Archives For Preachments

Mark Driscoll is in the news (again) for making cringe-inducing comments about women et al (again). Even I have a line so you’ll have to click here to read about his comments on the ‘pu#@%$#@ nation.’

But, both because this past weekend we read Romans 8 in worship and because Mark’s all over twitter with a very different God than the One I find in scripture I thought I’d repost this from last summer:

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.

They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.

Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.

Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.

No one.

No one is against us.

No one will condemn us.

No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.

Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.

The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.

For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’ mark-driscoll

I thought that would get your attention.

Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.

Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.

If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.

But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.

He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.

The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.

     Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.

And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.

That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’

And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’

Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’

Except it isn’t.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.

It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.

     Technically speaking, I bet Mark Driscoll’s sermon ‘worked.’

I bet it scared the hell out of people.

     But what did it scare them into I wonder?

Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the  response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.

He’s wrong.

But you know that already.

 I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.

You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.

All you need are a handful of memory verses.

Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: …Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’ 

Which means: God is like Jesus.

And God doesn’t change.

Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.

So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.

You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’ 

No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’ 

You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’ 

In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.

It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’ 

God has not had it up to anywhere with you.

You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.

That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.

So that,

     ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’

     ‘We have peace with God…’

Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’ 

That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.

His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’ 

For all.

So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation- there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.

You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways.

But it all boils down to the same simple message:

     God. Is. For. Us.

     Not against us.

 

But you know that.

Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.

You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.

You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.

God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. God’s against you. 

You would NEVER say that to someone else.

Ever.

But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:

 There are plenty of you

who say things like that

to yourselves

all the time.

Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.

Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.

You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.

And yet…

When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.

You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.

Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.

Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.

Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.

Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.

     God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. 

I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.

And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.

 

So here’s my question: why?

I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.

So why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?

If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?

Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?

Maybe.

Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?

Sure we have.

Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel

equation: God is for us?

Is it because we think we’re the exception?

Maybe for some of us.

But I wonder.

I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.

I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?

I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?

I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?

I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.

I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.

And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.

As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.

What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.

The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.

The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.

The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.

We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.

And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.

So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.

And so I called my Mom.

‘We need to talk’ I said.

‘You really think so?’

It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.

 

And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.

 

I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.

Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.

Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.

This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.

 In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.

 It’s about living eternity now.

 

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.

The answers might be obvious and certain.

But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.

I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.

Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.

If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.

And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing should separate us.

From one another.

 

Making Love…a Verb

Jason Micheli —  July 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

10494562_881661191848427_6390847377076382822_nOne of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.

Sometimes to each other.

This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.

Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.

The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.

Will and Becca,

Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.

And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.

For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’

By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.

By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.

2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.

     And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.

     God I hope that remains the only time.

I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.

I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.

But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.

Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.

I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.

And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.

And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.

I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.

I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up  to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.

I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.

And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.

Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.

I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.

And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.

I’ve known you guys a long time.

Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.

Long enough to know how you two feel today.

Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.

But then, today at least, that begs a question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

     If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?

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     The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’

She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’

Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.

But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?

 Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.

You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Amen.

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Just kidding.

But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.

Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

     You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action.

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In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).

The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.

     The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.

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You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.

I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.

Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’

     In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.

You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.

But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.

That’s not the covenant you make today.

     The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.

     Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.

Again and again.

Day out and day in.

     That’s the promise.

And that kind of promise…

It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.

It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.

It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?

That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

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Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
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Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug :(

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The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

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Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

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Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

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In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

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And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

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So… it has to be one of you.

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Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

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Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

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Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

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Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

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Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

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Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

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‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

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Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

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If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

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I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

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I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

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Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

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I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

It’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

Even you.

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I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.

lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2When I was a student at Princeton, I worked as the research assistant for one of the homiletics professors, Dr. Cleophus Larue, the celebrated black preacher.

One of the convictions Dr. Larue impressed upon me was how, if preaching was to be biblically faithful…

The form of the text should determine the form of the sermon.

That is, if the scripture is a letter from Paul then the sermon should be pastoral or hortatory depending on Paul’s mood. If the passage is a parable, then the sermon should leave listeners scratching their heads, slightly disoriented and maybe even wanting to kill the speaker. If the text is the 10 Commandments then the sermon should get down to brass tacks about honoring God alone.

And if the passage is a poem then the sermon should be poetic.

Haunted by Dr Larue’s maxim and on something of a lark, I decided to write my sermon for Sunday in verse, both metered and free,  as something of a Def Theology Jam.

The text is David’s most famous Psalm, 51, ascribed to the moment after the prophet Nathan outed David for his sin against Batsheba and Uriah.

You can listen to the sermon here, in the widget to the right where it will remain or download it in iTunes here. You can also download the free mobile app here.

Create in Me

‘It works.’ It works, indeed,

It’s more buttoned-down

Than ‘Christos Anesti!’

But such were the first

Easter words pronounced

Over the new heart

Of-

Louis Washkansky.

Louis-

A Lithuanian Jew

Was born in 1922.

Louis fought Mussolini.

Having seen El Duce

Strung up by his heels,

(like a fascist pig at the butcher)

Louis Washkansky

Settled down in Cape Town

And opened a grocery.

Until-

54 years

Pricks to the finger,

And shots to the guts,

Up and down sugar.

Then-

Pain down arms, elephant on chest,

1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests

Rendered him habeus corpus

For an experimental test.

Louis Washkansky

The first person after 50

Dogs before him to

Another’s heart receive

(Man’s best friend, indeed).

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After 9 hours under,

60 attending,

Louis Washkansky

Of the green grocery

Opened his numb eyes

-delivered-

With the heart of a

Girl, 20-something girl

Beating inside his

Bruised and cracked chest.

 His heart’s former owner-

She had been struck by a driver

Who’d had one too many.

It’s always 5…somewhere.

The girl with the heart

Was on her way

To buy tea.

And cake.

Yeah.

From her local grocery.

By fate or by lots,

Her heart became another’s to bear:

Louis Washkansky’s.

When-

Louis Washkansky

First fluttered his eyes,

His chest beating fresh

And faithfully as

The checkout on aisle

Number 5,

“It works”

Said-

The doctor, a preacher’s kid

From Cape Town,

Like God b’fore the new hewn

Grave: ‘It works.’

In Afrikaans,

Said: ‘It works.’

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The girl’s grief-blind Father,

The doctor’s trial and error,

Had given the the grocer

Exactly what each of us

Would gladly broker:

A new- a different- heart.

If we had the hearts

Sufficient to tell

The truth to each other:

My need is as great as that grocer’s.

My desire to back trace my steps

Just as desperate

As his donor.

What the doctor concluded

of Louis Washkansky.

What You first declared

About Adam and Eve

Is what my heart longs to hear

You pronounce over me:

‘It works.’

My heart, it works.

But for that to happen

I too first require

Some kind of surgery.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

What harm could it be?

I’ll just repeat:

mercy.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

That’s what I most need.

Without one, the best I

Can do is plead for

Your, on your mercy.

Which is, perhaps, the

Ultimate, stinging

Irony

In a life that hides

                                           Behind them

                                                                           Trades in them

                                                                                                     Thrives on them.

What I’m so stingy to bequeath

Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.

Mercy.

I’m not talking about the one an’ done

Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom

Sort of mercy.

Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.

Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.

Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.

I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down

By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds

Cut oceans in two

Crack water from rock.

Hesed.

Steadfast.

The

No matter what.

You do despite what I do

Mercy.

Have that kinda on me.

But even this plea of mine

Points out my problematic plot line

It’s alway all about

Me, me, me.

You upstairs

The man down the street

She across the bed

I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:

The one thing I ask of you

The one thing I want?

I do not do.

The one thing I ask of you

Is the last I’ll offer you.

When it comes to mercy,

It’s better to receive

Than it is to believe

You must give

It.

When it comes to mercy?

I am reticent.

I am hesitant.

I am no better than Maleficent.

Grace is less amazing

When it’s another’s song.

Trust me-

‘Tis better to be found

Than to get up and to find.

But You already see my blindness

Know my mind, know,

Know that what I solicit

I so seldom show.

I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.

Shazamm!

Over my sin-stained self.

Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor

Costlier even than

Easy installments of $19.94.

More chi-chi than gold

Or frankincense and myrrh.

Like Nathan to David,

Like Nicholson to Cruise,

The truth about me

It’s Chinatown, baby.

I can’t handle it.

Because I’ve exercised so much equity

With my iniquity

My sin is in me,

Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-

To the fibers and sub-flooring

Of my soul and my Being.

If I were a suit you took the cleaners

You’d get charged extra

And told not to expect me

For at last 3 business

Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean

As she wondered to the woman

With pins in her teeth

Exactly what you’d done in me.

Mercy is what I need.

My sin is ever before me .

Like grace’s doppleganger

In, with and under

Just say the words, no reply

I am not worthy

Of your mercy.

My sin is ever before me

Every pair of eyes

The most unflattering of mirrors

Revealing not the extra 2-inches

Or the male-pattern baldness

But the mystery that we’re

The only members of your handiwork

Who know not how

To be creatures.

Behind my every offense-

If I take measure,

That’s what I should confess:

Thinking the world here for my pleasure

Not me made for my Creator.

Failure to be human:

I’m guilty as charged.

And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you

To the back of the line.

Because against You

You Alone

Have I sinned.

To you I gave the finger.

And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’

To you I sent the all CAPS email with the

!!!

I unfriended You

For your Tea Party bat crazy,

Your .org rant.

And hung up when You picked up.

To You I told the

Little white lie

and the outright one.

To You  I raised my voice for no good reason.

And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’

To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

                                                                       up here

It was Your eyes I forgot were

To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol

Neither patient nor kind

Keeping track of Your trespass

Just as I expect You to forgive mine.

Every sin I’ve committed

Every person I’ve harmed

Count them together

It adds up to one:

You.

Against You alone have I sinned.

Your ledger longer than any other’s.

You’ve seen my worst, every inward part

So You know better than me

How sorely I need

A new and clean heart.

A clean heart!

I’m so far removed

From my mother’s womb

I cannot imagine

What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs

For my ears and my tongue and my mind.

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Louis Washkansky knew.

For a time- well, if not clean-

At least more innocent than mine.

The grocer from Cape Town survived

With the unlucky girl’s inside

Him for 18 short days.

But 18 days!

For 400 hours

Louis Washkansky

The grocer who’d seen horrors

The battles and blood

Trenches and marches

Of war.

The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.

For 18 days-

Louis Washkansky

Found respite inside

an innocent’s heart.

Do the memories recede?

Does the mind forget?

What the heart never learned?

For 18 days

A war-jaded vet

Quickened with her pulse-

Her naiveté-

That still more days lay

Ahead of her.

Had she had her first kiss?

Been spurned by a friend?

Acquired the scars

Which always become

our kids’ first  lessons?

With her’s beating inside him

I wonder-

Louis Washkansky-

Did he love his wife, finally

With a love she’d always fancied?

Did he hear what she left unsaid?

Did he show his children

Her love and attention?

Did he sashay around

And leave the toilet seat down?

Did he listen and feel

And, for once, find the right words

To: Honey?

What are you thinkin’?

With her inside him

Was it freeing?

To finally, truthfully, be singing:

‘I’m every woman.’

Or was it just enough for the grocer

To hear

What we’d mortgage heaven to broker

What we’d plead for You to impart:

‘It works’

A new, a clean, heart.

Louis Washkansky

His new heart, her old one

Beat for only 17 days longer

His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid

Could not give

What only You can offer.

hommedia.ashx

But still-

I’ve got to wonder

Can even You impart

Such an illogical grace

As a new, clean heart?

I mean-

How can what is Yours only

Be mine?

Without it being less than You?

How can the infinite

Lodge

In this small space I’ve carved for it?

Given what impossible surgery

A new, a clean heart would require

The metaphysical

To say nothing of the biological

Might it be sufficient to desire

Not what in me You must do

A new heart to own

But just You.

Only You

You alone.

If so, then the point

Is not a doctor

To bind us

To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days

But to break our spirit

So that, broken, our

Lips may proclaim Your

Praise.

220px-Abraham-stars Many of our youth graduate from high school today.

Sunday afternoon I preached their baccalaureate sermon. Here below is my sermon. Two of my favorite youth, whom I’ve gotten to watch grow up since they were about 10 years old, also gave reflections.

Here is Anna Jurkowski’s Speech

And here is Shea Ruffin’s Speech

 

from Genesis 12, 15

In case any of you didn’t get a program when you came in today, I am not Ryan Gosling.

I know, the resemblance is striking. I’m Jason Micheli, one of the pastors here at Aldersgate Church.

Before I begin this afternoon, if any of you would like to live tweet this baccalaureate service, I’ve set up a feed for you. It’s #myparentsforcedmetocometothis

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

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

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

If you know your bibles you know that Abraham was no stranger to either drunken revelry or sexual debauchery.

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

Seriously, as one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you to Aldersgate Church, and I want to thank you for the invitation to speak. As a Methodist preacher, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 65 years of age.

Just kidding- but not really.

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

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

Just think-

The year I graduated from high school is the year before you were born.

The year I graduated is the year before you were born!

The year your parents conceived you was the year I…nevermind.

The year I graduated was the year before you were born.

The moment I realized that earlier this week is the moment I started to hate every last one of you.

Things were completely different the year I graduated from high school.

For example, back then, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were rumored to be considering presidential runs, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and an obnoxious theme song from a recently released Disney movie was on every radio station and every child’s lips.

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

This is my 4th or 5th baccalaureate sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure how I keep getting invited to deliver these considering the fact that I’m philosophically opposed to them.

For one thing, I’m opposed to baccalaureates because you don’t need an inspirational sermon at your graduation- YOU’RE GRADUATING!

That’s exciting enough; you don’t need anyone like me adding words to it.

You’re done.

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

It’s all over. You’re graduating.

You no longer have to pretend you actually read Ethan Frome.

The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will the day your son or daughter asks you for help with their math.

And you won’t be able to.

But who cares? Because you’re done. You’re graduating.

From this point forward, if you can avoid a major felony you can avoid group showers for the rest of your life, and the next gym class you’ll be forced to attend will most likely be water aerobics at your cardiologist’s orders.

Because you’re finished. You’re graduating.

Once you get your cap and gown, if you so choose, you no longer have to spend any time with anyone who knows what you looked like when you were 13 years old.

You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.

For another thing, I’m philosophically opposed to baccalaureate sermons because it’s just too hard to capture graduates’ attention.

You’re understandably busy thinking about other things: beach week and summer vacation and your first semester at college- and all the things that that entails which can’t be spoken of in this sanctuary.

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

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

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

If I had to guess though I’d bet probably the gist of his message was ‘Dream Big.’

That’s what graduation messages are always about, right?

Carpe Diem and all that.

Transform the culture. Turn the world upside down.

Your future is whatever you make of it.

Anything is possible.

Dream big.

     I have a different message for you. I figure if you’re going to forget every word I say then I might as well tell the truth.

     Here’s my message for you: Dream Small.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t dream big.

Obviously, your West Potomac education has equipped you well to pursue whatever God might be calling you to in this beautiful yet broken world.

Your families and teachers have given you everything you need to dream big.

In fact, dreaming large, big dreams comes naturally for us.

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

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

26 million!

26 million times our culture has tried to convert you, indoctrinate you, condition you into pursuing the bigger, the better, the mega.

You all are the products of helicopter parents and tiger moms- no offense.

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

Your whole life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you put your mind to.

     You don’t need me to tell you to dream big, but maybe you do need someone to tell you to dream small.

Now, I know that dreaming small probably isn’t your first takeaway from the scripture passage that Clay read today.

The story of Abraham is the stuff of big, bold, baccalaureate-type dreams.

After all, God calls Abraham out of obscurity and promises Abraham that if he dares to venture forth from his home into the unknown then Abraham’s future will be like the stars in the sky.

That may be the most obvious takeaway from Abraham’s story but it’s not the only one.

The ancient rabbis believed that Abraham’s father was idol maker.

Whether that’s true or not, Abraham did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods- useful gods who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t.

Abraham grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.

But this God who calls Abraham is different, different from the gods he grew up with.

This God who calls Abraham just calls.

Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abraham is invisible.

Invisibility- that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence.

Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere.

What we tend to take away from Abraham’s story is this big, one day, dream of a future as bright as the stars in the sky.

But you can bet that what Abraham took away is the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere.

That’s why Abraham can set out into the unknown unafraid because there is no where Abraham can go in his life where God isn’t already.

     And if this God is everywhere, if there is no where this God isn’t, then that means that what’s important isn’t just the one day you have at the end of your big dreams for your future.

If God is everywhere, then what’s important is your every day.

Each and every day.

You may not realize this yet but trust me.

There’s a lie behind those millions of commercials you’ve been hit with in your lifetimes.

And maybe there’s even a lie in some of what your parents and teachers have told you.

Real joy isn’t found at the end of graduate school.

It doesn’t come with a diploma; it’s not waiting for you at the end of a career path.

It doesn’t come knocking when you have the right salary or the toys that go with it.

     Real joy is found right here in the details your every day life.

This week is a time for you to imagine all the possibilities in your future so it might hard for you to imagine that some of your best days, when you feel like all is right with the universe and what you’re doing means something and you know why you’re here and your heart swells in gratitude and joy– well, believe it or not, those will be days when you’re just going about everyday life in ordinary ways.

The reason they won’t let a preacher speak at your graduation is because in my line of work I talk to all kinds of people every day, people who have achieved everything they set out to do in this life, who made it to the top of the ladder, and after they’ve gotten there, what they’ll tell you 9 times out 10 is that it doesn’t mean all that much.

That’s why it’s so important to dream small, to find and cultivate joy in the little things of your daily life and the people around you and not hitch all your hopes for happiness on a one day in the future.

Trust me, I see it all the time in my line of work. For too many people, that BIG DREAM SOMEDAY comes too late.

And so I want you to realize today what Abraham discovered that day when God dared him to count the stars in the sky.

God is everywhere. Anywhere you go. In every place. In whatever you do. Alongside whomever you’re with.

Not one day far off in the future. But in your every day.

And that’s where your education comes in.

Because, as St Augustine said, education is not about what you know but what you love.

If your teachers and parents have done their jobs, then they haven’t just given you knowledge about the world. They haven’t just given you tools to succeed in the world.

They haven’t just equipped you for a career. They’ve trained you for joy.

If your teachers have done their jobs, they’ve invited you into the nooks and crannies of God’s creation: into the fascinating complexity of science or the emotional power of music, into the play of poetry and prose or the dazzle of digital media.

If your teachers and parents have done their jobs, your education hasn’t been about making the grade or getting into the right college. It’s been about getting you to wonder, to puzzle, to take delight in the every day world and people around you.

I know you’re going to dream big dreams. Given the culture in which you’ve been conditioned, you have no have no choice but to dream big.

But dream small too. And do so every day.

Because the goodness of God is just as surely here and now as it will be there, one day.

     Friends, your future is like the stars in the sky. Count them if you’re able.

     But my advice is to choose one. And dream small.

 

 

Untitled9This weekend we began our summer sermon series, Songs of the Messiah, during which we’ll look at how Paul uses the Psalms of the Old Testament throughout his argument in his Letter to the Romans.

The texts this weekend were Psalm 98 and Romans 1.16-17, Paul’s thesis statement.

To get at the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in scripture, a word whose meaning can get lost religious-speak, I invited a friend to join me for the sermon, Brian Stolarz. I’ve written about Brian on the blog before.

imagesBrian is a defense lawyer who has written a book, One Big Setup, about his experiences getting Alfred Dewayne Brown off of Death Row in Texas.

I’ll add the text of the sermon when I have it but you can listen to the audio below or in the sidebar to the right.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

 

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

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     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

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     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

taize_reconciliation

     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

BabelBar

Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

Taize2_candlelight_service

That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

Taize-2008-016

The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

da_pacem_cordium

We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

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     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

On the liturgical calendar, this Sunday was Ascension Sunday. Seen narratively/historically, the Ascension shows the promises of the Christmas carols to have been true: God has made Jesus King. He’s the one foreseen by Daniel, the Son of Man who will rule Earth from Heaven. Seen theologically, the Ascension shows us something even more mysterious: the eternal Son returning to the life of the Triune God.

And taking us with him. Our humanity.

It’s the latter reading I chose for this Sunday. Some sermons end up getting written purely for my own interest and enjoyment and this is one. The text was the Ascension story as told in Acts 1.1-11. Some of illustrations about space and motion are taken from Rob Bell’s surprisingly decent book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God.

You can listen to the sermon here or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

This past Thursday Christians celebrated the climax of the Easter season with the ancient feast day known as Ascension.

Show of hands- how many of you celebrated it this Thursday?

Don’t feel guilty.

     What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King over all the nations of the Earth- what was once a holy day is now just Thursday.

Ascension is now largely ignored.

It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job.

What about hunger? And war? Cancer and Verizon Wireless?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus.

Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it.

     The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong:

     Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink,

Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away.

Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we ignore the Ascension. It’s fantastical.

It’s the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously.

To take belief in God seriously.

OTcosmos

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples. But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky?

     Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

     They believed God was ‘up there.’

They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.  And they believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, the sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth.

Beyond the clouds and the firmament.

Up there.

In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there. And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us?

We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. We know that that God doesn’t exist.

And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

descarteslookingfly

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s a real and growing option.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension.

It reminds us that we live in a different age.

But we didn’t get here overnight.

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 equalling 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation. Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was ‘Cogito ergo sum.’

I think; therefore, I exist.

With Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God.

And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too.

From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

    With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

     To our senses.

     And to our experience.

We didn’t get here overnight. It happened so slowly we’re not even aware of how shaped we are by it.

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“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

If we believed in them, then we might answer the angels and say we’re not looking because we think God’s ‘up there.’

We know God’s not up there. We know that that God doesn’t exist.

And maybe, more and more of us would say, God doesn’t exist at all.

After all, we don’t have to stand looking up to the clouds. We know what’s beyond them. Up there and out there.

Unknown

We know that the universe is expanding.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know that the solar system we live in is moving at 558 thousand miles per hour.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly sixty-six thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over a thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding.

They’re moving and changing.

    The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding.

And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others).

We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed.

Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

    Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing.

We know that. Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing.

But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

If everything is constantly changing, if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head…

then how can we be the measure of all things?

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how-

How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

Unknown-1

 

Just think about that word ‘being.’

We call ourselves ‘human beings.’

But the word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it.

Someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change. Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant and changeless and necessary and permanent.

We’re not beings.

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-38-_-_Ascension

     “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” the angels ask.

     More and more modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there.

     But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist.

     As human beings, we don’t exist.

 

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

But as human beings, we don’t exist.

We’ve learned how to fit a computer into a tiny little phone. We’ve learned how to clone a sheep. We’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

But we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

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     Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming. Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

     Human beings- don’t exist.

     Only human becomings exist.

‘God’ is the name we give to Being. ‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ I am is-ness. Existence. Being.

AquinasAs Thomas Aquinas put it: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ 

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else.

Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God. You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew there’s only 1 God, only 1 Being- knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is IS, Being itself, can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

     No, the answer to the angels’ question is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, a human becoming like you or me- could enter- become- Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel story.

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     The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming. The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our humanity into the very life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

     Or, as the ancient Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might join what God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

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     I know what you’re thinking:

Being and becoming- Jason, this is hopelessly abstract. Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does. It does.

Last Thursday, a week before the Ascension, I went to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager who tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

And I wish I could say I’ve seen more people survive like him than I have.

Even if you haven’t been in that position before, it won’t surprise you to hear that the air in the hospital room last Thursday felt heavy.

Tragic is more like it.

But the tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last Thursday, when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

     The tragedy is that when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

     The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

You’re more than just a creature. You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds. You’re more than what your ex thinks of you. You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you. You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time. You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the Being of God.

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     “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

     But of course they would stare at Jesus in the sky.

     They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’ God is the name we give to Being itself. God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’ God, by definition, has to exist.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes. Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to God. Today he has ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s my sermon for Memorial Day weekend. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I highly recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in there sermon.

You can listen to the sermon here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

     It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

     But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill. For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not- that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died- making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen- to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again- when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.