Archives For Preachments

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‘The first hour of heaven is like an endless room filled with 2-top coffee tables…’

So says my friend Scot McKnight, author of the Jesus Creed blog and book, who preached for us this weekend. In advance of his upcoming book, A Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot preached on the church as a kingdom community of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We should be about the work of forgiving the people in our lives, Scot argues, because we’ll have to do the first hour in heaven any way.

His text was the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.

You can listen to his sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right, or download it in iTunes here.

 

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpgThis weekend I concluded our Holy Spirit series with a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit as Paul outlines it in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is, without question, my least favorite scripture.

You can listen to the sermon here below or download it in iTunes here.

Much of the text you see below was left unspoken, allowing the slides on the screen behind me to carry the message.

     

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

My first thought whenever I read this list of ingredients for a genuine Holy Spirit-made Christian: ‘Crap. I’m screwed.’

It’s true.

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on the list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? That’s not me. I’m not that person.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was- for 20 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek.

But if this is what a genuine, Holy Spirit-filled Christian looks like, I’m screwed.

 

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true.

I tell myself I love God and that I even comprehend what that means.

I’m good at blogging about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last.

So, I’ve got ‘love’ down. 1 out of 9.

     But if this list is what the Spirit is supposed to yield in us, if this is the Holy Spirit harvest in someone who’s genuinely following Jesus, then I’m screwed.

The Holy Spirit’s work on me has been slower than beltway construction.

20 years and I’m 1 for 9.

I hate this list. I hate this scripture passage.

 

Paul, who wrote this scripture passage, had only been a Christian for about 10 years when he wrote it. Less than half the time I’ve been pretending to be a Christian.

 

Paul! A Pharisee who stood idly by while one of the apostles, Stephen, was tortured to death. I may be an SOB but I’ve never offered to hold the rocks for a lynch mob.

Paul did, but apparently the Holy Spirit’s work in him was just so awesome that in 10 years he scored 9 for 9 on this list.

I hate him too.

 

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe I’m Holy Spirit resistant, Pentecost flame retardant.

Maybe you read this list of what the Spirit’s supposed to yield in you, and you think ‘Sure, I’ve got those. That’s me.’

 

If so, I hate you too.

It’s not as if I don’t try.

I wake up every morning with every intention of being patient and kind and all the rest. But then, after I wake up, I’ve got to deal with- you know- actual people. And a lot of those are church people so it’s doubly hard and it’s in no time that my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all deteriorate faster than a Roger Goodell press conference.

This list- it isn’t me.

If this, 1-9, is what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled person looks like, I don’t measure up.

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Last Sunday night we took the boys to the Jack White concert at Merriweather Pavilion. And watching my kids dance and clap along to the blues filled me with joy, absolute joy. And knowing I had to preach on this text this coming Sunday I thought to myself ‘Alright, not bad, 2 out of 9, making progress.’

But then I remembered how we got in to the concert in the first place.

You see, I’d gotten the tickets back in May. When they arrived in the mail, I stuck them in the desk drawer with the bills and, like the bills, forgot all about them until Thursday when I couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

And so what did I do?

I called Ticketfly and I said to the customer service lady: ‘Yes, I ordered tickets for this Sunday’s Jack White concert back in May for my little boy’s birthday and I’d forgotten all about it but I just realized those tickets never came in the mail. They must’ve gotten lost. In the mail.’

So that night at the Jack White concert my Facebook status looked like this: #whitelieformysonshappiness.

But my list, my Holy Spirit inventory, looked like this: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

And that Monday I was at Safeway in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 10 Items or Less Line- 10 Items, or Less, Line.

I was in line behind this old blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 10 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm. I didn’t point out that calling hers an express purchase was like saying water-boarding is not torture.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I did good. Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Middle East Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

“Oh my God! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!”

I thought I’d said to myself.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And then on Tuesday some jerk pastor somewhere in the country left this comment about my last sermon on a clergy Facebook Page: ‘I hope you understand the Holy Spirit better than you [don’t] understand prayer…for your congregation’s sake.’

My thoughtful reply to this jerk pastor has since been removed by the webmaster, but suffice it to say:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And on Wednesday my son Gabriel had his first baseball game of the season. I’m managing his team this year. This is the first time I’ve ever managed a little league team before so I didn’t know what that really means is that I’m managing the little leaguers’ parents. Especially the dads.

So there we were, playing our first game. It’s the first inning. We give up 4 runs and one of the dads decides to come up to me and ask when I’m going to make ‘defensive adjustments’ because, he says, his son’s ‘exceptional skills are being wasted in right field.’

I was about halfway through my measured reply to him before I realized all the players on the field and all the parents on the sidelines were staring at me. Or listening to me is more like it.

#blesshisheart

 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control 

I hate this list.

 

On Thursday night, I led a prayer vigil in Aldersgate’s sanctuary for Hannah Graham, the missing UVA student who is/was a part of our Aldersgate community.

And during the service I led a long litany prayer emphasizing the goodness and sovereignty of God even as- in my head and in my heart- I was questioning those very things.

Questioning God’s goodness in a world like ours. Second-guessing God’s wisdom for making our world the way he made it.

And during the silent prayer time and the lighting of the candles I listened to the hundreds of people gathered there, crying and sniffling and pleading softly under their breath.

And I couldn’t utter a single prayer, silent or otherwise, because really what I wanted to say to God was ‘@#*& *&$ God! Where the #$%^ are you?!’

As Dennis offered the candle-lit benediction that night, I looked like this:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list, because then I’d have to confess how much I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage.

Because if this is what a real Spirit-filled Christian looks like, then all this picture does is remind me of what I’m not, what I’m lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete I am.

This passage is like a glossy, air-brushed, cover-shoot picture of the Christian that Paul in advertising thinks I should be instead of the blotchy, blemished, and thoroughly ordinary Christian that I am.

I hate this passage.

 I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage because, intentionally or not, the message it conveys is no different than the message we see and hear 3,000 times a day:

 You’re not good enough.

This passage- it’s like that Ciallis commercial. You know, the one where the husband and wife are relaxing in separate claw-footed bathtubs- outdoors- enjoying a breath-taking view and then the woman suggestively brushes the man on his hand.

Because, you know, scenes like that unfold all the time.

Translation: Your marriage isn’t passionate enough.

This passage- it’s like those Dos Equis commericals featuring the world’s most interesting man and the gorgeous women who want to be with him and the men who want to be him, which of course is awesome until you pop the top on a bottle and no fawning beauties or admiring men appear.

Translation: You’re not really all that interesting.

Just as you already suspected.

 

This fruit of the Spirit passage- it’s like those iPhone 6 commercials that all but say the iPhone 5 you bought 4 weeks ago makes you an outdated, antiquated, hopelessly uncool loser.

I hate this passage because all I hear in it is the same message I hear everywhere else: I’m not good enough.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     When it comes to lists, I score a lot better on that other list, the one Paul gives just before this list of fruit:

  • Fornication: Game of Thrones, binge-watching, 5/14
  • Moral Corruption: Ordained in the UMC, 6/07
  • Doing Whatever Feels Good: ask grandmother, ‘you’ll go blind…’
  • Idolatry: M-F, Weekly
  • Drug Use: 2nd Hand, Jack White Concert, 9/14
  • Casting Spells: Renaissance Faire, 10/13
  • Hate: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Fighting: Bishop’s Cabinet re: Guatemala Toilet Project
  • Obsession: Baseball
  • Losing Temper: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Oppositional: see: personality, Jason
  • Selfishness: ask: Ali, wife of Jason
  • Jealousy: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Conflict: Starbucks Barista who doesn’t know how to make an Americano, 9/26/14
  • Drunkenness: college, ’96-’00
  • Partying: see above (and graduate school ’00-’03… and last Saturday)

When it comes to this list, the life of the flesh list, I’m 16 for 16, 24/7, 365 days a year.

But I hate this fruit of the Spirit list.

20 years in and most days I’m just 1 for 9. It’s just another reminder of the same message we see and hear a thousand times a day. #youarenotgoodenough

Paul, here in Galatians, is like that Mom I’m friends with on Facebook. Every day- every day- she posts pictures of her kids’ perfect, healthy, nutritious, all-organic, bento-boxed school lunches.

     #perfectparent

Meanwhile I send my kids to school with leftover gambling money where they buy smiley fries and pancakes cooked in plastic bags.

     #baddad

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     #badchristian

#godsdisappointedinyou

 

If this list is an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, if it’s like a commercial for who you will be on Jesus, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

Because, trust me, I know way more Christians than you and, most days, even the best ones are lucky to go 2 for 3. It’s too good to be true.

Actually, it’s worse than too good to be true.

Because where it says ‘there is no law against such things’ in verse 23, in the Greek it actually says ‘there is no shortage of such things.’

As in, the Holy Spirit’s cultivating kindness and patience and faithfulness and joy all over the place- there’s no shortage of such things- so what’s the problem with you? 1/9 faux Christian?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s even worse than that because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular.

As in, it’s all one gift: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s all one gift.

You either have all of them or you have none of them. And if you think you have one of them, you actually have not one of them.

They all go together.

Require one another.

The fruit of the Spirit- it’s singular.

But maybe that’s not bad news after all.

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That Thursday night I led the long litany prayer affirming God’s goodness and wisdom even as the words stuck in my throat and rang false in my heart.

Sitting there in the pew, doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, my mind wandered to the one thing I could be certain of- my own kids and my love for them.

1. Love

After Dennis offered a candle-lit benediction, I stood in the sanctuary aisle and I noticed a man sitting in the middle of a pew behind me, an ordinarily gruff man just sitting there staring straight ahead as the people on either end of his pew leaned over and furiously whispered their prayers.

The man in the middle- he just sat there calmly.

He didn’t say excuse me. He didn’t try to scootch past them. He didn’t sigh like he was in a hurry. He just waited for them. For them. For as long as they needed.

2. Patience

And after the service as the crowd thinned out I watched as some of the youth, touched by Hannah’s disappearance in a way I can’t fathom, gathered around the altar rail together and got on their knees and prayed. Even as the guy in the collar *me* was having a hard time praying at all.

3. Faithfulness

And in the sanctuary aisle I saw our new youth director hug kids he barely knows and ask them as though he’d known them forever how they were doing.

4.Gentleness

And in the lobby I watched as a mom, whose own daughter is Hannah’s best friend, held back tears and anger as a nosy reporter peppered people with questions.

5. Self-Control

And after the reporter went her way, I stood next to the mom and listened as other parents, one by one, came up to her and asked her to relay a message to Hannah’s parents: ‘Tell them if there’s anything we can do for them…’

6. Kindness

7. Goodness

And eventually those offers of help turned to reminiscing of each other’s children and the friendships that bound them.

8. Joy

As I walked out to my car that night another mother, her car parked next to mine, spoke about ‘perspective’ and, as she fumbled for her keys, she mentioned to me that she felt like she should call her own daughter with whom she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.

9. Peace

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          “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

It’s singular.

It’s all one gift, there’s not one without the other.

It’s all one gift, and- Paul says- there’s no shortage of such things. The Spirit’s fruit is everywhere if you but look.

But where Paul wants you to look is not to the individual believer but to the Body.

 

You see if this list is a description of what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled believer looks like- if it’s like an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

 

Because, let’s face it, even the best of you score barely better than 1/9 me.

Some of you are not patient or gentle. Some of us are not consistently kind or self-controlled. I know I’m not always faithful and I know some of you struggle with loving the people in your lives.

Some of you have no peace and for good reason. Ditto when it comes to joy.

 

If this list is meant to be a commercial for who you will be on Jesus then like all commercials it’s too good to be true.

     But this list, this letter- it’s not written to you.

It’s not a promise meant for you.

     It’s written to us. It’s a promise for us.

And that makes it completely different than the message we hear 3,000 times a day.

Because the promise, the incredibly good but still believable news- the gospel- behind this list is that the Holy Spirit can take all you impatient but good people and all you joyful but out of control people and all you people with great faith and kindness but little peace and all of you who love God but have a hard time loving others- the promise is that the Holy Spirit can take 1 for 9 people like you and put you into a community that we call Church and somehow, by the grace of God, you all together- we- can look like Jesus.

This list, this letter, it’s not written to you. It’s meant for us.

And that means the proper reaction to this fruit of the Spirt list is not:

         “Crap, I’m screwed.’

It’s:

     “Crap [turn to the person sitting next to you] I need you.”

And you won’t ever hear a message like that on TV.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgDennis Perry, my assistant pastor (pictured here below on the Daily Show), continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit by spinning roulette wheel and tackling your questions at random. The first one was a good one: ‘Can the Spirit do anything the Son can’t?’

ImamPastor

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right,

or download it in iTunes here.

For those of you receiving this by email, you may have to click over to the blog directly to access the audio player.

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from his wife

who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall.

The TV was on mute.

And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings

we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell

and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched

what everyone else everywhere else watched:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.

sign_of_jonahMy colleague, Hedy Collver, has been posting her thoughts and illustrations on the Book of Jonah lately.

You can and should check out her blog here

Given its size, it’s surprising how much I’ve preached from Jonah over the years.

Here’s a very old sermon from Jonah 1.11-2.1: 

I once pastored in the same small town as a man named Robert. His was the Presbyterian church three blocks down. It was a typical small town in that there was a small church on every corner, a church for every two or three who might want to gather.

Robert and I didnʼt have much in common at first. Except- we were the only two pastors in town who werenʼt fundamentalists. He was older than me. Where

Iʼd just graduated from seminary, ministry was a second-career for him. Where he had twin daughters and a minivan, I had a dog and still ate ramen noodles for most meals.

 

Even so, we became friends. We confided in each other. We commiserated with each other. We advised one another.

As I said, we were at small churches in small towns, where week-to-week, no matter our effort or our skill, our churches were just barely getting by. The margins for error were thin. One bad Sunday or one light offering plate were enough to sink our churches.

 

During the time I pastored in that town, Robert went through a dark, turbulent period. A series of deaths in his congregation had eroded his attendance. His younger families had moved away. Giving fell, and the church soon couldnʼt pay its bills.

 

As congregations sometimes do, they took it out on Robert. They cut his already low salary. They blamed him for the churchʼs decline and for everything the church wasnʼt.

 

We had lunch one day at a smokey BBQ joint. Rain beat against the windows so hard it was difficult to hear. He looked terrible. His eyes looked tired. Heʼd lost weight. His hair had thinned. He looked like anxiety had swallowed him up.

He picked at his food and told me he was afraid he was going to lose his job.

He was afraid that even if he kept it, he couldnʼt afford to feed his family. Things

at home werenʼt good because he never was home. He said he was overwhelmed. All he could see were problems with no solutions. He felt battered from every direction.

 

I listened and didnʼt really know what to say. I offered something bland like:

ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ

ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.

And he had genuine, honest-to-goodness fear in his eyes.

ʻAll this has shown that I donʼt really have the faith I thought I did. I thought I did, I thought I trusted God, but that was because I didnʼt have to.

Everything was going great.

Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ

 

Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-

 

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the boat and a storm sweeps down on the lake. The boat fills water. The waves batter it from all sides. The disciples are frantic, convinced theyʼre going to die.

And Jesus keeps on sleeping.

They shake him awake and scream: ʻMaster, weʼre going to die!ʼ

Jesus yawns and calmly stretches. Then he rebukes the wind and he tells the waves to cease their raging. Then he turns to the disciples and he says: ʻWhy are you so afraid? Where is your faith?ʼ

Storms drag things to the surface.

Lack of faith.

Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.

The truth about ourselves.

Storms drag things to the surface.

Just about two weeks ago I jogged up the stairs to the ICU at Mt Vernon to see Ray Pace, a friend of many of you. When I got there, a nurse was sitting at the bedside with files and papers on her lap, consulting with Mary, his wife.

 

She was asking Mary questions about feeding tubes and do-not-resuscitate orders and gently walking Mary through the likelihoods and probabilities of the coming days.

 

After the nurse left, I sat down next to Ray and I rubbed his shoulder and I talked to Mary. She told me about Ray, about what he was like before I met him, before illness took much of him away.

Iʼve been there many times when families have had to make hard choices about how to care for and how to say goodbye to someone they love. And because theyʼre hard decisions to make, oftentimes families donʼt make the right ones, or the best ones.

And I told Mary I respected her choices, that their love was strong enough for Mary to do what seemed hard so that Ray could enter the next life with the same dignity heʼd lived this one.

 

Mary wiped her eyes and she said: ʻYou know, Jason, it is hard, but heʼs been with me.ʼ

ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ

And when she said it she didnʼt point next to her, to Ray. She pointed up, straight up.

ʻHeʼs been with me,ʼ she said, ʻand heʼs been closer to me than ever before.

Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ

When Jesus preaches on the mountaintop, he tells the crowds that those who hear the Gospel and donʼt act on it, donʼt make it a part of their life, donʼt ingest it and embody it- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on sand. And the rain falls and the flood comes and the wind blows and beats against it and the house…falls apart.

 

But those who hear the Gospel and act on it, those who make it a part of their everyday- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on solid rock. And the rain can fall and the floods can come and the wind can blow and beat against it but the house will hold.

Storms-

Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.

I once had a lawyer in my congregation.

That by itself is no small hardship.

But Pete was an alcoholic, a severe one. Heʼd been drowning himself with a bottle for nearly forty years. His addiction was so bad that his skin had grown sallow. His eyes were yellowed, and his belly was distended.

 

He was the kind of guy whoʼd always demanded to go in his own direction no matter how destructive it might prove.

 

Heʼd thrown everything important in his life overboard just to hold on to the one thing that was killing him. His drinking had left marriages and children and friends in its wake. It eventually sunk his career and wrecked his reputation.

Rehab after rehab, intervention after intervention and his friendsʼ desperate pleading- none of it had persuaded him to change. Because of what alcoholism had done to my own family, I always found it hard to minister to him.

 

I went to see him one day in Charlottesville where he was in the hospital. His body was slowly shutting down after a lifetime of abuse. He kept the curtains in his room pulled tightly shut and the lights turned off, and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him.

 

That visit- it was one of the only lucid conversations I ever had with him. We talked about UVA and about baseball. Just as Iʼd learned to do as a boy in my own family, we danced around the obvious.

 

I was surprised when Pete cut me off and asked me to pray. Heʼd never asked me to pray before. In fact, when Iʼd offered at other times heʼd refused. He gave substantial amounts of money to the church but that was it. He didnʼt want to let God into his heart or into any other part of his life.

 

I started to pray and he interrupted me. He stopped me. He looked at me ferociously and he said: ʻDonʼt you dare pray that I get out of here.ʼ

I asked him why and he told me that, there in the hospital, it was the longest heʼd ever been without drinking, that it was the first time he could remember that heʼd talked to his wife and his daughter sober, that even if it meant he died it was the best thing that couldʼve happened to him.

 

If you read carefully, after he disobeys God- after he runs away from God-

Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:

Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.

Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.

Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.

 

And when they throw him overboard, Jonah sinks DOWN into the depths of the sea.

In other words, the more he tries to control his life, the further Jonah falls, the deeper he sinks.

Hereʼs the thing-

When Jonah hits bottom, when he sinks down to the roots of mountains and he gets swallowed whole- when Jonah hits bottom, he prays for the first time.

 

He prays the long prayer you find in chapter 2, and the prayer is not composed from his own words. Itʼs made up of snippets from the Psalms.

And if you go back and connect the dots and read those Psalms Jonah prays from, the surprise is that theyʼre Psalms of Thanksgiving. Every one of them.

When the storm strikes, when Jonah sinks and hits bottom, when Jonah gets swallowed up and is surrounded by darkness- he responds by saying: ʻThank

You.ʼ

 

We think Jonah needs to be saved from the storm and from the fish, but the storm and the fish are what saves Jonah.

 

Sometimes the only thing that can save us is to be thrown overboard, to hit

bottom, to experience darkness, to lose everything we thought was important.

We resist storms in our lives. We do everything we can to avoid them. We come to places like this and we pray for God to rescue us from them. But sometimes…sometimes the storms can be our rescue.

 

Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-

The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, and they ask Jesus for a sign.

For something that will make it easier to believe.

For something they can hold on to that will make following him worth it.

For something they can point back to later on…when the storms come.

Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.

And Jesus sighs and he says: The only sign Iʼll give you is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up in death and darkness for three days and three nights and yet was saved to live again.

Thatʼs the sign Iʼll give you, Jesus says. Thatʼs the only sign you need.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that victory can come from what looks like defeat.

The sign that you can never sink so low or fall so far that God canʼt lift you up.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that light can still shine in the darkest of nights.

The sign that when all hope seems lost God will still provide.

The sign that, sometimes, what looks like a storm can be our rescue.

 

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

newjudaicia4

Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

Exodus-Chapter-2-The-Child-Moses-on-the-Nile

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2Here’s my final sermon for this summer’s series through Romans. My texts were Romans 12.2, 13.7-11 as well as Mark 10.17-30. I’ll post the audio when it becomes available.

“Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

This is St. Paul starting to turn towards the finish line in his Letter to the Romans. After long eleven chapters, this is Paul reaching his conclusion.

This is Paul culminating  his dense argument on righteousness and justice and the faithfulness of God with a few sleeves-rolled-up, go-now-and-do ‘therefores.’

Paul has already answered the question that animated his argument from the get-go: Has God abandoned his People?

No, Paul has determined, leaving no room for ambiguity.

No.

No, God has not- God would not, not ever- abandon his promises to his People; so, do not be conformed to this world.

So live now as if the answer is no, as if God will never, could never abandon you.

Live as if God will always be with you. Live as if God never cease being for you.

Do not be conformed to this world.

In other words: live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Everything in Paul’s letter has been building to this point.

From ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for the ungodly’ to ‘nothing- nor height, nor depth- nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

From ‘for I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it is the power of God for salvation’ to ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ to ‘there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus.’

Everything. Every memory verse has been building to this point: Do not be conformed. To the world. This world.

Of course, that just begs the question: What’s that look like? To be not conformed?

What’s it mean exactly to live in the likeness of the Kingdom?

So Paul begins to spell out in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

     Sounds simple enough, right?

     That is, until you remember- as I’m sure Paul wants you to remember- that when Jesus gave the same advice it came with a very big asterisk:

‘Go, sell everything that you own and give the money to the poor.

Then come and follow me.’

     Jesus said to the rich, young man in the Gospels, who had insisted he’d been keeping all the commandments his whole life.

     Sell everything you own. Give it to the poor. Then follow me.

     (If you want to make it to heaven.)

     Is that the kind of commitment Paul has in mind when he says we should not be conformed to this world?

     Now that we’ve heard his argument, now that we know God does not abandon his People, does Paul expect us to be able to do what the rich, young man could not do?

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A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.

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

Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’

Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.

The story Paul echoes in Romans 13, the story about Jesus and the rich man- that’s the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.

I did so because in Matthew’s Gospel the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes the rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.

To all of those seniors setting off for college where they would continue to be conformed to the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about the rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

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

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

All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.

I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling.

All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the fellowship hall for the reception. All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

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

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

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

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

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

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

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

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

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

He stormed off with his family in tow.

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

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

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

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

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

I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

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I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.

‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’ 

She blushed but didn’t smile.

‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.

‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’ 

She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’ 

‘You must be Baptist,’ I said.

She nodded but she didn’t laugh.

And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.

‘Lady, whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’ 

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

      That’s the question the rich, young man asks. It’s basically the same question as the one provoked by Paul’s ‘Do not be conformed to this world’ conclusion: What’s it mean to live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

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

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

       ‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

Then the Gospel says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ 

This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love all the time but this rich, young man is the only person in the Gospels Jesus loved as an individual.

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

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

He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.

They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.

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

 

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I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: ‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

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

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus must’ve thought he could make more of his life than what the world tells us to settle for.’

He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

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When it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we get so jacked up worrying that Jesus might expect us to do what that rich young man could not.

     We get so preoccupied rationalizing ourselves free of the story that we completely miss- don’t even notice- how, in the story, Jesus is the one who loves.

     Jesus is the one who loves God.

     Jesus is the one who loves his neighbor, literally, as much as he loves himself.

 

So then-

What it means to love God

What it means to love your neighbor as yourself

What it means to live as if God could never, would never abandon us

     What it means to be conformed not to this world is to be like Jesus.

And what it means to be like Jesus is to love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his.

Did you catch that?

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

     And that means to love our neighbors requires that we not let the world conform our neighbors to itself.

To love our neighbors requires that we not let the world convince them that happiness can be bought, that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or that possessions do anything for us other than weigh us down like a fully-loaded camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

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To love our neighbors, the way Jesus loved them, requires that we not let the world seduce our neighbors into thinking that they are not their brothers’ keeper, that poverty is a problem that should cost us nothing, that those who live by the sword will live by the sword, that salvation is an individual enterprise.

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them enough to tell them that Jesus thinks they’re capable of more than just a successful or happy life. That Jesus thinks their life can be significant, that Jesus even believes they’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.

What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them with active verbs like GO, SELL, REPENT. CONFESS. COME, FOLLOW. FEED. SERVE. GIVE. FORGIVE. MAKE PEACE. SHOW MERCY. MAKE DISCIPLES.

     What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

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To teach them to love their enemies.

To tell them they’re meant to be like light to the world.

To exhort them to turn the other cheek and forgive 70 x 7.

To point to the one ditch, to the one in need, to the one in shame and remind them that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to make sure they know that God’s plan is to change the world, to remake the world, and he chooses people like you to be that change.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his. 

     And that doesn’t sound like good news because no one wants a neighbor who’s up in their business like Jesus is up in ours.

But given the news this week from Ferguson and Palestine and Iraq and fill in the blank…maybe that’s exactly the type of neighbor the world needs.

 

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

When you really stop to think about what Jesus and Paul would have us do, it begins to sound a lot easier to just sell all our stuff and give it away to the poor.

I mean to love our neighbors the way Jesus loved his sounds…impossible.

     But I suppose nothing’s impossible with God.

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IMG_3916-768x1024Here’s a homily written by friend, congregant and seminary student Jimmy Owsley (above…no that’s not me). He wrote this sermon for our evening worship in Guatemala during our mission there in July.

His text was Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3- ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

 

What do you think it means to be poor in spirit?

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 5, “To be poor in spirit is to be contentedly poor, willing to be emptied of worldly wealth.”

Putting it another way “The poor in spirit have accepted the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that they may follow Christ,” says German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’d like to start this sermon off with the premise that he Sermon on the Mount demands our whole allegiance. If Scripture is our authority then we don’t get to pick and choose which verses we want to follow and which ones we don’t. And this is one of the most comprehensive segments Jesus’ teaching that we have available.

Furthermore, when Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount, he is not speaking of merely spiritual realities. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven, he speaks of a present physical kingdom, the kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament which the Messiah was to bring about. This is why the early Christians could say “Jesus is Lord” in direct contradiction to “Caesar is Lord.” It was kind of a big deal. In orthodox Christian belief, this kingdom an already-but not yet reality that Christian are called to live into. This is a paradigm in which the realities of heaven and earth collide.

So when Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, he is not saying that they will be blessed in spirit sometime later, such as when they die. And he’s not saying that being poor in spirit has nothing to do with earthly wealth. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” he says.

Rather, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who would renounce all earthly gains. This is why Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

And when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is saying those who are poor in spirit are blessed now, in this life. They are the partakers of the kingdom of Heaven. Those who have emptied themselves, who seek not their own gain but live according to the principles of the kingdom of God, that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” these people have God’s peace in their hearts. For these are the ones who, as Jesus says elsewhere, have lost their life that they may find it. How contrary to our “American Dream”?

So he says do not store up treasures on earth, but rather store up treasures in heaven. In other words store up treasures based on the principles of God’s kingdom, where poverty, simplicity, justice, meekness, and mercy are valued. Leave behind the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Indeed, every earthly gain can be lost. But it is our relationships with others, established through loving service of God and neighbor, which are the stuff of heaven. Only our relationships with God and with neighbor can bring us the overwhelming peace that comes with the kingdom of God. This kind of peace requires renouncing the false securities that this world has to offer: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety,” says Bonhoeffer “For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe.”

If you are poor in spirit, if you sacrifice your own wealth and aspirations and live on mission for God in this world as you are meant to do, “Seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness,” God will take care of you, Jesus says. But if you strive first and foremost for your own security, then your heart is not with him in his kingdom for “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“For this reason” Jesus says “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on…” And of course, all of us doubt this. How can we not worry about providing for ourselves? And even for our families?

But Jesus anticipates this. “O you of little faith,” he replies. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?

So what would it mean to live at peace? To follow Jesus commands not to worry? To not be pursuing that next highest paying job, a successful career, or that dream of more comfortable house? What would it mean to live wholeheartedly for the purposes of God, relying on each other and trusting that, if we live according to principles of His kingdom which are vastly different and most often contradictory the principles of our earthly kingdoms, that if we trust and follow God will provide?

This week we all will experience God’s kingdom in some way. I trust that you are here, not to check off a box or fill in that volunteer line on your resumes. You are here in good faith because you feel some calling to serve God by serving your neighbor. You feel the pull to live out your faith, and you have renounced a chunk of your valuable time and resources to be here this week.

This may feel like a mountaintop experience for some of you, or a break from reality in some way. And it is a break from our normal everyday American reality. You might wonder how to live so simply and meaningfully in your everyday life when you return.

I encourage you to soak in the principles of the Sermon on the Mount this week, and to fully enjoy the extent to which you will be able to give of yourself. Please also be thinking about ways in which you might reorient you everyday life around these principles. What would it be like to really live according to the beatitudes day in and day out?

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

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

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Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

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She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

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    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

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     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.