Archives For Jason Micheli

Just in time for the special election in Alabama where accused child-predator Roy Moore is not only on the ballot but is the darling of evangelical Christians, we spoke with David French, a conservative activist-lawyer-turned-opinion-writer for the National Review.

In particular, we talked with David about his recent article arguing that Evangelicals’ support of Roy Moore (and Donald Trump) betrays what the Old Testament prophets would describe as a lack of faith.

We also chat with David about his volunteering for the Iraq War, the racist threats he received for his criticism of the Alt-Right, and the superiority of Battlestar Galactic vs. Game of Thrones.

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      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

We listen to a lot of music in my house.

Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.

I’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant.

I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

In my apartment.

Every last album.

‘Every’ except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

Cliche, I know.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The boys and I- our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

Favorite because it drives Ali crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

Seriously, nothing tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent? If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas.

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith. So I never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day a couple of years ago.

We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.

And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel said- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

A terrifying Goat-Demon if you’ve been naughty.

Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”

In Holland, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.

“I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.

That sounds amazingly like grace.

It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves.

According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

     It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf– it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

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

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

Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup:

The word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but you must have faith.

That’s not a promise.

That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice if/then conditionality- it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.

If you repent…then God will love you.

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.

And if you don’t?

Krampus.

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

I’m only half-joking.

In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and a Gospel that is Law.

If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.

But I do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.

Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”

We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.

There’s just the unconditional promise that-

Yes, you’ve been naughty.

No, you’ve not been nice.

No matter, all your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness- upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.

The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.

Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.

In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, the gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, that the Church is here to help you become good.

Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you.

Joel Osteen and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel- to be saved. Your therapist can improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that. The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re sinners like him. And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

And tell that Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.

When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

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

 

     

It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

Makes him sound like a super-hero, I know, which is unfortunate since that’s the last thing the Church Fathers were after. Their formula was just the best way to insure that latter day Jesus-followers like us didn’t forget that Jesus the Son is true God and true Man, without division or confusion between his two natures.

He is fully both God and Man.

And, in a latent sense, he has always been both.

Eternally.

In other words, the Son who is the 2nd Person of the Trinity was always going to be the eternal Son who became incarnate and thus the son of somebody like Mary.

According to Maximus the Confessor– indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith:

The Chalcedonian formula necessitates we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things which are separated.

Whether- and this is key- by nature or by sin.

We all know Sin separated us from God.

That’s an every Sunday, altar call kind of presumption- so much so, in fact, that we neglect to remember or notice that less nefarious but even more fundamental fact separates us from the infinite.

Our finitude.

Our createdness.

Our materiality.

That the son of Mary is the eternal-eventually-to-become-incarnate Son of the God we call Trinity shows, says Maximus, that the Logos is the One through whom all things physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, earthly and heavenly, created and uncreated would be united and made one.

Union, says Maximus, was God’s first and most fundamental aim.

At-onement of a different sort.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is the God-Man, then everything goes in the other direction.

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

We are the ones with whom, through him, God wants to share God’s 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.

We’re the extravagance the superabundant love of Father, Son and Spirit gratuitously seek to share with one another.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but one of the reasons for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship.

With us.

(Of course Robert Jenson, by way of Barth, argued that the preexistence of the Son in the Trinity implies the Incarnate Son’s cross- that Jesus was born to die, that all was made alive knowing that it would have to be made alive again through his death and resurrection-but that’s a question for another day.)

We’re making our way through words that start with -G- and in this installment we talk about Gnosticism, the prevailing religion in the Western world.

In this episode Dr. Johanna, Teer, and Jason discuss one of the earliest and most abiding heresies in Christianity.

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Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

Due to heavily sourced and corroborated claims of misconduct, the role of Santa Claus this Christmas will be played by Christopher Plummer.

Just kidding. But after Garrison Keillor would anyone be surprised for Kris Kringle to be next?

Of course not. I mean, we already know he got handsy with somebody’s Mom underneath the mistletoe. And Mr. Claus doesn’t allow Mrs. Claus to leave their North Pole home. That’s not a happy marriage. That’s Ike’s and Tina’s marriage.

Father Christmas hasn’t yet been named alongside Al Franken, but who wouldn’t want the stress of this season to disappear as fast as Matt Lauer disappeared this week from Good Morning America?

Who wouldn’t want Christmas, and all its attendant heartburn and headaches, to go on hiatus like House of Cards?

Here it is only the first Sunday of Advent and yesterday after my wife handed me a list of everything we needed to do, to buy, to plan, to clean, to attend, to send, and to cook just to get ready for Christmas, I woke up in the corner, on the floor, sucking on my thumb.

Don’t lie- Who wouldn’t want Santa and his season and all of its stress to go the way of Charlie Rose?

Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor. This time every year my inbox, my mailbox, and my social media get flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags.

From the Heifer Project to the Advent Conspiracy to #makeadventgreatagain, from Simple Christmas to the War on Christmas, this time every year my already overflowing holiday To Do List gets bombarded with exhortations about how I should be celebrating the season.

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

My Christian “obligation” to opt out of the commercialization and consumerism and materialism of the culture’s Christmas.

But to be honest, lately, I’ve grown wary of the Christmas “tradition” of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas in our culture.

Too often, we begin Advent not with Isaiah’s laments or John the Baptist’s words of judgement but our own words of lament and judgement, criticizing others for being so materialistic about Christmas.

And, of course, like all cliches, there’s truth to the complaint about consumerism. Like all traditions, there’s a reason we’ve made it a tradition to lament and judge what commercialization has done to Christmas.

———————-

     Consider- the average person last year spent $1,000 at Christmas.

And maybe some of the complaining we’re doing at Christmastime is actually self-loathing because apparently over 15% of all the money we spend at Christmas we spend on ourselves.

We don’t trust our wives to get us the gift we really want so we buy it for ourselves.

It’s true- we spend a lot at Christmas. Very often money we don’t have.

In 2004, the average American’s credit card debt was $5,000. Now, it’s $16,000. Retail stores make 50% of their annual revenue during the Christmas season, which I can’t begrudge since this church brings in nearly 50% of its budget during the Christmas season. We spend a lot at Christmas. But we give a lot at Christmas.

And we worry and we fight a lot at Christmas too. Everyone knows the Christmas season every year sees a spike in suicides and depression and domestic abuse. We not only make resolutions coming out of Christmas, we make appointments with AA and therapists and divorce lawyers too.

So the reason complaining about consumerism at Christmas has become a Christmas tradition is because there’s some serious, repentance-worthy truth to it.

     The problem though in critiquing how our culture has co-opted Christmas is that it’s too simple a story.

That is, the critique itself is much older than our culture. Even before Amazon and Black Friday, people were shopping and putting their kids on Santa’s lap to beg for stuff.

Don’t forget- the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, it’s a Christmas movie about a shopping mall. The original version of that movie was filmed way back in 1947. No matter how much we kvetch at Christmas; it’s not a new phenomenon.

Turns out, Bing Crosby was wrong; the Christmases we think we used to know never actually existed.

Advertisers were using images of St. Nick to sell stuff at least as far back as 1830, and Christians were complaining about it then too, probably as they purchased whatever products Santa was hawking.

In 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote a story called “Christmas” wherein the main character gripes:

“Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious and wasteful!”

To which, her Aunt responds: “…when I was a girl presents did not fly about as they do now.”

     Christmas was more spiritual and less materialistic when I was a girl.

According to Ronald Hutton in his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, the commercialization of Christmas isn’t our culture’s fault it’s the fault of Victorian culture.

However, he notes, this is an ambivalent history because prior to the Victorian era Christmas was celebrated exclusively by the rich.

In other words, the Victorian commercialization of Christmas we abhor was actually an attempt to make Christmas available to the poor and the not rich.

In the vein of everything new is old, Hutton cites diary entries as far back as 1600 describing Christians’ habits of spending and gift-giving, but also their complaints about the rising costs of Christmas meals, Christmas entertainment, and Christmas gifts.

Bemoaning what we’ve done to the Christmas tradition is a Christmas tradition at least 400 years old, leading me to wonder if the magi spent their trip back from Bethlehem complaining about the cost of the myrrh.

We’ve been spending too much at Christmas and feeling guilty about it and judging others for it for a long, long time.

So, if you want to continue that tradition by, say, participating in the Wise Men Gifts Program (where your kid only gets 3 presents) go for it. I mean, I would’ve hated my mom if I’d only gotten 3 presents as a kid, and it’s a good thing I didn’t grow up a Christian because I probably would’ve hated Jesus for it too.

But go for it, maybe your kids are better than me.

Or, buy an animal in honor of a loved one through our Alternative Gift Giving Program. But word to the wise- learn from Dennis’ mistake- if you buy an Alternative Gift for your wife, don’t make it a cow.

Or, you could join up with the Canadian Mennonites who started the Buy Nothing Christmas Campaign back in 1968.

A noble goal to be sure, but, you know as well as I do, those Canucker Mennonites are probably zero-fun killjoys to be around at Christmas.

Knowing that the commercialization of Christmas, our participation in it, and our complaints about it after the fact go back older than America, gives me two cautions about trying to simplify and get back to the “spirit” of Christmas.

First-

I worry that, in trying to avoid the excess and extravagance of the season and in exhorting others to go and do likewise, Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

“We could’ve sold that expensive perfume and given the money to the poor!” Judas complains about Mary anointing Jesus.

“I’m worth it,” Jesus pretty much says.

“You won’t always have me [or the people in your lives]. There will be plenty of opportunity to give to the poor.” 

I worry that Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

In a culture where most Americans associate Christianity with judgmentalism and self-righteousness, sounding more like Judas than Jesus, I would argue, is more problematic than our credit card bill.

     And obviously we do spend too much.

     But ‘Why do we?’ is the better question.

And that gets to my second caution-

I worry that the imperatives to spend less and get more spiritual make it sound too easy. I worry, in other words, that they rely upon a more optimistic view of our human moral capacity than scripture like today’s gives us.

Or modern psychology for that matter.

The UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, notes that most of us make free, rational decisions only 13% of the time. Our wills, scripture tells us and psychology confirms, are not free but bound.

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

93% – that’s the percentage of Americans who believe that Christmas has become too commercial and consumer-driven.

     Not only is lamenting the commercialism of Christmas not new neither is it prophetic.

No one disagrees.

Everyone agrees we spend too much money on too much junk at Christmas.

But we do it anyway.

Forget Isaiah and the lectionary, Romans 7 is what we should be reading during Advent:

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

What Paul is wrestling with in Romans 7 is the mystery of our sinfulness such that expectation and exhortation always elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

Me exhorting you, then, or the Church exhorting the culture, to spend less and get more “spiritual” at Christmas will not only not work it will prove counter-productive because, as Paul Zahl paraphrases Paul here:

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

Thus, it’s not surprising we’ve been bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas for going on 5 centuries to no avail.

For the Apostle Paul, the Law of which he speaks in Romans 7 is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed upon every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

At Christmastime, there’s the Law of Pinterest that tells you you must have new adorable matching clothes for your kids for the Christmas Letter photo or you’re a failure as a woman.

Speaking of which, there’s the Law of the Christmas Letter, which is a hard copy version of the Law of Social Media, which says you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection

There’s the Law of Manhood, which tells you should earn enough money to buy your family the gifts they want.

There’s the Law of Motherhood that tells you you must wrap all the presents perfectly, valued at at least what your sister-in-law will spend on her kids, you must make homemade holiday cookies like you think your mother used to do, and you must find time to spend “quality” time with your kids or you’re no better than Ms. Hannigan in Annie.

And there’s the Law we lay down, the Church, telling people they should have a holy, meaningful, spiritual experience at Christmas whilst doing all of the above and tables-caping a Normal Rockwell dinner, not forgetting the less fortunate and always remembering that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

That’s its God-given purpose, says the Apostle Paul, to accuse us, to point out our shortcomings and reveal where we fail to be loving and kind and generous, where we fail to be good neighbors and parents and spouses and disciples.

The Law always accuses, and, when it comes to this time of year, our culture lays down a whole lot of law.

When it comes to Christmas, the Church and the culture does what AA tells people not to do: they should all over people.

That’s why Christmas is such a powder keg of stress and guilt.

We’re being hit from all angles by the Law:

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

Which is to say we’re being accused from all angles:

For who we are not

How we fall short

What our family and our faith and our Christmas isn’t.

That’s why we can all agree we shouldn’t spend so much at Christmas but we do anyway, we’re bound to the Law, St. Paul says.

And it’s the nature of the Law to produce the opposite of its intent; so that, what we do not want to do (overspend) is exactly what we do.

And that’s why our spending coincides with such sadness, we’re prisoners to the Law. We’ve been accused and have fallen short.

Me telling you, then, how you should spend during Advent, what you ought to do to anticipate Christmas, you might applaud or nod your heads but, truthfully, it would just burden you with more Law.

The Apostle Paul said the purpose of the Law is to shut all our mouths up in the knowledge that not one of us is righteous, so that, we can receive on the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

I mean- we’ve memorized the gifts that the magi give to Jesus.

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

     We’ve memorized the gifts the magi give to Jesus.

But could you answer just as quickly and specifically if I asked you to name the gift God gives to us in Jesus?

I didn’t think so.

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I’m not convinced we know the reason for Jesus.

And maybe-

     Maybe the problem is that we spend so much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ.

     And it’s not knowing what God gives to us in Christ that makes us vulnerable to such stress and self-righteousness every Christmas season.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us in Christ- our sin.

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

Our sin isn’t even the whole problem because even our righteous deeds, says Isaiah, even our good works, even the best possible version of your obituary is no better than a filthy rag.

And the word Isaiah uses- in the Hebrew, you’re not going to like this, it means “menstrual cloth.”

In other words, even your best deeds leave you unclean before God.

They do not make you holy or righteous nor do they merit you an ounce of God’s mercy.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us, but our sin is only part of the problem. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel.

     The Gospel is incomplete if it doesn’t also include what God gives to us: Christ’s own righteousness.

Christ became our sin, says the Bible, so that we might become his righteousness. His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, given to us, as our own righteousness.

You see, it’s the original Christmas gift exchange. Our rags for his riches.

God takes our filthy rags and puts them on Christ and God takes Christ’s righteousness and God clothes us in it.

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

The magi give frankincense, gold, and myrrh to Jesus.

     God gives to us, in Jesus, Christ’s own righteousness.

It’s yours for free for ever. By faith.

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

And no amount of wasteful selfish spending can take that gift away from you once it’s yours by faith.

Sure, we’re all sin-sick and selfish, and our spending shows it.

     Obviously, we do not give to the poor like we should. 

But in Jesus Christ God became poor not so that we would remember the poor.

No, in Jesus Christ God became poor so that we might have all the riches of his righteousness.

As Christ says in one of the Advent Gospel readings, we already have everything we need to meet Christ unafraid when he comes again at the Second Advent. We’ve already been given the gift of his righteousness.

Once you understand this gift God gives to us in Jesus Christ-

It frees you, the Bible says. It frees you from the burden of expectations.

Until you understand the gift God gives us in Christ, you’ll always approach Christmas from the perspective of the Law.

You’ll worry there’s a more “spiritual” way that you should celebrate the season, as a Christian. You’ll think there’s a certain kind of gift you ought to give, as a Christian. You’ll stress that there’s a spending limit you must not exceed, as a Christian.

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

You have no Christian obligations at Christmas because the gift God has already given you by faith is Christ’s perfect righteousness.

The Gospel is that, no matter what your credit card bill or charitable contribution statement says, you are righteous.

     You are as righteous as Jesus Christ because through your baptism, by faith, you have been clothed in his own righteousness.

The gift God has given to you- it frees you from asking “What should I spend at Christmas?”

This gift of Christ’s own righteousness- it frees you to ask “What do I want to spend at Christmas, now that I’m free to spend as much or as little as I want?”

You see-

Despite all the Heifer projects and holiday hashtags, the Gospel frees you to be materialistic.

In the way God is materialistic.  Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas.

The incarnation isn’t spiritual. The incarnation, God taking material flesh and living a life like ours amidst all the material stuff of everyday life, is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

If Jesus is God- with-us then giving material gifts of love that highlight our withness, our connection to someone we love, really is the most theologically cogent way of marking Christ’s birth.

It’s not that spending money you don’t have makes you unrighteous. God’s already given Christ’s righteousness to you. That can’t be undone.It’s not that overspending at Christmas is unrighteous; it’s just unwise. So, don’t buy junk for the sake of buying junk.

But if you got the money, then maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas is to buy someone you love the perfect present.

Because God got materialistic on the first Christmas in order to give you the gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Maybe materialism- in the freedom of the Gospel and not under the burden of the Law- is exactly what Christians need to put Christ back in Christmas.

 

 

 

Fides Qua Creditur OR Fides Qude Creidtur? Faith by which we believe or faith which we believe?

Dr. Johanna breaks it down in the latest episode of the (Her)Men*You*tics podcast.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

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Anticipate the Savior by spending time with the sorts of sinners for which he came.

If you’re in the DC area, join me on December 16 at 7:00 p.m. at Cedar Knoll Restaurant for a happy hour and live podcast conversation about the meaning of Advent and the Incarnation with special guest Tripp Fuller, host of the popular podcast, Homebrewed Christianity. Tripp will also be our guest at Aldersgate’s Saturday@5:30 service on December 16.

Teer Hardy and Taylor Mertins, from Crackers and Grape Juice will help MC.

Space is limited so reserve your spot now.

Tickets are $20 and includes:
Admission to the LIVE podcast
Free food and non-alcoholic beverages (we’re Methodists after all).                                                           Alcohol will be available for purchase.

I look forward to spending the evening with you.

In this interview I talk with Emma Green of The Atlantic Magazine where Green is a staff writer covering politics, policy, and religion. She’s also responsible for the viral video (below) based on what one of her articles, “Do Democrats Have a Religion Problem?” She and Jason discuss that question, the Trump administration, race in Southern Baptist Church, and the role of religion in the public square.

Mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

(Her)Men*You*tics: Face

Jason Micheli —  November 23, 2017 — Leave a comment

It’s the word from the benediction: “…may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.”

For episode #11 of (Her)Men*You*tics we move into words that begin with -F- and Dr. Johanna chose the word ‘Face.’

Mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

This week White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, before she would agree to evade answer their question, compelled each member of the press corps to cite one reason they were grateful this Thanksgiving holiday. As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker commented, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ demand for expressions of gratitude left her feeling not thankful but resentful. She writes:

“My first impulse when someone asks me to share is to not-share. This isn’t because I’m not a sharing person — you can have my cake and eat it, too — but because sharing, like charity, should be voluntary.”

What Kathleen Parker illumines and what Sarah Huckabee Sanders “preached” in the White House briefing room is what the Apostle Paul calls the Law. For St. Paul, the Law names not only the biblical laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Law, which Paul says is inscribed upon every heart and is thus extra-biblical and universal to human experience, is shorthand for an exacting moral standard of human performance.

The Law, as Martin Luther paraphrased Paul from Romans 3, always and only accuses.

Lex semper accusat. That is, the Law can only ever convey to us God’s expectation of perfection (“Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”) and our privation in fulfilling such righteousness. The Law always and only accuses for the Law has no power in itself to create that which it commands; in fact, as Paul unpacks in Romans 7 (“I do what I do not want to do”), the Law very often elicits in us the opposite of its intent. As my new favorite theologian, Gerhard Forde, puts it in On Being a Theologian of the Cross:

“The Law says, “Thou shalt love!” It is right; it is holy, true, and good.’ Yet, it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels, and say, “Look here, you’re supposed to love me!” the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be jus the opposite from what ‘our’ Law demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love, Law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”

Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul and the Protestant Reformers is that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ imperative to the press corps (“Be more grateful!”) likely provoked the very opposite of anything resembling gratitude.

Christianity teaches what your heart knows to be true: Command- what Christians call Law- cannot create gratitude. Thankfulness, as Kathleen Parker Christianly pointed out in the Post, cannot be willed from wishing or exerted based on another’s expectation. If the Law only and always accuses, then gratitude can only ever be by grace. Gratitude can only ever be a free response not to an imperative but to an indicative.

Gratitude can only be an effect of the Gospel not Law. In Christian terms, gratitude is the response created within us by the no-strings-attached promise that all our sins have been forgiven because of another. I wonder, though, is it possible that gratitude is only intelligible in Christian terms such as these? We don’t call our sacrament the Eucharist, which means gratitude, for nothing. i wonder if gratitude is only intelligible in the Christian terms we call Gospel? John Tierney says Thanksgiving is the most psychologically correct holiday, but I wonder if its the most Christian holiday; specifically, I wonder if Thanksgiving can only be a Christian holiday.

I mean, if Christians only possess a religious flavor of that which is true already for everyone everywhere (gratitude) then we should sleep in on Sundays and fix brunch and bloody marys.

Apart from the story Christians rehearse every week, in Word and Sacrament, of God’s goodness in spite of human failure, what other story contextualizes Thanksgiving such that gratitude is created not compelled? Does the (false) story of happy natives and pilgrims put enough flesh on Thanksgiving to elicit true gratitude?

Is a Thanksgiving table that is not in some sense an extension of the altar table just a hollow holiday?

Gratitude, don’t forget, requires a corollary awareness of our own fault and finitude such that we’re appreciative of others. Can the story of the pilgrims do the heavy lifting or our sentimentality about family and football? Or does the Gospel alone better tell us about what has been done for us that we could not do for ourselves? Does the Gospel do better at teaching us not to trust in our own ability or merit such that appreciation for another arises freely within us?

Apart from the promise of the Gospel, Americans at Thanksgiving are just like the White House Press Corps this week, being told (by the Law) to be grateful but, as a consequence, feeling the opposite of gratitude.

So, before you carve the turkey, remember that at a holiday table Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave thanks…

Todd Littleton joined to team for this interview with Adam Clark and Christian Piatt at the Theology Beer Camp in January. While the interview was over 9 months ago, who would’ve thought that the conversation would STILL resonate today as we deal with issues of race and social justice.
Mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

Grateful

Jason Micheli —  November 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

Since it’s nearly Thanksgiving, here’s a piece on gratitude I wrote for the United Methodist Church’s Rethink Church website. You know you’re old and have become a company man when the denomination asks you to write for them. 

Two years ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery, which removed a tumor the size of a “Harry Potter” hardback from my innards The doctor told me I had a rare, aggressive and ultimately incurable cancer. After a year of intense, butt-kicking chemo, I’m back as a workaday pastor.

And I’m so freaking grateful for it.

I resonate lately with St. Paul and his letter to the Church at Philippi. Maybe I do so because I know that after he wrote his letter, it was curtains on Paul.

Nonetheless, Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty (plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-butt insurance claims).

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in Philippians, I’ve got so much for which I am grateful.

To my church

I know, when life sucks it’s novel or “gutsy” to gripe about institutional religion. That feels to me like it’s either too easy a complaint to be true or too depressing to bear if it is true.

The Philippians fed Paul. He was in a Roman prison when he wrote to them. The money the Philippians sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry or you didn’t and you went hungry.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, my parish has done so much for my family and me. They fed us and prayed for us and with us. They helped with medical bills and sat with me in the hospital. They were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room. And they didn’t bat an eye when I puked in their cars.

My colleague, the Rev. Dennis Perry, was with us the night I learned I had cancer. He prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for us all during my treatments and he’s held my hand through the new normal.

My church has done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is: I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score.

One thing cancer has taught me: When you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way, too. And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back. And you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that bad things have happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and the Church responded by giving me so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay all this?

I physically can’t write that many thank-you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want anyone else barfing in my car.

I tried repaying one of my benefactors by driving him to his vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything I have been given? Balance the scales?

I can’t ever repay everything that’s been done for me.

And what has been done for me isn’t even the most important thing that’s been done.

Unlike Paul, in this crucible of incurable cancer, I’ve not been able to say (as Paul humble-brags in Philippians), “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

When you have cancer, everyone — EVERY SINGLE PERSON —  tells you “to kick cancer’s ass.” But it works the other way around. Cancer kicks yours. The last months and years, I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt “thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith And Paul’s “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me” sounded to me like an empty cliché.

I may have a few things in common with Paul and the Philippians but not with the “I can endure all things through Christ…” part.

Unless. . .

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about Christ’s Body, the Church: “I can endure all things through you who strengthens me.”

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel, “I am the Light of the World,” looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them, “You are the Light of the World.”

And when we profess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future, but he’s here and now. There is no Christ “up there,” because he’s here. Now.

 I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH HIM WHO STRENGTHENS ME. [PHILIPPIANS 4:13]

So maybe. . .

Maybe when Paul says, “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he doesn’t mean, “I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…”

Maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…” And maybe he doesn’t mean, “I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…”

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you, the Church. About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can my wife. And so would my sons.

We can endure all things because the Church has been with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

As Sam Wells observes, “with” just might be the most important word. In Scripture, “with” is much more important than “for.”

“In the beginning,” says Scripture, “the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God and without him not one thing came into being.”

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So, at the very end of the Bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.”

According to the Bible, “with” is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life, action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again. Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: “It was kind of you,” he says, “to share in my distress.”

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in my wife’s worry, Church. In my boys’ fears and anxiety, Church. It was kind of you to make my cancer — our cancer — yours, too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress.

Glawspel

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2017 — 3 Comments

I continued our fall lectio continua series through Exodus by preaching on God giving the Law to Moses in Exodus 20.

Thou shall have no other gods but me.

Thou shall not make for yourself any idol.

Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God.

Thou shall not commit murder.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

Thou shall not steal.

Thou shall not strip to thine mighty whities and kiss a 14 year old nor touch her through her…No wait, that’s not in there. It’s not in there!

Nor is it etched in the 5,280 pound granite statue of them that Roy Moore installed in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001. It’s not in the 10 Commandments so the 10 Commandments Judge (if he’s guilty) must be in the clear.

According to Sean Hannity, if the 10 Commandments are at all relevant to the allegations against Roy Moore then it’s because Leigh Corfman, Wendy Miller, Debbie Gibson, and Gloria Deason are all guilty of breaking the 9th Commandment.

They’re all lying, Hannity promises. They’re bearing false witness.

Here I was in the middle of the week wondering what I would preach this Sunday, knowing that Exodus 20, the giving of the Law to Moses, was our scheduled scripture text. I didn’t know what I would preach. I was wracking my brain. I even prayed, as I always do, sending up on SOS for God to give me something to say.

And then on Thursday afternoon my iPhone chimed with breaking news from the Washington Post about the allegations of sexual assault (or, according to Breitbart News: “Dating”). My iPhone dinged with the allegations against Roy Moore, the self-proclaimed 10 Commandments Judge and now Alabama Senate candidate.

With Exodus 20 on the preaching calendar, Roy Moore fell into my lap like icky manna from heaven.

I know, it’s not funny.

It’s NOT.

But, if there’s anything funny at all about the sad, sordid story it’s the irony that Roy Moore, the 10 Commandments Judge, doesn’t appear to have read what Jesus and the Apostle Paul say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists like Roy Moore would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.

That’s not their purpose.

I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it did to Roy Moore this week.

To accuse us.

The mistake Judge Roy Moore makes, in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, is that the primary function of the Law is not civil.

The primary function of the Law is theological.

It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.

But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves.

And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street – we deceive ourselves. And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Louis CK did. We’re not like Roy Moore at all.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to Roy Moore’s alleged vice, in his sermon on the mount, Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.

To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.”

To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel, then you’ve cheated on your wife.”

He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.

And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it less great by trading out neighbor for enemy.

“You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”

Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.

     Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions. The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct.

Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.

I didn’t sleep with her, I must be Kingdom material.

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. It’s more than posting the 10 Commandments in courtrooms; it’s more than obeying the 10 Commandments.

It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off. It’s what’s in your head and in your heart, your intentions not just your actions.

That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom. That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says.

And then, Jesus closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:

     “You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. I’m no Kevin Spacey.

No, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, Christ’s point is that we must measure ourselves according to God. There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you.

It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t matter that you never did what Mark Halperin did.

     “Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because perfection is actually the obligation.

     Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. 

You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect. You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life.

How’s that going for you?

Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.

Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you.

Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Louis CK and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake Judge Roy Moore makes in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces.

     The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. 

     The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law are not principles by which you live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

In his statement to the NY Times on Friday, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:

“…I wielded my power irresponsibility. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”

Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.

As Stephen Colbert tweeted, it leaves him with the desire for a time machine to go back and tell Louis CK NOT TO DO THAT TO WOMEN.

His statement is wanting in a lot of ways; nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.

The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.

     The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question:

“How could God love someone like me?”

     When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.

Martin Luther taught that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words:

Law and Gospel.

And Luther said the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel.

Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes to Timothy as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” 

It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, Luther said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.

Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.

You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.

But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.

Focus on Law alone yields a God of commands and oppressive expectations.

The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose.

So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental.

And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians.

It can only produce hypocrites.

That’s why none of us should be surprised to discover that the 10 Commandments Judge may in fact be a white-washed tomb. A hypocrite.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.

Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality.

“God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.

Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.

     Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting.

Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. 

Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.

Glawspel is like Joe Cocker, fooling you into thinking that you can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from your friend Jesus.

Glawspel is like an infomercial product- that with a dash of grace and a splash of spiritual transformation added to awesome you, Shazaam, you too can forgive 70 x 7.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.

The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.

The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.

The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.

The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.

For you.

The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or exhaustion but recognition.

The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not Glawspel.

The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached.

The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.

If it’s exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace.

If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel simply repeats the question:

WDJD?

    What DID Jesus do?

———————-

     He did what you cannot do for yourself.

Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it.

Because behind closed doors

When we think the mic is off

In the backstage dressing room of our minds

And in the secret thoughts of our hearts-

Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Roy Moore and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others.

Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.

The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.

     If Christ is just your teacher or example, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven.

Because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of HeavenHe took that fear from you.

He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.

His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.

Don’t you see- Roy Moore is right about one thing.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

On Tuesday a 30-something journalist from Redskins country, Danica Roem, defeated, soon-to-be-octogenarian, Robert Marshall for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Marshall has served as a Delegate for decades and has done so, in his own self-indicting words, as “Virginia’s Chief Homophobe.”

As with male pattern baldness- apparently there’s a club of which he’s not only a member but it’s president.

Marshall represents a district of the Northern Virginia exurbs sufficiently conservative as to make the Ayatollah seem middle of the road; nonetheless, on Tuesday they handed Marshall an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Danica Roem who, it’s not incidental, is transgender.

Take it from me, Gainesville, Va is not San Francisco.

Turns out, regardless of their views on sexuality and identity most ordinary voters don’t care all that much about issues of sexuality and identity. They care more about the concrete, literally; as in, tolls and transportation.

Caveat Ecclesia 

As Gainesville, Virginia goes likely so will go the Church of Jesus Christ in all but the flyover states.

My United Methodist tradition stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed, butt-cheeks-tight- and-nervous impasse over the issue of sexuality, awaiting a recommendation from a special 30-person commission on a “way forward” that will inaugurate what may be the United Methodist Church’s final debate over the issue. The result will either be peace amidst difference, agreeing to unity generally amidst our disunity particularly on this topic, or the result will be for us to contribute (at least) two new denominations to the carnage created by the Reformation’s rupture with Rome (40K+ denominations since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses).

The election of Danica Roem, I suspect and fear, reveals how the very fact we’re even having this all-consuming argument is evidence that we’ve already wandered too far down the mineshaft holding hands with the likes of Robert Marshall.

Look- I get it.

I really do.

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, the election of Danica Roem grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

Like those NOVA voters who cared more about public works than Danica Roem’s privates, as much as I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate, I find other issues more urgent.

Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

Like those voters this Tuesday who cared more about the tolls and transportation of their daily lives than transgenderism, I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law.

And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law.

The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing.

If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone unlike them, then the fighting isn’t worth it.

If our leveraged-future brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

And if the election of Danica Roem is any indication, to say nothing of the confused look on my 15 year old son’s face that I’m even writing this post, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this debate.

Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Daphne was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. The culture has moved on whether we like it or not. This isn’t a hill the Apostle Paul would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.

So, given the missional context of the culture in which we find ourselves, I offer this modest proposal for the Way Forward. 

I’ve read reports that the UMC’s Special Worldwide Sex Conference (my name for it) in 2019 will cost the UMC approximately $11 million dollars. 

Given that this issue of sexuality was already settled for most potential converts to Jesus Christ  back in 1996 when Robin Williams starred in the Bird Cage, I propose:

We, the United Methodist Church, instead invest that $11 MILLION DOLLARS until the day, say, when my son is my age, 2050.

On that day, sex will be even less the issue for his children as it is for his peers, but- I’m betting, broken world as this is- they’ll still be hungry for grace.

And- unless the Donald or Skynet screws things up-

At 3% interest that $11,000,000 will be worth close to $24 MILLION DOLLARS.

I know, like Solomon and the baby, it’s an incredibly difficult choice to weigh.

Do we spend $11M now for the same people who couldn’t reach a decision 2 years ago to argue it again and hope for different results?

Or, do we invest for the future so that we have 24 million dollars to proclaim the good news that God in Jesus Christ is for sinners?


Reflections after the Las Vegas Sutherland Springs shooting.

The supposition that policy change according to Caesar’s politics is somehow more powerful or effective than the Church’s politics of prayer and worship of the Crucified Christ, I believe, is exactly what’s wrong with the Church and it’s witness to the wider culture:

We live in a time when tragedies are often remembered by the simple name of a place, like Columbine, Ft. Hood, or Virginia Tech. We mention them in conversation like, “After Columbine, we needed metal detectors at schools;” or “We used to be able to ignore some behaviors; but that was before Virginia Tech.”

Other traumatic events are either less institution-specific or more widespread, so we refer to them by the name of the town in which they took place: Charlottesville, Charleston, Houston, Barcelona, Brussels, and now “Las Vegas.” This is not something reserved to the modern era… remember The Alamo? And for a long time, wars have been memorialized simply by the names of the nations in which they were fought: Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq. But, the depressingly high rate of new place-name-memorials has felt historic to many of us.

Regularly, the news reports casualties of gunfire, war, or natural disasters which can be counted in the dozens, the hundreds, and even, God help us, the thousands. And I’m met with the one-two punch of, on the one hand, shock and grief; and, on the other, numbness and avoidance as I sip my morning coffee calculating how today’s casualties will stack up to yesterday’s.

Was this hurricane bad enough to warrant a benefit concert or telethon?

Were today’s IED casualties enough to warrant a press conference?

Will we find out the motivation of the gunman?

Will legislators feel called (or tempted) to turn this into actionable legislation that will change the tide of disaster response, military engagement, international aid, or gun policy in America? How long until they use it to solidify their re-election)?

How long until writers, bloggers, and pastors come out with their commentaries, and retorts, and soap boxes? (In my case, the answer is about a day, 2 cups of coffee, and 1 beer, then a week of prayer and editing)

Tragedy, trauma, and indescribable suffering are becoming ordinary. Perhaps because more tragedy is being reported more quickly. And, perhaps that is because the 24-hour shit-stream of news and information has us hooked on sensationalism.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that I found the sheer violence of the past month (Harvey-Irma-Maria-Las Vegas) both exhausting and routine.

Of course it’s depressing and sad… but I’m kind of too tired to lament, or think critically. And, it all comes so frequently now, I feel like you and I don’t have time to fully react. So, we take short cuts. We fall back on the modern liturgies of tragedy.

News strikes of tragedy.
We listen to hear just how bad it is, to figure out which part comes next.

If it’s bad enough (and the victims are like us enough) we say/post/tweet something about our thoughts and prayers.

If we don’t want to do that, we say/post/tweet something about how thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, and we want people to act.

If we ourselves want to (appear as if we want to) act, we say what “someone” ought to do:
Often the someone is Trump.

Otherwise, it’s a call for more gun-control.
Or less gun control.
For mental health services.
Or better home training.
For more from FEMA.
For more from Trump.
For a local way to help.
For an organization to which we should donate.

Basically, we virtue signal.

Because, in many cases, we have and/or want virtue! In almost all cases, though, regardless of actual virtue, we do this because it makes us feel better.

The liturgy of tragedy makes us feel better.

And it’s not over.

Next:
If we haven’t already, we blame someone.
Usually Trump.
Or blacks in Chicago.
Or Global Warming.
Or “the gays.”
Sometimes we tell someone we want to do something about this, even after the news-cycle moves on. And sometimes we actually do.
We march.
We protest.
We give.
We read a book.
We recommend a book.
We write blogs.
We engage in hard conversations.
Many of these actions are genuinely good, or at least come from a place of genuine desire for good. And, they probably should not be mocked.

But, here’s my main thesis…

The thing I hate most about the liturgy of tragedy, is that it eclipses the liturgy of life.

The latest tragedy–Las Vegas–the shooting of hundreds of people resulting in a rising death-toll of 50 or more–I learned about it from a Facebook post that said “Take your thoughts and your prayers and shove them up your ass. It’s time for gun control.”

I’m not upset about the call for gun control. I’m not upset that someone used the word ass.

Honestly, I’m upset at the devaluing of thoughts and prayers.

And I can’t believe how ridiculous writing that makes me feel.

But truly, I think this is something that may actually be worth saying. I am convinced of the power of thought and prayer.

I’m not saying I think thoughts and prayers are going to make this all better, or all go away. And I’m not–I mean very much so not– the kind of Christian who typically says, “I believe in the power of prayer,” where they might as well be talking about the power of a rabbit’s foot to ward off evil spirits, or an amber necklace to make their infant less irritating–I mean irritable.

No, I’m not tritely saying, “Prayer will get us through this.”
I’m saying that I think thought and prayer protects us from tragedy every damned day.
Not all of us. Not enough of us. But most of us.

Thought and prayer, particularly in the form of religious life, and even more particularly (in my case) in Christian worship of and devotion to the Way of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, is the most profound form of anti-terrorism, anti-violence, anti-hate, anti-poverty, anti-death, anti-tragedy, and down-right-anti-evil that humanity has at its disposal. I say this because, when I really think about it, I’m more than confident that, were it not for the church, there would be more gunmen, terrorists, hate groups, homeless, and dead.

In the age of social media and protest encouraging us to #resist and #persist, I don’t want it to be lost on us that the routine liturgy of life which Christians repeat week in and week out in prayer, study, sacrament, and service is resistance and persistence!

Our thoughts and our prayers are what stop us from killing each other!

And, depending on who is reading this, our thoughts and prayers may be what stop us from killing you! The prayer of confession which we pray gives us the gift of forgiveness for little things like lying and cursing which empower us to resist bigger things like cheating on our spouses, burning down our office building, or staging a violent coup.

The story of a garden, and a snake, a flood, and a holy family; of slavery and freedom, of power, and abuse of power, of injustice and righteousness, of God-with-us even in death, and Love raised to Life, it gives us a courage to admit when we are wrong and to find a common bond of humanity even with our most dire enemy.

The sacrament of baptism gives us a community. No, a family, to guide us when we’re out of line, and notice when we’re gone. To call us on our bullshit, and teach us not to be assholes. The sacrament of Eucharist fills even our bodies with grace that was won through non-violent resistance resulting in the death of an innocent victim. It forms us as people, and as a community, centered on a story of a death that ultimately ends all death. And the life of service to which we are sent from that table–it teaches us that care for the other is truer and more important than competition with or even safety from the other.

The church is many things. Including, often, an utter failure.
But the church is also, at some level, holy. And, even in its holiness, it may be that the sum of the church’s holiness is lived out in little more than a long-standing, never-ending liturgy of thoughts and prayers.

Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone no longer owns guns.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone is no longer a member of the KKK
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone has friends outside their race.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone who voted for Hillary invited a Trump supporter to coffee.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a real estate developer refused to construct in a flood zone.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a real estate developer built affordable housing in the same neighborhood they themselves would be willing to live.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone has a roof over their head when their family kicked them out of the house.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why a child of abuse is not destined to become abusive.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone was forgiven, and not killed.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why someone was imprisoned, and not killed.
Somewhere tonight, the church is why, in the moment just before someone died from a gunshot wound, they were unafraid.

In a world where the liturgy of tragedy has become all too familiar, still…

Thoughts and Prayers are the liturgy of life.

Thoughts and Prayers are resistance to the liturgy of tragedy.

Thoughts and Prayers are the persistent heartbeat of the church.
Thoughts and Prayers are the church exchanging the way of this world for the mind of Christ.

So, if you want to do something to mourn, to heal, to help, or to avoid becoming the terrorist you and I are all too easily capable of becoming, try some thoughts and prayers. Come to church. We will try it with you.

Because, in the end, the church is not actually why any of those good things happen. Those things happen through the church because of Christ. Because in Christ, Existence and Love took on flesh in Bethlehem and then Galilee happened and then Capernaum. And then Ganesaret. Then Samaria. Then Bethany. Then Jerusalem. Then Golgatha. Then the Garden. Then Emmaus. Then Jerusalem again. Then Galilee again. Then Damascus and Antioch. Then Corinth, and Thesalonica, and Ephesus. Then Jerusalem again. Then Patmos. Then Chalcedon. Then Rome. Then Nicea. Then Syria. Then Avila. Then Asisi. Then England. Then Norwich. Then Wittenberg. Then Oxford. Then Aldersgate. Then Baltimore. Then Birmingham. Then, eventually, in my life, Norfolk, and Richmond, and Williamsburg, and Winchester, and Upperville, and Alexandria, and Springfield, and St. Stephen’s.

Every event, in every place, in every time, is where tragedy has struck, is striking, or will strike. The only thing more definitive than that fact is that in Christ tragedy will not win. And it is to this truth, in honor of the victims of sin and death, that I devote my thoughts and prayers tonight.

Drew Colby

For All Saints Sunday I continued our lectio continua through the Book of Exodus with chapter 17.

“Renew our communion with all your saints, especially those whom we name before you…” 

Wait just a minute, are we sure this is the right list?

I don’t want to talk smack on the dead, but do these folks really qualify to be called saints?

Isn’t that a little like giving participation trophies to everyone?

I mean, Chuck Kincannon- a great Dad and a moderate poker player but a saint? Chuck sang country songs in a soprano voice just to embarrass his teenage daughter on dates.

Chuck never slayed a dragon like St. George or drove off a plague of snakes like St. Patrick.

And Bud Jordan- this is a guy who got drunk- I mean, over served- with his shipmates in Italy and stole a village fishing boat after they’d missed their ferry back to board their ship.

In 13 years, I don’t think I ever saw Bud wearing a shirt anywhere else but here at church, and in those 13 years I don’t think a Sunday went by that Bud didn’t shamelessly hit on Heather Shue, who compared to him was young enough to be his protozoa.

I loved Bud, but isn’t it a bit much to call him a saint?

And Dwight Newman, good doctor with a good ear for music, but I don’t think Dwight ever walked out of worship without a cranky word about Dennis, which, let’s be fair, is true for half of you.

Often the paraments on All Saints are red to remind us of the blood of the martyrs.

If a saint is a champion of the faith, a person of exceptional piety, do these guys and gals really make the cut?

Their halos aren’t any bigger than yours, and- let’s be honest, I’ve known you for over a dozen years- on your best days, your halo is dinged up and dirty.

Claudia Debus, a wonderful and warm woman, she died having never forgiven her parents. They weren’t much of saints either.

Diane Brooks, when her husband’s death from cancer was followed immediately by her own cancer diagnosis, her daughter just in the 6th grade, she confessed to me she’d lost her faith.

She confided to me over coffee “my faith has been wrung out of me.”

And today we call her a saint, a champion of faith?

Walt Wilson- a few years ago I had to take out a restraining order on him after he became abusive to members of our staff.

One of the other people on our list today took his own life. He so did not believe in the sanctity of his life that he counted it loss, but today we count him a saint.

Really- if saints are exemplars of righteousness, then are these the names we should be reading?

Of course, in a way, they’re in good company.

If you wipe away the stained glass sheen we apply to the saints of the church catholic, then you discover that they’re no different than the saints we name here today.

St. Thomas Aquinas spent his whole life writing volume after volume of theology, but before he died he declared all our God-talk as no better than straw. Worthless.

St. Augustine was a horn-dog in his pagan youth and when he converted to Christianity he completely abandoned his common-law wife and their son. In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts- just imagine that as a statue in your garden.

St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Terminus episodes of the Walking Dead seem Christian by comparison. One of my heroes, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life- in addition to his wife. Twenty years into her mission, Mother Theresa of Calcutta wrote in her diary:

“Where is my Faith- even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness- My God- how painful is this unknown pain- I have no Faith- I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.”

That’s pretty depressing.

Still, Mother Theresa is better than Moses. He murdered a man and buried him in the desert. And Moses is better still than the saints he helped rescue.

They’re worse than you complaining about guitars vs. organs- in our passage today, they’re 24 hours out of Egypt and already they’re complaining to God about the accommodations.

Saints?

500 years ago this week, Martin Luther, who had a mouth dirtier than mine and a prejudice against Jews that would make Richard Spencer applaud, nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, provoking the Protestant Reformation.

1 of Luther’s 95 theses was a protest against the medieval Catholic Church’s teaching on how a saint was made, a protest against who the Church said qualified to be called one.

If you look at church art from the era- and the reason that Luther and the Protestants tore it all down- saints were always painted as having larger halos than everyone else. The bigger halos reflected the Catholic teaching that saints are those heroes who can stand before a holy God based on the merit of their own righteousness.

Saints got the bigger halos because they were the champions of faith, persons of exceptional piety, examples of extraordinary virtue.

Nonsense.

Martin Luther said that whenever you start evaluating yourself, measuring your vice and virtue relative to another, you’re in the territory of the Law not the Gospel.

According to the Gospel-

Saints are not those people who’ve earned bigger halos.

Saints are not those people who can stand before God better than us because of what they did.

Saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not role models of righteousness. They’re not people who are good or do good; in fact, according to the Bible our goodness is usually an obstacle to God’s grace not evidence of it.

Are some of the saints examples of godly living and models of righteousness? Are some of them good people who’ve done good with their lives?

Sure.

Of course.

Obviously.

But that’s not what makes them saints.

Saints are not people running after God; they’re people that God in Jesus Christ has mowed down, killing them and making them alive again with his word, with water, with wine and bread.

Saints are saints because God has sainted them, sanctified them, declared them something they are not apart from Jesus Christ: holy and righteous.

That’s what the word sanctus means, from which we get the word saint. It means holy.

Saints are not role models of righteousness. Saints are those who know they are not righteous

Saints are those who know they are not righteous in themselves but trust-

pay attention-

they have been declared righteous by God.

That’s how the Apostle Paul can address his letter thus: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…”  Read the rest of the letter. The Church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than an Anthony Scaramucci family chapel.

     And yet Paul calls them saints.

Saints are not sinless role models of righteousness. Saints are sinners who know they are the latter and not the former, who know that, on their own, they don’t deserve any sized halo. Saints are sinners who know we’re no better than rocks that God’s got to crack open himself if anything life-giving is going to come out.

Saints are not those who champion the faith. They’re those who know that Christ is the friend of sinners.

Saints are sinners who know they are not righteous but trust that by the blood of the cross God credits Christ’s righteousness to them.

Which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying what the Apostle Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said on the Pet Sounds album (himself a pretty spectacular sinner). 

The Apostle Brian Wilson sang: “God only knows what I’d be without you…”

That kind of credit to whom credit is due, that’s All Saints.

Luther tore down all the icons with the outsized halos because it grates against the Gospel.

Saints do not become saints by their faith or their merit.

     They are made saints by the merit of Christ’s faithfulness alone.

Christians do not become saints. Really, saint is but another word for Christian. Christ makes saints by becoming our sin so that his righteousness might be reckoned to us. We do not become righteous; his righteousness is credited to us.

It’s called All Saints Sunday for a reason. All of us, we’re all sinners that God calls saints. All of us who trust this promise.

Whether you feel or seem or act like one or not.

     Because God forbid that the truth of the Gospel would hinge on how you feel or seem or act or on the strength of what you believe.

Mary Karr, the Catholic poet, writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.”

Even though she’s a Catholic, what Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Reformation doctrine simul iustus et peccator, which is a fancy Latin catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.”

That is, we are always simultaneously sinful and justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We do not ever advance beyond the Ying/Yang of that simultaneity. We are all always and at once saints and sinners. They’re not at all mutually exclusive terms.

Like that guy tells McCauley Culkin in Home Alone said, we’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.

And this is not a disappointment or a deficiency, it’s the Gospel.

It’s the good news:

 you never will be more perfect than you already are in Jesus Christ.

Sure, you’re a sinner- no need to lie or pretend you’re someone you’re not. Sure, you’re a sinner, but simultaneously you have all of Christ’s righteousness already.

Just as bread and wine can convey God’s grace without God’s grace destroying the creatures of bread and wine, so too, Christ’s righteousness can convey to you without destroying you.

So that-

Simultaneous to your poverty- your doubts and your unbelief, your mistakes and your bad character, your apathy and your infidelity- simultaneous to your impoverishment, you already possess the full riches of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther said the gift of Christ’s righteousness to sinners- it’s like two people who each possess 100 gold coins.

The one may carry them in a dirty paper sack, the other may keep them in a gilded fortress.

But for all that, no matter the condition of the vessel, each of them possess the same entire treasure.

One may look rich, the other like a pauper, but they both possess everything.

The gift we’ve been given, Christ’s righteousness, it’s ours, all of it ours, whether your doubts are like mustard seeds or as mighty as a mountain, whether the faith you carry it in is like a castle or a crappy sack, whether you’re a lot more sinner than you feel a saint- it’s yours, Christ’s righteousness, all of it.

Already and for always.

What makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel, isn’t the message: Do better, be better, believe better.

The message of All Saints isn’t:

Shape up, God’s disappointed in you.

Be like those guys with the big halos.

The All Saints tagline isn’t the Army’s- we’re not exhorting you to be all you can be.

That’s the Law speaking not the Gospel.

No, what makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel isn’t even the message: Become what you already are. There’s no becoming necessary.

What makes All Saints Gospel is the message: You are.

Now. Already and forever. You are: Holy and righteous.

You are: a saint.

You are now the Bride of Christ betrothed by his blood- whether you feel like it or not.

Such that as Steven Paulson says, you might as well shave your legs and put on lipstick because he’s already made you his beloved.

All Saints is about the objective comfort of the Gospel.

All Saints is about what the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s Church calls the “sweet comfort” that the truth and measure of God’s righteousness given to you in Jesus Christ is not determined by the strength of your faith or the severity of your failures.

It’s true about you whether you feel it’s true or feel it’s false, no matter how much you sin, no matter what your sin- God calls you a saint.

The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians that that is your “inheritance.”

Notice, he doesn’t say it’s your wage or your reward.

That you have to earn.

Paul says it’s your inheritance.

An inheritance is earned by another and, my wife is an estate lawyer- she’ll tell you- inheritances are given.

Freely given.

And once they’re given- they’re the last and final word. It is finished.

An inheritance is given away.

And Ali will tell you, they’re given to all sorts of motley people who manifestly do not deserve them.

Speaking of Ali-

A couple of weeks ago, Ali and I both were talking about my book and my cancer at a church in Los Angeles.

And at one point, the pastor asked Ali: “Now that you’ve had this brush with death and grown so much closer to God and each other, how has Jason changed?”

And Ali thought a bit and offered a couple of answers of how she’s seen my faith deepened.

But then she paused, and smiled shyly just a little, and she said:

     “Of course, in a lot of ways, Jason is still the same asshole he was before.”

A couple of weeks ago, in that church, everyone laughed.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, imperfect people like me and Bud and Chuck and Diane and Claudia and Walt and whoever you lost this year whose name will be read in a different church, and, don’t kid yourself, you- we should say “Amen.”

Because…God only knows what we’d be…but in Christ he’s called us…saints.

 

 

 

Just in time for Election Day ~
I had the opportunity to have Mike McCurry as a guest in my office late this summer for a conversation about faith and politics and Christian witness in the public square. And, of course, because my friend Johanna begged me to ask: CJ Cregg.
Mike McCurry was the White House Press Secretary during the Clinton administration and now teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary. The conversation covers a range of topics including Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, the cynicism that comes with working for the government, fighting Newt Gingrich, the absence of faith in politics, and thoughts on A Way Forward through the sexuality impasse for the United Methodist Church.
A special thanks to my friend Scott Warner for hooking me up with the interview.
Mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

“Pour out your Holy Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the Body and Blood of Christ…”
The epiclesis is when we invoke at table the coming down of the condescending God. Moving into the E’s, Dr. Johanna defines ‘epiclesis’  and Teer and I attempt to tell you why you should care about it.
And mark you calendars…Saturday, December 16 in Alexandria, Va we’re going to do a live podcast with our friend Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. Details to follow.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

On the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, Jason, Teer, and Johanna talk with the Beyonce of Anglicanism, Fleming Rutledge, about ongoing relevance of Protestantism’s primary message of grace and God’s agency, the bad theology behind “leaning into” our baptisms, and how the Feast of Pelagius is an every Sunday celebration in the mainline church.

Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

 

My friend and muse Stanley Hauerwas wrote an editorial in the Washington Post to observe this Reformation Day coinciding with the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Luther had hoped to provoke a debate with his theological brothers and monastic colleagues. He ignited a powder keg that became a revolution.

Assessing the religious landscape, where innumerable varieties of Protestant Christianity must compete against each other in an increasingly secular culture, Stanley, with a tone of self-loathing, asks why we holdouts from the Mother Church don’t simply return to the Catholic Church. After all, he contends, the issues which prompted Luther’s critique 500 years ago have since been resolved by first the Council of Trent and recently Vatican II.

Never mind that (on this All Saints eve) Protestants and Catholics still disagree over the definition and making of a saint or that Rome still practices indulgences, albeit in a far different form, whatever reconciliation Catholics and Protestants have reached on paper in conciliar gatherings it’s simply not the case that on the ground, in congregations, the issues which sparked the Reformation have been resolved. Stanley, as a trainer of preachers, should know this fact and perhaps bear some responsibility for it.

What do I mean?

During his time at Union Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously remarked that Protestantism in America had never gone through the Reformation; that is, the dominant ethos of American Christianity was pietism.

Stanley is wrong, I think, about the continuing relevance of the Reformation because Bonhoeffer continues to be correct.

Pietism continues to be the dominant key in which both Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism perform the Gospel, preaching the Law without distinction from the Gospel in ways that manifest as either moralism on the one hand or turn-and-burn brimstone, which forgets Christ has already closed the abyss between God and us, on the either.

Neither version of pietism reflects the Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel of justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.

Against Martin Luther, evangelical pietism in America, in its best forms, posits a continuous self and focuses not on how God works to condemn us as sinners and justify us for Jesus’ sake but instead on faith as a program for greater spiritual self-improvement. This emphasis on spiritual self-improvement is the root that all too often flowers into Christianity as behavior modification. Mainline Protestants, meanwhile, tend to be what Mark Mattes calls “secular evangelicals” who’ve undermined the evangelistic thrust of the Gospel by instead working “to use the Church at the national level to pressure governmental agencies to conform to its particular version of peace and justice.” 

Put simply, what most Protestants hear proclaimed week in and week is one of two flavors of pietism.

From Evangelicals it’s Become a Better You.

From Mainline Protestants it’s Build a Better World.

Mainline Protestants hate Joel Osteen, I suspect, because he’s but the inevitable product of a shared theology.

The assumption conveyed in congregations is that, yes, Christ died to cover your sins (if sin language is even used) but now we have a responsibility to play a part in salvation and the moral progress of self and society. This emphasis on our agency and ability to choose God and the good by our nature is called Pelagianism. Not only is it ripe for self-righteousness, it was condemned as a heresy 1500 years ago, a form of it, Semi-Pelagianism, is confused as our kerygma by many Christians.

This is a far cry from the Reformation’s reclamation of the announcement from the Apostle Paul that, apart from any of our religious doing (Law), God has shown us sinners grace in Jesus, given us Christ’s righteousness as our own, and gifted this to us through a faith predicated on his faithfulness alone.

Instead I think what many Protestants experience is what Craig Parton describes:

“My Christian life, truly began by grace, was now being “perfected” on the treadmill of the Law.

My pastors did not end their sermons by demanding I recite the rosary or visit Lourdes in order to unleash God’s power; instead, I was told to yield more, pray more, care about unbelievers more, read the Bible more, get involved with the church more, love my wife and kids more.

Not until…some 20 years later, did I understand that my Christian life had come to center around my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, my sermon application.

I had advanced beyond the need to hear the cross preached to me anymore. Of course, we all knew Jesus had died for our sins, and none of us would ever argue that we were trying to “merit” our salvation. But something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one. I was supposed to show that I had cleaned up my life and was at least grateful for all the gifts that had been bestowed…

The Gospel was critical for me at the beginning, critical now to share with others, and still critical to me into heaven, but it was of little other value. The ‘good’ in the good news was missing.”

Hauerwas is wrong, I think, because all over America, in red and blue churches alike, Mainline and Evangelical both, we’re exhausting people on the treadmill of the Law, exhausting them with expectations that, by their very nature, grate against the good news of the Gospel that they are justified by grace and reckoned righteous through Christ alone and always.

Phyllis Tickle famously said that every 500 years the Church goes through a Reformation. I wonder if the next great reformation for the Church in America will finally be to embody the message of the first.