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Militant Grace

Jason Micheli —  February 9, 2020 — Leave a comment

1 Corinthians 2.1-12, Matthew 10.1-16

The first clergy meeting I ever had, I made the mistake of attending.

I was a first-year student in Seminary. I had just begun pastoring a small congregation when I received an email notifying me of that month’s Clergy Meeting.

I was only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know any better. So, I actually went to the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained-glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a man in dreadlocks praying.

The banner read, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.”

An ironic slogan then as much as now.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so, mostly older, pastors.

The agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.
She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar “Igniting Ministry” advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members.

The woman was dressed like a Talbots mannequin. Her eyes lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials we would ever see in our lives this side of the Super Bowl.

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado, she pressed “Play” on the VCR.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voice-over narrator said, “Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.”

And then, some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. Then it said, “Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.”

When the commercial was over, she pressed “Pause.”

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads.
Nearly all of them were smiling.
“That’s great,” some of them said.
“That will really speak to young people.”

The woman from UM Communications was beaming. “Any other thoughts?” she asked.

I’d like to think that back then I wasn’t as cynical and contrary as I am now, but my wife, who was my fiancé at the time, says otherwise.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

“What don’t you get?” she asked with a frown.

“Well, I mean, the commercial doesn’t mention, you know, Jesus.”

“Young man,” she said through a forced smile. “These commercials are designed to appeal to seekers, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.”

“But, what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?” I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said,“Our market research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less effective.”

“Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?” I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

“What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little meaning in their lives and what they end up with, instead, is Jesus?”

“Why would that be a problem?”

“Any honest Jesus commercial should be like those pharmaceutical commercials,” I said. “You know— the ones that promise an amazing, life-changing medication, but then with rapid-fire warnings, side effects may include wheezing, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, memory loss, heart attack, stroke, and, maybe, death.”

Some of the pastors chuckled.
They all thought I was joking.

———————-

Take today’s Gospel—

Exactly how would you turn today’s scripture passage into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, maybe you could film a pack of angry wolves with red stains on their teeth? Torn wisps of blood-spattered wool littering the ground?

“What are you doing this Sunday?” the voiceover narrator could ask, “Would you like to get crucified? Come to the United Methodist Church, we’ve got a cross that’ll fit your back.”

Caveat emptor.

Would anyone show up if they knew ahead of time that Jesus intended to deploy them, without qualifications or training, to do battle with the devil?

You caught that part today, right?

The part where Jesus sends us, like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into the Upside Down.

———————-

“Cure the sick,” Jesus commissions His fishers of men. “Raise the dead and cast out demons.”

Lest you think that’s a one-off, the devil is implied again at the end of the passage where
Jesus says, “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

As much as we all love the comforting, pastoral imagery of the 23rd Psalm, that’s not the part of the Old Testament where Jesus gets the image of Himself as our Good Shepherd.

He takes it from the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet says, “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”

Redeemed him from hands too strong for him.

The word redeemed in both testaments is a martial term.
It presumes the existence of an enemy.

God’s People, says the Lord to Jeremiah, are in bondage to a Power who is not God that is too strong for them.

We’re sheep captive to a Wolf.

The Apostle Paul in our text today refers to that Power as “the rulers of this age.” And Paul just expects you to know he doesn’t mean Pontius Pilate or King Herod.

He means the Devil.
He means Satan, Lucifer— evil personified— what Paul calls in Ephesians the Principalities and Powers. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul calls it the Power of Sin and Death. At the end of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives it the overarching name, “The Enemy.”

“Cure the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons.”
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”

Flannery O’ Connor, the Gothic Southern fiction writer, was an ardent Christian and an astute reader of scripture.

In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “Our salvation is played out with the devil, a devil who is not simply generalized evil but an evil intelligence— evil has an agency in the world— and is determined on its own supremacy.”

The reality of the one Jesus calls the Adversary is presupposed in every book of the New Testament. Quite literally, the story of Jesus Christ no longer makes sense once you’ve removed one of its main characters from the stage.

In all four Gospels, from the first day of Christ’s ministry to His last day on the Cross, Jesus is depicted as contending against the powers, demonic powers.

The Devil is all over the details in your Bible.

Luke mentions Satan twenty-five times in his Gospel, more than once per chapter.
Here in Matthew, for his one and only lesson on prayer, Jesus commands us whenever we pray to pray, “Deliver us ha poneros.”

Not from evil, from the Evil One.

John in his Gospel puts the mission of Jesus Christ as plain as the nose on your face.

John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” Period, full stop.

In the Book of Acts, when Peter explains who Jesus is and what Jesus does, he says to the Centurion, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who are under the power of the Devil.”

That’s the same Peter who writes in his first epistle, “Be sober, be watchful. Your Adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

Even the Christmas carols most often describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of territory held by an Enemy.

How does the first verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” go?

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray

Some of us have so sentimentalized our Christianity while others of us have so politicized the Gospels, we hardly notice that the Biblical drama of salvation has three characters, not two.

It’s not God and Humanity.
It’s God vs. God’s Enemy for God’s Captive People.

The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament, you can’t speak proper Christian without it.

You end up with a Son of God who rescues us from his angry Father, instead of a loving Father who in the Son rescues us from the Enemy that has bound us in a grip too strong for us.

The exorcisms Jesus and the disciples perform— they’re not individual episodes within a different, larger story.

They’re episodes indicative of a single, larger captivity.

In case you think I’m overstating it— Jeffrey Burton Russell, an historian at the University of California, argues in his five-volume work on the Devil:

“The Devil of the New Testament is not tangential to the fundamental message, not a mere symbol. The saving mission of Christ can be fully understood only in terms of opposition to the Devil. That is the whole point of the New Testament: the world is full of grief and suffering, but beyond the power of Satan is a greater power…In the New Testament there is complete consistency on this essential point: the new age brought by Christ is at war with the old age ruled by Satan.”

Count the verses. More so than He was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so, than a prophet, a preacher, or a political revolutionary, Jesus is an exorcist.

———————-

C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” In other words, Lewis would argue, the fact that the subject of this sermon today is a tough sell for a good many of you enlightened liberal Protestants is itself the Devil’s doing.

In his book, The Death of Satan, Andrew Delbanco says our culture is now in crisis, because with these terms we’ve cast aside as superstitious, the Bible names a bondage that remains an inescapable experience for all of us.

Yet now, we are without a common language to describe it.

Satan, Sin and Death, the Powers, the rulers of this age.
With these terms, the Bible names a bondage we all know.
A captivity from which Christ comes to set us free.
Let me talk about the Devil this way and in the first person:

Before the bishop appointed me to Annandale, in what turned out to be my last act of ministry in my previous parish, I confronted a parishioner— a good friend of mine, actually— about his addiction problem.

His wife had asked me to confront him. “Talk to him, please,” she texted me, “Maybe what’s got a hold of him will shake loose. If he isn’t freed…” She didn’t finish the sentence.

A bicycle accident a year or so earlier had led to surgeries on his shoulder and hip. With surgery came pain killers. And sooner than you’d ever guess, he was hooked.

“I see you driving,” I said, after I’d sat down at his kitchen table. “You shouldn’t be driving in your state, especially with the kids.”

“I’m fine,” he insisted. His speech slurred, he was bumping into drawers and cabinets as he unloaded the dishwasher.

“You’re not fine, and we’re all worried about you,” I said.

And he laughed like I was the dumbest person in the world— a laugh that didn’t sound like him at all. As if to demonstrate my stupidity, he pulled a bag of bottles of pills from deep inside the kitchen cabinet and showed them to me.

I spend enough time in hospitals, as a patient and a pastor, to know— they were all painkillers prescribed to him from at least three different doctors.

He then proceeded to tell me that he did not have a problem.

In fact, he had a tumor on his brain.
He told me the mass was what was causing his slurred speech, but he didn’t want to tell his family and worry them.

As soon as I’d called out his lies, he erupted like a man possessed and then stormed out (as best as he could).

A few minutes later, realizing he was in his own house instead of mine, he stormed back inside and threw me out.

Later, he lied and told his wife we’d never spoken.

“It’s like a monster has invaded him and is eating him from the inside,” she told me.

I still haven’t shaken the dust off of that one yet.
Sheriff Bell, the moral center and a sort of homespun theologian in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, says at one point in his fruitless struggle to contain the drug traffic along the border:

“I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”

———————-

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus promised his disciples when he called them.

“Fishers of men,” we’re so accustomed to hearing that phrase we don’t hear it.
There is no word in Hebrew for “fish.”

Hebrew has only a general word for all sea-creatures. There is no specific word for fish, fishing, or fishermen, because fishing was primarily a Gentile trade.

And because fishing was associated with Gentiles, it became a signifier for the end of history when the Gentiles would be brought into God’s People.

At the end of time, when God’s enemies were overthrown once for all, Jews believed the Dead Sea would be replenished and filled with fish.

Therefore, when Jesus calls his disciples and says he’s going to make them “fishers of men,” he’s using a loaded apocalyptic phrase.

He’s enlisting them into the very same work to which He dispatches them today, to cast out the demonic.
As we say at baptism, He’s recruiting them in the war effort against “the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil Powers of this world.”

Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

He’s drafting them— without any education or qualifications and less than five chapters worth of training— into an army.

And today, He sends them out into contested territory against an Enemy who will not easily yield His Position.

———————-

Lisa was in her forties. She’d had an abusive husband who’d left her. According to the grape vine in that church in the Blue Ridge, the jury was still out on Lisa’s new boyfriend.

I knew Lisa to be a quiet, pensive and timid person. She didn’t have any kids. She worked a clerical job, tucked away in a cubicle somewhere in an office park.

I felt sorry for her.

Leaving church one Sunday, she came up to me and said, “I need to talk.”
So later that week she came to my office.

Imagine my surprise when she began by asking me if we had any African Americans in the congregation.

“Uh, yeah… Why?” I asked.

“Because, I aim to start bringing my boyfriend to church. He’s good to me, but he’s racist as hell, just awful,” she said. “It’s like the Devil’s got him with hate and ain’t it our job to get it out of him? Doesn’t Jesus say that, preacher?”

“You mean, like an exorcism?

She nodded like an exhausted teacher.

“You mean, you don’t take that metaphorically?”

And she just squinted at me.

“Um, sure, okay…how do you propose we do that?

She looked at me like I was the sorriest excuse for a preacher she could imagine.

“You train some people of color to serve communion. I figure if anything can draw that demon out of him, it’ll be getting handed Jesus’ body and blood from hands darker than his.”

I looked at her and I marveled.

When she’d first stepped into my office, I’d seen a loser, a broken, frightened victim.

I saw someone whose life was unremarkable and whose potential was limited.

I saw someone who was probably afraid her life had no meaning or significance. But Jesus looks at people like her (people like us) and Jesus sees someone who can beat the Devil.

And that should scare the hell out of us.

God-Damned Christians

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2020 — Leave a comment

Matthew 5.1-12, Romans 5.6-10

My son, Gabriel, took this photo in October of 2018 on Opening Night of the comic book movie, Venom. 

Let’s just say it wasn’t Oscar-worthy. We went to see it, because Gabriel and Dewayne, the friend on my right, conspired together and chose it. 

When he was 25, Dewayne was charged in the murder of a police officer and cashier during a botched robbery of a cash check store in Houston. Upon his arrest, Dewayne had insisted that he’d been at home alone and that his girlfriend, whom he’d called from a landline in his apartment, could verify his alibi. The phone record was never recovered, and the prosecutor threatened Dewayne’s girlfriend with contempt, which meant she’d put her child at risk in the foster care system if she did not revoke her testimony. 

Dewayne fit the profile for a convenient scapegoat and an easy conviction. 

He’d grown up poor. He’d dropped out of school in the ninth grade. His skin was the right color. 

So, a Texas doctor ginned up Dewayne’s IQ from 67, which qualified him as mentally handicapped, to 70, which qualified him for exection. 

Despite any forensic evidence whatsoever or eyewitness corroboration, an all-white jury sentenced Dewayne to death in 2003. He spent the next twelve years in a 60-square-foot single cell. Once a day, he had been allowed to stand in an open-air room a little larger than his cell to catch a glimpse of the sky.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who weep, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are those who are persecuted…

On my left in the photo is my friend, Brian. 

Dewayne had already been on death row for two years when he met Brian, a fast-talking, wise-cracking white-collar defense attorney in D.C.  

Brian’s firm took Dewayne’s appeal pro bono— it was the altruistic, do-gooding case that law firms like to use for advertising and hiring pitches. 

Neither Brian nor the firm considered the possibility that Dewayne was innocent; that is, not until Brian flew down to Houston in 2005 and looked through the glass into Dewayne’s eyes as he maintained his innocence.

After that initial interview, Brian walked out of death row and threw up in the prison parking lot, realizing the liklihood that he would not be able to save an innocent man from death and that he would carry that guilt to his own death. 

Brian gave the next decade of his life to freeing Dewayne. The case jeopardized Brian’s career. The time away and the depression almost ruined his marriage. The Job-like injustice stretched Brian’s faith to the snapping point. 

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Blessed are those whom people ridicule and persecute and utter all kinds of evil because of me…

———————-

We empathize with innocent victims, because we’ve all had the experience of receiving unfair or perhaps even unjust treatment. We praise those who stand in solidarity with victims, and we admire those who advocate for them for justice.  We especially esteem those who seek to rectify wrongs in the face of long odds and little reward. 

But—

While empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are attributes of those people who constitute the Kingdom of God, empathizing with victims and advocating for justice are not uniquely Christian concerns. 

Long before the invention of hashtags, Allah in the Qu’ran promised blessings upon you who work for justice and look out for the put upon. The call-out culture on Twitter is predicated on showing solidarity with victims and standing up to victimizers. Every religion, philosophy, and ethical system the world has ever known makes distinctions between good people and bad people, the just and the unjust, victim and victimizer.

But Christianity cuts against the grain of every other religion. Christianity is absolutely unique when it comes to distinctions. The Gospel, in its most radical form, is so offensively inclusive that the Apostle Paul has to acknowledge it at the get-go of his correspondence, admitting that our message risks tripping up religious people and sounding like foolishness to unbelievers.  And at the top of his letter to the Romans, Paul has to preemptively stipulate that he is “not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation.” 

What about the Gospel sounds like foolishness?

You might have noticed that the Beautitudes are divided into three discrete groups. 

The first four Beautitudes describe those who lack (wealth, joy, power, and righteousness). Next, the Beautitudes list those who give the grace they’ve been given (“Blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers…”). Finally, the Beautitudes address those who suffer as a consquence of their service. 

The word Jesus uses each time is makarioi. It has the force of a verb. It delivers something. When Jesus says makarioi, He’s giving it over. 

He’s not saying, You’re blessed, if you’re poor. He’s not saying, If you’re sick with grief, the good news is you’re blessed. 

This is more than Jesus offering thoughts and prayer to the hurting and hopeless. This is Jesus saying, I am with you. I am on your side. 

The New Testament scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner, says the Beautitudes should be translated instead, “Look up, you who are poor in spirit, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.” 

Look up, you who are mourning. Look up, you who are persecuted…you who are without power. I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you. God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Which all sounds like inoffensive, unsurprising, garden-variety good news until you take a look at that fourth Beautitude again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 

Recall that what those in the first section of the Beautitudes share in common is their lack. 

Hunger and thirst here in the fourth Beautitude functions in the sense of starving. 

Jesus isn’t describing people who desire righteousness; he’s describing people who are devoid of it. 

Blessed are those who are completely empty of any righteousness, for they will be filled. 

And when you remember that the word for righteousness, in Hebrew and in Greek, is the same word as the word for justice, then you can begin to sense why Paul feels the need to issue disclaimers about the offensiveness of the Gospel. 

———————-

This is Harris County Assistant District Attorney Dan Rizzo.

Former District Attorney. 

Last year, his former office filed complaints against him, saying in their case:

“Prosecutors are supposed to be the guardians of justice in the search for truth in every case. We believe he abused his power and violated his sacred oath of office.”

By luck or providence, Brian discovered that DA Dan Rizzo had hidden the phone record, which corroborated Dewayne’s alibi. 

He also had a letter sent to Dewayne from a witness, the details of which would’ve cleared Dewayne, but the prosecution never told Dewayne what it said— Dewayne can’t read. In other words, Dan Rizzo was guilty of sending Dewayne to his death knowing his innocence from the very beginning. The evidence that exonerated Dewayne was discovered in 2013. Dewayne wasn’t released from prison until 2015 when the State of Texas decided not to retry him.

“Look up, you who are unjust and corrupt, I am here, taking your part, and the Kingdom I bring is especially for you.” 

Is anyone else uncomfortable yet? 

———————-

Near the end of his life, the famous British biblical scholar, F.F Bruce, was interviewed about the relationship between his academic study and his evangelical faith. “What does it mean to be a Christian?” the interviewer asked him, “What does it mean to have faith— in what does a Christian put their faith?” 

And Bruce responded without even needing to think about it:

“A Christian is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly. To believe in him who justifies the ungodly, and nothing more and nothing less, is to be a Christian. That’s what a Christian puts their faith in.”

Jesus shows in the Sermon on the Mount what Paul says here in Romans 5, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” 

Paul says it again in Chapter Four, “the one who, apart from works, trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. As justice.”

Every religion the world has ever known is predicated on getting ungoldly people to turn to religion, so that through religion they might become godly. And if they don’t turn to religion, if they don’t cease being ungodly, there’s no Good News for them. 

For Paul, the Gospel is something else, entirely. The Gospel is not religion. The Gospel is the announcement that in Jesus Christ God takes the initiative, turns to the ungodly, and justifies them. 

For Paul, the justification of the ungodly is the Gospel in its purest and most radical form. 

When Paul says later in Romans that Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, the consummation of the Law, he has the justification of the ungodly in mind. He means that the whole Bible has been building to this revelation, and by revelation Paul means that we could never have arrived at this belief on our own. It had to be disclosed to us by God himself. 

It had to be revealed to us that God is not just a God on the side of the poor and oppressed, the righteous and the peacemakers— that’s what every religion believes. But the Gospel makes the offensive and audacious claim that God is also on the side of the irreligious, the immoral, and the unjust. 

These days we use words and phrases like “inclusive” and “All means all.” 

I’ve served four other churches, since I was twenty-two years old. 

Every one of those churches insisted that they welcomed everybody, and it was true of not one of them. 

Just like us, those churches had trouble tolerating people who could read the same Bible and land on a different position. They had difficulty dealing with people who could read the same newspaper and draw a conclusion opposite their own or make a different decision in the voting booth. Diversity always sounds like a wonderful notion until you realize it means some sacred cows must be sacrificed. 

When the lay leaders at my first church considered changing the style of the worship service from traditional to contemporary, OH MY LORD, I literally went outside one weekday and painted over the tagline on the sign that read,  “The Friendly Church.” I didn’t want to get sued for false advertising. 

None of us is reliably welcoming of everyone. 

Not one of us is all-inclusive when it comes to inclusivity.

Just as often, in the hands of sinners like us words like “inclusive” and “tradition” become a way for us to make distinctions between righteous and unrighteous and— let’s be honest— very often we make those distinctions with an air of self-righteousness. Chief among sinners, right here. 

The irony though— 

From the point of view of Paul’s Gospel of the justification of the ungodly, all our talk in the United Methodist Church about inclusiveness is not nearly inclusive enough.

The Gospel is Good News for victims, yes, but also for the victimizers, for the oppressed, of course, but their oppressors, too.  For the just certainly, but it does not exclude those who are completely devoid of justice. They also will be filled.

In the cross of Christ, God is a God who justifies the ungodly.

And that verb “to justify” is the most important word. 

It’s Paul’s favorite word. 

Paul doesn’t say that in Jesus Christ God forgives the ungodly; in fact, Paul hardly ever uses the word “forgive.” 

It’s not, Look up, you who are unjust…District Attorney Rizzo, free pass….

The Gospel is offensively inclusive, but it is not immoral. 

Paul doesn’t say God forgives the ungodly. Forgiveness doesn’t go far enough; the word “grace” isn’t radical enough to our ears. Paul says that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God justifies the ungodly. Again, it shares the same root word as the words righteousness and justice, dikaiosyne. 

To justify is to make just, to make right, to rectify.

God makes just those whom God justifies— that’s what the Gospel does, Paul says.

The justification of the ungodly then is the power of God. It’s the power of God to make right all that is wrong. 

Again, Paul believes God justifying the ungodly is what the whole Bible has been building towards, not just the Beautitude. 

The justification of the ungodly is what the prophet Ezekiel foreshadowed when he said,

“God himself is able to remake the hearts of his people, and he promises to do so in them irrespective of ungodliness.”

God himself is able. 

God will do it. 

———————-

Which begs the question: If it’s all God’s initiative and work, then is there nothing for us to do? 

Humbly, I’d respond that if you’re stuck on that question, you do not yet know the grace of God. 

This Gospel message frees you from the tyranny of the thought that everything depends on you, and that freedom sets us free to enter in and actually engage the radically inclusive ministry of the justifying God, which we would never choose for ourselves. Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher and civil rights activist, who died a few years ago. He’s the author of Brother to a Dragonfly and Up to Our Steeples in Politics. Will Campbell was present in 1998 for the Mississipi trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klan, for the murder of several people including Vernon Dahmer. The murders were the inspiration for the film Mississippi Burning. Dahmer had been a brave local leader in the voter registration effort. He burned to death, defending his home, as his wife and children ran to safety. 

Bowers was tried a third time in 1998, the first time his trial would not be a sham trial. Will Campbell attended the trial every day. He would sit on the prosecution’s side with the Dahmer family, offering comfort and praying with them. And then, the next day he would sit on the defense team’s side, comforting Bowers the Klansman and praying with him. Day after day of the trial, Campbell alternated sides, ministering to the family of the victim and then the victimizer. 

When the trial was over, a flummoxed New York Times reporter asked him, “Mr. Campbell, why do you seem to be on both sides?”

And Campbell answered in his trademark salty way, “Because I’m a God-damned Christian.”

Even more remarkable than Campbell’s retort— Vernon Dahmer’s family, Christians all, never once asked Will Campbell how he could be on both sides. 

———————-

There is much in me that needs to be rectified. 

There is much about me that I look forward to our Lord setting right. 

I honestly cannot imagine myself capable of Campbell’s radically inclusive ministry. 

When I think of what DA Dan Rizzo did to Dewayne…I could never do it. 

When it comes to that sort of righteousness, I am empty.

But God is able. 

And Jesus Christ, who is not dead, promises to fill you. 

So come to the Table and, in your hands and on your lips, receive the God who justifies the ungodly.

Numbers 21, John 3

I realize we’re still getting to know one another, so it may come as a shock to some of you to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.

Case in point:

Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend, Ben, to attend a Christmas party hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ. 

Back then, I was still new in my faith. I’d only become a Christian a year or so earlier. Like a lot of new converts, I thought I had all the answers, but also didn’t know what I didn’t know.  

As their former name implies, Campus Crusade was an aggressively evangelistic organization, and even that is putting it mildly. 

Of course, I didn’t know that when I accepted the invitation. 

An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed so tame to Ben, having grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he hadn’t bothered to prepare me for this “party.” 

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

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

As we walked through the cold darkness of the night on a thin layer of snow, to a neighborhood just off campus, we came to a short driveway to a small ranch home. 

I could see through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.

At first, I thought we must be at the wrong house. 

This must be a Mary Kay or Tupperware party. 

Maybe a bridge club going on. 

Ben assured me it was the right address. 

When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. 

When Ben introduced me, the guy— the student pastor— shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said, “Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.” 

And I replied, “What?”

This must have been his secret Christian greeting. 

And because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the Bible, and because I didn’t reciprocate with “Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1,”  he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.

But first, his wife asked me to take off my shoes.

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

Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. 

He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my calculator watch between bites.

You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-along. 

I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.

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

On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. 

He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt. 

Earlier, over chocolate covered pretzels, he asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.

“I’m sorry. I don’t watch Star Trek,” I lied.

We sang songs whose words I vaguely knew and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. 

Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.

When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our Bibles. 

I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. 

Not only was I the only person who had failed to bring a Bible with them, I hadn’t a clue where a Bible reader could buy a carrying case for their Bible. 

“You didn’t bring a Bible with you?” Mike asked chagrined. 

“Uh, I’m a Methodist.” 

And, to my surprise, everyone nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable explanation. 

“Luke, chapter two,” Mike said. 

Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud, “In the days of King Herod…”

After he finished the reading, Mike started in on his Campus Crusade for Christ mandated “talk.” 

“The promise of the Gospel,” he began, “is that God gives himself in Christ for the sin of the world— for your sins and my sins— but…” he said, “you have to do your part, too.”

“At Christmas God gives Christ to you, on the Cross Christ gives himself for you, but it’s not complete until you give yourself to Christ, too.”

And everyone around the room nodded their heads. 

“In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again,” Mike said, closing his Bible. 

And for several long minutes, people around the room shared stories about the time they got saved— down to the date and the place and the crisis that occasioned it. 

“What about you?” Mike asked me, “I’m sorry I forgot your name…you—the one who didn’t bring a Bible.” 

“Me?” I asked and looked around, wishing I could be debating the Prime Directive. 

“Well, I got baptized…”

And he shook his head, “But when did you get born again?” 

“I started going to church against my will not that long ago,” I said. “And, I don’t know, I just suddenly realized one day that I trusted in Jesus.”

“I’m sorry, Jason, but that’s not good enough and, well, there’s eternal consequences to consider.” 

And that’s right about the point when the contrarian in me came out. 

“Excuse me?” I said, “Not good enough?”

He nodded in a patronizing way and explained, “In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again. You’ve got to make a decision for Christ. You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior.” 

Little did this soul-patched pastor know, he was stepping with a recent Virginia State forensic-and-debate champion. 

“Tell me, Mike,” I said. “You called it the promise of the Gospel.” 

And he nodded his head, thinking he had me. 

“But if there’s a condition, if there’s something I’ve got to do for it to be true for me, doesn’t that turn the promise into a demand?” 

Ben blushed as red as the pastor’s wife’s corduroy dress. 

“I mean— if you’re saved, because you give your heart to Jesus (and not saved until you do), doesn’t that mean you’re saving yourself, Mike? Not Jesus?”

The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first thirty minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape, she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house. 

NO ONE SEEMED TO APPRECIATE THE BUDDING THEOLOGIAN IN THEIR MIDST!

No one except for the bearded fifty-year old with the Star Trek shirt who said, “Dude, that’s deep,” which didn’t exactly help my case. 

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

Still, I’ve always had thick skin, so I pressed into the point. 

“Think about it, Mike,” I said. “If salvation isn’t real until my decision activates it, then isn’t my faith just another work? Isn’t salvation something I’ve earned for myself then?”

“Jesus says it plainly,” Mike rebutted, stroking his soul-patch. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

“But isn’t it odd,” I said, starting to enjoy myself in a sado-masochistic sort of way, “to turn that verse into a requirement— something we must do, get born again— when the whole point of an image like being born is that it’s passive? I mean, I don’t know about you, Mike, but I didn’t contribute a single thing to my birth. In fact, my mom had to have a C-section my head was so big.”

“Sounds like you’ve still got a pretty big head,” Mike did not say to himself. 

As if on cue, Ben summoned a fake “hahahahaha” from somewhere in his belly and nervously suggested we sing another song. 

Mercifully, Mike swung his guitar around like Church Berry, said “Amen,” and started another song.

———————-

“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”

And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every good, liberal United Methodist: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know. 

Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. 

Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One. 

But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus. 

Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus. 

Notice how Jesus tightens the screws. 

Jesus doesn’t do what United Methodist pastors are trained to do. 

Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.” 

Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.” 

No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”

Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus. 

Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural. 

I know that the last thing you United Methodists want is to be considered among those kind of Christians, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you. 

It’s, “You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.” 

No exceptions. 

No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service. 

That you— it’s all of us. 

“You all must be born again.”

And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee. 

He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do. 

“How do I do that, Jesus…? 

And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You all must be born again.” 

Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus in verses three and five. 

The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody. 

Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God. 

Apart from our being born again, we can neither see nor can we enter God’s Kingdom.

That is—

When it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless. 

We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed. 

When it comes to God’s Kingdom, we are born dead. 

Therefore—

Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do. 

The dead don’t make decisions.

———————-

I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben, “Well gosh, that was an awesome party.”

And Ben laughed, “I don’t see what difference it makes.”

“Difference? It makes all the difference in the world. People like him turn that verse about being born again into a threshold you must cross— you’ve got to do it a certain way, pray a particular prayer— otherwise you’re not a genuine, real-deal Christian.”

Ben didn’t say anything else until we’d walked back onto campus, crossing the footbridge over Emmett Street when Ben said:

“Still, even if it’s a passive image— like with your mom and the C-section— you can still point to a date when it happened, right? 

You can still name the time and the place when you were born. Shouldn’t you have to be able do that for when you were born again. Shouldn’t you be able to see when and where you got born again?”

Like I said, I had the trophies to prove it. I was a debate champ. 

So, I knew when I’d been bested. 

———————-

Let me make it plain—Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.” The dead don’t make decisions. We are born anothen. Again. Or, the Greek can also be translated from above. It’s top down. You’ve got nothing to do it. 

You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corspes can’t get up and go anymore— Jesus must come to us and deliver us. 

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

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

     In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all, that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation, too. 

By water and the spirit. 

     Skip ahead. 

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

     And what does John show you? 

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

     And what does Pilate say? 

     “Behold, the man.” 

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

     Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his Holy Spirit. 

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

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

     Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

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

    Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb. 

     Then Easter, the first day of the week. 

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

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

     Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. 

This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave, and like a mighty, rushing wind, he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them. 

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

     He breathes on them. 

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

     They’re made new again. 

     They’re anothened

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

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

What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. 

The cosmically inclusive love God is exclusive through Jesus Christ. 

     You must be born again. 

And yes, we are incorporated in that “you.” 

It’s: 

You must be born again, Bill. 

You must be born again, Bob. 

Barbara, you must be born again. 

Every last one of you— you’ve got be born from above, the Gospel says. 

But what the Gospel shows, what the Gospel wants you to see, is that you have been. 

Already.

You’ve been delivered.  

Just as all of us were dead through Adam’s trespass, the Bible says, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says. The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God, consider yourselves anothened. Being born again— it comes to you on God’s terms not your own. 

———————-

Back in college, a newly minted convert, I had a lot of answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Turns out, my friend was right that dark winter night. 

You should be able to name the day. 

So, if someone ever asks you if you’ve been born again, then- like Venkman tells Ray- next time, “You say YES.”  Say yes. 

And give them the particulars, the where, and the when. 

Tell them you were born again— you got saved— sometime between Good Friday and Resurrection morning, the year— 33 AD, on a hill outside of Jerusalem. 

You got born again not when you chose Jesus Christ (Have you been watching the Impeachment Trial? Our choices aren’t trustworthy enough to stake a sandwich on let alone eternity.) but because God chose you in Jesus Christ. 

In Jesus Christ, God chose you from before time for all time. 

And by the doing and dying and rising of Jesus Christ, like a Mother, God delivered you from slavery to Sin and Death into newness of life— eternal life. 

Look—

There’s alot of Bible Belt baggage that comes with this verse about being born again so if you haven’t been tracking with anything today, pay attention right here. 

Alot of Christians turn this passage of the Gospel into the Law. 

Into a demand you must fulfill, an expectation you must meet, into an ought that only accuses. 

In order to be born again, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got to invite him into your heart in this way. You’ve got to pray this prayer. You’ve got to clean up your act and you have got do these things. 

Alot of Christians turn this Gospel into the Law. 

But notice—

Jesus’ whole point to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and your admittance into it is that the bar COULD NOT BE LOWER. 

Jesus doesn’t say anything about any steps or conditions or techniques. 

There’s no earning or deserving. 

There’s not even any adverbs like sincerely or contritely or genuinely.

Jesus doesn’t say a word about anything you need to take on or give up. 

Your delivery is one-sided, God-sided. 

And the only thing more impossibly miraculous is the means by which you access it. All you have to do— no, all you can do— is simply trust that it is so. 

As Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son so that every single individual who simply trusts into him would even now have eternal life.”

That’s good news. But that doesn’t loosen the scews Jesus tightened down on Nicodemus because in the end you’re left with the same choice Jesus leaves for Nicodemus. You can either believe OR not believe. There’s no other other way. 

Wine into Water

Jason Micheli —  January 20, 2020 — Leave a comment

Isaiah 62.1-5 and John 2.1–11

“Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons…”

Six stone jars. 

Let’s round to the middle, say twenty-five gallons. 

Unlike my boys’ homework, this is the sort of math I know how to do. 

If, or when the United Methodist implodes over the sexuality issue, I could get a gig in a restaurant kitchen. 

Back in Middle School, I was the Doogie Howser of Home Economics. 

My Italian grandma was a chef. 

I’m got knife skills. 

I’ve got all the mother sauces memorized. 

I’m a pretty good cook. 

So, that’s four quarts to a gallon. 

One quart equals roughly six glasses (cabernet glasses) giving you a minimum grand total of 2,160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water. 

That’s a lot of wine. 

Even if you’re hanging out at a cigar bar with Rudy and Lev Parnas, that’s a prodigal amount of booze.  

And Jesus makes not Three Buck Chuck, Jesus transforms water into top shelf Pinot. 

Pretty impressive party trick, Jesus. 

But, not to be outdone, Jesus’ friends— you and I, the Church, especially the United Methodist Church— we’ve somehow managed to pull off the more difficult feat of transforming the Gold Medal wine of Grace into the tasteless, odorless, joyless, ordinary, everyday water of the Law. 

We’ve turned the Gospel into Iocane Powder! (poison)

Jesus kicks off the salvation of the world by turning water into wine, but we’ve pulled off the more impossible trick of turning his wine back into water. 

Jesus can turn water into wine, sure, but look at us. 

We’re like David Copperfield walking through the Great Wall of China. 

We’re able to turn Christ’s wine back into water.

And, Jesus just did it at Cana that one time— that’s it. 

We turn his wine into water, again and again and again and again…

I’m sorry. 

I apologize. 

I realize this is like a rookie’s mistake, beginner’s stuff. I know it’s bad rhetorical strategy to give away my main point right at the get go. Wine into water— what the hell was I thinking? 

I was on vacation. I haven’t preached since Christmas. I’m out of practice. 

So, forget all about that phrase “wine into water.” 

Think about anything other than “wine into water.”  

Pretend I never said anything about how we turn wine back into water. 

Whatever you do, don’t think at all about how we revert his wine into water.  

———————-

One hundred and fifty gallons for drunk people to drink— that’s a pretty impressive sleight of hand. Still though, it’s a queer way for Jesus to begin his redemptive work. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry not by preaching or teaching, not by casting out demons or curing disease. 

Jesus doesn’t lift up a single, lowly poor person or speak one syllable of truth to power. 

Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus kicks off his redemptive work by being Mary’s plus one at a wedding party, a celebration where Jesus, in a pinch, proves he’s an even better bartender than Tom Cruise in the 1988 film Cocktail. 

It seems like a strange way for John to begin the story of our salvation. 

And then John interrupts the party play-by-play to report to you that, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

And notice—

John doesn’t call the wine that had been water a miracle. 

John calls the wine that had been water a sign. 

Miracles are momentary intrusions by God into the natural order. 

Miracles are ends in themselves. 

But signs point beyond themselves. 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus performs miracles. 

But in John’s Gospel, Jesus does signs— seven signs. 

Signs signify. 

We’re meant to see more here than a miracle. 

We’re meant to see more here than a marriage supper. 

And there’s so much here to see! 

———————-

Take the six stone jars— they’re a sign. 

This wedding at Cana, it isn’t the sort of wedding where your Aunt Becky buys credentials online for $69.99 in order to be able to officiate the I dos. 

This wedding at Cana is a worship service; therefore, you can’t just show up with your invite, black tie, and gift from Williams Sonoma. 

To come to this wedding is to come before God and, according to the Bible, God is not like Mr. Rogers. 

You’re not acceptable before God just the way you are. 

You have to be made acceptable. 

You have to be purified. 

You have to be justified. 

And so, as the guests would arrive for the nuptials, before they’d get handed their programs, they’d dip their hands into the stone jars to wash away their sin and render themselves ritually clean. 

The jars were made of stone, not clay, because clay is porous, and the water would get dirty in clay jars. 

The whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

     The water in the stone jars was to justify you, to make you blameless before a holy God. 

But, it didn’t work.

Not only are these stone jars standing empty and idle, John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. 

It’s a sign. 

And with this sign John’s showing you that this whole system of making ourselves acceptable before God by dint of our own good deeds and religious doings— it didn’t work. 

There’s so much here to see. 

Giving in to his mother’s grumblings, Jesus tells the caterers at Cana, “Fill the stone jars with water.” 

Do you see? 

Jesus is taking this system of making ourselves blameless and acceptable before God and transferring it to Himself. 

Jesus is taking these means by which we’re able to meet God and He’s making Himself in charge of it. 

It’s a sign. 

John wants you to see here at the get-go of his Gospel what you’ll hear later in his Gospel— that the only way you can meet God is by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ for you. 

He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is your justification. 

And it’s on the house. 

By His Grace.

And for those who are not perfect and without blemish, that’s good news. 

There’s so much good news to see here. 

Notice the amount of water, one hundred and fifty gallons. 

It’s a sign.  

The Jewish Talmud specifies how much water is necessary for the ritual of purification. 

According to the Talmud, one cup of water— that’s eight fluid ounces— is enough water to purify and justify one hundred men. 

This is 19,200 ounces of water. 

My boys are better than me at that sort of math, but that’s enough water to justify almost two million people, which is more people than a first century Jew like John could imagine. 

You all have ears enough to see here, don’t you?

This is John showing you that Jesus Christ is able— able by dint not of your own doing, but by nothing but His own merit— to bring the whole world to his Father. 

It’s a sign, and John wants you to see what you’ll hear Jesus say to the woman at the well, “I am Living Water. 

Everyone who drinks of me will be thirsty again, for the water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life.” 

     . 

There’s so much good stuff to see here. 

Like the wine— 

Jesus takes the water that was necessary because of sin, and He transforms it into two thousand glasses of the finest vintage vino. 

It’s a sign. 

According to the prophets Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, the arrival of God’s cosmic work of salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine. 

John wants you to see that the incarnation of Jesus Christ into our world is God making good on God’s promise to the prophet Isaiah today. 

When Israel languished in exile, convicted of their sin and convinced God had abandoned them for breaking their vow to him, God chooses a marriage supper, a wedding party, as the image for how God would redeem his sinful people and reconcile all of Creation. 

John wants you to see that with the arrival of God-in-the-flesh in our world the not yet of God’s redemptive work is here and now.

It’s a sign. 

With all these wine glasses, John wants you to see that the future promised to Isaiah is present tense in Jesus Christ; therefore, water is only the beginning of what he’s about to transform. 

Do you see? 

It’s a sign of what He promises later in the Gospel, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.”  

There’s so much good news to see here. 

Take the timing. 

John tells you that Jesus and the disciples arrive to this wedding party at Cana on the third day. The third day since when, exactly? 

It’s an unhelpful, extraneous detail unless what John wants you to see is a hint of when Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty tomb on the third day, the first morning of a New Creation. 

Speaking of a New Creation, this third day in Cana is actually the seventh day thus far in John’s Gospel. 

John, who begins his Gospel with a deliberate echo of the Genesis Creation story, numbers the days in his Gospel just like Genesis, too. 

If you turn to John 1.19, you’ll see John says on the “first day.” 

And then in verse 29, John tells you “on the next day,” and then in verse 35, John says, “on the next day.” 

So, that’s three days, and then in chapter 1, verse 43, John again says “on the next day.” 

That’s four days, and then when you turn to chapter two and the wedding at Cana, John tells you “three days later.” 

On the seventh day. 

This marriage supper at Cana where Jesus arrives as a guest but ends up acting as the host (“Do whatever he says,” Mary orders the caterers), it happens on the seventh day. 

Translation, this is no ordinary wedding party at all. 

It’s a sign. 

It points beyond itself. 

You’re supposed to see here at the beginning of Christ’s work a glimpse of the end of Christ’s work, the consummation of all things. 

This marriage supper where Jesus ends up acting as the host— it’s a sign of salvation. 

At the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, the occasion for John to announce the arrival of a new heaven and new earth, the occasion for John to announce that Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more— is a wedding party. 

John calls the end of all things, Salvation and New Creation, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

The date of the wedding matters, because it’s a sign. 

John wants you to see a glimpse of your destiny. 

And when you realize this wedding party at Cana is meant to point to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, New Creation, Heaven, Eternal Life, the whole kit and kaboodle of everything God ever spoke into existence— only when you see that this wedding is a sign of that marriage supper can you begin to laugh at the outrageousness of God’s indiscriminating grace. 

Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. 

He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too drunk to know what He’s done.

     As the master of the feast says to the groom, “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine last, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.” 

     Even more crazy, the bridegroom and his family, who failed to purchase enough wine for the celebration, they end up getting the credit for what Christ has done.

     The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. 

They get the credit that Christ alone merits. 

As though, they had done it themselves. 

It’s a sign. 

Surely, you can see its meaning?

———————-

Earlier this week one of you emailed me an article you found online. I clicked the link and quickly praised God it had nothing to do with the LGBTQ issue in the UMC (at least, not obviously so). In fact, it was an obituary in the Des Moines Register. 

I realize it might sound odd to mention death in the context of a wedding story except (a) every married couple will appreciate the irony, and (b) even Jesus interrupts this wedding with talk of crucifixion. “Woman, what concern is that to me? My hour has not yet come.”

The obituary was for a Nebraskan named, Ken Fuson. 

And it’s one of those obituaries that’s more than just an obituary. 

It’s a, well, it’s a sign. 

Ken Fuson’s sons wrote:

“Ken Fuson was born June 23, 1956 and died Jan. 3, 2020 in at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, of liver cirrhosis, and is stunned to learn that the world is somehow able to go on without him.

Ken attended the University of Missouri-Columbia’s famous School of Journalism, which is a clever way of saying, “almost graduated, but didn’t.” Facing a choice between covering a story for the Columbia Daily Tribune or taking his final exams, Ken went for the story. He never claimed to be smart, just committed.

In 1996, Ken took the principled stand of leaving the Des Moines Register, because The Sun in Baltimore offered him more money. Three years later, having blown most of that money at Pimlico Race Track, he returned to the Register, where he remained until 2008. In his newspaper work, Ken never won a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s dead now, so get off his back.

There are those who would suggest that becoming a free-lance writer in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression was not a wise choice, but Ken was never one to be guided by wisdom. He wrote the book, “Heading for Home” with Kent Stock, about the 1991 Norway baseball team that won the state championship in its final season. Good copies are still available.

Ken was diagnosed with liver disease at the beginning of 2019, which is pretty ironic given how he never drank, never a drop of beer, whiskey, or wine. Eat your fruits and vegetables, kids.

Ken had many character flaws – if he still owes you money, he’s sorry, sincerely – but he liked to think that he had a good sense of humor and a deep compassion for others. He prided himself on letting other drivers cut in line. He would give you the shirt off his back, even with the ever-present food stain. Thank goodness nobody asked. It wouldn’t have been pretty. He also was a master Jumbles solver.

For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. 

Miracles abound.

Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but Jesus Christ transformed his life. Faith was the one thing he never regretted. Jesus Christ transformed everything for him. 

For many years Ken was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Indianola and sang in the choir, which was a neat trick considering he couldn’t read a note of music. The choir members will never know how much they helped him. He then joined the Lutheran Church of Hope. If you want to know what God’s transformative love feels like, just walk in those doors. 

Seriously, go right now. We’ll wait. Ken’s not going anywhere.

Yes, this obituary is probably too long. Ken always wrote too long.

So we’ll close by saying, God is good. See you in heaven. Ken promises to let you cut in line.”

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

There’s so much top shelf vintage stuff at this marriage supper in Cana for us to serve.

How about: 

You are justified, not by anything you do, but by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ. 

That’s here at this marriage supper. 

So is:

Not only are you blameless before God and acceptable to God— no matter what you’ve done or left undone— by grace through faith you are credited with what Jesus Christ alone has done, as though his singular faithfulness is your very own. 

That’s in here, too, at this marriage supper for you to see and for us to serve.  

Ditto Christ’s promise to give you life, abundant life, because water is the least of what Jesus Christ can transform and is transforming and will transform at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

That’s here at this marriage supper for us to serve the guests of the Bridegroom. 

And that BridegroomNot only is he happy to lavish high dollar wine on drunk people to drink, in the crazy good fun of His Grace, He’s happy to let us all cut in line at Heaven’s Gate. 

Miracles abound. God is good. Jesus Christ, who is not dead, can transform anything. 

And, it’s all available to anyone at the rock bottom price of absolutely “free.” 

OUR SHELVES ARE STOCKED!

WE’VE GOT SO MUCH GOOD VINTAGE FIVE STAR STUFF TO SERVE THE BRIDEGROOM’S GUESTS! GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS…

And yet— 

These days, in the United Methodist Church, we’re more interested in arguing over who deserves an invitation to the party. 

It’s an impressive feat, turning “wine back into water.” 

This Sunday’s sermon was delivered by my minion, David King. His texts were Exodus 14 and Matthew 3. For someone not even graduated from college yet, he’s a damn good preacher.

 

PRAYER: 

“Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us. Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices. Abandon us not to our own voices. Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and then give us the grace to listen. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hears be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our rock, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.” — Will Willimon

I must say, I do not know how to preach this text.  Not that I really know how to preach at all — I am just a kid — but these texts have proven quite difficult to wrestle with, not least because of the time in which we live.  The past week has left me shocked, scared, sad, exhausted, depleted, angry, and a variety of other emotions that are not particularly conducive to preaching.  One might assume that the potential for war would make sermons easier to write.  I can assure you it does not.  The task of truthfully declaring the peace incarnate in Christ is made all the more difficult by war.  In fact, a theological analysis of war would probably conclude that this is precisely war’s purpose: to make the Gospel mute.  Understanding how baptism could bear on the prospect of war has made for tough muddling.  

You see, the fact that this country has been at war almost every single day that I have been alive means that peace — and, moreover, justice — are concepts that are difficult to entertain.  Such entertainment has been precluded by the ubiquity of war in our collective, modern lives.  In the U.S., this is true also because war does not happen here. We are blissfully untouched by the corporeal vicissitudes of militaristic violence.  The flip side of this bliss is the ignorance of the ways in which war directs and pervades every aspect of ours lives, especially those of us who live in the DC area.  We are ignorant especially of war’s tangible effects.  We see a rising defence budget, while others only see a bomb dropping towards their village.  Aeschylus was quite right to note that truth is the first casualty of war.  War and its bedfellow Fear inoculate us to the violence they require, turning children into statistics and families into cold calculations.

I should say, though, that the prospect of war is not new to me: my generation has never known the United States without war.  That I have never known this country without war is in itself a testament to the power war has to perpetuate itself.  War makes a weapon of fear, and fear makes a weapon of the mundane, meaning that the everyday occurrences constituting our normal lives must never be taken for granted.  It is a time of crippling, systematic anxiety, what Kierkegaard would have called “fear and trembling.”  

The same fear and anxiety is what strikes at the heart of the Israelites in the Exodus scripture.  This people has not known peace or justice for centuries; they have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  The everyday activities of their lives are marked by violence, death, suffering; all at the hands of their captors.  So when Moses comes along, we all read the text and assume the Israelites are ready to go, ready to get out of Egypt and go to the land promised to Abraham.  

“Stand still,” the inspirational plaque painted in our minds reads.  “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.  The lord shall fight for you, and you shall have peace.”  

But wait, look again.  Did you notice?  Israel didn’t want to go.  To say they are scared does not do justice to the situation of Israel.  They are paralysed by a fear that causes them to want to return.  The status quo of slavery to the Egyptians at least offered them the possibility of a life.  Slavery, they say, is better than death.  And further, certain early church interpreters of this Exodus text understood Egypt to represent Death itself.  What they did in identifying Egypt with death was to illustrate the sheer bind that faced the people attempting to escape.  Death stands on both sides of them, one in the form of war, the other in the form of drowning.  Israel sees death approaching, hears the march of war, and thinks, “this has got to be the end.”  

Go back – its right there in the text.  In verse 12, the Israelites yell at Moses, the drumbeat of the Egyptian army getting louder and louder by the minute.  “Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians. It is better to serve them than to die in the wilderness.”  They are, on all accounts, surrounded.  War and death, personified in the Egyptian army, approach from the one side, and the Red Sea surrounds them on the other.  They are sure to lose the battle, and they cannot survive the swim.  The fear that Rameses held over them as slaves sets in once again, and the Israelites are afraid to leave.  The fear strikes at the very core of their being.  

Don’t get me wrong here: I am not blaming the Israelites for wanting to survive, no matter the cost.  Their situation is the very opposite of envious.  It seems that the only option is surrender.  

But they are the people of God, and if there is any lesson to be drawn from that, it is that God will make his way happen, whether they like it or not.  That’s why Moses’ directions is to tell them to stand still.  Don’t do anything, Moses says, or you’ll muck up God’s work.  

And then, well, you know the story.  Moses raises his staff, and God does the rest.  Egypt is no more, and Israel is saved.  They are baptised in the Red Sea.  

Fast forward a while and we find John, a rather extraordinary person dropped in the middle of the height of the Roman Empire to call Israel to repentance.  He comes from the desert, from an undesirable place, calling out from the wilderness.  He calls Israel out of Rome.  John’s call to repentance mirrors Moses’ command to the Israelites: “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.”  “Repent ye,” John says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Come, be baptised, John urges.  

Until Jesus comes along.

Then John stops.  “I can’t baptise you,” he says.  “I’m not even worthy to touch your sandals.  In fact, you should baptise me.”  John’s right.  For all intents and purposes, John is right.  The man before him is not a sinner; Jesus has no need to be baptised.  There is nothing, John thinks, that he can do for Jesus.  Putting aside John’s good-willed intention to tell God what God ought to be doing, John is right to wonder why Jesus comes to be baptised.  The judge comes among the judged to be baptised; the one who is without sin approaches John with the worst of criminals.  And John is right to be confused.  Here is the man he has been waiting to see his whole life, the Messiah of the world, and he wants to be baptised? For what? 

“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus says.  

Did you get that? Baptism, His baptism, is necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.”  He didn’t say, “Baptism is necessary for my personal repentance.” He didn’t say, “we need baptism to get to heaven.”  He didn’t say, “baptism is about your choice to have a relationship with God.” No! Jesus is emphatic: “my baptism,” he says, “is necessary to fulfil all righteousness.”  

Baptism, Jesus says, is about me.  Baptism is about who I am.  

Just like when God saves Israel through the Red Sea, the baptism isn’t about them.  The baptism of Israel is about God.  Baptism reveals to us not who we are, but who God is.  Israel rejects God, and yet God parts the waters and drags them through to the other side.  God refuses to let them return to slavery.  The exodus story parallels what God does for us in the baptism of our Lord. Christ is baptised such that we may all be baptised — Christ’s baptism brings us through, kicking and screaming, from the clutches of death and slavery.  In Christ’s baptism, the law is fulfilled.  Whereas before, Jesus came in the form of a cloud that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians, in his baptism he is fully revealed to us as the Son in whom the Father is well pleased.  

The God who is baptised in the Jordan by John is the one who seeks us out first and speaks to us first, in fact, speaks us into existence. We cannot conjure up this God; we could not think him up. If we could, we wouldn’t need to be told who he is.  But the whole purpose of John’s baptism of Jesus is for us, for Israel, to find out who this sinless man really is.  And as if it isn’t enough of a slap in our rational faces, this God who would humble himself to receive a sinner’s baptism is the God who saves us despite our rejection of him. The baptism of Christ is the moment in which the character of God is revealed, the character of the God who brought the Israelites through the Red Sea despite themselves.  

So yes, I understand that the title of this sermon may be somewhat controversial, but it is true.  Salvation is by baptism alone… Salvation is by His baptism alone.  The baptism we have, the practice by which God enfolds us in Christ’s story, is the means by which we understand who God is.  That we baptise babies is no joke: they are the precise markers of someone who cannot confess, who cannot conceive of their own sin, who is ignorant of everything except itself.  Infant baptism shows us that our God, the God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the centrepiece of baptism.  Baptism is the moment in which God tears open the world, breaks in and declares the Son ‘good.’  

If baptism is really about revelation, if it is really about God showing us who God is, then the baptism of Christ cannot be abstracted from the cross on which he will hang later in the story.  That is, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s crucifixion are two moments of the same revelation.  Which means that to be baptised is to be baptised into death, into Christ’s death.  The tearing open of the Red Sea is a foreshadowing of the tearing open of the heavens in Christ’s baptism, which in turn is the same salvation indicated by the tearing of the temple veil on Good Friday.  

When we are baptised, we are baptised into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  We are baptised into our own deaths, and reborn in his life.  The life of Christ is embodied in the people, the body that believes that war has been abolished, that death has been defeated, and that a new ruler has been enthroned. Notice: we are not a people who believe we have to work to abolish war.  Our baptism, the act in which we find out just what kind of God we worship, tells us already that war has been defeated.  It has been defeated because Christ has been baptised, because God broke into the world and did not let death win.  

Matthew tells us that the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, alights on Jesus when he emerges from the waters.  That this happens indicates to us that every prophecy has been fulfilled in the one who humbled himself and took our form.  And it tells us that war is no more.  War lost its stranglehold of fear when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan.  The world has been baptised.  And that means that our hope is not in vain.  

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

    Matthew 2.1-12

     When I first sat down on the plane, I did what anyone would do. 

     I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.  

     A Kenny G Muzak cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” played over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their carry-on above them. 

     Across the aisle, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. His mother had her arm around him and was saying “shush,” but the boy was inconsolable. 

     Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: “All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year, I won’t keep my mouth shut.”

     On my right, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know when too much plastic surgery is too much. Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his iPhone. He had a Wall Street Journal, as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap. 

     He spoke with a Northeastern accent— Boston maybe— and he smelled so strongly of cologne that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it. 

     He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.     

And there I was, the happy, holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus. 

 

     I was flying home from a speaking gig I had in Tyler, Texas, and I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air, you could see the stars. 

     Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow. 

     Seriously, eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me— though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal— was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother. 

     Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way. 

     “Where you headed?” the businessman on my left asked. 

     And I thought to myself: “Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket, but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.”

     “I’m headed home, D.C.,” I said. 

     He chuckled and said, “Good luck.” 

     Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes. 

     It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations. 

    

     Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking my Bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me. 

     You don’t even have to read it, necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space. 

     Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy, while non-religious people won’t say anything for the fear that you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. 

     And, if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo. 

     

Stops them every time. 

     That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my Bible out and opened, not to Revelation, but to Matthew— not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left, but also, because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance. 

     Meanwhile, the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and opened it up. He had at least a dozen windows opened in his browser, the homepages for all sorts of stores: Williams Sonoma, REI, Pottery Barn, Kate Spade. You name it.He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map. 

     He had Excel open on his computer, and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift, and then he inserted a hyperlink to the company’s website. Every now and then he would click the “Sum” button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2019 Christmas. 

           I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall, where I saw that I could get a replica Kylo Ren lightsaber for only $800.00. 

     I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake lightsaber— especially for the bad guy’s lightsaber— when the guy sitting next to me said, “Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.” 

     I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked “Save.” 

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said, “It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?”

     I looked over at him. “You talking to me?” I said as the fingers of my right hand deftly felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.      

           “Yeah”, he said. 

     “Are you religious,” he asked, and nodded at the Bible on my tray. 

     “Yeah, I guess so,” I said. 

     “That’s good,” he said in an absent sort of voice. “I’m not. I mean, I’ve searched before for….” 

     I let his voice trail off. 

     A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the Bible. 

     “It’s the story of the magi,” I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights. 

     “The what?”

     “The wise men,” I said. 

     

He said, “Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels, right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?”

     “Not exactly,” I said. “They go to Jerusalem first, not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.” 

     “Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive,” he laughed. 

     I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo, or pretend I was asleep. 

     But then he asked me, “Why do they go to Jerusalem first?”

     “Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us, educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation,” I said.

     “They went to Jerusalem first, because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.” 

     He smiled at me and said, “In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts, and then getting back to their normal lives.” 

      And, I smiled and said, “Something like that.”

 

      

     Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise.  The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And, the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. The man next to me sat up and turned towards me. 

     “Can I read it?” he asked. 

     “Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.” 

     

“No, not that book,” he said. 

     And, he held out his hand for my Bible. So, I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of Chapter Two. “It’s this part,” I said. 

He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe. 

     When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back. 

     Then he held the Bible out to me, and he put his index finger down at the page.

     

“What’s this?” he asked me. 

     He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text: 

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

     “That’s from Micah,” I said, “from the Old Testament.” 

     “Can you show me?” he asked. 

     And, I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him. 

     “It’s short,” I warned, “only a few pages long.” 

     I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words. 

     I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.

    When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then, he handed it back to me.  

“It’s about Jesus, right?” he asked. 

I must’ve looked confused, because he pointed at the Bible and added, “The Old Testament passage. What’s his name? Michael was making an…uh…a prediction about Jesus?” 

“Sort of,” I said,

“Prediction makes it sound like a guess or, at best, a bet— like Micah’s not sure of what’s to come. It’s a prophecy. It’s a promise about what’s to come. And Matthew wants you to see that the coming of Christ is God making good on what Micah promised was to come.” 

“In other words,” he said, “it’s saying Jesus is the reason for the season.” 

“Well, actually, no.” I said, “Jesus is not the reason for the season.” 

“What do you mean Jesus is not the reason for the season?” 

He threw up his hands like we bartering in a market and I’d insulted him with my offer. 

“I hear Christians saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” all the time. My neighbor has a sign in his front yard next to a wicker reindeer that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”” 

“Well, it shouldn’t be news to you that Christians have screwed the pooch on a good many things over the years.”

He chuckled. 

“Your neighbor’s wrong,” I said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.” 

“You’re pretty argumentative, aren’t you?” he said.

“No,” I said, “I just happen to be right.” 

“When I first saw you with your Bible, I thought maybe you were a priest or a preacher, but there’s no way church folks could put up with someone as lippy as you.” 

“Probably not.” I smiled, “that’s why I’m an architect; nevertheless, I’m right. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.” 

He just looked at me like I was full of it. 

“Look,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt, so I could turn and face him, “You are the reason for the season. Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” is like saying, “My cousin is the reason for April Fool’s Day.” It’s so obvious and redundant it doesn’t convey anything. No, the “reason for the season”— the reason for Christ’s coming— is you.” 

“I’ve never heard it put that way before,” he said, starting to chew on it. 

“Sure, you have,” I said. “You just weren’t paying attention. It’s in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It’s in the carols too,” I said. “For unto us a Child is born, for unto us a Son is given…” Salvation is a gift for you, not a bargain with you.” 

“I just figured that “Jesus is the reason for the season” was a way of saying people should remember to give God his due while they’re busy giving everyone else gifts. You know, that Christmas isn’t our birthday, so we shouldn’t leave Jesus off our gift list.”

“Well, that may be what the cliché means, but it’s still not the Gospel. It’s not even in the same area code as the Gospel. It’s a million zipcodes away from the Gospel,” I said. 

“You’re pretty opinionated too, aren’t you?” he said.

“Maybe so, but— Look, there’s nothing peculiarly Christian about thinking we ought to give God our praise or charity. Every religion thinks their god is the reason for their holy days. Big deal. But the really bad idea— the suggestion that has not a scrap or grisel of the good news in it— is the hare-brained notion that Christmas is about you needing to give God anything.”

“What about the Christmas carol?” he said. “I’ve got the James Taylor cover of it. How does it go? “Yet, what I can I give Him, give my heart?””

I nodded. 

“It’s a pretty tune, but it’s tone deaf theology. Why in the world would you give Jesus your heart? The only thing in your heart is sin and cholesterol.”

He laughed. 

“Even the promise from the prophet Micah,” I said. 

“People love the line about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly, but the prophecy ends two chapters later with Micah throwing his hands up in the air and bemoaning that there’s not a single righteous person among the lot of us, and that if there’s going to be any hope— even for the religious— then God will have to come down and find a way to cast away all our sins for us.”

“The Gospel begins where you end. Christmas isn’t about you needing to give God anything. Christmas is about you not having anything at all whatsoever to give God, so God comes down in the flesh to give you Christ and everything that belongs to him. Christmas is about receiving, not giving.”

“I don’t know about all this Jesus stuff,” he said. “I feel pretty lost most of the time.”

“The magi got themselves lost too,” I said, “God was still determined to find them.” 

      We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows. I’d closed my eyes. 

     “I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it,” he said. 

“That’s Luke’s Gospel,” I said. “Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.” 

“But the wise men give Jesus gifts. If Christmas is about receiving, then why do the wise men give Jesus gifts?” he said.

“The gifts they give him— frankincense, gold, and myrrh— they’re gifts for a King, but they’re also gifts for a burial. They’re meant to be gifts that foreshadow the gifts Christ gives you.” 

He just looked at me blankly. 

“Jesus lives the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of us all. He lives that life for us, and for that faithful life, God has made him King and seated him at the right hand of the Father— that’s the gold. 

“Jesus dies to Sin in our stead— that’s the myrrh. 

“And, Jesus is our Great High Priest who has made a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice so that we can come before God holy and blameless— that’s the frankincense. 

“Through his faithfulness lived for you and his death to sin offered instead of you, God gives you Christ’s righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect record— as your very own. 

“Nothing you do for God or give to God could ever improve upon the gift God gives you in Christ at the rock bottom price of free,” I said.

“And what do I got to do to get this gift?” he said.

“Nothing,” I said. 

“Nothing?! What’s the catch?” he said.

“No catch. The Gospel works like a wedding vow. 

He’s already said, “I do,” to you. 

Everything that belongs to Him is yours forever and everything that once belonged to you (your sin) became His forever. 

There’s nothing for you to do but trust that it’s so and live your life with Him. 

And there’s nothing you can do to undo that gift, either. 

You can prove to be a less than faithful bride, but you’re still his bride and, as his bride, everything that’s His is yours. 

You can blow $800.00 on a Kylo Ren lightsaber or waste hours reading 50 Shades of Grey; nevertheless, whenever God looks upon you, the Father will always see Mary’s Son,” I said.

“But I’ve got to believe in it first, right?” he said.

“Only in the sense that there’s nothing for you to do but believe it. It’s his faithfulness that justifies you before God not your faith in him,” I said.

     And, just like that, we’d landed and were waiting for the seats in front of us to empty. 

“Maybe you wouldn’t make a completely terrible preacher,” he said, “Except…”

“Except what?” I asked.  

     “Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?”

     I laughed and said… “pretty much.” 

“I bet we’d all be less stressed out at Christmas,” he said, “and less judgmental about how much or how little we’re supposed to spend on gifts if we all believed that we’re the reason for all the celebrating,” he said and then clipped his teeth like he was biting off the rest his sentence. 

“It all feels too convenient, too good to be true.”

“I’m not making it up,” I said. 

“It’s right there in the nativity story. The celebrating starts in heaven. Don’t you see, you’re the gift God gives to himself at Christmas.”

He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

And then we went our separate ways.

Paradise for the Insane

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2019 — Leave a comment


Christmas Eve — Isaiah 9, John 1

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight; it was a cold and crowded Christmas Eve. My mother made me go. When she said through my bedroom door, “Get dressed in something nice, we’re going to church,” somewherea needle scratched clear off a record. 

At that point in my life, the closest I’d ever come to church was with Kevin McAllister and Old Man Marley in Home Alone.

We’d never gone to church before. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left. From the discreet removal of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse, and I discovered that the wise men, whom someone called magi, were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman wearing an “ugly Chrismas sweater” read to us.

I was a teenager. 

And, I didn’t want to go. 

Why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church? I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to listen to a middle-aged gasbag preach at me and try to make it all go down easier by telling lame jokes and making tame pop culture allusions.

Now, I’m the middle-aged gasbag some of you are forced to endure and— fair warning— lame jokes are the only sorts of jokes the geezers will let me get away with  on Christmas Eve, so don’t get your hopes up.

But, God got to me. 

And I’m up here, now because years ago someone forced me to sit out there on a night like tonight, even though I felt so woefully out of place as to feel “unwelcome.” 

My point is that I know firsthand how Christmas Eve is a night when all sorts of people gather from different places in life and do so for a variety of reasons. Whoever you are, from wherever you have come, and whatever the reasons that brought you here, “welcome.” 

You might be an every Sunday regular listening for bits of sermons you’ve already heard. Welcome.

You might be parents of amped up kids with sugar in their veins and Santa on their minds; meanwhile, you’re sitting there wondering if you’re out of Scotch tape or AA batteries, and if the CVS and the ABC will still be open by the time the service is done. Welcome.

You might be a fingers-crossed skeptic, thinking you’re the only one here tonight with more questions than clarity. You’re wrong and you’re still welcome. 

You might be depressed and feel no joy in you tonight. And that’s okay because tonight the joy isn’t about you, it’s about something that has happened outside of you. So, welcome.

Maybe you yelled at your wife on the way over here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re like Alan Rickman in Love Actually and have a present hidden in your pocket that your wife thinks is for her. If so, A) Joni Mitchell never makes a good gift and B) Welcome. 

Maybe you’re secretly relieved your sister won’t be coming this year. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re giddy with spite that your ex-husband won’t see the kids this holiday. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re terrified you can’t make it through another Christmas on the wagon. Welcome. 

Maybe you can’t believe to see your Trump-loving neighbor here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe you can’t believe your Trump-hating neighbor is here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe all the images of the baby Jesus this season just make you think of Baby Yoda and, after five weeks and seven episodes of the Mandalorian, you just want to strangle that little green Benjamin Button. 

Welcome to you too.

Tonight, all of you are as welcomed as the next person because, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a club of good, pious, religious, moral people making their way up to God. 

Christianity is about God coming down— God coming down in Jesus Christ— to people like us. 

People whose goodness is inconstant. 

People whose piety is imperfect. 

People whose morality is convenient and whose faith is unreliable.

All of us— 

We’re all guests tonight of the God who has come down to us in the flesh. 

To dwell with us. 

We’ve all been welcomed as God’s guests— just as we are.

———————-

Here, I’ve got a Christmas story for you. 

Ellen Baxter is the founder of Broadway Housing Communities in New York. 

In the 1970’s as a pyschology student at Bowdoin College, Baxter set out to discover a more humane way to treat the mentally ill. 

As an undergraduate, she’d faked her way onto a pyschiatrict ward with a bogus diagnosis of dangerous depression, so that she could observe how the patients were treated. 

She left convinced that American culture’s obsession with improving and fixing and changing ourselves had infected the mental health system, too. “We’re stuck on recovery,” I heard her tell NPR, “but when you fail to deal with people as they are, when you’re dead set determined to fix them and change them, you end up changing them for the worse, because you erode their humanity.”  

Ellen Baxter’s research through old medical journals and pyschology articles led her to a modest village in Belgium named Geel (pronounced, “Heil”)

According to those dusty journals, Geel had the highest success rate of recovery for the mentally ill.

At the center of Geel is a church dedicated to St. Dymphna, who was martyed in Geel in the 7th century. 

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill, which is why, beginning in the 8th century, Geel became a pilgrimage destination for the mentally ill. 

Five centuries later, starting in the 13th century, the residents of Geel began boarding those pilgrims into their homes. 

Geel became a place where everyday people (farmers, bartenders, blacksmiths) welcomed insane strangers into their homes no questions asked, just as they were, no matter the risks, welcomed them “like they would a beloved aunt or uncle.” 

By the 19th century, this practice of hospitality earned Geel the nickname, “Paradise for the Insane.” 

And by the turn of the 20th century, this Christian practice became a public system where doctors place patients into the homes of hosts, who have no idea what diagnosis their guests bring with them. 

By 1930, over a quarter of all the residents of Geel were mentally ill— about 10,000 people. 

According to Ellen Baxter, the average length of stay for a guest with a host family— and notice, they call them “guests,” not patients— is 28.5 years; meanwhile, a third of all the guests stay with the same host family for almost fifty years. 

They take these broken, crazy guests into their homes, and they live with them and they die with them. 

Ellen Baxter won a grant fellowship to spend a year studying in Geel. 

She describes going from house to house in Geel, interviewing host families, asking the same questions and always getting the same answers. 

“Do you find it to be a burden? 

No.”

“Do you find it tiring?

No.” 

“Do you find it painful?

It’s just life, a bus driver told her.” 

“Over and over again, I heard the same responses from the host families I would visit. Host families would shrug their shoulders and reply that “crazy” is just part of normal life. It made me wonder,” Ellen Baxter says, “if I had stumbled upon a race of angels.” 

But, Ellen Baxter says she still didn’t understand why the villagers of Geel were so successful at rehabilitating guests— more successful than modern medicine and these are peope with serious mental illnesses— until she met the “buttons guy.” 

The buttons guy was a middle-aged man, a boarder, who, every single day, would twist all the buttons off his shirt, nervously twirl them off slowly every single day. And every single night, his host mother would sew all the buttons back onto the buttons guy’s shirt. 

Every day he twists them off. 

And every night she sews them back on. 

“What a waste of time,” Ellen said when she first heard the host mom describe what she did in order to live with the buttons guy, “You should sew the buttons back on with fishing line so that way he can’t twist them off.”

And the host mom reacted with offense, 

“No! No, that’s the worst thing you could do. This man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him— to twist the buttons off every day.”

“You don’t understand,” the host mom explained to Ellen Baxter, “In order to accept mentally ill people into your home, you first have to accept what they’re doing. You have to accept their oddness and their idiosyncracies. You’ve got to let them take their buttons off. Being with them is the first step in being able to do anything for them.”

And that’s when Ellen Baxter stumbled upon what she calls “the solution of no solution.” 

Once she knew what to look for in Geel, she saw it practiced from house to house. 

What freed guests for healing and rehabilitation was the way their hosts refuse to treat them as people with problems to be fixed. 

Instead, they just welcomed them into their homes to share life with them. The hosts’ acceptance of their guests without any expectation of changing them is, in itself, the elixir with the power to change them. 

Ellen Baxter calls what she found in the homes of Geel “the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem.” 

In the Church, we call it grace. 

And it’s why we call this story that gives us Christ Gospel. 

It’s good news! 

———————-

John doesn’t give you the Christmas story the way Matthew or Luke tell it. John doesn’t mention Caesar or a census or a star over the city of the shepherd king. There’s no manger, no donkey, neither a Joseph nor an angel.  John gives you his Christmas story by telling you that the Word which spoke the stars into the sky “became flesh and dwelled with us.” 

The Law— God’s expectations for who you should be and what you should do and how you should change and fix yourself— came through Moses, John announces as excitedly as the angel Gabriel in those other Christmas stories. 

But, the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem has come through Jesus Christ. 

The Word became flesh and lived with us, John writes. 

And the word John uses there for “Word” (logos), is the same word the Old Testament uses for the tabernacle, the make-shift tent the Israelites pitched as they wandered in the wilderness. 

As God’s people journeyed for forty years, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, God journeyed with them in the tabernacle. 

The word in Hebrew is dabar. 

It’s the same word the Bible uses to describe the ten words of God, the Commandments, sealed inside the ark. It’s the word the Bible uses when Moses hides himself in the cleft of a rock in order to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. And it’s the word the Old Testament uses for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem— the place Jesus will call his Father’s House. The holy of holies was where God lived. 

The dabar was where God met man. 

But not just anyone could meet God there at the curtain into the dabar. 

We’re too broken by sin, the Bible says, even to come close let alone be welcomed in the place where God lives. 

Only the high priest of Israel on behalf of all his people could venture near the dabar and even the high priest first needed to be made acceptable. Even the high priest had broken too many of God’s expectations, God’s Law. The high priest first needed to fix his own sin problem through ritual purification. Only then did the high priest dare come near God’s home. 

Mary’s womb is the holy of holies and in her baby, the dabar became flesh and lived with us, John tells us in his Christmas story. 

And notice, there’s no high priest in this Christmas story. 

Nothing’s been required to render you acceptable first. 

———————-

Ellen Baxter describes a guest she met in Geel named Des. 

Des suffered terrors every night that bloodthirsty lions were about to pounce through the walls to eat him. 

“It wouldn’t work to tell him the lions aren’t really there. It wouldn’t work to try to convince him that he should change and be not afraid,” his host, Toni explained. 

Instead, every night, Toni and her husband would rush outside banging pots and pans and roaring like lions themselves to scare the lions away. 

“And that would work every time,” Toni explained, “He could rest. And then, eventually, one day Des wasn’t afraid of the lions anymore, and then one day the lions weren’t there anymore. But, this is important, making him unafraid of the lions, curing him of his terrors, was not our goal. Our goal was simply to welcome Des into our home, just as he was, and to share our life with him.” 

Maybe you don’t twist the buttons off your shirt day after day. 

And you might not think bloodthirsty lions are about to leap out of the walls to eat you. 

But we all suffer delusions. And we all hear voices in our heads. 

Some of you may be crazy enough to think that you’re basically a good person and, therefore, you don’t need Mary’s boy to live for you the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of you. 

Some of us could be so insane we actually think the sins we’ve sinned are somehow too great for Jesus Christ to have forgotten them forever in his grave. 

And, some of you just might be deluded enough to think that you’re bad, that your resentments and jealousies, your broken relationships and bitter strings of regret, somehow put you beyond God’s mercy— now that’s just plain crazy. 

Some of you actually may think that, because you tweet the right opinion or post the right position on Facebook, you’re righteous; meanwhile, some of you really think that you’re the only person here tonight who doesn’t have it all together.  

You might think you’re the only person here whose family is a disaster or whose marriage is a trainwreck.  

Or, you’re the only person here who doesn’t believe most of what I’ve preached and, therefore, it doesn’t apply to you, too. 

We all suffer delusions.

And we all hear voices in our heads. 

Voices telling us we’re unlovely or unloveable. Voices that tell us we’re inadequate or unforgiveable. 

Voices that never tire of pointing out all the ways we fall short of a standard that exists only in our heads. 

Voices that never quite go away and quit their whispering that the Gospel news is too good to be true. 

If I have one Christmas wish tonight for people like you— people like us— it’s for you to see what John wants you to see: 

that in Jesus Christ, in the humanity of God, 

God has welcomed you into his home— this is paradise for the insane.

In what the Church calls the incarnation, God has taken you into himself not as a patient (to be changed) but as a guest (to be welcomed). 

God has welcomed you into the home that is Christ’s body and wrapped you in the gift of Christ’s own perfect righteousness, to live and die with you, without any expectation or need for you first to be fixed. 

In Jesus Christ, God dwells with us, sewing our buttons back on and banging away our imaginary lions until all is calm and bright and we can rest. 

John, in his Christmas story tonight, calls that grace, and even an unbeliever like Ellen Baxter can testify to its strange healing power. 

Merry Christmas and welcome home.

For our Children’s Christmas Eve service, I scripted a series of reflections that some of the children and I delivered together, taking the verses of the carol “The Friendly Beasts” as a guide. I don’t think it sucks.

1. Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good

Pat singing: “Jesus our brother, kind and good, was humbly born in a stable rude…”

Luke Houghton:

Hold up, “brother?” My last name isn’t Christ. Unless my mom has neglected to mention a very big piece of information, I don’t have any brothers. And if the baby Jesus is my brother, then why didn’t I get any golden fleece diapers too? How come I got stuck with the Costco brand?

Ella Houghton:

No, it’s not like that— Jesus is everybody’s brother; you, me, the guy in the back with the ugly Christmas sweater, the uncle your mom hopes doesn’t come for Christmas dinner this year, the lunch lady with her hair net. 

All of us, Jesus is our brother. 

Jason:

It’s what the Bible means by calling Mary’s baby the “Second Adam.” 

He’s the start of something new.. It’s why Matthew starts his nativity story not with the angel Gabriel, but with the very same word that starts the whole Bible. 

“Genesis.” 

“In the beginning…”

So Jesus is our brother because Jesus is the Second Adam. 

Christmas is like God’s “do-over.” 

Luke Houghton:

Do-over? What was the matter with the Old Adam?

Ella Houghton:

What was the matter with the Old Adam? Really? It’s like Indiana Jones says in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The problem with the Old Adam was, you know, the s-word. 

Luke Houghton:

The s-word? You mean the word my dad says during Redskins games?

Ella Houghton:

What? No. Sin. The s-word. 

Luke Houghton:

Oh right, sin— that’s the stuff we do to get on God’s naughty list, right?

Ella Houghton:

No, God’s way better than Santa. God doesn’t have a naughty list. No, sin— pay attention now— is not taking God at his word. Sin is not trusting God’s words. 

Luke Houghton:

I don’t get it. 

Jason:

Remember, God tells Adam not to eat a particular kind of fruit from a particular sort of tree, because it would make him die— must’ve not been organic or something. 

Anyways, before you can say, “Do these fig leaves make me look fat,” a snake comes slithering along and Adam must’ve understood parseltongue, because the snake says to the Old Adam, “Did God really say that fruit would make you die? It’s as good as any fruit at Whole Foods. It won’t make you die.” 

Just like that, faster than God hung the stars in the sky or Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels, Adam no longer trusted God’s words. 

Adam ate the fruit and died.. 

And God had told him the truth. 

Later, Adam’s children, the People of Israel, they didn’t take God at his word either. Before you know it, the s-word, not trusting God’s promises, led to violence and greed and injustice. 

Luke Houghton:

So what’s the New Adam do?

Jason:

The New Adam does what the Old Adam didn’t do. Jesus lives his whole life trusting every word God gives him. 

Thus, tonight, for all of us, to be the brothers and sisters of the baby Jesus, it’s about taking God at his word. 

It’s about trusting God’s word when God, through his angel, tells you tonight, “I am bringing you good news of great joy. This day, in the City of David, a savior is born for you.” 

2. The Donkey, Shaggy and Brown 

“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

“I carried his mother up hill and down;

I carried his mother to Bethlehem town.”

Jason—

Did you know there’s a talking donkey in the Bible, in the Old Testament?

Joshua Vaughn—  

So what? My mom says there’s one in the pulpit here most Sundays. 

Jason— 

I guess Christmas isn’t the only day miracles happen. 

If the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem could talk, I bet it would’ve had some four-letter words for Caesar Augustus. 

Just think, the trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem is seventy miles long. And that’s without any WAWAs, EZ Pass lanes, or podcasts. 

The journey likely took Mary and Joseph a week, and all because some stooge sitting behind his desk in the capital of the free world decided to take a census. Caesar wanted to count the Jews in order to figure out how much he should charge them for the privilege of Caesar’s army occupying them like prisoners. 

Mary and Joseph have to pack their bags and head to Bethelehem because of politics. 

Joshua Vaughn—   

Gosh, I’m glad we don’t live in a time when the census gets used as a political weapon. I guess when you have a salad named after you, you think you can get away with anything. 

Jason— 

No, actually, Caesar isn’t his name. Caesar is his title. Caesar is just the Latin word for the Greek word “Christ” and the Hebrew word “Messiah.” 

They all mean “King.” 

The Christmas story, the Gospels want you to see, is a collision of kingdoms.

Joshua Vaughn—  

 

Wasn’t it a donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem to a cross just like it was a donkey that carried him in Mary to Bethlehem? 

Jason— 

Yes, and I bet that donkey had some awful things to say— the kinds of things you can only say on Twitter. After all, that donkey was a witness to the terrible ways they treated Mary’s boy before finally nailing him to a tree. 

Do you know the difference between animals like donkeys and all the rest of us?

Joshua Vaughn—   

Um, we can distinguish between a water bowl and a toilet?

Jason— 

No. Well, maybe, yeah, but— we’re the only animals who can choose to doubt or to trust words. Animals like dogs and donkeys can recognize words— but they can’t trust words. 

We’re the only creatures who can take the incarnate God at his word when he says from his cross, “I forgive you, you don’t know what you’re doing. But, you will be with me, in paradise.” 

3. The Cow, White and Red

I, ” said the cow, all white and red

“I gave him my manger for his bed;

I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”

“I, ” said the cow, all white and red.

Coleman Todd— 

When it comes to Christmas, most of us think the important word for the season is “for.”

Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things for others. We buy  presents for our loved ones. We worry over cooking up the perfect meal for our family. We think this is the season when we should do something kind for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Cows aren’t the smartest beasts in God’s creation, but…

Jason— 

What do you mean cows aren’t smart? They might misspell chicken, but that’s still pretty good for not having opposable thumbs.

Coleman Todd— 

I don’t get it. 

Jason— 

Duh, it was a Chik Fil A joke. 

Coleman Todd—  

Not your best material. 

Jason—

They can’t all be pearls, but when half the room is here against their will we gotta try to make them smile, right?

Coleman Todd—  

If you’re just trying to shamelessly appeal to the audience, you should make a reference to Baby Yoda. 

Jason— 

I’d never stoop so low. 

[Show Slide of Baby Yoda]

I still say cows are dumb; on the udder hand, the cow at the manger knows what we forget. “For” may be the word with which we celebrate Christmas, but “for” isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas. 

Coleman Todd— 

Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’”

Jason—

Before Christmas is the start to God doing something for us, it’s God coming to be with us. 

Coleman Todd— 

So with is a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas?

Jason— 

And “with” is the word that gets at the heart of that other word “Gospel,” because the Gospel is the promise that God is not far off from you somewhere in heaven. 

You don’t have to change. 

You don’t have to straighten up or stop your sinning. 

The Gospel is the promise that God comes down to you— not just in a dirty manger but in the muck and mire of your everyday life. 

The Gospel is the promise that the Holy God is with you in the difficult places of your life. 

The baby in the manger is not the way we come to God. 

The baby in the manger is the way God comes to us. 

Coleman Todd— 

People often ask themselves “Where is God?” in the midst of their problems. 

Jason— 

If you’ve ever wondered where God is for you when your life has turned upside down, then remember that the promise of Christmas, the promise of the Gospel is that Heaven has been turned upside down, too, and that God comes down to you. 

Whomever you are, the only work you need to do tonight is to take Jesus at his word. 

When the God born tonight comes back from the dead, he promises his friends— friends who DO NOT deserve such a promise— “Always, until the end of the aeon, I am with you.”

In fact, he’s as close to you tonight as this table. 

Mary and Joseph rested the incarnate God in the hay the cow was to eat. Likewise, 

Christ is here in creatures of bread and wine. 

For you. 

With you.

4. The Sheep with Curly Horn

I, ” said the sheep with curly horn,

“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm;

He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”

“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn.

Alexander Micheli—

I thought the next verse was about a pig. 

Jason—

No. 

Alexander Micheli— 

No, I’m sure of it. I learned the song in preschool. It’s “I, said, the pig with curly tail.” It’s a pig. 

Jason— 

No, there were definitely no pigs at the nativity. 

Alexander Micheli—

Are you sure?

Jason— 

As sure as I am that the wise men didn’t bring the King of the Jews Persia’s finest oysters and bacon. If we can identify with anyone in the manger scene, it’s probably not the wise men or the shepherds. 

It’s the sheep. 

Jesus says that he’s the Good Shepherd. Think about it, he’s the one to whom his mother grew up praying “The Lord is my Shepherd.” 

To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.

Alexander Micheli—

But, sheep are lame. 

Jason— 

That’s the point. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into problems entirely of their own making. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.

Alexander Micheli— 

Being a sheep is worse than finding out you’re a Sagitarius. 

Jason— 

Exactly. It’s offensive even. Sheep aren’t like other animals. Sheep aren’t like donkeys. The only real work— if you can call it work— a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.

Gabriel Micheli—

I have a hard time just listening to my teachers. 

Jason—

Don’t we all, but Jesus is better than your teacher. 

Alexander Micheli—

I’m not sure you’re allowed to say that.

Jason— 

Sure I am. Look, the baby Jesus— when he grows up—  tells a story about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of ninety-nine. 

The story is Jesus’ way of responding to a question about who is most awesome in God’s eyes, the do-gooding every Sunday types or your garden variety skeptics, cynics, and sinners. 

Jesus doesn’t answer their question by telling them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who give to the poor or never leaves a nasty comment on Facebook.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who is nothing but the recipient of the Shepherd’s finding. 

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd’s determined work of finding.

Gabriel Micheli—

Speaking of getting lost, what’s this got to do with Christmas?

Jason— 

Christmas is a time when it’s easy to wonder whether you’re really a part of the flock. 

It’s easy to doubt God. 

It’s even easier to doubt you’re worth him finding you. 

St. Paul calls the incarnation an invasion; that is, Christmas is the beginning of a rescue mission. And the promise of the Gospel is that you don’t need to do anything to make yourself findable. 

5. The Dove from the Rafters High 

I, ” said the dove from the rafters high,

“I cooed him to sleep so that he would not cry;

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and i.”

“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high.

Ahkeemah Lee—

Jesus is called a Prince, right?

Jason— 

Yep, the Prince of Peace, Isaiah says. Why?

Ahkeemah Lee—

Well, I was just wondering. If Jesus is a prince, then does that mean Jesus knows what it sounds like when doves cry? Because I’ve been listening to the song on Spotify, and I have no idea. 

Jason— 

Just don’t start asking questions about Little Red Corvette, too. 

I can tell you, though, what sound this dove at the manger is meant to make you recall— what words actually. 

Just after the Christmas story— turn the page— Jesus is all grown up and he shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.  

And as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Bible says the sky opens up and the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary’s womb comes down like a dove and God the Father’s voice declares, “This is my Beloved in whom I am well-pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone, “You are my Beloved.” 

But, it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life believing it and never forgets it even when he’s forsaken by his friends. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

Yeah, sure, but Jesus is different than the rest of us.”

Jason— 

No. Jesus was like us in every way. 

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who God said he was. He never doubted God’s words about him and taking God at his word set Jesus free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

Well, it’s easy to believe you’re beloved and pleasing to God when you’re good ALL THE TIME. 

Jason— 

I think sometimes the problem we have with believing we’re beloved and pleasing to God is that we have bad ideas of what God considers good. 

Like, right after God says to Jesus, “You’re my beloved in whom I’m well-pleased,” guess what Jesus does? 

He starts going to dinner parties with people who drink too much and tell dirty jokes. 

He heals people that doctors won’t touch. 

He makes friends with cheats and losers, and he makes bad guys the heroes of his stories. 

For God, what it means to be “good” is to be a friend of sinners. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

That’s a strange definition of good. I think my parents would have a hard time believing it if I told them. 

Jason—

Of course, they’d have a hard time believing it. We do. 

That’s why we’re here tonight, and why someone like me is here every week to give you the goods and remind you what God says about you. 

In a way, Christmas Eve is how all of Christianity works. 

It’s how we become holy and faithful. 

It’s not like we hear the promise of the Gospel once and then move on from it to figure out how to make changes in our life. 

It’s hearing the promise, receiving Christ over and over again, that changes us. Being a Christian, it’s like…

Ahkeemah Lee—

Listening to a bird singing the same song, over and over. 

6. The Gift They Gave Emmanuel 

Thus every beast by some good spell

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,

The gift he gave Emmanuel.

Jaanaiya Lee—

Okay, so we know the sheep gave Jesus his coat and the cow gave him his manger, but what about the gift God gives us in Jesus Christ? What is it exactly?

     Jason— 

We’ve all memorized the gifts the wise men give to Jesus (frankincense, gold, and myrrh), but can we name the gift God gives to us in Jesus? 

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but do we really know the reason for Jesus?

    Maybe the problem is that we spend too much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ (our sin) we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. 

What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel. 

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

Jaanaiya Lee—

Hold up. Up until now, I was going to give you a solid C+ for tonight, but now you’re threatening to wreck everything at the end with some stained glass language. Righteousness?

Jason— 

Righteousness. 

It’s the Bible’s word for…well, think of it this way. 

“Righteousness” is your permanent perfect record. 

Christ became what we are, says the Bible, so that his permanent perfect record might become ours. 

     His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, as our own righteousness. 

As a gift. 

Jaanaiya Lee— 

     It’s like a Christmas gift exchange.

Jason— 

    Exactly, and it’s yours for free, forever. 

But the only way to receive it— the way Christ gives you this gift— is in his promise. 

That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why it’s important that we take him at his word, because he gives himself and everything that belongs to him, including his righteousness, in his promise. 

Tonight, what you receive here is something you can receive nowhere else. What you get at church tonight is a gift  you can get no place else. 

Jesus Christ, himself. 

The Gospel works like a wedding vow. 

The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to Him to his beloved. 

Like the song says, we live in a dark world. 

It isn’t easy. 

Most of us do the best we can to believe, to do good, to follow Jesus. 

All may not always be calm and bright. 

But, take God at his word and rest in the good news that you’ve been given Christ’s own permament perfect record. 

For tonight, it’s not just that when we look at Christ in the manger we see Emmanuel, God is with us. 

It’s that because of Christ, whenever God looks upon us, he sees Jesus. 

Merry Christmas!

[End with Slide of Manger Scene including Baby Yoda]

     

 

Matthew 1.18-25

     Many Christmases ago, after singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” service after service after service and after having a distracted parent spill hot wax on my hand, service after service after service, on Christmas morning Ali and I took our boys into New York City to see the tree in Rockefeller Center,to gaze into the windows on 34th Street, and to run after the boys as they ran wide-eyed through FAO Schwarz. 

     We were nearly into the city, at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey side, when outside my window I spotted a large billboard depicting the manger and the magi making their way by the star over Bethlehem. 

     Only on this billboard were the words “Myth “and “Reason,” spelled out in all caps: “You KNOW it’s a MYTH. This season celebrate REASON.”

          My son, Gabriel, saw it, or saw me staring at it. He pointed at it through the window and asked me what it said. “It says atheists are irritating, unimaginative killjoys,” I said. Gabriel nodded his head and said, “That’s what I thought.”

 

     I later learned (thanks to Google and NPR) the billboard was paid by the American Atheists Association, whose president, David Silverman said, “Many people do not actually believe in God but go through the motions of religious practice,” Silverman said in an interview, “Plus, every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don’t do anything so this year, we decided to show Christians what a war on Christmas looks like.”

Paul Myers at Science Blog applauded the American Atheists Association “bold billboard,” saying “… he hoped it would “sting Christians and stir up a little resentment among them by reminding Christians that not everyone can follow the same path to God as them. Not everyone can come to a belief in something like the Christmas story. Belief doesn’t come easy for some people.” 

Leave it to a dues-paying atheist to believe it’s somehow news that it’s difficult for folks to believe the Christmas story. 

Only someone who never goes to church would suppose that card-carrying members of the Christian faith don’t still struggle with that faith. 

I’ve been preaching Advents and Christmases for almost twenty years now, and every year more than a few pew sitters ask me about the truth of the virgin birth. 

     Sometimes, it’s a life-long question for a doubting pilgrim. 

Sometimes, it’s a point of argument for a hardened skeptic. 

Sometimes, it’s an intellectual hurdle for a student just home from college armed with just enough philosophy to inoculate them against the real thing.

     Sometimes, it’s a question from someone at a holiday cocktail party, someone I’ve never met, someone who finds out, despite my subterfuge, that I’m not an architect after all, that I’m a pastor, and then is determined to be a pain-in-my-you-know-what to ask me (like I’m as dumb as a potted plant or a member of congress), “Do you really believe in the virgin birth?”

    

 

“Do Christians really expect right-thinking people to believe in something as preposterous as Jesus being born of a virgin?” David Silverman asked a reporter. 

It seemed not to occur to the president of the American Atheists Association that the angel’s news would have been every bit as unbelievable and preposterous for Mary. 

And Joseph. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to learn that Isaiah’s 800 year old promise would finally come to pass in a much less tidy and much more complicated way than Isaiah ever let on. 

Joseph is the first person to hear the news. He’s the first person to realize that his fiancé would never be able to prove how it happened exactly. 

He’s the first person to know that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him. 

And he’s the first person to struggle with believing that abstinence only works 99.99999% of the time.

 

Matthew reports in his nativity narrative that upon hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, “Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly…” Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it took Joseph to come to that decision.

But, it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.

The word in the next verse, where Matthew writes, “But just when Joseph had considered to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”   The word “consider” in the Greek comes from the root word thymos. 

It can mean “to ponder” as in “to consider” or it can mean “to become angry.” It’s the same word Matthew uses in the next chapter to describe King Herod’s rage as Herod orders the slaughter of innocents.

Joseph’s initial response to the annunciation is anger. 

Why is he angry?

Because prior to the angel appearing to him, Joseph only had Mary’s testimony. 

Joseph only had Mary’s word, and Joseph did not believe her. Joseph did not believe in the virgin birth. Joseph did not believe the word was made flesh in Mary. 

Therefore, Joseph knew what the word required Joseph to do with Mary. 

 

Matthew says that Joseph was a “righteous man.”

In Hebrew the term is tsadiq. 

And it’s not just an adjective for someone. 

By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.

Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title. Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously, applying it to every nook and cranny of life. 

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph knew what the Law required he do with Mary. 

Dismissing her quietly was no more an option for a righteous man under the Law than healing on the sabbath. 

You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract. 

Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply engaged.

For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.

For that reason, according to the Law, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. According to the Mishna— which is Jewish commentary on the Law— infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.

 

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house and accuse her publicly of adultery. If Mary doesn’t deny the charge, then the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death.

That’s what the Law commands.

Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit, then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires.

According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, who will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her. 

Finally, the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water and command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

If it makes her sick, she’s guilty, and she’ll be stoned to death.

If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.

Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined, because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father. 

She will be considered an outcast on par with lepers and tax collectors and shepherds. 

And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Law inside and out, Joseph certainly knows her sin will become his sin. 

He’ll be an outcast too, righteous no more. 

That’s why Joseph’s angry— whether he shows Mary grace or he hammers her with the Law, either way he’ll suffer. He’ll either lose his wife or he’ll lose his life. 

But it’s a choice— notice— determined by his disbelief. 

 

     The Church has never quite known what to make of Joseph, treating him like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child. 

It’s Mary whose song we hear at Advent. It’s Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s, that’s the most popular this time of year. 

It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint. 

Prior to the angel of God appearing to him, Joseph distrusts her.

  Joseph is a red-letter righteous man, but before God’s messenger brings him the news, Joseph doubts the Christmas Gospel. 

That is, it takes a revelation of God— a revelation from God— for Joseph to have faith in the news of Mary’s pregnancy ex nihilo. This is why we shouldn’t get too hung up over that clause in the creed about the virgin birth. 

Every little mustard seed of faith is a virgin birth. 

God creates Jesus ex nihilo, but God also creates your trust in Jesus ex nihilo. 

Joseph is the model for how God works faith in us. Joseph’s asleep. Joseph’s completely passive. 

And from nothing, God implants faith in Joseph’s heart through his ear; such that, when Joseph wakes up he does the very opposite of what he had previously determined to do. 

Only then can Joseph profess, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”

 

The Small Catechism (a catechism for children) explains the work of God the Holy Spirit this way: 

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”

Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. 

It’s not an attribute innate to you. 

It’s not an accomplishment won by you. 

It’s not an answer you arrive at through investigation. 

It’s a gift— extra nos— that comes from outside of you.

 

Faith comes by hearing a promise, the Bible says. 

The Gospel is the promise by which Christ plants faith in you. 

Promises like this is my body broken for you, this day in the city of David a savior is born for you, apromise like the one we sing in the carol, “Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger.” 

The promise called Gospel is the device by which Christ delivers faith into the empty womb of your heart. 

This is what David Silverman at the American Atheists Association gets so wrong. Unbelief in the Gospel is our natural predisposition. 

Apart from the gracious work of the Living God upon us, all of us believers in the Gospel teeter on the verge of unbelief. 

It’s not that Christian faith is easy. 

It’s that it’s harder than even atheists imagine. 

To believe that the baby in the ark of Mary’s womb is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, to believe that Jesus has wrapped himself in our flesh and through his body and blood has done everything necessary to save you and make you holy, to believe that he will come again, bearing your every sin in his body, to make you his own beloved— that sort of faith is no easier for us than it was for Joseph. 

That sort of faith— it takes an act of God. 

It’s not that Christians are on a path up to God that others with their reason and doubts cannot abide. 

There is no path to God for any of us— that’s the point of this season. 

God, Zechariah reminded us this morning and the Christmas carols remind us year after year, must come down to us. 

And that’s why, contrary to the American Atheists Association’s stated desire, all of us, preachers, you and me, cannot be silent. 

Because the Word that took flesh in Mary’s womb, comes down to us in the manger of ordinary words and, apart from the auditory assault of God in his promise called the Gospel, we’d all be atheists. 

      

    

     I didn’t see it until we were leaving the city, on our way home. On the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel was another billboard, another nativity image, put there by some evangelical group. 

     This one said: “It’s true.”

     Gabriel saw that one, too, and said, “Look, it’s the same picture.”

     And I said, “No, that one’s different.” 

     “What’s the difference between them?” he asked. 

     “A miracle,” I said. 

      

When it comes to that miracle—

Maybe you’re still clutching an IOU from God. Maybe it feels like porch pirates stole it right underneath your nose, because the gift for you still hasn’t arrived. Maybe Christmas is a time when you think everyone else here has it all together and you’re the only one with more questions than clarity. 

So remember, Joseph is the model. 

And neither Joseph’s faith nor his doubt changes anything from God’s side. 

Joseph’s belief in the incarnation does not activate anything in God that wasn’t already true just as Joseph’s disbelief did not negate what God was already up to in the world for him. 

The Holy Spirit had already overshadowed Mary, whether Joseph believed it or not. God had already taken flesh in Mary’s womb. 

Even if Joseph doubted it, God had already determined to become Jesus and in Christ’s body and blood to die for Joseph’s sins and be raised up from the dead for his justification. 

It’s all already true. 

The only thing Joseph’s faith in it changes is Joseph— his life.

By believing in it, Joseph gets to share his life up close with Christ. 

May God wind his way to your heart through your ear. 

Hear the good news. 

The great good news of the Gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives— whether we let him into our lives or not— whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not. 

He has sent his Son to live for us the faithful life we cannot live, to die for us the sacrifice we cannot offer, and toraise us up with him forever. 

That’s good news!

Believing it is what makes all the difference in our lives. 

SONY DSC

For our services on the second Sunday of Advent, I offered three reflections in tandem with musical offerings by our choirs. Isaiah 11 and John 1 were the scripture texts.

It’s Better to Receive than to Give

“Get dressed in something nice,” my mother said through my bedroom door, “We’re going to church.” I was a teenager, somewhere between my learner’s permit and my license to freedom, and somewhere, I’m sure, a needle scratched clear off a record. Save for a Holy Roman shotgun wedding, where even elementary-aged me could sense the bride and groom were about to make a terrible decision, I’d never gone to church before. 

It was Christmas Eve, and, as a  teenager, I had a few expensive (and awesome!) gifts on my wish list. None of them was what I ended up receiving. 

From the discreet remove of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse and I discovered that the magi were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman in the guady holiday sweater read for us. I’d seen the bumperstickers, of course. I knew Jesus was the reason for the season, but that Christmas Eve it wasn’t at all clear to me what was the reason to keep on fussing in the here and now about somehow locked away two thousand years in the past. 

Not until the pastor held up a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave thanks to God and then, pouring wine into a silver cup, he taught us a word that not even this A+ English student knew: incarnation. Lifting the cup of wine and showing it to us like Vanna White revealing a hidden vowel, he explained what lay not so self-evident in the familiar story of Mary, Joseph, and the heavenly host. God takes flesh in Jesus Christ, I heard for the first time. Our flesh, the preacher proclaimed. God became what we are, the preacher preached so that we can become like God.

Here’s the thing—

As an adolescent, I had suffered acne so severe the dermatologist prescribed me medication I later learned had been used initially to treat Hanson’s Disease; that is, leprosy. What I was, I believed, was unlovely and therefore unloveable.   

To hear that God would put on my blemished skin, that Love itself would take on my unlovliness, become what I was, take my body as God’s own body— well, that first worship service on Christmas Eve was like a wardrobe into Narnia. I’d been given a gift I didn’t realize I needed and wanted until I had received it. 

What was that gift?

Let me ask a better question. 

And it’s an important question because, let’s be honest, most of us would feel far more guilty if we neglected our Christmas shopping than if we neglected to go to church on Christmas. 

So here’s my question: 

Why should we go to church on Christmas? 

(For that matter, why should we go to church at all?)

What can you receive at church on Christmas that you can receive nowhere else?

What can you get at church no one else can give you?

The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ. 

Only at church, only where the Word is preached and the sacraments are rightly celebrated, can you receive Jesus Christ himself. 

And everything that belongs to him. 

I shouldn’t have said “of course” because, of course, preachers like me mess it up all the time. We make it seem like what Church has to offer the world is politics or behavior modification, purpose or principles for daily living when, in fact, the gift we have to offer the world is Jesus Christ himself and everything (his righteousness, his sonship, his faithfulness, his resurrection, his Father’s eternal love) that belongs to him. 

At the heart of so much Christianity is a strange and self-negating sort of absence. We gather on the sabbath only to hear about what happens elsewhere. In both overt and unintended ways, many churches signal that revelation happens everywhere but here, at the font, at the altar, on a preacher’s imperfect lips and in your sin-harded hearing. 

God’s out there, on the move, and it’s our job to find him and join him, preachers like me exhort. God happened in Jesus Christ, we say— and note the past tense, whose teaching and example we can imitate in our own personal lives and for our social causes. Just think about how many sermons you’ve heard over the years that implied the real stuff of Christianity happens not on Sunday morning but Monday through Friday, on the frontlines of the “real world.”

But those sorts of reductions of Christianity misunderstand what kind of word— fundamentally— is the Gospel. The Gospel is not a timeless set of ideas we can apply to our politics or personal lives. The Gospel is not a school of philosophy or, even, a way of life. The Gospel is not a means to make us or our children more moral. 

The Gospel is a promise. 

The Gospel is a particular kind of promise, in fact. 

The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us. 

The Gospel works like a wedding vow, Martin Luther said. The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to him to his beloved. What makes Christ present in creatures of bread and wine is the same promise of the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit— the same promise we sing in our Christmas carols. The reason this is the season of comfort and joy is because the promise itself gives us Christ himself. Of all the times of the year, Christmas is the season when Christians should be insisting that it’s better to receive than to give. 

What all our other versions of Christianity obscure is how what’s present to us in the promise of the Gospel, even if we are nothing but unimpressive, ordinary Christians, is greater than all the possible experiences in the world. Nothing less than Christ himself, Luther wrote, is what all believers receive by faith alone. By faith in the promise we are united with Christ. Through the promise of the Gospel— whether the promise is proclaimed from a pulpit or sung by a choir or placed in your mouth on bread and wine—  Christ lives in you and you in him. Through that promise, Paul writes, the Maker of Heaven and Earth dwells in your heart. God is not far away in heaven nor is God off at work in the world busier with someboday other than you. God is in his Word and the Word that takes flesh in the virgin’s womb still takes up residence among us. 

The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us. 

This is why the Bible teaches that salvation comes by hearing because Jesus Christ is salvation and he comes to us the same way he came to Israel, by the announcement of a promise. 

What I received that first Christmas Eve, in my ears and on my lips, it wasn’t an idea. 

It was God himself. 

That’s why the church is necessary.

We only have one gift to give, as the Church, but it’s a gift that can be infinitely distributed. And because only Christ is without beginning or end, he’s the only gift you can receive that will keep on giving. 

Pretending to Wait

Have you ever noticed how Advent is a season when Christians play at waiting. We pretend to be waiting. We light purple candles and we sing songs like “Come, O Come Emmanuel” to recapitulate Israel’s exilic longing as our own. We pretend to be waiting for the arrival of what we believe has already come. . 

After all, what distinguishes Christians from Jews is the fact we believe that for which Israel waited has already arrived. The day promised by the prophet Isaiah, John’s Gospel makes clear, has come. The Kingdom of God prophesied by the John the Baptist has come in the one John identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world— the Kingdom and the King are one and the same. 

Advent is the time when we pretend to be waiting because we believe the promise has already been fulfilled. By the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we Gentiles have been grafted into the People of God. The Powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil have been defeated by Christ’s cross; there is therefore now no condemnation. Likewise, the Great High Priest has sat down forever from his work because the judge became the judged, offering a perfect once-for-all sacrifice. And having ascended to the Father, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world sits on the throne as the world’s true King and from thence he shall come again to the quick and the dead. 

If the long-expected messiah has already arrived in the ark of Mary’s womb, if Emmanuel has already ransomed us from captivity to the Babylon of Sin and Death, then to what end do we break out the purple paraments every Advent and rehearse a yearning that’s already been fulfilled in the flesh? 

Stanley Hauerwas, the geezer theologian who irritated some of you two weeks ago, writes in his latest book, Minding the Web: 

“Israel learned to wait by God’s gift of the Law that made her a people who had to learn to live out of control. To be sure, she was often less than faithful to what her Lord had given her, but through the ups and downs of her history, she learned what it means to wait on the Lord.”

The Law, in other words, was a gift through which Israel learned to wait on the Lord; so that, through such waiting, Israel could learn faithfulness. But the gift we’ve been given in Jesus Christ is not the Law but the Gospel. As John puts it in the closet thing to a nativity story his gospel has got, “The Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth have come in Jesus Christ.” 

If the Gospel of Grace, the glad tiding of the Law’s fulfillment for you, is the gift we’ve been given, then how might waiting— resting— with this gift glean from us a deeper faithfulness? What’s the wisdom in pretending to wait for a promise that has already come— a promise that is no further away than Sunday’s bread and wine? 

Robert Farrar Capon was an Episcopal priest and food writer for the NY Times who died a few years ago. Capon opens his least known book, The Foolishness of Preaching, with a screenplay of sorts. Capon uses a set-up you’d expect on Bay Watch first to script a typical presentation of the so-called gospel. A woman is drowning in the seaside. The lifeguard/hero/Christ-figure swims out through the rough waves, fights the undertow, then drags the woman to shore, and depleted of all energy, still manages to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She was as good as dead, until … the lifeguard named Jesus saves her. 

That’s one version gospel, which is really no gospel at all, Capon says, crumpling up the script and tossing it in the rubbish bin. 

For take two, the lifeguard rushes down off his chair, swims out to the drowning woman,  grabs her, and never lets her out of his grip. And then the lifeguard goes down with the drowning woman. Down to the ocean’s floor. Then, as Capon’s screenplay notes, the camera pans across the startled and disturbed onlookers and then freezes, focusing on a spare note left behind by the lifeguard. 

The lifeguard’s note reads, “She’s safe in my death.” 

Capon goes on to apply to preachers and hearers of the Gospel:

“Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely. They can’t bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are not saved by our efforts to lead a good life. Instead, they mouth the canned recipes for successful living they think their congregations want to hear. It makes no difference what kind of success they urge on us: ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money, or love. Nothing counts but the cross of the Christ child. But for even a sadder thing, on the rare occasions when they do get around to proclaiming the outrageousness of salvation by death of the divine Lifeguard, they can do it for no more than fifteen minutes. In the last five minutes of the sermon they meekly take back with the right hand of plausibility everything they so boldly set forth with the left hand of paradox.”

We’re all born lawyers. With the Law hardwired onto our hearts, as Paul says, we all want to be told what to do and then try our damndest to do it. We’re all born lawyers. We have to be taught the Gospel. 

Better put, we need to learn to trust the message that we are justified before God not based on what we do for God but based on what has been done for us by the God-Man. The Gospel of grace comes so unnaturally to us that first it had to come to us in a virgin’s womb— that’s not natural.

That’s why we pretend every Advent, playing at an expectation that’s already been met and acting as though we’re waiting on a promise that hasn’t already come. Advent is an annual reminder to us, who insist on otherwise, that salvation not about a path that we make for ourselves to God but about God coming to us. We spend every year hearing again Isaiah and John the Baptist speak of God’s highway in the desert so that we, who are hellbent on adding another outband, glorybound lane to that highway, will finally learn to trust the happy news of God’s one-way love. 

I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Outside My Heart

When I was counselor at a United Methodist summer camp, we sometimes had to sing with the kids that song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” 

You know the song?

I hate that song. 

Especially this time of year. 

It’s always been hard for me to feel at peace during Advent. It’s never been easy for me to feel joy down in my heart at Christmas. And it took me a while to understand how that’s okay. It took me a while to understand that it’s okay I don’t feel very joyfol or at peace during this season because it took me a while to understand the Gospel. 

It starts with a particular Christmas Eve when I was boy during my parents’ on-again, off-again marriage. 

My mother was working the night shift at the hospital, and my grandpa was there to keep an eye on my little sister and me. We had finished up the dishes when my father came home from whatever bar had closed early for the holiday. He was quite drunk. It wasn’t the first time he’d come home drunk, but he’d never come home drunk on Christmas. The next Christmas he didn’t come home at all. I remember my mom driving me around town to help her look for his car. He was parked in front of someone else’s home, a woman. I still remember the colored lights on whoever’s porch reflecting on my mom’s windshield.

After my parents finally split up for good, my mom struggled knowing that we weren’t having the sort of Christmas she thought we ought to have, the Christmas she thought other families gave their children. The oughts always accuse, and this ought stressed her out. Disappointed her. Frustrated her. And every year it would come to a head while we decorated the Christmas tree. Every year, trimming the tree invariably ended with me shouting unfair accusations and shedding tears and my mom throwing the treetop angel on to the floor and yelling “To hell with it all!” One Christmas, I recall, she pushed the artificial tree down on its side just as the jack-in-box from the stop- motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer said, “We’re all misfits.”

Call it post-yule stress disorder. Feelings of peace and joy have always been hard for me at Christmas. And, as a pastor, I know I’m hardly alone. Christians at Christmas are often made to feel guily if they’re not filled with joy down in their hearts. 

For Christians to think they ought to feel a certain feeling simply because they’re Christian, not only is that impossible— and impossibly cruel to put on others who suffer grief and depression— it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what kind of word is the Gospel. 

The Gospel is the promise that gives you Christ and everything that belongs to him. 

And that’s enough!

Martin Luther said that the Gospel of God’s condescension to us to be with us and for us in Jesus Christ sets us free to name things as they are. You can let everything in your life be what it is, and you can let your feelings be what they are. You’re free not to pretend because the point of the promise called Gospel is not that you’re supposed to feel a certain way, joyful and at peace all time. The point of the Gospel promise is that something glad and joyous has happened, outside of you, and, regardless of how we feel and what’s going on in our lives, we Christians agree it’s worth celebrating. 

The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this season but it’s still a joyful word in and of itself no matter how you’re feeling or what cross you’re bearing because it’s a word that gives you Christ himself. You have him in his promise regardless of your feelings. The Gospel may not always give you a peaceful, easy feeling, but the Gospel does give you the Prince of Peace, as real and present with you by means of his promise as he was in Mary’s womb. 

And what would you rather have when the you-know-what hits the fan? 

A feeling? 

Or God? 

No matter how you feel inside, you can always cling to this promise outside of you.

Our message this season isn’t “You should feel glad and joy-filled and at peace (and something’s the matter with you if you’re not).” 

Our message this season isn’t about you at all. 

It’s “Hear the good news, for you is born this day in the City of David…a savior, the Prince of Peace, who will free his people from their sins…” 

The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this Christmas, but it’s still a joyful word because it’s true.

And regardless of what’s true about you this season, you’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in the Gospel. You’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in this promise that Christ will love you, no matter what. And because the empty grave proves that Christ keeps his promises, you can rest assured— you can be at peace— that, in the end, with you, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Christian Politics

By Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

A Sermon for Annandale Methodist Church

November 24, 2019

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

Colossians 1: 11-20

Luke 23: 33-43

I do not know about you but I have found going through these last three years exhausting.  One of the reasons I have found them exhausting is I have no idea what is going on.  Or it may be I think it is obvious what is going on and I do not have the slightest idea what could be done to right the ship. Something seems to have happened to our world and few of us have any idea how to put in back together.  

That I am a theologian should make some difference.  I have spent a life time reading books that should give me insight into the world in which we find ourselves. For example consider this passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

“For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity.  He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community.  While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual.  He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid, he considers them weak and they become weak, he considers them criminal and they become criminal.  His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare- faced cynicism.  In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.   Contempt for humanity and idolization of humanity lie close together.  Good people, however, who see through all this, who withdraw in disgust from people and leave them to themselves, and who would rather tend to their own gardens than debase themselves in public life, fall prey to the same temptation to contempt for humanity as do bad people.”

Bonhoeffer wrote that sometime between 194l and 1943 while staying at the Benedictine Abbey Ettal.  The secret seminary he directed had been closed by the SS and many of the young men he had trained had been drafted only to be sent to Russia.  The passage I just read is obviously Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Hitler and the Nazi takeover of German life.  That it is so may mean it is not relevant for our situation because being ruled by a bore is not the equivalent to being ruled by a totalitarian murderous thug.  I suspect, however, it is all too relevant to our situation. 

I am aware that to begin a sermon with these kind of reflections risks offense.  I am visiting preacher.  I will say what I have to say and then get out of town.  I do not have to pay any price for a sermon, and some may wonder if it is a sermon, that seems far too political.  But then I hope to convince you that one of our failures as Christians has been our unwillingness to acknowledge and preach the politics of the cross.      

There is also the problem of using a sermon to support or criticize particular political opinions.  I obviously am not a big fan of Donald Trump while many of you may well think him as inspired leader for our time.  Yet you do not get your view in play because I am in the pulpit and you are in the pew.  I win.

Of course we try to avoid acknowledgment of the politics of preaching by underwriting the dogma that religion and politics do not mix.   It is assumed my negative view of Trump and those with more positive views should keep those judgments to themselves particularly when they are in church.  The only problem with that strategy, which I take to be an attempt to avoid conflict, is the importance of recognizing that few claims are more political than the phrase “religion and politics do not mix.”

That is particularly true when the attempt to keep politics out of the sermon is reinforced by the distinction between the public and the private.    Most of us are well schooled by the general presumption that religious convictions are “personal” or “private.”  “Private” means it is not incumbent on anyone else to believe what I believe.  

That commitment is assumed to take the politics out of religion.  Of course as the great historian, Herbert Butterfield, observed some years ago there is usually enough conflict in any church choir to start a war.  But that is a politics internal to the church .  No one, moreover, takes such a politics seriously.  The only problem with the relegation of religious convictions to the private means is that when what we believe is so understood what we believe is seldom thereby thought to be true.

By now I may have tested your patience to the breaking point. You came to hear a sermon and what you have gotten seems more like a lecture about religion and politics that you can well do without.  Where is the good news in these problematic generalizations about the relation of the church and politics?      

Here is the good news—“There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.”  Today we celebrate the feast day of Christ the King.  It does not get more political than that.  The temptation, of course, is to use the language of kingship to make the cross a religious symbol that has no political implications.  We are after all Americans.  We have never had a king or queen and we have not seemed less for not having monarchs.  Was not the War of Independence fought to free Americans from the reach of a king?

We are in the generic sense democrats.  Democracies do not have kings.  At least they do not have kings that actually rule.  We are, moreover, a liberal democracy which is dedicated to the project of making each of us our own tyrant.  To be an American means you have to do what you want to do.  

Jesus may have been a king but we will not be ruled by a king.  We will not be ruled by a king or queen unless we have learned to live as if we are each a monarch of our lives.  Yet the desire for freedom without limitation leads, as Bonhoeffer’s analysis presupposes, to servitude.       

But this is Christ the King Sunday.  If Christ is king it must surely be the case that there is no way to avoid the fact that there was and still is a politics in play that climaxed in his crucifixion.  The one who tempted him in the desert was revealed in the crucifixion as the false ruler that tempts us to be more than creatures of God’s good creation.  

It is not accidental that the feast day of Christ the King was established by Pius XI in 1925 in his encyclical Quas primas.  Pius was so concerned by the murderous reality of WWI he reasoned that the only hope of avoiding future conflicts depended on the public recognition and celebration of “Christ the King.”  We become a people incapable of killing one another through the recognition that Jesus is king. 

To be sure the politics we experience are democratic.  It is also true that there are few examples of the politics of democracy in the Bible.  Jesus is nowhere addressed as “Mr. President.”  Nor does he seem to be someone who might try to win an election.  Take up your cross and follow me does not sound like a winning campaign slogan.  I concede that there is one democratic moment in the Gospels—the people choose Barabbas.

I think the problem of articulating the politics of the cross in modernity is not because we are stuck with kingship language in a democratic social order.  No, I think the problem is Jesus.  In Colossians we are told “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”  All things have been created through him—dominions, rulers, or powers.

What are these “powers?”  They are givens of God’s good creation that were meant to make our lives possible.  But they are fallen giving us the illusion that we are in control of our lives.  They were meant to make us cooperative and at peace with one another but they are now used to assert our will over each other.

But they have been exposed and thus redeemed by Christ making it possible for us to live in peace. What does it mean to say they are redeemed?  It is to say that the pretention that we are our own creator has been unmasked by the cross.  It is to say that if there did not exist a people who worship a crucified king then the world Bonhoeffer describes is never far from reality.    

Christ is king.  Christians accordingly must be the most political of all God’s creatures but our politics is not “out there.” Our politics is first and foremost here in this bread and wine.  Here we become for the world a people of peace in a world of violence.  Such a people are made possible by the forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness makes possible the acknowledgment that we can confess the sins of the past without trying to justify what was so wrong nothing can make it right.  Slavery was sin.    

There can be no question for us who worship a crucified savior—religion and politics do mix.  Indeed they do not mix but in fact they are one.   There is no politics deeper than the community that is gathered around the cross of Christ.  For it is assumed such a community has nothing to lose by acknowledging the truth about our failures to follow this Lord is about truth.  

We live in a dangerous world made more dangerous by our unwillingness to obey anyone other than this strange king of the Jews.  Do not be afraid but rejoice in the fact that you are a citizen of the kingdom of this crucified king.        

                   

Here’s a sermon on 1 Samuel 17.1-11, 32-51 and Revelation 12.7-12 from my intern David King, a student at Haverford College.

I remember sitting in Sunday school some years ago and hearing the David and Goliath story for the first time.  I’m sure most of you remember it too.  It ran something like this: 

David was a little shepherd boy working for his father. He’s the underdog that everyone can root for. He’s a good boy who follows the law. He is the youngest of the sons of Jesse. He’s the unlikely one of the bunch, handsome and ruddy, small and unassuming in stature. You get the picture. 

The Sunday school teacher described the meaning of the story in three steps. 1) David was chosen and went to the river to get five stones. 2) “David is like you,” he said. “God has given you great gifts.” 3) like David, he went on, if you use those gifts, you can defeat your Goliath. 

As the saying goes, God sometimes puts a Goliath in your way so you can find the David within you. Thankfully, I had the great advantage of not having to look far to find David. 

Point is, much like me, my namesake isn’t the center of the story. In the ancient church, David was interpreted in light of Christ, as what St. Augustine calls a ‘prefiguration.’  This means that what occurs in David is an imaginative advance of what is accomplished in Christ.  David is the vessel by which the good news is communicated.  What my Sunday school teacher missed was not that David was a sinner, though the curriculum skipped over that for the most part as well; no, what my Sunday school teacher missed in the telling of the story, in the centering of David in the narrative, was Jesus.  

That the early church was committed to understanding the story of the Hebrew scriptures as the same continuous revelation of Christ meant that they were also committed to a rather creative reading of the text. If the Hebrew Scriptures were gesturing towards the fullness that is the Son of God, then they supposed that it could not be referring to our action. That is, David was never viewed or interpreted as a person we were capable of emulating, who was faithful to God, who lived a good life, who did all the right things and followed through when the time came.  He was not a moral example.  David stood in as a characterization of what occurs in Christ. 

The early church understood the opposition between David and Goliath to be an opposition between Christ and humanity in its captivity to sin.  The valley into which David descends to face Goliath is interpreted as Christ’s descent into hell.  He wrangles the devil, kills the death that holds us captive, and opens to us the life in him.  The battle of Revelation that is our second scripture is played out in the Davidic narrative.  

Now, bear with me here.  Let’s go through the story again.  Let’s listen to what the early church might have heard: Goliath, the giant of the time, the dominating force in geopolitics, decked out in the latest and greatest of armor and weapons, challenges the Lord and his people Israel.  He presumes to be God.  Goliath, you might begin to recognize, is a lot like us.  Goliath does not mince words: he is here to deny God’s presence and covenant, for as he says, “today I defy the ranks of Israel,” today I “curse David by my gods.”  David, the prefiguration of Christ, remains unmoved.  He announces Goliath’s defeat even before he approaches the battlefield, saying to Saul that “the battle is the Lord’s.”  David descends into the valley of death in order to meet Goliath head on – just as Christ condescends in the flesh to deliver us from the death that holds us captive.  The stone David launches at Goliath is the proclamation of the Gospel – Christ knocks Goliath off his feet with the full message of God’s steadfast determination to disallow Death a victory.  

With that stone, David denies us the ability to identify with him.  The stone he throws is “the stone the builders have rejected that has become the cornerstone.”  David, the early church saw, was to be identified with Christ, not ourselves.  David knew that Israel needed to be saved.  

Like it or not, we don’t need more Goliaths.  We don’t need more Goliaths because we already have more in common with him than we do with David; we don’t need more Goliaths because we can already see ourselves in him.  We defy God everyday.  We sin.  I mean, we armor ourselves with language and structures of security and its corresponding violence.  Everyday, we praise the gods of this world, giving them the honor and glory that only Christ deserves.  Everyday, we make the mistake of thinking ourselves to be a David, when the reality is we are a Goliath, to our neighbors and to ourselves.  How we treat our neighbors deeply how we treat God, and who among us can say that they have truly loved each and every one of their neighbors? 

Let me put it bluntly: the Revelation scripture today, through which we read the narrative of David, declares in unrelentingly militant terms that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of this world have been overcome.  Goliath has been defeated, struck dead by this truth.  The grip of sin on the world is no longer; Jesus has taken the violence that orients our lives and thrown it on its head.  David’s act prefigures Christ in the radicality of its claim: there is but one Lord, and it is God.

In 1916, Karl Barth declared that the church should not be a place of refuge, but rather a place of disturbance and crisis.  This is not because God is not our shelter in a time of storm; it is not because God does not care for us in our weakness.  The church is a place of disturbance and disruption precisely because of the Lord it proclaims.  The church is the place that witnesses to the overcoming of the powers of the world that is found on the cross and in the empty tomb.  The church ,constituted through its word and sacraments, is where the world is reminded that its violence will not be returned with violence but with the truthful speech of the grace of God.

The church is where we die to our goliath’s, where we die to ourselves.  St. Augustine notes that Goliath’s forehead, being the only part of his body not covered in armor, notably does not have on it the sign of the cross; that is, Goliath has, in all his armor, left himself vulnerable to the truth of the Gospel message, and it smacks him in the face.  The church is where we hear the Gospel that reminds us, ever so gently as a rock to the forehead, that in our armor of the world we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  

However, as Revelation declares, this stone is also the stone that gives us new life, for in it “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down.”  In this watery death, the death inaugurated by “the blood of the lamb,” we are invited into the life that is Christ Jesus.  The baptism we share wraps us into the truth that sets us free.  That is, our baptism is into death, setting us free from the clinging to life that is the narrative of this world.  We can, therefore, truly proclaim the goodness of God, we can rejoice with all the heavens because we have been released from captivity to sin.  We need not cling to life anymore, even in the face of death, because God in Christ has thrown down the great Dragon that accuses us before Him.  

Apart from God, we are resigned to the woe of the earth, to the devil’s wrath, to the self-absorption and endless failure of pretending to be God.  Without Christ Jesus, we are liable to identify ourselves with David, rather than with Goliath.  Without the God who descends in Christ and is crucified on our behalf, the kingdoms, empires, and nations would have final say in our allegiance.  

For apart from God, David reminds us, we have no hope.  There is no sword or power that can overcome the Devil: it is the blood of the lamb and the proclamation, the speech, that overcomes.  

Apart from the mercy of Christ and the truth of his freedom we are impotent to be ministers of the kingdom.  David reminds us of this – he is not a glorious majestic figure in the story.  The strength that ultimately defeats Goliath is not his own, for “the battle is the Lord’s.”  In fact, David strips of all armour and safety, taking with him only the markings of a shepherd, the markings of that same shepherd who is nailed to the cross: he makes himself vulnerable to the violence Goliath wishes to enact because the Lord does not save by sword and spear.  David, as the prefiguration of Christ, approaches Goliath with only the truth of the cross, the conviction that, truly, God does not return our violence with violence, but with the ever disruptive word of forgiveness and grace, the word of Easter.  

David is denuded, made to appear naked in front of Goliath’s menacing figure.  This nakedness is constitutive of a people who follow Christ, a people whose lives are marked by the truth of the cross.  Revelation shows us that the time of the devil is short, because he has been thrown down by the cross.  It is the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts that reminds us of the glory of God that makes us naked in the truth.  No pretensions can be held.  So, let us come, naked and free, to worship with Michael and all the angels, glorying in the forgiveness and love that is given to all creation by the blood of the lamb and the word of that testimony.

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

Daniel 3, Philippians 4

     A couple of years ago now, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where my oncologist had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan. 

     I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down. 

I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months. 

The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I had a rare, incurable cancer called Mantle Cell. 

Just like Catniss Everdeen, the odds weren’t ever in my favor, and I thought I was going to die.

     I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills. 

     “So…other than my… what am I looking at?” I asked with bated breath, holding my most recent PET scan in my hand. 

    “You’re as clear as a “bell”, my friend,” the doctor said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. “All the tumors you’d had all over you are completely gone.” 

———————-

     The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo treatment, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system. 

     “What the scan doesn’t show,” the doctor said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, “is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.”

     The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded. 

     “Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.”

     “We’ll do it here in the exam room. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.”

     “Come again?” I asked. 

     “Did you say drill?!”

     “Yes, drill” he said, oblivious. 

     “And am I, like, awake during this drilling?”

     “Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.”

I nodded, calming down.

          “Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.”

     “Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?” 

     He didn’t reply. 

     ‘Can I just go back to dying?’  

     He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seemed with hindsight, less hearty and more a diabolical laugh. 

————————-

     I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy. 

     I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, “for most people, after chemo, their hair grows back thick…”

“Very funny.”

     The nurse drew the needle out. 

     “It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.”

     “Awesome,” I said and then shared with her how the oncologist had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives. 

She smiled like a preschool teacher. 

“You took it though, right?” looking at me, suddenly sober. 

     “I didn’t even fill the prescription.” I said, “I forgot.”

     “This should be…memorable,” she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm. 

     “For you or for me?” I asked. 

“Both,” she was back to smiling. 

     “What’s it feel like?” 

     She was putting labels on my vials of blood. “Some people scream.”

     “Some? What about the others?” 

     “They usually pass out.”

     “But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?”

     She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering. 

She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: “This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his rear end.”

     I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said. 

      

———————

     Laying down on my stomach in my birthday suit, I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye. 

     “You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone. 

     “You’ve got strong bones.” He grunted. 

     “That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.” 

I heard the nurse giggle. He did too. 

He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. 

He was covered in sweat too. 

The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a boxer in the late rounds. 

     “Okay, are you ready?” he asked. 

     Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me.

     “Good,” he said, “now only 2 maybe 3 more times.” 

     When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. “You were right about that Harry Potter thing,” I said to the nurse breathlessly. 

     I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history. 

     The doctor patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.”

       “Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” I joked. 

     “Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you,” he said, patting me on the back.

———————-

My oncologist— it’s not his fault. 

He doesn’t know the Bible all that well. He grew up a Methodist. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re not thrown into a lion’s den. 

They’re made to suffer an oven. 

A fire from which we get the word, holocaust.

What made the Babylonians unique among ancient oppressors is that, upon invading and conquering neighbor nations, they did not simply kill the best and brightest of their neighbors. 

They exiled their enemy’s best and brightest back to Babylon and forced them to become Babylonians. 

They gave them new names and new gods.  

They made them pagans. 

And, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re Jewish exiles, conscripted into the civil service under Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan King of Babylon. 

They’re Jews, but the names with which they’re named by Babylon pay homage to Babylon’s pagan gods. 

Shadrach (his Hebrew name had been Hananiah) is named for the pagan god of the moon. 

Meschach (his Hebrew name had been Mishael) is named for the pagan god, Aku. 

And Abednego (his Hebrew name had been Azariah) is named for the pagan god of wisdom. 

You see— for Jews, for whom the first and most urgent commandment is “You shall have no other gods but the one, true God,” to bear the name of a false god is a grave sin indeed. 

To carry the name of a pagan god is to expect that the true God has forsaken you. 

Or, worse, it’s to expect that whatever suffering comes to you has been sent by the God you forsook. 

     In the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are denounced for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar. 

     So Nebuchadnezzar orders the three exiles gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to seven times its normal heat, and seven— you should note the surprising clue— is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that foreshadows the presence of God. 

     The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

     According to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned. 

     What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire. 

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly? 

“The fourth has the appearance of a son of God,” the counselor reports to Nebuchadnezzar. 

     The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: “…there is no other god like this Son of God!”

In other words:

There is no other god who meets us in the fire.

There is no other god who meets us in the crucible of suffering. 

———————-

    

     Here’s the thing— pay attention now:

Despite what so much of our God-talk implies, God is not the passive, inactive, fixed-point center of the universe to whom it’s your job, through prayer and piety, to grow closer. 

Jesus Christ is not just a God who suffers for us, for our sins. 

Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us, with sinners like us— that’s what it means, as the Gospel promises us, for Jesus to be a friend of sinners. 

God doesn’t just take on our suffering in Jesus Christ. 

God joins us in our suffering in the Holy Spirit. 

It’s not on you to grow closer to God. 

God is already closer to you than you are to yourself. 

No matter what you’re going through in you life, God is completely active and present in it. 

That we don’t always perceive God’s presence in our troubles and suffering has less to do with God— even less with the strength of our faith— and more to do with where we think God is allowed to act in our lives. 

We lay down all these laws about where God’s allowed to act in our lives. God can be present in our worship, we think, or God can work through Bible study or prayer. 

We can find God, we think, in spiritual disciplines or in acts of service. 

But in our desperation? In our doubts? In our anxiety or addiction? In our suffering?

Surely God’s absent in our suffering, we assume. 

That we think God can only work in our lives through proper, pious channels but shows how we persist in construing Christianity as a religion of Law. 

But, it’s a religion of the opposite.

It’s a religion of grace.

It’s ironic how we don’t expect to discover God in our suffering anymore than Peter and the disciples expected to discover a suffering God. 

———————-

While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I am in the fire. 

     

     Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate. 

Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too— paradoxically— finding out that I hadn’t died (just yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found living with cancer. 

     This surprised me.

 

     As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my old life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer. 

     What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what the Protestant Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, termed a theology of the cross. 

Bear with me now. 

A theology of the cross is not the same as a theology about the cross. 

A theology about the cross says “While we were yet sinners, Christ on his cross died for us.” 

A theology of the cross says “My life was in ruins of my own making. 

My marriage was blown apart. My job was lost. My self-image was shattered by shame. My diagnosis trashed all my hopes and dreams. I thought God had forsaken me. I thought God must be punishing me. 

But God met me there in the crucible of my pain. God met me there in the crucible of my shame. God met me there in the crucifixion that was my suffering. 

A theology about the cross says “This is how God in Jesus Christ saves you from your sin.”

A theology of the cross says “This is where the God who has saved you in Jesus Christ meets you.” 

This is where God meets you in your own life. 

In your suffering. 

In your sin!

In your shame and your pain. 

A theology about the cross says “Christ and him crucified has taken away the handwriting that was against you.” 

A theoloy of the cross says “Jesus Christ joined me in my darkest moment when all I could do was stare at the handwriting on the wall.”

The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into our suffering. 

That’s how Paul today can declare to the Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 

Paul’s behind bars when he writes to the Philippians. 

Paul thinks he’s about to be executed. 

Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because the Christ who strengthens him is with him there in the fiery furnace. 

Christ has joined him in his suffering. 

The cross is not what lies at the end of Jesus’ journey.

For every one of us, the way to Jesus Christ goes through a cross.  

The cross is not simply the message we proclaim. 

The cross is the means God uses to get to us. 

As sure as I’m standing here today, I met Jesus Christ in the crucible of cancer. 

Or rather, Jesus Christ met me there. 

And I’m not special. 

Neither are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

This is how the Living God works. 

He meets us in the fire. 

     As my friend Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

     Bird just puts more politely what Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives. 

    Blank happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever it happens, God happens, too. 

———————-

    

    When I first got the diagnosis of something for which I’ll never be in remission, I reminded my parishioners over and over again that “God is not behind this. God is not behind my cancer.”  

The paradox of the theology of the cross, however, is that though God is not behind my cancer, God is behind my cancer.

 

That is, God is not behind my cancer in terms of culpability, but God is behind my cancer in terms of condescension, wearing my suffering like a mask or a wedding veil, real enough to bring Nebuchenezzar to his knees and declare, “There is no other god like this!”

     I’d never foist my diagnosis an another, yet, at the same time, I’ve found God hidden behind it, present in what others might perceive His absence. 

You see, how preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. 

In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed. By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer. 

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

     While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” anyone who insist that God isn’t in suffering. 

Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering, God is hidden, present, and there with us. 

Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. 

Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace. 

“Where is God in my suffering?” 

It can be the worst question to ask because it implies God’s not present in our suffering. 

But then again, “Where is God in my suffering?” can also be the very best question if you’re looking for where God is in your suffering. 

Because’s he’s there. 

Because the Son of God who joins Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace is the same God who meets you in your own suffering. 

————————

     In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy. 

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

     The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

     Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:

“Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”    

    

The doctor and the husband— they’d become theologians of the cross. 

    

All Saints Sunday — Proverbs 3, 1 Corinthians 1

In 1971, at a church in Washougal, Washington, Everett Chance preached a remarkable sermon— remarkable, because Everett Chance did not believe in God.*

Everett Chance and his brother, Irwin, grew up in Washington state where their father somehow made a long career of playing minor league baseball. Their mother, meanwhile, devoted herself, and thus her children, to Jesus Christ in the form of their local church. 

In college, Everett left the faith for the antiwar movement. Eventually, Everett escaped to Canada to avoid the draft, yet he came back in 1971 to speak at his family’s church. He came back to compel the church to help free his brother, Irwin, from the “care” Irwin was receiving at a military hospital. 

Up until the day he got drafted, Irwin Chance held his church’s consecutive Bible Memory Verse record and also the consecutive Sunday School attendance record— and that turned out to be the problem for Irwin could never forget what he learned there about Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies. 

In Vietnam, an Army captain to whom Irwin was assigned ordered Irwin to shoot a young Vietnamese boy who’d been taken prisoner. Likely, the boy had killed a solider with a booby trap, yet Irwin couldn’t shake the knowledge that not only was this boy an enemy he was supposed to forgive, this enemy was still just a child, too. What would Jesus do?, Irwin contemplated.

As Everett Chance described it in his sermon, in that moment his brother went from being a U.S. soldier to a Christian soldier. Irwin attacked his captain with a tube of toothpaste. 

The real problem, however, began afterwards. 

In the brig, Irwin sat peacefully, singing hymns and reciting memory verses and praying prayers. The Army psychiatrist sent to examine Irwin, seeing him babbling to and about Jesus, concluded that Irwin was psychotic and prescribed a course of electric shock treatments and sedatives. 

Driving all night from Canada, Everett burst into the Sunday service of his family’s church determined to persuade the congregation to protest Irwin’s treatment. Stepping into the pulpit, Everett said: 

“The reason I came here, to Irwin’s God’s House, is that his trouble started here. I’m not trying to place blame. This whole situation is a compliment to the staying power of what gets taught here. Irwin, after he left here, kept on keeping your faith right up to the day he was drafted. And every letter we got from him, even from ‘Nam, was a Christian letter— the letters of a man who couldn’t reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with what was asked him. 

He’s still yours. That’s the crux of all I’m saying. He still believes every blame thing he ever learned here, and he still tells me I’m nuts when I try to tamper with those beliefs. It is the songs you sing here, the scriptures you read here, it’s his belief in this House and its God, that those doctors are out to destroy. It may be hard for you to believe it but the U.S. Government considers your faith a form of madness.” 

And then, like a good preacher, Everett offered the congregation an imaginative alternative: 

“You know, you folks have your own doctors and shrinks. If some of you caused enough fuss, I bet you could arrange for a Christian examination of Irwin by doctors who could see his faith for what it is, see that he’s not crazy. He’s a Christian.”

———————-

No doubt few of us would describe a soldier attacking his commanding officer with a tube of Colgate as having made a wise and prudent move, yet few of us could deny that pouncing upon an unjust superior with a tube of toothpaste is exactly the sort of odd, crazy witness for which we remember those Christians the Church has named saints. 

Notice how the Book of Proverbs today personifies wisdom: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” 

It’s wisdom with a capital W. 

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an attribute.  

Wisdom is but another name for the God whom the Jews, out of reverence, refuse to name. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs tells us in chapter nine. 

The reason that the fear of the Lord is beginning of lowercase-w wisdom is because capital-W Wisdom and the Lord are one and the same. 

“By Wisdom, God founded the earth,” Proverbs 3 says today. But then in the New Testament Colossians 1 declares, “In Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…” 

Thus, from Easter onward, the ancient Christians identified the Old Testament’s personification of Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ, the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. 

Which means, the Wisdom which the Old Testament commends us to seek is the way of Jesus Christ, a way which, the Apostle Paul reports to the Corinthians, can’t help but appear as foolish to the so-called “wisdom” of the world.

Because Christ’s whole life, from creche to cross was one of suffering sinful humanity, that phrase “Christ crucified” refers not only to the crucifixion but to Christ’s entire ministry—  especially so to Christ’s Kingdom teaching which compels the kingdoms of this world to crucify him. 

That “Christ crucified” is a wisdom that appears as foolishness to such a world is not an unfortunate failure of communication, for the Apostle Paul tells us today that “Christ crucified,” the way of Jesus, is God’s way of destroying the world that builds crosses.

You see—

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an odd option among options in the world. 

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an alternative, counterintuitive lifestyle you can choose from other lifestyle choices as though the difference between being a Christian or a Buddhist is like the difference between choosing an iPhone or an Android. 

Rather, the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God. 

Visiting the prisoners in prison, as our Kairos volunteers did last weekend, is not a good thing to do nor is it a means for you to get in God’s good graces.  

It’s God’s offensive against a world where people of color make up nearly three-quarters of the prison system, yet only a third of the overall population.

Feeding the immigrants among us, as Betsy does at our Mission Center every week, it isn’t charity.  

It’s God’s assault against a world that refuses God’s command to “Treat the immigrant residing among you as native-born.  Love them as yourself.”

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s patient offensive against a world aligned against God. 

It is the power of God, Paul says in verse 18, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” That’s a quote the Apostle Paul lifts from a battle scene in the Book of Isaiah. 

As the Bible understands it, the incarnation of Jesus into the world is an invasion of territory controlled by an enemy, and to incarnate the way of Jesus Christ in your own flesh is to press the battle lines and continue the advance.  

Therefore, sainthood is not so much about piety, but about power. 

———————-

Saints are those who exemplify better than others a story that will appear foolish to the world because it is, in fact, the story by which God is destroying the world. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power, because sainthood names our participation in a cosmic conflict. 

Don’t buy it? 

Listen to these other verses from our opening hymn, For All the Saints: 

“O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold” 

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong”

Such martial language may sound problematic to you if you’ve forgotten the heads-up that came at the very beginning of your baptism, when you were asked on behalf of the whole communion of saints:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…reject the evil powers of this world? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

And here you all thought coming to church was about connecting with spiritual truths or enjoying your forgiveness or finding fellowship. 

Maybe, you came looking for Jesus to lend a little meaning to your life— good for you. 

Well, what’s Jesus have in store for you? 

A fight— conflict on a scale so cosmic you hardly seem to matter at all. 

———————-

It’s important to note that today we’re not simply remembering all those who’ve died. 

We’re remembering all the baptized who’ve died. 

As Paul implies at the top of 1 Corinthians, all the baptized are saints in that, through baptism, we die the only death that really matters; therefore, baptism frees us to live in a manner that is not determined by the fear of death. 

It’s necessary to have death behind you in order to join God’s campaign, for the most potent weapon in the Enemy’s arsenal is the fear of death.

The church is a hospital for sinners, the cliché goes. 

But it’s more like a field hospital, a MASH unit, surrounded by the enemy, where your wounds are bound up so that you can join the fight and contend against the Powers who would rule this world by hate, envy, and violence. 

It’s by God’s grace that God doesn’t so much solve your problems as God conscripts you into something bigger than yourself and against problems much, much bigger than your problems. 

St. Paul says in Ephesians that, “Before the foundation of the world, God chose us in Jesus Christ so that we might be holy.”

And the word holy in scripture is the same word from which we get the word saint.  

It means different. 

Odd. 

Saints are those whom God has made odd in a world that has made God its enemy. Saints are those who are different in that they know that the wisdom of God— the way of Jesus Christ— which the world finds foolish is in fact a power. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

And power is always also necessarily about conflict. 

The saints are those Christians who produced conflict by refusing to let everyday Christians like us off the hook and, instead, insisted that because the way of Jesus is a power in the world, Jesus should be taken at his word. 

That is, the saints are those who show us to what our faith has committed all of us. 

I mean—

We love to stick statues of St. Francis of Assisi in our flower beds and remember how the birds and the beasts loved him. 

We forget how the rich and the powerful hated Francis for his refusal to compromise on what Jesus Christ taught about money and violence. 

Likewise, we love to teach our kids a reassuring, congratulatory version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream sermon, but we prefer to forget that he died prophesying against war and poverty.

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

It’s about living in an odd, different manner that locates where true power lies. 

Rome understood that it’s about locating where true power lies.

Why else did Rome kill so many of us?

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord was to profess that Caesar is not. 

To rescue newborns abandoned in the fields to die (as the first Christians did) was to insist that the significance of life lies not with the authority of the government, but with the Giver of Life. 

And to pray for your enemy, to forgive your enemy, to practice the habits necessary to produce (possibly) love for your enemy…well, that proved at odds with an empire that had a stake— and still has a stake— in telling you, “These are your enemies. Go kill them.” 

Even if Christians in America don’t understand it, Caesar sure did. 

It’s about power. Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus had paid it all. 

Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus taught the Golden Rule. 

No, Caesar did not kill Christians for singing some early version of Amazing Grace nor did Caesar kill Christians because Christians believed Christ taught what Mr. Rogers taught. 

Rome martyred Christians because Christians (back then, at least) understood that the preaching and teaching of the one who had forgiven all their sins by grace is not simply a prologue to the passion story. 

It is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world. 

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world.

That’s bad news if you think you’re in charge of the world. 

And, it’s uncomfortable news if you’re comfortable with those who think they’re in charge of the world. 

But, if you’re willing to live with death behind you, if you’re willing to attempt an odd and different life, a life lived as though it’s good news, you’re a saint. 

———————-

Towards the end of his “sermon” delivered to his brother Irwin’s congregation, Everett Chance turned from the congregation to God:

“Unlike Irwin, I don’t even believe in God. It’s a little odd, for that reason, that I’d have such strong feelings about God’s House. But I do. I feel— because I love Irwin very much— that it’s crucial for me to at least try to address the One whose House Irwin believes this to be. Since I don’t believe in Him, I’m not sure my words qualify as prayer. But I feel I must say directly to You— Irwin’s dear God— that if somebody doesn’t hear our family’s cry, if somebody isn’t moved, not by be, but by You God, to sacrifice some time and thought and energy for Irwin’s sake, then his mind, his love for You, belief in this church, are going to be destroyed. 

It’s that simple, I think. 

Which puts the ball in Your court, God. Not a hopeful place to leave it, to my mind. But that’s where a saint like Irwin would want it. And for the first time in my life. I hope it’s Irwin, not me, who’s right about God and God’s church.”

Irwin got released from the psychiatrict hospital after Irwin’s church did exactly what Everett told them to do— or, rather, what God told them to do.

———————-

If the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God, if the wisdom that appears foolish is in fact a power, then that means the third to the last line of the Apostle’s Creed— the communion of saints— is the key doctrine of the Church. 

“I believe in the communion of saints” is the necessary predicate to everything else we profess in the creed.

If the cheek-turning, grace-giving, enemy-loving way of Jesus Christ is the patient way God is getting back all that belongs to God, then saints are not optional. 

The Holy Spirit continues to use ordinary churches to produce saints because God needs them. 

The story of Jesus Christ must produce lives that demonstrate the truthfulness of the story of Jesus Christ; so that, through such witnesses— through the way of Jesus Christ— God might finish God’s work of redemption.  

But— Irwin’s a good example— no one can choose to become a saint.

Saints are made. 

So, come to the table because the most reliable way to learn how to live with death behind you is to receive in your flesh the foolishness that is Christ’s broken body and blood.

* This story is from the novel The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I chose not to note that in the sermon because I didn’t want the fictional naure of the story to cause people to discount it. If saints are those whose lives story the gospel for us then the lives of those in novels can serve the same purpose.

Sermon Illustration

Jason Micheli —  October 20, 2019 — 1 Comment

Exodus 20, Matthew 5.38-48

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of a Trappist abbey in Algeria. A veteran of the French army, de Cherge grew up in an aristocratic family. 

After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery, because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor.

Held hostage for two months, de Cherge and his fellow monks were executed in 1996. Their heads were discovered inside a tree. Their bodies were never found. 

Anticipating his murder, Christian de Cherge left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

Published in newspapers all over the world, his letter is a moving exemplification of the Gospel. In it, he wrote:

“If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all of Algeria, I would like my community, the Church, to remember that I have dedicated my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

If the moment I fear comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, and the faithfulness, to ask for God’s pardon for myself and to ask it as well for he who would attack me. I pray that I am able to love my enemy even in my death….” 

The reason his note grabbed headlines and inspired a film, Of Gods and Men— Christian de Cherge then concluded his letter by addressing his would-be executioner: 

“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father.”

No doubt, on any other day but today, I expect that you would find Christian de Cherge’s witness not only edifying, but inspiring. 

If you heard the story of his martrydom on a different occasion, say All Saints Day, then in all likelihood you would understand, intuitively, how his exemplification of the Gospel is exactly the sort that first attracted pagans to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Don’t forget— 

Christianity converted the heart of the Roman Empire before there was anything called the “New Testament,” and they did so at a time when nearly everyone was illiterate. 

And in those first centuries of the Church, not only was the sacrament of holy communion off limits to outsiders— not only was the table closed to the unbaptized— so, too, was the Sunday worship gathering. 

Unbelievers didn’t become believers by having been invited to the worship of Christians. 

Unbelievers became believers by being attracted to the lives of Christians.

That’s just a fact of history. 

The ancient Christians did not pass out tracts to people who could not read. 

The lives of the ancient Christians themselves were the holy texts. 

The saints were the scripture and the sacraments that persuaded pagans to the truth of what Christians professed.  

That is, the Church in the ancient world grew by Christians daring to live in an odd, counter-intuitive manner that made no sense if God had not raised the crucified Christ from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth. 

Christian de Cherge’s story is the kind of story that exemplified the story of Jesus and, in the ancient world, stories like de Cherge’s story made the story of Jesus more than a short-lived rumor from a backwater place called Galilee. 

And for that reason, we rightly admire a story like Christian de Cherge’s story. 

Yet, if you’re like me, not today.

Because, today, admiration alone isn’t an option. 

Admiration is off the table.

———————-

Today, you might find the monk’s story unsettling— accusing, even— because today we’ve just heard his story in conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount where Christ teaches that we are to love our enemies. 

We’d prefer to think the witness made by those French monks was the exception rather than the expectation. 

We’d like to make their example remarkable, but today Jesus makes it the rule. 

Moreover, Jesus putting this teaching (on how his disciples are to love their enemies) at the very outset of his ministry, implies that following Jesus will make for us enemies— enemies we would not have were we not following Jesus. 

Our sentimental assumptions to the contrary, Christianity is not about having no enemies. Christianity is about loving the enemies we’ve made by our being Christian. 

Jesus is not referring here to the enemies you had before you met Jesus, (he’s not talking about your mother-in-law or your ex-husband). Jesus is, instead, preparing his disciples for the command he will give them later in Matthew’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

To follow the Crucified One is to anticipate that there will be those who wish to nail you to a cross, too. And like the Crucified One, Jesus teaches today, you are to suffer your persecutors in patience and love. 

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly problematic for people like us. 

After all, if we have any conviction, it’s that God is nice. And, because we’re a sanctificationist people, we think that the conviction, “God is nice,” ought to come with a correlative; therefore, we believe that we should be nice, too. 

It seems a contradiction that nice people following a nice God should discover that they’ve made enemies for themselves precisely by being Christian— enemies to whom we’re required to be more than nice. 

We’re required to love them, Jesus says, going so far as to offer them another cheek to strike, giving them the coat off our back, and walking an extra couple of miles in their shoes. 

It might not be any credit to us if we love the people who love us. 

But it sure sounds smarter. 

And safe.

But—

Christ’s command to love the enemies we’ve made by following him— the unavoidable implication to Christ’s command is that if we’ve made no enemies by following him then we’re likely not following him. 

We’re admiring him, maybe. But we’re not obeying him. 

John Wesley called those who admire Jesus but who dare not obey Jesus “almost Christians.” “Almost Christians” want Jesus to secure for them life after death, but “almost Christians” do not want to offer Jesus the kind of life that could mean their death. 

———————-

Listen up—

Let me make it plain. 

This is what is at stake in the sermon Jesus preaches today:

If your account of Christianity is such that it makes no sense whatsoever why anyone would want to kill Jesus or his followers (or you)— if we’re just a club of nice people admiring a nice God— then, it’s not Christianity. 

As Jesus tells the disciples later in the Gospel, following his peaceable way in the world will make the world more violent, not less: 

“Do you think that I will bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I will produce division! Even households will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”

Which means— pay attention now— 

Christ’s command to love our enemies is not a strategy. The point of Jesus’ preaching here is not, “Give peace a chance,” or “Love is all you need.” Christ does not promise us that through our love of the enemy our enemy will cease to be our enemy and will one day love us. 

No.

Christianity is not naive. 

Jesus does not promise us that our nonviolent, cruciform love is a strategy to rid the world of violence. 

Rather, in a world of violence Jesus has called his disciples to be a particular people who love their enemies, because that is the form God’s care for us became incarnate in the world. 

This is what we do, not because it works, but because this is who He is.

“While we were yet his enemies,” the Apostle Paul says, “God-in-Christ loved us.”

“Let that same mind be in you,” St. Paul writes, “that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Love of enemy— 

It’s not about what works in the world. 

It’s about our witness to the world. 

Our witness to what God has worked in Jesus Christ. 

He has conquered. 

He has overcome the crosses that we build with resurrection. 

———————-

And, then—

Just before this, Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths. 

That sounds innocent enough until you think about it and realize that Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths because an oath is but an exception to lies, and every word out of his followers mouths should be “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” 

Meanwhile, here we are in America, where we can no longer even distinguish the truth from the lie, much less speak nothing but the truth.

You gripe about some of our sermons. 

Jesus preaches a hard sermon, and then he ends this section today with “Be perfect.” Actually, in Greek, it says, “There should be no limit to your goodness.”

Jesus preaches a hard sermon. 

Just before the command about oaths, Jesus teaches that we are to live visibly in the world— like salt, like light— in a manner that substantiates our message. 

And, let’s be honest, most of us live in the world in a manner that corroborates our sin, not our having been saved from it.

Even if you could take a red pen and redact this part of Christ’s preaching, this part where we are commanded to love the enemies Jesus has managed to make for us, even if you could cut out today’s passage, it doesn’t make the rest of the sermon any less convicting on nice, Jesus- admiring, “almost Christians” like us. 

So, what are we to do with this Sermon on the Mount from which, on any number of counts, we all fall so short? 

I mean, I can barely manage my inbox, let alone love all the people who love me, much less cover all the law Jesus lays down in this sermon.

What do we do with this?

———————-

When we treat Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal to be realized only in some future kingdom, when we regard it as a collection of generalized principles that anyone can follow whether or not they’re following Jesus, when we interpret the sermon only as overwhelming law meant to convict us of our sin and compel us to Christ’s grace— when we interpret the Sermon on the Mount in any of those ways, we neglect to notice how the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon. 

That is, it’s not directed to unbelieving individuals. 

Nor is it meant for believing individuals. 

It’s a sermon. 

It’s addressed to a particular congregation. 

It’s intended for that community to act out and embody. 

This is why Matthew tells you at the top of Chapter Five that the twelve disciples have visibly left the crowd on the mountainside and drawn close to Christ. 

They are the ones for whom the Sermon on the Mount is meant, because they are the ones through whom Jesus is reconstituting Israel and relaunching Israel’s vocation to be a light unto the nations. 

Twelve tribes.

Twelve disciples. 

And like Israel’s Law, Jesus’ Torah on the Mount is meant for the particular people that Christ has called, and that Christ is putting into the world to witness to the new age inaugurated by his resurrection. 

The Sermon on the Mount is not meant for everybody. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body of disciples. 

So, the good news is that the command to love our enemies is not a command for everyone to obey. 

The bad news is that, by virtue of your baptism, it is a command— just like all the others in the sermon— that claims you. 

But, that burden is not all bad news for you are just a part of the Body, and, as St. Paul tells us, the Body of Christ is made up of many different members where no part of the Body can say to another part of the Body, “I have no need of you.” Which is but a way of saying, “I need you.” 

I need you.

We need each other. 

We need each other if we are, as a community, to be Christ’s sermon illustration.

You see, the object of Jesus’ sermon is that it makes us dependent on one another if we are to exemplify it. 

Some of you speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but you do not know how to pray well. 

Others of you are skilled at prayer, but struggle with gossip. 

Some of you are open about your faith, while others of you hide it so far under a bushel basket your closet friends would be surprised to discover that you’re a Christian. 

Many of you hunger and thirst for justice, but you do not pray for those who persecute the victims of injustice. You advocate for vicitms of oppression, but you do not pray for the victimizers. 

We need each other if we are to be Christ’s sermon illustration. 

The point of the sermon isn’t that each of you, individually, need to be like Jesus Christ. 

The point of the sermon is that Christ’s Body, collectively, bear witness to him.

You might be weak on sanctification.

But, taken together, Christ’s Body spread through the world— there is no limit to the goodness. 

And so, perhaps you aren’t very compassionate on the poor, yet here you are today a part of a people who will package thousands of meals for them. 

Maybe you can’t imagine ever being capable of loving your enemies in any risk-taking ways, yet by baptism you belong to a Body with members that include witnesses like Christian de Cherge. 

———————-

Brother Paul (Favre-Miville) was another Trappist monk martryed at the abbey in Algeria in 1996. He came from a family of blacksmiths in France, a family of cultural Christians who had Paul baptized as a baby, but who did not practice the faith with any real commitment. 

Paul’s family did not welcome his decision to become a monk, nor did they understand his insistence on remaining at the abbey after it had become dangerous. 

When his unbelieving friends and secular, skeptical family would ask him about his life in Algeria amidst enemies, Brother Paul would often joke to them, “Well, my head is still on my shoulders.” 

In a letter to his friends and family, Brother Paul wrote:

“Becoming a monk is a choice, like the choice to become a follower of Christ….  Our sins are not the same nor are our gifts the same and in this way the calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. The faithfulness of his Body is bigger than the failures of its individual members.”

The calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. 

I’ll tell you what that means—

It means faith does not name your own inner commitments, your own private beliefs, or your own interior feelings.

No, faith names making your life vulnerable to a people who will hold you accountable to what you think is true, a people through whom, by belonging to one another, each of us is made more than we otherwise might be. 

That is the hope we call the Gospel. 

And it is the hope that takes flesh in these creatures of bread and wine; so that, we might taste and see here and now what, one day, we shall become. 

The Cure for Atheism

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2019 — Leave a comment

Genesis 32, Romans 9

     I like Jacob. I like Jacob even though it’s not clear from the biblical witness why I’m supposed to like Jacob. 

     In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t. 

     In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t. 

     I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name, “Jacob,” that we’re meant to root for this character. 

     When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. 

And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest. 

     As if to say, “Me first.”

     So, Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’ 

     Which is a little like naming your kid, “Rudy.“

In movies and television, “Jake” is always the name of the hunky, altruistic hero. 

     But, in Hebrew “Jacob” means heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, and a cheat. 

     In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob. 

 

     

It’s true, scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob. 

     More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother. 

     One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove. 

     When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return. 

     As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion. 

     And, even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did. 

     But, I still like Jacob. 

     It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother. 

     It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son— a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back— he old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear. 

     After a while he heard someone enter and say, “My father.” And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked, “Who are you my son?”

     The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time. 

    And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him. 

     Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted. 

     If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 out of 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop. 

      Still, I’ve got my own reasons. 

I like Jacob. 

     It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream— gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels— it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness. 

     He didn’t confess his sin. 

     He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience. 

     

     Instead, Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal: 

“If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.”

God revealed God’s self to Jacob. 

And, afterwards, Jacob is still the same Jacob— the same sinner— Jacob was before. 

Like a lot of us (most of us?),  Jacob’s encounter with God leaves Jacob completely unchanged. 

     So, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob. 

    I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, a wife and family. 

     I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth. 

     I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah, because Leah’s husband, Jacob, gave her neither a thought nor a care. 

     If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

     Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief. 

     Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart. 

     Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet. 

     Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems. 

     

    Jacob’s not a bible hero. 

He’s not holy. 

     He’s a heel.

    Still, I can’t help it. 

I like Jacob. 

 

You might not. 

     You might not like Jacob. 

     You might not be like Jacob. 

     

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.      

     Congrats.

     Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father, or your husband or your wife. 

     Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend, or a neighbor wanders out of your life, gets into trouble and then beyond your reach. 

    Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed. 

     Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

     Maybe your family never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage, or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years. 

     Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness, because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed. 

     At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else, but Jacob. 

     Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that. 

     Good for you. 

Gold star to you.

     Go ahead and turn your nose up at Jacob. 

 

     

Just because I like him doesn’t mean you should. 

     Not everyone can relate to Jacob. 

     Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past. 

     Check the text— Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn. 

     Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated, but had no actual reason to expect. 

     In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob, because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him. 

      Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob. 

      Maybe your rap sheet is clean. 

Maybe your conscience is clear.

      Maybe your past really doesn’t stink and so whenever it hits the fan, it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

     Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced, “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me, because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

     Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin. 

     Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve. 

     Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob. 

     Lucky you. 

     

Lord knows, I can. 

     I can. 

     But, that’s not why I like Jacob.

 

    

     No, I like Jacob because Jacob is not the sort of guy who would ever send a Hallmark card that says, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

     I like Jacob, because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised,  knows that the good news is NOT, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” 

I like Jacob, because Jacob knows that God is to be found up at the top of that ladder God showed him, and Jacob knows that the good news— the Gospel— is not that God is there at the top of that ladder to meet u,s if we but climb our way up to him. 

     Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The ladder was not for us to journey up to God. 

The ladder was for God to come down to us. 

Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

 

    Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this year. 

Arnade used to be atheist. The book started out as an essay he wrote for The Guardian entitled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.”

Arnade was an unbelieving, French-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

“I had always counted myself an atheist,” Arnade writes, “I picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies.”

“When I first walked into the Bronx, photographing homeless addicts, I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be. None of them are. Rather, they are some of the strongest believers I have met.”

Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named, Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Jesus. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, Jesus came down and stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

She’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always comes down and meets me where I am when I need him the most,” she told Arnade. 

 

     I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the “glory story.”

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. 

     The “glory story” prompts those kinds of questions and clichés, because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. 

The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God, but God’s journey down to us. 

     The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension, not our ascension. 

     And, the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. 

     Rather, the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended. 

Indeed, that’s why the first Christians believed it was the pre-incarnate Christ Jacob wrestles here in the dark of the night. 

This angel in the darkness is the Second Adam (Jesus) who has the authority to (re)name God’s creatures. 

     The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. 

     The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles. 

     And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the “glory story.”

     We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God, it starts with searching for Him in our weakness. 

If we hope to find wholeness from God, it begins by seeking Him out in our woundedness.  

If we dream of finding healing from God, we first must look for God not up in glory, but down into the pit of our nightmare. 

     Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help, we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. 

     Up into glory, rather than down in to the darkness, and out into the shadows that surround us. 

    So, I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Because, it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ. 

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s. 

     Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness, and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing— that’s not just the Jacob story, that’s the Gospel. 

     That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We mean that you alone— by your lonesome— do not have the strength to save yourself. 

     You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint. NOTE: poor guy.

     That’s why the bread is broken. 

And it’s why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar. 

     Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. 

 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

“Meeting people like Takeesha,” Arnade writes, “I soon saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well. We don’t believe in God because, with our cash and comfort, we don’t need to believe in God, which is but another way of saying “God only meets us in our need.”” 

The cure for atheism, in other words, is found not at the top of the ladder, but at the bottom. 

Or, in the middle of Jacob’s wrestling ring.

    

    

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  September 30, 2019 — 1 Comment

Genesis 22 and Hebrews 10

I know you’d never guess it from unimpressive me, but I have been a preacher for almost twenty years.

And sure, it reveals a lot  about me that in those years I’ve preached four different sermons on the prophet Isaiah prophesying in nothing but his birtday suit (it’s really in there). 

I’ve preached three different sermons on King David collecting one hundred Philistine foreskins from reluctant donors in order to win Michal as his bride (it’s in there too), and I’ve somehow managed to preach five different sermons on the talking ass in Numbers 22.

Every time, someone has left church telling me, “It takes one to know one.”  

Twenty years—

But, in all that time, I’ve never once preached on today’s passage. 

Luther was haunted by it. Rembrandt and Chagall painted it. In his asthmatic kitty dry-heave of a voice, Bob Dylan sang about it going down on Highway 61. 

But, I’ve never studied it closely until this week. 

I’ve never preached on it until today. 

And yesterday…

Yesterday, I stood outside in the church cemetery next to a shallow grave and a tiny two-foot coffin. 

Tossing a fist full of dirt I clawed from the ground, I looked into a mother’s vacant, tear-filled eyes and, in the name of Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, I promised her— I promised her— that God did not take her child from her. 

Was I wrong?

Sylvia was only four months old. 

The way the undertaker had prepared her body— she looked like she was nursing. She’d been dressed in a coat that looked like the kind Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day. 

Next to her body, I told her parents about Jesus Christ, about how God-in-the-flesh wept beside a grave just like Sylvia’s, wept over a friend who, like Sylvia, died much too soon. “On a day like today,” I said, “it’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any of you need to be here.”

I promised. 

Was I wrong? 

Did I bear false witness?

———————-

Is the God I promised to them, the God I promised was for them in Jesus Christ and with them in the Holy Spirit, the same God who tells Abraham, “Take your child, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him there as a burnt-offering?”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying, “Abraham, I know I said “Put down the sword” but I’m going to need you to pick it up and (really big favor) take your son Isaac, slit his throat, and set him on fire. As a sacrifice to please and appease me.”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying that, and that’s a problem, because if God is Trinity then, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Because God doesn’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” the Bible says, “yesterday, today, and forever.” 

Therefore, if Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God’s very Being, as the Book of Hebrews declares, then not only is God like Jesus, God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God has not been like Jesus. 

The Son who prays “forgive them for they know not what they do” is the same— of one being— as the Father to whom he prays. 

The Father was always like the Son. 

From before was was. 

God has never not been like Jesus. 

If Jesus Christ is the one by whom all things were made, as the creed confesses, if Christ was present at creation, as the Bible teaches— if Christ was present at creation and God doesn’t change, then present with Christ from before creation was his desire for mercy not sacrifice. 

———————-

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus tells the grumbling Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 

“Go study that Bible you like to thump,” Jesus says, sending them back to the prophet Hosea who declared, “Thus, says the Lord: I desire mercy not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.” 

God’s desire apparently is always falling on deaf ears because God keeps repeating himself. Through the prophet Micah, God speaks the same word, 

“Hear what the Lord says: With what shall you come before the Lord? Will the Lord be pleased with the sound of a thousand rams sacrificed? Shall we offer our first born children, the fruit not of the land but of our bodies? He has told you, o mortal, what is pleasing; to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility under your God.”

When King David gets caught red-handed, having broken about half the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t demand any quid pro quo.

No, God reveals to David that “God takes no delight in sacrifice.” 

“If I were to give you a burnt offering,” David sings in Psalm 51, “You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart.” 

Not only does God not want sacrifices of any sort, sacrifice, as the preacher of Hebrews says in today’s text, does not work. 

Sacrifice just tempts us into thinking we can right the scales of relationship with God. 

Thus sacrifice doesn’t atone for sin, it exacerbates sin because, fundamentally, it’s a refusal of grace.

But there’s the question:

If God doesn’t want sacrifice, if God has never wanted sacrifice, if sacrifice is a futile gesture that accomplishes nothing but deluding us into thinking we’re steering our standing before God, then why would God want to assess Abraham by Abraham’s willingess to do what God does not want done?

———————-

To test his faith?

That’s the usual explanation. 

God takes Abraham through this sadistic charade to test his faith by asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

Abraham has already sacrificed his past, being summoned by God out of his homeland. 

And here, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his future in order to make his future dependent not on biology but entirely upon God’s gracious provision. 

Just kidding— I was only testing you. 

Never mind that this makes the God of infinite Love and Goodness exponentially worse than Michael Scott fake-firing his employees at Dunder Mifflin, that’s the conventional answer. 

And, that’s why for Jews this passage is about akedah, obedience, and for Islam this story is about the virtue of surrendering to the will of God no matter where your discernment of God’s will takes you. 

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Abraham here demonstrates what true faith entails. 

True faith is contrary to what our senses tell us (even our sense of right and wrong). 

True faith exceeds the rational; such that, to anyone else faith looks absurd.

Which I take to be an absurd answer. 

Because in scripture the proper measure of faith isn’t the quantity of it. 

It’s the character of it. 

It’s not how much faith you have.

It’s who and what your faith is in. 

It’s not about amounts; it’s about allegiance. 

The chief priests and the Pharisees had alot of faith. 

They just placed their faith in the wrong who, “We have no King but Caesar!”

The measure of faith is not how much you have but to whom and to what you are allegiant. 

For Christians, there’s no such thing as blind faith, because God has shown himself.  

Fully in Jesus Christ. 

And God has also revealed himself through the law— laws like “Do not kill.” 

Therefore, it’s not a leap of faith to do that which is contrary to who God has revealed himself to be. 

This is not a test of faith, asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

For one thing—

Everywhere else the Old Testament , when God tests his People it’s for the purpose of making them holy. 

Holy means different. 

Whenever God tests his People, it’s to make them distinct from the pagans and idolators around them. 

So, for example, after God gets his chosen People out of Egypt, he tests them in the wilderness in order to get the Egypt of them. 

And this is how Jesus’ testing in the wilderness functions too. It’s to shape him to be different than all the other would-be-messiahs. 

“All these kingdoms of the world, I will give you,” Jesus is tested. 

And only Jesus declines the opportunity.

The purpose of testing in the Bible is make God’s People holy. 

To make them different. 

And that’s the other thing—

Child sacrifice was not different.  

This is not a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’ll go through with the unthinkable, because for Abraham it was not unthinkable. 

Not at all.

Don’t forget—

Abraham exists in an ancient near eastern world where child sacrifice is not unusual. 

The reason God has to spell it out in the law and say, “Don’t do it,” is because the Canaanite religions of Israel’s day did do it. 

Thus, child sacrifice would not be a way to test Abraham. 

It would not be a way to make the People of Abraham different because everybody else did it too. 

It would not make Abraham holy. 

It would make Abraham the same. 

And remember—

Abraham is only a recent convert from paganism. 

When God called Abraham, he was a ziggurat-attending, moon-worshipping pagan. 

Abraham’s father, the Talmud says, was an idol maker. 

That’s why Abraham doesn’t question this command he discerns to kill his kid. Child sacrifice— it’s what the gods do.

But what about the God who is Jesus Christ?

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

It’s like there’s two different gods here testing Abraham. 

———————- 

Yesterday morning before the burial, I was standing by the bell tower, talking with Sylvia’s uncle about how we’d process down to the gravesite with the baby. 

Stupidly, I asked him how he was doing.

And he said to me, “I know God didn’t do this to my family. I know God didn’t take her. But, still, I keep thinking God did it. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m being tested to sort out what’s true and what’s not.”

———————- 

What if the true test Abraham passes is a different test than the one we presume? What if the actual test Abraham passes is a test we fail to the extent that we fail even to notice it? 

It’s all right there in the text. 

The key to the passage is that it uses two different Hebrew words for God. 

The text refers to God as Elohim. 

Elohim is the generic Hebrew term for God. Elohim is like our English word God. 

And, in the Old Testament, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel but just as often— because it’s a generic term— elohim is the word used to talk about all gods, even the other false gods.

When the First Commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” elohim is the word for gods. 

And when the prophet Elijah does battle against the false prophets of Baal, the Bible uses elohim to refer to the false god. 

Today’s text uses the word Elohim, but it also uses a different word, Yahweh. 

Yahweh isn’t a generic term. Yahweh is the name given to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh is the true God who can be known only by God’s self-revelation.

It’s Elohim who asks Abraham to take his only son to Moriah, slit his throat, and set him ablaze as a sacrifice. 

It’s Yahweh who tells Abraham to stop. 

Actually, it’s the angel of Yahweh— who the first Christians identified as the pre-incarnate Son— who stills the blade of sacrifice. 

There are two gods in the story. 

And discerning the true one— that’s the test Abraham passes. 

That’s the test that makes him holy. 

Different.

Different even than from many of us, who think God demands payment.

———————- 

Traditionally, today’s passage is assigned by the lectionary for Easter. 

And to understand that scheduling, to hear today’s text as the Easter Gospel its meant to be, imagine that Abraham went through with the deed on Mt. Moriah. 

Imagine he did it. 

Just like we do it, for Moriah is Golgotha. 

Imagine Abraham raising his arm and plunging the knife. 

Imagine Isaac’s scream and the silence that would follow it, save for the bleating of a lost and forgotten ram amid the bushes. 

Imagine Abraham making his three day trek back down the mountain path to Isaac’s mother. 

And imagine a stranger approaching Abraham’s campfire that first night and, in the comfort of the darkness, Abraham confesses to this stranger his story about what he had believed god required, how it led him to violence and murder, how in his grief he knew now that heaven wept with him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith had been unfaith, how as he plunged the knife he realized he had mistaken the gods for the true God. 

Imagine Abraham spilling out his shame, and then realizing he’d not even asked for the stranger’s name. 

“Tell me your name,” Abraham asks. 

And the stranger lifts up his bowed head and pulls back his hood and replies, “Isaac.” 

And then imagine Isaac showing Abraham his hands and his side. That’s how to hear this story as Easter. 

———————-

God doesn’t take. 

God gives. 

Ceaselessly.

Even when we take— taking, even, God’s own Son— God returns the gift. 

That’s the Gospel. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is not the punishment God demands for our sins. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is the patience God demonstrates in the face of our sins— in our act of sinning. 

The cross isn’t the really big sacrifice God wanted all along, of which Isaac is a hint. 

The cross is the end of sacrifice, the final judgment on the whole way of thinking that God collects on our debts.” 

We’re naive if we think that ours isn’t still a world of many gods. 

False gods.

Idols who convince people that sacrifice— payment— must be made; therefore, this must be happening to me because of that thing I did (or didn’t do). 

God must’ve taken Sylvia because of…

And that’s why it’s important that we pay attention to today’s text from the Book of Hebrews. 

There, Jesus declares that God wants not sacrifice, but a body. 

The body that God has prepared for Jesus. 

The Body of Christ. 

A people who are holy, Hebrews says. 

Different. 

Different enough from the world to assure Sylvia’s mother and father, as we did yesterday, that “the True and Living God does not deal in death, for Death is God’s Enemy.”

They were wearing t-shirts with Sylvia’s picture on the chest. 

They were all wearing t-shirts with her picture emblazoned on the front

“Nor does the God of Jesus take from us to make good on our debts,” I promised them, “God did not, God could not, God would never take her from you, for the empty grave reveals once for all that God’s grace is a gift that exceeds every debt and the promise of the Gospel is that in the fullness of time every good gift will be given back.”

And, even though they were sobbing, they nodded their heads. 

Like Abraham before them, they’d passed the test. 

Genesis 6.11-22, 1 Peter 3.18-22

  Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles. In 1986, having served in Bolivia, Father Boyle was appointed pastor of Delores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. 

At the time, it was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, and surrounded by public housing projects.  The church was in the middle of a sea of gang violence. The parish had more gangs and gang activity than anywhere else in the country. Between 1986 and 1988, Father Boyle buried 294 victims of gang shootings, most of them kids. 

In 1988, Father Boyle and members of his church decided to do something about the flood of young deaths around them. They established an alternative school, since most gang members had exhausted all their opportunities in the public system. 

They started a day care program to help keep kids off the streets. They started a jobs training program to give gang members an option to a different lifestyle. 

And then, because so few businesses were willing to hire former gang members, they started their own social enterprise business, “Homeboy Bakery.” 

Homeboy Bakery has since grown to become Homeboy Industries, and it’s the largest and most effective gang rehabilitation program in the world. 

They help ten thousand men and women each year overcome the violence of their past, find forgiveness and healing, and train them for a different future for themselves. 

I heard Father Boyle share a story about a former gang member named, “Jose.” 

“Jose works at Homeboy and one day,” Father Boyle said, “he knocked on my office door and came in looking oddly at rest, reposed.”

“My father died,” Jose said. “And I just found out.”

“Jose’s father had been deported to Mexico twenty years ago,” Father said, “Jose hadn’t seen or talked to his Father in all that time.”

But a couple of days before he learned his Father died, Jose called his father, because he learned his Father was dying of cancer.”

And then, in relaying the story, Father Boyle filled in the back story. 

“When Jose and his twin brother were eleven,” he said, “They’d made a pact with each other. They’d promised, “When our father comes home tonight drunk and starts to beat on our mother, let’s stop him. Let’s protect her.’”

Predictably, Jose’s father came home drunk and soon became violent, and Jose and his brother, just little guys, jumped on their Dad’s back, knocking him down to the floor, and then they climbed on top of him, pinning him down. 

After the initial daze, Jose’s father threw them loose of him. 

Then, he beat both of them. He dragged them out of the house by their hair. He threw them into the street. 

And then he screamed at them, “I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

They were eleven-year-old boys. 

And they never went home, again. 

They lived in a park a few miles away. 

“There was a big trashcan in the park,” Father Boyle said, “and at night Jose would pull the bag out of the can and tilt the can on its side, and he and his brother would slide inside it and rest in each other’s arms.”

Jose and his brother sold drugs to survive. They got caught up in a gang and spent half of their ensuing life in prison. 

“But one day Jose knocks on my door,” Father Boyle said, “and after telling me his dad just died, he tells me he’d called his father a couple of days earlier.” 

“I heard he was dying,” he told me with these big tears in his eyes.

“I heard he was dying, so I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. I forgive him for everything, all of it.”

“And again,” Father Boyle said, “He looked so at rest as he told me about forgiving his father.”

Here’s my question—

Which of the two is more like God?

Who’s the better image of the Almighty?

Jose, who forgives the evil done to him?

Or his father, who beat him and then blotted him out of his life forever?

Is God the Father like Jose’s father? 

It sure sounds like it. 

Just four chapters, just one Bible page, after declaring everything “Very Good,” God declares:

“I will blot from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

“I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

It sounds like Jose’s father. 

And it doesn’t sound like the Son, like Jesus. 

The ancient Christians had a catch-phrase they used to think about God. 

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ (opus ad extra) God is eternally in himself (opus ad intra). 

There is no contradiction between the two.

If the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel— God with us— and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must have always been so. 

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son. 

If God is Trinity, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Which is to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus, and there never will be a time when God is not like Jesus. 

God doesn’t drown you for your sins one day but die to your sins on another day. 

The Father and the Son are one. 

But again, God the Father sure doesn’t sound like God the Son here today in Jose’s story. 

The word in Hebrew is mabbul. 

The English word flood doesn’t really capture what the story wants you to see. Mabbul refers to Creation’s architecture as the ancients understood it, where a protective shield above the earth and a protective shield below the earth— the firmament— held back an infinite ocean of water, protecting Creation. 

“In the beginning God swept across the dark waters,” we pray at baptism. 

God pushed back the dark waters and then held them at bay with the firmament. 

And so, that Hebrew word mabbul— it isn’t simply a lot of rain. 

It’s literally God taking a hands-off approach to Creation and walking away and letting the primeval ocean pour in and drown all that he’d made. 

It seems unfair to all the animals considering that none of them can be guilty of the crime for which God condemns them. 

Animals cannot have evil in their hearts. And more tragic than the animals, what about the babies? 

Don’t forget, in the Genesis story this is nine generations and one thousand years after Adam. 

Eve’s offspring has been fruitful and multiplied. 

What about the babies that God throws out with the bathwater? 

Infants cannot commit violence and so they cannot be blamed for it. 

And isn’t it evil to visit violence upon a vulnerable child? 

And isn’t that exactly what this God does here on a global scale? 

And would it be any more justifiable if there had been only a single newborn in Noah’s day? 

“The water covered the peaks of the highest mountains,” Genesis says. This isn’t local news; it’s an ecological apocalypse. 

Thanos only killed 50% of the population, and, just in case you haven’t seen the Avengers movie, Thanos is the villain. Yet, Thanos is even more merciful. Thanos just snaps his fingers and half of everything disappears. 

But God does it slow. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

A slow, soggy holocaust.

Notice— 7.1:

Noah doesn’t even know why he’s building the ark until he’s finished it and God tells him to get on it with his family. 

God doesn’t even trust Noah to close the door behind him; God shuts the door behind him. 

Why?

Because Noah would be tempted to rescue others?

Which is to say, because Noah is more merciful than God?

And what sort of god is this anyway?

He changed his mind?!

But God, by definition, can’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” Scripture says, “Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” because God is without beginning or end.

He changed his mind? 

He got so upset he decided to waterboard all of creation? 

That doesn’t sound like the capitol-G God. 

That doesn’t sound like the Father whose fullness is the self-offering, enemy-loving, peace-declaring, cheek-turning, sin-forgiving Son. 

Jesus Christ, the Book of Hebrews declares, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” 

Jesus Christ is of “one substance with the Father” the Nicene Creed confesses, as light is from light. 

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Okay, so where is the God who looks like Jesus here?

Because this god— admit it— sounds more like a pagan god. 

It turns out—

In order to find the God who is Jesus Christ in this story, you have to know how this story is different. 

You have to know what makes this story different because— pay attention, now— this story of the flood is not unique.

And you have to know a date, 587 BCE. 

That’s the 9/11 of the Bible. 

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the temple and left the promised land in smoldering ruins as they marched God’s chosen people back to Babylon in chains, where they were sorely tempted to believe the violence visited upon them was the vengeance of a holy God, that God was punishing them for their sins.

Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites learned a story told by their captors. 

A scripture story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

See if it sounds familiar:

The “great gods,” seeing the sorry state of mankind, planned to cause a great flood upon the earth. 

The gods swore one another to secrecy about the destruction they would send upon mortals. 

But the god Ea breaks their secret, whispering the news through a reed wall to a mortal whose name means, “He Who Saw Death.”

Ea commands the mortal to demolish his house and build— you guessed it— an ark.

So, the mortal and his workmen construct an ark with six decks and nine compartments and a hull 120 cubits on each side. 

When they finish the ark, the mortal loads his silver and gold into the ark, along with his family and his workers and all the beasts and animals of the earth. 

And then the thunder god rumbles and the storm gods converge and the lightening god flashes, shattering the dry land like a clay pot, and then the torrent of rain falls. 

The rains last six days and six nights. 

On the seventh day, “He Who Saw Death” releases a dove to search for land, but the dove flies back to the boat. He releases a swallow, but it comes back. Finally, he releases a raven, and it does not return. 

After he exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice and the aroma of the offering pleases the gods and they swarm to the source of the scent where they discover some mortals have survived. 

The god Enli becomes enraged, “How do these mortals live? No one was supposed to survive our annhilation.”

The ark and the animals, the flood and the reason for it— it’s all the same. 

Notice though what’s different—

The rainbow.

There’s no rainbow. 

At the end of the Noah story, after Noah offers a sacrifice and the aroma is pleasing to the Lord, God sets a rainbow in the clouds (literally, God hangs up his anger) as a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy his creatures because of their sins. 

You see what Israel did, right?

When they were prisoners and slaves in a foreign land (not the Promised Land); when their temple had been razed and their homes destroyed and all the promises God had made them (to be their God no matter what) seemed broken beyond repair; when they had every reason to believe that God was punishing them for their sins, for their unfaithfulness, for not holding up their end of the covenant, they take Babylon’s story of the flood. 

A story with gods just like that— angry, wrathful, fickle gods, gods who mete out their vengeance with violence, gods who dole out what we deserve. 

They take Babylon’s story of the flood, and they stick a rainbow on it at the end. 

“I’m not like that anymore,” God promises to Israel. 

Which is Israel’s way of saying that the true God has never been like that. 

And maybe that’s why Israel changed not only the ending to Babylon’s story, they changed the name of the arkbuilder too. 

From, “He Who Saw Death,” to “Noah.”

Which means rest.  

Comfort.

“I heard he was dying,” Jose told Father Boyle. “So I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him.”

“And then out of the blue,” Father Boyle said, “out of the blue Jose suddenly shifts gears and he says to me: “You know something, Father, I’m really enjoying the person I’m becoming here, like I’ve never enjoyed anything else in my life.”

“That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Father Boyle asked.

“Oh God, it’s the best feeling in the world” Jose replied. 

Unpacking what Jose had told him just then, Father Boyle explained, “That’s the sound of someone inChrist.“

 

That’s it. 

That’s where Christ is in the story.

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Christ is the ark. 

Christ is our ark. 

“That’s the sound of someone inChrist,” Father Boyle explained.  “That’s the sound of someone inside the ark of Christ’s Body, the Church, transporting him from his old life to a new one, where he can love, forgive himself, forgive those who’ve done him harm, and find a new identity.”

“Jose is working now,” Father Boyle added. “He has a lady friend— He has a reason to look towards his future. He’ll leave our program in 18 months, and the world will rage and storm all around him, but this time he won’t be swallowed up by it. The world and its troubles might toss him and to and fro, but he’s inside now. He’s safe, at rest in Christ, and he’ll be okay.”

It’s All Christophany

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2019 — 1 Comment

Luke 24.13-28

Sunday, we kicked off a year-long sermon series through scripture called the Jesus Story Year.

“Jesus Christ [not the Bible] is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death…Jesus Christ is God’s vigorous announcement of God’s claim upon our whole life.”

Those lines constitute the opening salvo of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of Faith written by the pastor and theologian Karl Barth in 1934 on behalf of the dwindling minority of Christians in Germany who publicy repudiated the Third Reich. 

Barth wrote the whole document while his colleagues slept off their lunchtime booze.

“We reject the false doctrine,” Barth wrote, “that there could be areas of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords…With both its faith and its obedience, the Church must testify that it belongs to and obeys Christ alone.”

I studied Karl Barth at Princeton. My teacher, George Hunsinger, had a thick, white beard and reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. A photograph of Karl Barth laughing with Martin Luther King Jr. hung in his office. The picture captured Barth’s first and only visit to the United States. 

I remember we were discussing Barth’s Barmen Declaration in class, and Dr. Hunsinger, uncharacteristically, broke from his lecture and took off his reading glasses. His jovial countenance turned serious, and he said, seemingly at random though not random at all, “just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria, immediately outside the walls of the camp, there was and still is a Christian church.” 

It was an 8:00 class but suddenly no one was fighting off a yawn.

“Just imagine,” he said, “the prison guards and the commandant at that concentration camp probably went to that church on Sundays. They confessed their sins and received the assurance of pardon and prayed to the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ there, and then they walked out of the church and went back to the camp and killed scores of Jews not thinking it in any way contradicting their calling themselves Christians.”

“How does that work?” someone joked, trying to take the edge off. 

“It happens,” he replied, “when you reduce the Gospel to forgiveness and you evict Jesus Christ from every place but the privacy of your heart.”

His righteous anger was like an ember warming inside him. 

“Whenever you read Karl Barth,” the professor told us,” think of that church on the edge of the concentration camp. Think of the pews filled with Christians and the ovens filled with innocents and then think about what it means to call Jesus Lord.” 

Notice—

Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, they’re not unawares. 

They’ve  heard the Easter news. They’ve heard from the women who dropped their embalming fluid and fled to tell it. They’ve heard from Peter. They’ve heard that the tomb is empty.

And yet—

Having heard that Death has been defeated, having heard that the Power of Sin has been conquered, and having heard that self-giving, cheek-turning, cruciform love has been vindicated from the grave, our moral imagination is so impoverished that the first Easter Sunday isn’t even over and here we are (in these two disciples) walking back home as if the world is the same as it ever was and we can get back to our lives as knew them.

They’ve heard the Easter news, yet these two disciples still make two common mistakes— two common reductions— in how they understand Jesus. 

“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God,” they tell the stranger (who is Christ). True enough, but not sufficient. 

“We had hoped he would be the one to liberate Israel,” they tell him, “we had hoped he was the revolutionary who would finally free us from our oppressors.” Again, their answers aren’t wrong; their answers just aren’t big enough.”

It’s not until this stranger breaks bread before them that their eyes are opened and they run— in the dark of night, eight miles to Emmaus, they run— to go and tell the disciples what they’ve learned. 

And when they get there, after the Risen Jesus has taught them the Bible study to end all Bible studies— what have the learned? 

They don’t call Jesus a prophet. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report “God has raised Jesus, the prophet, from the dead.”

They don’t call Jesus a liberator. 

They don’t run to Peter and say “Jesus the revolutionary has been resurrected.”

They don’t even call him a savior or a substitute. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report, “The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world has come back.”

No, after the Risen Jesus interprets Moses and the prophets for them (ie, the Old Testament; ie, the only Bible they knew) they take off to herald the return of Jesus the kurios. 

They confess their faith in Jesus as kurios.

“The kurios is risen indeed!” they proclaim to Peter. 

Luke book-ends his Gospel with that inconviently all-encompassing word kurios. 

The whole entire Bible, Jesus has apparently taught these two, testifies to how this crucified Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the kurios who demands our faith. 

Kurios. 

Lord.

The word we translate into English as faith is the word pistis in the Greek of the New Testament. And pistis has a range of meanings. Pistis can mean confidence or trust. It can mean conviction, belief, or assurance. And those are the connotations we normally associate with the English word faith. 

In Christ alone by grace through trust alone. 

Through belief alone, is how we hear it.

But— here’s the rub— pistis also means fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, obedience. 

Or, allegiance. 

Allegiance. 

Now, keep in mind that the very first Christian creedwas “Jesus is kurios” and you tell me which is the likeliest definition for pistis. 

So how did we go from faith-as-obedience to faith-as-belief?

How did get from faith-as-allegiance to faith-as-trust?

I’m glad you asked.

When Luke wrote his Gospel and when Paul wrote his epistles, Christianity was an odd and tiny community amidst an empire antithetical to it. 

Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

Back then—

Baptism was not a cute christening. 

Baptism was not a sentimental dedication. 

Baptism was not a blessing, a way to baptize the life you would’ve lived anyway. 

Back then, to be baptized as a Christian was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation and a rethinking of everything that had come before.

To profess that “Jesus is Lord” was to protest that “Caesar is not Lord.”

The affirmation of one requires the reununciation of the other. 

Which is why, in Luke’s day and for centuries after, when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. 

By a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. 

Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. 

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world. 

And the first Christians weren’t bullshitting. 

For example, if you were a gladiator, baptism meant that you renounced your career and got yourself a new one.

Then, having left the old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus the kurios and everything your new way of life as a disciple would demand. 

And the first Christians— they walked the Jesus talk of their baptismal pledge.

For example, Christians quickly became known— before almost anything else— in the Roman Empire for rescuing the unwanted, infirm babies that pagans would abandon to die in the fields. 

Baptism wasn’t an outward and visible sign of your inward and invisible trust. 

Quite the opposite.

Baptism was your public pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, there’s a reason.

A few hundred years after Luke wrote his Gospel and Paul wrote his letters, the kurios of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Roman Empire Christian too. 

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. 

After Constantine, now that the empire was allegedly Christian, the ways of the world ostensibly got baptized; consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. 

Constantine is the reason why whenever you hear Jesus say “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s” it doesn’t occur to you that Jesus is being sarcastic. 

What had been an alternative way in the world became, with Constantine, a religion that awaited the world to come. 

Jesus was demoted from the kurios, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and to whom has been given all authority over the Earth, and Jesus was given instead the position of Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. 

Which meant pistis eventually became synonymous with trust.

Faith moved inside, to our heads and hearts, from embodiment to belief.

I apologize for the historical detour, but I figure if you’re such an over-acheiver that you come to church on Labor Day weekend then you ought to be able to handle it.  

I want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with the kurios called Constantine that makes it difficult for us to hear rightly when we hear Cleopas call Jesus Lord. 

It’s this difficulty that leads to us confusing faith with belief, making pistis private, and reducing the Gospel to after life affairs. 

It’s this shift that happens with the kurios called Constantine that produces nonsensical rubbish like the statement “I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

Walking along the way to Emmaus, Luke reports that the Risen Christ “interpreted to [Cleopas and the other disciple] all the things about himself in all of the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.” 

Straight out of the grave, what Jesus wants his disciples to know is that the whole Bible is about him. 

The Apostle Paul registers the same claim in his letter to the Romans when he declares that “Jesus Christ is the telos of the Law.” 

Telos means end; as in, aim or goal. 

Christ is the telos of the Torah, Paul writes. 

The Bible is about me, Jesus says today. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning of the Bible and the end, from the first page to the last page. 

It’s all Christophany. 

It’s all an epiphany of Christ. 

It’s not “The Old Testament is over here and the New Testament is over here and the two are radically distinct from one another.” 

No, that’s called heresy. 

All of it— it’s purpose, Jesus teaches today— is to reveal Jesus Christ to us, to apprentice us under Jesus Christ. 

Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People— all of it— telegraphs the way of Christ.

All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? 

They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

“Eye for an eye?” 

In a world of wildly disproportionate justice, “eye for an eye” was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

God forbade his People to make graven images because the Father has no visible image but the eternal Son who would take flesh and dwell among us. 

Christ is the telos of the Bible, Paul says. 

Everything in the Bible telegraphs the way of Christ.

God’s People wandered as refugees and aliens in a foreign land in order to make ready a People capable of Christ’s command to welcome the foreigners in their own land. 

God disciplined his People Israel to love neighbor as though the neighbor was God; so that, in Jesus Christ there might be a People schooled to love their enemy, for such a People— a people who’re trained to love their enemy— can never rightly call the Constantines of our world kurios.

After the professor told us about the church at the edge of the concentration camp, he told us about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in the hills of southern France. 

Around the same time Karl Barth was drafting his call to Christian resistance, Andre Trocme became the town’s pastor. In 1940, after the fall of France, Jewish refugees began arriving by the hundreds in Le Chambon seeking sanctuary. 

Without so much as a discussion or debate, Trocme and his parishioners began taking them into their homes and barns and, whenever German soldiers showed up, hiding them up in the mountains. 

Still more refugees arrived as word among the Jews spread that this was a community whose only Fuhrer was Jesus Christ. 

The villagers of Le Chambon did not decide that their home would become a haven for refugees. They did not cast themselves in the role of rescuers. 

In the process of obeying Jesus Christ, they simply now found themselves with refugees before them. 

Villagers later told a biographer they believed that having suffered under three centuries of Catholic persecution they’d developed “the habit of quietly refusing to dilute the claims the faith makes upon us.” 

“The Bible tells the story of Jesus,” one village woman explained, “and the story of Jesus reveals God’s way in the world so it would be self-destructive to live according to any other way, wouldn’t it? What the refugees asked of us was no different than what we had always done— abide with Jesus.”

Once, in February 1943, Nazi police arrived to arrest the pastor and some of his parishioners. The police officers sat in a villager’s living room waiting for the would-be prisoners to go fetch their suitcases. 

The woman in whose house they waited invited the policemen to join her at her dinner table— despite the fact that Jews were hiding upstairs in her bedroom. 

When asked by a biographer how she could be so hospitable to enemies who were there to take her husband away, perhaps to his death, the woman, Magda, replied: 

“It was dinner time…the food was ready…how could I not invite them to eat with me? Don’t use such foolish words as “forgiving” and “good” with me. Inviting strangers and enemies to supper is just the normal thing to do if Jesus is Lord.”

As the pastor, Andre Trocme, taught a men’s circle, all of whom harbored Jews in their homes, “If Jesus Christ is not only Lord but the one “by whom all things were made” then this life isn’t so much what Christ demands. It’s the life Christ has designed for all of us.”

Faith is a trust that takes the form of allegiance— lived out loyalty, embodied belief— not because we could ever measure up to the example of Christ, not because we’ll be graded on the quality of our performance, but because if Jesus Christ is the kurios “by whom all things are made” then the life of Jesus reveals the grain of the universe, and a beautiful life will be yielded by no other pattern.

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Every Last Loser

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2019 — 1 Comment

Matthew 20.1-16

I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that Jesus should mind his own business and stay out of the public square. 

“I don’t want to hear about politics at church!” 

It’s maybe the only surviving bipartisan sentiment. Church folks always want the Church to stay out of politics, which for most of us— let’s be honest now— usually means we don’t want the Church to challenge our particular hue of politics. 

I remember—

One Sunday back in my very first church just outside of Princeton, after I preached an allegedly “political” sermon against state-sponsored torture, which both of America’s political parties supported at the time (this was right after September 11), this ruddy-faced church member assaulted me in the narthex and, sticking his finger in my chest, hollored at me, “Just where do you get off preaching like that, preacher?!”

I stammered. 

So he pressed me.

“If Jesus were still alive, do you honestly think he’d having anything to say about torture and the government?!”

“Um, well, uh…I mean, he was crucified, I think…um…maybe he would have…” I started to say.

He shook his head and waved me off.

“Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if knew you’d brought politics into our church!”

Of course, that’s the rub. 

It’s not our church. It’s not my church. It’s not your church. It’s not our church. It’s his Church. We can insist that the Church keep out of politics— that’s fine, I’m not a sadist. It makes my life easier— but notice how such insistence assumes that we’re in charge of the Church. 

Though we spent three long years plotting to kill him, unfortunately for us Jesus Christ is not dead. 

With Gestapo officers standing in the back of his lecture hall, spying on him, Karl Barth said: 

“If Jesus Christ is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but a human community which is puffed up with the illusion that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that works its own revenge upon the church.” 

Most of the time, there, I think Barth’s describing the United Methodist Church, but Barth’s point is that Jesus Christ— God’s only chosen one— is not dead. 

And the God we serve is Living God, a God who speaks and acts, a God who calls and conscripts. The God we serve is a Living God, a God on the move, a God who is able— able to do more than answer the items on your prayer list. 

The God we serve is a Living God who is able to push and pull and prod and provoke his Church to go where it wants not to go.

In our sin, we can do our damnedest to keep politics out of the church, but can we, in our finitude, keep the Living God from dropping politics into our laps if God so elects? Are we able to resist the Risen Lord who persists in recruiting undeserving sinners like us into his labor?

———————-

I’m not being speculative here. 

Having returned from vacation last Sunday, I arrived here at church on Tuesday morning, bright and early, with a long To Do list and my whole work week meticulously laid out. 

Then our Lord, as he’s wont to do, messed up all my preconceived plans. He dragged politics into his church, and he strong-armed us into doing his work. 

We were in the middle of a staff meeting. 

A visitor buzzed the security intercom at Door #2. 

“I need help,” she shouted into the speaker in hesitant, broken English. 

Dottie, our secretary, buzzed her inside and showed her to my office to wait while we finished our work at the staff meeting. I figured if her request was illegitimate then she’d grow impatient with waiting and would move on to the next easy mark. 

When we were finished with our work, I walked back to my office and discovered a woman about my age, neatly but simply dressed, with her black hair pulled back taut. Three children sat across the same sofa as her. 

Their names, she told me, were Scarlett, Edward, and Denis— 6, 12, and 14 years old respectively. 

I offered her my hand and introduced myself in my broken Spanish. 

She introduced herself as Carolina. 

“I was a teacher,” she said out of the blue and looking like she was struggling to get the English right. 

I must’ve looked confused because she went on to explain, and what she told me wasn’t what I was expecting nor was it what I wanted to hear with such a busy week before me.

“We just arrived here,” she said, “last night. From Nicaragua.”

I still wasn’t processing her situation and it must’ve showed because she quickly added: “We left Nicaragua fifty days ago.”

“Porque?”

“My community very dangerous,” she said and wiped away tears, “I left— my home, my work— for them, for my children.” 

And then, as best as she could, she told me about their journey, first by bus, then on foot, and finally stowed away in the back of a delivery truck. 

Seeking asylum, they’d been separated and detained at the border and then eventually reunited and released on her own recognizance to report back at a later date. 

She pulled a cell phone out of her back pocket and showed me the documents that corraborated her story, the first one stamped with her mug shot. 

They arrived here on Monday and are now living in the basement of an acquaintance less than a minute’s walk from here. 

Literally, a stone’s throw. 

God apparently isn’t all that concerned with our concerns about keeping politics out of his Church. 

“Do you have any food?” I asked her. 

“No.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“No.”

“Do you have a lawyer— an abogado?”

“No.”

“What about your children— are they registered for school?”

She shook her head and appeared overwhelmed.

“What are you going to do?”

This time she had an answer. 

“I prayed and I prayed all last night,” she said, and she’d suddenly stopped crying and looked both serious and euphoric. “I prayed and finally God spoke. He answered me, and God said to me to come here.”

“Here?”

She nodded. 

“God said to me that he’d make you help us.”

“He did, did he?”

And she smiled and shook her head and said “Yes.” 

She said “Yes” emphatically, like she’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Isn’t that just like God,” I muttered under my breath, “he knows I don’t have time for one more thing and so he sends you my way.”

“Como?” she asked, confused by my mumbling to myself. 

“Nevermind,” I said, “it sounds like Jesus is determined for us to help you so what choice do I have?”

“None,” she said matter-of-factly, “no choice,” like it had been a serious question. 

As though God had made me her hired hand. 

———————-

Check out this parable. 

Jesus would’ve known it. It was taught by the ancient rabbis before getting recorded and canonized in the Jewish Talmud. 

“A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skillful. What did the king do? He took his laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. 

When the laborers came for their wage in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day’s wage from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, “We have toiled all day long while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage even as to us?” 

The king said to them: “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has produced more in two hours than all of you have done all the day long.”

Notice—

In the Jewish Talmudic parable, the emphasis falls on the exceptional worker’s economic productivity, but in Jesus’ remix of the parable, the stress is not on the laborer but on the landowner.

The focus is not on the worker’s activity but the owner’s activity, going out, again and again, seeking and summoning. The focus isn’t on the laborer’s contributions but on the landowner’s character, “Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Actually, in Matthew’s Greek, the landowner asks the grumbling laborers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” 

Because I am good— that’s the money line; that’s the clue.

Right before Jesus spins his version of this parable, Jesus chastises a wealthy honor roll student for calling him good. “Good teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus, “what must I do to have salvation?” 

And rather than answer him outright, Jesus takes him to task for his salutation. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

No one is good, Jesus has just said, but God.

If you want salvation, Jesus then tells him, you’ve got to be free for it. Freed for it. Go, offload all your stuff on Craigslist and then come follow me. 

In other words, whatever that word salvation includes it cannot exclude following and obeying Jesus Christ. 

Follow me, Jesus invites the rich kid with the perfect resume. 

But, Matthew reports (this was centuries before Marie Kondo), the rich young man had too much stuff in the way of following after Jesus so he turns around and turns away from Jesus and returns home. 

He is the only person recorded in the Gospels who’s invited by Jesus to become a disciple but refuses. 

And looking on the rich kid walking back home, Jesus says, “It’s hard for rich folks like him to follow me, about as hard as camel squeeing its humps and luggage through the eye of a needle.”

And the disciples, knowing they have more in common with the overachieving do-gooder than with the unemployed, homeless carpenter from Nazareth, throw up their hands, chagrined. 

“Then there’s no hope for any of us!” they gripe, “If a success story like him can’t follow you and following you is salvation, then who can be saved?”

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it’s impossible. But for God, all things are possible,” which offends Peter, who gave up his fishing business— all on his own— to come work for the Lord and here Jesus is saying “Well, God will get even losers like this rich guy to ‘Yes.’ Watch, God will make followers of them too.”

“That’s not fair” Peter grumbles, and I get it. Trust me, no one has a beef with Christ’s poor taste in Christians quite like a pastor.

“That’s not fair,” Peter gripes. 

So then Jesus doubles down with a redacted version of a familiar parable. 

———————-

The denarius, which the landowner pays all the laborers, was the daily subsistence pay required by the Torah. 

It’s prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. It’s minimum wage. It’s the equivalent of pulling a shift at Wendy’s. So the workers who show up just before quitting time— their pay is unearned, yes, but its not extravagant by any means. It’s not gratuitous; it’s what the Law requires.

This is not a parable of God’s grace as opposed to our works. 

This is a parable about God’s gracious and determined work to enlist every last loser to his work. Like alot of the parables, this one is misnamed. 

It’s not the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Heck, the laborers don’t do any labor onstage that we see at all. The laborers don’t so much as speak until they grumble at the very end. 

No, this is the Parable of the Land Owner and his prodigal labor of summoning workers to his vineyard. 

Nearly all the verbs in the story belong to him. He goes out— five times he goes out; he even goes out after there’s hardly anything left to be done— seeking laborers for his vineyard. 

Jesus tells you the takeaway at the very top of the story. 

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a landowner who went out to find laborers…”

For his what?

For his vineyard.

Jesus assumes you know the Book of Isaiah where God’s self-chosen image for Israel and her vocation— her vocation to be a light to the world, to be a peculiar, set-apart, pilgrim people, to be a holy people, to be a nation within and among the nations, to be a people who embody— unlike the nations— God’s justice and righteousness— God’s image for his elect People and their vocation in the world is a vineyard. 

It’s Isaiah chapter five. 

God is the landowner who labors in this parable. 

It’s about God’s work to find workers. 

The primary difference between a Living God and a dead god, an idol, is that the latter will never shock or surprise you, never offend you or inconvenience you, and never call you to do something you wouldn’t have done apart from conversion and worship.

This parable—

It’s about this vocative God of ours. 

This God who refuses to accomodate our apathy and functional atheism by remaining comfortably distant and idle but is instead always on the move, going out, inviting and enlisting, calling and conscripting, seeking and finding and arm-twisting Kingdom accomplices in a world that knows not that Jesus is Lord. 

We can argue whether or not there’s any work we must do as Christians who are justified by grace alone, but the reality is that Jesus Christ is not dead and if he’s got a work for you to do, by God, he’s going to give it to you and he’s going to get you to do it.

———————-

I remember—

There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was Ann. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. 

She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldnʼt have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.

Instead Ann threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they wanted, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.

I only found out about this when Annʼs mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her daughter’s head. 

Red-faced and furious, she said: “Preacher, youʼve got to talk to her. Youʼve got to convince her to change her mind. Youʼve got to show her sheʼs throwing her life away.”

Ever the obedient minister, I met with Ann and communicated all her motherʼs fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldnʼt jeopardize her career. 

The Gospel’s about grace not works, I told her.

Ann looked back at me liked Iʼd disappointed her in some way. “Didnʼt Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?” she asked.

“Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…Jewish hyperbole and all…he couldnʼt have been serious…that wouldʼve been irresponsible. At least tell me why youʼre doing this.”

“Why do you think?” she asked like there could be only possible answer and it should be obvious. “Jesus sorta came to me and he spoke to me and he told me to go and do it.”

“He did, did he?”

And her eyes narrowed, like she was about lay a straight flush down on the table. 

“Are you telling me, pastor, that I should listen to you instead of him.”

“Um, uh…okay, I think we’re done here. Just leave me out of it when you talk to your parents.”

————————

I know you want to keep politics out of the Church. 

I get it.

But the problem is, it’s not your Church and the Risen Christ, the Living God, he’s on the move. He’s always going out, calling and conscripting.

And he is free to drop whatever work he chooses into your lap whether or not it obeys our boundaries of what’s acceptable. 

The Lord is no respecter of propiety. With pictures of asylum seekers all over the newspapers, God this week brought politics in to his church here. 

And just like that, God got us to working. 

Meredith, our Children’s Director, found games to occupy the kids while they waited. Peter put down what he was doing and left to stuff his trunk with food for them. And I stared at the fourteen items I had on my To Do list for the day as I waited on hold, making calls all day long for Carlina, connecting her with the county, finding her a lawyer, locating services, resourcing her three kids.

When we drove them home later, I carried bags of food inside and I gave her my cell number and I told her that if there was anything else she needed to call me. It was the sort of compassionate gesture you make to someone when you don’t really expect them to take you up on the offer. 

Later that night I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize. 

“This is Carolina,” it said, “thank you to you and your church.”

“De nada.”

And then I watched the text bubbles roll up and down as she texted another message. “The school say I need to go to Central Office to register my children.” 

“How are you going to get there?” I texted back. 

“I prayed,” she replied, “and God said you should take me.”

“He did, did he?”

“Si.”

And then the next text quickly followed.

“God say to tell you that I’m baptized. You have an obligation to me. As a brother. In Christ.” 

“That’s the annoying inconvenience of worshipping a Living God,” I typed but didn’t send. 

And so, thanks to Jesus, I spent most of the next day driving her and her children to Merrifield to get her kids registered and tested and immunized. And then the next day, Jesus apparently summoned my wife and son to go purchase school supplies for all of them. 

———————-

At the end of the week, I mentioned all the details to Dottie, our secretary and she replied, “In order to be a pastor, you must have to really enjoy helping people in need.” 

“Enjoy?” I asked, “Do you know many people in need? Most of them aren’t that enjoyable.” 

“Then why did you choose to do it?” 

“Choose? I didn’t choose it at all. I got summoned.”