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God is Not a Pharaoh

Jason Micheli —  October 8, 2018 — Leave a comment

I continued our fall sermon series The Questions God Asks Us by preaching on Exodus 4 & 5: “Moses, what’s in your hand?”

With immigration and dreamers and children separated from their parents and a border wall still looming in the news, it would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text. 

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

     Context is always key: the Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis. 

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

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

    Sound familiar? 

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

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

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

     That’s Exodus 1.9

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

     That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition) 

     So what’s Pharaoh do? 

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

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

     Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. 

About 18 months ago— thanks to a spontaneous conversation with my mom and the help of ancestory.com I discovered I’m actually Jewish (which explains why I’m so funny). So as a Jew, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down. 

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

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

     A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself. 

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

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

     And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for Just Neighbors helping immigrants with their legal status.

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

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

     In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. 

     In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them. 

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

     You have a duty to be for them too. You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression. You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..” 

     It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach. 

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

Others of you would congratulate me for preaching bravely, which of course just means I was preaching what sounded like your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.

     Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics. It’s God’s Law, God’s commands. It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. 

     It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. 

     It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. 

     And Jesus gives us his own Law. 

     Jesus commands us to work for justice. 

     If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

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

     God is for them. 

     You have a a duty to be for them too. 

     Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise. 

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

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

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

Or would it- Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel and turn it into a burden?

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

Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses at the end of chapter 5: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”

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

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

     We would be free, Nietzsche predicted. 

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

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

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

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

     He was wrong. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Says McClay: 

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

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

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

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

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

     We’re captives to guilt. 

We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.” 

     But…he says

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

     We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness. 

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

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

     It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. 

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

     It’s true-

     God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. 

     God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. 

     God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger. 

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

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

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

     Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat: The Law always accuses. 

     That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. 

     The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short. 

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

     “Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.” The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.

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

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

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

Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s not news.

That’s moralism.

     What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel-  Its the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not. The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. 

    The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure. God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself. God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.  God has met you in your failure to be a good mother. God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter. 

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

      This never stops being true for you. 

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

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

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

     It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget. The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful. 

     This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. 

     And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own.

     And it’s true even for you. It’s God’s grace. It’s the gift we call the Gospel. And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free. It’s free.

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion: 

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

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

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

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

     That’s a history professor, not a preacher. 

     Translation:

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

     Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts.

But they are actions that don’t need the Church. 

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

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

That’s our unique vocation.

“What’s in your hand?” God asks Moses. And what God places in Moses’ hand— it’s purpose—God says its so that the people may believe what has been revealed. And the work God puts in our hands— it’s purpose— its so the world might believe the gospel that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. 

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

     And the Gospel is not the Law. 

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

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

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

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

     This news- 

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

     You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt, no one deserves to be the object of your self-justification). 

     This news alone, attached to wine and bread, liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression. This news alone—only the Gospel—has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children. 

 

     

     

     

     

 

The Gospel is Not…

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2018 — Leave a comment

My friend Scott Jones recently preached on Mark 9, using the famous little book by the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit. Scott’s the smartest guy I know— it pains me to admit it. You should check out his podcast New Persuasive Words in iTunes.

If you get this by email, you can also find the sermon here.

 

No Ground for Boasting

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

It’s funny— is our definition of social activism too passive?

I continued our fall sermon series on The Questions God Asks by looking at Sarah’s laughter in Genesis 18.1-15 and how the Apostle Paul uses her laughter and Abraham’s shady character in Romans 4.

Did you ever notice how quickly God raised the degree of difficulty in the Bible? Adam, don’t eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. Noah, build me a boat. Abraham, cut off the tip of your….

Uh…can’t I just build you a bigger boat?

I mean, how do you think Sarah reacted when she came home and found Abraham in the shower? 

Why did you do that to yourself?! 

God told me. 

Abraham, if God told you to kill your first born child would you do that too?! 

There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible. 

There’s jokes we could make about the Bible. 

Jokes like:

Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and said to the Israelites: Look guys, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news— I got him down to 10 Commandments. The bad news— the one about adultery is still there.

Speaking of the 7th Commandmet:

Why is divorce is so expensive?

Because it’s worth it. (My wife came up with that joke.)

There’s not alot of laughter in the Bible; though, there’s jokes we could make about the Bible. 

Jokes like:

Jesus walks in to a bar and says to the bartender: “Give me a wine glass and fill it with water.”

How long did Cain hate his brother?  As long as he was Abel.

Look people, I published a book with the word funny in the title. That’s practically like a comedy diploma. If I say laugh, you say how high.

Adam said to Eve: “Stand back, we don’t know how big this gets.”

Speaking of Eve, you might not know it but there was a midget in the Garden of Eden too. You never hear about him because he got kicked out before the Fall. He kept sticking his nose in Eve’s business.

Jesus came across a woman caught in adultery, surrounded by angry priests and Pharisees. So Jesus said, “Whever is without sin may cast the first stone. And one by one the priests and the Pharisees dropped their rocks and slank away, but then suddenly a stone came sailing through the air and struck the woman upside the head, killing her dead. And Jesus said, “Sometimes you really torque me off, Mother.”

There’s not alot of laughs in the Bible, but there’s things in it that might make us giggle, like the story of the prophet Elisha and the children and the 2 she-bears. 

You know that story? 

Check this out:

  Maybe church folks like you get your reputation for tight-sphinctered humorlessness honest because, while there are stories in the Bible that might make us scratch our heads and chuckle, there’s not alot of laughter in the Bible. In fact, by my reckoning, there’s just two instances of laughter in all of scripture. 

The first place is Matthew 9 where Jesus is called to the home of a ruler of the synagogue and it’s no laughing matter. The ruler’s little girl has just died. Jesus comes to a place of death and the crowds gathered at the man’s home laugh at him. 

They laugh at Jesus. 

What was the punchline? 

The punchline was Jesus’ promise: “Your daughter will live.”

Life from Death. 

Good news in the face of grief.

The Living God shows up and all of us gathered around Death laugh him off. 

The second place is today’s passage in Genesis 18. Her husband entertains God himself unawares while Sarah eavesdrops from the flap of the tent. Her back is bowed. Her hair is thinned. Her hands are palsied and liver-spotted. She’s all gums. She’s got just a few teeth, which is fine because all of her appetites are about gone. She’s closing in on 100 years old. 

Eavesdropping, she overhears God’s promise of redemption through a child— her child— and she laughs. She hears the promise of God as a punchline. God’s redemptive promise sounds to her ridiculous. And why wouldn’t it? This was 4,000 years before the invention of Viagra. 

Where Mary receives her part of this same promise and replies “Let it be with me according to your word,” Sarah laughs. Like the crowds ready to bury the dead girl, Sarah laughs. 

Not “Ha ha!” but “Yeah, right, when Sheol freezes over.” A cynical laugh. An understandable laugh. A laugh we would all likely laugh but a laugh that, nonetheless, is the opposite of faith.

Before we pile on Sarah, I should point out— Sarah laughs at God’s redemptive promise (for you, through her) because she’s hearing God’s redemptive promise for the first time. Old Abraham never told her. Go back to Genesis 12. To undo all that we had done at Babel and before, God first made this promise to Abraham 25 years earlier. 

Abraham sat on this promise of God longer than Diane Feinstein did on the Kavanaugh letter. For almost 3 decades Sarah’s dearly beloved didn’t bother to share with her what God had promised for both of them. 

It’s true that her laugh is a cynical laugh, the opposite of faith, but that’s because her hubbie didn’t believe the promise enough to pass it on to her. 

It’s funny— these are not impressive people. 

By the way, when God first called him, Abraham left behind his home and his family and his belongings and his country in order to go to the land that God would show him. Left it all behind. 

The reason Abraham here has servants whom he can order to grind and knead and bake— the reason Abraham here has not just a calf but a whole herd of cattle from which he can feed his guests— is because, back when she was young and beautiful, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister and pimped her out to the Pharaoh. 

He lied about her. 

And then, with dollar signs in his eyes, he rented her out for money, which I’m guessing required more than chocolates and roses to reconcile.

The wealth Abraham lavishes on his mysterious guests here in Genesis 18– it was ill-gotten gain. God has been eating and drinking with sinners from the very beginning. 

But before you start feeling sorry for Sarah, remember. 

Turn the page and Sarah is the one who will pitch a jealous fit and demand that her husband forsake their servant-girl and her baby to the wilderness and God only knows what else. 

What a joke!

Of all the people in the world, the God who knows the secret thoughts of all of our hearts chose these two for his redemptive purpose. 

These two: lying, pimping, coveting, conniving, unbelieving— ungodly even— Abraham and Sarah. The two people to whom God gives this promise— they’re not even God’s people. They are literally the ungodly. 

Don’t forget, Abraham and Sarah were from Ur of the Chaldeans, which means Abraham and Sarah were zigarat-attending moon worshippers. According to the Talmud, Father Abraham’s father was an idol maker by trade. When the Living God first encounters Abraham with this promise to redeem the world from its sin through him, Abraham is a pagan. Sarah is a pagan. 

They are sinners— their story in scripture bears that out. 

But even before their story in scripture begins, they are ungodly, both of them.

Abraham and Sarah— their character is as barren as her womb, and their religious potential is as unlikely as him rising to the occassion without the help of one of those little blue pills. 

There’s not a lot of laughter in the Bible, but we could chuckle at the absurdity of God using the likes of these two for his redemptive purpose. 

Not just absurd, it’s offensive. I mean— why would God use two people like this when he’s got good like us to choose?

Of course (Haha!) the joke’s on us. 

God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like them; so that, good people like us will realize that we do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption. 

That grates against everything you’ve ever been told so I’m going to say it again:

God works his redemptive purpose through ungodly people like Abraham and Sarah; so that, good people like you will realize that you do not contribute anything to God’s promised work of redemption

The only thing we contribute to our redemption is our resistance. I mean— no sooner has Sarah heard this promise than she’s urging Abraham to hurry its happening by sleeping with their servant, Hagar. Like her we hear the promise and then we refuse to believe its happening isn’t our responsibility. 

Don’t let the cakes or the curds or the fatted calf in today’s feast fool you. When it comes to God’s work of redemption, you and I bring nothing to the table. 

That’s what we’re supposed to take away from this question God asks us: “Why are you laughing? Is anything too hard for God?”

Notice—

He didn’t say:  “Is anything too hard for you when you’re partnered with God.”

He didn’t say:  “Is anything too hard for you when you have God on your side.”

He didn’t say: “Is anything too hard for you if….” If you pray on it. If you have faith. If you commit yourself to the Lord. If he blesses you.

No, and in the Bible it’s the Devil who speaks in if/then.

It’s “Why are you laughing_______? Is anything to hard for God?”

Listen— this is no laughing matter.

When it comes to God’s work to redeem the world from the Powers of Sin and Death— you and I— we bring nothing to the table. 

This is what we’re meant to hear in this question that God asks us today, which is the very same takeaway we’re supposed to see in the scene just before today’s text.

Just before this mysterious visit from God in Genesis 18, God visits Abraham in order to seal God’s promise in the blood of a covenant. 

God orders Abraham to bring him 3 animals and 2 birds. God instructs Abraham to slaughter them, to cut each of them in half, and then to lay out the slaughtered pieces in rows, forming an alley in between. 

The contract’s fine print said that whoever broke it “may the curse fall upon them so that what was done to these animals will be done to them.” 

According to the conditions of the contract, if the two parties sealing the covenant were equals then both of them would pass through the pieces of slaughtered animals, swearing aloud: “Thus let it be done to me.” 

If the two parties were not equals in power, then only the weaker party would walk between them and swear “Thus let it be done to me.”

It’s funny though— that’s not how God ratifies his redemptive promise. 

The weaker one doesn’t pass through the bloody passageway at all. In fact, Abraham doesn’t do anything at all. 

Like the disciples in the garden at Gethsemane, Abraham can’t even stay awake. He instead falls in to a deep sleep, as cooperative as a corpse. 

He’s stirred awake to find that Almighty God— as though God had been made the weaker one, as though God had poured out all of his power— had condescended to him and was now passing through the blood and invoking the curse upon himself. 

“Thus let this death be done to me,” the Living God says.

The joke’s on Abraham— after all that bloody busywork of finding and catching and killing and carrying and cutting, Abraham is a completely passive party to the promise.

The author of Genesis assumes you get the joke. It’s a two-party promise, but other than fetching the ingredients Abraham brings absolutely nothing to the table. 

All he does is fall asleep, as though he’s dead in his sins. 

Let’s give Sarah the benefit of the doubt. 

Maybe that’s why she’s laughing. Maybe she’s laughing because she knows better than anyone but God that, other than the cakes and curds and fatted calf, she and Abraham bring absolutely nothing to the table. For them to be a part of God’s promised work in the world they will have to be made a part of God’s redemptive work in the world.  Abraham and Sarah— they have “no ground for boasting.” That’s how the Apostle Paul speaks of them in Romans. No ground for boasting. 

They brought nothing to the table, Paul says, they simply trusted— eventually— that the Living God is able. They simply had faith that the Almighty is able. They brought nothing. They could only believe— believe that the Living God is powerful to work what his word promises. They simply trusted God’s word and, by their trust— by their faith, the Apostle says— God reckoned to them “righteousness.” As it says just before today’s passage: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

 

Righteousness. 

Now the Apostle Paul is no one’s idea of a comedian, but here’s the funny thing and Paul, a Hebrew who wrote in Greek, assumes you’re in on the joke. 

That word “righteouness” (as in, you’re in the right with God) in Hebrew and in Greek (in other words, in the entire Bible) it’s the same word as “justice” (as in, to do right according to God). 

You got it? 

The word “justice” in the Bible is the same word as the word “righteousness.” 

And so at baptism, when we pray over the water “clothe this child in Christ’s righteousness…” we could just as easily pray “clothe this child in Christ’s justice…” 

Or in the Sermon on Mount, you could just as easily hear Jesus preach “Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you wil not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

And in Paul’s proclamation, it could just as easily read: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might become the right-making of God.”

Except that’s not exactly it either— all of those examples make justice/rightousness sound like nouns, like a quality or an attitude or an idea that we possess or that God possess. 

But, in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for righteousness/justice is a noun that functions with the force of a verb. 

Believe me, I know this sounds like we’re getting lost in the weeds. Just trust me— I mean, half of you are odds with the other half about the place of social justice in church. You need to hear me.

In scripture, justice and righteousness are nouns that function with the force of a verb. And verbs do work. But, remember too, St. Paul says Abraham is the example. What’s true of Sarah is the same for all of us. We bring nothing to the table. 

Verbs do work, but on our own we can only work sin. 

Thefore this noun with the force of a verb— it belongs to God. Rightousness…justice…it’s all God’s work, from beginning to end. We’re the objects of God’s verb.

It’s not we do our best and God does the rest. 

It’s not we do our part after God has done his part. 

It’s not God declares us righteous so that then we can go out and deliver the world from injustice. 

It’s all God’s work— that’s the point Paul makes with Abraham and Sarah. The God who is both sides to his 2-party promise is the subject to both meanings of the verb. 

Put it this way:

By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God declares you forgiven by the justice of his cross for you. 

 

The God who has done for you in the work of Jesus Christ is the Living God who is able to draft you into his work for your neighbor.

Righteousness. Justice. 

It’s the same word, in Hebrew and in Greek. And in both, it works like a verb. And in both, God is the active agent. God is the subject of the sentence. 

This why the question Isn’t there work we have to do as Christians?— pardon the bluntness— it isn’t a very good question. 

By faith, you’ve been reckoned in the right with God. 

There is therefore  now no condemnation— there’s nothing you have to do. 

But, by faith, God is able to reckon onto your doorstep some part of his right-making work in the world. 

You could say no to it. I know it sounds crazy funny but your status before God won’t suffer one iota for it. But your neighbor may suffer.

 

Here’s a joke:

What do you call a Catholic who practices the rhythm method?

Mom.

Here’s another:

A guy is on his couch and hears the doorbell ring. He goes to the door and sees a snail. Snail says “Hey I got something to talk with you about.” Guy picks the snail up and throws him and says “Get the heck out of here.”  

Three years later the same guy is on the couch. He hears the doorbell. It’s the snail. Snail says “What the hell was that all about?”

I know. They can’t all be pearls. 

Those two jokes are the favorite jokes of one of my best friends, Brian Stolarz. He’s a lawyer here in DC. Let those jokes serve as Exhibits A and B, proof that Brian brings nothing to the table. 

Trust me, he’s not a very impressive person. A Mets fan, Brian still wears Kirkland brand pleated pants and unironically listens to Run DMC. 

An evening out with Brian mainly involves fart jokes, jabs about the measurements of man parts, and pranking the drive-thru worker at Taco Bell. Thurgood Marshall he is not.

He brings nothing to table.

Brian grew up Catholic. He belongs to my previous congregation, and he’ll be our guest here in a few weeks. Brian works at a fancy white-collar firm. 

Because he’d come up as as public defender in NYC and because he had a good BS radar, a few years ago Brian’s firm asked him to head up a death penalty case in Texas, a case his firm had taken pro bono. 

It was one of those bleeding heart cases firms take to make themselves feel good about themselves and use to boast about themselves to their paying clients and prospective hires. 

It was a cop-killing at a cash-checking store in Houston. With no DNA, the DA had prosecuted Dewayne Brown, a mentally handicapped black man with no record whose IQ the state doctors ginned up a few points so the prosecution could notch another win. 

After Brian visited Dewayne for the first time on death row, he walked out into the parking lot, his heart racing, and he threw up on the pavement. 

It hadn’t really ocurred to Brian until meeting Dewayne but meeting Dewayne, Brian realized Dewayne was innocent. 

Dewayne’s free now. 

And Brian will tell you about that part of the story in a few weeks. 

What he might not tell you though, he’s told me. 

Told me how the case almost ruined his marriage. 

How it hurt his career. How it made him a stranger to his young kids.

How if it was up to him and he could do it all over again he wouldn’t. 

If it was up to him, he would not take Dewayne’s case again. 

In the drive-through at Taco Bell one night, making jokes about his man-parts, Brian said to me:

“I’m not a social justice warrior. I grew up Catholic hearing that the death penalty was wrong. And then— out of the blue— it was thrust upon me [pay attention to how he puts it]. It was like God put this good work in front of me to do. Still, I didn’t want to do it. I felt compelled—something compelled me— to do it in spite of what maybe I wanted to do.

Its funny— its like our definitions of activism aren’t passive enough.”

It’s funny. 

I don’t think Brian really thought too much about the title to his book. 

He called it Grace and Justice as though they were one and the same.

The Living God, who declares you in the right in Jesus Christ, is able. 

Able to draft you into his work that is even now rectifying the world.

I’m continuing our fall sermon series this Sunday with the question Yahweh poses to Sarah: “Why are you laughing?” In thinking about Sarah’s laughter I realized that there’s very little mention of anyone laughing in scripture at all. Sarah in Genesis 18 receives the promise of God as a punchline, and the crowds in Matthew laugh off Jesus promising to bring life to a dead girl. That’s about it.

Though there is not a laughter in the bible, there is plenty in the bible about which we can laugh. For example, the Old Testatment story of the prophet Elisha and the she-bears. Here’s one from the vault on that odd, funny passage from my book 100 Foreskins. 

God is not great.

This lightening bolt comes according to Christopher Hitchens, who, along with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, is one of the self-styled New Atheists. Or, as they like to refer themselves in their enlightened degree: ‘Brights.’

They actually call themselves ‘Brights.’

Christopher Hitchens’ bestselling, National Book Award-nominated diatribe carries the unsubtle, kitchen-sink title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

The book is a couple of years old now, but I only recently managed to choke it all down. In it, Hitchens scolds ignorant lemmings like you and me that, far from being great, God is instead a malignant pox on human history, human inquiry and human freedom.

It takes 317 self-important pages Hitchens to regurgitate points made long ago by philosophers much smarter than he.

He steals from Freud:

God is not great; God is an illusion. God is the projection of our desire to escape death.

He steals from Ludwig Feuerbach:

God is not great; God is a totem. It is not God who has fashioned us in his image. It is we who have fashioned God in ours.

He steals from Woody Allen:

God is not great.

At best, God is an underachiever, giving us an imperfect world handicapped by violence and poverty and suffering.

He steals from Nietzsche.

How can God be great- better yet, how can God be all-wise- if he is forever choosing the least deserving, least capable, least faithful people to do his work?

He steals from Kant.

God is not great. What we call God’s Word are texts filled with horrors, cruelties and madness, stories that no right-minded person would wish to be true, stories that should provoke squinty-eyed, blush-faced embarrassment not an ‘Amen’ or ‘Thanks be to God.’

Now, if we’re honest with ourselves, then we’ll come clean. And we’ll admit that Hitchens’ book would not be 317 pages long if he were pulling his points out of thin air. His argument is not with out grounds. Maybe some of scripture’s stories are best kept secret.

Take Elisha.

No sooner does Elisha inherit the prophetic mantle from Elijah than Elisha hurls a curse at a crowd of punk kids, calling two she-bears out of the woods to maul them limb from limb. Forty-two of them. All for an adolescent crack about male-pattern baldness.

For those of us who believe that God is great, all the time God is great, how do we explain a scripture like that one?

What do we say about Elisha?

 

Of course if you’ve spent any time with adolescents then you might just say you’re envious that Elisha has such powers at his disposal.

Or-

You could refuse to blink and say without equivocation, that this is a story about holiness. That just as the ark carried the covenant given by the Lord, Elisha, as a prophet of the Lord, carries within him the Word of God.

Therefore, to mock Elisha is to mock the Lord. No matter the taste it leaves in our mouths, those boys had it coming to them- when you mock a prophet of the Lord you end up dead.

Or instead-

You could say that what we think is going on in this text is NOT what is actually going on in this text. You could argue that the original plot and meaning have been obscured by time and translation.

For example, you could point out that Bethel, the setting for this story, was also the site of King Jeroboam’s temple to the golden calf. And you could point out that, in Hebrew, ‘little boys’ can also mean ‘subordinates’ as in, assistant priests.

And their jibe ‘go on up’- you could argue that refers to Elijah’s ascension. After all, just twelve verses earlier fiery horses and chariots had taken Elijah on up to heaven. In other words, in shouting ‘go on up’ they’re wishing Elisha dead too, or they’re threatening to make him so.

So you could argue that this isn’t a petty act of revenge. Elisha’s curse is an act of warfare.

Elisha is doing battle against false prophets just as the prophet Elijah had done. Just as Elijah had stood at the edge of Mt Carmel and battled the prophets of Baal, so too does Elisha stand at the edge of the forest and battle the priests of false gods.

Elijah had called down fire from heaven upon God’s enemies, and now Elisha calls bears down from the woods upon his enemies.

You could argue that.

If you did-

Then you could connect this story to the story before it- where Elisha takes the mantle given to him by Elijah, rolls it up so that it resembles a staff. And with it he strikes the banks of the Jordan River and parts the waters in two so his people can pass through.

And then, with two bears, defeats the false worshippers in the land.

In other words, Elisha is a new Moses. Elisha is a new Joshua. He’s enacting a New Exodus and a New Conquest. He’s rescuing his people from the slavery of idolatry and leading them into a new and promising land.

You could argue that.

And you could take it a step further-

And focus on the crowd’s insult: ‘bald-head.’ You could point out that the mantle given to Elisha, a garment not unlike my stole, was made of hair.

So maybe when the crowd taunts Elisha and calls him ‘bald-head’ they’re not meaning the hair on his head. Maybe they’re taunting Elisha because they don’t believe he’s really inherited Elijah’s prophetic mantle. They don’t believe that the power and the word of the Lord have come to rest on him.

You could argue that.

And many have.

The fact is when it comes to the history of biblical interpretation there is no shortage of explanations for why this strange story is about anything other than what it seems to be.

There’s no shortage of scholars doing theological gymnastics to exonerate Elisha because there is so much embarrassment: that a prophet could be so petty, that a prophet could be so temperamental and vindictive, that that’s the sort of person God would call.

Years ago, when I was still discerning a call to ministry and had only just applied to the ordination process, the churchly powers-that-be evaluated me for my ‘fitness for ministry.’

The major part of that evaluation was a battery of psychological assessment tests.

I remember I was given the address of some tiny, out-of-the-way New Jersey church to report to and when I arrived some random pastor handed me a stack of these psychological tests and a #2 pencil. For several hours I sat in that pastor’s outdated, drafty office and filled in multiple choice, scantron bubbles.

The tests had questions with seemingly no right answers, questions like:

Would you rather torture a cat or date your mother?

How often do you think people are following you: always or often?

Would you rather lie to God or lie to your mother?

How often do you lose your temper: frequently or never?

Would you rather kiss a dead person on the lips or kiss your mother?

(Come to think of it, there were an awful lot of questions about my mother.)

The psychological tests took hours and when I was done- or when I thought I was done- I noticed I still had like ten leftover bubbles I hadn’t filled in, even though I’d gone through all the questions, MEANING- all of the questions had answers other than the answers I’d intended.

But at that point I didn’t care. I sighed and shuffled the tests together and turned them in.

After I’d completed the psychological assessments, I had to make an appointment at the Virginia Institute of Pastoral Care in Richmond to meet with a counselor, who would go through my test results and discuss them with me. I was told ominously and without explanation, that he would be looking for ‘red flags.’

As soon as I walked in to this counselor’s office, I was convinced he was the one who was crazy. All over his office walls he’d hung pictures of himself wearing fatigues, a Harley Davidson dew rag and holding huge machine guns.

Alongside the Rambo photos he’d hung Thomas Kinkade pictures with sappy bible quotes on them and alongside them a bunch of flannel graph peace doves. In the corner of his office was a gurgling granite fountain of water and some sort of Feng Shui, Zen, Christian, Yoga garden.

Dr. Denton was his name. Not only did he have a comic book villain name, he looked like one too. Dr. Denton was completely bald with little round glasses, and that particular morning- but for all I knew every morning- he was dressed completely in burgundy, from head to toe in burgundy: burgundy polyester dress pants, burgundy polyester button down shirt. And to accessorize: an enormous green and white polka dotted bow tie and white cowboy boots.

Needless to say, he was hard to read and I was immediately on the defensive.

After shaking my hand and introducing himself, Dr Denton gestured and had me sit down on this bamboo sort of love seat that was about two inches off the ground; so that, his knees were at my eye level and to anyone walking past I must’ve looked like an overgrown man-child sitting at Santa’s feet.

I sat there for several minutes, staring at his knees, while he pondered my test results, occasionally arching his eyebrow and going ‘HMMM.’

When he finished, he stared at me over his glasses and said: ‘This suggests pretty strongly that you have an argumentative personality.’

‘I don’t think that’s true’ I said, taking the bait. And he scribbled something in his notes.

Then he summarized my psychological test results:

I usually thought I was right and others were wrong.

I typically thought I was the smartest person in the room.

I still had many doubts about my faith.

My family of origin was broken and troubled.

I had a tendency to be contrary and confrontational.

I could be abrasive and short-tempered.

I may have trouble working well with others.

I was often foul-mouthed and vulgar in my language and immature and inappropriate in my humor.

To be honest, at that point in my life, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Because at that point in my life I still wasn’t convinced I was called to do this.

I still didn’t think I was cut out for ministry. I didn’t think I was good enough or holy enough or righteous enough for God to use me.

He told me exactly what I wanted to hear because I wanted him to let me off the hook.

     ‘Well, I guess this means I’m not cut out for ministry.’ 

  ‘I didn’t say that,’ he replied with surprise, ‘God’s used worse people before.’ 

 

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

When investigating the authenticity of a scriptural story, the reasoning goes that that which is most embarrassing to believers is probably historically true.

And so, scholars say, Jesus probably did submit to baptism by John. Jesus probably did act the slave and wash his friends’ feet. Jesus probably did die naked and a criminal and on a cross- because no first century believer would make up something so embarrassing about the Messiah.

That which is most embarrassing is most true.

And so Peter probably did deny Jesus three times. Paul really was a persecutor and murderer of the Church. Moses really did kill a man and hide him in the sand. Noah, after the flood, probably did get drunk, pass out naked and disown his son when he woke up.

And the prophet Elisha-

Before he rescued a widow’s children from slavery, before he raised a woman’s little boy from the dead, before he fed multitudes with only twenty loaves of bread, before before he healed a Syrian general of leprosy-

Elisha probably did respond to adolescent mocking with a petty, vindictive, violent curse of his own.

Because if you’re making up your scripture these aren’t the sorts of people you would choose for God to use.

If you were making up your scripture, you would choose heroes.

You would choose people:

who were always strong in their faith

who never wavered in their commitment to God

whose character was pure and spotless

You would choose saints:

who never drank too much

who were never seduced by money or prosperity

who never chose the wrong side

who never made a rash decision

who never forgot their purpose in life

who never lashed out in anger

who never escalated a petty argument

who never broke a promise or a vow.

But God chooses differently. God doesn’t choose holy people. God enlists imperfect people to do holy things.

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

But you and I- we call it grace.

I hate Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens’ New Atheist movement is so stale and hackneyed it deserves to be no more than a passing fad.

Hitchens’ best-selling book, God is Not Great, is no better than beach-paperback brain candy. It’s intellectually and morally trivial. That Christopher Hitchens passes for a theological expert in the popular media is embarrassing.

There’s not one new idea in any of his 317 constipated pages. Christopher Hitchens is wantonly incurious. His scholarship is egregiously slapdash. His attempts at philosophical argument make it obvious he’s sailing in uncharted waters. His book is so extraordinarily crowded with errors I gave up counting them.

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

I think he’s shallow, reptilian and obnoxious.

He’s cruel in his sarcastic judgments.

He’s arrogantly dismissive of our faith, and he’s despicable in his mockery of Jesus Christ.

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

And yet I should bite my tongue because he’s exactly the sort of person our God just loves to use.

Isn’t God great?

Should’ve Stayed in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2018 — 2 Comments

Our guest preacher couldn’t make it this Sunday so I continued our fall sermon series by using Mark 10.17-32 and Jesus’ question to the rich young rule: “Why do you call me good?”

 

Stupid kid. I know all our teachers lied to us and told us that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but…I mean, really? “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”

Stupid kid.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich honor roll student 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 millenial types. So 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 asks him: “Why do you call me good?” And then Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything last thing 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 impossible even.’

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, this is only second place where the Gospels say Jesus loved someone, specifically.

He’s the only person Jesus loved, AND he’s the only person who refused to become a disciple.

Well-heeled people like most of us with our first-world problems always get hung up on the last part of this passage- Jesus’ bit about the 1-humped dromedary and the sewing needle.

But really, if we were paying close biblical attention then the only needle we should have heard was the needle scratching off the record when this stupid kid actually claims to have kept all 613 commandments. 

  613!  As in, 603 more than the ten commandments that I’m willing to bet $10 you can’t even remember and recite.

———————-

    It’s just not just the Top Ten:

Thou shall have no other gods but me. Thou shall not make for yourself any idol. Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God. Thou shall not commit murder. Thou shall not commit adultery.Thou shall not steal.

It’s not just the ones we like to etch in granite and hang in courthouses. Maybe we mishear Jesus’ exchange with this stupid rich kid and maybe we hang the commandments near jury boxes because we don’t understand what Jesus and the Apostle Paul both say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.

That’s not their purpose.

I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.

They’re not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. They’re not the means by which we transform the world. The commandments— they’re not a code of conduct. 

 The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it apparently failed to do that brown-nosing rich kid in Mark 10.

To accuse us.

Lex semper accusat, the Protestant Reformers said as a sort of shorthand. The Law always accuses. 

———————-

The mistake in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, the mistake in wanting to make Jesus’ own commands in the Sermon on the Mount instructions for us to follow is that, according to Jesus himself, the primary function of the Law is not civil or moral. 

The primary function of the Law is theological.

It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.

But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves as much as that sniveling brown-noser to whom Jesus prescribes a camel and needle.

And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street or because we gave that homeless guy a couple of bucks- we deceive ourselves.

And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Les Moonves at CBS did.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to another’s alleged vice, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what Jesus does to this rich young ruler. Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.

To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If   you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.” To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel,  then you’ve cheated on your wife.” He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.

And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it alot less great by trading out neighbor for enemy.  “You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”  

Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.

———————-  

Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions.

The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct. Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.

I don’t have any girl from high school accusing me of anything, I must be Kingdom material. 

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. That’s what the brown-nosing kid in Mark 10 doesn’t get: the righteousness required for you to acquire heaven— it’s more than keeping the commandments. It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you were before you were famous. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off.

It’s what’s in your head and in your heart. It’s your intentions not just your actions. That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom.That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says. And then, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:

You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”  

Preachers like me just love to wag our fingers at folks like you and exhort you from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but seldom do we quote from the climax of his sermon:

You must be perfect. 

As perfect as God himself. 

If you break even one of these commandments, the Kingdom of Heaven is closed to you. 

How’s that going for you?

———————-

“Good teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since my youth.”

Yeah. Right. 

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. “Why are you calling me good?” Jesus asks him, “No one is good but God.”

Christ’s point is that, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, we must measure ourselves according to God.

There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you. It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than him. It doesn’t matter that you never did what she did.

“Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because the Father and the Son both say that perfection is actually the obligation.  

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect.

You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life. Again—  How’s that going for you?

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what he does to this kid with a camel and a needle. Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.

Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you. Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Les Moonves and Paul Manafort and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake we make in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces. And it’s the mistake we make in mishearing this passage in Mark 10 as instructions to go and sell everything we own.

Even if we could sell everything we own and gave the money to the poor to follow Jesus—

we’d still fall far short of Jesus’ righteousness.

Even if we could do it, we’d still fall short.

———————-

The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.The commandments are not principles by which you live an upright life. The commandments are the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

By telling him to give away all his stuff and then come follow, Jesus is doing to this rich young brown-noser what Jesus does to all of us in his sermon on the mount. Giving us no other out, no other hope, but to throw ourselves on his mercy.

  

You might’ve seen the story in the news this week. After a year in exile, having been accused by the #metoo movement, comedian Louis CK did a surprise comedy set on a small stage last week. His first time before audience since his sin was exposed. 

In his statement to the NY Times, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:

“…I wielded my power irresponsibly. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”

Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.

Nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.

The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.

The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question: “How could God love someone like me?” 

I certainly don’t keep all 613 commandments, and I’d sure as hell never sell everything I possess, leave my wife and kids destitute, to follow after Jesus. How could God love someone like me?

When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.

———————-

The Protestant Reformation began 501 years ago next month, and one of the distinctives taught by the first Protestant Reformers was that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words: Law and Gospel.

And the Reformers taught the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel. Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes in scripture as “rightly dividing the word of truth.”  It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, the first Protestants said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.  

Distorting the Law and the Gospel— it muddles Christianity into a burdensome message (Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor) rather than a message that is a life-giving gift (God in Jesus Christ has given away everything for you). 

Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.

You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.

But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.

Focus on Law alone yields a God of exhausting exhortations and oppressive expectations.

The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose. So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental. And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians. It can only produce hypocrites. That’s why none of us should’ve been surprised to discover during election season last fall that the 10 Commandments Judge in Alabama was in fact a white-washed tomb.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.

Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality. “God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law. Christianity becames sentimental without the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.

———————-

Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.

Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting. Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.

Glawspel turns all of us into the rich young ruler in today’s passage, thinking we can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from Jesus.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you cannot achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will have no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.

The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.

The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.

The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.

The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.

For you.

The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or  exhaustion but recognition. 

The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel. And the Gospel is not Glawspel. The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached. The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.If sounds exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace. If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.  The Gospel simply repeats and celebrates the question: WDJD? What DID Jesus do?

———————-

He did what you cannot do for yourself.

Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it much less sell everything we got. Because behind closed doors, When we think the mic is off, In the backstage dressing room of our minds, And in the secret thoughts of our hearts- Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Les Moonves and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others. Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.

The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.

If Christ is just your teacher or example, as Martin Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because, let’s face it— his teachings aren’t all that unique and on their own (if he’s just a Teacher or an Example) his teachings just leave us in our sins. 

If Christ is just your teacher or example, Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He took that fear from you.

He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.

His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.

———————-

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

Here’s what you’re supposed to hear in this question Christ poses to us:

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

The stupid kid- the answer to his question is as obvious as it is elementary. What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Nothing. 

You don’t have to do anything. 

Just throw yourself on Christ’s mercy. 

Trust in his doing for you not your own doing for him.

Search History

Jason Micheli —  September 9, 2018 — 3 Comments

I kicked off our fall sermon series, “The Questions God Asks,” by looking at the first question God asks us in scripture: “Adam, where are you?” In Genesis 3.

Let’s not dicker around. 

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter. 

Let me give to you the gospel, distilled and straight up:

As a called and ordained preacher in the Church of Jesus Christ, and therefore by Christ’s authority and Christ’s authority alone, I declare unto you— every last one of you— the entire forgiveness, the full and complete remission, the entire forgiveness of all your sins.

Every last one of them.

You are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

There you go. 

Everything else I could say is just a footnote to the gospel. 

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, everything in the word is about God finding us and forgiving us of our sins because the one Word of God, the Word God speaks to us, is Jesus Christ. 

He’s the Word of God, who came declaring the forgiveness of sins and who confirmed that announcement of our atonement by his cross. 

So then, having given you the gospel, here’s my question: Why are you hiding?

———————-

Why are you hiding?

Everything has already been done; all your sins are forgiven. 

So why are you hiding?

Whereas Adam and Eve hide from God behind some trees in the garden (not real smart), we hide everywhere (even dumber). From the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Lord who knows the secrets of all our hearts, we hide all the time. Pretty stupid.

Some of you— maybe all of you— are hiding right now, here. 

Just as Bruce Wayne is really Batman’s costume, we hide behind the selves we project in public. Just as Bruce Banner is never not angry, we’re never not hiding in plain sight. 

Our true selves— they’re the ones we tell Google. 

In an article from the Guardian last month entitled “Everybody Lies,” U.S. data analyst Seth Stevens writes about what our Google search history reveals about us, about who we are when we think no one is looking. Google may not be God (yet), but Google knows to be true what we discover about ourselves in Genesis 3. 

As Seth Stevens begins his essay: 

“Everybody lies. Everybody’s hiding. People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when they’re not. They say they’ll be in touch when they won’t. They say it’s not about you when it is. They say they love you when they don’t. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys.

Many people will underreport embarrassing, shameful behaviors or thoughts on a survey— even an anonymous survey— it’s called social desirability bias. We want to look good; we want to be counted good. So if we think someone is looking at us, we hide. We lie.”

And so, for example, in one survey Seth Stevens conducted 40% of a company’s engineers reported that were in the top 5%. And in another survey, 90% of college professors say they do above average work. It’s not just professors and engineers. We learn to lie and hide young. You might say it’s original to us. Over one-quarter of high school students, for example, will say when surveyed that they are in the top 1% of their class. I mean, I was…(but was I?). 

Whenever we think someone sees us, Seth Stevens writes, we hide. 

We lie. 

The only way to truly see someone— to see their true self— is to see them when they think no one sees them. In this regard, Stevens writes, Google’s search engine serves as a sort of “digital truth serum.” It’s online. It’s alone. And no one will see what you search (you think). 

Says Stevens:

“The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else. Google was invented so that people could learn about the world, but it turns out the trail our search history leaves behind our reveals more about us. Our search history reveals the disturbing truth about our desires and insecurities, our fears and our prejudices.”

For example, the word that most commonly completes the googled question “Is my husband…?” is gay. In second place, cheating. Cheating is 8 times more common a search than the third most searched question: alcoholic. And alcoholic is 10 times more common than the next most common, depressed. 

Proving the point about our private and our pretend selves, the most popular hashtag on social media using the very same words is the hashtag #myhusbandisthebest. 

Is my husband cheating?

#myhusbandisthebest

We filter out the truth from the self we post in public.

But Google knows us better than Facebook. 

For example, Google knows that no matter how many fitdad #s you use on Instagram, odds are you’re worried about your Dad Bod. 42% of all online searches about beauty or fitness come from men. One-third of all weight loss seaches on Google come from men. 

This will surprise you if that doesn’t: one-quarter of all Google searches about breasts (calm down) come from men wanting to get rid of their man-boobs— and only 200 of those searches were from me.

We hide everywhere except the place that isn’t anywhere, the internet. Google’s search engine knows our true selves, and survey says: we’re sinners.

For example, one of the most common questions we ask Google— brace yourselves, it’s not pretty— “Why are black people so rude?” 

And the words most often used in searches about Muslims: 

Stupid

Evil

Kill.

In fact, according to Google’s seach history:

The phrase “Kill Muslims” is searched by Americans with the same frequency as “Migraine Symptons” and “Martini Recipes.”

I’ve got a headache and need a drink just trying to digest that ugly fact. 

It gets worse. 

Every year— evey flipping year— 7 million of us (that’s 7 MILLION OF US, 7 million AMERICANS) search “nigger” in Google. Not counting rap or hip hop lyrics, 7 million searches. The Google searches are highest whenever African Americans are in the news, spiking with President Obama’s first election and Hurricane Katrina. 

Says Seth Stevens in his essay:

“Google’s data would suggest the real problem in America for African Americans is not the implicit, unintended racism of well-intentioned people but it is the fact that millions of Americans every year continue to do things like search for nigger jokes.” 

It’s not just our prejudice we hide. 

Stevens notes how after President Trump’s election the most frequent comments on social media in liberal parts of the country were about how anxious progressives felt about immigrants, refugees, and global warming. On the contrary, the Google search history in those same parts of the country suggests progressives aren’t at all as anxious about immigrants, refugees, or global warming as they want their peers to think. Survey says they’re more worried about their jobs, their health, and their relationships.

Survey says we’re sinners. 

We lie. 

And we hide. 

In 2015 after President Obama’s speech about inclusion and islamaphobia following the San Bernandino shooting in which 2 Muslims killed 14 of their coworkers, searches about how to help Muslim refugees plummeted almost by half. Meanwhile, negative searches about Muslims rose over 60%. 

Obama telling Americans what they ought to do better elicited the opposite effect. 

In an interview about his work and essay, Seth Stevens says: 

“I had a dark view of human nature to begin with. Working with the Google data, it’s gotten even darker. I think the degree to which people are self-absorbed is pretty shocking; therefore [pay attention now], we can’t fight the darkness by turning to ourselves. We’re the problem.

We can only fight the darkness by looking outside of ourselves.” 

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. 

I know, I haven’t preached any 3-point sermons here yet, but we’ve been dating long enough for me to get to second base with you.

So, my first point: we are lost. 

If your search history doesn’t indict you (and odds are it does), then scripture does indict you. If Google doesn’t confirm it for you, God already did in the garden by that first question he asked us: “Adam, where are you?”

Where— God’s question is about location. 

Meaning, our problem is about lostness. 

Notice, the Almighty doesn’t ask what any of us would ask. God doesn’t start off by asking any what, why, how, or who questions.

Who are you?! I thought I knew you, Adam!?

How could you have betrayed me, Adam?!

What did you do?!

Why did you do the one thing I asked you not to do?!

God asks: Where are you?

God doesn’t ask what they did or why they did it or how come they did it. God doesn’t ask about the sin; God asks where they are, which means our lostness isn’t about guilt. It’s about shame.  Guilt is when you’ve done something wrong. Shame is when you believe that you are the wrong you’ve done.  And so you hide.

That’s why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a crappy cliche because from Adam on down we sinners think we are our sins. We can make no distinction between who we are and what we’ve done. We are lost in shame. 

And notice what our shame produces. No sooner has he swallowed the fruit than Adam goes from declaring breathlessly of Eve “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…” to grumbling to God: “This woman you gave me…” Adam manages to blame both Eve and God in a single sentence. Meanwhile, Eve tries to explain herself with a long run-on sentence of 55 words. In other words, our shame begets blame and self-justification. 

And what’s the Hebrew word for blame?

Satan. 

Our shame turns us into a kind of satan, blaming others and justifying ourselves. 

Our lostness— our shame— it turns God into a kind of satan too. Ashamed, we run and hide from the God whose given absolutely no reason for fear. And we’ve been hiding in the bushes ever since. 

Shame and fear are our chronic condition. Where Adam and Eve had a choice to trust and obey God, we do not. As St. Augstine said, the choice available to Adam and Eve is no longer open to us. 

This is why it’s incredibly dumb to debate whether or not this story literally happened in history. It doesn’t matter where on a timeline Adam and Eve may or may not fall because the point is that they are us. 

As the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it: “The condition of humankind after the Fall of Adam is such that we cannot turn and prepare ourselves by our own natural strength to God.”

We are lost and our lostness is such that we cannot turn to find God (or even seek God) on our own. When it comes to faith and the things of God, Wesley’s prayerbook says, our wills our bound. We require help from outside of us: “Adam, where are you?” 

We are lost in our shame— shame that produces blame and self-justification. We require an external word. For us, this external word is the gospel. It’s the word from outside of us that God gives to us through the Word, through water, and through wine and bread. 

You see, God is a loquacious God. 

The God who spoke creation into being is a God who is constantly interrupting our creation, searching us out with his gospel word. 

This is why people need the Church. This is why people need a Risen Lord. Because without the Church, without Christ using the Church for his word, people are lost. They’re hiding in the bushes, dead in their sins. So forgot that nonsense attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel. If necessary use words.” Even if St. Francis had said that (he didn’t) it’s wrong.  Just as St. Paul says, what was true of Adam and Eve is true today for all of us. We’re lost so faith— salvation— it comes by no other means but words. Salvation comes from what is heard: “Adam, where are you?”

————————

     And that brings me to my second point. What God’s first question reveals about you is that you are sought. 

I know some of you think I’m obsessed with grammar but that way of putting it is important: you are sought. 

You are not the subject of the sentence.  God is not the object of your seeking. I know lots of churches like to have what are called “seeker services,” but let’s get real. We’re hiding in the bushes. 

Go to Google if you find Genesis hard to swallow. On our own, left to our own devices, whatever is at the end of our searching might be a little-g god but it will not be God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

You are sought. 

We do not seek out God. We seek out a hiding place from him. We do not search for God. God searches for us. 

And this is important, this distinction between seeking and being sought, because it shapes how you read scripture. 

Every other religion in the world is about you seeking after God (and doing what you ought to do to get closer to him), but the strange new world of the Bible, Karl Barth says, is that it tells, from beginning to end, of God’s search for us. 

If you’re looking to the Bible for insights into history or politics, Karl Barth says, you’d do better to turn to the newspaper because those are not questions the Bible tries to answer. If you’re looking for teachings on morality, ethics, justice, virtue, or just everyday practical advice, good luck with that, Karl Barth says, because you’ll find large swaths of scripture useless and Jesus Christ has absolutely no interest in your everyday practical life. 

If you go to the Bible searching for how you can find God, you’re only going to walk away frustrated, Barth says.

Because—

The Bible does not tell us what to think about God; it tells us what God thinks of us The Bible does not teach us what we should say about God; it teaches us what God says about us. The Bible does not show us how to seek God; it shows us this God who searches us out those who will not come to him.

The Bible, says Barth, is God’s search history not ours. 

———————-

  And that brings me to my final point. 

“Adam, where are you?” God’s first question to you reveals to you that you are found. 

Barth again— Karl Barth says that Adam and Eve aren’t just the first humans, they’re the first Christians. They’re the first Christians, for they are the first ones to receive the gospel promise of the forgiveness of sins. 

And what this question from God conveyed to them, it conveys to you: the entire forgiveness of your sins. Because remember— God’s word works; that is, God’s word in scripture always accomplishes what it says. 

For you nerds, you can put it this way:

There is no ontological distance between what God says and what God does. 

God says “Let there be light” and there’s light.

God says “It is very good” and it is. 

God in Jesus Christ says “Your sins are forgiven” and therefore, as surely as his word hung the stars in the sky, you are forgiven.

God’s word works. It accomplishes what it says.

So, to have God ask you “______, where are you?” is to already be found. 

To have God search for you is to already be found. Even though you’re still hiding in plain sight, still estranged in shame and sin, still you are found. 

———————-

Back to my original question— Why are you still hiding?

Or, instead of why maybe the better question is how: How do we come out of hiding? How do we who have been found already no longer linger in our lostness? 

In his essay in the Guardian, Seth Stevens notes how there was one manner of speech in President Obama’s addresses about islamaphobia that had a measurable effect on driving down American’s sinful Google searches. 

Recall Stevens’ findings that President Obama’s San Bernadino speech about how we ought not fear Muslims had the opposite effect. The more Obama argued that we ought to do better about being more loving and respectful of Muslims, the more the people he was trying to reach became enraged. 

The Google data confirms it, Stevens writes, the more you lecture angry people the more you fan the flames of their fury. The more you exhort them about their prejudice the more their prejudice will persist.

But one form of words worked

According to the Google search history, what reduced people’s rage and racism, Stevens notes— what reduced their sin was whenever Obama spoke about Muslims being our neighbors. And what had an even greater change on people was when Obama spoke of Muslim neighbors who served in the military and what had the greatest change upon people was when Obama spoke of Muslim American soldiers who gave their lives as a sacrifice for us, who died for us.

In other words, to put it in St. Paul’s words, the survey says the way to get sinners to change— it isn’t the Law. It’s the Gospel. 

The way to get sinners to change isn’t by admonishing them about what they ought to do. 

It’s by telling them what has already been done, for them. 

God’s gospel word works.

In other words, the gospel isn’t a word about something that God did. 

The gospel is the word by which God does. 

That’s why everything we do here—and especially in here— needs to be surrounded by and bookended by the gospel because it is the power God works in the world, says St. Paul. 

The way we come out of hiding is by hearing not the Law (what we ought to do) but by hearing the Gospel (what has been done). 

We change not by hearing what Adam and Eve did wrong that we must do better. We change by hearing how God sought out Adam and Eve and found them in their naked shame and— what did God do?

God gave them animal skins to wear. 

Medieval paintings always show Adam and Eve leaving the garden naked and in tears, but that’s not what happens in the story. God clothes them in animal skins. 

Where God created from nothing, their forgiveness costs God something. 

Their forgiveness costs God a part of his creation. God sacrifices for their sake.

And then one day, in the fullness of time, your forgiveness cost God too.

God became your neighbor. 

God sacrificed. 

God gave himself for you. 

In order to clothe you— once, for all— with his Son.

God clothes you with Christ’s righteouness. 

Though the survey says you lie and hide like the First Adam, you don’t need to— no matter what you’re searching online— because the Father has dressed you in the righteousness of the Second Adam. 

He searches you out, and when he finds you, he chooses to see not your sin or your shame but his Son.

The search history that defines you is not the search history that shows up on your screen.

The search history that defines you is the search history that begins here.  With “Adam, where are you?” Given what Google says about you and me, that’s good news. It’s news that faith alone— only faith— can corraborate.

Mortalism Not Moralism

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2018 — Leave a comment

I closed out our summer series through Ephesians by preaching on Paul’s epilogue in the epistle, 6.10-20.

Dear Aaron, Ryan, and Maddie,

There have been a lot of funerals in the news this week. In all the coverage of the funerals of the Maverick McCain and the Queen of Soul, I don’t want the news of your deaths to get missed. You heard that right. Mark this day down, kids. Sunday, September 2, 2018. 

This is the day you died. 

Hold up, kids. 

You’re probably thinking that writing and reading a letter is an odd way to deliver a sermon. Well, back in the day, believe it or not, this white boy was the teaching assistant for the professor of black preaching at Princeton, Dr. Cleophus Larue. 

And one of Dr. Larue’s maxims was that in biblical preaching the form of the scripture text should determine the form of the sermon. So, if the text is a poem, the sermon should be poetic. If the passage is prophetic then the sermon could be prophetic, and if the scripture was a letter then the sermon could be epistolary. 

Today’s passage is a bit of a letter, about baptism. 

So I’ve written you a letter about your own baptisms.

Aaron, you’re the only one your parents burdened with a biblical name so I’m going to pick on you a bit here.

The story that is your namesake, Aaron, isn’t nearly as sweet as the song we sang at your baptism, “God Claims You.” The story that is your namesake, Aaron— the story of the Exodus and the Red Sea— is either grim news or good news depending on your perspective. The God of the Exodus, the God who conscripts Aaron into his service, is a God who delivers and drowns. God, Aaron learns along with his brother and sister on the shore of the Red Sea, is a God whose deliverance comes by drowning.

God works likewise with us, kids. Deliverance by drowning. Killing to make alive.

Which is to say, I’m not the one who baptized you, kids. Nor is the Church who baptized you. God baptized you, kids.

God baptized you. 

That’s why it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember it years from now when you feel as though you had no say in the matter. Your cooperation with it matters not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You kids at your baptism were no different than the rest of us grown-ups in that the only thing you contribute God’s salvation of you is your sin. And your resistance.

God baptized you today. The Church was just the beach from which we stood and watched as bystanders, like the original Aaron and his siblings, and then dragged you ashore after the drowning deliverance was all over.

Actually, Aaron, your name is perfect for a baptism, for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns.”

Maddie, Ryan- take your brother’s name as your clue, for the life of the baptized Christian is not about growing towards glory. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.

With water, today, God delivered you by drowning you.  

And with the promises we make to you, we commit you to a life that is nothing less than daily, often painful, unending death.

When your parents were married, the pastor likely began the ceremony by telling both Joe and Caroline to remember their baptisms. Marriage, the wedding liturgy implies, flows from your baptism, which makes death and drowning a sort of synonym for the married life. Trust me, when you’re married yourselves one day, kids, that won’t strike you as odd as it does today.

What we do to you with water, kids, St. Paul says, it is itself a betrothal.

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Jesus Christ himself. Just as Reverend Peter prayed over the water, in baptism you are now clothed with Christ.

In the New Testament, the language of clothing is always the language of baptism. 

At the end of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God; that is, to clothe ourselves in faith and truth and righteousness. To a mostly Gentile audience, St. Paul is simply alluding here to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who promised that the Messiah would come forth from the root of Jesse. 

This Christ, Isaiah prophesied, would kill with the truth of his word. 

This Christ, Isaiah foreshadowed: would be girded with righteousness and faith. 

And remember, kids, though “put on the armor of God” sounds like something we do (have more faith, speak more truthfully, live a more righteous life, put on that armor) every Roman citizen among Paul’s listeners would known what we so often miss about this passage. 

A Roman soldier’s armor was not something the solider could put on by himself.

It was too heavy. The armor had to be put on you by another. The helmet laid on your head by another. The belt cinched tight behind you by another. 

The armor of God isn’t about something you do. 

The armor of God is about something done to you.

The armor of God (faith, truth, righteousness) is none other than Jesus Christ. To put on the armor of God is to clothe yourself with Christ. To put on the armor of God is to be baptized. To be baptized is to have God outfit you with Christ’s faith and righteousness.

You are dressed, in other words, kids, in Christ’s perfect score. That’s what that word ‘righteous’ means. You have been clothed in Christ’s perfect score. His faith has reckoned to you as your own faith.

Permanently. 

You got that? 

Permanently.

No amount of prodigal living can undo it. 

You might keep your mom and dad awake at night in high school, Ryan, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God has done to you with water and his word.

Maddie, you are now clothed with the armor that is Christ himself, and, as such, you will always forever be regarded by God as though you were Christ. 

Pay attention kids-

By your baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

That might not sound like a big deal to you now, kids. Wait until you’ve lived some and have sinned alot (against the people you love the most) and you’ll find out it’s exactly what the Church has always called it. It’s good news.

Because of your baptism, kids, you have an answer for anyone who ever asks you that terrible question: “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” You can just tell them you’ve been baptized; therefore, you’ve already died the only death that matters. 

You see, kids, Christianity isn’t about moralism (though that’s the impression you’ll get a lot of time in a lot of churches).

Christianity isn’t about moralism.

Christianity is about mortalism. 

By dying with Christ in baptism, you never have to worry about how much faith or how little faith you have because by water you permanently possess the only faith God will ever count. 

You have Christ. 

Christ’s faith. 

You’ve been clothed with it. 

Despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, kids, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered, self-serious pious types, religious folks who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Aaron (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and just and obedient. If you ever take a pyschology class in college you’ll learn the ‘freedom to be obedient’ that’s called cognitive dissonance.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon the character of your life henceforth.

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie- 

Laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional, irrevocable freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

We like to quote Jesus’ brother, James, and say that “faith without works is dead” but seldom do we stop to notice that just before that verse James also reminds us that if we have failed in any one part of the Law we are held accountable for all of it (and thus, before the Law, we stand condemned, dead in our sins). Under those conditions, faith with works required doesn’t sound like such good news, does it?

Christ is the end of the Law. Only that grace, given to us by baptism, makes our works anything other than futile. 

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death. But today, Sunday, September 2, 2018 in a grave of shallow water, you died. Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

And thus, no conditions. 

Think of it this way, kids: all your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. 

There is no cost to any of your sins (other than what they cost your neighbor).

You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You can persist in your prejudice. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

No matter how you regard your life, it has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. 

Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear the offense as Jesus intended it: 

God will bless you even if you’re bad.

The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our angry hearts and wounded, anxious imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, kids, because Pat Vaughn keeps saying I’m not going to last long here, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, kids. 

Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot.

They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind (on the right) or the social justice kind (on the left), making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to do better, to be a better you or to build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water or wine or bread.

Someone named Aaron should know better.

St. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that the Devil gets at us primarily through deceit. Piggy backing on Paul, Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to deceive us that this sin we’ve committed- or are committing- that sin out in the world that we’re just too busy to combat- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore now or ever any condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie-

To those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

For one thing, scripture itself testifies that the Law is powerless to produce what it commands (Romans 7); in fact, all the oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Exhorting another to be more compassionate, for example, will only make them less compassionate. 

I guarrantee you, kids, your parents know this to be true. 

Telling kids what to do is a good way to make kids not want to do it.

The mistake we grown-ups make in Church is in thinking we’re any different than children when it comes to what the Law tells us to do. 

The oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Only grace- only free, unconditional, for always, grace can create what the Law the compels. The hilarity of the Gospel, kids, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. That’s why the Church can never afford to assume the Gospel and preach the Law instead. That’s why the Church gathers every week to hear the Gospel over and over again- because the news that all your sins are free is the only thing powerful enough to set you free from sinning. 

Skeptical? 

Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

Still not buying it?

Your dad is a chef and your mom a musician. Both of them work with scales and measures, kids, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? 

Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

What’s more likely is that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others. You’d stop seeing sin everywhere you looked. You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them. You’d stop pretending, and you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you. 

You’d take off the masks you think you need to wear. 

I mean, you’re already wearing armor. Adding anything else onto you just sounds…heavy, a burden. 

Such a scenario, kids, 1K free sins- it isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into.

All your sins are free.

Don’t get me wrong, kids.

It’s not that the good works you do for the poor and oppressed don’t matter.

Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word.

And even the poor and oppressed need this work of Christ gifted to them by water and the Word more than they need the good works of a Mother Theresa.

Look kids, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church. If it’s just about the Golden Rule go join the Rotary Club, it’ll cost you less.

Christianity isn’t about nice people doing the nice things they were already going to do apart from God. Someone this week asked me why I keep repeating that message in sermon after sermon, and I replied: “I’ll stop preaching it just as soon as you actually start believing it.”

Your Mom is in the Navy, she knows: the world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, you will fail as many times as not.

You need only read the story that is your namesake, Aaron, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. 

It doesn’t make you nice and clean.

It makes you new.

After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Aaron, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name, the Exodus story. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really drown all those people in the Red Sea long ago?”

And you, Aaron, and your brother and sister, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly: “God kills with water all the time.”

 

Captive Captivity

Jason Micheli —  August 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

I continued our summer sermon series through Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 4.1-14. 

“He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.”

Pay attention to the passive voice there- “…what he thought was reality had been made a fiction.” 

In January 1972, 2 American hunters encountered Shoichi Yokoi in the jungles of Guam. Yokoi was setting one of the fishing traps that had kept him alive for 30 years when the hunters happened upon him. A sergeant in the 38th regiment of the Imperial Army of Japan, Yokoi had been stationed on Guam in February 1943. When American forces captured Guam a year later, Yokoi and a handful of other Japanese soldiers resisted surrendur and retreated deep into the jungle whence they would emerge on occassion to attack their (former) enemies. 

The 2 American hunters who happened upon Yokoi 3 decades later marched him at gunpoint to the nearest police station where the sergeant told incredulous cops his story. 

Turns out, Yokoi knew all along Japan had surrendured to the Allies in 1945. He knew the war- it was finished. 

He knew he was free to live in a new world. 

He just didn’t want to. So he resisted.

Instead he hid for 30 years, living in a cave in the jungle and surving on fish and fruit, snails and frogs. A tailor by training, Yokoi wove clothes from tree bark. “I chose to live,” he told police, “as though the hostilities were still raging.”

Yokoi was returned to Japan, but what was meant as a hero’s welcome for him was marked instead by ambivalence. Many Japanese were embarrassed by him. Younger Japanese in particular saw him as pathetic and mocked him for stubbornly sticking to a false reality. 

Yokoi himself, though he lived until 1997, was never at ease in the new, changed world. 

Again and again, he returned to Guam, visiting the cave in which he’d hid for decades. He even took visitors to see it. Back in Japan, Yokoi taught survival lessons. He taught others how to live in the world as he’d chosen it. 

The discovery of Shoichi Yokoi in 1972 sparked a Pacific-wide search for other soldiers who either hadn’t heard that the war was over or who, like Yokoi, hadn’t accepted that it was over. 

A couple of years later another soldier in the Imperial Army, Hiroo Onoda, was found living in a cave in the Phillipines. 

Onodo had just turned 83.

Unlike Yokoi, Onodo hadn’t heard the happy news that the war was over. 

As a Manilla newspaper said of him: “He didn’t realize the war was over, his battle posture in vain, and that what he thought was reality had been a fiction.” 

Onoda had such a difficult time believing the news and adjusting to it that, rather than return to a home he no longer recognized, he emigrated to Brazil where he lived out his last few years.

———————-

Our arranged marriage called Methodist itinerancy is a month old this Sunday. I’ve been here long enough now to know what you’re thinking at this point in the sermon. 

What does this have to do with the scripture text, Jason?

I’m glad you asked. 

In order to understand what Yokoi and Onoda have to do with what the Apostle Paul tells us today about Christ making captivity itself a captive and what he tells us before that in verse 3 about “maintaining our unity in the bond of peace,” you must first understand what Paul means by the s-word. 

Sin. 

Only when you understand that s-word can you begin to appreciate what St. Paul means by that other s-word, salvation. If your understanding of the former s-word is too small, your awe over the latter s-word will be too slight. Now, the rap against St. Paul, as everyone already knows, is that the dude talks a lot about sin. It’s true. Paul talks about sin more than anybody else…except Jesus. 

Everyone knows Paul spills a lot of ink on sin, but few stop to notice the way in which Paul writes about sin. Few notice how Paul conceives of sin. Across his letters, approximately half the time Paul uses the word sin, hamartia, he does so as the subject of verbs. 

I’m going to say that again so you get it:

Paul makes sin the subject of verbs.

He makes sin not the verb we do. 

He makes sin the subject of verbs. 

He makes sin the doer of its own verbs. 

Listen:

“Sin came into the world…”

“Sin increased…”

“Sin dwelt…”

“Sin produced in us…”

“Sin exercised dominion…”

And the word Paul uses there for ‘dominion’ in Greek is the same word Paul uses later for Jesus, kurios. It means ‘lord.’ 

“Sin exercised lordship over us…”

Despite how we most often think about it and speak of it, in the New Testament sin does not primarily describe human behavior. 

Sins, scripturally speaking, are not  misdeeds or misdemeanors- sin is not missing the mark. 

In the New Testament, it’s Sin. 

It’s singular, and you will understand it best if you give it a capital S. 

In the New Testament, Sin is not a problem we possess. 

Sin is a Power that possess us- a hostile Power.

 A Pharaoh, that stands over and against God, enslaving us in captivity. 

If I teach you anything in my time at Annandale Church, then let it be this interpretive key. In the New Testament, all our little s sins- our avarice and our rage, our begrudging and our deceit, our violence and our self-righteousness and our racism- are but ways our captivity to the Power of Sin manifests itself. They’re the ways we clank the chains to which a Power who is not God has clasped us.

As my teacher Beverly Gaventa puts it:

“Sin is an anti-God Power, synonymous with the Satan, Death, and the Devil, whose defeat the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated.”

The cross, as St. Paul understands it, is not just about Christ bleeding and dying for your little s sins. The cross, as Paul sees it, is a cosmic battle- a battle God wages for you against the Power of capital S Sin. This is why Paul so often uses militaristic imagery, especially at the end of Ephesians where he talks about the armor of God. 

Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet. 

Sin is an Enemy with a captial E, an Enemy with a resume all its own. 

If you don’t get this you don’t get it:  If you think of sin as just your problem instead of an Enemy from whom God in Christ rescues you, then it’s easy for you to end up with a god who seems to have a forgiveness problem. 

Sin isn’t just a mark on your rap sheet. Sin is an Enemy with a resume all its own, an Enemy that ensnares even God’s own Law, has taken God’s own commandments hostage, so as to enslave us. No matter what we’ve done to soften it or obscure it: the love of God in Jesus Christ, as scripture testifies, is not sentimental. It’s a love that invades enemy territory to rescue you from captivity to a Pharaoh, a Caesar, called Sin. 

It’s this understanding of capital S Sin that St. Paul has in mind when he tells us, earlier in Ephesians, that in Christ God has put an end to the hostilities between us. 

And it’s what Paul means here in verse 8 when he says that Christ our King has made captivity itself (i.e., the Power of Sin) his captive. 

Paul means here what Christ says from the cross: “It is finished.” 

Paul means here what St. John says in Revelation: “Jesus Christ has thrown the dragon down.” 

Paul means here…the war is over, the battle’s won, the enemy has been defeated- like Pharaoh and his army, the Enemy has been drowned in the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Listen- here’s the shock of the Gospel Paul’s proclaiming: all the ways our enslavement to the Enemy still exhibits itself, the hate and the hostilities between us, they’re not really real. 

They’re not really real.

———————-

What we take to be reality, the hostilities and acrimony among us, has been made a fiction, which makes us who choose to live abiding that fiction as tragically comic as those Japanese soldiers hiding their heads in caves. 

“He made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”

The Apostle Paul is quoting there from Psalm 68- that’s why he introduces it with “Therefore it is said…” Psalm 68 is a processional hymn, a victory song, the bookend to the Song of Moses. Psalm 68 sings of Yahweh the King taking up residence in the Temple as the culmination of the Exodus. They sang Psalm 68 because the goal of God redeeming his people from captivity had been accomplished. 

Only, Paul changes it. 

He changes it, Psalm 68. 

The original line doesn’t read as it does here in verse 8: “…he gave gifts to his people.” The original line in Psalm 68 instead reads: “He made captivity itself a captive; he received gifts from among his people.” 

Paul changes it from God receiving gifts from us to God giving gifts to us.

What gifts? 

You’ve got to go back to the top of the text. It’s not just that God has redeemed us from our captivity to the Power of Sin. It’s that God has replaced our bondage to the Power of Sin with bonds of peace. 

“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Maintain, Paul says. Notice the admonition. 

It isn’t to work for peace and unity in the name of Christ. It’s to maintain it. It’s not to advocate on behalf of, build towards, strive for peace. It’s to preserve it. The exhortation is not to aspire for that which is not yet. It’s to abide by that which is already: Peace and unity among us is not the fiction. 

Martin Luther King Jr famously said: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” 

But St. Paul today might tweak MLK to say instead: “The love of God in Christ Jesus is the force that has transformed enemies into friends.” Maintain, Paul says to the Ephesians. Hold onto what is already true.”  

And actually maintain is a bit pedestrian a word by which to translate it. In Greek, the word is axias. It means “to safeguard” or “to treasure.” 

It’s the word the chief steward says to Jesus at the wedding in Cana: “Everyone else serves the good wine first, and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk. But you have axias the best wine for now.” 

Axias, treasure. 

It’s the word Jesus uses about his own words: “Very truly I tell you, whoever axias my word will never taste death.” 

Axias. 

It’s the word Paul uses in another letter for how we should regard our betrothed: “…treasure her…” Paul says. 

Alright- 

I realize I’ve already devoted more attention to the scripture text than your average United Methodist can tolerate so if you’re about to nod off here’s the quick Cliff Notes version to Paul’s Gospel:

By the cross and resurrection of Jesus Chrsit, we have been redeemed from bondage to the Power of Sin, and God the Holy Spirit has replaced those bonds with bonds of peace between us. 

Axias it. 

Safeguard it. 

Treasure it. 

Maintain what the “real world” will tell you again and again is a fiction. 

———————-

     I know what you’re thinking- 

     What does this have to do with real life? 

     What does this look like lived out?

     I’m glad you asked. 

Daryl Davis lives just up the beltway near Bethesda, Maryland. I met him at a conference last fall. By trade and training, he’s a rock-n-roll piano player. He’s toured with Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

He’s acted too, on stage and on TV, in Roseanne and the Wire. 

In addition to music and acting, for 30 years Daryl Davis has had an odd hobby. 

     Odd for a black man. 

     For 30 years, Daryl Davis has befriended high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

In his memoir, Daryl Davis explains how it all began. He’d been playing a gig at a honky tonk night club when a fan from the audience came up to him to strike up a conversation during which the (white) fan volunteered that he was a member of the KKK. 

And Davis recalls responding to this revelation with (pay attention, now): “How can you hate me?” 

     How can you hate me? 

     In other words: 

     We’re free. 

     He’s made that captivity his captive. 

     You hating me is impossible now. 

     Daryl Davis resisted. 

     He refused to believe in the reality of hostility between them. 

     He resisted. 

     He insisted on axias-ing the peace and unity that was between, already.

So that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis decided he would make friends with the klansman, and, in the weeks and months following, he’d call up the klansman and say things like “I’m headed to Home Depot, you want to come with me?” 

And the klansman did and would. 

Believing that the peace between them was not aspirational but had been accomplished aleady- it afforded Daryl Davis the patience to discover it and to give grace in the meantime along the way.

Again and again, Daryl Davis would just make up reasons for them to spend time together so that “the reality of their friendship could be revealed.” 

That friend, the klansman from the honky tonk, eventually became the Imperial Wizard of the KKK, the national leader of the klan, but today- his white robe and his hood, they’re just down the beltway from here. In Daryl Davis’ guest room closet. The racist gave all his robes and hoods and paraphenalia to Daryl Davis when he quit the klan.  

     -Play Video: 

There’s a reason there’s documentary about him. 

After that night in the honky tonk, Daryl Davis has since converted something like 200 racists- racists of the worst kind- out of the klan

He was down the road in Charlottesville too, a year ago this weekend, wandering around the other side of the barricade, walking right up to racists and saying ‘Hey, how can you hate me? Want to talk?’ 

One news story from Charlottesville showed Davis being screamed at by nearly everybody: white progressives with their hate has no home here signs and anti-fascists and cops calling him crazy stupid and bigots calling him boy. 

You tell me who’s living in the real world. 

All of us who scream at each other with signs and social media, who hate on each other with hashtags, who nurse grievances and grudges by getting up when a preacher we don’t like speaks.

-or-

Daryl Davis and his slow, gentle, patient insistence that the hostility between us, is in fact, a fantasy. For all of us with privilege, maybe it’s a tempting Westworld sort of fantasy but a fiction nonethless. 

You tell me who’s living in the real world. 

Because when I think about Daryl Davis and then catch my own reflection in a window, you know who I see staring back at me? 

     Shoichi Yokoi. 

     Someone who’s heard the news but refuses to abide by it. 

     As Daryl Davis says:

The peace between us, already

The unity between us, already

The absence of hostilty between us, right now

It’s like Jesus say it is-   It’s like a treasure, an axias, hidden in a field, buried in your backyard. Just because you don’t realize it’s there. Just because you refuse to believe it’s there. Just because you won’t risk looking like a fool and go digging up your yard

It doesn’t mean it’s not there. It doesn’t mean it’s not real and true. It doesn’t you’re not already sitting on a fortune and could be living out of those riches.

Right now.

If you would but trust Paul’s Gospel promise that what you think is the real world- it’s been made a fiction, and the resentments between us- in our politics, all over your marriage, at your office, on your Facebook feed, across the pews- no matter how loud our chains sound, the hostilities between us are his now. 

His captive.

And our trust- our faith, alone- in the Gospel is the only key we need to unlock the handcuffs with which we bind ourselves.

Let me make it plain-
A lot of people like me will like someone like Daryl Davis because not only does he inspire, he let’s us off the hook (we think).

If only African Americans could be as amiable to oppressors as Daryl Davis, then all our problems would be solved (we think). What’s a little slavery between friends, right? I mean, come on Chenda- why can’t you be more like Daryl?

But to hear it that way is not to have heard St. Paul’s Gospel announcement this morning.

Daryl Davis doesn’t let us off the hook.

He compels us to come out of hiding in the comfort of our caves.

He compels us to come out into the real world and say to whoever we need to in our lives: How can you hate me? Or, more likely: How can I hate you?

The war is over, the battle won.

Not a New Moses

Jason Micheli —  August 5, 2018 — Leave a comment

Ephesians 3.14-21

The first sermon I ever preached I preached behind bars.
While I was a student at Princeton, before I ever worked in a church, I served as a chaplain at Trenton State, a maximum security prison in New Jersey.

I had no idea what I was doing when I began my ministry there, but by the time I left there I’d learned that the freedom of the Gospel, what St. Paul refers to today as the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, is a message best heard- maybe, only heard- by those who know they’re in captivity.

———————-

My first sermon-

I’d only been there a couple of weeks. It was a morning service in July, and it was held in a prison gymnasium. For an altar table, I had an old, metal teacher’s desk, and instead of candles on either side of the table there were two rusting electric fans. Greasy strings of dust clung to the blades as they kneaded the thick summer heat.

I counted them as they shuffled into the sanctuary, some bound hand to foot. Out of about 75 worshippers only 3 of the faces were white, and 1 of them was mine.

No one wore their Sunday best in that congregation. The men all had their state—issued beige jumpsuits. “We all look like Winston that worthless Ghostbuster in these,” Barone, one of the inmates who worked in the chaplain’s office, had joked to me when I met him. Barone was a heavyset Italian chef doing time for dealing cocaine out of his kitchen.

Sister Rose, the nun who was the Chaplain Supervisor, wore not a habit but her order’s plain gray pants and plain white shirt. No one wore their Sunday best that morning.

Except me.

I didn’t wear a robe because I wasn’t an official minister yet and, at that point in my life, still had some serious misgivings about ever being one. So I wore a suit with a pink shirt and a flowery pastel purple tie.

Let me just say that again so I’ve set the stage clearly: I was going to preach to prisoners (some in for life, some on death row, all hardened criminals) wearing a pink shirt and pastel purple tie with flowers).

My wife that morning had said I looked “handsome.” When the inmates saw me, they said I looked “pretty.” At least the word “pretty” is how I chose to translate the kissy noises they made.

“Do we have two lady preachers this Sunday?” one of the men asked from the back row.

It went downhill from there.

Sister Rose tried to begin the worship service with singing.
I say tried because the music was played on a cassette player (children, you can ask your parents what those are later) and because Sister Rose was one of those worship leaders who mistakenly believed that adding hand motions to the singing would somehow make the songs more “contemporary.”

It’s not easy to do something even more white than a pink shirt with a flowery pastel purple tie, but Sister Rose managed to pull it off, insisting that we all do what looked like jazzhands as we mumbled our way through “Trading My Sorrows.”

The Hispanic innmates who all spoke perfect English when bartering cigarettes, snacks, and Playboys all pretended, suddenly, not to know a lick of it.

So, despite being prisoners, they were about the least captivated audience I’ve ever seen at the start of a sermon.
Because Sister Rose was a Shiite Catholic and insisted that I preach from the lectionary, the readings assigned according to the Christian calendar, my passage that summer morning was this morning’s text from Ephesians 3.

I was both a new preacher and a new Christian. I hadn’t yet taken any homiletics classes so I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to talk about the scripture straight away. I hadn’t learned that I was supposed to sneak up on my listeners, slant-wise, with a personal story, disarm them first with humor, and thereby trick them into giving a crap about the text.

So I tried to keep it simple and give it to them straight up. I took it from the top.

———————-

“To understand the reason Paul is praying here, I said, you have to go back to what Paul said before this in chapter 3 and before that even in chapter 2.’

“I thought what you read to us was plenty long already, preacher,” one of the inmates joked.

I could feel my skin blushing a darker shade of pink than my ill-chosen shirt.

What prompts Paul to pray, I doubled down, is what Paul calls the Mystery of Christ.

“Mystery?” a 40-something inmate in the front said, “Speaking of mysteries, what’s this Paul got to say about the mystery of why I’m in here when I’m an innocent man?!”

“Amazing, everybody’s innocent here,” Barone laughed and others followed.

I looked up from my notes and, with the zeal of a recent convert, I said to them: “Actually, Paul does have something to say about it. He said it earlier in chapter 2.

He said that in the supermest of supreme courts not one of us is innocent, and the sentence we all deserve is death.”

And I flipped back in my bible to the chapter prior and read it to them: “You who were dead through in your trespasses and sins…by grace you have been saved.”

Then I turned the page: “You who were once far off from God in your trespasses and sins have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

“Amen!” some of them responded.

“Preach it! Preach it!” some others encouraged me.

“That’s the mystery that makes him pray,” I said. “That’s the mystery: that the Judge has been judged in our place, that the sentence gets served not by us but by a substitute, by the very object of our sin.”

“Come on now,” a few listeners shouted. I was finding my stride.

“The Mystery of Christ is what makes Paul pray. The mystery that by his bleeding and dying the Son has purchased peace between us and the Father.”

“Amen” an elderly inmate covered in faded out tattoos yelled from the back. “Shush!” Sister Rose whispered with a finger over her lips, “Inside voices!”

“The Mystery of Christ is what prompts Paul to pray.

The mystery that we are justified before God not by any good work we do but only by the work of Jesus Christ in our stead- even the best good works done by the very best people do not justify them before God- and this is ours soley through the gifting of God. By grace- alone.”

I noticed then that those who’d refused to show any rhythm at all during the singing were nodding their heads.

“By grace, your rap sheet is Christ’s now and his perfect record is reckoned to you as your own.

By grace, though not one of you is innocent or pure all of you are counted as such on account of Christ.

By grace, you are reckoned in the right by the only Judge that ultimately matters.

All of us, every last one of us, religious or not, it doesn’t matter because God has gone and done it for us entirely apart from religion.

God has gone and done it by the most irreligious means possible, by a cross.”

Some of them were squinting at me now, not sure if they were following me.

“In fact,” I said, “the mystery that makes him pray is that God has gone and done away with religion altogether.

Religion- what we do to get right with God; what we do to our neighbors to get God on our side- God’s gotten rid of all of it. He’s forsaken it in his own forsaken body.”

———————-

I still have the moleskin in which I wrote this sermon all those years ago. In it, I’d double- underlined the next part of my maiden sermon.

“The Mystery of Christ, Paul says, is that God has abolished the very commands God gave to us.”

And then I read to them the money line from Ephesians 2: “Christ has abolished the Law and the commandments that he might create a new humanity in himself.”

“It’s like what Paul tells the Galatians,” I said to them, “If we can be made right with God through good works or commandment-keeping then Christ came and died for absolutely nothing.”

“You shall love God with everything you are, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall care for the poor and the stranger among you, forgive 70×7, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for them…

All of that- Christ has abolished all of it, all of the Commandments, even the commandments he taught us; so that, all those do-good pious types who secretly insist on thinking God will grade them on a curve- they’ll have no where else to turn but to him and his mercy.

Like Jesus tells the rich young ruler, the only works of ours that are truly ‘good’ are the ones that come as a consequence of knowing that not one of those good works is necessary; otherwise, the bible says, even our best deeds are no better than filthy rags.”

I looked around the room at these men more acquainted with their bad deeds than their best deeds.

“That only sounds harsh if you think you’re free,” I said, “but if you know what the bible says about you to be true, that you are a captive to sin, then it’s the very best news you’re ever going to hear.

Because it means the Law is now and forever a rap sheet that the Judge refuses to read because Jesus Christ, by his perfect faithfulness, has fulfilled the Law for you and, by his bruised body, he has born for you your failure under the Law.”

All the Law talk was losing them, I could tell.

So I said-

“Look, this is what it means: everything God commands you to do in scripture has already been done for you by Jesus Christ and every sin you have done has been undone by his death for you.

Christ has set you free from any anxiety or burden you might feel over keeping his commands or following his teachings and if you but trust this news you might be behind bars but, trust me, you are more free than almost everyone outside these walls sitting in churches this morning.

They’re all in cages they can’t see.”

But they looked confused, like I’d just told them the opposite of everything they’d ever heard about Christianity.

So I changed tack.

“Hang on,” I said, “what’s Paul doing praying on his knees? Jews like Paul didn’t pray on their knees.”

“Except, after Job loses everything, he kneels down to pray. He gets down on his knees and, on a heap of ashes, prays.
And Stephen, before he’s executed, he bows down on his knees and prays.

And Jesus, before he’s arrested by the authorities, he gets down on his knees and prays.

Prayer was done standing up except when you were at the end of your rope.

Paul’s on his knees, praying, because he’s behind bars.”
And notice what he prays for in prison- he prays that Christ would dwell in your heart by faith so that you may comprehend the scope of his love.”

I got some amens.

“The Mystery of Christ, your redemption from sin and your reconciliation to God, it’s yours,” I said, “if you just have faith.”
“It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith.”

“God’s gift of grace. It’s yours,” I said, “if you have faith, if you invite him into your heart.”

———————-

“Hold up, preacher” one of the inmates, Victor, raised both of his hands.

Victor’s wrists were bound together and chained to his ankles. His jumpsuit was starched and unwrinkled and buttoned neatly all the way up to his collar. His long black hair was pulled tightly into a ponytail.

“Um…okay…what?”

“What do you mean if?”

“Um…I don’t follow…”

“You said everything’s already been done by Christ,” Victor said.

I nodded.

“But it sounds like there’s more to be done if I gotta have faith in it.” Now everyone else was nodding, even Sister Rose.

“I mean, Jesus- he said ‘It is finished,’ right? But how is it finished and done if you need faith first?”

“Uh…umm…look, I’m not a real preacher…”

“And you said that Paul says we’re justified by his work of grace not by any good work we do.”

I nodded, nervous knowing that Victor liked brag about representing himself in court.

“Well, if the gift isn’t really mine until I have faith in it doesn’t that make my faith just another good work?”

“Maybe we should sing another song,” Sister Rose suggested.

“No,” this is good, Barone laughed, “Look at the preacher sweating it like a defendant.”

“Say it again,” I said to Victor.

“You said we’re saved by grace, by the gift of God, but how is it a gift if we gotta do something to get it?”

“Yeah,” someone said, “grace isn’t amazing at all if we’ve got to earn it with our faith. And how is that a mystery anyway? There’s nothing mysterious about that. Everything in the world works by earning and deserving.”

I’d lost the room completely. It was distracted chaos, like when Peter preaches here. They all turned away from me and towards the middle to each other, talking out the scripture themselves:

If God doesn’t grade on a curve then why is faith the one test we gotta pass?
If you have faith- that sounds like a plea deal not a promise. And some of them laughed.
Yeah, it sounds like a negotiation not news.
If it has conditions it’s a contract not a gift.
And it ain’t free either because it puts the burden back on us to believe.

“Look at the bible passage,” Barone said, “It doesn’t say Paul’s praying for them to get faith so that they can invite Christ into their hearts.
He puts it the other way around. He prays that Christ will dwell in their hearts and the way Christ will dwell in their hearts is through faith. In other words, faith is what Christ does. We’re not the ones getting faith. Christ gives us faith.”

Someone from the back row jumped in:

“Then that means whatever faith we have, whether it’s a lot or a little…” his voice trailed off, puzzling it out.

“It’s Jesus’ work in us; it’s not our own,” Barone finished, “That’s how it fits in with what Jason was saying before he messed it all up. From beginning to end, it’s Jesus’ work- that’s what Paul means by height and length and breadth and depth. Every bit of it is Jesus. Faith doesn’t change anything but our perception. Faith is just what Christ gives us so we can see what’s already true.”

———————-

“Is that right, preacher?” the inmate named Victor asked me. He sat up straight in his metal chair and put his chained hands on his lap, suddenly serious. “Is that true?”

“Um, well, yes.”

“So, if there’s nothing we need to do for this to be true for us, then if someone asked you what they had to do to become a Christian…what’s the answer?”

I thought about it. I thought about how to put it without using any ifs. “I guess I’d tell them just to enjoy the gift.”

“Enjoy the gift?” Victor said, “How do you start doing that?”

“Well, I guess you’d start by receiving baptism.”

“Ok,” he said, “That, I want that. I want to be baptized.”

“Alright,” I said, “Sister Rose and I can talk and look at the calendar and talk to a pastor…”

“I want it now,” Victor said.

“Well, I’m not really supposed to do that sort of thing,” I said. “I’m just a student. I don’t have the proper credentials. I could get in trouble.”

“Your bishop would never even know,” Sister Rose giggled. “Besides, you just said Jesus freed us from the Law.”

“Um, okay,” I said.

“You know how, right?” Victor asked.

“Sure. I mean, I’ve seen it done.”

“You’ll need water,” Sister Rose pointed out.

“Right, water- can you get us some water?” I asked one of the guards.

“And a bowl,” Sister Rose said.

The guard was gone for a moment or two and then came back with a big clear bowl from the staff salad bar and a dripping water pitcher.

Sister Rose pulled an old donated worship book off the wheeled cart of worn bibles and, as Victor shuffled forward, his chains clinking quietly, Sister Rose turned to the baptismal prayer.

Sister Rose handed me the prayer book. I didn’t ask him any questions.

I just poured the water into the bowl like the italicized directions told me, and I read the prayer on the water wrinkled page: “Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and Victor who receives it to clothe him in Christ’s righteousness that, having died and been raised with Christ, he may share in Christ’s victory.”

After the amen, I used my hands and I poured the water over his pony-tailed head.

The congregation all hooted and hollered.

“I never got baptized before because I didn’t think I could live the Christian life,” Victor said. “I didn’t think I could have that much faith, and I knew I wasn’t very faithful.”

“Dude, didn’t you comprehend anything we just said?” Barone laughed:

“There’s no such thing as the Christian life.

There’s just getting used to the mystery that his life has been credited to you.

Gratis.”

And Victor beamed and Barone laughed some more, one of them in chains but both of them free.

———————-

I never got to finish that first sermon of mine.

It got interrupted by a question and then a baptism, and by the time Victor had shuffled back to his seat Sister Rose had started the cassette player for a closing song.

It was all for the better.

The conclusion I’d written- I’ve still got it in a moleskin; it’s as embarrassing as an old yearbook photo- It was all about you coming to Christ by having faith. But that just made faith another work. And it turned the Gospel back into the Law. Or, at best, it muddled the Gospel and the Law into a kind of Glawspel.

The Gospel is not exhortative: here’s what you must do to come to God- have faith, give to the poor, stand against injustice, serve the church.

The Gospel is declarative: here’s what God has done to come to you in Jesus Christ.

And God comes to us not with a prescription of what we must do for him- that’s Law (which Christ has abolished).
God comes to us with the promise of what he has done for us.

Christ is not a New Moses, I would’ve said if I’d gotten the chance. Christ is not just an example, teacher, or law-giver. If Christ is just another Moses then his life is no different than the saints. His life is his life, and your life is still in its sins.

Thinking of Jesus as your example or your teacher or law-giver, in the end, will just make you a hypocrite not a Christian because only he can fulfill the Law and live up to its demands.

Before Christ is your example or your teacher or your law-giver, he must be your gift.
He’s not a New Moses.

He gives himself for all your failures to obey Moses and with his perfect love he fulfills the Law of Moses and that fullness of his love is poured out on you at your baptism and it’s fed to you in wine and bread.

I never got to finish that sermon, but it’s just as well. I was just a student. I didn’t  have the authority to end the sermon the way I should’ve ended it: with an invitation.

Come to the Table.

Come and receive the One who has come to you.

Digression to Doxology

Jason Micheli —  July 30, 2018 — 2 Comments

I continued our summer sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 3.1-13.

     You might’ve seen the story in the Washington Post yesterday. 

     About Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, and the allegations against him. 

     Cardinal McCarrick is yet another cause for shame in the Catholic Church’s clergy scandal. 

     Ever since November before last, opinion writers in the press have given evangelical Christians (or, at least a certain percentage of them) grief. 

     But it’s not really fair to single out conservative evangelicals as a cause for embarrassment because, as Christians, we already have ample reasons to be ashamed. As Christians,we already have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed over being Christian. 

     Christians, after all, are the ones responsible for the trite, saccharine Jesus-is-my-boyfriend pop odes to the Almighty all over the 91.1 airwaves. 

     Christians are the ones who revived Kirk Cameron’s post Growing Pains career with the straight-to-video Left Behind movies, and Christians are the ones who bailed Nick Cage out of his back taxes by watching his theatrical reboot of the same crappy film. 

     Speaking of Left Behind, did you know former disgraced televangelist Jim Baker is not only back on TV but he’s hawking 100lb flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that you can weather the apocalypse without cutting calories. 

     Nose around long enough and you’ll find a reason to be embarrassed about being a Christian. 

     Don’t believe me?

     Go to the Barnes and Noble over by Springfield Mall after church today and look at the shelves underneath the sign labeled “Christian Literature.” 

     On cover after cover Joel Osteen’s pearly whites and vacant botoxed eyes pull you in, like the tractor beam on the Death Star, into becoming a better you and living your best life now. 

     And next to them, 63- I counted them this week- Amish romance novels. Amish romance novels. And no they weren’t 63 copies of the Harrison Ford-Kelly HotGillis film Witness. They were 63 different Amish romance novels with titles like Game of Love, Let Go and Let God, the Brave and the Shunned, and- my personal favorite, The Amish Mail Order Bride.

     If anyone here likes to read Amish romance novels, I’m not judging you. Actually, that’s not true but my point is…we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian. 

     From climate change deniers to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on a Tesla yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian. 

     Christians executed Galileo. 

     Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. 

     Christians excuse Franklin Graham. 

     The reason so many insist on protesting that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. 

     Matter. 

     We should be ashamed. 

     Christians have made bedfellows with colonizers and conquistadors. In whichever nation in whatever era Christians have found themselves they’ve never missed an opportunity to bless every power grab, baptize every war, perpetuate every prejudice. 

     We Christians have plenty of reasons to be ashamed. 

     Survey says we’re the ones who want to keep our neighbors in the closet, keep death row open for business, keep a wary eye on Muslims, and keep our communities closed to strangers.

     Don’t even get me started on 19 Kids and Counting.

     We have ample reasons to be ashamed. 

     But I digress.

—————————-

     I digress. 

     So does Paul.

     If you were paying attention to today’s passage, you may have noticed that the Apostle Paul loses his train of thought right here at the top of chapter 3: “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash”

     Check your bibles if you don’t believe me. The dash is really there. 

      Paul gets sidetracked at the start of his first sentence: This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash

     And notice, that dash is 13 verses long. 

     The whole passage today is a parenthetical comment. 

     In Greek, it’s called an anacoluthon; meaning, it’s an interuppted sentence that consequently lacks a verb to complete it. Paul doesn’t finish his first sentence until he gets to verse 14. Paul doesn’t get around to putting a verb on verse 1 until he gets to next Sunday’s passage where he writes about bowing his knees in worship. 

     Next week, verse 14 begins a doxology, 7 verses of praise over the height and depth and breadth and length of the love of God revealed to us as for us in Jesus Christ. But that long doxology in the second half of Ephesians 3 is preceded by an even longer digression. 

      This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash…

      And then St. Paul digresses for 13 verses about the grace of God and the mystery of Christ and how that grace for them has made him a prisoner. 

     And not only a prisoner, a doulos Paul calls himself- a word your bibles translate as servant. 

     It means slave.

     The doxolgy to follow is preceded by a digression about how- why- Paul is a prisoner. 

     A slave. 

     A digression which ends with his plea to them not to lose heart over his suffering. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering, Paul writes. 

     In other words, what provokes this long digression is what prompts his epistle to the Ephesians in the first place. Paul knows that, in a place like Ephesus, a ministry pockmarked by suffering and shame undermined his message of salvation.  

     As St. Luke reports in the Book of Acts, the Christians in Ephesus worshipped in the shadow of the temple of Artemis Ephesia. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world. At 70 x 130 meters square, it was 4 times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. It was made of marble, latticed with 127 columns. Outside in front of the temple was a horseshoe shaped altar with a statue of Artemis at its center where worshippers would offer sacrifices to petition Artemis to intercede on their behalf, to rescue them from whatever suffering had befallen them. 

     Artemis’ power was such that Ephesus was the one city in the Greco-Roman world without any imperial cult, without any statues or altars to the Emperor. You see, even Caesar showed deference to Artemis Ephesia. She was a god who delivered the goods. 

     And then here’s Paul, in prison- again, writing to a tiny church worshipping in the shadow of a god against whom not even Caesar will step.

     Paul doesn’t appear to have been on the receiving end of any divine intercessions.

     He’s no better off than a slave. 

     His God hasn’t delivered him from suffering- Artemis’ forte.

     His God has delivered him into suffering. 

     And where Artemis was symbolized by raw, visceral power- those aren’t breasts on that statue, those are bull…nevermind, you can look it up when you get home- the Christ that Paul proclaimed had none, had been emptied of power. 

     The Christ that Paul proclaimed had only a cross. 

      It wasn’t just his ministry, pockmarked as it was by suffering and shame, that Paul had to double-back on, digress and explain. 

     It was his message. 

     It was his message of the cross.

     Just -pas we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, St. Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers in Ephesus (and elsewhere) would be ashamed of the Gospel. 

     Paul digresses on his way to doxology because Paul knows that what is shameful and embarrassing about his Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

     I’m going to say that again in case I lost you in all my digressions:

What is shameful and embarrassing about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus..

—————————-

      To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful. 

      A disgrace. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering for the cross, Paul essentially says here in his letter to the Ephesians. Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul says in his letter to Timothy. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. 

     He has to say it again and again, in different ways and digressions, because to the Romans, crucifixion was shameful- so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. 

     Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society. 

     But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” 

      That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

     Paul digresses here in Ephesians 3 over the words that mark his ministry, words like prisoner and slave and suffering, because of the one word at the heart of his message.

     Crucifixion.

     Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross, not to be ashamed of his suffering for the message of the Cross, because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed. 

      That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. 

     It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. 

     No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. 

     They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. 

     They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him. 

     To Jews and Romans alike, Paul’s Gospel about a crucified God was a tougher sell than Facebook stock. No one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

     Paul’s message and his ministry in service to it were scandalously and profanely counter-intuitive. 

     By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, much less suffer yourself for one. 

     Which- pay attention- I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel. 

——————————

     Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment. 

     Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires.     

     Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure. 

     The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true. 

     My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right. 

     About religion. 

     I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made. We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him. 

     That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. 

     That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether shames and embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. 

     It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it. 

     Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others. 

     And every religion has the Law. 

     Every religion tells you what you ought to do for God. 

     Every religon tells you what you must do for your neighbor. Every religion has the Golden Rule.

     But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God. 

     The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes to the Corinthians. 

     It’s a disgrace. 

     It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.  Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely. 

     It’s not religion at all.

It’s news. 

      No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man. 

      Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment. 

Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel. 

      Maybe that’s the only real safeguard we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much embarrassing fantasy and nonsense. 

      Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.

—————————-

      If you read my blog, then you already know that I spent my final day in my last congregation burying a boy the same age as my youngest son, Gabriel. 

     He was the fifth child I’d buried in that parish. 

     And his was the third five foot long coffin I’d buried because of suicide. 

     Peter, Jackson, Neil. 

     I wish I could forget their names.

     Since I’m new here, you should know: I hate my job sometimes. 

     And since I’m new here, you should know too, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes. To be honest, I don’t take seriously the atheism of anyone who has not thrown dirt on a child’s casket. 

     And you should know, I do respect the atheism of anyone who has.

     Peter. 

     The boy last month- his name was- is- Peter. 

      Peter had been fighting with his mom about doing his homework. 

      He was dyslexic and ADD and homework had always been hard. 

      Peter was fighting with his mom about doing his homework, the kind of fight I’ve had with my own kids a thousand times. The kind of fight, I’m sure, you’ve had with your kids. 

     Just go do your goddamned homework, Lisa had yelled at him. 

     Fuck you, Mom, Peter shouted back already climbing the stairs, I’m going to go and kill myself instead. 

     And, he did. 

     A panic rushed over his mom a few moments later. She screamed at her oldest daughter to check on him, but it was littlest sister who found him and, too late, tried to untie his belt.

     Maybe he meant to do it. 

     Maybe it was an impulsive way from an impulsive kid to win an argument. 

     Maybe he was standing on the chair waiting for his mom to rush in through the door and he just lost his balance. 

      His mom, Lisa, was stoic when I met with her, as strong and self-possessed as a statue, until she told me how she used to write letters to Peter whenever he was about to go on a trip. She’d write it and then hide it in his bag for him to discover later. 

     Her Artemis-like artifice fell apart in front of me as she sobbed: “Now he’s gone on a trip to God and he’s never coming back AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE TO HIM!”

     Watching her powerful facade crack in my lap, I felt righteously PO’d. 

     Your heart would have to be made of stone to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious.

      At God. 

      Or, 

      Feel foolish for believing in the first place. 

      It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too. 

      And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it (maybe that’s why Paul digresses so often and for so long) but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves; those days where I feel the faith is as unconvincing as Paul preaching in the shadow of the Temple of Artemis- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief. 

      The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief. 

——————————-

       The disgrace of our Gospel, that which prods Paul to digress before his doxology, it’s my hedge against unbelief. 

      The shame of the Cross, the embarassment that prompts Paul’s digression, at the end of the day I am persuaded it’s the only thing that makes doxology- praise, possible. 

     Flip the channels, thumb through your paper, scroll down your Facebook feed; fact is, you have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed and ashamed about being Christian. We’ve got hucksters like Joel Osteen and Jim Baker. We’ve got hypocrites like Cardinal McCarrick and Franklin Graham. 

     The truth of the matter is- we’ve got plenty of reasons to doubt and think Freud was right that it’s all so much fantasy.

     But in the amazing dis-grace that is the cross we have one reason to believe.

     And I believe that one reason is the only reason you require to believe. 

     Look, you know as well as I do that there’s more people not here this morning than are here. Don’t lie and tell me you’ve never wondered if maybe they’re all right and we’re wrong.

      So, here it is, just so you know we’re not all deluding ourselves:

 #1- 

The shame of the cross is such that no one- no one, certainly not a Pharisee like Paul; certainly not a Roman citizen like Paul- would’ve projected their religious wishes upon a crucified Jesus.

And, #2 –

The Judaism to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of its beliefs any hope in the resurrection from the dead. 

Take those two together and I am convinced that we never would’ve heard of Jesus Christ crucified for our sin and raised from the dead for our justification unless it really happened. 

      The Sunday before last when I preached I told you that I believe here in the Church the main thing needs always to be the main thing. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin and raised for your justification, can never be assumed, I said. It needs always to be our main message and it must always be at the heart of our every ministry. 

      I said.

      And I said it for a reason. 

      Maybe this is a lowkey note with which to end, but if it’s enough to warrant Paul’s long digression then it’s worth me putting it plain today. We can save the doxologies for another day. 

     Here it is:      

      I don’t believe the Gospel is a guarrantee to make your life happier. 

      I don’t believe the Gospel is necessarily helpful- either for you or our society. 

      But I do believe it’s true.

I do believe it’s true.

Not Cheap, Free

Jason Micheli —  July 16, 2018 — 1 Comment

     This Sunday the Sonshine Choir from Brentwood UMC in Nashville were our musical guests. Given the Nashville theme, I couldn’t help but weave two Nashville denizens into my sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10: Carrie Underwood and Carl Sr.

Here it is:

     I barely need to preach today. 

     I certainly don’t need to wile you with any pop culture references, funny videos, or moving personal stories. I know what you all started to think about as soon as you heard our text read this morning. 

     I know what’s on your mind.      

     That’s right, “Jesus Take the Wheel.” 

     Don’t lie. You’re singing it in your head right now. 

     So you probably already know: “Jesus Take the Wheel” was the first single released on Carrie Underwood’s debut album Some Hearts. It was Billboard’s #1 hit for 6 straight weeks. It reached #20 on the Pop charts. It won the former American Idol star 2 Grammys, one for Best Female Vocal Performance and another for Best Country Song. It won her 4 trophies at the Country Music Awards. 

     And 

     It was a cross-over hit on Christian radio. It climbed all the way to #4 on the Contemporary Christian Music charts. It took home trophies at the CCM awards too. 

      Which is odd- 

     It’s odd that it would be a hit on Christian radio because the chorus to Carrie Underwood’s single (“Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”) is not the Gospel. 

      It is not the Gospel as the Apostle Paul gives it to us this morning. 

     I’m sorry, Peter, I know how much you love Carrie Underwood and how if Carrie were Korean she’d already be Mrs. Kwon, but, as Gospel, Carrie’s song is about as on point as that other hit single from 2005: Snoop Dog’s “Drop It Like Its Hot.”

     Despite how far up the Christian charts Carrie Underwood took the 2005 Brett James-penned country single, the Apostle Paul tells us today that our condition before Almighty God is both more helpless and more hopeless than our requiring a co-pilot who takes over when times get tough. 

———————-

     “Jesus take the wheel, take it from my hands ‘cause I can’t do this on my own…”

     Translation: I was doing life on my own, Jesus, but now I need some help.   

          No. 

     We don’t need help. That’s Americianity. That’s not Christianity. That’s not the Gospel. According to the Apostle Paul, we don’t need help. We need an embalmer. We don’t need an instructor. We need an undertaker. 

     Or 

     We need someone who can raise the dead. 

     The Gospel does not begin with us already behind the wheel, on our own, with Jesus, like a genie in a lamp, ready to tag-in whenever life gets tricky. 

     The Gospel is not that Jesus will do the rest if or after you’ve done your best. No, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, and, while it might be the most popular religion in America, it is not the Gospel. 

     You do your best and Christ will do the rest. 

     No. 

     A corpse can’t cooperate with God. 

     A stiff can’t set out to improve itself. 

With rigor mortis, you can’t even repent.

         Apart from the unmerited, uninitiated, one-way work of Jesus Christ for you upon you- applied to you at your baptism- you are dead in your sins. 

     The Gospel begins not with you behind the wheel of life.

     The Gospel begins with you dead in the grave. 

     Carrie Underwood is the product of Oklahoma Public Eduction so maybe it’s not her fault. Still, you’d think it would’ve occurred to at least some of those Christians who shot her single up the CCM charts that, according to the Gospel, we’re not behind the wheel, with Jesus ready to help. 

    We’re rolled up inside a rug, a dead body, in the back of the car. Jesus doesn’t help us steer our lives. Jesus takes our sin-dead corpses out of the trunk of the car, and he makes us alive again. That’s the Gospel. 

     He makes us alive for him. He makes us alive for good works, Paul says. 

     But notice- not good works that we choose. Christ makes us alive for good works he has chosen from beforehand. We do not pursue good works for God. God places us into good works for himself. 

     So that- 

     From beginning to end, the Gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done and is doing. By grace, Paul says, you have been saved. 

     G.R.A.C.E: God’s redemption at Christ’s expense. 

     By grace you have been saved. 

     Not- 

     By grace you have been helped. 

     Not by grace you have been enlightened or encouraged or improved. 

     Not by grace you have been made a better, happier, or holier you. 

     We are not the servants he inspires or the enlistees he exhorts. We are the sinners he saves, the dead he drags out of the grave back into life. 

     By grace you have been saved.

     Note the tense. 

     Paul puts it in the perfect. 

     Meaning, it’s once for all. It’s a past act with endless effects into the present so you don’t ever have to worry about your future. Because- pay attention- it’s only when you’re un-anxious about your future with God that you’re truly free to serve your neighbor in the present. 

     By grace you have been saved, and this is not your doing, Paul says. 

     Despite the popularity of the expression-

the Gospel is not something you can do. 

     The Gospel is not something the Church can be. 

     The Gospel is not something we can put hands and feet to. 

     It’s a gift, Paul says.

     And a gift can only be received, celebrated, shared. 

     The Gospel is not your doing, Paul says, nor is it reducible to the good works you do.

     And just so you don’t miss this, Paul structures his sentence in Ephesians 2 to make his point obtrusive and unavoidable. 

     Where Ephesians 1 contains the longest sentence in the New Testament, Ephesians 2 contains the densest sentence in the New Testament.  

     Paul arranges the rhetoric of his sentence to emphasize his argument. He begins, in the Greek, with you and me in verse 1. Actually he begins with the word “dead.” We’re there at the top of the sentence, dead in our trespasses. 

     And there Paul leaves us, in the grave. 

     Then Paul fills the rest of his long, complicated sentence with compounds and clauses about what God has done in Jesus Christ.   

     He starts with us not behind the wheel of life but dead in our sins, and then he fills his sentence with God’s doings for us. Only at the end, after clause after clause after clause, after 9 1/2 verses, in the last and tiniest clause of the sentence, is there any positive mention at all of our doing for God. 

     The construction of the sentence echoes the content of it. The rhetoric reinforces the point. Paul summarizes the Gospel with this massive sentence about God’s doing for us in Jesus Christ and only at the end is there this little mention of me and my doing for God.

     The medium here is the message:

Christianity is not about what you do. 

For God. 

Or your neighbor. 

It’s about God becoming your neighbor in Jesus Christ and, just as he did with his neighbor Lazarus, making you, who were stinking and dead in your sins, alive again. 

———————-

     Martin Luther said that the Gospel of salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith- not good works- alone condemns everything that we think is right and good in the world. 

     The Gospel of grace, which begins with us in the grave, offends our high anthropology, our high assessment of our goodness and abilities. 

     The Gospel of grace enrages us who are addicted to doing and using our doings as a way to elbow ourselves a notch or two above our neighbors. 

     The Gospel of grace upends the comforting system of merit and demerit by which we arrange our lives, navigate our relationships, and make sense of the world. 

     Think about it. 

     The Gospel of grace means you’ve been handed Christ’s own permanent perfect score, which makes all of our scorecards obsolete, which is offensive if you think you’ve earned a high score all on your own. 

     And it’s even more worse if you’re convinced someone deserves a low score because of what they’ve done to you. 

     Since most of us don’t really believe we’re sinners- We don’t really believe we’re greedy. We don’t really believe we’re unforgiving or inhospitable. We don’t really believe we’re racist or prejudiced or liars and hypocrites (even though Chenda keeps telling me I am).

Since we don’t really believe we’re sinners, the Gospel message that you are not what you do is rude. It’s rude if you’re proud of the good you do. 

     As Robert Capon said:  

 God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.

Now that’s offensive to any of us who measure ourselves according to merit. It’s offensive to us who define ourselves by what we do. 

     And so it’s no surprise then that the future Mrs. Kwon and her chart-topping 2005 single is just one example of how we invert Paul’s Gospel. We shift the weight in his sentence. We tell Jesus to scoot on over, and we put ourselves in the driver’s seat. 

    Here’s the thing- 

     When we unroll ourselves from the rug in the trunk of the car

     When we put our sin-dead bodies behind the wheel

     When we invert the Gospel

     When we make our Christianity mostly about the good works that we do for others

     When we shove and squeeze the work God has done in Jesus Christ into the tiniest clause at the end of the sentence almost as an afterthought- or as something we think we can assume- the Church, what Karl Barth called “the herald of the Gospel,” becomes like Carl’s Jr.  

———————-

     In case that’s not self-explanatory, roll the video:

 

If you’re getting this by email and the video doesn’t pop up, here’s the link:

———————-

     A little context:

     In the early 2000’s Carl’s Jr began a marketing campaign featuring supermodels like Kate Upton in swimsuits and lingerie eating greasy, juicy hamburgers while riding on mechanical bulls, washing muscle cars, and sitting in a hot tub. Picture Bill Clinton and Donald Trump going out for burgers and a night on the town and you have an idea what those commercials contained. 

     They gave the expression “food porn” a reference point it had been missing since George Constanza tried to combine his afternoon delight with deli meats. For you kids, that’s a Seinfeld reference. 

     On the face of it, you might assume a barely-clad Padma Lakshmi eating a bacon cheeseburger would be a brilliant advertising strategy to reach the purient, adolescent minds of men between the ages of 13 and, oh let’s say, 97.  

     But actually, Carl’s Jr’s business declined, precipitously so, even among horny teenage boys and dirty old men. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing. 

     And their business suffered. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and the number of repeat regulars and first-time customers coming in through their doors dwindled. 

     According to a Harvard Business Review article, after Carl’s Jr. launched that advertising campaign back in the early 2000’s their corporation suffered internally too. Members and share holders became beset by division and factions. 

     They stopped making the main thing the main thing, and they got stuck. 

     In conflict. 

     You don’t really need me to connect the dots for you, do you? Well, maybe Peter does, but not the rest of you, right? 

     For Pete’s sake- I’ll do it anyway. 

     Much of what passes for and is practiced as Christianity today bears no resemblance to the Gospel of grace as Paul weights it and orders it here in Ephesians. 

     A lot of churches are like Carl’s Jr of the early aughts. They’ve made something other than the main thing the main thing. 

     They’ve made their main thing something other than the Gospel, salvation by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone.   

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It doesn’t have a half-naked Kate Upton eating a messy pile of meat (though that would make for a surprising church flyer), but it does package and sell Christianity in terms of its utility (practical advice, spiritual practices to relieve stress, biblical principals for daily living, how to be a Christian parent, how to have a happy Christian marriage). 

     There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, per se. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes tradition and custom the main thing so every church becomes afraid of change and repeats at every occasion “We’ve always…done it this way.” 

      A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes partisan politics the main thing. 

     Rather than the Gospel news that though you are unrighteous, dead in your sins in fact, God has reckoned Christ’s righteousness to you as your own- rather than that Grade A, All-Beef Gospel a lot of Christianity out there wants you to prove your righteousness based on where you stand on a particular political issue. 

     A lot of Christianity is like Carl’s Jr. 

     It makes social justice the main thing. 

     It makes community building the main thing.

     It makes serving the needy and the neighbor the main thing. 

     Again, not that social justice isn’t worthy and urgent. Not that building community isn’t part of the church community’s task. Not that serving the needy and loving our neighbor aren’t works that God puts before us and places us into. 

     They’re just not the main thing. 

     The Gospel is not a blank screen on to which we can project whatever Jesus-flavored thing we wish. 

     You were dead in your trespasses. By grace you have been saved. It’s all Christ’s doing such that there’s nothing now you must do- just receive it in trust. 

     That’s the Gospel. 

     It’s our Carl Sr. 

     And everything else is Jr. 

     In that Harvard Business Review article, an executive from Carl’s Jr. offered a “post-mortem” on their advertising campaign from the early aughts. 

     “We realized,” he said, “that if you’re looking for sex and sensationalism then you’ve got plenty of other options out there; we have one unique product to offer.”

     Do I need to connect the dots?!

     Look- 

 If most of what we do as a Church could be done (and done better) by most other secular programs, self-help groups, counseling centers, social justice agencies, political activists, music programs, or TED Talks, then some of you all might as well strap on a bikini and start riding a mechanical bull because we’ve forgotten we’re in the Grade-A, All Beef Gospel business.  

————————

     Heads up, mood change: 

     

     A couple of years ago, I spent the year on medical leave following emergency surgery and 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo for a rare, incurable cancer with which I’d been diagnosed. A cancer- you should know- that afflicts me still. While I’m still more fit than your average United Methodist pastor, I’ll never be in remission and I still do maintenance chemo a day a month. Like the text today says, we’re all dead men walking but me a little bit more than most of you.  

     Anyways, at the end of my medical leave my oncologist asked me if I wanted to return to work, to ministry. “If you want,” he said, “I can make it so you never have to work again.” I considered it, sure. Turns out, not only do I like my job, I believe in our job. 

     I’m not here because it’s a career move. I’m not here for a salary. Whatever you pay me, it’ll never be more than my medical bills. Fact is, I don’t have to be here. I don’t need to put up with Peter much less Chenda. I don’t have to put up with any of you.

I’m not here to be the concierge of a club. I’m not here to be a social worker or community organizer. I’m not here to maintain a denomination. I’m not here to opine on politics.

     I’m here because I believe in the Gospel, and I believe in the power of the Gospel to change the world by changing lives (lives like mine) a life at a time. 

     I’m here because I believe the main thing should be the main thing. 

     Not to be melodramatic but I live with my death. I know firsthand the difference between the Church as Carl Sr. and the Church as Carl Jr. 

     The Church is not a social program. It’s not a charity. It’s not a fellowship group. 

     It can include all of those things, but the Church, as Paul tells the Corinthians, is an embassy of the Gospel. We’re the only business, the only institution on earth given the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. And we do so by our worship. We do so in wine and bread. We do so in bible study with our children. We do so by serving our needy neighbors. Work that isn’t “help.” Work where we are ambassadors for the Gospel.

     It’s not that all the other good we can do isn’t. 

     Isn’t good. 

     It’s that none of it can make the dead live. 

     

Catching Holiness

Jason Micheli —  July 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

While I’m preaching through Ephesians at my new appointment, I noticed this Sunday’s lectionary was the story of David and Uzzah from 2 Samuel 6. It’s too odd and disturbing a passage to let slide. Here’s an old reflection on the text.

True story:

During my first year of seminary I served as an intern at a small Methodist church pastored by Rev Carol McCallum.

True story:
That church celebrated communion not with a loaf of bread and a single chalice but with trays, the ones with the tiny pieces of bread and miniature cups. Normally those little cups were filled in the sacristy by a volunteer the day before.

True story:
On one Sunday those trays were apparently jostled while being transported from the sacristy to the altar table, spilling the juice out their little cups and, overnight, sealing the lid to the tray; so that, when it came time for the Great Thanksgiving and Rev Carol lifted the lid o the tray, it instead stuck and for a few seconds that felt like a lifetime the communion tray hung suspended a few inches above the altar until it came crashing down, spilling the blood of Christ all over the table.
That’s when Almighty God smote Rev Carol, struck her dead, right there on the floor of the sanctuary.

The first time I ever preached this scripture text from 2 Samuel 6 I began with that anecdote. And the congregation just kind of stared at me, stone- faced.

It was my first summer as the pastor at Linvale United Methodist Church. I was about 23 years old. I was still a student in seminary and, when it came to life, I still had a lot more to learn.

It was a sticky hot morning in July- dew was still burning o the grass in the parking lot as people trickled into the sanctuary.

Because Irma, the organist, wanted to take a break that Sunday, the morning’s music was led by her husband Les, who was as deaf as anyone I’ve ever met and played the accordion. I can say with hindsight that that was not a good idea.
According to the lectionary, Methodism’s schedule of assigned passages, the scripture that Sunday was the same one given today: this story of the ark and David dancing, half-naked, and Uzzah struck dead. It was not a text I would have chosen and for nearly 8 years I’ve been waiting for a do-over.
I was new to my role then. I hadn’t found my preaching voice or style. And I didn’t trust my ability to target a sermon to where people were in their lives. So I stuck to what I did know, to what I did feel comfortable with. I just explained the text. I took it at face value.

My opening illustration about Rev Carol having fallen flat, I just dove in to the text.

And I explained to those gathered at Linvale Church that Sunday morning how David is delivering the ark to Jerusalem in a shrewd move designed to legitimate his claim to the throne.
I explained how the ark symbolized God’s protection of and presence with the people Israel, and with the ark in Jerusalem, the city of David, everything the ark symbolized David’s throne now would as well.

I even described the ark for them, how it was a gilded box of acacia wood cornered by winged angles, how the ark was a pedestal for the invisibly enthroned Yahweh and how the dance that David and his 3,000 men do is a victory dance- because with God seated on the ark in the city of their King no one could defeat them.

Now the people at Linvale Church- they listened politely, but I could tell…I could tell from Sheldon sitting in the front pew and from Bob seated halfway back and from Andy all the way in the back by the aisle…I could tell they didn’t care much about that, about the ark, about Kingdom history or about David’s political maneuvering.

I could tell. They wanted to know about Uzzah.

At that point in my ministry I wasn’t a very observant preacher, but that morning I could tell that ever since Pam had read the scripture aloud everyone was wondering: ‘Well, wasn’t Uzzah just trying to help?’

According to 1 Samuel 6, I told them, the ark was supposed to be carried on poles by Levites, Israel’s special caste of priests. But that’s not what happens here. Either everyone had forgotten or, in their rush to get the ark to Jerusalem, they didn’t care. So instead of on gilded poles, it’s put on a wagon. Instead of being carried by priests it’s pulled by oxen.
In other words, according to this interpretation, Uzzah dies because he didn’t follow the directions. His haste to catch the ark is actually his trying to avoid the consequences of his actions. In other words, he had it coming to him.

Or, you could say that, at this point in the story, the ark’s been neglected for 20 years. For 20 years it’s been forgotten in a backwater valley. For 20 years no one has mentioned it or wondered about it or gone searching for it. You might think it’s vanished altogether.

But when David needs it to lend creedence to his crown, when David needs the symbol of God’s protection and presence to legitimate his own power, he knows exactly where it is. So you could suggest that God’s anger had been kindled already (for being neglected and used) and when the ark begins to fall, well, Uzzah just gets in the way.

I watched the faces in the sun-soaked pews following along. Perhaps it’s an issue of purity, I said. Maybe Uzzah had not made himself ritually clean for the ceremony, for the procession to Jerusalem. He wasn’t ritually prepared to come before God’s presence much less touch it.

It’s not that Uzzah did anything wrong, that’s just the way God’s holiness is. It’s like Fire: you can’t come close to it, you can’t touch it, you can’t catch holiness.

You can even argue, I told them, because of the intricacies of the Hebrew text, that where your bibles read “the oxen shook it” a better translation would say “the oxen stumbled” or an even more precise translation could read “the oxen made manure” and when Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark…he slips in it. Too bad for Uzzah. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens, I said.

Les, the accordion player, who was nearly deaf, was sitting on the piano bench with his head half-cocked not sure if I’d just said what he thought he’d heard.

The clock on the sanctuary wall and the restlessness in the pews signaled that it was time for the ‘application’ part of my sermon, the ‘what this means for us now’ part of the sermon.
And I looked up from my notes and I said:

You can parse this passage a hundred di erent ways. But the bottom line is that Uzzah’s death is meant to be a reminder of God’s holiness.

Uzzah’s death is meant to point out to us what it points out to King David- that this God is not One to trifled to be with or treated casually or taken for granted.

And from there I wound my sermon to a close with a litany of DON’Ts.

Don’t reach out to this God if you’re aren’t serious about it, if you don’t want an answer or won’t follow through.

Don’t live any way you want, just coming here once a week, taking God’s mercy for granted.

Don’t come to Christ’s Table if you’re not sincere about living according to his Kingdom.

Don’t.
Don’t confess your sins if you’re not going to live a redeemed life.
Don’t pray if you’re not going to heed the answer.
Don’t come here on Sunday if you’re not here to worship.

This God, I preached, this God is not One to be trifled with.

This God has the freedom to be angry. And his anger has the power to knock you down. Faith in this God is not for the phony or feeble-hearted, I preached. Faith in this God is like playing with Fire.

And if memory serves me right I even wagged my finger at them.

Looking back, I suppose it was a bit intense for what was only my second Sunday at that church. And it’s not that what I preached wasn’t necessarily true, it just wasn’t true.
You know?

What I mean is…I didn’t know any of those people yet.

That sermon was 15 years ago now and I’ve been waiting for a do-over ever since.

I’ve been wanting a do-over because, that sermon, I preached it before I’d ever had to hold someone’s hand while a doctor issued news that would be hard to swallow and even harder to bear.

I preached that sermon before I’d ever had to knock on the door of a house where someone in the family wouldn’t be coming home that night. Or ever again.

I preached it before I’d ever had someone confide to me, ashamedly, that the reason they’d stopped giving to the church was because they’d lost their job a few weeks back.

Before a wife had ever cried in my o ce and told me how the drinking she thought her husband had knocked had snuck back on all of them.

I preached that sermon before I learned when and when not to answer questions like: how can God allow…why did god let this happen…?

I preached it, that sermon, before I ever had children of my own.

So this time when I come back to 2 Samuel 6 things are di erent. I’m di erent. Eight years later when I read about the ark and God’s bursting forth anger and Uzzah things are di erent.
And what I wonder this time, the question I have is: what about Uzzah’s mother? What about Uzzah’s wife, if he had one?
Did he have a best friend or kids?

What do you say to them: It’s all part of God’s plan, there’s a reason for everything, God’s ways are not our ways, he’s in a better place, God must have needed him in heaven?

Earlier this week I decided to try something. I read this story about Uzzah to my 6 year old son, Alexander. Actually I had to paraphrase it and tell it myself because Uzzah doesn’t make it into many children’s bibles.

‘What did happen to him?” Alexander asked me when I’d finished telling the story. What happened? Well, he died.
‘Why did he died?’

Uh…he got too close to God, to God’s holiness.

‘Why did God make him die?
He’s in a better place.

For a few moments I thought that was it, that was enough.
But then Alexander gave me a toothy look of perplexity and he asked me:

‘Dad, does Jesus do that?‘

And isn’t that the question?

That’s why, when it comes to the ark and God’s bursting forth anger and Uzzah, I’ve been itching for a do-over.

Because those years ago I spent so much time on this text, on these 11 verses, that I left out our Story (with a capital S). It’s not that what I preached wasn’t true. It just wasn’t the Gospel.
Because you and I we believe that God’s power and presence and holiness are found not in a gilded box that could blow at any time, but in the ark of Mary’s womb.

We believe that God’s strength it isn’t like a burst of dynamite. It’s found in that, while being equal with God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.

We don’t believe that God’s anger can be so easily kindled against us. We believe that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

We don’t believe that we’re so unworthy that we can’t come close to God. We believe that in Jesus Christ God has come close to us and counted us worthy and that nothing we do can separate us from that Love.

And as easily as the cliches can roll off our tongues, the fact is we don’t believe that God takes us from us for reasons all his own. We believe that God loved us so much that he gave…that he gives…that in fact in Christ he has joined our life so we might not su er this life alone.

That’s our Story. And you better learn it because you’re going to run into Uzzah’s mother or wife or friend or children…all the time.

All those years ago…that’s how I should have ended the sermon.

Ephesians 1.15-23

     Many of you have asked me questions about where we’re living so I thought I’d let you know that my family and I moved into the neighborhood on Tuesday. 

     I think we can all agree it was perfect weather for grinding manual labor, as hot and moist as the devil’s undercarriage.  

      About moving- let me tell, it’s exhausting… 

     ….watching my wife haul and unpack all those boxes. 

     Since last Sunday’s sermon, many of you have asked me other questions too. 

“You seem so dignified- was that really you dancing in the picture?” 

      

“Are you always sarcastic?”  

“Does it usually take you so long in your sermons to get to the point?”  

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a dead-ringer for Ryan Gosling?” 

 

     

 

     The best question I got from a few of you. 

     It’s a question that gets right to the heart of the Apostle Paul’s rhetoric here in the first chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians. 

     In so many words, the question you asked me was this one: 

            If God chose us from before the foundation of the world

If everything has already been done- everything for your redemption, everything for your justification, everything   for your salvation- by Christ for you

Then why bother?

     In other words: 

If you’re already and always forgiven in Christ, then why bother with Christianity?

     Doesn’t that strike you as superfluous as purchasing the service plan at Best Buy?

     If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow? 

     Because you don’t you know- have any reason to fear. 

     Fear God or fear for your salvation. 

     As St. Paul says here in verse 20, Christ has sat down at the right hand of the Father. 

     As the Book of Hebrews puts it, Christ’s sitting down marks the cessation of God’s judgement, for Christ our Great High Priest has offered himself as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for your every sin. 

     Christ has sat down from his work. 

     Never to get up again.

     And though we still like to the play the judgement game with each other, he’s taken a seat from it and put up his feet, with all our sins forgotten underneath his heels, like a father waiting for his prodigal child to come home.

     You are forgiven. 

     You have no reason to fear. 

     Because, as Paul says here in verse 23, the pleroma, the fullness, the plentitude, the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus who bore your sins in his body upon the tree.   

       Pleroma 

     You’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully, Paul says, and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Jesus Christ in whom God fully dwells. 

     Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word here at the end of Ephesians 1. 

     Fully: there is no lack in your relationship with God. 

     At least- 

     From God’s side there’s not. 

     No other book of the New Testament stresses the completeness of what Christ has done like the Book of Ephesians. 

     There is no tension in Ephesians between the already and the not yet. 

    In Ephesians, it’s all already. 

    It’s all been done. 

     What he has done for you- it’s fact. 

     And it has nothing to do with how you feel about him.

     Christ’s incorporation of you has happened- literally- over your dead body, your sin-dead body, when you were buried with him in your baptism.

     From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you. 

     Because you are fully in him. 

     And in him, you are forever safe from the wages of your sin.

     He has sat down from his work with all our sins beneath his feet- that’s a sign as obvious as an empty tomb. 

     A sign that God forever rejects our rejection of him. 

     God literally does not give a damn anymore. 

     But, that begs the question, your question:

     If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all 

     If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

    If God’s grace is not transactional

     If there’s no work you must do to merit it

     Then, why bother following? 

Why bother giving up your time on a Sunday morning?

Why bother forking over your hard-earned dough into the offering plate?

Why bother entangling your life with someone as crazy Peter or as challenging as Chenda?

————————

     If we have no reason to fear God, if we are in him and all our sins sit forever underneath his feet, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? 

     Why would you bother? 

     Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

     Why bother arguing about welcoming the stranger and caring for the immigrant in your land?

     Why all the heartache and anxiety about it if, when you don’t welcome or care for them, Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you? 

     What’s the point? 

     What’s the benefit to you? 

     If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’ve nothing to earn from him that isn’t already yours, then why bother following the hard and peculiar path laid out by Christ?

————————

      We don’t have the cable hooked up at the new house yet; however, I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. 

So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 8 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos or Westworld right there on my phone. 

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew McConaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism. 

     Earlier this week, while Ali was busy hauling and unpacking boxes, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I rewatched this little documentary from 2011 about Delores Hart.  

     

      Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago. 

     Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams. 

     After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole. 

     She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961. 

     Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect. 

     But then- 

     In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat. 

     After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. 

     Emptiness.   

      “I had it all, everything really, but my life wasn’t full,” she says in the documentary.

     So, she quit her acting gigs. 

     She got rid of all her baubles. 

     And she broke off her engagement. 

     She renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

     What’s more remarkable- 

     What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. 

      This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular. 

     Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it. 

     They’re drawn into it.

     They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life. 

    Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation- her life in Christ- is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, they think her life is captivating, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life not just captivating but beautiful. 

     You can tell these Hollywood have-it-alls, they suspect that maybe she is somehow more human than they are. 

     More fully human.

————————

     That’s why- 

     Why we follow even though there’s nothing for us to fear. 

     Why we bother even though there’s absolutely nothing we need to earn we’ve not already been given by grace. 

     We are fully in him, that’s true- fully forgiven, with no more we must do, with no reason we ought to fear. 

     We are fully in him. 

     But we are not fully like him. 

     I know I’m not, and I’ve only been here a week but I know- neither are you, not by a long shot.

     We are fully in him but we are not fully like him.

     And if he is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble him. 

     The image of God is not ours innately, by nature; it’s ours by imitation.

     If he is the first born of creation, the first fruit of the new creation, as Paul says in Corinthians, then what it means for us to be a human creature is for us to look like and live like him. 

     If he is the Second Adam, as Paul names him, then he is who we were meant to be all along from Adam on down.

     If the fullness of God fills Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God fills our flesh with himself and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven one day but because we hope one day to become human. 

We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did. 

No. 

The Gospel, declares Galatians, is that Christ has set us free from the Law. 

His obedience has freed us from the burden of obeying the commandments, even his commandments. 

     So don’t you dare give me that verse about the sheep and the goats because the Gospel is that the Good Shepherd became a goat so that a goat like you might be counted among his faithful flock. 

     Christ has set us free from any anxiety about obeying the commandments, even his commandments.

     We do the things that Jesus did not because we’re commanded to do the things that Jesus did. 

    We do the things that Jesus did because Jesus did them. 

     And his is what a fully alive life looks like. 

     The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7, and intimidated by a love that washes the feet of strangers and enemies is that we’re not yet, fully, completely human. 

     As human as…God. 

     We get it backwards. 

     It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be. 

     Before it’s anything else, the Church- it’s the ultimate recovery program. 

     It’s a community for all of us addicts hooked on the highs of our un-human habits. 

     And just as in AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem. 

     Or, as St. Paul puts it: “While we were yet sinners…”

     The Church- before it’s anything else, it’s a recovery program. 

     Where once a week we’ll hand a self-involved narcissist like yourself a cup of coffee and force you (with hymns and stained-glassed language) to confront the fact that you are not the center of the universe. 

     We call that step “worship.”

     The Church- it’s like a 12 step recovery program. 

     Fo you with your log-jammed eyes, content to let the sun go down on your anger, we have a step called “confession and pardon.” Don’t kid yourself, it’s not for God to forgive you- you’re already forgiven. It’s for God to make stubborn unforgiving you a more forgiving person; that is, more fully human.

     For you addicted to the tit-for-tat way of this un-human world, we’ll force you to do something odd called passing the peace. 

     For you who is a junkie to the delusion that what you have is yours by your own doing, we’ll pass you not the peace but a plate where you will recover a creature’s sense of gratitude to the Creator from whom all blessings flow. 

     For you who are anxious about accruing not just for tomorrow but for the next day and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that, we’ve got a prayer (not about serenity) about daily bread. 

     For you hooked on the high that comes from the illusion that you are responsible for this world, we’ve got the same prayer. 

     It goes “Thy Kingdom come…” in order to teach thou that its not your Kingdom to bring. Or, even, to build.

      For you used to using your talents to take and make, we have this table of wine and bread, where all you can do is receive. 

      And by the way, it’s a table reserved not for the best and the brightest but for betrayers- learning that is a hard step on the path to recovery too. 

     We’ve got other steps too, like rolling up your sleeves and serving your neighbor so that you can no longer convince yourself that God is the stuff of idle, pious speculation because you’ve met Him in them, just as He promised you would.

     Before it’s anything else, the Church is a recovery program where you learn through word and sacrament and service to say “Hi, my name is Jason and I’m a sinner which is to say I need to find my humanity.” 

———————

     When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

 

     She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign to others that fullness of life comes not from the things with which we so often try to fill our lives: career, children, relationships, riches, reputation, success. 

     She thought the wedding dress was the perfect sign for others of where- in whom- fullness of life was to be found. 

     And were that it, it’d be a nice uplifting story, right? 

     The perfect sort of slice of life story to end a sermon. 

     Except, St. Paul says that at your baptism you were clothed in the wedding garment of Christ’s own righteousness. 

     And here in Ephesians Paul says not only that Christ was fully God and that you are fully in him but that you are fully him. You are his Body. 

     He has no other Body but you the baptized. 

     In other words- 

     By virtue of your baptism, you’re wearing Delores’ wedding dress. 

     Which makes you not just an addict in recovery. 

     It makes you a sponsor. 

     For the sake of others. 

     For the sake of them finding their full humanity. 

     And that’s my final answer. 

    

     

    

     

     

     

      


 I think introductory sermons at new churches are about as fraught as sophomore album efforts by bands. There’s no good way to do it and there’s way too many balls in the air to thread into a single sermon. Anyways, I kicked off a series on Ephesians at my new congregation today.

The text is Ephesians 1.3-14. I was happy to get to use slides as part of the sermon, something I’ve not been able to do in a while. Here it is:

     I’ve done a lot of guest preaching this past year- all over the country- and I discovered that I hate guest preaching. 

     The listeners don’t know me, don’t know whether I’m serious or sarcastic, and I don’t know them, neither the doubts that shame them nor the sins that keep them up at night. 

     “With guest preaching, it’s a miracle they hear anything at all,” I griped several times this year to friends. 

     And then last night, I expressed a little anxiety to Ali about starting here at Annandale and Ali kissed me on the cheek and said “Don’t worry, honey, just think of it as one of your guest preaching gigs.” 

     I guess that’s how its going to be for both of us, you and me, for a while.

     I served at my last church for 13 years. I haven’t transitioned to a new church since 2005- it was a completely different world. 

     Back then, in 2005, an animated movie called the Incredibles was killing at the box office. 

     America was up in arms over illegal immigration and a vacancy on the Supreme Court; meanwhile, the White House was engulfed in scandal surrounding a President who had lost the popular vote. 

     On the religious front, the United Methodist Church was embroiled in controversy over issues of sexuality. 

     It was a completely different world back then the last time I transitioned to a new congregation. 

     So a few weeks ago, I asked Clarence for advice on how to survive you all and, after he stopped laughing- belly laughing, giggling really, for like 20 minutes- we took this picture together with your other two previous pastors.  

     They were laughing at me too, like the bishop had stuck a kick-me sign on my rear end. 

     Pastor Jack Martin showed us the picture and Clarence whispered to me: “I don’t which of you or me sticks out more.” 

     “That’s where I got you, Clarence,” I replied, “not only am I young, I’ve got the soul of a black man.” 

     And Clarence shot me a dubious look like I was crazy so then, to make my case, I showed him my dance moves.

     “Check mate,” he conceded.

    Looking at that picture of me dancing the white man overbite with a man of my own gender, I know what you’re thinking.  

     “I didn’t vote for you.” 

     I didn’t choose you. 

     And just as an aside, if you’re sitting there saying to yourself that you’re not young enough to get my pop culture references, realize that Monty Python and the Holy Grail came out 2 years before my mother gave birth to me, wrapped me in bands of cloth, and laid me in a manger.

     Anyways, I don’t blame you- I bet you’re looking at me this morning and like those Monty Python peasants to King Arthur you’re thinking I didn’t choose you. 

     Even though the United Methodist system of compulsory speed-dating between pastor and parish makes farcical aquatic ceremonies seem prudent, we’re thrilled to be here and we’re touched by your warm welcome. 

     My boys are thrilled to be in a church where one of the pastors, Peter, is the same age as them. 

     And I, for one, am excited to be in a church where one of the other pastors manages to make me look less controversial. As far as I’m concerned, Chenda is like respite care.

     But still, if I were you, I’d be thinking I didn’t choose you.

     And not having chosen me, my guess is, you want to know more about me. 

     You want to know about my wife, Ali the attorney, and her undying affection for me.  

     You want to know how, as my soul mate, she takes everything I say with seriousness and sincerity. 

 

     

      You probably want to know how long we’ve been together and if we’ve always dressed as sharp as we do today (not so much).  

     You didn’t choose me. 

     So you probably want to know about me. 

     And since you’re not just getting me, you’re getting new youth for Trish’s program, you’re probably wondering if my kids have a positive attitude and a teachable spirit.  

     

     If you’ve trolled me on social media, you might be wondering into what Hogwarts House the Sorting Hat would put me. Slytherin. 

 

     

     This far into the sermon you’re probably wondering if I’ve always been this cynical  and world weary.

     

     As your pastor now, forced to take punches and deal with congregational conflict (not that you have any of that), you may want to know that I’ve not got a fragile ego. 

     

     As your priest, you should want to know how close I am with JC.  

     

     If you’ve read my book, then you’re likely wondering how much time I have before I get in trouble with the bishop. Fair question.  

     And if you’ve read my book, then you might also wonder how much time I have. 

     Fair question.

     In an Amazon Prime world where you can choose anything you want and have it droned to your house in hours (though I like to think I’m a package) you didn’t choose me. 

     So naturally you want to know about me. 

     But also, you want to know what I’m going to do. 

     You want to know what we’re going to do, how we’re going to serve our neighbors and how we’re going to grow, how we’re going to reach new people with the promise of the Gospel.

     The bad news though-

      Our scripture text today doesn’t afford me much permission to talk about myself or, even, to talk about what we are going to do together for God. 

      Today’s passage is instead entirely (and impolitely so) about God’s choosing and doing. 

———————-

     Paul didn’t plant the church at Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila, disciples of John the Baptist did. 

     So when this preacher named Paul shows up in the Book of Acts having been sent to them, they were strangers to each other.

     They didn’t choose him. 

     And so to begin his ministry with these strangers, Paul does a funny thing at the outset of his epistle. 

     He doesn’t avoid the awkward subject of choosing; he doubles down on it and reframes it. 

     He talks about God’s choosing and doing.

     And he does so by here in the introduction of his letter by trading out the formal, traditional thanksgiving you could expect at the top of every ancient epistle, the thanksgiving where the author commends his audience for all of their good and faithful doings, and instead he inserts a traditional Hebrew blessing. 

      To God.  

     A berakah– a blessing that the Christians who had been Jews would’ve prayed 3 times a day. 

     Except- 

     Paul changes the berakah too. 

     He changes it from a blessing to the Creator for creation, for the sun and the moon and the stars, a blessing for what can be known to anyone and everyone on their own. 

     He changes the berakah to a blessing of what can only be made known, that which requires revelation from beyond us to know: the Gospel. 

     He has blessed us, Paul says, not with the sun and the moon and the stars. 

     He has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. 

     And note the past perfect tense there- he has blessed us. 

     His choosing us in Jesus Christ-it’s complete. 

     There’s no not yet about his choosing us. 

     He has blessed us in Jesus Christ with everything that matters. 

     He has made us holy and blameless, Paul says. 

      Blameless, by bringing us out of bondage to the Pharaoh called Sin by the purchase price of his blood. That’s what the word redemption means.

    And he has made us holy, by giving to us, reckoning to us as our own, Christ’s own righteousness. Christ’s own perfect score under the Law of God is credited to us as our own permanent, perfect score. 

     He has made us holy and blameless, Paul says, and he has made us his children. 

     Children by adoption. 

    Adoption, that which is done entirely by the decree of a Judge. 

    All of this, all of this ‘lavish’ blessing, Paul says is our inheritance. 

    And notice- 

    He doesn’t say all of this is your wage, something you must earn by your doing.

    He says it’s your inheritance, something gifted to you unconditionally and irrevocably, by way of another’s death. 

     Just so you understand that there’s no work you must to do to merit this blessing- and just so you don’t misunderstand and think there’s some way you can backslide your way out of it- the Apostle Paul unspools this blessing all the way back to before the foundation of the world. 

     Think about that- 

     Before God said ‘Let there be light,’ Paul says, God’s first words were ‘Let there be Gospel.’ 

     Before God said ‘Let there be sun and moon and stars, God said ‘Let there be this unthwartable promise of the light of Jesus Christ despite our dark hearts and dark doings.’ 

     God’s grace is older than the galaxy’s DNA.

     St. Paul uses the word ‘predestined’ there to talk about God choosing us in Christ, but he doesn’t mean that every moment of your life has been predetermined from the get-go. 

     He means that even before any of us showed up on the scene God had preveniently determined to count you as his forgiven and redeemed child by his own Son’s bleeding and dying, sealed for you by the Holy Spirit in your baptism.

    You see-

    The reason St. Paul can preach that nothing- no sin you’ve done, no grudge stuck in your craw, no doubt hidden underneath your mattress- in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because God’s love for you in Christ Jesus antedates- precedes- even creation itself. 

     The Father’s grace to you in the Son was true before was was. 

     And even now, Paul says, the mystery, older than creation, revealed by Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls the firstborn of creation, is that God is still at work in the world. 

     Doing. 

     To make good on his choosing. 

    What’s unveiled in Christ is that God is at work in the world- mysteriously so- extending this undeserved, one-way love called grace in order to change us, one-by-one, from the inside out. 

     And just so you don’t miss this point about choosing and doing, this point that God is the active agent, the Doer behind all the doings, Paul unwinds our passage today as one long, run-on sentence in the Greek. 

     It’s 204 words. 

     It’s the longest sentence in the New Testament. 

     And God is the subject of all of its verbs. 

     We are but hidden away here as the objects of God’s every verb.     

———————-

     A few weeks ago I was driving to Richmond to visit my mom, and, because I was on Interstate 95, I figured I had about 14 hours to kill so I listened to an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. 

     The episode told the true story of 2 cops named Allan and Thorleif, in the city of Aarhus in Denmark. Back in 2012 the officers Allan and Thorleif received a phone call from distraught parents- distraught Muslim parents- that their teenage son had gone missing. 

     As Allan and Thorleif began investigating, other calls from other parents began to cascade into the police station until eventually over 30 teenage sons of 30 sets of parents were missing. 

     When Allan and Thorleif scratched the surface, asking questions and interviewing people in the community, they began to hear rumors. 

     About Syria. 

     About how these teenage boys had been radicalized without their parents realizing. 

      About how they’d fled to join ISIS and take up jihad. 

     For whatever reason, these two ordinary, unimpressive cops, who don’t even have sexy cop jobs- they work in neighborhood crime prevention, they took it upon themselves to determine what they were going to do about these missing boys whenever they returned to Aarhus. 

      For all the cops knew, when these boys came back their town would be receiving dozens of angry terrorists. 

     And again, this was 2012 when other countries were pulling no punches when it came to potential threats, pulling out all the stops to detain and prosecute anyone suspected of affiliation with ISIS. 

     And in 2012, the city of Aarhus was second on the list of European countries with a homegrown terrorist problem. 

     But what Allan and Thorleif chose to do- 

      They chose beforehand 

     Before any of these teens even returned back from Syria 

     Before a one of them ever fessed up, expressed remorse, or repented

     Before Allan and Thorleif found out what they’d done and what they deserved

     They chose beforehand, before any of them showed up on the scene, they predetermined to show them love, one-way, undeserved love. 

     Before a one of these would-be jihadists appeared back in Aarhus, these two ordinary cops chose to impute to them a goodness wasn’t even there. 

     They chose beforehand to call these teens what they were not- not terrorists; they chose to call them ‘Syrian Volunteers.’ 

     They chose beforehand to treat them, no matter what they may have done or likely did do, as though they’d been volunteering in hospitals and orphanages. 

They chose to credit to them a righteousness that was not theirs, and they chose not require them to do anything to earn it.

     And so as these missing jihadi teens trickled back home, Allan and Thorleif didn’t meet them at the airport and arrest them. 

     They welcomed them home. 

     Later, they’d invite them over to chat. 

     They connected them with mentors. 

     They got them back in school and back into jobs. 

     Of the 34 Aarhus teens who first went missing in 2012, 6 were killed in Syria and 10 went missing. The remaining 18 who returned home were all de-radicalized by those 2 ordinary men. 

     They’ve done the same for over 300 teens since then.

     “We didn’t wait for them to find their way back into the light; we chose not to let them leave themselves in the dark,” Allan says. 

     

     “We decided to fight radicalism with love…” Thorleif told the Invisibilia host, and then he paused and you can imagine him smiling before he added…”love paid for by the State.” 

     When the Invisibilia host asked the cops how they came up with this idea, Thorleif just shrugged and said: “I dunno. At first my partner thought I was crazy.” 

     And then he said- pay attention now people. There’s an unseen agency at work here, which NPR does not name because TO NAME IT IS THE CHURCH’S JOB.

     “It just came to me,” Thorleif confessed. 

     “The idea just came upon me…a miracle I guess.” 

————————

     For now at least, I’m just your guest preacher. 

     You don’t yet know how to listen to me. 

     So let me make plain what I am saying and what I am NOT saying. 

     I’m not exhorting you that you must go and do like Allan and Thorleif. 

     I’m not saying that you ought to go and show risky, undeserved, one-way love to every enemy in the world and each antagonist in your life. 

     Such an exhortation would be what Martin Luther called preaching the Law (not the Gospel) and, because it’s a burden you couldn’t possibly fulfill, it would only frustrate you until you began to hear the exhortation as an accusation. 

     Go and do like Thorleif. 

     Maybe not today but, eventually, you would not experience that as good news. 

     And it would not be the Good News. 

It would not be the Gospel because, notice, it makes us the subject of the sentence, but the Gospel is that we are the objects of God’s verbs. 

     God’s past, future, and present verbs. 

     Let’s be honest about ourselves, shall we? 

     The good news in the good news is that we are not the good news. 

     We are the objects of it. 

     Were it otherwise, you’d have every reason to be anxious about a new pastor and every reason to be torqued off that you didn’t get to choose any of the three of us. 

     Of course, were it otherwise- 

     If it was all on us

     If we were the subjects of all the church’s verbs, then you wouldn’t need to worry about a pastor at all. 

     Because there’d be no need for the Church at all.

     But as it is-

     What makes the Church different from a political party or a kiwanis or country club, distinct from a social justice agency or a corporate organization- what makes us unique from any other religion even- is the Gospel. 

     And the Gospel is not about what we choose to do in the world.

     The Gospel is what God has chosen to do. From before time.

     For us by his cross. 

     And through us by his Holy Spirit. 

————————-

     On the night we betray him, Jesus tells us at the table: “You did not choose me; I chose you.” 

      In fact, unlike in the Old, in the New Testament there is next to nothing about our choosing to serve the Lord (or choosing to do much of anything else for that matter). 

     Instead the New Testament emphasizes that God has chosen you and chosen to do through you, and, I’ve been a pastor long enough to know, most of the time, that looks for us as mysterious and surprising as it did for Allan and Torleif. 

     It looks like what we do at this table. 

     We do not bring anything to this table but our sin and an open hand willing to trust whatever God chooses to put in it. 

     The sacraments are not simply signs to us they are signs of us. 

      Signs that, in a world addicted to having our own agency, like water and wine and bread we are ordinary, unwitting creatures of his choosing and doing. 

     Such that, if we do Christ’s work at all it’s a miracle.

     I wonder- 

     What will God do with us?

     

      

    

     

     

     

     

     For my last act at Aldersgate Church before moving to Annandale United Methodist Church, I buried a 14 year old boy who in a foolish, impetuous act took his own life. It was an accident in the most impulsive sense of the word. I’ve presided over far too many funerals for such acts and, at Aldersgate, far too many funerals for children. Here’s the sermon on John 11 and John 20. One of the speakers at the service read that terrible poem “Do Not Weep for Me,” forcing me to riff on it in my sermon, which I’ve added into the manuscript here.     

“I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said, as Dennis 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 sisters, Martha and Martha, right before he asks them- almost as an afterthought- “Do you believe this?”

     The scripture text doesn’t mention the sisters’ mom and dad. Likely, because they were too numb to even come outside to see Jesus. The scripture doesn’t mention the boy’s many friends from all over though likely they too were there with casseroles and cards, grieving, wanting something to do to help, wishing they’d been there and muttering I should’ve done something.

     “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, exhausted from grief, replies: ‘Yes, I believe.”

     But probably-

     Let’s be honest, this is the last place where we should lie or pretend. 

     Probably his sister 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 given everything that’s happened. No, it’s a waste of time to believe- what good did belief do when they most needed it?

     After all, by the time Jesus bothers to show up the sisters’ brother, Lazarus, is four days dead.

     Dead.

     And he didn’t have to be. 

     His was an unnecessary death.

     When she first found him, ill, his sister had sent word to Jesus: “Lazarus, your friend whom you love is ill. Do something. Help.” But for whatever reason, Jesus ignored her prayer. He didn’t heed his sisters’ cries 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 and done something,” Martha spits at Jesus, “he wouldn’t be dead.”

     In other words: It’s your fault Jesus. It’s your fault Lord.

     Whenever someone dies, especially when they die unnecessarily, it’s tempting to reach for an explanation, to find a reason, to search for someone to second-guess or something to blame. 

     But notice- 

     Jesus doesn’t bother about any explanations or reasons. 

     He’s not interested in second-guessing blame.

Or maybe, by not rebutting the sister’s blame, Jesus is telling us that if we’re going to blame anyone then, yeah, go ahead and blame him. 

     He can take it.

     To Jesus’ question about the Resurrection, Martha says “Yes, I believe” but I’m willing to be she felt like saying “No.”

For all you who might slip into language about how God has plan for everything, even in Death, I’m going to take a timeout for a little Sunday School scripture lesson. 

The Bible calls Death God’s Enemy with a capital E. It’s what God promises to defeat in Jesus Christ one day still. It’s why Jesus weeps and groans before his friend’s grave. 

     The Bible calls Death the Enemy for a reason, I think. 

     It’s damn hard to believe. In the face of Death. Especially an unnecessary death. An impetuous, impassioned or accidental one. 

     We don’t know the why or the how of their brother’s death. We just know it didn’t have to be. 

     “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus?! Why didn’t you stop it?!” the sister 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 Peter- your last time to hear him talk in his funny accents, your last time to see him jump off, flip off, a picnic table and pile drive himself into the playground dirt, your last time to see him climb a tree, reenact Titanic in the pool fountain, or give you one of his big, broad shit-eating grins. 

     And so you don’t believe, but, even more than Fox Mulder, you want to believe. 

     And still others of you want to have a Martha-like, PO’d word with Jesus: “Why didn’t you do anything, Jesus!? What’s the use of you?!”

     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.

————————-

     This isn’t how I wanted to leave Aldersgate. 

     In my years here, I’ve presided over way too many services like this one- for kids, especially- 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 central part of their scripture a belief in life after death.

     Take those together-

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-

     The other reading we heard from the Gospel of John, it’s an Easter text. 

     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, the Apostle Paul promises, of a creation-wide, cosmic garden God is sowing. When Mary 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; that is, the life he lived hasn’t vanished; it’s been vindicated. Not erased but redeemed- recovered and reclaimed in resurrection.

     The Risen Jesus still is the Crucified Jesus; that is, 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, which suggests that this life is ancillary to the life to come has absolutely 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. 

     With all due respect-

     God’s not freaking satisfied for Peter just to be “the diamond glints of snow” or on “the winds of blow.”

A poem like that is comforting to NO ONE who loved Peter.

Peter is here in this coffin and you damn well know it, and you should- we should all- be weeping because Death is the Enemy of God.

     But the promise of the Gospel:

God is not content to leave him there.

God is determined to raise him up

So that Lisa can hold, touch, and kiss him again. 

     God plans to restore him, restore THIS world. Resurrect him and us all. 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. 

     God doesn’t forget anything but our sins. Otherwise, why on earth would God go to the trouble of raising Jesus’ body from the dead? 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 Fort Hunt baseball game, every evening hanging out at a West Po football game or around a fire pit, every rope swim and flip into the water. 

     It all matters.

     Every ‘I love you’ and every moment spent driving around in the cart at the golf course and every popsicle. The first girlfriend and the first YouTube inspired rabbit snare.

     All of it matters. Every bit of it. All of Peter 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, that our lives lived together aren’t always easy. 

     It forces us to pretend that if Peter were here with you he wouldn’t apologize- he would. 

     He’d say he’s sorry to cause you this pain. 

     He’d asked for your forgiveness. 

     And he’d 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 has promised and is determined to recover, a life that is now present to God and will be future, will live again.

     Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. 

     He still bears the holes in his hands. 

     Resurrection means God doesn’t scrap creation. 

     God doesn’t throw things out. 

     God doesn’t let us throw anything 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.

     Nothing will be lost, nothing will be forgotten, no one will be forsaken. 

     One day, by God, everything broken will be mended. 

     Every tear will be dried and every reason for all those tears will be healed and the scars that remain do so only to remind us that all of it, all of our lives, no matter their length, 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 compassion 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, because if ‘Resurrection’ is shorthand for anything it’s shorthand for God being faithful to us. 

     To Todd and Lisa, to Catherine and Sydney, to Peter…

     Each of us. Every one of us. All of us.

Marissa is a dancer in NYC. Trevor, whom I’ve known since he was 10, just graduated from West Point a week ago. I got to do their wedding. They chose Ephesians 5.21-33 for their passage. Challenge accepted.

Here it is:

     My wife is a tax attorney and, talking with her this morning about your wedding ceremony, she informed me that it’s now officially too late for you two to sign a prenuptial agreement. Whether that says more about her work or how I’m a lot of work I can’t say, but what I can say is that I sure hope you know what you’re getting yourselves into. 

     Trust. Intimacy. Fidelity and Forgiveness. Forever! Are you crazy?!

These are outrageous promises to make to any sinner, most especially to the one you’ll see floss for the next several decades. 

     Speaking of unwise decisions, Marissa you should’ve consulted Trevor’s mom, Elaine. Not only am I her boss, I’m her friend. She knows me better than anyone here, and she would’ve warned you never to let me see, in advance, the vows you and Trevor have written for each other. 

     Now that I’ve seen them, I’ve got one last pre-marital question for the two of you: if love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever? 

     Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life. Certainly not to someone whose laundry you’re going to have to step over for the rest of your life. 

     Let’s not allow the bouquets and bubbles blind us to the inexorable facts known by all the unhappily married- and even, maybe especially, all the happily married- folk here today. 

     “It is hard,” as Robert Capon says in Bed and Board, “for one man and one woman to live together under one roof for as long as God desires. It is hard to raise a family, hard to manage the day-to-day of bed and board, without doing damage to the people we love.”

It’s hard, so hard that sometimes scrubbing the toilet will seem heroic. 

There’s a reason we Christians talk so much about God in Christ becoming one with our flesh. It’s because we know it’s no easy trick.

We Christians, who happen to be husbands and wives, know how hard it is for the two of us to become one flesh. 

     Which is why, I think, the other vows you pledge today, the dusty ones written by Christians from less romantic times, these vows care not one wit about how you two feel today. The marriage rite cares not at all why you two want to get married; it only wants to know what you propose to do about each other henceforth. Indeed, these old vows lead you to anticipate sickness and poverty and all the heartache that can make that last line of the vow (“…until we are parted by death…”) sound like good news not bad. 

     Everyone here today is gathered here because of how you feel right now about each other and because of how we feel about you. Feelings of love– that’s why we’re all here. 

     The Church- not so much. 

     I’ve known Trevor since he was 10. I love him too. And I’m thrilled for how he feels about Marissa. As Connor said in the car on the way to the rehearsal last night, Trevor has had his whole life planned out since he was a boy and Marissa is the puzzle piece that fit perfectly into that plan. As someone who loves Trevor and now loves Marissa because she is loved by Trevor and loves him, I’m thrilled for how you two feel about each other. 

But as a preacher of the Gospel and a steward of these vows-

it’s my job to remind you that God cares not at all about how you feel for the other.

Because feelings alone cannot lift the luggage when it comes to the sort of love with which Christ loved us. 

     The Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians- a text you two chose, I might add- writes that husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved us, which sounds innocuous enough, sentimental even, ready-made for an occasion like today. 

     But for husbands and wives this gets hairier when you remember how Paul has elsewhere described the manner in which Christ loved us. And, for husbands and wives, this gets to sounding offensive when you consider exactly what that ‘us’ says about us. 

     What I mean is- 

     Christ loved, not the lovely and inherently lovable with a few faults and a couple of quirks, the ungodly. 

     While we were yet his enemies, not his friends, Christ loved us unto death. 

     After all that pap about love being patient and kind, Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ took up residence among those whom he loved not counting their trespasses against him against them. 

     To say husbands and wives should love each other just as Jesus loved us is a heads up that what we wed you into today is the way of the cross. 

     That’s why before you face each other today and make any promises to each other, you faced the altar and remembered your baptism, when you were drowned, kicking and screaming, in Christ’s death. 

     Marriage is a daily dying. 

     It would be a cruel commissioning indeed were it not done in the faith that the way of the cross can make both of you Easter new. The reason the self you bring to your marriage today will not be the selves you possess when you depart one another by death is because marriage is a daily dying to self. 

Or rather, marriage is a means by which God crucifies your other selves you bring to your marriage today. 

The ones you haven’t yet shown the other. 

The ones you require the other to reveal about you. 

The ones, once they’re revealed, you won’t want to admit are really there. 

     When we agree that husbands and wives should love one another just as Christ loved us, we’re owning up to the hard and bitter truth that marriage will provide ample opportunity to disclose the hard and bitter truth about ourselves. 

     Marissa, you will at times be ungodly to him. Trevor, you will sometimes be her enemy not her friend. You will both trespass against each other. 

     You see, you’re not promising not to trespass against each other. That’s not a promise you can make. You’re not promising not to trespass against each other.

You’re promising to put away your calculators, to scrap your score-keeping ledgers, and not count your trespasses against one another. 

     I realize this sounds thornier than what you likely expected when you chose this passage, but someone who graduated near the top of his West Point class should’ve been suspicious about a text that begins with a problematic line like “Wives submit to your husbands.” 

     A verse you didn’t want read today but, since we’re safely in the zipper of the Bible Belt and because I know Rob Hopper will pester me about that verse at your reception, I figure I might as well point out how when it comes to that verse, just like the rest of this passage, there’s more to it than meets the eye. 

     Paul gets a bad rap when it comes to women, but this excised verse from Ephesians should be read in submission to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, his master thesis, for which he empowered a woman named Phoebe, likely a man’s wife, as its primary preacher and interpreter. 

Thus, the Paul who writes here in Ephesians that wives should submit to their husbands is a Paul who could just as easily have written elsewhere that husbands should submit to their wives. 

     Because- 

     Notice, Paul doesn’t say men and women are unequal. 

     He says husbands and wives are unequal. 

     It’s a difference, as Robert Capon notes, not of worth but role. It’s a functional difference not a natural one. 

     Inequality sounds bad to us. And most of the time it is bad. 

     But not, Marissa can tell you, not in a dance. 

     The inequality Paul has in mind is a functional inequality because marriage is NOT like a West Point parade march. 

     Marriage is more like a dance where one leads and the other follows, an inequality of role not merit. And, as time goes on and the music of your life together changes, the roles will shift and the other will take the lead and the other will follow. 

    Marriage is not a march where you’re both doing the same thing, shoulder-to-shoulder, or one behind the other. 

    Marriage is a dance. 

    It’s close up, often aggravatingly so. 

     Marriage is a dance. It’s face-to-face. 

     It’s a tango of loving and being loved. Of initiating and responding. Of repenting and forgiving. Of showing patience and showing gratitude for patience. It’s a movement of actions to which your feelings are often incidental. Marriage is a dance where the work is learning when to lead and when to respond.Marriage is a dance. It’s exhausting and hard and beautiful and fun and it takes practice. 

    Marriage is a dance where 2 equals take on different, unequal but fluid roles in order that both may contribute to the perfection of the whole. 

     And the whole, the reason we’re here today, is the Mystery of Christ. The dance you two do with your lives lived together- it’s meant to be a live performance, a spontaneous street theater parable of how God in Christ loves us all. 

     And don’t worry, that’s not the high stakes burden it sounds. It’s not like America’s Got Talent or Dancing with the Stars. There are no losers. No one is voting you to go home because by your baptism in to Christ’s death for our sins, all of them- even the sins you’ll sin against each other, you’re already home free. 

     The Christ who compares his Kingdom to a wedding party also compares his Kingdom to a stupid sheep who can’t help but get itself lost. Nonetheless, with Jesus, what will get lost has already been found. 

     In other words, you two are free to dance knowing that every misstep is already forgiven. 

    As far as the judging of your dance goes, Christ has already said all of that’s finished with, with perfect scores for everyone. The music of his party already kicked on in a garden near a cross on a hill, and the needle will never reach the end of the record. 

     It’s a hard and difficult dance to do but there are no stakes, no penalties to messing it up. 

     As the prodigal’s elder brother can tell you, the only way you fail at this dance is by being a begrudging wallflower and refusing to join in the Bridegroom’s party. So as the prodigal’s Father says to the elder son, it’s time for me to shut up and for you to dance.

     

      

   

Mike, my brother-in-law, I’ve known since he was 9, grabbing my huevos in the pool, cackling, and swimming away. LP was a 6th grader when I came to Aldersgate, and 13 years later I count her one of my best friends. It’s nice to write a wedding sermon where I don’t need to prove to anyone I really do know the bride and groom but where I can instead just get to it.

Texts: Ruth 1 and 2 Corinthians 5.16-21

     Last Saturday marked the Festival of Pentecost, or, as my people call it, Shavuot, the celebration where Jews recall the giving of the Torah to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai. 

     You goyim might not know it, but Jews don’t read from the Book of Exodus on Shavuot. For Pentecost, Jews don’t actually read from the passages where God gives Israel the Law- probably because it’s not a very pleasant, flattering story. 

     No sooner does Yahweh command Israel to worship no others gods but God than Israel starts to melt down their gold teeth and grandma’s silverware and pour them into cow-shaped molds, an impious infraction for which the recently-paroled Moses orders the Levites to draw their swords and kill approximately 3,000 of the idolaters. 

     The Exodus story doesn’t exactly have any of the trimmings for a jolly holiday story so, perhaps not surprisingly, on Shavuot a week ago Jews read instead from the Book of Ruth. 

     Every 50 days after the Passover, at Pentecost, Jews read from the Book of Ruth in order to remember that their inclusion into God’s People, as for all of us, comes by way of adoption not accomplishment. “Once we were no people,” we pray with bread and wine, “but now we are your People.” 

     Your people only by your doing, we leave implied. 

     Whereas God elects the Israelites out of Egypt more or less against their wishes, Ruth actually chooses to be a part of Israel by declaring “Where you go, I will go…your People will be my People.” 

     If marriage vows, as Robert Capon insists, are when bride and groom give each other an overdose of self-confidence, then perhaps this assertion from Ruth is the perfect wedding declaration. 

     But then again, at this point in her life, Ruth’s situation doesn’t look much more promising than Israel’s in Exodus, whom, prior to their betrothal to Yahweh, were in bondage to Pharaoh, so maybe Ruth’s lines about going wherever the other goes aren’t so much born out of naiveté as they are desperation. 

     In other words, it’s not that Ruth has high hopes for where their relationship will take them; it’s that she doesn’t really have any other hope. The other to whom she speaks her vow is her last card to play.

     For those of you who, like the government agents in Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t remember your Sunday School, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are Jews who had fled the Promised Land because of famine, winding up in a pagan place called Moab where they made a home and started a family. They had sons who took wives, including a Moabite pagan woman named Ruth. 

     All was the stuff of the Colin Firth romantic movies that Mike is loathe to watch with Laura Paige until famine struck Moab too. 

     First, Naomi was left a widow. 

     Then she was left childless. 

     The Book of Ruth opens with Naomi determining to die back in the Promised Land with no one but this pagan daughter-in-law, herself a widow, dead-set on making the trip with her. 

     Long story short, they make it to Israel. Naomi plays matchmaker. Ruth takes their future into her hands (double entendres are everywhere here in the Hebrew) and marries a rich guy named Boaz and they become the great, great, great….grandparents… of Jesus. 

     So, nicely done you two. 

     The love song you’ve chosen for your wedding concludes with the conception of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, Maker of the Universe— way to set expectations ridiculously high! And here, all this time, I thought Taylor was the Mertins with the Messiah complex! 

     I mean, most couples settle for “Love is patient and kind…” Not you and Mike! Apparently, you two are aiming for Messiah-making love. Talk about gongs and clanging symbols. 

     For God’s sake, don’t tell your kids you chose this passage for your wedding. We chose a passage that ends with the couple giving birth to Jesus who was without sin and perfect in every way is a hell of a burden to lay on a kid. 

    Except, no. 

    Actually, when Ruth pledges these vows, she has no expectations at all. 

     Or rather, she has every reason to expect the worst. Both of them- they’re penniless. They’re both widows in a world so cruel to single women that Jesus will outlaw divorce altogether. And Ruth is a pagan about to journey to the Promised Land where she has every reason to assume the Chosen People will choose to send her packing. 

     So Ruth’s vows are vowed from the vantage of low expectations. 

     And from those low expectations comes a love that begets the Love which remakes the cosmos. On the assumption that we are all incredibly unique and yet all shockingly identical, I want to offer that there’s a lesson here to be gleaned. It’s this one: 

     When it comes to relationships, pessimism is a Christian virtue. 

     All of us are creatures marked by expectations. Constantly, we carry with us images of how things are supposed to be, where life is supposed to go, what I’m supposed to do. And our expectations are never higher- and, therefore, more fraught- than when we are in love. 

     In love, we just expect: 

That the other will easily, intuitively understand us. 

That we won’t have to explain things to the other. 

That they won’t make too many demands. 

That she will always be up for watching Predator. 

     We’re creatures who carry expectations, never more so than when we are in love. This is why (remember this, you two) we say the meanest-ass shit to the people we love. It’s precisely because we’ve invested higher expectations in them than in anyone else in our lives. 

     That’s the risk of marriage, right?

     The more you love another, the higher your expectations for the other; thus, the more intense your frustrations and your disappointments in the other. 

     But- notice now:

     The problem is NOT in the other. 

     It’s in your expectations. 

     We see people all the time who have difficulty in their relationships, but we discount it. We think the problem is with those particular people. We think that we’ll be different in our relationship. And we miss it: the problem with people’s relationships is relationships. 

     Here’s a prediction I can make- 

     Whatever problem you have in your relationship, whenever you have a problem in your relationship, the problem in your relationship will be relationships in general. Your problem will be with expectations as such. 

     And I think that’s a good word because it’s easy to think when things get hard that you’ve just placed your expectations on the wrong person, that you’re in a relationship with the wrong person, when, really, the problem is relationships. 

     Every relationship is fraught and folly because we never fully understand another person. “Expectations,” as the philosopher Alain de Botton writes, “are the enemies of love.”

Expectations are the enemies of love because expectations overlook one central fact about people in general:

Everyone has something substantially wrong with them once they become fully known. 

     This is why, says de Botton, every marriage would be made better by both spouses frankly acknowledging to each other that they’re both in certain ways crazy. I mean, just see what happens when you eat all of Mike’s Sour Patch Kids- he’s 50% Crazy Rob. 

     Instead of high and lofty expectations, it’s better for you to expect that it’s completely normal and unavoidable that people do not understand each other very well because the witness of the New Testament, born out by the Old, is that we do not understand even ourselves very well (because we’re all more than one self). Such is sin that we’re a mystery even to ourselves. 

     As St. Paul confesses, “I do not do what I want to do, and what I do not want to do is the one thing that I do.” And so do you. And, as perfect as she seems, so does Laura Paige.

     Look-

     There will be occasions when he understands and empathizes with you 100%, times where she gets you totally and what’s going on with you, but these should not be your expectations because they are, in fact, the exceptions. 

     The pop songs get love all wrong. The real heartache of love is not in finding someone; the real heartache of love is learning to tolerate the person you love once you’ve found them, or, at least, that’s what Ali tells me.

     Take tonight’s text as your clue. 

     Naomi wishes to change her name to Mara, for Mara means ‘the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.’ The name Mara, Naomi thinks, better reflects her most recent past and what she anticipates that the future will bring. Naomi/Mara, in other words, has low expectations, yet from these low expectations comes the Love which made all things and in which all things hold together.

     A better expectation for love than the expectations the pop songs and princess weddings give us is this one: 

No one can live up to your expectations. 

     Being disappointing is a universal phenomenon. This is why the marriage rite tonight cares not at all why you two want to get married; it only wants to know what you propose to do about each other henceforth, leading you to anticipate sickness and poverty and reasons why you might consider forsaking the other. The wedding rite, in other words, is calibrating your expectations towards pessimism.

Marriage is about the two becoming one flesh goes the pious cliche, but, really, only Christ can become our flesh. Marriage, as a Christian vocation, is the process of discovering and accepting that the two are two, that the other is other, with you, yes, but not you. 

Jesus, after all, tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom we must be born again. And Jesus tells the disciples, who were busy elbowing past each other, that anyone who would enter his Kingdom must become like children.

If marriage is a sign and sacrament of the mystery of Christ’s Kingdom, then it follows that married people need to become like babies.

And babies, as St. Augustine notes, take time to realize that their mother is not just an extension of themselves.

Little children take time to learn that their mother is someone else. 

     Thus, married love is not about finding your high expectations met by another with nary a conflict along the way because conflict is actually what happens when love succeeds. Conflict is what comes when love prevails, for it means you’ve done what Nicodemus couldn’t do. You’ve been born again. You’ve become like a child again; in that, you’ve gotten to know another as other. Conflict is what happens when love wins; it means you’ve gotten to see someone else across the full range of their life. It means all their different selves have been revealed just as all of yours have been made vulnerable to them. 

     It’s only when you’ve seen all that is unloveable in another, yet choose to love them anyway that you’ve loved in the way Christ loves us- Christ, who does not count our trespasses against us; Christ, who became all of our wrongdoing so that we might become his righteousness. 

     St. Paul says elsewhere that this righteousness of Christ’s is given to us through baptism; that is, in baptism we are clothed permanently in Christ’s perfect score. Despite our abundant and obvious pockmarks and imperfections, Christ’s perfection is reckoned to us as our own. 

     This is why, before he asked you to make any promises tonight, Taylor asked you to remember your baptism. 

     What makes a wedding an act of faith?

Your willingness to believe that the other is already and always will be perfect.

Made so, not by you and your love for them.

By Christ ’s own perfection.

Even though every day your life together will appear to contradict this conviction. 

     What makes a wedding beautiful is your willingness to trust that the other will do the same for you-  you trust that they will believe that you are already and always perfect even though you know they will have access to see much to the contrary. A God who reveals his power through weakness, his glory in suffering, is a God who loves to hide behind paradox. The paradox of pessimism, when it comes to love, is that a low anthropology is in fact the way God makes us to be what God in Christ has already declared us to be. 

     This way of love, which chooses to love even what it knows to be unlovely, is how God makes holy. 

     

     

Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.

    “Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.” 

     You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields. 

     Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch. 

     Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over. 

     In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes,  and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels. 

    The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her. 

    The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target. 

     She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film. 

    The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire. 

     She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries. 

     Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes: 

“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.

“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”

     Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story. 

     The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot. 

     Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church. 

     And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work. 

    The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”

     She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her. 

     And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin. 

    The fire is only part of the story. 

     The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”

———————-

     And that’s my first point- 

     When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message. 

     Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message. 

    Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story. 

     The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God. 

     Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear. 

     The message about the mighty acts of God. 

     And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings. 

     The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them. 

     The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit. 

     Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:

“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)

     We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all. 

     Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts. 

     Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.

     Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him. 

     In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection. 

     Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit. 

     The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost. 

     Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves. 

    He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us. 

     The medium is not the message. 

     Because the message is the Gospel. 

     Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you. 

———————-

     Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them. 

     In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.” 

     In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.” 

     And that brings me to my second point – 

     Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost. 

     Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…” 

     Don’t forget- 

     All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost. 

     Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

     The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.

     And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them. 

     When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets. 

     And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

     And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets. 

     Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     Of course they do. 

     We do.

     Fail. 

     Fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God. 

     Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do. 

     And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law. 

     The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing. 

     And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.” 

     But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?” 

     Answer, nothing. 

     Not a thing.

     Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do. 

     He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done. 

     Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage: 

“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

     This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive. 

     This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful. 

     And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost. 

     That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.

     Now, pentecost is baptism. 

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water. 

————————

     Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves. 

     The Koran. 

     Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i. 

     And finally a New Testament. 

     An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all. 

     Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.

    Hers point is my final point- 

     This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     It’s the end of religion. 

     It’s the end of religion

     Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true. 

Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation. 

And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.

     As Robert Capon says:

“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”

     What’s that mean?

     It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”

     It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it. 

     But before you do so, realize- 

     It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear. 

     And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).

     And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret. 

     And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it. 

     You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even. 

     Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out: 

     He won’t forsake you. 

There’s no condemnation, remember.

He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any. 

 He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.

So how are you going to gum that up?

     You’re free. 

     You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you. 

      Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.

     You’re free.

     You’re free from keeping score. 

     The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. 

     You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7. 

     But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own. 

     Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already. 

     Which means- 

     You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.

     Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable. 

     All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift. 

     All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun. 

     In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun. 

     And your faith in it is your way into the fun. 

     Your faith doesn’t change anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t add anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already. 

     Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.

     Because, brass tacks time confirmands: 

     Your faith will ebb and flow. 

     You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not. 

     Don’t let anyone here fool you. 

     The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints. 

     And that’s just the people on staff. 

     And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message. 

The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you. 

     Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you: 

“I am with you always to the end of the age.”

“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”

“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.” 

      “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

     Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides. 

     Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are. 

     And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do. 

     Say“Amen” to them.  

      

     

     

     

     

     

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and 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. You baptized and confined our daughters 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 us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us 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, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “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 just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. 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’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. 

    Once for all. 

     In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave-

we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

     Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

     And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. 

     Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

     Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

     I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

     In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. 

     His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his). 

     And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). 

     You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

     So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed? 

     Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. 

     If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself-

Then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.

     The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

     The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ. 

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.

     God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free. 

     I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

    Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. 

     Why would he?

     The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

     You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there is STILL CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

     The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. 

     The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.  

     THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

     I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

    You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.

His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason