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

If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you’d never say it was good news.

———————

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

Judgement?

This sounds like bad news.

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

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

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

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

For us.

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

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

It has been good news for 11 chapters.

Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:

Freedom from the Law.

Freedom from having to do right.

Freedom from the burden of human performance.

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

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

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

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

———————

     But-

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

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

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

Not our participation in persecution or war

Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress

Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine

If nothing we do-

If nothing we turn a blind eye to-

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

——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judgement. Mercy.

Which is it, Paul?

It can’t be both/and can it?

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

How do we square it?

Because you have to do something with it.

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

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

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

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

Not some.

All:

unbelievers and believers

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again

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

    The “saved” are not spared.

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

And who did not.

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

Just like Jesus said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.

     Purgation is not damnation. 

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

Again, how is this good news?

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

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

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

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

   ——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

And what I prayed…I prayed about them.

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

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

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

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

Bring your judgement I begged.

Bring your judgement- upon them.

God damn them all. 

It was a good prayer, I thought.

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

At least he said the magic word.

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

    ———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was already beaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

     And it is- all right here.

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

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

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

It was a debate over politics and identity.

It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’

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

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

Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.

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

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

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

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

“Judgement begins with the household of God.”

Pay attention now-

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

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

To bear judgement.

Upon themselves.

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

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

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

He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.

———————

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

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

He said:

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

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

———————

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

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

It’s us. We’re the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.

Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.

     We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

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

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

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

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

——————-

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

It received hundreds of positive reviews.

It helped inspire HBO’s West World.

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

It’s a good movie.

But you’d never call it good news.

You’d never call it good news.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sing “this Little light of mine”]

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

In a word, it was a song sung boldly.

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

“Glorying.”

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

“Glorying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans with 12.1-2, 9-16.

Pay attention to the passive voice:

“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”

“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.

“…these times will be made right.”

Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.

Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).

Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”

Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”

The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.

Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.

Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”

He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.

And he did not say we’re using this for good.

Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”

We’re being used by God for good.

The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”

Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.

About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”

“…they are being made strong.”

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     “…these times will be made by right.”

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     Pay attention to the passive:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.

I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.

“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.

You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.

Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.

The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.

The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.

Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.

Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.

The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.

Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).

And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.

All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.

A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.

Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.

     You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.

You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.

You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.

You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.

It’s all been about what God does.

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     So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?

What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies. 

If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.

The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.

Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.

That’s different.

That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.

Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.

You are in Jesus Christ.

And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.

Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Pay attention to the language.

That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”

God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.

To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.

What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:

The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

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     Pay attention to the passive.

Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.

The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.

They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.

She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.

She’d had no idea what to say.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.

But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.

It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.

God is living.

Acting.

At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”

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     Look-

You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.

Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.

You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.

You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.

You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.

     None of it is possible for you to do.

     But all of it is possible for the Living God to do in you.

The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.

The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.

And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.

But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

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     The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.

The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.

Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

Razing Hell

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2017 — 3 Comments

        Here’s my sermon from this weekend, continuing our summer series through Romans. The text was Romans 11.25-32.  

Back in the day, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey.

I enjoyed it.

In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else. Not to mention, preaching is different when the men hearing you aren’t there because their wives or mothers have forced their attendance.

So I enjoyed the prison, but I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.

Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement. It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door with just a sliver of thick plexiglass for a window, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb. Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place.

But not for the reasons you might expect.

Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sergeant named Moore.

Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.

Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper. I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me heated ridicule.

      He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’

He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’

Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us.

He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and he refused to come in.

Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed. The locked prison door between us.

About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal heart attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him.

I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.

‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.

‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’

Back then- at the beginning of my ministry, before I was the wise and seasoned pastor you see before you- I tended towards sarcasm. So even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying to Sergeant Moore:

‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.

Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’

He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’

‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked, playing with him.

‘Oh, since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’

Officer Moore pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable. His eyes took a bead on me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’

He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief.  So then I added: ‘Metaphors for something much worse maybe.’

That got his attention.

‘Your loving God sends people to a place worse than brimstone just because they don’t believe in him?’ he asked.

     ‘Who said anything about God sending them there?’ I said.

‘No, I think Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside.’

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and mature pastor you see before you, so I didn’t mention to him that I’d plagiarized that line from C.S. Lewis.

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Hell is a place where the door is locked from the inside. 

By us.

I said.

Back then.

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But is it?

Is that even possible?

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“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks 3 chapters prior to today’s text.

If God is for us- all of us

If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us

And not only us-

If God is determined to rescue and restore all of creation from its bondage to the Power of Sin, then what could stand in God’s way?

“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks back in Romans 8.

If God made each of us and all that is and called it very good- that’s Genesis 1.

And if God is determined to make each of us and all that is beautiful again- that’s Genesis 12.

If God in Jesus Christ came for all- that’s John 1.

If Christ died for all- that’s 2 Corinthians 5.15.

If Jesus the Judge was judged in your place, once for all- that’s Hebrews 10.

And if God raised Jesus from the dead as the first fruit, the first sign, the harbinger of what God intends to do for all of creation- 1 Corinthians 15

If that’s what God intends, then what is to stop God from getting what God wants?

If God’s unambiguous aim is the salvation of all, then what ultimately can get in God’s way?

Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.

That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.

Or, as Paul frames it back in Romans 8: ‘What can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What, in the end, can separate us from God?

And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:

Hardship. Check. Injustice. Check. Persecution. Famine. Check. Check.Nakedness. Nope.War. Not it either. It can’t separate us from the love of God. None of them. Not Death. Not Rulers. Not Powers. Neither things present nor things to come. Not anything in all of creation. Nothing can separate us from what God wants to do with us.

Except-

The Apostle Paul does leave one possibility off his list: Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. War. Death. Rulers. Powers.

There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.

One potential disqualifier remains: Us.

Hardship. Injustice. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Not any of them can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but what about us?

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What about us? Can we separate ourselves from the love of God?

Can we separate ourselves from God through our unbelief, through our lack of faith, through our disobedient refusal to accept the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

Do we possess that power? Do we possess the ability to separate ourselves forever from the love of God? To slam the door and throw the lock?

Can we really run away and hide forever from a God who’s so determined to get us he chases us all the way to a cross and back? If Nakedness and Famine and War can’t do it, can we? Can we separate ourselves from God so that the God who desires the salvation of all only ends up with some?

    Can we make it so that the God who wants all only gets some?

Do we have the capacity to keep from God the everything God wants?

That’s the question Paul takes up next in Romans 9-11 and he does so by turning to the most obvious example available to him.

Israel.

The Jews- those who’ve received the message of the Gospel and not responded in faith and obedience.

When it comes to unbelievers like them, has the Word of God failed? Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 9.

How are they to be saved by him in whom they have not believed? Paul asks in Romans 10.

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it? Paul asks at the top of today’s chapter.

And just the grammar of that last question gives away the answer. As soon as Paul refers to Israel as God’s People he’s already shown his tell: “By no means!” Paul answers immediately in verse 1.

By no means! God has not rejected God’s People. His chosen People.  The People he’s promised, no-strings-attached: “I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not really the case that God has rejected God’s People, is it?

By no means – for if God will break his promise to them, then Paul could’ve ended his letter back in Romans 8.

And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.

Who can separate us from the love of God? Well, Paul, it turns out God can separate us from God. God can break his no-strings-attached unconditional covenant promise. God can reject God’s People.

So-

Has God rejected God’s People?

By no means! is the only possible answer for Paul.

God has not rejected God’s People because they reject God’s Messiah.

Or rather, in rejecting God’s Messiah they have not separated themselves from the love of God. Because Israel- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been about what God does not about what we do, and Paul’s focus on the agency of God doesn’t change when he turns to God’s People in chapters 9-11.

God’s People- They’re not responsible for their rejection of God’s Messiah.

They’re not the acting agents. They’re not behind their lack of belief. Their failure of faith is not their fault. They’ve not decided to disobey. No.

If God cannot break a no-strings-attached promise, if- by no means- has God rejected his People, then that leaves only one possibility for Paul.

Israel’s rejection of Christ and God’s apparent rejection of them- it’s God’s doing, not their own.

And, Paul says, it fits a pattern of what God has always done:

God choosing Abel over Cain. God choosing Jacob over Esau. Moses over Pharaoh. God choosing David over Saul. God choosing Israel over all the other nations of the earth.  What looks like God’s rejection of some in scripture always serves God’s election of all. Even the Father rejecting the Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” even that forsaking is for all.

Have God’s People stumbled so as to fall away forever from God? Paul asks in verse 11 before he answers in the very same breath: “No!”

Instead their stumbling, their rejection- like Abel instead of Cain, like Sarah instead of Hagar, like Isaac instead of Ishmael- their stumbling is for the reconciliation of the whole world, Paul says in verse 15.

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

Let me say that again because it’s so paradoxical it can only be Gospel:

The failure of some to believe does not frustrate God’s aim to save all.

The failure of some to believe is in fact the means by which God is working even now to show mercy to all.

Paul calls this means a “mystery.”

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon some of Israel, until all [the world] has come to God.”

Only, in the New Testament, the word mystery doesn’t refer to something still unknown to us. In the New Testament, a mystery isn’t something that leaves you still in the dark scratching your head. In the New Testament, a mystery is a secret that’s been revealed to us by God- a mystery is a secret that can be told.

As when the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” and then Paul proclaims the secret that’s been revealed to us: “We will not die…we will be changed…for on the day of Resurrection we will be raised…that which is perishable will become imperishable.”

Likewise, here Paul writes to the Church at Rome: “I want you to understand this secret that’s been revealed to us…”

The mystery- the mystery is that God has chosen some for disobedience so that others might obey.

The mystery is that God has chosen some for disbelief so that others might believe.

The opened secret is that God has chosen ungodliness for some so that others might find God.

“…a hardening has come upon them…” Paul says.

Note the passive voice. Notice, it’s not: “They’ve hardened their hearts.” It’s come upon them. God is doing it.

Just as you believe in Jesus Christ solely by the gracious work of God upon you, so too they disbelieve because of the work of God upon them.

A hardening has come upon some so that all might come to God, Paul says.

And then in the next verse, Paul declares: “…so all Israel will be saved.” Pantes is the word and Paul doesn’t qualify it all. It means all.

Notice what Paul doesn’t say-

He doesn’t say all Israel will believe. He doesn’t say all Israel will confess Jesus Christ and thereby be saved. He just says all Israel will be saved. Your belief, their unbelief- it’s a mystery.

It’s all God’s doing.

Your belief is not your doing. Their unbelief is not their doing.

It’s all God’s doing.

So-

Those who reject the love of God in Jesus Christ, those who reject the Gospel, they’re not enemies of God. God has made them enemies of the Gospel for you.

For your sake: “…God has imprisoned some in disobedience so that God might be merciful to all.”

You see, for Paul the danger isn’t that unbelievers could ever separate themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus; the danger is that believers like you will draw that conclusion.

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A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.

I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.

Specifically, I highlighted these words:

It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’

I left the book in his mailbox.

A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.

As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.

I asked if he read the book. Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl. He slid the book between the bars.

‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me. And then he told me to go the Hell away.

Back then, I wasn’t the wise and seasoned and quick-witted pastor you see before you today. To be honest, back then I hadn’t ever read the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Because if I had I could’ve told him.

You’re right, I could’ve said to him. It is a whole lot of nonsense. C.S. Lewis might’ve known a lot about lions and wardrobes and Turkish Delight, but he didn’t know jack abut this secret that’s been revealed to us: the mystery. 

     The mystery of our disobedience.

You’re right, I could’ve, should’ve, would’ve said to him.

Hell is where the door is locked from the inside by us?! That’s a whole lot of nonsense. 

     Not only is it idolatrous, for it imagines a Self who desires are stronger than God’s desire. 

     It completely misses the mystery that’s been revealed to us: that salvation is the work of God where even our ‘No’ to God serves God’s ultimate ‘Yes’ to us. Even our ‘No’ to God is itself the work of God working towards what God wants for all. 

     You’re right, I could’ve shot back at the Sergeant.  

     It is a whole lot of nonsense. 

     How could we ever separate ourselves forever from the love of God in Jesus Christ when even the disobedience of some is part of God’s plan for all? 

     God is bigger than our badness. 

     We can’t lock Hell’s doors from the inside because ultimately the work of God is going to make even our disobedience and disbelief work in our favor because of his favor, his unmerited favor, which is his grace. 

     The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary. 

     God will banish all ungodliness. 

      God will turn disobedience to obedience. God will turn disbelief into belief. 

     God will transform unfaithfulness to faithfulness as surely as he can bring life from death. 

     And in the meantime- I could’ve told him.

     There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord- whether you like it or not.

     There is nothing about you that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

    There is nothing in all of creation- not war, not famine, not powers or persecution, not even you- there is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God because everything in creation in is a work of God’s grace. 

     Even your disbelief. 

Maybe you can lock the door for a time, I could’ve said to him, but forever? In the end God will raze even Hell to get what God wants.

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Of course, if I had told him all that back then, he would’ve just grumbled some more.

If all are saved, no matter what, then what’s the point? He might’ve replied.

Why should I bother following your Jesus?

     Back then I wasn’t the wise and seasoned preacher you see before you. I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to say to him what I’d say today:

What’s the point if all are saved? 

     What’s the point of being first rather than last? 

    Why be found rather than lost? 

     Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance? 

     

     Why be fully human?

     What’s the point? 

To ask the question is to miss the point.

     

     

 

 

 

 

    This weekend I went back to preach at the church where I first came to the faith as a teenager, Woodlake United Methodist Church. They’re in the midst of a sermon series called ‘Curveball: When Life Doesn’t Play Fair.”

Here’s my sermon on Matthew 6.1-13, the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

I’ll post the video when I have it.

God’s Not Throwing You the Curve

     It’s strange and exciting to be preaching here today. I want to thank you all for the opportunity.

I mean, it only took incurable cancer and 20-something years for you to get me here but who’s counting? At this rate I’ll have to contract the Zika virus to get invited back.

Other than a shot-gun wedding I attended as a kid, where even the crucifix on the altar wall looked like Jesus had misgivings about the bride’s and groom’s chances, I’d never darkened the doorway of a church until my mother forced me to come to Woodlake Church one Christmas Eve when I was a teenager.

As I tell my congregation all the time, I’m your fault.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor at Aldersgate, is the one responsible for me being a minister today. But you all are the ones responsible for making me a Christian- just in the nick of time too, I think.

I want to thank Gordon for the invitation to preach for you today.

I feel like Gordon is a brother from another mother (unless my mother was up to things I’m not aware of). Not only is Gordon a hardcore Nationals fan like myself, Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, is also the pastor who started this church so both Gordon and I know what it’s like to clean up after Dennis.

I was confirmed here at Woodlake 23 years ago.

23 years- it was a different world. Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, 23 years ago…

The White House was mired in scandal and being chased by a special prosecutor because of a President who might also a sexual predator (those jokes go over better inside the Beltway).

And back then, the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet seemed incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and was undermining American interests abroad and OJ Simpson’s legal troubles were all over TV and Talk Radio.

Like I said, it was a completely different world!

I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.

Back then, Dennis Perry wasn’t yet the white-haired, humor-less, passion-less, husk of his former self he is today.

No, back then everything was different.

Back then, Dennis obviously was into fashion (look at that sweater) and progressive gender roles.

Back then, Dennis was bold. Bold enough to wear Wilfred Brimley sunglasses even before the age of 65. I’d never wear those sunglasses, but that’s because I’m a coward. Dennis- back then Dennis was brave.

23 years ago I was confirmed here.

Because I hadn’t grown up in the Church, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.

I was different back then.

I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. I remember, he seemed ill-prepared, like he was just shooting from the hip.

He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.

And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board:

immutable.

     ‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’

We might change. The world might change.

The circumstances of your life might change.

But God does not change. Ever.

Then he said the word again and underlined it.

Immutable.

God doesn’t change.

That’s a lesson I learned when you all confirmed me into the faith 23 years ago.

And when a curveball called cancer nearly destroyed my life 2 years ago, it’s the lesson that saved my faith.

Immutable.

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That was 23 years ago. And the world does change.

23 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.

It was a different world.

Over 30 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.

And the year this church was founded, 30 years ago, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.

It was a different world. It is a different world.

Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One-fifth of everybody.

If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.

Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’

Not only does the Church exist in a completely different world now, the Church is also carrying a great deal of baggage into this new world.

    According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’

87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

All that together adds up to one very large millstone Christians are putting around our necks today.

A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended: God is against you.

     Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?

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As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place. Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.

As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often. As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.

3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.

They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions.

And they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how. This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’ 

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The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The who the pagans prayed to was:

An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve. An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן.

Ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork. In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil. In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.

Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.

Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.

No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.

Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved. Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.

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Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish.

An ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.

He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’

And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.

The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love. The Father who forgives for we know not what we do. The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return. The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.

We’re pointed to his Father. And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number. Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural. It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now. We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.

One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father. He made it plural. We’ve been included. And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.

The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end.

Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’

In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.

Deliver us from the accuser.

In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.

When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us, that God is the one throwing curve balls at us.

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A year and a half ago, I woke up from emergency abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, ultimately incurable, cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. No matter how many Hallmark cards you get telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, you can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting.

When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And, when you’re as narcissistic as me, you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

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I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized it, here at Woodlake Church because, you know, might as well come full circle.

I pictured the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this sanctuary is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream folks send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like Lily Pulitzer exploded all over it.

In my daydream there’s flowers all over and the pews are packed.

Its standing room only out in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Gal Gadot.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis Perry, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the piano Michael Berkley plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Michael Berkley, all the while, is chagrined, wishing I’d instead chosen Elton John’s Candle in the Wind for my funeral service.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar, my casket is followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the Bishop Sharma Lewis slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late but Stephen Hawking assures her in his Speak-N-Spell voice that she can sit next to him.

After the opening hymn, when Michael Berkley finishes, Dennis gets up to preach.

And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Gordon and Gordon, first, he reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then Gordon looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, an ensemble choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the singers veer off key because Michael Berkley’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it.

So the choir, even if they’re singing off key, they’re singing their heart out enough that Scarlett Johansson leans over to ask Dennis if she can borrow a tissue.

‘Can I have one too?’ Penelope Cruz asks Dennis just as the singers belt out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali, my wife, chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me.

She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at Woodlake swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

And as God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to the reception where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture.

Of me.

But I digress.

My point is-

     For a long time, I thought this malady in my marrow, this curveball called incurable cancer, was going to kill me quick.

And I daydreamed.

And I raged. And I despaired.

And I asked questions- I asked a question.

You know the question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Usually, as a pastor, I’m not the one asking that question; usually I’m on the receiving end of the question.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS.

LIFE THROWS YOU CURVE BALLS.

-and we think…God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

That this curve ball coming in on us because God is against us.

Life happens and we want to know why. Why is God doing this to me?

And of course we don’t have answers to the why. Any one who tells you they do is a liar.

But we do have an answer about the who.

The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:

     The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God. 

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that. Don’t be like the pagans.

And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer.

When you pray…pray this way.

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Very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.

A little ‘g’ god who throws lightening bolts and curve balls at us because of this or that sin.

While I was sick and in intense chemo for a year, I wore this prayer Jesus gives us thin and threadbare I prayed it so much.

I prayed it constantly because, on the one hand, I didn’t have the strength to come up with my words or wishes of own, but mostly I prayed it because I needed this constant reminder.

The reminder that is the reason Jesus gives this prayer.

The reminder in that strange word Dennis Perry at Woodlake Church first taught me.

The reminder that God doesn’t change.

God’s never changed. God will never change.

God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.

Dennis taught me that when I was confirmed into the faith, but when a curve ball called incurable cancer upended my life, it saved my faith too.

God doesn’t change.

And so God never changes his mind about us. You.

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

God doesn’t change.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.

We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

God- Jesus says- sends rain upon the just and the unjust.

God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.

God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

God is an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,

a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

God is for us. You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Because God doesn’t change.

And if God doesn’t change, then God isn’t the one throwing you the curve.

The god you think is throwing you curves isn’t God.

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I like to think I’m unique in all things; the cancer I got is incredibly rare.

The chances you’ll get what I got are tiny.

But the chances you’ll have some curveball or another upend your life- those odds…

are dead-nuts around 100%.

And even if you make it through life without a curveball you won’t make it out life alive.

So remember.

Remember what I was so grateful to remember that I’d learned here.

That 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…

Pray like this…

 

 

 

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on one of Paul’s most famous (and most significant) passages, 7.14-25:

“For I know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under Sin. I do not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very things we hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the Law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me. 
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a Law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Law of God in my inmost selves, but I see within me another Law at war with the Law of my mind, making me captive to the Law of Sin that dwells within me.
Wretched creatures that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death? Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God!”

     “I’d seen women who admitted to having an abortion receive forgiveness, and I’d noticed how women who had kept their babies seemed somehow harder to forgive. But the more I thought about abortion, the more I knew I couldn’t go through with it. 

     In my view, abortion is taking a life that belongs to God alone, and I couldn’t do that. I chose what I believed to be the good; I didn’t know all this would follow from my decision.” 

Maybe you read the story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. Or maybe you caught it on CBS, Fox, or CNN (FAKE NEWS).

Maddi Runkles, soon to be a freshman at Bob Jones University, is an 18 year old graduate of Heritage Academy, a private Christian high school in Frederick, Maryland.

She’s also in her second trimester and due in the fall.

According to her own first-person account in the Washington Post, Maddi Runkles was a straight A student at Heritage Academy. She sported a 4.0 GPA and she played forward on the school soccer team. She was president of the Student Council and vice-president of the Key Club.  She volunteered every Sunday in her Baptist Church’s nursery and taught at Vacation Bible School every summer. Maddi was by her own testimony an over-achieving, brown-nosing, not just a good but a perfect student.

She out-Wobegoned all the children of Lake Wobegone. She was successful at everything except thing.

She failed to keep her chastity pledge.

She was born again and soon to give birth.

When Maddi Runkles confessed her secret to her parents late this winter, they bucked the stereotype of conservative Christian parents. They did not scorn their daughter. Her Dad even told her: “God is in this somewhere with you and we’ll be with you too.” 

Before you smile and tear up, let me tell you about her school.

As word of Maddi’s sin got out, Heritage Academy convened their school board for an emergency meeting where they moved to strip Maddi of all her leadership positions in the student body. They kicked her off the soccer team. They suspended her. They even told her she could not attend her younger brother’s baseball games.

They didn’t hand her a big, fat red A for her letter jacket, but they did they ban her from campus until after she delivered her baby.

The school board even called a school-wide student assembly where Maddi confessed her transgression to her peers, expressed repentance, and asked for their forgiveness.

Nevertheless, the school board informed Maddi that while they would permit her to receive her diploma, they would not allow her to walk with her classmates at the graduation ceremony.

That was the straw.

The board’s decision to exclude Maddi from her graduation provoked a public outcry, which emboldened Maddi’s family to fight the graduation ban. When Maddi’s story went viral and the school started to receive mocking press coverage, her community’s reflex was to protect the school.

Eventually, her community turned on her, making the Runkles family the object of nasty emails, inflammatory social media posts, rude remarks in public, and dangerous threats in private. Some of Maddi’s friends from Heritage Academy, seeing their school in danger, said she was spoiled and seeking publicity.

They slut-shamed her.

They attend bible class at Heritage Academy for an hour every school day.

In a letter to the parents, the principal of Heritage Academy wrote that Maddi was “being disciplined not because she is pregnant but because she is immoral…the best way to love her- (pay attention to the words) the good we can do for her right now- is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.” 

     The best way to love her…the good we can do for her.

According to the New York Times, Maddi Runkles keeps an ultrasound photo of her baby on her nightstand. It’s a boy. She refers to him as a “blessing.”

Nevertheless, Maddi confessed to the reporter:

“I chose life. I chose (pay attention to the words) the good, but now that I see what my decision has produced…sometimes it feels like it wasn’t worth it.”

For that very reason, that Maddi Runkles would even entertain regret over what she believed had been the good and right act of not seeking an abortion, pro-life organizations like March for Life and Students for Life rallied to her side.

As Jeanne Mancini, President of March for Life pointed out to the Post:

“In the manner they held Maddi accountable, Heritage Academy, a vigorously anti-abortion school, has made it more likely that future students like Maddi will choose to have an abortion.”

     The theologian Karl Barth said that preachers should approach the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. What Barth meant was that the world, as its described in the Good News of the Gospel- becomes clearer to see when you find it confirmed by and corroborated in the pages of your newspaper.

    Here’s what readers of both the newspaper and today’s scripture text should ask:

In choosing the good of carrying her baby to term, did Maddi Runkles seek to split her school and community apart?

In holding Maddi accountable did Heritage Academy mean to shame and stigmatize her? Was it their goal to encourage other students to opt for abortion in the future?

Did the Heritage school board intend to undermine their school and do its reputation damage by enforcing what they took to be the integrity of the honor code?

Of course, the answer to all of the above is “No.”

The bitter irony- the bitter biblical irony- is that everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good. Everyone involved was doing what they took to be the good.

But through them…

     Through them, a different outcome entirely was worked.

     And the passive voice there reveals everything.

——————-

     If the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans was a play instead of an epistle, it it was a script with a Dramatis Personnae at the beginning, then it would be obvious even before you read it that in Romans Sin has a starring role.

Now, I know, if you all wanted to hear about sin, you wouldn’t have fled your Baptist and Catholic upbringings for a denomination where our only strong conviction is that ‘God is nice.’

You all don’t want to hear about sin; no one wants to hear about sin anymore.

But the drama of Paul’s Gospel story of rectification by grace is unintelligible without Sin as a primary cast member. Paul’s plot is incomplete without Sin as a main character.

Don’t buy it?

In all of his letters, Paul uses the word sin (hamartia) 81 times, more than he uses any other word. Of those 81 times, 60 occur in his Letter to the Romans. Over 2/3 of those usages occur right here in this chunk of Romans, chapters 5-8.

I realize you don’t want to hear about sin in church, but you need to realize the sin you don’t want to hear about in church is not sin as Paul most often uses the word in Romans.

Sin, for Paul, is not primarily a behavior. Sin is not something we do. Sin is not pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or self-righteously slut-shaming a teenage girl.

Sin is not something we do; Sin is a Something that Does.

Sin is not a lowercase transgression. Sin is an uppercase Power. A Power that ensnares and enslaves and stands over and against God. Sin is a Power whose ultimate defeat the cross and resurrection portend. Sin is an Agency- a Power synonymous with the Power of Satan. It’s Sin with a capital S.

Just notice how Paul here in Romans 7 doesn’t use Sin as the verb we do but as the subjects of its own verbs: “…it is no longer I that do it, but Sin that dwells within me.”

And again in verse 20: “…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that dwells within me…” 

Literally, in the Greek, it’s:

“…if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but Sin that has set up a base of operations within me.”

It’s a military term. Just as he has in the preceding chapters, the language Paul uses here in Romans 7 is the language of battle and war.

Sin isn’t an attribute of us; Sin is an Antagonist against us.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you- that’s the sin no one wants to hear about in church.

Sin isn’t a character flaw in you. Sin is cosmic terrorist that can invade even you.

Sin is an Enemy that can set up a base of operations within you.

  ———————

     Notice what Paul doesn’t say in Romans 7.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t say he is unable to do the good that he wants to do.

Paul doesn’t say he is incapable of willing the good he wishes to accomplish.

The problem isn’t that he’s impotent to will the good. The problem is not that he knows the good in his head but he can’t bring his heart or his hands to choose it.

No, that’s not it. The problem isn’t that he’s impotent. The problem is that he is not.

He wills the good that he wants to do- he is able. He does the good he wants to do, but, in doing the good, what he produces, what his good act accomplishes is unrecognizable to his intention.

No good deed goes unpunished, we say. But what Paul is saying: every good deed turns out as a kind of punishment. Every good deed ends up destructive.

     “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I accomplish.” 

     Don’t let the switch to the first-person singular in chapter 7 fool you. Paul hasn’t changed the subject. Paul’s not describing his inner conflict; Paul’s describing an invasion.

His problem isn’t a divided self but a self enslaved to Another. As he says plainly in verse 14, he’s talking about the Self bound to a Slave Master.

Paul’s not narrating shock at seeing what he has done despite his best intentions. He’s narrating the shock at seeing what Sin has done through him, disguised in his best intentions.

William Faulkner said the theme of all lasting literature is the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner may be right about literature, but Paul is not writing fiction.

Paul isn’t writing here about the human heart in conflict with itself. Paul doesn’t mean that there is an alter-ego within each us, contending against us. No, Paul means that there is an Antagonist at work in the world, contending against God, an Alien Power that can reach as far down as into us and twist even our good works to evil.

We can will Life, Paul says, but through us Sin can will Death.

And not just through us- Paul says the contagion of Sin’s reach extends even into God’s own Law:

“The Law is holy and just and good. But Sin, seizing an opportunity in the Law, deceived me and through the Law killed me.”

     You see, this is why Paul argues so aggressively against requiring Gentile converts to obey the Jewish Law. It’s why he’s so adamant that requiring Gentile converts to follow the Law is in fact a false Gospel.

It’s not because the Law in and of itself is bad or evil. And it’s not simply that Paul wants to lower the bar for admission because adult circumcision is a tough sell.

It’s that the Law has been taken hostage by the Power of Sin such that the faithful religious person in their service to God actually serves the Lordship of Sin.

That’s the awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here in Romans 7.

It’s not the mystery of the human heart in conflict with itself.

It’s the mystery of God’s Law and God’s People twisted, unwittingly, into conflict against God.

It’s the horror that the Power of Sin can co-opt and contravene even the religion God gave us; so that, the outcome of our faithful actions ends up in contradiction to their intent.

     The awful mystery with which Paul wrestles here is that even in serving God the religious person can in fact be serving God’s Enemy.

And if you need an example of what Paul has in mind by this awful mystery, Exhibit A is hanging on the altar wall.

Look at that and listen to Paul again:

      “I can will what is right, but I cannot accomplish it. For I do not end up doing the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I produce.” 

     Evil is not it’s own agency. Evil is what the Power of Sin does through the minions it fools and conscripts as accomplices. Through the Law, through Religion, through People of Piety.

For 6 chapters, the Apostle Paul has been narrating Sin’s long resume. He’s called it a Power. He’s called it a King. He’s called it a Wage-Master and a Slaver-Taker. He’s given it adjectives like Dominion and Lordship. He’s given it synonyms like Death and Satan.

But on Sin’s resume, Paul saves this talk of the Law and the Enslaved Self for last.

Paul saves the worst for last.

He saves the Law and the enslaved “I” for last because for Paul there is no more awful accomplishment of Sin, no grosser testament to the demonic Power of Sin than Sin’s ability to pervert even the best of our piety, to make a wretch of the most sincere religious person, to take even our godly obedience- even our obedience– and twist it to ungodly ends.

Paul saves the worst for last. The Power of Sin is so insidious that the biggest threat to your soul…is you.

     Show of hands-

     Heritage Academy’s Principal, David Hobbs- how many of you think that he heard about Maddi Runkles’ pregnancy and said to himself “I think I’m going to shame and stigmatize a student today.”

Do you think Principal David Hobbs woke up one morning and said to himself “I think I’d like to drag my school’s reputation through the mud, make its leaders look like hypocrites, and make our religion look ridiculous and shallow.”

Do you think he and his school board members put their heads together and chose to be the bad guys in the story?

If your reaction to this newspaper story is to villainize the principal and the school board members as stigmatizing, self-righteous, slut-shaming sexists, if your immediate impulse is to judge them, then you’re not hearing the Apostle Paul today.

     It’s only in comic books that villains choose to be villains.

And only in comic books do the villains know they are villains from the get-go.

     The rest of us, St. Paul says, we set out to serve the Good.

We set out to serve God.

And only later discover ourselves to be serving his Enemy.

By all accounts Principal David Hobbs is a much experienced and much more beloved educator.

He and the school board reached their decision to discipline Maddi only after “much prayer and scripture-study and spiritual discernment.”  In an interview, Principal Hobbs said:  “We do believe in forgiveness, but forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability.” 

And guess what? He’s right.

Forgiveness is not the opposite of accountability; in fact, forgiveness without accountability is what the Church calls cheap grace.

In that same interview, Principal Hobbs explained: “We teach our students about the beauty of marriage and that sex inside marriage is what Christians believe God desires for marriage and is one of the attributes that makes it beautiful.” 

Again, he’s right. That is what the Church teaches, what all Christian traditions teach.

     The good that David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board pursued is a godly good.

     And yet- and yet…through them…

As Kristen Hawkins, President of Students for Life, said to the Washington Post:

     “What this school is doing in advocating for Christian morality is the antithesis of being Christian.”

What they’ve done is the antithesis of what they sought to do.

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it: “Sin, seizing an opportunity in their Religion, deceived them and through them…” 

Maddi Runkles and Heritage Academy Christian School- that’s just one small story ripped from the newspaper.

Never mind what Karl Barth said, you don’t need the New York Times. 

     Just think about your own daily domestic destruction- we do the most damage to the people we love most and, most often, the damage we do we do in trying to do them good.

Or rather, we don’t do them damage.

But through us…through us…

The Power that has set up a base of operations within us…

Can pervert even our best and most faithful and loving intentions.

——————-

    Christians like Principal David Hobbs, Christians like the school board members at Heritage Academy, Christians like Maddi Runkle’s slut-shaming friends- they’re all the kinds of Christians who make Non-Christians write off Christianity.

Let’s face it-

That’s how Maddi’s story made it into outlets like the New York Times; it’s a salacious story that undermines Christianity in the public eye.

But frankly, I’m sick and tired of people who try to dismiss Christianity because every Sunday Christians like you are just as petty and racist and passive aggressive and sexist and corrupt and apathetic and hypocritical and greedy as everyone else.

Really, Christians like Principal David Hobbs and the Heritage Academy school board members and the straight A, born again slut-shamers…

Imperfect and immoral and hypocritical Christians like you-

You’re not an argument against Christianity

You’re the best argument for Christianity.

Because if St. Paul is right

If the Power of Sin is so insidious it can pervert even the best of our piety

Twist our most godly acts to ungodly ends

Then that means absolutely NO ONE

No one can claim that they do not need Jesus Christ.

If the Power of Sin is such that it can turn God’s saints into unwitting servants of God’s Enemy, if even the best of us cannot be good, then nothing you do can be relied upon to make you right with God, to rectify the balance sheet of your life, to justify you before the judgement of God.

If Paul is right about the Power of Sin, then nothing you do- not your piety or your prayers, not your religion or your resume, not your good deeds or your good name, not your charity or your character or your career or your church attendance, not your beliefs or your bible study- nothing you do can be relied upon to justify you before God because in all of it, Paul says, you could just as likely be serving God’s Enemy.

If Paul is right, if the Power of Sin is such that it can pervert what we do for  God for the Enemy’s own ends, then we can never trust what we have done.

We can never trust what we have done to justify us.

We can only ever trust what God has done for us.

Imperfect, impatient, petty, immoral, hypocritical Christians- you’re the best argument for Christianity because if the Power of Sin is such that it can corrupt even you then NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, NOBODY can say that they do not need the justification that God offers us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

No one-

No one here

And no one who would never be caught dead in here

No one

Religious or Irreligious

Secular or Spiritual

Christian or Non-Christian

Sinner or Supposed Saint

     No one can say they do not need the grace offered in Jesus Christ.

Because no one can say for sure that in serving God…

They haven’t actually been serving Another instead.

The fact is- you don’t need to believe Paul.

The truth of it is all over the newspaper every day.

We can never be certain which Lord we’re really serving.

Which makes you- me- the perfect argument not against the Gospel but for it. Because the Gospel message is that no matter what you have done, because of what Christ has done, regardless of what Lord you have served, our Lord declares you in the right. As a gift.

That’s good news.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     My colleague Karla Kincannon lost her Dad late Saturday morning. I filled in for her at the last minute, continuing our summer series in Romans with 8.32-39.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Caesar not only knew how to dig a sewer, pitch an aqueduct, and make a killer salad, Caesar knew better than most of you the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Caesar of his day, the Roman Emperor Trajan.

In the letter Pliny sought to offer explanation to Caesar for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he had encountered. These people called Christians.

Some of these Christians Pliny punished.

Some he tortured and executed.

Still others, those who were Roman citizens, like Paul, he transferred back to Rome.

But not every Christian kept the faith. Not a few offered to go cold turkey and give up the faith in the face of persecution. What about them?

What did Pliny do with them? What did Rome require of them?

————————

     You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Caesar that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense- in other words, a sacrifice of worship- before a statue of the Emperor.

And while you did so, before the image of the Emperor, you needed to confess.

To profess: “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renunciants to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private.

Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession.

Pliny didn’t invite them to close their eyes, bow their heads, and raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar in their hearts.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

    What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to it.

Pliny saw with cold clarity what many Christians today miss:

that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as sovereign Lord is not only the climax of what God has done in cross and resurrection, confessing Jesus Christ is Lord is also the fundamental claim of Christianity.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and salads Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding:

The core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

What Rome required for Christians to exit their faith is exactly what St. Paul says is required for Christians to enter it.

Two chapters later in his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord…you will be saved” (10.9-10).

And the word Paul uses there for confess is homologeo. It means, literally: “a public declaration of allegiance.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say If you confess that Jesus fulfills the promise to Abraham, then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t write that if you confess that Jesus is God in the flesh then you will be saved. Paul doesn’t say that in order to be saved you must confess that Jesus died for your sins. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as your Substitute. He doesn’t say you need to confess Jesus as Sacrifice, Savior, Son of Man, or Son of God.

Paul gives an altogether different kind of altar call.

When it comes to salvation, Paul focuses squarely on a single, specific confession: the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, that’s the chapter in the Gospel story we now occupy.

That’s the point in the Apostles Creed where we all live. The incarnation and the crucifixion, the resurrection and our reconciliation to God- those are all past perfect events.

But right now, present-tense, Jesus sits at the right hand of God and to him the Father has given dominion over the earth.

He is. 

     Now. Lord.

     “If you confess…

“If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord…then you will be saved” Paul says.

Rome helps us see that Christianity is about choosing.

Choosing between rival claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is Lord was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then the logic follows:

to repent and confess that Jesus is Lord was to reject and condemn other lords.

And Pliny points out, you cannot offer allegiance in a vacuum.

To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Like we rehearse in baptism, affirmation is always a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes other powers contending and vying for your loyalty.

The word allegiance is unintelligible without an enemy.

     If God is for us, who is against us? Who will bring any charge against us? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

     No matter how you’re accustomed to hearing this crescendo in Romans 8, Paul’s not asking rhetorical questions. It’s more like a fill-in-the-blank. The Apostle Paul has already supplied you with the answers.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

Come on, that’s not even a Tuesday crossword kind of question.

     If God is for us, who is against us? 

The Power of Sin, that’s who.

Sin with a capital S, an alien, enslaving Power, whose power, Paul has already told us, we are all under and from whom not one of us is able to free ourselves.

    Who will bring any charge against us? Who is to condemn us? 

Again, they’re not rhetorical questions. The answer is obvious to anyone who’s been listening to Paul.

The Law will bring charges against us. Or, if it’s easier to understand, instead of Law call it Scripture or Religion. Scripture will condemn us.

Religion, the Law, which, Paul has already told us, the Power of Sin has hijacked and now wields like a weapon against us, so that now the very gift God gave to make us righteous only indicts us, all of us- all for short- as unrighteousness, indicts us, even, as ungodly.

    Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? 

The answer, obvious to anyone who’s been following Paul’s argument thus far: Death.

Death will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Death with a capital D, a Power, Paul says, that from Adam onward advanced through all the world like an invading army.

Death with a capital D, a Power that Paul makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, both of which, Paul reveals at the end of his letter, refer to the Power of Satan, whom Paul calls at the end of his summary of the Gospel the Last Enemy.

“For Christ our Lord must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death.” – 1 Corinthians 15

     Who is against? Who will condemn us?  Who will separate us?

They’re not rhetorical questions.

The very reason Paul testifies that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers in the world at work against us to do just that.

The Power of Sin. The Power of Death. The Law.

     All of whom- pay attention now- Paul personifies as reigning monarchs, as exercising dominion, as lords.

Kurios.

The same word Paul uses when he says: “If you publicly pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ as kurios…then you will be saved” Paul says.

————————

     Pliny understood that to pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord was to be against another lord, that to accept Jesus’s Lordship was to reject another’s.

But Pliny did not understand what Paul saw.

Caesar, Rome- they’re manifestations of a bigger, more cosmic enemy contending against God to separate us- indeed all of creation- from God.

Here at the end of chapter 8, after Paul has been speaking of life in the Spirit and the freedom we have in Christ, after Paul has led you to believe all this talk of the Power of Sin and the Power of Death is behind you-

Here at the end of Romans chapter 8 Paul doubles back again.

But this time spins it out onto a wider horizon, naming the circumstances where the lords of Sin and Death manifest themselves in our world:

Hardship

Injustice

Persecution

Famine

Nakedness

War

Paul asks ‘Can these separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus?’ because Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen- they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death work to do just that.

Separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Because it’s easy to look at Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and become disillusioned.

It’s easy to look at unending war in Afghanistan and terror in Europe and another shooting- this time in Little Rock- the opiod epidemic, hunger in school kids not two miles from here, homelessness no further, the Washington Nationals Bullpen.

     Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War-

They are the ‘statues of Caesar’ before whom a Power who is not God would us bow in allegiance.

Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War- they don’t just happen, Paul says- instead they are the ways that the rival lords of Sin and Death tempt us to break faith.

To break allegiance. To become loyal to them.      On Thursday, I went with my good friend Brian Stolarz, a member here at Aldersgate, to the steps of the Supreme Court for a teach-in against the death penalty.

There I listened to Brian agains the story he’s told here of getting an innocent man, a mentally handicapped man, a black mentally handicapped man, it usually goes without saying, off of death row.

There was a crowd of exonerees gathered there in front of the Supreme Court with stories similar to Brian’s, stories of persecution and racism.

There was a petition passed around to stay the execution this coming week in Virginia of a mentally ill man.

It’s hard to go to an event like that, where the injustice seems rampant and the odds for change seem long indeed, and not feel disillusioned.

Not feel like you’ve pledged allegiance to the wrong Lord.

On Friday, Dennis and I went to Mt. Vernon Hospital to be with Karla Kincannon and her family as Karla’s Dad slowly died.

We talked and we prayed and we kept quiet as Chuck’s wife of 70 years whispered to him and caressed his cheeks and kissed his forehead.

And watching her cry it became obvious what a lie we tell when we call death ‘natural’ or when we try to label a funeral a ‘celebration of life.’

No, that’s a lie.

Paul’s right, Death is an enemy.

The Enemy.

And it surrounds us such that it’s easy to lose heart.

———————

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 33Who will bring any charge against us? It is God who rectifies. 34Who is to condemn? 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If you just stick this passage from Romans 8 onto a Hallmark card, if you just gild it with sentimentally at a memorial service, you completely miss Paul’s point.

As my New Testament teacher at Princeton, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, points out, these verses here in Romans 8 it’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul trash-talking the Powers. It’s Paul talking smack against the Power of Sin.

It’s trash-talk.

Paul widens the horizon to encompass all of creation and there Paul sees all the tragic circumstances in which we live. And he sees behind them not the work of enemies like Caesar or Trajan or Pliny but the Enemy. And against the Enemy, the Power of Sin and Death, Paul musters up as much confidence as he can for his Roman Church and he declares defiantly that God will have the last word.

It’s Paul encouraging allegiance to Christ the Lord in the face of rival lords who would lure away your loyalty.

Because, let’s face, it seems like they’re in charge.

It’s trash-talk.

It’s Paul shaking his fist at the Power of Sin and Death.

It’s Paul talking smack at Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War.

     It’s Paul staring them all down, thumbing his nose, and giving them all the finger.

It’s trash-talk.

None of you- not Death, not Famine, not Racism, not War, not Poverty, not Addiction- has the power to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“No power has the power like Christ’s power!” Paul says literally in the Greek.

Or, as we might say, you’re going down.

You see, if Hardship and Persecution and Injustice and Famine and Nakedness and War and all the rest- if they’re the ways that Sin and Death seek to lure your loyalty away from Jesus the Lord-

Then that means that to give in to despair or disillusionment, to lose heart, is to give your allegiance to rival lords who have been working against you for that very outcome.

You pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ, therefore, not with your head looking up but with your eyes fixed straight ahead at the world as it really is.

And you pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ not with your hand over your heart but with your fist shaking at the sky and your middle finger sticking straight out.

Flipping off the Powers and trash-talking all the other lords who would pull you away from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

———————

     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

————————

The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

————————-

During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

David King was about 7 when I came to Aldersgate. He’s interning for me this summer. He preached this past weekend and did a great job. Everyone told me how much he preached like me. Preaching is only learned through apprenticeship and imitation so I suppose, the extent that it’s true, that’s exactly as it should be.

Here is the sermon. His text was Romans 4.1-8.

Would you all pray with me?

Lord, you are faithful to us.  In this time of learning, reveal that faith to me, and preach to me so that you might preach through me.  Let these words not be mine, but yours.  Amen.

[Thank you] [Jason joke]

Fair warning, this is a little bit of a personal story.  By the time this is over, you’ll know a little bit more about me, and hopefully, God-willing I don’t severely screw this up, you’ll know a little bit more about faith.

Those of you that know me know that I have been doing service trips since, well, since I was considered old enough to endure the cultural shock that lies just three hours southwest of here.  The summer after the 6th grade, I was signed up to go on the Jeremiah Project.  It was Andrew DiAntonio’s first week on the job, and I wrecked a bathroom while sleepwalking, so it’s no wonder to me that he decided divinity school was probably better suited for him.

After three years at JP, as those close with the program fondly called it, I began going to Guatemala, doing my due diligence as a Christian to my one week of good deeds for the year.  Granted, those good deeds were interspersed with a fair amount of tourism, so I’m not really sure how much they count for.

Those of you who know me well know that I spent the majority of my summer last year actually living in Guatemala, working HSP.  I could tell you all about how this time of a little over a month was so transformative and blessed and wonderful and [insert your own favorite good adjective here], but if I did that I’d be lying, which I hear is a bad thing to do in church, especially if you’re preaching.

I’d be lying if I told you it was all great, because it was in Guatemala that I first really “lost contact” (emphasis on those scare quotes) with God.  One could say I had a reckoning of faith, lowercase f.  You see, from almost every single one of my standards, my life fell apart in my tenure in Guatemala, and all within about a week.

My sister had broken her arm.

My best friend’s boyfriend had just committed suicide.

My godmother, whom I love dearly, was daily sitting at the bedside of her dying friend, while her sister battled cancer in the same hospital.

So it’s only reasonable that I have one of these moments where I ask, do I really have the faith to get through this?

It was only reasonable that I realized that for several years, I’d been wearing a cross around my neck, but never believing in it.  Belief in Christ was something I realized I well and truly did not have.  High school has that effect on people.

This led me to the realization that the way we speak about faith is so vastly different than how Paul conceived of faith.  You see, we think about faith with a lowercase f, as something very personal to us.  The most radical conception we ever use to speak about faith is by saying that “God has endowed us with faith,” or we use the language of the born-again Christians, which is dangerous in its own right.

We speak of faith as though it is something we own, something we have, something that is completely of us and our volitions.

We talk about faith with a lowercase f, but we never talk about the Faith, uppercase F, of God.  Faith, with a capital F, is the faith of which Paul speaks in Romans 4.  Our grammar has simply abandoned this for a syntactic structure that places the onus of faith on us, fallible humanity.

Just as I experienced in Guatemala, a human-based methodology of faith was, is entirely insufficient.

 

Now, Paul’s main example for faith is the story of Abraham’s obedience to God.  But nothing prepares us for how Paul describes Abraham.  For Paul, Abraham is ungodly.  Not only does our translation say that he is ungodly, the word in the Greek, asebē, also translates to unholy, sacrilegious, impure.  More to the point, the word asebē used as a descriptor of Abraham is the only time that word appears in the Bible, New Testament and old, Hebrew and Greek.

Just to put that in perspective for you, the King James translation of the Bible has 774,746 different words in it.  For you truly Methodist folks, the New Revised Standard Version has 895,891 different words.  Hundreds of thousands of different words, and this is the only time anyone uses the word asebē to describe anyone.

Abraham, this revered, patriarchal figure, a pillar of the Old Testament and the grounding for our faith, is declared by Paul ungodly.  This man who almost kills his son in reverence and obedience to God is ungodly, sacrilegious, unholy.  None of us are like Abraham.  He was the pinnacle of obedience for the Hewbrew scriptures.  And if Paul is calling him ungodly, then that should say something about us.

Point being, Paul’s discussion of Abraham is never about Abraham’s faith in God.  And that’s the key point of God’s agency in imparting faith on Abraham.  Abraham was not good at faith, in fact, he did not have faith.  It was not until God invited Abraham to participate in a full communion with him that Abraham was ready to receive the covenant.

The metaphor Paul uses to describe the relationship Abraham has with God is a legal one, and purposefully so.  Works, and thus wages, are not the reason for Abraham’s justification.  “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trust him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.”  Paul takes on legalism, and for us modern readers, he takes on the entire structure of law, payment, and transaction theology.  The structure of interaction, this idea that we get only what we deserve, that we must work for our wages, is Paul’s way of illustrating for us that the love and faith of God to humanity is so fantastically different than any relationship we conceive of.  You see, God takes us.  That’s it.  That’s the message, that’s the faith Paul’s talking about.  The discrepancy between God’s Faith, capital F, and our faith, lowercase f, is an abyss we cannot bridge ourselves.

So God does it for us.  That’s his covenant.
When Paul’s talking about Abraham, he’s specifically talking about the man with whom he drew the first covenant.  The instance that Paul is referring to, when “Abraham believed God,” he never says he had faith.  Belief and faith are so often conflated that the latter has lost most of its substantive meaning.

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Reckoned, says Paul, to him.

And we have to remember that when Paul speaks about righteousness, it’s not a value or a set of morals to which he is referring; righteousness is a gift of the covenant, which means it’s a gift that is completely and utterly of and from God, just like faith.

For two weeks, I did not go a day without crying, without feeling utterly set apart, disjointed and broken.  I was surrounded by people on service projects, experiencing the joy of humility, but I could not participate in their ecstasy.  I could not think of anything other than going home, being with my godmother, sitting with my sister, and holding my friend.  I could not think of anything other than their pain.  By all accounts, I was lost.  Lost in a foreign country, with a foreign people, in the mountains where even the air was different.

It would be a cliché to tell you that I had a revelation, and to do that would make it seem like I had done something to deserve that.  I’m a sinner, and by all worldly accounts, I don’t deserve a revelation.

But I was sitting outside of the community center in Chiucutama one night when it dawned on me that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.  I’d been thinking about faith, about Christianity, as something I chose, something I elected.
I had disregarded the Faith, capital F, of God to us.

In fact, if that weren’t true, if God were not ever there for us, in the covenant fulfilled and revealed in Christ, we would have nothing to turn to once we’ve turned away.  You know, sitting there in Chiucutama looking at the hills under the moonlight, if God was not faithful to us forever, I would’ve realized the opposite.  Nihilism would’ve reigned, and I would not be in the communion of Faith, capital F, that I am right now.

God is faithful, to us.  Faith, capital F, is never ours, never something we do.  It is a gift, of the eternal sort.

Abraham wasn’t good at faith.  Neither am I.  But that’s because the kind of faith that really matters, the kind that counts for something, is not a kind of faith I could ever embody.  Nor could you.

We come to church thinking that we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts for Jesus, who we have faith in, but really, and if we are thinking about this in the way Paul thinks about it, coming to church is not about our faith.  It is about us participating in God’s faithfulness to us, through Christ.

When we talk about faith in the possessive, we reduce God to something we can manipulate, to something we can use and disregard.  Faith, lowercase f, reduces God to god, lowercase g.

Faith comes easiest to those who come into church, sing about Jesus, and go on their merry way.  We have to understand that to be a Christian means, uniquely, to be bad at faith.  Being bad at faith is part of our relationship with God, because if we were good at faith, his faithfulness to us would not be unique and unquestionable and beautiful.  God’s faithfulness to us would not have changed the world in Christ if we were “good at faith.”

During my last week in Guatemala, I walked into the cathedral in the square in Xela, where HSP is located, right in the middle of mass.  I know, that’s a cringeworthy word here, but everyone in Guatemala is either Roman-Catholic or some form of evangelical, and frankly, I prefer the former.  As I was walking in, the priest had just risen and spoken four all too important words.

“The mystery of faith,” he pronounced, just as I sat down in the back pew, across from a family of four.

In retrospect, the priest was right.  We call it the mystery of faith for a reason:  precisely because it is not ours to command and possess, but a given gift.

I have never been so comforted by a mystery than I was in that moment.

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

…in which we learn to pray.

Here’s my sermon from this Sunday for the local high school’s baccalaureate service, using Mark’s text of the rich (young) man. Props to my friend Scott Jones for linking the themes of Ascension and Melissa Febos‘ memoir Abandon Me.

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously, as one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you to Aldersgate Church, and I want to thank you for the invitation to speak. As a Methodist preacher, it’s not often I get to preach to people under 75 years of age.

Just kidding.

But not really.

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

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

Just think-

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA. That’s The University to all you who might be going to Tech.

The year you were born I was a third year at UVA.

Things were completely different back then.

For example, back then, the White House was mired in scandal because of a President who might also a sexual predator. And back then the Republicans held both houses of Congress yet were incapable of any legislative wins.

Meanwhile, a new release of Star Wars had broken all the box office records.

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

This is my 5th or 6th baccalaureate sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure how I keep getting invited to deliver these considering the fact that I’m philosophically opposed to them.

For one thing, I’m opposed to baccalaureates because you don’t need an inspirational sermon at your graduation- YOU’RE GRADUATING! That’s exciting enough; you don’t need anyone like me adding words to it. You’re done.

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

You no longer have to pretend you actually read MacBeth. The next time you’re asked a question about advanced math will be the day your son or daughter asks you for help with their math. And you won’t be able to.

But who cares? Because you’re done. You’re graduating. From this point forward, if you can avoid a major felony you can avoid group showers for the rest of your life. You don’t need an inspirational speech for something that exciting.

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

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

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

The only baccalaureate sermon I can remember, in fact, is the baccalaureate sermon I preached for West Po 10 years ago. I remember it because I made the mistake of choosing this scripture passage as my text. This one from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:

This rich young man- he’s only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels.

He’s the only youth anywhere in the Gospels. So preaching on this scripture text in such a well-heeled zip code was more than me just being confrontational. I wasn’t feeling contrary just because the program that day called me an “inspirational speaker.”

I genuinely thought it was an appropriate Gospel given my audience. He’s the Gospel’s only young person.

To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, over-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

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

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

——————————

 At first, I thought that baccalaureate sermon went alright. I got a few laughs.

I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the Fellowship Hall for the reception.

All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

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

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

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

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

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

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

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

     You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

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

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

He stormed off with his family in tow.

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

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

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

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

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

I saw the vein in his forehead start to throb so I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

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

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

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

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

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

They watch the rich young man walk away.

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

Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.

And yet we call this story Gospel, good news, because, well, nothing is impossible with a Living God.

I left that Dad with the throbbing vein in his forehead, and I walked out to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt (this was years before hipster side-parts and Vineyard Vines) said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible passage yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look kid, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.

‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

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

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that of all the Gospel stories the only story where it says Jesus loved someone is a story where a young person like me failed.’

     ‘Uh, come again?’ 

     ‘That’s the only story where it says Jesus loved someone’ he said. 

     ‘Uh, it is?’ 

     ’It sure is’ he said.

     ‘You know your Bible, kid. You must be a Baptist.’

He didn’t nod.

‘Sure, Jesus loves everybody, but that’s the only story where it says Jesus loves an individual and the individual he loves is a young person like me who failed. 

    ‘Huh,’ I said, thinking that would’ve made a better sermon than the one I’d just preached. 

     ‘Obviously that’s why you chose the passage, right Reverend? You wanted us not to be afraid of failing because God’s love for us doesn’t fail.’  

    ‘Oh, umm, right, yeah of course that’s why I chose it. You don’t think I chose it just because I was PO’d that they called me an inspirational speaker did you?’ 

He laughed and was about to get in his car when I said:

Hey, kid, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry tight-sphinctered looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

I don’t remember a single word of what was said at my own baccalaureate.

But maybe-

Maybe you will remember what a student just like you said at another baccalaureate where no one remembered what I said.

Not only is it not the typical cliched baccalaureate bullshit, it also happens to be true:

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Because you will, you know.

Fail.

In many myriad ways.

And sometimes in mighty ways.

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

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

26 million times our culture has tried to convert you, indoctrinate you, condition you to believe the lie that if- and only if- you just achieve the right lifestyle, find the perfect spouse and the coolest job, earn the biggest salary, look a certain way, drive this kind of car, live in that sort of house then- only then- will your life be a success.

Only then will you be happy.

That’s a lot of pressure.

Not to mention- let’s be honest parents, I’m one too- you all are the products of helicopter parents and tiger moms.

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

Your whole young life you’ve been told that you can do whatever you set your mind on, that your life and your future and your fulfillment is yours to sieze. Carpe Diem!

But here’s what they never tell you in graduation speeches: when we tell you your future is yours for you to choose, it can feel like it’s all on you.

To make the right choice. And to succeed at it after you’ve made your choice.

That’s an enormous amount of pressure. On you.

And it can feel like the stakes couldn’t be higher because it’s your life and your future we’re talking about.

Your whole education, all your grades and testing and extra-curriculars, all your parents helicoptering over you and tigering for you, all of it has been invested in you; so that, now you can choose the life you want.

That’s a scary amount of pressure on you.

So much so, it can leave you afraid to fail.

Or, rather, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you do fail.

Even worse, it can leave you feeling like a failure when you end up with a life other than the one you or your parents anticipated.

Or when you do get that life everyone wanted for you and it’s not what you’d hoped it would be- it can leave you feeling like you failed somewhere along the way.

I think that’s why in 12 years here at Aldersgate I’ve known a whole lot of youth who’ve graduated from West Potomac only to find themselves lost and confused, depressed, and terrifically lonely.

You’re not going to remember what I said in your baccalaureate, but maybe you’ll remember what that other graduate said after my other baccalaureate sermon: Don’t be afraid to fail.

     Don’t be afraid to fail because the most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with your performance or your career or your family or your GPA or your Major or your mate or anything that’s brought you today to this celebration.

The young man said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth and God said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

When the youth heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

And God, looking at him, loved him

The most important thing about you has nothing to do with you.

The most important thing about you has even less to do with what you do.

With your life.

So don’t be afraid to fail because God’s love for you…no.

————————

Last week, when I wrote this sermon for you, the Church celebrated a holy day called Ascension, a festival day that remembers the resurrected Jesus ascending into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

I realize you might not all be Christian. Just let the image do its work.

What’s important about Ascension isn’t just that Jesus goes up.

What’s important about Ascension is that when Jesus goes up into God, he takes us with him. He takes our humanity- every bit of every one of us- into divinity.

Your humanity has been taken in to divinity. Your life, your past and your present and your future; all of it, every bit of every last one of you- resides now in God; so that, no matter what you do or who you become, the ways you succeed or how often you don’t, your story is forever, eternally so, bound up with God.

He’s taken your story up into the story and, trust me I bury a lot of successful people, in the end, that’s the only story that will matter about you.

So don’t be afraid of failing because no matter how your story goes your story will end in the very same place.

I interviewed a dominatrix for my podcast recently.

I mention that she’s a dominatrix only so you realize that being a minister is more interesting than it sounds- even when everyone in your family wanted you to be a lawyer and thought you’d failed when you chose differently.

Anyways, this dominatrix she’s written a couple of memoirs and in one of them she puts the point better than me or that graduate in the church parking lot 10 years ago:

The story of Jonah seems a parable of what I have often suspected, that life is a great “choose your own adventure story.”

Every choice leads the hero to the same prince, the same cliff.  Every love [every choice, every joy and success, every obstacle, every failure] is a sea monster in whose belly, like Jonah, we learn to pray.

Life is a great “choose your own adventure story. There are alternative routes, but there is only one ending.

You have only one ending to the adventure called you.

It ends with the God who looked upon a youth’s failure yet loved him still.

So my word for you today is the most common refrain in scripture of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

My word for you today is this: Do not be afraid. 

I Like Big Buts

Jason Micheli —  June 5, 2017 — 1 Comment

I led with finding out I’m Jewish.

This weekend we celebrated Pentecost as well Confirmation across 4 services. Over the last 12 years, Aldersgate has confirmed 500 into the faith. My texts were all of chapter 2 of Acts as well as Paul’s big “But now” passage in Romans 3.21-26.

     After a recent cataclysmic national event that I won’t specify, I was speaking on the phone with my mother who, like many of you, had fallen into a despondent, black malaise.

“Maybe I will move to Canada” she said and sighed.

“Canada! They eat ketchup flavored Doritos in Canada- how is that a thing?! And Canada is responsible for Celine Dion and Nickelback. Think about that, Mom: Justin Bieber and Tom Ford don’t even crack the Top Ten of Canadiens for whom Canada should have to issue a global apology.

Though, Canada did give the world that babe who played Kim in 24.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is…” I said and immediately my mind wandered to the film in which Kim costarred with Raylan Givens, The Girl Next Door.

“Jason? Jason, are you still there?”

“Huh? Yeah, I’m still here. I was just…thinking. Look, forget this Canada nonsense. Mom, you hate the snow and no matter how much I begged you as a kid you never let me grow a mullet.”

“I hate mullets.”

“See, forget Canada. I’ll tell you, though, if I just had a Jew in my family tree I’d move to Israel, at their least president is actually a conservative.”

“But my grandparents were Jewish.”

“But what?!”

“My grandparents…they were both Jewish. “

“But…but…but…that means my great-grandparents were Jewish.”

“Uh, huh” my mother said blankly, clearly not registering that this was a seismic revelation for someone like me who, let’s just say, is salaried and pensioned NOT to be Jewish.

“But…but…but…that means I’m Jewish” I whispered while turning down the volume on my iPhone.

“Yeah, I guess it does.”

No joke, my next thoughts, in rapid-fire succession:

1. Holy bleep, how have I not heard about this before?!

2. No wonder I’m so funny.

3. Thank God I’m already circumcised.

4. I could spin this into a book! Christian clergyman discovers his previously unknown Jewish identity. It practically writes itself.

As for the screen, it’d be the perfect follow up to LaLa Land for Ryan Gosling.

As soon as I got off the phone with my mom I pitched the book idea to my editor. I’d even come up with some snappy titles such as: Riddler on the Roots, Goy Meets God, and, my personal favorite, Trans-Gentile.

Nevertheless, my editor replied that until I actually convert and move myself and my family to the Promised Land, what I had was a good idea for a sermon.

Not a book.

Of course, that same editor came up with a terrible book title like Cancer is Funny so I figured what the hell does he know. Besides, I’ve always acted as though I’m God’s gift to the world and now, as it turns out, I really am- I’m chosen!

I’ve got to find out more about what that means! I thought.

In the weeks and months that followed, I studied up.

I researched the State of Israel’s Right of Return rules. I qualify.

I tested my DNA through ancestry.com, the results of which bore out what my mother had told me, that I am of Jewish lineage by way of Austria.

And thanks to Ghengis Khan raping and pillaging his way across Europe I also have some Mongolian in me too, and, according to the customer service person at ancestry.com, chances are, you have some Mongolian in you too.

Let that sink in for a moment.

DNA in hand, I consulted with Rabbi Hayim Herring about what books he recommends to potential converts. At his advice I read the Tanakh, Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant, Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas by Arthur Green, and To Life: A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking by Harold Kushner.

And, because Rabbi Herring explained to me that Judaism is a religion that developed out of its celebrations, I read The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg, a book about the Jewish holy days.

Including the holy day of Pentecost.

Or, as my people say, Shavu’ot.

——————————-

     Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, five weeks, Penta-cost, after Passover.

Shavu’ot- the Jewish holiday that brings Peter and the disciples and a crowd of thousands of pilgrims to Jerusalem to celebrate.

They’re not there waiting for the Holy Spirit. They’re gathered to celebrate Pentecost, the holy day when they remember God giving to them on Mt. Sinai the Torah, the Law.

If Shavu’ot is the day when the Spirit descends upon the disciples, then Shavu’ot is the day by which we should interpret the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

As a Gentile, I’ve always preached Pentecost straight up and simply as the arrival of the Holy Spirit, or, to be more exact, as the arrival of a previously not present Holy Spirit- as though, ascending in to heaven, the Risen Christ, like Jon Cena, tags in and the Holy Spirit takes over.

But with my new Jew eyes, I see that that can’t be because the Spirit is everywhere all over the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, doing and moving.

Not to mention, Luke- the author of Acts- has already told us that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, compelled Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, and baptized Jesus into his baptism of vicarious repentance.

So if the arrival of the Holy Spirit is not the point of this Pentecost passage in Acts 2, then what is?

——————————-

     When the Holy Spirit descends upon the Pentecost pilgrims, the crowd becomes bewildered.

But Peter, Luke says, stands up and proclaims the Gospel to them. And that phrasing, that odd way of beginning a sentence “But Peter…” is Luke’s clue for you that Peter is not deciding on his own to stand up and preach, that an unseen agency is working upon him, that he is being compelled by God, by the Holy Spirit, to proclaim what God has done in Jesus Christ.

And at the end of his preaching, Luke tells us, Peter’s listeners are cut to the heart- note the passive. They’re acted upon.

An unseen agency is working upon them too, compelling them to believe.

Then Luke concludes by telling us that on that Pentecost 3,000 were added to the People of God.

Maybe you Gentiles don’t know this- in the Bible numbers are always important. Numbers are always the clue to unlocking the story’s meaning.

It’s not incidental that Luke ends his story of this Shavu’ot with the number 3,000 being added to God’s People because on the first Shavu’ot 3,000 were subtracted from God’s People.

On the first Shavu’ot, while Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from God, the Torah which begins “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Israelites were busy down below making God into an idol- which is but a form of making God into our own image.

When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he sees them worshipping a golden calf, and Moses responds by ordering the Levites to draw their swords and kill 3,000 of the idolators.

So when Luke tells you that 3,000 were added to God’s People on that Pentecost day he wants you to remember the 3,000 subtracted from God’s People that Pentecost day.

Where 3,000 committed idolatry, 3,000 now believe.

Those in the crowd, listening to Peter, they’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

They’re every bit as susceptible to worship any god but God, every bit as prone to unbelief and unfaithfulness. They crucified God just over a month ago.

They’re no different than the crowd at the foot of Sinai that first Shavu’ot.

What Luke wants you to see in this Pentecost story is the undoing of that Pentecost story, and he wants you to see that it’s God’s doing not our own- God’s faithfulness to us despite our unfaithfulness, God graciously overcoming our unbelief, our proclivity to idolatry and sin.

Luke wants you to see that this new 3,000- it’s the Living God’s doing. The Holy Spirit’s doing. The Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ’s doing, compelling Peter- who before could never get his foot out of his mouth- to proclaim.

It’s God’s doing, calling out of, creating in, Peter’s hearers, out of nothing, faith.

——————————-

      Luke shows us in the beginning of Acts what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans.

After announcing his thesis- the good news- at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul braces us with the bad news.

For the rest of chapter 1, all of chapter 2, and the beginning of chapter 3 Paul bears down with white-knuckles and surveys the extent of our captivity, our bondage to Sin.

He says our every sin starts with the same sin as at Sinai on that first Shavu’ot: our failure to worship God, giving up God for other gods.

Our first sin also begets our wickedness and our malice. It gives rise to our greed and our lust and our violence. It spawns our slander and our deceit, our hypocrisy and our infidelity, even our gossip and our haughtiness and our hardness of heart.

Over almost 3 chapters, Paul unrolls the rap sheet of our sin until not one of us left un-indicted.

All have sinned, Paul says, religious and unreligious alike.

No one is righteous, Paul laments, not a single one of us.

No one seeks God. No one desires peace.

Our mouths are quick to curse, our hands are quick to stuff our own pockets, our feet are to quick to shed blood, Paul says.

None of us is any different than those 3,000 at the foot of Mt Sinai on the first Shavu’ot  worshipping anything other than God.

There is no distinction between any of us- we’re all ungodly.

Paul’s relentless litany of our sinfulness goes on and on for almost three chapters, an overwhelming avalanche of awful truth-telling and indictments.

For almost 3 chapters, Paul keeps raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our crimes, implicating each and every one of us.

     Until, what you expect next from Paul is the word “if.”

——————————-

     If.

If you turn away from sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you…plead for God’s mercy…

If you seek God’s forgiveness…

If you believe…

If you put your faith in him…

     If

Then

God will justify you.

Paul relentlessly unrolls the rap sheet until every last one of our names is indicted. Not one of us is righteous and every one of us is deserving of God’s wrath, Paul says.

This sounds like an altar call coming, right? And the word you expect Paul to use next is “if.”

If you repent and believe.

Instead of if but:

     “But now” Paul says.

“But now, apart from the Law (apart from Religion) the rectifying power of God has been revealed…the rectification by God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ..”

There couldn’t be a bigger but.

Martin Luther says that “but now” is a fish-hook shaped word that catches us all.

     There couldn’t be a bigger but.

It’s the hinge on which the Gospel turns:

We’re all unrighteous.

We’re all entangled in Sin.

But now- God.

The rectifying power of God has invaded our world without a single “if.”

The rectifying power of God- the power of God to make us right and to put our world to rights- has invaded in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.

The grace of God has invaded unilaterally- without prior condition or presupposition.

Without a single “if.”

There is nothing you need to do for it to be true for you.

Our justification is not God’s response to us; it’s God’s gracious initiative for us.

     As far as God is concerned, true love doesn’t wait.

If you repent, then I’ll…

     If you seek forgiveness, then I’ll…

     If you believe, then I’ll…

     If you have faith in me, then I’ll…

     No. 

     No ifs. No conditions. 

“But now…” Paul announces.

God’s love doesn’t wait for us. To rescue us.

All have sinned.

All fall short of God’s glory.

But now-

All are being rectified by the uncontingent grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are no ‘ifs” just this big but: “But now…” God has done this. It’s gift. Sheer un-contingent, irrevocable gift.

It’s just like the song says.

You once were lost BUT NOW you’ve been found- note the passive again.

You didn’t find. You’ve been found not because you went searching for God, but because God in Jesus Christ has sought you out and bought you with his blood.

—————————-

     During Lent I gave up bacon.

(I know, you saw that transition coming a mile away.)

Just to see, you know, in case the UMC ever folds, if I could hack it as a Hebrew (I made it 3 days).

During Lent I also read the The Jewish Way where I learned that if I ever did convert to Judaism, then I’d need to choose a Hebrew name.

“What’s the name of that talking donkey in the Old Testament?” my wife asked pointedly.

The Jewish Way by Irving Greenberg also reminded me what I’d forgotten since seminary: that the covenant (berit as my people say) God makes with Moses on Mt. Sinai on that first Pentecost, the promise God makes to Moses on Mt. Sinai, is conditional.

“You will be my treasured People” God promises “but you must keep all my commandments.”

It’s conditional.

“You will be my People, but you must be faithful to my commands.”

It’s conditional.

“I will be your God, but you must remain faithful and obey.”

It’s contingent.

If you keep faith in me, then I will be your God and you will be my People.”

It’s not just on Sinai. So much of our lives and our relationships are littered with ifs.

If you make it up to me, then I’ll take you back.

If you promise not to spend it on drugs, then I’ll give you a handout.

If I’m just a better wife, then he’ll love me/then he’ll stop drinking/then he won’t abuse me anymore.

If I just get better grades, get into that college, get that job, then they’ll be proud of me/then maybe Dad will finally tell me that he loves me.

If/then conditionality is hard-wired into us.

     I forgive you, but I won’t forget. 

Paul would say that’s how captives speak.

We do it with God too.

     We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences.

You are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, but first you must believe, we say.

      We move Paul’s big but to the end of our sentences.

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

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

We take this big but at the beginning of Paul’s Gospel sentence and we put it at the end of our sentences. We turn it around and make it conditional: If you have faith then you will be justified.

     Not only is that conditionality not Paul’s Gospel, it contradicts what Luke shows us at Pentecost and what Paul tells us here in Romans.

The whole point of Paul’s big “But now” is that by yourself, on your own, by your own power, you don’t have the capacity to fulfill any of those conditions.

Your faith, your belief, your repentance, your service- none of it is a prerequisite for God’s grace because all of it is a product of God’s gracious doing.

“But now,” Paul says, God has acted for us “apart from the Law,” apart from any of our religious doing.

Just like the Holy Spirit at Pentecost undoing the unbelief of the first Pentecost, God acts for us in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and his faith, Paul says, has the power to elicit our faith.

Jesus’ faith isn’t just prior; it’s causative.

As Paul says in another letter, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by his Holy Spirit.

As Paul puts it in this letter, in the next chapter, God calls into existence the things that do not exist- meaning, our faith.

Luke says that nothing is impossible for God, but the whole point of Paul’s big “But” is that faith is impossible for us without God.

Your faith is not the exercise of your free will.

Your faith is a sign that God has freed your will from the Power of Sin.

Which means-

Whatever measure of faith you have, whether your faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as massive as a mountain, it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing not your own.

It makes you proof of the God who invades our world without a single “if.”

Such that now- now as a person of faith, as a person in whom the unconditional grace of God has created faith, there is nothing you must do.

You don’t have to do anything.

The balance sheet of your life has been set right not by anything you’ve done, by what God has done.

You have been justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There’s not a but at the end of that sentence. There is nothing now you must do.

Rather, as a person in whom the unconditional love of God has created faith, there is now so much you are set free to do.

 

Immortal Combat

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2017 — 2 Comments

     Here’s my sermon from Ascension Sunday, kicking off a series on Romans.

     You probably saw the story in the Washington Post this week. I blogged about it too- as it turned an unwise move that netted me 73 colorful comments from all over the interwebs most of which contained too many four-lettered words to publish.

I didn’t know they had emojis for some of the acts critics suggested I do to myself.

You probably saw the article about how the Alexandria chapter of Washington Sport and Health this week cancelled the gym membership of Richard Spencer, the president of the Alt-Right/White Nationalist ‘National Policy Institute’.

Spencer was pumping iron in safe anonymity, when C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University Professor, recognized him and then confronted him. At first he denied his identity. But she was sure it was him. According to the other patrons, the professor lambasted him, yelling:

“Not only are you a Nazi — you are a cowardly Nazi… I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap — that this country belongs [to people like you]. . . . As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover.”

The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.

I doubt Richard Spencer was surprised at getting the heave-ho. The episode this week was only the latest in a string of ugly confrontations.

He was punched in the face on Inauguration Day by an anti-Trump protestor.

The chocolate shop on King Street near Spencer’s rented town house went bust after boycotters assumed both spaces shared the same owner.

Before he was working out at the gym this week, Spencer was leading a march of demonstrators in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Perhaps it’s because we’re kicking-off a summer long sermon series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans- the most important book of the New Testament- but reading the article in the Washington Post this week, my first thought was:

“That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” 

     I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, and I wouldn’t disagree with her characterization of Richard Spencer as a repugnant, cowardly Nazi. I’d even go father than her. I don’t know Dr. Fair but- if she’s a Christian- rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

———————————

      Now, hear me out. I’m NOT suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever beliefs he wishes to hold. 

I’m a Christian. I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe.

After all, today is the holy day we call Ascension, when the creeds shift from the past perfect tense to the present tense. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father who has given Jesus dominion over all the Earth.

Because of Ascension, because Jesus is Lord and King over all the Earth, it now makes no sense whatsoever for us to say “As a Christian, I believe ______ but that’s just my personal belief.” The language of personal beliefs and private faith is unintelligible in light of the Ascension.

Jesus is Lord- that’s a public, all-encompassing claim so, no, we’re not entitled to believe whatever we wish to believe. We’re required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus, believe what Jesus says and does, and what Richard Spencer believes grossly contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public.

By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity.

He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s an America First nationalist, which- by the way- is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot.

During the campaign he provoked audible revulsion in the NPR reporter who was interviewing him. Atlantic Magazine posted video of him leading a conference room full of disciples in the Sieg Heil salute.

In response to getting booted from Washington Sport and Health, Spencer tweeted: [Does this mean] “we can start kicking Jews and coloreds out of our business establishments?”

He has a knack for inducing revulsion.

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And that’s my problem- and your problem.

Because the Apostle Paul says it’s exactly someone like Richard Spencer for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

———————————-

     Obviously private gyms can do whatever they wish. And if it was a gym to which we all belonged then I’d be the first to say kick him out on his a@#.

But we’re not members of a club.

We’re members of a Body, a Body created by a particular kerygma, a particular proclamation: the Gospel proclamation that on the law-cursed cross God in Jesus Christ died for the ungodly and that that death defeated the Power of Death.

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon good people like you. Christ didn’t die to make nice people nicer. Christ died so that ungodly people might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church.

Where else could he go?

This is the only place. This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

I chose that last sentence with care:

This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” with a capital P and a capital S, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, the Power of Sin with a capital P and a capital S is the only way to speak Christian.

———————————

     Despite what you may think, the letters of Paul are not secondary to the Gospels, they are the means by which we read the Gospels, for the Gospels are not self-interpreting nor is their meaning self-evident.

No matter how your New Testament is ordered, Paul’s Gospel message predates the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1.16-17).

This is Paul’s thesis statement and from it he unwinds a single, long, non-linear argument. The argument itself is odd.

Like Paul’s other letters this one is addressed to a particular people but unlike Paul’s other letters this one continuously shifts focus from the congregation to the cosmic, that what concerns this little house church in Rome somehow also concerns all of creation.

The letter is also odd in that Paul sticks the salutations along with the introduction of the main theme not at the beginning of the letter but at the very end. The introduction of the main theme doesn’t come until the very end of the letter, like a final, it’s-all-been-building-to-this reveal:

  “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet” (16.20).

This whole letter, all 16 chapters of it, all the pretty parts we like to read at funerals and to stick onto Hallmark cards, all of it is driving towards this: “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.” 

     This whole letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.

That’s why throughout Romans Paul’s focus keeps shifting from the congregational to the cosmic and why the language he most often uses is martial language, the language of combat and battle and powers and invasion (4.25, 8.32 et al).

The theme of this whole letter is the defeat of the Power of Satan, and Paul’s thesis here in Romans 1 is that the Gospel is the Power by which God defeats that Power: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…”

———————————

     Trouble is-

Paul’s thesis statement doesn’t much sound like its about the defeat of anything much less the Power of Satan.

That’s because the English language lacks any equivalents to the Greek word Paul uses here, the word that gets translated throughout Romans as either “righteousness” or “justification.”

It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.

When it gets translated as “righteousness” we hear it as an attribute or adjective of God, as God’s holiness or perfection- the arrival of which to us doesn’t sound like it would be good news.

When it gets translated as “justification” we hear it as our acquittal, as God declaring us something we’re not: justified.

Neither is correct, and the problem is with the English translation. In the Greek, dikaiosyne is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names.

The only word in English that comes close to approximating dikaiosyne is rectify-rectification.

So “righteousness” here in Romans 1 isn’t an attribute or adjective. It’s a Power. It’s a Power to bring salvation to pass. It’s God’s powerful activity to make right- to rectify- what is wrong in the world.

To say that God is righteous is that God is at work to make right.

And the way God is at work in the world, rectifying what is wrong in the world, is the Gospel, the Word of the Cross. Through it, God’s rectifying power is revealed.

That word revealed– in Greek it’s apokaluptetai: Apocalypse. Invasion. 

     Literally, Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…” 

Note the present tense.

    ——————————-

     “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”

     You can only invade territory held by an enemy.

The language of invasion is the language of liberation.

For as much as we think Christianity is about forgiveness, the Gospel of John uses the word forgiveness only once and Paul never does- nor does he use the word “repent.”

Repenting is something we do.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans isn’t at all about anything we do. It’s everywhere about what God does.

It makes no sense to forgive slaves for their enslavement. Captives cannot repent their way out of bondage. Prisoners can only be freed. Liberated. Delivered.

You see- if you think of sin as something you do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

Only at the end of his long letter does Paul finally reveal the Enemy as Satan.

In chapter 3 he names the enemy Sin with a capital S and calls it an alien, anti-god Power whose power we are all under and from whom whom not one of us is able through our own agency to free ourselves (3.9).

In chapter 5 he make Sin-with-a-capital-S synonymous with Death-with-a-capital-D (5.12).

In chapter 8 he identifies the forms that the Power of Sin and Death take in our world to contend against us (8.35, 38) then he widens the lens to show how it’s not just us but all of creation that is held in captivity to the Power of Sin and Death (8.21).

And in chapter 13 he tells the Christians in Rome that they should put away the works of darkness and put on the “weapons of light” (13.12) which 7 chapters earlier he calls the “weapons of rectification” (6.13).

Then, finally at the end, he reveals the Enemy as the Power of Satan.

Cliff-Notes Takeaway:

Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation.

And only the power of this Gospel can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

    ——————————-

     Outside the Church this weekend it’s Memorial Day when we remember those who’ve fallen in war.

But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.

We’ve forgotten that salvation itself is a battle. We’ve forgotten, such that this all probably sounds strange to you.

We’ve forgotten that God has a real Enemy God’s determined to destroy (1 Cor 15.24-26).

We’ve forgotten that the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s invasion from on high and that our proclamation of his act upon the cross is itself the weapon by which the God of peace is even now rectifying a world where Satan still rules but but his defeat is not in question.

We’ve forgotten that the language of salvation is itself the language of war.

Salvation isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die.

Salvation is cosmic because all of creation is in captivity to the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, the Power of Satan whom Paul finally names at the end of his letter.

     Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.

     Salvation is God’s invasion of earth, in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as repugnant as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer (2.1).

That’s not to say you’re all as awful as Richard Spencer; it’s to say that all of us are captive, because all of creation is captive.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly (5.10).

And not one of us is safe from God’s rectifying work.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views.

It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might by assaulted by the only Word with the Power to vanquish him and create him anew.

Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:

 “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

For in the Gospel the rectifying work of God is invading the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who was obedient all the way to the cross, a faithfulness which has power to create faith…’”

“[A Power]…that will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

——————————

      During their confrontation at Washington Sport and Health, Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, yelled at Richard Spencer: “I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”

The gym later terminated his membership without comment.

In all likelihood inviting him to church would be as bad for our business as the management of the gym judged it to be bad for their business.

But maybe ‘bad for business’ is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ, the weapon which surpasses all understanding.

You haven’t really comprehended the cosmic scope of God’s salvation until you realized it includes both you and Richard Spencer, both of you potential victims of the awful invading power of the Gospel of God’s unconditional grace.

I haven’t actually invited Richard Spencer to this church.

Yet.

But I did leave a copy of this sermon in the door of his townhouse yesterday.

I don’t know that he’d ever show up.

But I do know- I’m not ashamed of it- I do know that this Gospel is powerful enough to defeat the Powers of the Enemy that enslaves him.

 

The first funeral I ever attended or performed was a suicide. Still a new seminary student, I was so determined to be “helpful” and do whatever the grieving family asked of me I lied. Rather, I aided and abetted their secret and shame. Neither the truth nor, consequently, the Gospel was spoken.

Since I know preaching funerals where the deceased has died by their hand can be hard, I offer this one from this weekend as an example, not a good or perfect one just more honest than that first attempt. I owe Kenneth Tanner a big shout-out for assisting me.

Here it is, using both John 11 and John 20.

     “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as I said at the beginning in the Call to Worship.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus says to the grief-stricken Martha right before he asks her- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…even though you’ll die yet will you live…do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. And Martha, her eyes salty and pink with tears and voice hoarse from rage, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

But probably- Let’s be honest, probably she wants to say “No.”

No, I do not believe. No, it’s too hard to believe. No, it’s too easy to believe- it’s foolish and silly to believe in Resurrection and Life. After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up her brother Lazarus is four days dead.

Dead. And he didn’t have to be. His was an unnecessary death.

When Lazarus first fell ill, Martha had sent word to Jesus: “Your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.”

But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored the warning. He didn’t heed the cry for help as seriously as he should have so that by the time Jesus shows up it’s too late and, by Martha’s estimation, it’s every bit unnecessary. It didn’t need to end the way it did: “Lord, if you had been here,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

Scripture calls it the Enemy for a reason. It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death.

Especially an unnecessary death.

We don’t know the why or the how of Lazarus’ death. We just know it didn’t have to be. “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” Martha asks and, I’m willing to bet, poked Jesus in the chest or, even, slapped him across the face.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life…Do you believe this?” Jesus asks her, and her mouth says “Yes” but her heart?

————————-

     “Do you believe this?”

Do you? Do you?

All of you- you’re all Martha today.

Some of you’d say “Yes, I believe” but really if you’re honest the answer is no.

For others of you the answer is “No.” You don’t believe. You don’t believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life, but, God, you want the answer to be yes. You don’t want Death to have the last word, especially when you were denied the opportunity to have your last words with _________.

And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!?”

The yes on Martha’s lips. The no on her grief heavy heart. The righteous anger in her throat and in her eyes. We’re all somewhere in between on days like today. We’re all Martha.

————————-

     I’ve presided over too many services like this one- and don’t get me started on the kids I’ve buried or the forsakenness I’ve felt- I know what it’s like to feel that the answer is no.

“No, I don’t believe.”

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death.

Take those together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ.

But you’re here for a funeral. You’re not here for me to convince you the answer is yes. Yes, he’s the Resurrection and the Life of us all.

Except-

In here, on our calendar, it’s still Eastertide, the season of Resurrection, a season that began with the scripture reading you heard this morning from the Gospel of John.

Mary Magdalene, who’s come to the garden tomb to mourn, mistakes the Risen Jesus for the gardener because Resurrection and Life are not in any way her expectation.

She mistakes him for the gardener.

Gardener is the job Adam was given by God to do in Eden, which is to say, this Risen Jesus- he is what we’re meant to be.

He is who we will become. What God does with him God will do with us all. His Resurrection is but the first fruit of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing.

When she realizes it’s really him, she grabs ahold of him. In her hands she clasps his scarred hands. Notice- his scars are still there. In his hands and his feet and his side. He still bears his scars.

     The life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated.

The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus. He is who he was.

That Mary mistakes him for the gardener, what Adam was meant to be; that he still bears his scars and his wounds, reveals what Christians mean by that word ‘Resurrection.’

Namely, this world and this life- it matters. It matters to Almighty God.

Any kind of thinking or religion or piety or spirituality, that suggests our ultimate destination is an evacuation from this world has nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with Resurrection.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener; therefore, Resurrection means that God has not abandoned the garden that he planted.

God didn’t send the ghost of Jesus back to the world to say, “Don’t worry … after you die you’ll be OK.”

No, God Resurrected Jesus.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ tells us something about what God has planned for the world, what God has planned for us. God plans to restore THIS world.

The Risen Christ still bears the scars life gave him; therefore, Resurrection means that God is not interested in throwing out this world and moving on to something else somewhere else.

If that were the case, why on earth go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? And not just him but God raised him as the first fruit of God raising us all.

God didn’t say, “It’s enough for Jesus to come home to heaven now that he’s died.”

No.
God raised Jesus from the dead.

Therefore, Resurrection means this world that God made matters.

Resurrection means that this world, this life— our hopes, our longings, our pain, our work, our choices, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies—

Literally, everything, it all matters.

Every pitch, every batting practice thrown, every conversation breaking down your swing.

It all matters.

Every game coached. Every reluctant walk along the beach. Every date night in Old Town.

All of it matters.

Every piece of unsolicited volleyball advice. Every vegan chicken sandwich shared. Every trip to Philly or Boston or New Orleans. Every GPS-induced “shit show.” Every ‘I love you’ left unsaid or said in deeds if not words.

All of it. Every bit of it.

All of ________ and every bit of your life with him and what you do with your life now without him.

It all matters.

It all matters to God.

     When we gather on days like today, people often will refer to it as a ‘celebration of life.’

     I hate that language.

I hate it because it doesn’t lift the luggage.

For one, it compels us to be dishonest. It temps us to lie and ignore our feelings of grief and confusion. It forces us to ignore the fact that not every part of our lives is a cause for joy, neither was every part of ________’s life nor the way ended he it. It forces us to pretend that if _____ were here with us he wouldn’t apologize and say he wished that none of you had to be here today.

For another, I hate that ‘celebration of life’ language because it doesn’t go far enough in the celebration.

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our ability to remember it. No, the Christian hope is different than the ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. 

We’re not celebrating a life that’s now lost, now past, alive only in our memory of it. We’re celebrating a life that God is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

Mary mistakes him for the gardener. He still bears the holes in his hands. Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. God doesn’t throw things out.

     Resurrection means that even if we forsake our life, God does not forsake us.

Resurrection means God will reclaim everything, redeem everything, renew everything, heal everyone.

Belinda Carlisle was right; she just got the tense of her verbs wrong. Heaven will be a place on Earth, a New Earth- a New Creation- and nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken, everything broken will be mended.

Every wound will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, are gift.

    Resurrection means that in the end God gets what God wants.

     And what God wants is each of every creature that God has made and God has loved and God has called very good- very good, even when we couldn’t always say that about ourselves.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks.

I realize occasions like today draw all sorts of people from all kinds of places. I can’t make assumptions about you or what you believe.

But Christians are those people trust the ‘Yes’ even when we feel the answer’s ‘No.’

Christians are the people who dare to live beautiful and complicated lives, lives of forgiveness and mercy and inconvenient love, lives that make no sense if the answer to Jesus’ question is not ‘Yes.’

Christians are the people who live as though we will live on—as Jesus lives on—as the unique and unrepeatable persons we have been since the moment of our conception.

Live on—body and soul glorified—as it was with Jesus in the Garden—the first fruits of the Resurrection—able to be touched and held, seen and heard. Again.

Christians are those who believe we are not ghosts in machines that go back to being ghosts, nor are we mere material that becomes “one” again with the rest of creation.

Christianity is not spirituality.

The Christian hope is particular, personal, and unapologetically material.

We are destined for eternal embodied existence, where all the things that made us who we are as one-of-a-kind divine image bearers—laughter, courage, generosity, brilliant thoughts and selfless deeds, skin and bones—will inhabit individual bodies that have something resembling hands and feet and fingerprints and nucleic acids.

All made alive again forever—somehow—redeemed by the humble power of God’s love.

Christians believe that God keeps all the information of us and all the mystery about us, and that the God who created everything from nothing knows how to raise us from Death.

That’s our hope.

That’s what we mean by Jesus being “the Resurrection and the Life.”

     Do you believe this?

     Funny thing is, it doesn’t really matter whether you believe it or not, whether you have faith in it or not, whether ______ believed it or not, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us.

Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

 

This weekend Dennis Perry and I shared the sermon, dialoguing on John 20.24-29 about doubt and the shame of the cross, faith as obedience, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the sermon:

     Here’s my sermon from this Sunday. I guest preached at the Kingstowne Communion for their series on the Apostles Creed. My text was Philippians 2.1-11.

Not long ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day.

The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.

The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:

Authoritative 28%:

According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the  world  along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried,  concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God  guiding this country.

Distant 24%:

These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding  the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.

Critical 21%:

The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical  eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.

Benevolent 22%:

According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all  people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.

Benevolent.

Distant.

Critical.

Authoritative.

Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.

For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God.

If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view.

My wife only seldom agrees to spank me but presumably if you’re into adult spanking then you subscribe to a Benevolent God view.

United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.

The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online.

As people take the survey, the percentages change.

You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.

———————

     When I discovered the website not long ago, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all.

Other divine attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”

I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.

In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, maker of heaven and earth in whom we live and move and have our being, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds.

Or, roughly 10,078 minutes faster than God managed to create the world.

After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under the age of none of your damn business).

You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that this pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.

It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.

The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.

I’m no sociologist.

Presumably,

‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself  taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’

Presumably that’s a lousy survey question.

Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions nor was he ever a possible answer.

I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate, my responses but it wouldn’t let me.

The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse.

———————-

     I’m a Christian. How I conceive of God isn’t optional. It isn’t up for grabs.

We don’t get to define God according to whatever generalities we’d prefer instead when we confess Jesus Christ is Lord we profess that God has come to us with the most particular of definitions.

The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.

I believe Jesus is God.

Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.

When we say God, we mean Jesus.

And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.

But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.

You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow disguised behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already.

The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.

Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.

In the Son we see as much of the Father as there has ever been to see.

Just look at today’s scripture text.

The song Paul quotes here in Philippians 2 is a worship song, older even than the Gospels themselves.

Don’t forget, the believers who first sang that song- they were good synagogue-going Jews; as such, they could worship only God alone.

To worship any one other than God was to break the first and most important of commandments.

But here their song praises Jesus as only God can be praised, lauding him as Lord to whom, the song concludes, has been given the name above every name.

Of course, the name above every name is the name that was too holy for Jews to utter or even write.

The name above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush.

     The name above every name is the name of God.

     And now that name’s synonymous with Jesus.

———————

     After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.

For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Anderson Cooper or Donald Trump.

The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues and politics.

But the survey never mentioned anything about a community.

According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues. It never said anything about a community.

I told you it was a terrible survey.

———————

     This past Thursday a couple asked to meet with me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently.

Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

The husband, the dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.” 

Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

And then she told something else entirely. Something surprising.

She told me their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

“They’re both gay” she said.

“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here.” 

“Of course. Absolutely.” 

I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners.”

We talked a bit more.

About how this “issue” is playing out now in the larger Church. About how you can know your kids but still they can be a surprising mystery to you too. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’d always pictured them getting married here and you performing their wedding.” 

“Their wedding photo might look a little different than you’d imagined it, but I’ll still be in it. I’ll still do it” I said. “But, let’s wait until they’re out of high school.” 

“Isn’t there a rule against you doing it?” the mom asked. “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”

“There is and I might” I said “but what am I supposed to do? I serve a God who says his Kingdom is like a wedding to which all the wrong kinds of people get invited. He’s the only rule I’ve got to obey.”

They laughed a little, but then he said, with absolute seriousness:

     “I guess we came here because they want to know, and we want them to know, that God still loves them.” 

———————-

     Maybe it was because I’d just filled out that silly survey, but after they left the church office I thought about sort of God it is that could produce the conversation we’d just had.

What sort of God is that?

Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?

Or is it Jesus? Is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might be with us?

Is it the God who takes flesh to welcome outcasts, embrace lepers, and feast with sinners?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent or the God who is with-us, while all of us were still sinners with us, with us through the grief and joy and confusion of our lives?

With us such that to be faithful and obedient to this God we must be willing to be with one another no matter what?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had or the kind of community capable of such a conversation?

Benevolent doesn’t even scratch the surface of the God who took flesh, became what we are; so that, what we are- male or female, black or white, gay or straight- we are in him so that all of us must treat every one of us as him, as precious as him.

All of us must treat every one of us as Christ.

     He became what we are.

     What we are- black or white, male or female, gay or straight- is in him.

All of us therefore must regard everyone of us as though we were him.

Distant. Critical. Benevolent. Authoritative.

Tell me what sort of God other than Jesus Christ could produce that posture?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Sure, there’s scripture verses that could’ve taken the conversation in the opposite direction, but we’re Christians.

We believe Jesus, not scripture, is the Word God speaks to us because we believe Jesus is God.

Maybe if our God was Authoritative or Critical or Distant even, maybe then we could throw around scripture words like abomination but we believe Jesus is God.

Jesus is God and, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones. God says to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you” even though scripture condemned her.

God forgives those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks with sinners, and to the thieves by the cross God gives the first two tickets to paradise.

And speaking of the cross, God responds to the crosses we build with Easter. With resurrection.

Only that sort of God could produce the conversation I’d had with those parents.

Even more importantly- only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced our conversation.

     Only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced those girls who yearned to hear that God loved them.

———————-

     After they left my office, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:

     Dear Dr. Bader,

I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.

First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see.

Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.

Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that if Jesus Christ is Lord, then it’s not a matter of opinions.

Before the creed is a profession of our beliefs; it’s a pledge of our allegiance. If Jesus Christ is Lord then faith in him means faithfulness to him.

His life is the pattern to which we must conform our lives.

And “must conform” is the right wording, for if Jesus is Lord, then he’s owed not our belief but our obedience.

And obedience for Christians means imitation. Imitating Christ.

So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.

Finally, I just came from a conversation with parents of two teenage girls who just came out of the closet.

And during my conversation with them it occurred to me.

In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what.

You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For those parents whose fear of God’s rejection I could see in their eyes and for their girls who’ve already been baptized into Jesus Christ- for those girls and for their parents, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.

No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category.

Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.

Blessings…

Jason Micheli

For this episode we deployed podcast regular Kenneth Tanner, along with Chris Green, to interview Robert Jenson.
A student of Karl Barth– there aren’t many more of those left- Jenson is a legend.
Count yourself lucky and color yourself grateful that C&GJ snagged this for your audiological pleasure.
Jenson was described as the greatest living theologian by Stanley Hauerwas, and as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time” by Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Jenson’s two volume Systematic Theology is a classic. His latest book, a series of lectures delivered at Princeton University, is Can These Bones Live: A Theology in Outline. Jenson, who recently entered hospice, suffers from MS so you’ll have to exercise some patience and hospitality as he responds to our questions.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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The Risen Substitute

Jason Micheli —  May 1, 2017 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon on John 20.19-31 that I preached at my friend Todd Littleton‘s church in Oklahoma City. It was the first time I preached in a Baptist Church, somewhere an angel must’ve gotten his wings.

    “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” 

Uh………………………………………………………………………………….

What’s that about?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book!?!?!?!?

     Did John’s first draft come back to him marked up with red ink?

Did John have a word limit?

Should our response to scripture reading be: “This is most of the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God”?

Think about it.

John believes he’s telling you the most important thing that’s ever been told- about the most important person who’s ever been and the most important cosmic event that’s ever happened.

Why would John leave anything out?

If the whole point of the Gospels is to convince beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to prove to us that the world responded to God’s love made flesh by crucifying him but that God vindicated him by raising him from the dead…

if the whole point of the Gospels is to explain to us why he came and why he died and why God raised him from the dead and what that means for us today…Then why would John not include every detail?

Why would John not submit every possible piece of evidence?

If the whole point of the Gospel is to convince us, then shouldn’t John’s Gospel be Stephen King long not Ernest Hemingway brief?

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his discipleswhich are not written in this book.” 

     Of course, the operative phrase there is ‘…in the presence of his first disciples.’ 

Because we weren’t there.

We weren’t there like John was.

We weren’t there like Peter was.

We weren’t there like Matthew or Andrew or Mary Magdalene.

We didn’t get to see with our own eyes the things Jesus did.

We didn’t get to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him with our own ears.

Jesus didn’t wash our feet.

I realize that just because you come to church doesn’t mean you don’t harbor serious doubts about God to say nothing of God raising a crucified, Galilean Jew from from the dead.

I also realize that the Easter season is an occasion when the every-Sunday sort of Christians think they need to hide their doubts.

And usually we hide our doubts by acting as though others shouldn’t have any doubts of their own.

As my muse, Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“We try to assure ourselves that we really believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.”

Got that?

He means:

Easter is an occasion for doubt as much as it is an occasion for faith.

So why don’t we just admit it?

This whole believing business would be a lot easier if we weren’t 2,000 plus years removed from his resurrection.

This whole having faith thing would be a lot easier if we had just been there ourselves.

———————-

     But then again-

Thomas was there.

With Jesus.

Every step of the way.

With his own two eyes, Thomas saw Jesus feed 5,000 with just a few loaves and a couple of fish.

When Jesus raised Lazarus, called him out of his tomb, stinking and 3 days dead, Thomas was there.

And Thomas was there to hear for himself when Jesus told Martha, the grief-stricken sister of Lazarus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.”

But all the first-hand evidence, all the eyewitness proof, all the personal experience wasn’t enough to convince Thomas.

Because on Easter night, after the women have run from the tomb terrified to tell the disciples that he is risen, the disciples run, terrified, and hide.

They hide behind locked doors and the Risen Christ comes and stands among them- just as he’d predicted he would- and says “Peace be with you.”

But Thomas wasn’t there.

The Gospel doesn’t give even an inkling of where Thomas was.

     It just says “Thomas was not there with them when Jesus came.” 

‘Seeing is believing’ we say, but three years of seeing for himself, of hearing for himself, of being right there with him- it wasn’t enough to convince Thomas that Jesus really was who he claimed he was.

Afterwards when the disciples tell Thomas what had happened, Thomas doesn’t respond by saying: All ten of you saw him? Alright, that’s good enough for me. 

No.

Thomas insists.

The shame of the cross was to great for him to believe God would redeem it.

Resurrect it.

I will not believe unless, he says.

Unless I see his hands and his feet.

Unless I can grab hold of him and touch his wounds.

Unless I can see for myself what Rome did to him.

I need proof. I need facts. I need evidence before I will believe.

————————

     This past fallI I was at the gym exercising this remarkable specimen of a body.

My head was covered in a bandana. I was wearing running shorts and a ratty old t-shirt and sneakers and looked, I thought, unrecognizable from the robed reverend I play up here on Sundays.

I was grunting and sweating and half-watching/half-listening to Luke Cage when a man, not a lot older than me, came up, tapped me on the shoulder and asked: ‘Don’t I know you?’

I told him I didn’t think so.

Maybe it was my voice that placed me.

He told me he’d met me at a funeral service- the funeral my church did a boy named Joshua in October, a little immigrant boy with brain cancer from my boy’s elementary school.

I put the weight in my hand down on the floor, wiped the sweat off on my shirt, and shook his hand.

And I suppose it was the mention of the boy’s name, his memory sneaking up on me like that, but neither one of us spoke for a few moments. We just stood there in the middle of the gym looking past each other, and probably we looked strange to anyone else might be looking at us.

‘I couldn’t do what you do’ he said, shaking his head like an insurance adjustor.

I assumed he meant funerals, couldn’t do funerals, couldn’t do funerals like that boy’s funeral.

‘Couldn’t do what?’ I asked.

‘Believe’ he said, ‘as much as I’d like to have faith I just can’t. I have too many doubts and questions.’

Thinking especially of the boy, I replied: ‘What the hell makes you think I don’t have any doubts?’

‘I guess I’m just someone who needs proof’ he said.

———————-

     The first Easter wasn’t just a day.

The Risen Jesus hung around for 50 days, teaching and appearing to over 500 people.

7 days after the first Easter Day, Jesus appears again in that same locked room as before and Jesus says ‘Peace be with you.’

And this time, this time Thomas is there.

     Jesus offers Thomas his body: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 

     And Thomas reaches out to Jesus’ body.

And Thomas touches Jesus.

And Thomas grabs at the wounds of Jesus.

He grasps Jesus’ wounded feet.

He holds his hands against the holes.

Puts his hand on Jesus’ pierced side to see the proof for himself…

Actually…no.

He doesn’t.

     That’s the thing-

We assume that Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds. Artists have always depicted Thomas reaching out and touching the evidence with his own hands.

Duccio drew it that way.

Caravaggio illustrated it that way.

Peter Paul Rubens painted it that way.

Artists have always shown Thomas sticking his fingers in the proof he requires in order to believe.

And that’s how we paint it in our own imaginations.

Yet, read it again, it’s not there.

The Gospel gives us no indication that Thomas actually touches the wounds in Jesus’ hands.

John never says that Thomas peeked into Jesus’ side. The Bible never says Thomas actually touches him.

No.

That’s got to be important, right?

I mean, the one thing Thomas says he needs in order to believe is the one thing John doesn’t bother to mention. What Thomas insists he needs to see is the one thing John doesn’t give you the reader to see.

Instead John tells us that Jesus offers himself to Thomas and then the next thing we are told is that Thomas confesses: ‘My Lord and my God!” 

     Which- pay attention– is the first time in John’s Gospel that anyone finally and fully and CORRECTLY identifies Jesus as the same Lord who made Heaven and Earth.

“Doubting” Thomas manages to make the climatic confession of faith in the Gospel.

After so many stories about the blind receiving sight and those with sight stubbornly remaining blind to who Jesus is, “Doubting” Thomas is the first person to see that the Jesus before him is the God who made him.

And “Doubting” Thomas makes that confession of faith without the one thing he insists he needs before he can muster up faith.

———————-

     St. Athanasius says that Christ, as our Great High Priest, not only mediates the things of God to man but Christ also mediates the things of man to God.

Including- especially- faith.

We think of faith as something we have, something we do. We think of belief as something we will, mustering it up in us in spite of us, despite our doubts. Believing is our activity, we think. Our act.

But-

If we think of faith as something we do or possess, as an autonomous act within us, we’re not speaking of faith as scripture speaks of it.

In scripture, faith- our faith- is made possible only through the agency of God: “Lord, help my unbelief” the father in Mark’s Gospel must beg Jesus, as we all must beg.

Jesus doesn’t just put on our flesh and live the life we live. He puts on the belief, lives the faith and trust in God we owe God as creatures of God.

     Jesus doesn’t just stand in our place when it comes to our sin.

He stands in our place when it comes to faith too.

     What holds Good Friday and Easter together, what makes cross and resurrection inseparable, is that Jesus never stops being a substitute for us, in our place, on our behalf.

The Risen Christ remains, even here and now, every bit a substitute for us as the Crucified Christ.

Our faith, our belief, is made possible by him.

It’s his work not ours, and like a parent’s hand grasping a little child’s, our faith, such as it is, is enfolded within his perfect faith; so that, in him, enclosed within his faith, our faith is mediated to God the Father.

That’s what the New Testament means by calling Christ ‘the author and the finisher of our faith.” The faith we possess is the work of the Son within us not our own, but the faith by which the Father measures us is the Son’s not our own.

     ———————-

     So often preachers make the point of this passage a kind of permission for us to have our doubts, that its okay we’re all like Doubting Thomas, that “doubt is a part of faith” goes the cliche.

But John would not have you see here simply Gospel approval for your doubts. This is the freaking climax of the Jesus story where someone finally and fully and correctly calls upon Jesus as his Lord and his God.

     “…but its okay to have your doubts too.” 

What kind of crappy whimper of an ending is that?!  That’s not the takeaway John intends Thomas to leave with you. No. John wants you to see Jesus, the Risen Lord.

The same God who created from nothing.

The same God who called Israel- who had been no people- to be his People.

The same God who, Paul says, calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John wants you see the Risen Christ bringing into existence in Thomas, who had insisted unless I can touch his hands and feet for myself, a faith that can confess Christ as Lord and God.

Doubts are okay, sure.

I’ve got plenty of doubts and, I’ll bet, I’ve got more reasons to doubt than you do.

Sure, you’ve got doubts. Big deal. That’s not very interesting.

If faith is Christ’s work in us then doubt is just our natural human disposition, like Adam and Eve wondering in the Garden “Did God really say?”

Thomas’ doubt is not what John would have see.

     What John would have us see:

Is that Thomas’ faith-

It’s the work of the Risen Christ.

     ———————-

     The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

Think about it: that puts all the onus on you.

It makes faith just another work. Your work.

It empties the cross of its saving significance and it makes his substitution in your place partial. Imperfect because its incomplete with out your faith.

The Good News is NOT that you are saved by faith.

The Good News is that you are saved by faith by grace.

By the gifting of God.

By the agency of God.

By the mediating activity of the Risen Christ.

Who is every bit as present to us now as those 10 disciples hiding behind locked doors.

You are saved by faith through the gracious work of the Risen Christ, who can compel you- against your natural disposition to doubt- to call upon him as your Lord and your God.

Such that whatever has brought you here

Whatever of the Gospel you are able to trust and believe

Whatever Word from the Lord you can hear in this sermon

Whether your faith is as meager as a mustard seed

Or as mighty as a mountainside

Your faith is NOT

YOUR doing.

It is a miracle. Grace. An act of the Risen Christ.

In you and upon you and through you.

And it makes you- even you!

It makes you exactly what Thomas insisted he required.

It makes you proof that he is risen. He is risen indeed.

You.

You’re why John ends his Gospel the way he does.

You’re the reason John doesn’t need to write down everything Jesus did among those disciples.

Because Jesus is neither dead nor disappeared from this world.

He’s alive and still doing work among his disciples.

And for proof you need look no further than your own faith, your own ability to call him your Lord and your God.

 

Becca Stevens was our guest preacher this Sunday to preach on John 20.19-31.

Becca is an Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, author of Snake Oil and many other books, and, most importantly, she is the founder of Thistle Farms, the largest social enterprise in the U.S. run by survivors of sex trafficking.

If it were a metaphor, we should worship the universal principle behind the metaphor instead of Jesus Christ. Or so I argue. For Easter, Dennis Perry and I did a dialogue sermon for all 5 services. Dialogues aren’t really my forte but I think this one turned out solid. You can listen to it below. You can listen watch the live stream of the 8:30 service here.

Here’s my Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.