As creatures, it’s ludicrous to think we can conceive of how God can be both and always three and one, anymore than we can conceive of what it means for God to be both divine and human.

However, that the Trinity is inconceivable is only a problem if you foolishly believe the word ‘God’ is somehow less mysterious.

God is the Creator of all that is and, as such, ‘God’ is necessarily outside the order of all beings. God cannot be classified among beings; God cannot be contrasted or compared with other objects. God holds all things in their existence at every moment of their existence but is not at any moment located among those things. God, by definition, is not an inhabitant of the universe. Whenever we speak of ‘God’ we’re already attempting to grasp beyond the limits of our language, which is not to suggest that to call this ‘God’ Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a contradiction.

The Trinity is no less and no more mysterious than ‘God,’ for in neither case do we know what we’re talking about. 

We cannot see how God can be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit any more than we can see what we mean by the word ‘God.’ Thus, Father, Son, and Spirit become our way of remembering that we cannot see God but instead must be shown God. Trinity is shorthand for our belief that only God can reveal God and even then, having been shown, we see only as through a glass, and dimly so.

Yet, that God is inconceivable does not make it nonsense to call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for Trinity follows from the basic principle:

Everything that is in God is God.

That is, there is nothing in God which might not have been in God nor is there ever anything which God might be but is not. God is a Being with no potential, which is to say God is perfect plentitude, fullness and sufficient unto himself, immune to change.

A Being with no potential can have no “accidents”- no features that are ancillary to its being. Every feature of God, in other words, belongs to God’s essence; they are essential to God’s very being.

When we call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, therefore, we merely confess our belief that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit sent by him are not “accidents” but are essential to whatever we mean by the word “God” whom Jesus called his Father.

By naming God Trinity, we profess that Jesus and his Spirit are in and of and from God, and because everything in God is God then Jesus and the Spirit belong to God’s very essence.

Inconceivably, they are God, three yet one.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” 1 Corinthians 13.12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Godson

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2017 — 1 Comment

Dear Elijah,

Your mother and father called me today, New Year’s Day, to inform Ali and me that we were “called” to be your godparents. Thanks to his seminary degree, your Dad, like me, is savvy and manipulative enough to throw that word ‘call’ around to get what he wants. The rub is whether in time I’ll be found to be someone you want in your life.

Your parents waited nearly three months after your baptism to bestow this vocation upon me. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that proves to have been an auspicious delay or an ominous one- or, more likely, just lazy parenting.

Elijah, I didn’t ask or expect such a burden to be laid on me nor, truthfully, am I in any way convinced I’m fit to serve as your godfather. I’m not very virtuous or saintly. I don’t practice what I preach; it’s easier to preach. I’m terrible at remembering dates and occasions; I never send cards. I can do spot-on Brando impressions (look him up), but often I’m still so surprised to discover I’m a Christian that I doubt I’m a good candidate for the sleeves-rolled-up spiritual sage role.

Despite my misgivings and shortcomings, I wonder if your parents conscripting me into being your godfather is exactly right. After all, if I live up to this role then you will understand what I mean when I say that to be a Christian is to be thrust, by your baptism, into a life and into relationships you would never choose for yourself apart from Jesus Christ. If such a lack of choice is a mark of a baptized Christian, then perhaps there is no more appropriate way to become a godparent than to be called on New Year’s Day and be told- not asked- who you are now. A godparent.

And if you believe, as I’ll make damn sure you do, that Christians are a family created not through biology but through baptism then my status as your godfather rates me neck and neck with your aunts and grandmas.

Of course, Elijah, you had even less say in this relationship than me. All you can do right now is splurt, feed, poo, and yank (with something approaching delight) on my goatee. You didn’t choose me. But again, if I live up to my role as your godfather then one day you’ll understand that your parents’ disregard for your opinion and choice in this matter- a matter that less courageous parents would term “personal” or “private”- is constitutive of their faith and what it means to belong to that motley People called Church. St. Paul says in one of his letters that to belong to such a People is like being a part of the human body. No body part, Paul writes, can say to another body part “I have no need of you.” In other words, Paul implies, to belong to the People called Church is to wish you could say to another “I have no need of you” but, because Jesus is Lord, you can’t. You’re stuck with the bastards.

Well, Elijah, thanks to your parents and your baptism, you’re stuck with a bastard like me. I’ve no doubt there will be times when you would like to tell me that you have no need of me in your life, but in the meantime I may as well try to make myself of use. I wonder, have your parents told you whence comes your name?

Here it is, 1 Kings 18:

“Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’”

That’s how Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, makes his entrance in scripture, talking to a king about rain. It’s actually a pretty awesome story: Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or as I learned to say in Hebrew class, Ba-al, Elijah and the prophets of Ba-al.

Elijah doesn’t really hang around all that long in the Old Testament, but the stories of Elijah are go-to’s for a certain kind of preacher. And no story more than this one, this story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. One famous preacher, long ago, ended his sermon with the words, “If God be god, follow him, if Baal be god, then follow him, and go to hell.” 

Preaching on Elijah, Elijah, always seems to zero in on the people’s fire-side, altar-side confession: ‘The Lord is indeed God; the Lord is indeed God.’ But the story doesn’t end there. The story doesn’t end when the Lord answers with fire. The story goes on. Elijah says to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of rushing rain.”  And from the top of Mt Carmel, Elijah looks out toward the sea. A little cloud was rising. “You better go before the rain stops you” Elijah tells Ahab.

In a little while the heavens grow black with clouds and wind; there is a heavy rain.

Elijah, who had said to Ahab “there will be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”, three years later Elijah says to Ahab, “you better move along before the rain comes.” 

And then there is a heavy rain.

That’s where the story ends, Elijah. The first story about Elijah in the bible: Elijah and the prophets of Baal. It’s a long story, Elijah, but for all the fire imagery it comes down to rain. Who will bring the rain? It’s a your god or my god, kind of thing. It doesn’t get any more basic than rain. It’s a first commandment, tablet smashing, golden calf confrontation.

The story poses a choice: which god is life giving, which god gives life?

Two, three years in on the famine, no rain…..which god is it going to be?

The rain- it’s a metaphor for what, for which, for who shall sustain and nourish life.

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions about the God who gives you life, who sustains your life, who nourishes your life, who promises you life, today, tomorrow, everyday?” Elijah, your namesake asks.

Elijah’s question- as elemental as it appears- it’s not a simple question. It’s not at all simple. And no way is it easy, Elijah.

The encounter, the confrontation, the choice- every day- between this God and every other god, between this God and every other temptation and every other distraction, every other value.

Elijah’s question- the choice- it’s so basic that you have to answer it everyday.

Everyday you have to choose.

Every day, every day, every one of us makes a choice about which god is life.

Which god is it going to be today?

‘Will you serve God or Money?’

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’

They’re inconvenient choices. And no less for you, Elijah, than in Elijah’s day because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

Therefore, your baptism- if done rightly- makes you not just a Christian. It makes you odd.

By the time you can read this letter, Elijah, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? Like choosing me as your godfather, they did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you. By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourself, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have a mind worth making up.

You don’t have a mind worth making up that is, not until you’ve had your mind (and your heart and your habits too) shaped by Christ. How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself? After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Elijah, I realize telling you you don’t have a mind worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves. Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose. Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion. It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith. It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

We’ve baptized you and your parents have chosen me as your godfather before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself.

We have- they have- done so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

By immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing and by giving you a storyteller like me against your will your parents go against the grain of the culture.

It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that your parents clearly accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

You might be wondering, Elijah, how in the world a little thing like baptism could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you. After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

No. You should know as my godson that for the first Christians Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before. For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

As you’ll learn in confirmation, Elijah, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord. You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other. Which is why when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might. Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua. If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Elijah, there’s a reason. A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too. Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’ Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts. What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come. Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Eijah-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to assume that faith refers to personal beliefs or private feelings or that ‘salvation’ means life after death. Nothing could be further off the mark.

The word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’ Allegiance.

Being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Elijah, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

It’s about following after Jesus.

It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

Immerse.

Elijah,

The truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor. The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone. If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Elijah you’re beginning to intuit how what your parents have done by baptizing you and by calling me to be your godfather will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been. It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’ Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross. But the way of the Cross is the path to which your parents commit you and commit me to you.

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus. On the other hand, Elijah, as much as anything what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe is trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

And with that promise in mind I leave you with the choice proffered by your name: Which god is life-giving?

You have to choose, Elijah.

Every day.

Love,

Jason

Jana Riess of the Religion News Service recently interviewed me about my book. She’s a good reader and a thoughtful interviewer, and she chalks my book up on her Top 10 List for the year.

Here’s the interview. You can find it here too.

It’s probably weird to say that one of your favorite books of the year is the memoir of a young guy battling cancer—what am I, some kind of sadist?—but it’s true. Podcaster Jason Micheli’s memoir Cancer Is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo, which hit bookstores a few weeks ago, is on my top ten list for 2016.

It’s not only hilarious and poignant, nailing the old “I laughed, I cried, it became part of me” wish any reader has with a memoir, but it’s also deeply, surprisingly theological. You’ll find no clichés here. 

The author is a pastor who was diagnosed with “stage-serious” cancer at age 37. I caught up with him by phone a couple of weeks ago. — JKR

RNS: First, tell me about the diagnosis and what happened to you.

Micheli: Almost two years ago this Advent, I finally went to a GI doctor after about six months of having uncomfortable abdominal pains that I chalked up to spicy food or other things. It would go away for a while and I’d forget about it. But two Advents ago it just got unbearable. The GI doc sent me for a CAT scan, and I was told I would get the results in about a week. But I got a call that same night, and the doctor asked me if I was sitting down.

That’s when I found out that my intestine was inverted and it was probably caused by a tumor. They rushed me to surgery. It turned out I had a 10” by 10” tumor and that it was caused by possibly one of five rare cancers. I had mantle cell lymphoma, which affects very few people, but typically they’re men in their 60s and 70s.

I began a year of intense chemo. And I finished that up about a year ago this past fall.

RNS: Were you journaling and writing this book while you were having treatment?

Micheli: Yeah, partly because of my role as a pastor. I was in church in the pulpit one Sunday, and then the next Sunday I was gone. I mean I just disappeared from the life of my church with no notice.

They all treated me as though I was already dead. And that had less to do with me, I realized, than it did with unresolved grief they had in their own lives over other people who had cancer. So many people had no idea how to process this emotionally or theologically.

Part of my vocation as a pastor is to live inside this fishbowl, and it didn’t make sense to hide this most significant thing away from them. So I decided to write about this for them as it was happening, and to do it in the way that they would themselves if they weren’t worried about what their pastor would say.

RNS: What do you mean, “worried about what their pastor would say”? What does that look like?

Micheli: I decided to narrate my experiences without stained-glass language. To not feel the need to protect God from my real feelings and questions. To try to take the language of the faith to see if it could lift the luggage.

I was inundated with people giving me books, some of which were “Christian” books filled with clichés and sentimentality. As a pastor I’m savvy enough to know that those books are crap, but someone else might actually be damaged by that demand for constant cheerfulness. I wanted to be as open and frank about I could in the moment, about the experiences of shame that your body can bring you, from impotence and everything that comes with chemotherapy.

But I also wanted to write with humor. Personally, that’s one of the frames of reference I have in my own life. I do theologically believe that if suffering brings you closer to God, then joy is a part of that. Joy and grief mingle together. That happens in the cancer ward too.

micheliadj

RNS: In the book you raise the classic questions about why people suffer, but you speak strongly against the “God gave me cancer so that . . . [insert your lesson here]” mindset. Even as you sympathize with that desire to understand why.

Micheli: God doesn’t do things like this to you to make you a better pastor, or a better person. I know that. But I still went through a period of “Why is God doing this to me?” even though I didn’t theologically believe that.

I think that the most Christian posture toward suffering is to rage against it, not to try to explain it. But I still went through that period where I wanted to know why God was doing this to me. One of the undertones that I wanted with the title is that suffering can sometimes make being a Christian seem foolish, so the joke’s on Christians for believing.

RNS: In the book you write beautifully about marriage, like that it was only after your diagnosis and not the dozens of weddings you performed that you ever noticed that the “in sickness and in health” vow always leads with the expectation of sickness.

Micheli: To be frank, it was probably the first time in our lives when shit got real. We have two kids, and they’re both adopted, and there have been some challenges. But this was the first time in our marriage that it became clear how grateful I was for this person I married, and that her character was not something I even needed to wonder about.

We’re so scared of death as a culture. But one of the things we’re choosing when we choose a spouse is someone who can help us die well. I certainly don’t want to do that anytime soon, but I know that I married someone I can count on to help me die well.

RNS: One of the things I loved most about the book is how your situation caused you to look at familiar Bible passages in fresh ways. For example, when Jesus is washing Peter’s feet, you notice that it’s not the act itself that freaks Peter out. He only objects to what Jesus says about how the footwashing shares in Jesus’ death. And Peter doesn’t want to die.

Micheli: All theology is contextual, right? All of a sudden, I was dying. Everything looked different from the perspective. It made me aware of how for many of the stories, particularly in the Gospels, we’ve accrued so many layers of interpretation, but there’s a first-order layer that’s human that we miss. With the footwashing story, we tie that into the Atonement, but on a more human level, it’s telling us that Peter doesn’t want to die. And in the Passion, Jesus makes sure his mother is taken care of when he dies. And Jesus makes sure he forgives the people he needs to forgive before he dies.

If the Bible is a template for how we live, the Passion—which is the longest part of the Gospels—should be a template for how we die. Jesus gives us a way to die.

RNS: What are you hoping will happen with the book?

Micheli: I’m hoping that people in my situation, or people who care about someone in a situation like mine, will be helped by it. That’s the first demographic I have in mind. But just as important to me is that it is a book of theology. I want it to help people who either don’t know how that Christian language works or who have questions or doubts about how it works. I hope the book is able to help them see how someone can speak Christian in the midst of suffering.

Someone who blurbed the book said—and I think it’s correct—that if we’re not able to speak our faith in the midst of suffering, it’s basically useless. I wanted to give a shot of confidence or strength to people who are questioning whether we’re just kidding ourselves with this faith language.

For Episode 67, Crackers and Grape Juice were able to catch up with Melissa Greene at the OPEN Faith conference. Melissa is the co-pastor of GracePointe Church in Franklin, TN, a former member of the Grammy-nominate group Avalon, and Hope Curator at Timothy’s Gift.

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

God Gets Particular

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2016 — 3 Comments

 

This sweet baby Jesus in his golden-fleece diapers is God. In the flesh.

That was the basic gist of my Christmas Eve sermon as it was, I’m sure, for most of my clergy colleagues.

Christmas Eve isn’t the time for cute or clever surprises. Or at least I thought so. Apparently we had some visitors who had never heard that before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

One was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the 9:00 service. She was about my age, I think. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

She had this hectic sort of presence about her- like she hadn’t been sure about coming to church that night and she was even less sure about approaching me.

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying. That’s how she identified herself.

I started to empathize with her, but she went on to tell me how none of them had ever really gone to church or been religious before- lots of people apologize like that at Christmas. Before I could really say anything in reply she asked me: ‘Is God…’ she caught herself, ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ 

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Do you know how long I spent writing it?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes, they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else.

I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her mom, her mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church.

My guess is she liked the idea that the God who would meet her mom was as loving, merciful and forgiving as Jesus is supposed to be.

Merry Christmas,’ I said.

She wasn’t the only who came up to me that night.

Another was an older man. He was dressed expensively and wore a black wool beret on his head. To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he was from out of town so, chances are, he belongs to somebody here.

He told me he was in banking. He said that he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me at the end of the 7:00 service, and he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’

I couldn’t tell whether it was a condescension or a question.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

‘Really?’ he said, and his face suddenly looked irritated, worried.

He didn’t say anything more and I can’t read minds, but my guess is he was thinking that this baby Jesus was going to grow up. That one day this baby was going to say and do things, this baby was going to make demands and exert expectations that made him uncomfortable.

That if incarnation is the ante then he didn’t want to get stuck with Jesus.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I said.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…

So…Christmas is over on all but the liturgical calendar. Trees and decorations have been taken down. We’ve exchanged gifts and greetings and here we are again…stuck with Jesus.

That’s what I couldn’t say on Christmas Eve. It would’ve made a bad impression on all the bright-eyed visitors we had here. It would be better if they came back a few times before we let them know what they’re getting into, before we let them know the baby in the manger grows up to be Jesus.

That’s what Paul’s Christ hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of incarnation, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, it isn’t just that ‘God is with us.’ That sounds nice and comforting.

It’s that God is with us as Jesus.

The message of Christmas isn’t that God came among us as a baby, that doesn’t sound too demanding.

No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the baby who grew up to be Jesus. Those are the uncomfortable claims we make. That in Jesus we’ve seen all of God there is to discover.

Now, even though I’m a minister, I can tell you that my life would be whole lot easier if God would just remain abstract and aloof. I could get on with my priorities more quickly if I could just say: Well, Jesus- he only gives us a partial glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

Things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular.

Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. Think about what that means.

Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’

Now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

When someone wrongs us or hurts us, we’ve got to forgive them not just once but over and again because Jesus said so and in Jesus all things hold together.

When someone asks for our help and we don’t want to, we don’t have the time or we doubt the sincerity of the request, not only do we have to help we’ve  got to go farther than they’ve even asked because that’s what Jesus said to do, and through him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

When the world tempts us into thinking about issues or people in black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to and he is the firstborn of creation. 

That’s what I couldn’t say at Christmas.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Caution

Buyer Beware

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes because this is one difficult, demanding baby

I couldn’t ask:

Do you have anger against someone you love?

Have you sinned against a neighbor?

Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Because you may want to think twice before saying Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen.

After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

In other words, we Christians say: It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks of God. It’s that Jesus is what God speaks to us.  It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God. It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us. It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God. It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God. COMPLETELY.

You can search under every star in the sky but the totality of God’s Truth and Beauty and Splendor is to be found in this particular Jew from Nazareth, in his life from cradle to cross.

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.

For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. The Dali Lama might seem less threatening to us. Political pundits might make more sense to us.

But to welcome the baby at Bethlehem is to find yourself stuck with Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me at the end of the 11:00 service. The 11:00 crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up that late at night.

This man was old, maybe Dr. Perry’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

He came up to me down here by the altar steps and shook my hand. And, with sincerity, he said: ‘I enjoyed your talk. Now were you saying Jesus and God are the same person?’

And I felt like saying: ‘How much clearer can I be? I must have said it a dozen times. Do you people need me to draw pictures?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’ 

And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’

His voice trailed off.

He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

If Jesus and God are one and the same, then that means that everything Jesus said and did- that’s the fullness of God.

And to try to live his life- even though it’s difficult and demanding, even though we can’t do it perfectly- to try living his life that’s what it means to be fully alive.

Judging from the look on his face, my guess is I could have finished his sentence.

But instead I said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

 

In Episode 66, Taylor and Jason speak with William Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence, Torture and the Eucharist, and Being Consumed. William Cavanaugh is a Professor of Theology at DePaul University where he has been teaching since 2010. He received his B.A. in theology from the University of Notre Dame in 1984, and an M.A. from Cambridge University in 1987.

In this episode, William talks about religion as a construct of the State, welcoming the stranger, and imposing your values upon your children.

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

In Episode 65, our latest installment of Fridays with Fleming, I talk with Fleming Rutledge about the message of Advent and preaching the word of Truth in a post-truth culture.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

No, that’s not Bryce Harper. It’s Colby Martin.

He’s got the best head of hair in Progressive Christianity and we’ve got him to talk about his new book, ‘Unclobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality’. Endorsed by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Glennon Doyle Melton, Colby Martin works his way through the ‘clobber’ passages often used to denounce and dehumanize our LGBT brothers and sisters. He talks with the voice of a theologian while using a pastoral tone.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

You ARE Worthy of Salvation

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

When it comes to Christ’s cradle and cross, we typically use words like ‘goodness’ and ‘worthiness’ in a very specific way.  In a very particular direction. Jesus is the (only) one who is good. Jesus alone is worthy of God’s love and vindicating resurrection, making Jesus the only one who is worthy of our worship.

We- it need not be added but frequently is- are manifestly NOT good. We are sinners. We’re worthy only of God’s wrath, deserving the punishment we God mete(s) out on Jesus.

As the popular CCM song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord

Thank you for the price You paid

Bearing all my sin and shame…

Thank you for the nail pierced hands

Washed me in Your cleansing flow

Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace

Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

Like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper, we’re not worthy.

This is the same acknowledgement most Catholics admit after they receive the host in the Mass:

O Lord, I am not worthy

That Thou should’st come to me,

But speak the words of comfort,

My spirit healed shall be.

We do not deserve the gift of salvation God offers to us in Christ. That’s the very definition of grace, right?

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

In §1 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins hinting at a theme that will recur throughout the essay. Of the many names by which Athanasius will refer to God, the first one he employs in §1 is ‘Artificer.’

ar·tif·i·cer

ärˈtifəsər/

noun- archaic

  1. a skilled craftsman, artist or inventor.
  2. God

The image of God as Artist and humanity as God’s art governs Athanasius’ understanding of the whence and whither of the incarnation. Having been made ‘very good’ by this Artist, who made us for no other motivation but as an expression of his Goodness, humanity fell into disrepair. The Artist’s original intent has been sullied. His art has been defaced.

The effect of sin and death upon the Artist’s art is not unlike the grime that obscures the frescoes on Medieval church walls.

Notice-

The problem for Athanasius isn’t guilt, which must be punished. It’s corruption, which requires restoration. 

So it’s not so much that you are a loathsome bastard who deserves the punishment Jesus, the only worthy one, bears for you, a la most CCM praise songs.

Instead, for Athanasius, it’s more like you’re the Artificer’s exquisite art whose original beauty has been defaced and needs to be restored.

The art motif is not incidental in On the Incarnation for it provides Athanasius with the means to illustrate the logical consistency of the faith and its scriptural arc. In his treatment, what was once made by the Word and declared by the Word to be ‘very good’ remains good- if marred- because of the surpassing Goodness of the Artist.

Not only do we remain the Artist’s good creation, the Goodness of the Artist would be called into question if he allowed his art to languish without repair. No matter our appearance or condition, we remain precious art simply because of the Artist who made us.

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation. 

And if the Artist abandoned his matchless art, left it to waste away, then we would rightly judge the Artist no longer worthy of his title.

O Lord, I am You would not [be] worthy

That If Thou should’st [not] come to me

The Mona Lisa, for example, remains a great painting even if today it retains a fraction of the original sheen DaVinci gave to it. Likewise, you’d never suggest that the Mona Lisa is undeserving of painstaking restoration. It’s too rare and precious a work of art. The Mona Lisa, in other words, is worthy of restoration. Indeed you’d likely argue that the art community was not worthy of the Mona Lisa if it turned its back on her and refused to restore her to her intended beauty.

Athanasius uses this image of God as the ultimate Artificer to turn our categories like ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ on their heads and, by doing so, Athanasius seeks to show how what God does in Christ isn’t a counter-intuitive surprise but is logically consistent with God’s very first creative impulse.

As he puts it: “For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in him by whose means he made it.”

For Episode 64, Crackers & Grape Juice talk with with Brian McLaren to discuss Brian’s latest book, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian.”

Is it time for a migration within Christianity? Author and pastor Brian McLaren believes so. He calls for three migrations: spiritual, theological, and missional.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

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

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

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. 

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 new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

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

Creche If No Cross?

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2016 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent. My text was Matthew 1.18-25.

“…You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.”

     To those of you who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.

Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend Ben to a Christmas party. The party was hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ and was held in the home of their campus pastor.

Back then, I was still new in my faith and in many ways I wasn’t confident about being a Christian. Back then, Ben was the only Christian I knew at school.

As their name implies, Campus Crusade is an evangelistic organization. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and Ben had grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia where most of the Christians he knew hoarded guns and canned goods in their basements in anticipation of the apocalypse. An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed tame to him.

It was during my first semester, about this time of year, that Ben invited to this “party.”

Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word ‘party,’ to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations- none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.

In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where I was asked to take my shoes off at the front door.

Ben and I walked there that night, in the cold and thin snow, to a neighborhood just off of campus. Walking up the short driveway to a small ranch home, I could spy through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.

At first I thought we must be at the wrong house; this must be a Tupperware party or a bridge club. Ben though assured me it was the right address.

I thought about running away then and there- and probably I should have- but Ben’s a lot bigger than me and I didn’t want to aggravate him.

When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. When Ben introduced me, the guy- the student pastor- shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said: ‘Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.’ 

     And I replied: ‘What?’ 

This must have been his secret Christian greeting and because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the bible and because I didn’t reciprocate with ‘Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1’ he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.

But first he asked me to take off my shoes.

Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my watch between bites.

You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-a-long. I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.

On my left was a girl who began every sentence with ‘The Lord just put it on my heart to ________‘ and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.

On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt and had earlier over chocolate covered pretzels asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.

Across from me, sitting on the brick hearth, was a girl named Maria. I recognized her from the little Methodist church I tried to worship at a few times.

I remembered her because every Sunday when it came time for the congregation to share their joys and concerns Maria would grab the microphone and hold the congregation hostage for 20 or so minutes while she narrated the ups and downs of her romantic life.

Unwisely, I thought, Ben sat next to her on the hearth.

We sang songs whose words I knew only vaguely and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his pregnant wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.

When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our bibles. I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. I hadn’t noticed before but I was the only one who hadn’t brought a one.

‘Luke, chapter 2’ Mike said. Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud: ‘In the days of King Herod…’ 

After he finished the reading, Mike asked everyone to share what the passage- what Christmas and the incarnation and the coming of Jesus- meant to them. And for several long minutes people around the room said things like:

‘I’m so thankful Jesus came into the world to die for my sin.’ 

Each person’s sharing was slightly different, but they were all about Sin- about Jesus reconciling it, suffering the wages of it, dying for it.

Then for a few moments a pause settled over the room. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t a holy silence or even a meaningful one. It was everyone waiting on me to say something. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to be released until I offered some testimony of my own.

Okay, maybe it sounded sarcastic but with all sincerity I wondered out loud what was genuinely on my mind. I asked a question:

‘If there’d been no Fall, would Christ still have come?

If humankind had never sinned, would there still have been Christmas?’ 

From the group’s embarrassed reaction you would have thought I’d just called Jesus’ mother a dirty name. Everyone looked at me with confusion. Mike looked at me with pained sadness and Ben looked as blushed as the pastor’s wife’s red corduroy dress.

An awkward silence fell over the room until Ben summoned a fake laugh from somewhere in his belly and somehow just kept the hahaha’s going.

I suppose it was only obvious to me how Ben was hoping he could just keep laughing and laughing and laughing until we sang another song or did something. But for pastor Mike I was clearly a neophyte to the faith (or a fool) and this was what he would’ve called ‘a teachable moment.’

He slung his guitar behind his back and started to gesture with his hands like it really pained him to break it down so simply for me.

     ‘Jason, the reason Jesus came,’ he explained, ‘is he had a job to do: to rescue us from our Sin so that we can have a relationship with God.’ 

For a few minutes more it sounded like he was rattling off lines memorized from a pamphlet about the wages of sin.

     ‘But what I was wondering: If we had never sinned, would Jesus still have come?’ 

‘But Adam and Eve did sin; we do sin. I’m a sinner. I’m not ashamed to admit that’ Mike replied and did so rather condescendingly.
That’s when any hope Ben had for me to keep my mouth shut went out the window.

     ‘That’s not my point,’ I said. I mean…

“Is the incarnation something that comes out of God’s frustration and disappointment with us? Or out of God’s overflowing joy and desire for us?” 

“Is Christmas just the beginning of a rescue package that bails us out of our suffering and sin, or is Christmas even deeper and more mysterious than that?” 

The group just watched us go back and forth, staring at me like I was either an idiot or a heretic. The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first 30 minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.

No one seemed to appreciate the budding theologian in their midst.

It didn’t help matters that the only person sympathetic to my perspective was the bearded 50 year old with the Star Trek shirt whose sole contribution to my cause was to say ‘Dude, that’s deep.’ 

Meanwhile the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.

     Finally someone said out loud: ‘Well, I know I sin all the time and I’m just grateful he came to die for mine.’ 

As if rendering a verdict, Mike said: ‘Praise God!’ Then he swung his guitar around like Church Berry and we sang another song.

For all the confusion my question caused, the answer is YES.
Would he still have come?
Would there still be Christmas if there’d been no Fall? YES.
Even though I couldn’t have articulated it back then, that’s what John’s Nativity story is getting at when it proclaims: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Even before Joseph dreams his dream, before he’s felt in Mary’s womb, HE IS. He’s before time.

Before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed- before creation is even set in motion God had already chosen to one day take flesh and live among us.

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this. In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.

If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity.

That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’

In other words, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.

So what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:

The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation.

The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us.

The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love.

There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.

And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.

Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins.

Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas.

It’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben: ‘Well, that was an awesome party.’

And he belly-laughed, not at the evening but at me, at what he thought was my contrariness.

‘But it’s a good question!’ I growled. Ben just laughed some more, and by the time we were leaving the neighborhood he said: ‘I don’t see what difference it really makes.’ 

Back then our friendship was still new and it was governed by politeness. So I let it go.

Back then I wasn’t bold enough to push the difference.

But I’m the pastor now, so listen up:

INCARNATION names a love every bit as deep and unconditional as CROSS.

You’re holy and you’re loved and you’re graced not only because God took flesh to save you but also because even before creation morning God chose to be with you.

The Gospel’s not just that in the fullness of time God came among us to suffer for our Sin.

The Gospel’s also that before there was time God decided to join his life to ours no matter what.

The Gospel’s not just that Christ died for you.

It’s also that before there was even the promise or notion of you…

Before you did your first good deed or told your first lie…

Before you made your life a success or made it a disaster…

Before you said your wedding vows or before you broke them…

Before you held your children in your arms or before you estranged yourself from them…

Before you first laughed or wept or kissed or shouted out in anger…

Before you gave your life to the Lord or before you turned your back on him…

Before the oceans were even born God said ‘I do’ to you.

Forever.

That’s the Gospel too.

Would he still have come? Would he still have taken flesh?

Absolutely.

And that means-

The invitation for you to come to God is always there.

Because it’s always been there.

Book Launch Roast Notes

Jason Micheli —  December 16, 2016 — 1 Comment

15350442_903671816401166_318112112921664168_nTwo friends in my congregation organized a Friar’s Club Roast of yours truly at the local country club to kick-off my book’s release. It turned out to be a hilarious evening.

As part of the night, Dr. Tony Jones, author of Did God Kill Jesus? and the one who first encouraged me to start this blog, to launch our podcast, and to write the book, came from the Twin Cities to be a featured roaster. Also on tap, Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, author of Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times and Professor of Religion at Elon University, was another guest roast master. Along with my friend and mentor Dr. Dennis Perry and a host of others.

The Roast Master for the night was my dear friend Brad Todd, a frequent guest on Meet the Press who runs OnMessage Inc and is one of the architects of Trumpocalypse.

I’ll post the video when it’s edited, but here’s the manuscript of my roast of all the roasters at the end of the evening. Obviously the humor here is blue and the language profane so be warned.

social-media-buytickets

I want to thank you all for coming out to tonight to Mt. Vernon Retirement Home, for this occasion where you numb yourselves with alcohol while listening to me talk about myself nonstop. Or, as my wife likes to call it, marriage. Who knew when I arrived at Aldersgate Church over 11 years ago that one day you’d be willing to sling back liquor and cough up $75 a head just for the privilege of hearing me get mocked and ridiculed and raked over the coals.

The jokes on you. You could get that for free after every 8:30 worship service. Well maybe not quite as biting as the jokes have been here. Some of the teasing from you all tonight has cut pretty deep, so deep…I almost don’t have the heart to tell you I found out just yesterday I’ve only got a few months to live.

Oh, come on. Knock it off or I’ll let Dennis have the mic again.

In this whole process of writing and publishing my first book, I’ve had a lot of highs- and not just from the medicinal marijuana Steve Larkin sold me at his discounted geezer rate. I’ve had a lot of highs during this publishing journey. Tonight’s not one of them, but it’s is an experience.

But seriously, if I’d known that Megan and Libby Todd, the Immelda Marcos of Old Town were going to go to all this trouble, I never would’ve pretended to have cancer. Now I feel bad. With Dennis taking a sabbatical every time Donald Trump gets a new wife, cancer’s the only way I could get a little time off.

Let that be a warning to you Karla. You’re probably going to have get AIDS in order to get a vacation.

[This is where Ali wanted me to add the disclaimer that ‘AIDS isn’t funny.’ However next fall Tony Jones is publishing a book by that very title, AIDS is Funny.]

First, I think I need to say it’s not easy to be the final speaker at such a dud of an event- especially when you consider that as a preacher I’m used to speaking at church, not the Mt Vernon Nursing Home, and most of the time at church the only person who’s been drinking is Steve Larkin.

Dr. Tony Jones, Dr. Jeff, Dr. Dennis Perry, Dr. Maureen Marshall…just looking at a lineup of pretentious prefixes like yours, I think I speak for everyone when I say…I expected you guys to have more talent. All you had to do is make fun of me. How hard is that? That’s easier than making Melania Trump jokes at a MENSA meeting.

I’m like the Gallager of the theological world. I’m my own punchline. Tonight should’ve been like shooting fish in a barrel.

You all gave up your Friday night for this? I mean, Giada Hot-Laurentis is at a Cooking Festival at the Washington Convention Center right now, tonight. I appreciate the sentiment but if this were the first and only good Matrix movie, Giada was the smokin’ hot red pill and you, by being here tonight, chose the blue one.

Of course, Dennis has been chewing those little blue pills for a while now but for the rest of you…

I want to thank Brad Todd for being the Roast Master tonight. Even though tonight was a dud, Brad’s a good guy; in fact, my brother-in-law, Mike, dates Brad’s wife.

When I heard Brad was the MC  for tonight I got excited. This event should be good, I thought. After all, Brad does political advertising for Republicans. Bullshit is his job.

You might recognize Brad from his gigs on Meet the Press where he somehow manages to make Chuck Todd look well-tanned and camera ready. Brad was excited to MC tonight too; in fact, Brad is happy to have anything to do these days besides pretending he’s happy the Donald got elected President.

But he did get elected and people like Brad convinced people like you to elect him. You just remember that…when you order drinks tonight at the open bar on Brad’s tab.

Of course, I have to thank Megan Gianchetta for brainstorming and spearheading this event tonight. Megan’s a great friend and because she’s a friend I know how happy she was to have something to do other than breastfeed for a change (she’s gluten free).

Seriously though, it’s no exaggeration. I know Megan’s breasts better than my wife’s or the future first lady’s. Maybe you didn’t notice but Megan delivered their 11th son in between cocktails tonight.

And my friend Andreas Barrett is here tonight. You might not know- after my wife, Andreas was the first person to mouth kiss me while I lay in the hospital. You also might not know that Andreas Barrett is a huge fan of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, which just proves the liberal media elites don’t produce any real news. If Andreas had heard anything but fake news from Rachel Maddow the last 8 years there’s no way he’d still be wearing his Cosby sweaters out in public.

Speaking of lesbians, my assistant Terri Phillips is here tonight too. Not only does Terri make our church hum, she’s also the only straight person to have ever worked at the Walt Disney Store.

My mother, Sue, is here tonight from Richmond. Her on-again, off-again foot on the gas only made her carsick four times during the trip. Truthfully, without my mom, I wouldn’t be nearly narcissistic and dysfunctional enough to have written a book.

Over the years, some of you ladies at Aldersgate- I’m thinking especially of Juanita Csontos and Val Gass (bless your hearts)- I’ve told you how you’re just like a mother to me. Well, here she is. Talk to her for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean.

Megan had wanted me to roast my wife, Ali, tonight too. But I’ve only recently recovered from the chemotherapy drugs that rendered me impotent and I don’t want to push my luck tonight.

But, I digress.

In between child deliveries, Megan told me that I was supposed to roast my roasters. So here goes:

According to the late Steve Allen, the “art of the comic roast lies in the speaker’s ability to hug the line of what’s appropriate and clean without going over the line.

I think we can all agree that’s a skill I have in spades.

Rotation of Roasters

Jeff, you are the greatest contemporary theologian in America. Dr. Jeffrey Metaxas of Elon College, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

Jeff, you are a great man, as you told me yourself right before we started tonight.

I asked Stanley Hauerwas- a mutual friend, who recently preached at Aldersgate, what I should say about you. Stanley rubbed his bald head and told me: ‘Jeff is an asshole.’

If any of you have read Jeff’s new book on the End Times you know that back in the day Jeff was a follower in a batshit crazy end-times cult.

Jeff my mom read your book and she asked: ‘He was a follower in an End Times cult? Why not a leader?’ And then she sighed and said ‘That’s a shame.’

He never got to be a leader of that batshit crazy end times cult so he left it…for the United Methodist Church, which was an easy transition, requiring only that he give up most of the illicit drug use.

Jeff you are the most foul-mouthed, vulgar, profane, and inappropriate United Methodist Elder I know. In other words, you give me something to aspire to.

Dr. Maureen Marshall– I hope you’ve had your rabies shots.

Just kidding, I love Maureen like that TSA Agent who winked at me once.

For those of you who don’t know, Maureen is the Polit Bureau-approved principal of Stratford Landing Elementary School. Thanks to her inspiration, communion will now be levied by a meals tax.

This June, I drove all-the-way, non-stop to Ft. Apache, Arizona with Dr. Marshall. And Laura Paige Mertins and Karli Eddinger went with us because that’s a 70 hour drive, that’s way too long a drive for just one designated driver.

Except, her taste in road trip music could lead you to drink that much. You try listening to CC and the Music Factory and Barry Manilow on an endless shuffle loop and see if that endless array of Jersey walls across Oklahoma don’t start looking like Elysian Fields to you.

Kelly Wolschlager I mean Garr – I’ve known Kelly longer than anyone else here, including Dennis and my wife. In those terrible Social Darwinism years of Middle School, Kelly has the distinction of being the only- the only real live, human style- girl who was always nice to me.

And as a Nurse Practitioner, Kelly was there for us several times during my illness. In those sad, neutropenic times, I routinely would say to Kelly “I don’t want you to see me like this.”

And Kelly would always say “I’ve seen worse.” I always thought Kelly meant “I’ve seen worse cases of cancer.” But now that I’ve seen the pictures she’s shown, I realize she meant “I’ve seen YOU worse.”

And I have no idea how many other pictures from my Middle School years Kelly might posses so I just want to say tonight…Kelly, you are the nicest, kindest, warmest, most compassionate and beautiful person I’ve ever known…

Andrew DiAntonio – I’m glad to see you decided against the sweaty crotched stained basketball shorts and flip flops that was your Aldersgate employee “fashion.”

Andrew, our former Youth Minister. Andrew, I never got the chance to tell you before but you earned every penny the church hardly paid you. It’s funny timing- tonight- only yesterday we finally received all the parent permission slips for your last youth mission trip.

But, Andrew, we were so close. I thought I knew you. We worked so closely,  planned confirmation together. We traveled together and slept together in Guatemala. We ministered together through some pretty tragic times. We knew each other well. And I’ve always been perceptive. I’ve always had really good radar (or so I thought).

I don’t know how I missed all the clues: the fake spray-on-tan, the fastidious man grooming and neatly trimmed beard, the man jewelry, the love of Jersey Shore, HBO’s Rome, the Cher poster in your office.

I don’t know how I missed it. And it makes me sad the church was never the open and affirming space where you could come out of the closet and let us all know that you were in fact…an Italian-American.

Tony Jones – Tony, I’ve never said this to anyone before but you are the greatest  contemporary theologian in America. Or, as his wife says, Tony’s narcissism has prepared America for the Trump era. Speaking of his wife, you might not know that Tony trains and raises hunting dogs. It’s true. He gave it up though when his wife complained that you can’t mount Christian Orthodoxy on the wall nor can you grind it into sausages.

In case you didn’t hear it in his voice, Tony’s from Minnesota. Whenever you wonder how heartland, midwestern Minnesota goes blue every year just consider that Tony Jones is to the left of Garrison Keillor. Tony is my editor, publisher.

Just yesterday a number of you who’d pre-ordered my book forwarded me the emails you’d received from Amazon telling you that my book which released yesterday would get to you in February. It speaks for itself, Tony’s great at what he does.

And not just with me. I don’t want to spill any secrets, but Tony’s also the editor of other forthcoming titles like ‘Zika is Funny,’ ‘Gonorrhea is a Giggle,’ ‘Herpes is Hilarious,’ ‘Leukemia is a Laugh,’ ‘Testicular Cancer is a Tickle,’ and ‘Syrian Refugees are a Riot.’

(It’s a niche market.)

Finally of course there’s Dr. Dennis Wayne Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle, and Roscoe Peco Train. I think I speak for everyone at Aldersgate when I say:

‘Huh, I completely forgot that worked here.’

Over the years, nearly every day Dennis has actually worked I’ve spent with him, which is to say: Holy Week.

I’ve known Dennis for over 20 years, and the only thing I think when I look at this man is ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

Megan asked me in between breast-feedings, but why would I roast Dennis tonight and tempt the providence of God to afflict incurable cancer-stricken me as he’s afflicted this man?

Why would I tempt God to reduce me to a humorless, passionless, useless husk of my former self, haunting the halls of Aldersgate Church like some walking, talking VH1 Behind the Music cautionary tale of former potential wasted.

Many of you know that the church world is littered with ministers whose success eventually went to their heads: Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggert, that lady with the purple hair on TBN.

But not Dennis Perry. I’ve worked with this man for 11 years, and I can assure you this man has never overreached. He’s never attempted to do anything that was in any way different from the last thing he did.

And that kind of unchanging sameness is just so refreshing in a church.

Instead of roasting Dr Perry, I should close tonight by honoring him.

Sure, what bankruptcies and sexual assaults are to the President-Elect, sabbaticals are to Dennis Perry but, I can assure you, this Rev works hard for you. Any one on staff can tell you, Dennis is working on the same thing on Thursday that he was working on on Monday.

He never gives up. He never throws in the towel even though he types like a stroke victim relearning the use of their limbs.

Dennis Perry works hard. He’s not a quitter.

Not like that quitter Hillary Clinton. Conceding?! When Donald and Brad Todd both sharted in their pants when they found out they’d won?

I can tell you Dennis Perry never concedes in the face of reality.

Here in the Beltway Democrats whispered for months that Hillary Clinton was too old to be President.

Nonetheless, Dennis Perry doesn’t let his worn-out body, rapidly fading mind, and prehistoric job skills stop him from showing up to work at least a couple of hours a week to take credit for our work.

No sir, he’s not a quitter like Crooked Hillary.

And instead of closing tonight with a roast of him I should honor him. After all, Dennis interrupted one of his sabbaticals to come visit me when I was in the hospital and here he’s interrupted another sabbatical to be here tonight.

For that, we should honor him, not lampoon him.

In these hyper-partisan times, Dennis Wayne Perry is perhaps the last remaining bipartisan citizen among us.

He expresses his ‘reach across the aisle’ spirit by sharing the same hair stylist as Gov. Mitt Romney. And in his work ethic and career achievements, Dennis strives to perfectly embody Barack Obama’s famous line: ‘You didn’t build that.’

We should honor this man, not ridicule him.

Because Dennis Wayne Perry- he’s not just a great man. No sir. He’s a great boss too.

Having Dennis Perry for a boss is almost like not having a boss at all. You have the freedom to do anything- just ask our most recent Bishop.

All it takes is telling Dennis Perry: ‘Remember, we talked about this two days ago.’ And Dennis will agree, pretending to remember the conversation we did not have two days ago. He’s a great boss.

He doesn’t deserve for me to finish tonight with a roast of him. I tried to tell Megan but she was too busy open-air breast feeding their 14th son. I tried to tell Brad but he was too busy preemptively taking our civil liberties away.

I tried to tell them that Dennis Wayne Perry doesn’t deserve for me to rebut his roast. He’s a sensitive guy. He’s not Andreas Barrett sensitive, but he’s a sensitive guy.

Dennis has been sensitive- some might say touchy- ever since his twin brother made millions by recording ‘Islands in the Stream’ and starting a successful franchise of Fried Chicken Restaurants.

You all know how much I love Dennis, but you might not know that I harbor some unresolved anger towards Dennis Perry too. You see Dennis Perry wouldn’t perform my wedding to Ali, 10 or 12 years ago. I’m not sure which.

Dennis wouldn’t perform my wedding, which is preposterous because we all know Dennis Perry will marry anyone. He’s the Johnny Cochran of the wedding industry. From drive-by I-Do’s to Destination Nuptials, Dennis Perry will marry any biped with a faint heartbeat and a damp, sweaty roll of quarters.

But he didn’t marry Ali and me, and, truth be told, I’ve always been a little bitter about that, and that’s why I think we should focus on praising Dennis not poking fun at him.

For example, a lot of you give me credit for my ability to use words, like foreskin, to create mental pictures that stick with you long after the sermon ends.

But we should give credit where credit is due. I’m a novice compared to Dennis. Just consider this verbal-visual gem that Dennis once served up in a word picture that sticks in the mind like genital warts: ‘One morning when my daughter was a little girl she snuck into our bed and aroused me.’

Absolutely brilliant! He said that 10 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. I might have just said something wooden and pedestrian like ‘my daughter woke me up.’ But this man, this man is a master wordsmith I can’t possibly ever hope to match.

And Megan should’ve asked me to close tonight by celebrating him for it not roasting him.

I mean- what would a roast of Dennis even look like? Me making jokes about how old Dennis is? How lame would that be?

I guess I could stand up here and joke that Dennis’ life is like a glass that’s half empty, but technically at his age the glass is 9/10 empty, and we all know that last third is always just backwash.

And yes, I know I make jokes on Sundays about how Dennis is old and forgetful and lazy and complacent. But that’s just a preacher’s exaggeration.

I’ve known Dennis for 20 plus years. His forgetfulness and laziness and complacency have nothing to do with his age.

I knew Dennis when he was young and, other than the obvious physical and mental deterioration, he’s the same person today he was then.

The first time I met Dennis was in a worship service my mother forced me to attend when I was a teenager. I’ll never forget that sermon.

At the beginning of the sermon, Dennis had us turn to our neighbors to share something, while he tried to come up with a sermon in his head.

After we shared with our neighbors, he told us he had three points for us and asked us if we were ready. We said yes and he began to preach.

He preached for about 20 minutes and then he told us what his second point was.

That was the first time I met Dennis.

What really matters though is that Dennis was the first person I called when I learned I maybe, probably, had cancer.

What really matters is that Dennis was the first person who showed up.

And when you think that person is probably the person who’s going to do your funeral, you take a good, long look at that person.

What matters is that Dennis was there before I went into surgery. He was there with Ali while I was in surgery, and he was there for us for the 12 months of shit that followed.

And so were all of you. In different ways.

Some in ways I name in the book.

Others in ways I’ll name in the 2nd Edition (if you buy enough copies).

One of the arguments I make in the book is that Christians don’t have an explanation for suffering because any god that can ‘explain’ suffering and evil and tragedy isn’t a god worthy of our worship.

Christians don’t have an explanation for suffering.

We have a community of care.

That’s an argument I could not have made without all of you-

from Terri leaving beer on porch to Teer and Andreas and Karli showing up in my hospital room, to Mikey moving in with us, to James and Paul and LP driving me to chemo, to Megan and Libby organizing events like this to Andrew and Brad and Tony emailing with me and Jeff encouraging me. Shit, this has already gone on too long. I can’t name you all.

I’d dedicated this book to all of you, but then you roasted me.

So, I just want to say from the bottom of my heart: Go to Hell.