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Divine Amnesia

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

 I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.

Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.

And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.

Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.

I’m going to get emails about that.

My point is-

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.

It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.

     The Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis.

This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.

Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.

Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.

When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:

Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.

That’s Exodus 1.9

Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.

That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)

So what’s Pharaoh do?

He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.

He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.

Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.

Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.

And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.

A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.

I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.

And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.

The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.

In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.

God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.

You have a duty to be for them too.

You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.

You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”

It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.

And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.

Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.

Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.

It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.

It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.

God is for them.

You have a a duty to be for them too.

Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.

It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.

It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.

     It would be simple to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture, but I wonder- would it be the Gospel?

     Or would it-

     Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel

and turn it into a burden?

Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?

Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”

——————-

     In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.

Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.

We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.

After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.

With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.

Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.

The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.

He was wrong.

Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”

Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse.  It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”

In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”

McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”

And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”

What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.

It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.

Says McClay:

“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…

Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.

Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…

In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”

McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.

We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”

But…he says

As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.

If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.

———————

     The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-

It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.

It’s true-

God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.

And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?

For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.

St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.

Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:

The Law always accuses.

     That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.

The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.

“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”

The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.

———————

     The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.

God is not a Pharaoh.

The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.

You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s not news. That’s moralism.

     What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel-  is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not. 

    The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.

God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.

God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.

God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.

God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.

This never stops being true for you.

No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.

God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.

Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).

It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.

The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.

This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.

     It’s God’s grace.

     It’s the gift we call the Gospel.

     And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free (Robert Capon).

     It’s free.

———————-

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:

“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.

Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?

One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”

That’s a history professor, not a preacher.

Translation:

The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear.  The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.

Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.

The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.

By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.

Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not the Law.

The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.

Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.

The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.

The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”

This news-

This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.

You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).

This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cannot exaggerate the influence Dr. Gaventa’s work has had on my preaching as well as my faith. A former teacher of mine at Princeton, Beverly Gaventa opened up Paul’s letters to me, which in turn opened up the Gospels to me and also gave me the lens through which I could read the Old Testament.

Beverly Gaventa is the author the recent book When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul. It’s a book I believe every preacher must read and every Christian can and should read.
With a Ph.d. from Duke and formerly of Princeton, Beverly is a Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor University. I continue to believe that Christians need Paul to comprehend the Gospels and to that end Christians require Beverly to comprehend Paul.

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“This is the Word of God for the People of God.” How does that work? Just how is the bible the Word of God? If all the bible is the Word of God does that flatten out scripture?

And what about forgiving 70×7?

Dr. Johanna, Teer, and I discuss in this third episode of the latest offspring of the Crackers and Grape Juice posse, a new series called (her)men*you*tics (which means “interpretation”) with my friend  Johanna, who is a Professor of Rhetoric at Pitt.

The wall in the camp store at Westview on the James verifies in painful Polaroid detail, Johanna and I were (very good) camp counselors together back in the day. I started the podcast as a venture of friendship and Johanna continues that thread as she is one of the most important people in my life and, as for as ‘accountability’ goes, one of the most important Christians in my life.

Each week we’ll be tackling a theological term that you’ve either heard before or you’ve heard it doing its work in worship whether you realized it or not. We’re going alphabetically, 2 words per letter, and we’re doing it all in 25 minutes or less.

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.

In this episode of Strangely Warmed we tackle Exodus 16.2-15, Jonah 3.10-4.11, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16:
What does it mean to be called by God?
Why are we humans so arrogant?
What does living in a manner worthy of the gospel look like?
These questions and more on this episode of Strangely Warmed with special guest Lindsey Baynham.

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

Better yet- become a patron of the podcast! Help us continue posting new episodes and improving the quality for you.
Special shout-out to Maureen Bigger who just become one of our sponsors.
You too can become a patron by clicking on this link here.
“And so in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves…”
In the Eucharist we remember so that the past might be made present that we might be consumed by what we consume in order that we become what we eat. In other words, this word: anamnesis. We talk with Dr. Johanna Hartelius in this second episode of (her)men*you*tics about Plato, the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, and the particular way the peculiar people called Christians remember. Check it out.
Each week we’ll be tackling a theological term that you’ve either heard before or you’ve heard it doing its work in worship whether you realized it or not. We’re going alphabetically, 2 words per letter, and we’re doing it all in 25 minutes or less.

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.

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

Why do we skip over difficult passages? Can you have peace without violence? Why are the Coen Brothers SO good at making movies? How many times should we forgive? These and more questions on this episode of Strangely Warmed in which we discuss Exodus 14.19-31, Genesis 50.15-21, Romans 14.1-12, and Matthew 18.21-35.

Finally, don’t be a moocher:

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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The theology nerds who read this blog will already know that the Church this week lost who Time Magazine’s America’s Best Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, said was the best theologian in America: Robert Jenson.

I’m a reader of Jenson but hardly an expert. I got to know him a bit, delivering his mail when I worked in the Princeton mail room and he was at the Center for Theological Inquiry. I do believe his (Lutheran) emphasis upon the unconditional, promissory nature of the news of justification is especially needful in Trump’s America where we are constantly tempted into Law and Self-Rigtheousness.

Here’s a snippet from Jenson followed by our podcast interview with him just before he died:

“The gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers, made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe …” It does not even say, “If you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe …”

The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.”

The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all conditions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrelevant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive.”

– Lutheranism

Here’s the podcast with Jens:

In this episode, I talk with theologian David Bentley Hart about a series of questions submitted by his fans. Part 2 includes the questions: “What do you think about Stanley Hauerwas and pacifism?” “What do you make of apocalyptic readings of Paul?” “What is hell?” “What do you think about designated hitters in baseball?” and more.
In case you missed this week’s Strangely Warmed Lectionary Podcast, here it is:
And check out our latest series called (her)men*you*tics [it means interpretation] with my friend Dr. Johanna Hartelius:
Finally, don’t be a moocher:

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.

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

Having received a steady diet of Gospel from our summer sermon series through Romans, I stumbled upon Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints by David Zahl et al. I encourage you to check it out. It’s slim and digestible.

The book concludes with a spot-on, convicting (for me), and helpful guide to distinguish whether what you’re hearing in church is Law or Gospel.

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Zahl writes:

“A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines.

This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.”

At Crackers and Grape Juice, we’re starting a new series with my longtime and long-suffering friend Dr. Johanna Hartelius cheekily called (her)men*you*tics where Johanna will unpack stained glass language to help you speak better Christian.

Each week we’ll tackle a theological term, discussing what it means, what’s at stake, and why you should care in your own daily discipleship. And we’ll do it all each week in 25 minutes or less.

Johanna is professor of rhetoric at Pitt and has launched her own communication consulting gig too. We’ve been friends since I was 18 when we met as camp counselors. Crackers and Grape Juice began as an expression and venture of friendship with Teer, Taylor, and Morgan. (her)men*you*tics carries on in that vein.

Props to Alex Joyner for proposing this idea in the first place. We’ll see if he warrants blame or praise.

Finally, don’t be a moocher:

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.

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

 

 

I was a guest on my friend Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to discuss the upcoming lectionary texts. We talk about Exodus 12 and the Passover, Romans 13, and Matthew 18 and why it’s hard to preach the Gospel from the Gospels.

Check it out here:

What is the Passover? Why is Ezekiel so weird? Is Christianity immoral? These and more questions on this episode of Strangely Warmed.
Taylor and I discussed Exodus 12.1-14, Ezekiel 33.7-11, Romans 13.8-14, Matthew 18.15-20.

Coming this week:

Look for a new regular installment called

(her)men*you*tics with my good friend, Dr. Johanna Hartelius.

Johanna is a professor of rhetoric, formerly at Pitt. For each installment of (her)*men*you*tics the guys will talk with *her* about a key theological term, what it means and why you should care in your daily life.
And we’ll do it in 25 minutes or less. You can check her out here.

Finally, don’t be a moocher:

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.

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

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

For Episode #112, I talked with the philosophical theologian David Bentley Hart about a series of questions submitted by his fans. Part 1 includes the questions: “When are you going to pay me back?” (from his brother Addison Hart), “What would you talk about with Christopher Hitchens?” and “What advice would you offer those about to begin college?” and more.

Be on the lookout for our upcoming episodes. Part 2 of David Bentley Hart answering his fans’ questions. Beverly Gaventa unpacks how to interpret Paul’s letters apocalyptically, former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry talks about religion in the public square, and Ruben Rosario Rodriguez talks liberation theology and racism.

Coming this Fall:

Look for a new regular installment called

(her)men*you*tics with my good friend, Dr. Johanna Hartelius.

Johanna is a professor of rhetoric, formerly at Pitt. For each installment of (her)*men*you*tics the guys will talk with *her* about a key theological term, what it means and why you should care in your daily life. And we’ll do it in 25 minutes or less. You can check her out here.

Rev. Alex Joyner gave us the idea for this series so thank or scold him based on the results. It will be like ‘Fridays with Fleming’ but not on Fridays and not with Fleming.

Finally, don’t be a moocher:

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.

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

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.


It turns out Teer Hardy is good for more than just Orioles stats and an alt-right side-part. Speaking of the alt-right, Teer scored us press passes for Monday’s One Thousand Minister March in Washington DC. The march (ostensibly at least) was for clergy to pray with their feet and been seen standing out against the sin of racism, a seemingly more needful witness after Charlottesville and the Donald’s legitimation of it.

Just so you know how hard a working podcast we are for you, we got there 4 hours early to get our press credentials and interview folks as they arrived.

In this interview you’ll hear from rabbis, ministers, two women leaders from the National Council of Churches, and even, at the end, from Martin Luther King III.

I preached this Sunday at my good friend Todd Littleton’s church, Snow Hill Baptist, outside Oklahoma City. Todd followed the same schedule through Romans this summer as my church. My text was Romans 14.1-12.

If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones

     If, like Todd Littleton, you’ve already watched every episode of all 4 seasons of Bachelorette in Paradise

If Donald Trump’s tweets have lost some of their luster, but you’re afraid to tell your friends you’ve turned to Rachel Maddow

     If you’re looking for something new to watch, then I suggest you check out Stalker, a dark, dystopian science fiction film from the 1970’s. I discovered it on Netflix after I’d binge-watched all 7 seasons of Californication.

Stalker tells the allegory of 3 men who journey across a post-nuclear wasteland.

Shrouded in mystery, the character called Stalker guides two other characters, who are cryptically named Writer and Professor, across the burnt out remains of a devastated civilization.

Stalker is leading them to an apocalyptic oasis called the Zone. Stalker has promised them that at the center of the Zone is a place called the Room.

In the Room, Stalker tells them, they will achieve their hearts’ desire. In the Room, their dreams will come true. In the Room, you will get exactly what you truly want.

Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey.

Only, when they arrive at the threshold of the Room, Writer and Professor get cold feet. They’re overcome with second thoughts as the frightening thought occurs to them: What if we’re stranger to ourselves?

‘What if I don’t know what I want?’ Writer and Professor, in turn, ask Stalker.

‘Well,’ Stalker explains to them, ‘that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals you, it reveals all, everything about you: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.”

At the edge of the Room, what had sounded like a dream starts to feel like a nightmare. Rather than escaping the ruins of God’s apocalyptic judgement, it feels like they’re about to enter into it.

Anticipation turns to dread as Writer and Professor both have an epiphany that terrifies them: What if they don’t want what they think want?

In other words, what if they’re not who they think they are?

In a book about the film, critic Geoff Dyer says:

“Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did, they’d take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learn to sit quite comfortably for years.”

Eventually, Writer and Professor run away, terrified at the prospect of standing before the Room and having their true selves laid bare.

Watching Stalker this dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s, you’d never close out Netflix, check it off on your queue, click off the clicker, and say to yourself That was a happy story. 

You’d never leave a review on Rotten Tomatoes to evangelize strangers You’ve got to check out this story about the Room “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…” 

You might say it’s a good story, a good flick, a good scare.

But you’d never say it was good news.

———————

    So how is this passage next up in Paul’s queue, “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God,” how is this good news?

Judgement?

This sounds like bad news.

But the Apostle Paul left the bad news behind back in chapter 3.

Back when he said that “…all are under the Power of Sin…there is no one righteous; not one…all have turned aside and stand condemned.” 

That was 11 chapters ago. The bad news was 11 chapters ago.

Since then, the Apostle Paul’s message has been Gospel- the good news that we are justified not by anything we do but by what Christ has done.

For us.

That what matters is not our faith (or lack thereof) but Christ’s faithfulness.

That what counts- what God reckons- is not our unrighteousness but Christ’s righteousness.

It has been good news for 11 chapters.

Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:

Freedom from the Law.

Freedom from having to do right.

Freedom from the burden of human performance.

For 11 chapters, it’s been the good news of our freedom:

Freedom from judgement because, Paul told us, “…while we were yet enemies of God, God in Christ died for the ungodly.”

Freedom from guilt because, Paul told us, “…Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we are now justified by his grace as a gift.”

Freedom from condemnation because, Paul promised, “…There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

———————

     But-

If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

If nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus

If nothing we do can separate us from the love of God- nothing:

Not our participation in persecution or war

Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress

Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine

If nothing we do-

If nothing we turn a blind eye to-

Can separate us from God, in whom there is now no condemnation, then how is this good news: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?”

——————-

     Now, I realize this is a Southern Baptist Church in a state redder than the Ayatollah, which means, chances are, this is your second favorite scripture verse after John 3.16.

But I can tell you nothing tightens the sphincters of east coast liberals quite like a verse such as this one: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God.”

Still, even if the verse doesn’t make you fret with holy fear or sweat with sudden self-awareness, even if this verse doesn’t bother you, you still have to square it with the 11 chapters that have come before.

You still have to square this “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said 4 chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.”

Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?

How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter 11 where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all.

Judgement. Mercy.

Which is it, Paul?

It can’t be both/and can it?

That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God?

How do we square it?

Because you have to do something with it.

You can’t just dismiss it as a throwaway verse because the Apostle Paul doubles down on it in verse 12: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…”

In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.”

And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere- all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement.

As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him.

Not some.

All:

unbelievers and believers

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again

All- not some- all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement.

    The “saved” are not spared.

And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant.

And who did not.

“All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says.

Just like Jesus said.

And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a refining.

A refining fire, says the prophet Malachi, where our sinful self- even if we’re saved- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away.

The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.

The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.

The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed.

The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire. 

Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.

     Purgation is not damnation. 

But neither is it pain free. Neither is it pain free.

Again, how is this good news?

What’s Paul doing saying this here, in chapter 14?

Paul left the bad news behind, back at the beginning.

But the promise that you will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God- stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character- admit it, it sounds awful.

It doesn’t sound at all like anything to which you’d say: ‘Amen! Me first.’

   ——————-

     A couple of Fridays ago, my oldest son and I milled around Charlottesville. I went to college there and now we have a house nearby.

Alexander and I walked around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVA’s Grounds just before the tiki-torch-bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”

“Dad, don’t make any jokes about discovering you’re Jewish” Alexander whispered to me. I laughed, not sure if I should be laughing.

We saw the empty Emancipation Park snaked with metal barricades and draped with police tape.

We saw homeless men looking dazed and curious about the stage craft and street theater setting up around them.

We saw the lonely-looking white men- boys- wearing white polos and khaki cargo pants, whose faces, illumined by flame and fury, we’d later recognize in the Washington Post.

We grabbed a coffee and a soda just off the side street where Heather Hoyer would be murdered the following day.

Meanwhile, some of my clergy colleagues were in an adjacent church training for non-violent protest, learning how to lock arms, how wash away tear gas, and how roll over to protect your liver when you’re being kicked or beaten.

There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville, most African American kids. I used to work there in their after school program, Monday through Friday, when I was an undergraduate.

Walking around the park with my son, I thought of Christopher Yates, the boy who had no father at home, whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion.

Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked like him.

Walking around that park on Friday with my son, who is not white and is growing into an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.

And I got angry- righteously angry- at those who would fill the park the next day.

“God damn them all,” I whispered, making sure my son could hear.

———————-

     That Sunday I led the long pastoral prayer in my congregation.

And what I prayed…I prayed about them.

I prayed about them, those whose thoughts and actions betray allegiance to the gods of bigotry.

I prayed about them, those whose apathy and excuses and silence tolerate hate and harm.

“Bring your judgement to them, O God,” I prayed.

“Bring judgement to those who embrace terror, racism, and violence…” I beseeched.

Bring your judgement I begged.

Bring your judgement- upon them.

God damn them all. 

It was a good prayer, I thought.

Not everyone agreed.

One man, whose mother I buried and whose kids I confirmed, fired off an email complaining about “the Stalinist regime of [my] ministry.”

“Please don’t use this event as an excuse to ram progressive orthodoxy down our throats. More religion and less politics!!!!!!! Please!!!!

At least he said the magic word.

I read his email and sighed and, under my breath, I said “Bless his heart,” which you might not have here in Oklahoma- it’s a southern euphemism for “@#$% @#$”

    ———————-

     Still another worshipper took me to task for my prayer that Sunday.

Frank is in his 80’s, a retired Old Testament Professor from Greenville College. He and his wife moved to my parish a few years ago to be near his daughter.

After the final Sunday service had finished and the crowd had petered away and the ushers were cleaning up the pews, Frank shuffled up to me.

He was hunched over as he always is, a knobby cane in one hand and a floppy bible in a carrying case in the other hand.

He stopped, I noticed, to face the altar wall and, with his cane in his hand, genuflected the sign of the cross, tracing it across his lips and then his chest.

Almost always Frank has nothing but unfettered praise for me, which makes him not only the President of the Jason Micheli Fan Club but it’s only member.

Almost always Frank has nothing but praise. Not this time.

Shaking my hand, he shook his head in a ‘there you go again’ kind of way.

And he said: “Well, Reverend, you certainly were bold to pray for judgement on them.”

I was already beaming.

Ignoring my self-satisfied smile, he added: “You just weren’t nearly bold enough.”

“Professor, I don’t know what you mean…”

He cut me off with a “Tssskkk….” sound between his teeth.

“You only prayed for them. You didn’t pray for our judgement.”

“But…” I started to protest, “I was there. We weren’t the ones with hoods or tiki-torches.”

“Everyone in this country is sick with judging- judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else,” he said, pointing his finger at me.

He raised his voice a little as well as his hunched-over posture: “As Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgement…”

“…Because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge…” I completed his sentence for him.

He smiled and nodded, like I’d just passed his exam.

“Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day- every day is Ash Wednesday where we bear the judgement of God on behalf of a sinful world.”

He tapped his cane on the carpet and lifted up his bible by the straps as if to say: It’s all right here if you’d just read it. 

———————-

     And it is- all right here.

The Apostle Peter makes Paul’s same point when he writes in his letter that “Judgement begins with the household of God.” 

The household to which Paul writes, the church in Rome, was divided against itself over issues of food and worship.

It reads in Romans like an obscure, arcane issue, but wipe the dust off their dispute and you discover it’s really the same debate you see spun out all over social media, on CNN and Fox News, and across the front page of your newspaper (if you still trust them enough to read them).

It was a debate over politics and identity.

It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’

The community in Paul’s Rome had split into factions, drawn lines, created competing tribes whose divisions had calloused and calcified into contempt.

Sweep the dust off this argument and you see that the community in Paul’s Rome was no different than the community in the Rome we call America.

Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.

It’s different in form but not in function from Democrats vs. Republicans.

Meat-Eaters vs. Non-Meat-Eaters – it’s the same dynamic as Black vs. White, Conservative vs. Progressive, Racist vs. Righteous.

Every time, in each instance- it’s like Pink Floyd said; it’s Us and Them.

And to them all, the Apostle Paul admonishes: “Do not judge…for we will all stand before the Judgement Seat of God.”

“Judgement begins with the household of God.”

Pay attention now-

Paul isn’t arguing (a la The Donald) that there are “many sides” to every issue. Paul isn’t asserting that every possible practice or perspective is permissible. Paul most certainly isn’t urging acceptance for acceptance’s sake or tolerance for tolerance’s sake.

No, when Paul implores the Christians in Rome not to cast judgment, he’s instead instructing them to bear it.

To bear judgement.

Upon themselves.

When Paul reminds them that we will all stand before the judgement seat of God, he’s not warning them of coming condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Paul isn’t preaching fire and brimstone. Paul’s pointing to their baptisms.

He’s reminding them of their calling, their commissioning.

He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.

———————

     Frank smoothed his tie underneath his jacket but it flopped out again as he hunched back over and shuffled out of the narthex.

He turned around a few steps later, pushed his glasses back up his nose, tapped his cane on the carpet, and then pointed its end at me.

He said:

“We talk all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.’

“But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgement on behalf of the guilty.”

———————

     The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others.

Don’t you see- that’s how this is good news.

It’s us. We’re the good news.

We’re the good news of God’s judgement. We’re the followers of Jesus Christ who, like Jesus Christ, mimic his willingness to bear the judgement of God on behalf of the guilty.

We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgement.

In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame- we’re the good news God has made in the world.

     Just as Jesus said, the first will be last and the last will be first.

We who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified- we who should be last under God’s judgement thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.”

Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.

Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.

     We bear judgement rather than cast it.

We listen to the guilty. We never stand self-righteously at a distance from them. We never forget that ‘there but for the grace of God’ we’d be just like them, and that them not us, them- the ungodly, are the ones for whom God died.

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

We confess: our own sinfulness and guilt, our own racism and violence and pettiness, our own apathy and infidelity and failures to follow.

Knowing that there have been plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus thirsty and not given him a drink, plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus an immigrant and not welcomed him.

Knowing that even when we have seen Jesus hungry and fed him that doesn’t change the fact that even our good deeds, our best deeds, are like rags, for not one of us, really, is righteous and there is no distinction, really, between any of us.

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

Because we know we can come before God’s Judgement Seat expecting to hear the first words spoken when God came to us: “Do not be afraid.”

We’re the good news in this word of God’s Judgement.

——————-

     Stalker, that dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s about a Room to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…”  it’s a disturbing, unsettling, thought-provoking film.

It received hundreds of positive reviews.

It helped inspire HBO’s West World.

The British Film Institute ranks it #29 on its list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.

It’s a good movie.

But you’d never call it good news.

You’d never call it good news.

Not unless the cast included a few more characters, people who thrust the terrified Writer and Philosopher aside at the threshold into the Room and said to them “Me first.”

 

 

 

 

 

In this episode Jason, Teer, and Taylor talk with the world famous Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann whose 50 some books can be found on just about every pastors’ shelves.
Dr. Brueggemann shares what it means to be a community of resistance, the challenge of sabbath, and his favorite curse word to use when describing the biblical encounter between David and Bathsheba.
And he laughs. A lot.

Don’t be a moocher: Give us a rating and review!!!

Be on the lookout for our upcoming episodes. David Bentley Hart answers his fans’ questions. Beverly Gaventa unpacks how to interpret Paul’s letters apocalyptically, and former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry talks about religion in the public square.

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

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

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

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

How important are our names? What should we remember about the past? What makes a holy kiss holy? These and more questions on this episode of Strangely Warmed with “special” guest Rev. Drew Colby.

The texts are Exodus 1.8-2.10, Isaiah 51.1-6, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20.

And stay-tuned, this week on Crackers and Grape Juice we have the preeminent Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, followed by two weeks in a row of David Bentley Hart. Coming up we have New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa and liberation theologian Ruben Rosario Rodriguez.

And did I mention we also have a conversation with a Christian romance novelist coming up?!

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.

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

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. to this episode. Since there’s so many voices in this, I thought I’d post the video too. You can find it here.

David King is a rising sophomore at Haverford College and served as my intern this summer. He’s the sixth intern I’ve had in my time at Aldersgate, presently four of the previous five are engaged in ministry.

Here’s his final sermon for the summer on Romans 15.14-21

 

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as our country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I lack hope.  I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

I would be remiss to talk about something other than the events that occurred last weekend just three hours south of here, in the valley town of Charlottesville, where the home of local slave-owner and founding father Thomas Jefferson overlooks the campus of one of the bastions of higher education in America.

On Saturday morning, just last week, a group of clergy from around the Charlottesville area and the broader Virginia community, led by the Rev. Dr. Cornel West, marched in silence through the streets of that American town, leading towards a confrontation with the largest nationalist gathering, to put it lightly, in two decades.

They marched, in silence, towards a herd of gun-carrying, Kevlar-vest wearing, pepper-spray boasting group of people who are perhaps more than ever responsible for bringing to the forefront the American plague.

They marched, in silence, towards a group of people possessed by a disease, a plague.  Perhaps, one might even call it a demon.  Or, if you are really bold enough, if you are Pauline enough, you might call it The Demon, The Devil, Satan.

When those clergy met with protestors, it was not vitriol that came forth from their mouths.  They did not spew hatred and lies.  They did not confront the Enemy, capital E, with the sword.  No, rather, what sprung from their lips was a song, one that I think you would all be familiar with.

[Sing “this Little light of mine”]

Indeed, what rang across the streets of Charlottesville in rejection of the Demon they confronted was that song, a song of resistance, a song of children, a song of innocence and beauty.  It was a song I learned in Sunday School, one that I’m sure you and you children did too.  It was a song sung for decades in resistance of the hatred our society has propagated.  And that morning in Charlottesville, it was song sung univocally, with no quivering in their voices.

In a word, it was a song sung boldly.

Or perhaps, boldly is the wrong word.  Perhaps we should rather say that it was kauchesin, the Greek word found in verse 17 of today’s scripture.  Translated in our text as boasting, it should rather be translated more accurately as “glorying.”

“Glorying.”

That’s what that song was.  And the fact of the matter is, that’s what Paul’s writing has been about.  His writing to the Romans, to the Church in Rome that he has never seen or visited, is glorying.  It is that because, just like every other word in Romans, his writing is centered on the work of God in Christ, not his own.  Paul’s work is always already not his own, but it is work through the strength of Christ and to the glory of his name.

“Glorying.”

[Sing second verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

If you pay close attention to what Paul says in today’s scripture, you cannot help but notice that in every sentence, virtually every verse, there is some note that what he does, he can only do through a given grace, The Given Grace, of Christ.

Look at verse 15: “because of the grace given me by God.”  And verse 16: “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (note it is not Paul’s Gospel, but God’s).  And verse 17: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason.”  And verse 18, “What Christ has accomplished through me.”  And pay special attention here, note, the subject of that sentence is not Paul! The actor, the person that the verb is referencing, it’s Jesus!).  And verse 19, “by the power of the Spirit of God.”

Paul cannot escape the fact that he can do nothing to spread the Gospel except through Christ.  In fact, it’s a reality he does not want to escape, and neither did the clergy in Charlottesville last weekend.  For while they were attacked, the attention was not on them.  While they were hurt, the song continued ringing.

And while one might think that it was the strength of the individuals there, the song coming from their mouths, that sustained them, I’d wager that every clergy member there would vehemently disagree with you.  I would even venture to say that they would use the very same language Paul uses in verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”

In fact, they might use an even stronger translation and say this: “For I will not DARE to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” for those clergy know much better than you or I that we are nothing, we have nothing, we can only be nothing, if we do not have Christ.  If Christ did not die for the unworthy, for the most ungodly, then we have nothing.

But this is not bad.  We cannot be anything without Christ because Christ was, is, our everything.  I do not mean that in a cliché or meaningless way; that statement is the very thing we confess when we are baptized into the Church.  Jesus is our everything, and it is only through him that we can speak, live, breathe, and have our being.

Those clergy knew that.  And so did Paul, walking the roads of an all-too familiar empire 2000 years ago.

[Sing third verse of “This Little Light of Mine”]

“It is my ambition,” says Paul, “to proclaim the Good News.”  The Greek word, “philotimoumenon,” which here translates as ambition, more directly means “to prosecute as a point of honor.”  To proclaim, and to take honor and joy in that proclamation, is Paul’s missionary journey – and it’s ours too.

It is our missionary, apostolic vocation to walk the roads of the American Empire, and proclaim a different Lord, the only Lord.  But the effectiveness of that message, as Paul knew all too well, has little to do with us and all to do with, in the words of Karl Barth, “the strange awareness of the presence of a wholly different and incommensurable factor – Jesus Christ.”

We are remiss to forget the strangeness to which we are called, as Christians.  The strangeness of singing in the face of violence, of laying down the sword in the face of the barrel of a gun, of echoing the harmony of the heavenly chorus in the face of the Demon himself.

And let us not forget the power of this message.  Let us not forget the power of this vocation.  Let us not forget Paul.  Before he started walking, neither Asia Minor nor Greece had heard of this radical Jew from Nazareth called Jesus.  And when Paul set down his pen and joined his Lord in heaven, little communities had appeared all over Caesar’s empire, proclaiming and confessing the Risen Christ, the suffering and strange servant the prophet Isaiah foretold.

Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:

“Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”

Something’s not right here.  The parallels do not add up.  They do not make sense.  Those who haven’t been told will see? Those who haven’t heard will understand?  Listening and seeing don’t match; hearing and understanding don’t match.  It doesn’t make sense.

It does not make sense, that is, if we think that our first mission as Christians is to tell and force understanding.  It doesn’t make sense if we think that our first mission as Christians is to do something at all.

Let’s look at this again: “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”  You will notice that there is no 1st person tense in this sentence.  There is no “I.”  It is all 3rd person.  So when we interpret and read Paul, we have to also understand that our first mission, as Christians, is to let God do the work.  We are not called to tell the Gospel, but to show it; we are not called to teach the Gospel, but to be a living witness to it.  And that, my friends, is where the work of God becomes most clear.  When we remove the first person, when we remove ourselves and our inevitably large egos, that is where the Gospel shines through, and where the work of God is apparent.

You know, that’s why the grammar of the song the clergy sang is so important.  When their voices rang through the streets of Charlottesville, when they rose a song in the face of Nazis, the most venerable “I,” the individual, was shut out and shut away.  It was there that the work of God became clear in the midst of the Clergy.  For they knew, better than you and me combined, that they had neither lit the light nor provided the candle.  They knew that all they needed to do was “let it shine.”

But do not mistake this for a passive stance, an allowance of the virulent violence that pervades and manifests our world.  To speak of God, to sing of God is a bold stance to take, and one that glorifies the empty tomb.

Friends, I cannot stand here today and tell you that I am happy to be preaching.  I cannot stand here today and tell you I am content.  I am filled with rage, with anger, with sadness, with shame, with helplessness.  I feel shattered and broken, torn, just as this country is torn.  But of all the things I am filled with, of all the righteous anger, I cannot stand here today and honestly tell you that I am filled with hope.

No, hope isn’t the right word.  In the midst of the pain, anger, suffering, despair, brokenness, shame, disgust, and guilt, in the midst of it all, I stand here boldly.  Or as Paul would say it, I stand here glorying.

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

I’ve invited some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Charlottesville, race, and our political discourse here on the blog over the coming days.

I thought I’d use the blog to create space for differing perspectives tempered by patience and hospitality- what I seldom see in our self-selected social media echo chambers, especially at this (rightly) heated cultural moment.

That my friend did not feel comfortable sharing his name with his reflection underscores, I think, the damage we so often do in our online fury.

This is from Ben Maddison:

I’ve seen this going around, a lot: “If you’ve wondered what you would’ve done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement…you’re doing it now.”

Short, pithy, biting–the perfect smirk-response to today’s situation. For whatever reason it gets posted, the statement is “supposed” to rouse us from complacency; it’s supposed to spur us to action; it’s supposed to slap us across the face with the brunt realization that we are living history. But it does something else.

It accuses.

“Lex semper accusat; the law always accuses.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could use standing accused to the reality that it’s not what goes in that defiles, but what comes out. “The heart is deceitful and wicked and who can know it.”

The reason the phrase stings is because we know that in each of us is a supporter of slavery, a Holocaust accomplice, or a silent Civil Rights observer.

This saying makes us stop and recognize that, when push comes to shove, we aren’t the agents and movers of change we wish we were–we are the silent majority, tacitly supporting systems of injustice because they don’t directly affect us or are easy to ignore or are inconvenient to combat. To put it in other words, the saying hurts because it reminds us that we are sinners, incapable of saving ourselves.

The only thing that will help is Jesus. But there is Good News; the same law that accuses, speaks to a larger truth.

The REASON it accuses is because God hates injustice, God despises hatred, and because God’s wrath will be poured out on those institutions and systems.

But even before that, God did intervene. God sent Jesus Christ to the world to bring us back to God. And as much as God hopes it would happen by listening and comprehending, it was brought to fruition by the death of His son…death at the hands of same forces and systems of injustice, oppression, bigotry, hatred, self-interest, and dehumanization that are exerting their final death gasps now.

We have a God, then, who doesn’t just hate what is going on in places like Charlottesville, but we have a God who knows what it means to lose a child to those systems. God stands with, and calls us to stand with, the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Grey, Sandra Bland, and countless others who are being killed and destroyed by these forces. God demands that we love justice and show mercy, because God knows what happens when we can’t. Because God is one of those parents.

And here’s the thing: we aren’t expected to do any of this alone. God knows that it’s hard work. For those like myself (white, cis, hetero, privileged), it’s going to hurt because we must say “I am a sinner; here is my sin; I repent and return to the Lord.” And do that…again and again and again. But our (nay, MY) uncomfortability, shame, or whatever we/I feel(s) pales in comparison to the pain experienced by our African-American, Latino, Native-American, [insert everyone abused by Whites ever] over the last 500 years (and much longer). And, even if this work seems impossible or too much or not enough or takes too long, we can be certain of two things:

Christ is already victorious.

God is working and inspiring this work.

Sometimes the work means marching. But often times it means praying, repenting, listening, and working. This means less Facebook rants from me, and more listening to others. This means learning more, seeking understanding, and having compassion and mercy and grace.

Because I’m not better off or further along or anything like that. I am a sinner in need of saving, and I cry out to the Lord:

Have mercy on me and save me. Forgive me of my tacit support for injustice. Cleanse me of my family’s sin of white supremacy and racial injustice. Use me to help others get to this place, that Your grace might flow like a river, you mercy like springs of water, and justice like the ceaseless ocean waves, from age to age. Amen.

I’ve invited some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Charlottesville, race, and our political discourse here on the blog over the coming days.

I thought I’d use the blog to create space for differing perspectives tempered by patience and hospitality- what I seldom see in our self-selected social media echo chambers, especially at this (rightly) heated cultural moment.

That my friend did not feel comfortable sharing his name with his reflection underscores, I think, the damage we so often do in our online fury.

This is from E:

“A few thoughts based on some recent events but, more importantly, based some of the commentary I’ve seen.

For obvious reasons, I’d be censored for saying this to anyone but you, in private, a friend. I think there has to be, in general, less self-righteouss fury on the left, not over this incident in particular (all should go for it, here) but in general.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the left, especially those who are white, upper, middle-class, have tried to co-opt these 400 years of oppression toward especially African Americans and Native Americans (but, in general, minorities or any new immigrant group in general) in any which way they can, usually funneling it into their own myopic agendas concerning other “oppressed” groups.

I wonder if we need fewer white people posting things on Facebook, exuding this pseudo-fury and self-congratulatory fervor, and more reconciling themselves to a very real history in and through the Euchrarist and the bravery Eucharist calls for in the world: to love and reconcile ourselves to all our neighbors.

In this case, there must be an invitation toward reconciliation as we cannot reconcile in the same mode that we oppressed:

Through demand.

Here’s what I think might be important: let’s listen for once.

After all, it’s mostly my white, upper-class friends who insist on their world-views with the whitest of male attitudes (the worst name you can call someone on the left right now):

with a desire to conquer and dominate those who disagree genuinely.

There’s the double irony in the left’s demand that white people should shut up in that the demand insists on talking the whole time and reframing the issue around an image of looking progressive.

I’d also add that, in the name of progress, we enslaved, saving “sub-human animals” from themselves–a very real way that progressives of one era thought. We did the same with Native Americans. In other words, I’m a little suspicious of anything done in the name of progress, at least with the unbridled moralisms in which such agendas are pursued today.

If I haven’t been offensive enough-

I also have a feeling that the left is the new Christian right.

The left is the new Christian right in its willingness to censor and despise for its narrowly moralistic worldview. Hence, I have to write you, a fellow truth-seeker and conversation partner–one who I know can converse with me on these points rather than merely get angry–in private so that I don’t get ostracized by a group of people that I sincerely disagree with and, nonetheless love, like at one and the same time.

Can the contemporary progressive, leftist, or liberal offer me the same?

I fear not.”