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For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

Scott Jones has gone from a name I knew on a box when I worked in the mailroom at Princeton to, in just a year, a good and trusted friend. While his preaching style- a conversational style I envy and cannot emulate- is different than mine, his homiletic is one I share.

He preached this past Sunday at Feasterville Community Reformed Church where his podcast partner, Bill Borror, is the pastor. You can check out Bill’s Resident Exiles page here.

Check out his sermon. It’s worth the listen this season.

 

Yours truly ranked #12 on the Christian Century Magazine’s 17 Most-Read Blog Posts of 2017.

You can check out the ones that beat me here. Here’s the post itself, a homily on the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration is this Sunday, a scene that many preachers (color me guilty) get wrong, but Peter (no matter how many times we make him the patsy in the story) gets right.

Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.

Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in one of two ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or, rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter. I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage. I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his church on him.

That’s how you preach this text: go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’ Or, look at Peter—he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

Except, as cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one: I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter professes, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter? “Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve.”

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder: what if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right?

Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology. Rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think, what would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

I wonder: does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good?

Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates from Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right. It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures.

That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build threetabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus. Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

A Sheep Without Verbs

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2017 — Leave a comment

Among all the disciplines for which seminary prepared me well, preaching funerals was not one of them. Like distinguishing law from gospel, balancing the gathered’s desire for eulogy with my charge to preach Gospel is an elusive art. Of course, it may not matter at all as no preached word communicates as effectively as putting the dead into the dirt, but if it matters then I offer this as help to whomever might be helped by it.

Maybe even the Shepherd will use the preached word to find.

Text:Psalm 23 – Funeral Homily for Warren Smith 

My first funeral sermon 16 years ago flopped.

“It didn’t sound like you knew him at all” a worshipper told me on the way out of the funeral home chapel.

“Uh, I didn’t know him at all” I replied.

I didn’t know then- they don’t warn you in seminary- that most lay people consider it the mark of a good funeral sermon when the preacher sounds like he knows the deceased.

When it comes to funerals, lay people don’t usually judge whether I’ve proclaimed the Gospel or done a good job unpacking the scripture text or pointing to the promise of Cross and Resurrection.

For funerals, it’s a good sermon only if the gathered can shake my hand at the door and say “It sounded like you really knew her” or “You really captured him.”

    Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people don’t care whether or not I speak of the Shepherd or proclaim that the Shepherd is Good.

Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people want to want to hear about the one lost sheep not the singular Shepherd.

They want to be assured that I know the person whom they’ve lost.

They don’t think they need to be reassured that the lost member of the flock is known by the Shepherd.

So, consider yourselves assured.

After 13 years here, I know Warren- not as well as you, but I know him.

I know, because he told me, that both of us grew up in Ohio and, by the grace of God, both of us got out of Ohio.

I also know- maybe for that reason- I was Warren’s favorite pastor, and I know Warren well enough to know that he knew I’m sufficiently vain that knowing I was his favorite was sufficient to make him one of my favorite parishioners.

I know Warren loved woodworking and genealogy and Huntley Meadows Park but not like he loved Becky and Brady and Matthew.

I know Warren would anticipate a joke and start to guffaw at the mere mention of Dennis Perry’s name in one of my sermons.

I know Warren loved carving and drawing and antique tools but nearly like he loved Megan and Kylie and Adam and Carina and Quinn.

I also know that after having sung in the church choir for so many years worth of Sundays, Warren had certainly heard this song from Israel’s hymnal as much as me.

And I don’t know but I suspect that, like me, Warren had heard these lines about “thy rod and thy staff” recited or prayed or sung so many times in worship he no longer heard the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.

     “The Lord is my Shepherd…”

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

A lamb even.

I don’t know if Warren was one of those grandparents who got addicted to playing Farmville on Facebook; nevertheless, Warren spent enough Sundays here at church to know that lambs are lame.

Sheep are stubborn, and I’m sure his wife Becky would attest that stubborn doesn’t describe Warren at all.

     Sheep wander.

Sheep get lost.

Sheep fall into valleys.

Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.

Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd.

Warren wasn’t like that at all. Warren was a director (at the VA). Warren wasn’t a lamb in need of direction. Warren loved Native American history. Warren would know. There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs.

No, sheep are stupid.

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.

     To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep.

 And to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes.

Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless.

Sheep aren’t like other animals.

Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do.

Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.

     The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.

If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness.

It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat.

So Psalm 23 is an odd, offensive song to hear on a day given over to commending Warren to God. Aren’t we commending him to God based on the good, worthwhile work Warren performed in the time given to him? Aren’t we commending him for the many ways he was not like a sheep but a goat?

Or an ox?

Besides being a father and a husband and a grandfather and a neighbor, Warren served in the Air Force and worked for nearly 40 years at the VA and then volunteered his work at Huntley Meadows Park. Isn’t that what we commend today?

Warren wasn’t a sheep at all, was he? Warren worked with his hands in his shop. Warren worked with his voice in the choir.

Warren wasn’t like a lamb at all; Warren earned his worth through his work- his love toiled on behalf of his neighbor and his God. Isn’t that what we commend about him today?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?” 

Notice-

Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding.

The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset.

     How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness?

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost.

All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd.

The sheep doesn’t search out the flock.

The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold.

The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd.

And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost.

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.

It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word.

The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” 

As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God.

———————-

     Sheep are strange.

They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety.

The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice.

And as God’s frightened flock- that’s our only work to do today too.

Here in the valley of the shadow of Death, I invite you to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets our sins in the darkness of our graves.

Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more.

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing.

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable.

Trust the Shepherd- for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need to worry about our place in the house of the Lord.

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life.

 

 

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.

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The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from www.ancestory.com:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy. Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

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Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.

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I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.

No.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 

Save a fanciful excursus on the magi that disappeared forever when my son sucked on the thumb drive, this narrative on the annunciation remains my least popular most hated sermon ever.

I like it very much.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

     ‘Favored one.’ 

She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child. Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated.

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too.

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Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer.

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows. It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said about God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.

It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered.

‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it.

She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it:
, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

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As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth. With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

A Waste of Wood

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2017 — 1 Comment

It’s just a few bricks shy of brimstone- my 3rd Sunday of Advent sermon on Isaiah 61.

I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke.

They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat.

Because junk food is cheap.

And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse in Spanish:

“The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.

And them only.

        ———————-

     Somehow it never really gut punched me until I found myself staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home.

Somehow only there in Jason’s ramshackle home did it finally strike me:

When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story- let’s be honest- my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family (I think).

Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

     In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news.

I’m not.

I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not blind; I can see just fine. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, Mary).

That Advent in Guatemala-

That’s when the truth stung me:

Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

————————

According to the prophet Isaiah-

Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me.

As the Messiah’s mother sings:

      “He will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful and send the rich empty away…”

I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but in 22308 that’s you and me.

Just listen again to today’s text:

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone.

According to Isaiah, arrival of the Lord’s favor coincides with the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Today’s text actually begins in chapter 59 where the prophet Isaiah says:

It displeased the Lord that there was no justice among the people. The Lord was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so the Lord [will] put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in fury as in a mantle. And according to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath”

I mean you have to give Herod credit. He wasnʼt stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. Herod knew that joy coming to Maryʼs world meant an attack upon his world. Herod knew that the prophet Isaiah promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news.

And they were smart enough to know it. Christmas, Herod knew, didn’t signal jolliness or joy. It signaled judgement.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we spike the eggnog and drape Christmas with so much cheap sentimentality.

I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we braced ourselves and told the story of Christ’s coming straight up as the Gospels tell it, then, like King Herod, we might have a reason to fear.

I wonder if deep down, underneath all our Christmas kitsch and phony nostalgia and self-medicating day drinking, we’re afraid.

    I wonder if we’re afraid that if Christ’s coming wasn’t primarily for people like us, then…

when he comes again…

he’ll be against people like us.

If he didn’t come for us at the first Advent, then when he comes again at the second Advent will he be against us, bringing not joy but judgement?

———————

    Now, I know I’m going to have to repeat this so pay attention:

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

That’s why the paraments are purple instead white, as they will be on Christmas. Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again. That’s why the Medieval Church spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgement.

Advent is not about his coming long ago in a Galilee far, far away.  Advent is about his coming again.

To you and me.

That’s why during Advent the Capital-C Church forces you to listen to Isaiah tell you all your best deeds are no better than fifty rags  Forces you to listen even to Jesus predict how his coming again will coincide with the end of the world as we know it. That’s why the ancient Advent hymns and the music of Handel and Bach and Mozart dwell so much on the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath.

What are we? Masochists?

Listen to Isaiah again:

     The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it should not leave us, like REM, and feeling fine.

The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it- it means God’s favor…for some.

But it means judgement for others: the Lord’s vengeance and wrath.

What are we doing putting the purple paraments up?

Are we insane? Are we really that stupid?

Or are we collectively kidding ourselves that when Isaiah speaks of the poor and the downtrodden and the captive and the oppressed we are somehow included too?

He doesn’t mean poor in spirit. He doesn’t mean spiritually impoverished. He doesn’t mean captive to anxiety or oppressed by low self-esteem.

He means poor. He means captive. He means oppressed.

He doesn’t mean people like us.

———————-

For his rookie sermon in Nazareth, Jesus chooses today’s text from Isaiah. Standing up in his hometown church, Jesus quotes the prophet, saying:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus slams shut his Bible and declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Did you notice what he did there?

Jesus says:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives ….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus says: “Check. I’ve fulfilled this one.”

Did you catch it?

Jesus cut it.

Jesus cut out Isaiah’s other line.

Jesus doesn’t say:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… and the day of vengeance of our God.”

     Jesus takes out Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s vengeance. He cuts it.

Why? Was the prophet Isaiah incorrect?

Does Jesus edit out Isaiah because Isaiah was wrong about who God is or how sinful we are?

When Jesus declares “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…” does Jesus mean “You’ve heard it said that God is a God of love and wrath, favor and vengeance, but I say to you, nonsense, God is just as nice as Oprah swears by?”

No, when Jesus takes out Isaiah’s words about God’s vengeance and then says that he’s the fulfillment of those words, Jesus is saying that he is the promised one who brings God’s favor to us by bearing God’s vengeance against us.

     Isaiah’s line about God’s vengeance- he cuts it out because it’s in him.

It’s in his body, where he’ll carry it to a cross.

The prophet Isaiah was right. The salvation brought by the Messiah goes through wrath not around it. The salvation brought by the Messiah does not avoid God’s wrath; the Messiah saves us by assuming God’s wrath. Christ doesn’t cancel out God’s wrath; he bears it on our behalf.

You see, it’s not just that Christ’s faithfulness is reckoned to you as your own; it’s that your sin- all of it, your every sin- is reckoned to him as his own.

His righteousness is imputed to you, and your every sin is ex-puted to him.  In his faithfulness he has fulfilled all righteousness. And in his suffering he he has fulfilled all judgement.

     His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong:

The coming of Christ does mean God’s judgement on the unjust.

The coming of Christ does mean the comeuppance for the rich and the proud and the powerful but that comeuppance comes on the cross.

As the the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, God in Christ disarmed the powerful and the rich, ruling authorities by making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross.

His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong because neither was his cousin John the Baptist wrong:

Mother Mary’s son is the Father’s Lamb who bears the sins of the world.

And if he bore the sins of unjust us, then when he died our sins died with him.

Once. For all.

Once for all our sins: past, present, future.

There is no sin you have committed and, more importantly, there is no sin you have yet to commit that is not already covered by the blood of the lamb

His righteousness has been gifted to you.

It’s yours and it’s free by faith.

And your sin, it belongs to him now.

Such that to worry about your sins, to hold onto the sins done to you- Martin Luther says it’s like stealing from Jesus Christ.

They don’t belong to you anymore. They’re his possessions.

Luther also says the cross frees us not to pretend.

The cross frees us to name things for what they really are.

So let’s call it for what it is-

You’re not the poor. You’re not the oppressed. You’re not the captive on whom God’s favor rests.  Yes, you’re proud and, yes, you’re powerful and, yes, you do participate in and you perpetuate injustice.

Yes, you do.

And, yes, you deserve to be punished for your sins. You have been. You have been punished for your sins.

     You were punished when God drowned you in your baptism into his death and resurrection so that his favor might be yours too.

The cross frees us to call things as they are so let’s just name it: if Christ had been born not into the 1st but the 21st century then, chances are, we’d be the bad guys in the story not the good guys. Not the ones on whom God’s favor rests.

But, the Lord’s favor rests upon people like us NOT by us doing good works for those on whom his favor rests.

The Lord’s favor rests upon people like us only by trusting that while we were yet enemies Christ the Judge was judged in our place.

Only a conscience free from the fear of judgement is truly free to make the poor and the oppressed the object of compassion instead of the object of your anxiety. We are justified not by our place in this story but by faith in what Christ does at the end of this story at a place called Calvary.

———————-

    And so, we can put up purple paraments on the altar. We can read about axes and winnowing forks and we can freely admit our good deeds are filthy rags. We can sing joyfully about the Day of Wrath because we know the Day of Wrath is already not not yet.

     Jesus didn’t eliminate Isaiah’s Day of Vengeance; he experienced it.

On a Friday afternoon on a hill a few miles outside of town.

And when he comes again we can greet him, naked and unafraid, because we know that whatever sin he finds in us has already been born by his body.

Otherwise, his cross is just a waste of wood.

     ———————-

     That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs.

These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me    mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     Isaiah’s not wrong- Jesus Christ came for people like her.

But Jesus Christ died for the ungodly like me.

That’s how Mary’s son makes his mother right.

 

      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

We listen to a lot of music in my house.

Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.

I’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant.

I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

In my apartment.

Every last album.

‘Every’ except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

Cliche, I know.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The boys and I- our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

Favorite because it drives Ali crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

Seriously, nothing tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent? If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas.

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith. So I never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day a couple of years ago.

We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.

And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel said- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

A terrifying Goat-Demon if you’ve been naughty.

Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”

In Holland, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.

“I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.

That sounds amazingly like grace.

It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves.

According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

     It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf– it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.

The balance sheet of your life has been reckoned right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace- but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup:

The word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but you must have faith.

That’s not a promise.

That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice if/then conditionality- it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.

If you repent…then God will love you.

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.

And if you don’t?

Krampus.

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

I’m only half-joking.

In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and a Gospel that is Law.

If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.

But I do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.

Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”

We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.

There’s just the unconditional promise that-

Yes, you’ve been naughty.

No, you’ve not been nice.

No matter, all your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness- upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.

The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.

Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.

In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, the gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, that the Church is here to help you become good.

Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you.

Joel Osteen and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel- to be saved. Your therapist can improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that. The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re sinners like him. And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

And tell that Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.

When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

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

 

     

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

Due to heavily sourced and corroborated claims of misconduct, the role of Santa Claus this Christmas will be played by Christopher Plummer.

Just kidding. But after Garrison Keillor would anyone be surprised for Kris Kringle to be next?

Of course not. I mean, we already know he got handsy with somebody’s Mom underneath the mistletoe. And Mr. Claus doesn’t allow Mrs. Claus to leave their North Pole home. That’s not a happy marriage. That’s Ike’s and Tina’s marriage.

Father Christmas hasn’t yet been named alongside Al Franken, but who wouldn’t want the stress of this season to disappear as fast as Matt Lauer disappeared this week from Good Morning America?

Who wouldn’t want Christmas, and all its attendant heartburn and headaches, to go on hiatus like House of Cards?

Here it is only the first Sunday of Advent and yesterday after my wife handed me a list of everything we needed to do, to buy, to plan, to clean, to attend, to send, and to cook just to get ready for Christmas, I woke up in the corner, on the floor, sucking on my thumb.

Don’t lie- Who wouldn’t want Santa and his season and all of its stress to go the way of Charlie Rose?

Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor. This time every year my inbox, my mailbox, and my social media get flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags.

From the Heifer Project to the Advent Conspiracy to #makeadventgreatagain, from Simple Christmas to the War on Christmas, this time every year my already overflowing holiday To Do List gets bombarded with exhortations about how I should be celebrating the season.

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

My Christian “obligation” to opt out of the commercialization and consumerism and materialism of the culture’s Christmas.

But to be honest, lately, I’ve grown wary of the Christmas “tradition” of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas in our culture.

Too often, we begin Advent not with Isaiah’s laments or John the Baptist’s words of judgement but our own words of lament and judgement, criticizing others for being so materialistic about Christmas.

And, of course, like all cliches, there’s truth to the complaint about consumerism. Like all traditions, there’s a reason we’ve made it a tradition to lament and judge what commercialization has done to Christmas.

———————-

     Consider- the average person last year spent $1,000 at Christmas.

And maybe some of the complaining we’re doing at Christmastime is actually self-loathing because apparently over 15% of all the money we spend at Christmas we spend on ourselves.

We don’t trust our wives to get us the gift we really want so we buy it for ourselves.

It’s true- we spend a lot at Christmas. Very often money we don’t have.

In 2004, the average American’s credit card debt was $5,000. Now, it’s $16,000. Retail stores make 50% of their annual revenue during the Christmas season, which I can’t begrudge since this church brings in nearly 50% of its budget during the Christmas season. We spend a lot at Christmas. But we give a lot at Christmas.

And we worry and we fight a lot at Christmas too. Everyone knows the Christmas season every year sees a spike in suicides and depression and domestic abuse. We not only make resolutions coming out of Christmas, we make appointments with AA and therapists and divorce lawyers too.

So the reason complaining about consumerism at Christmas has become a Christmas tradition is because there’s some serious, repentance-worthy truth to it.

     The problem though in critiquing how our culture has co-opted Christmas is that it’s too simple a story.

That is, the critique itself is much older than our culture. Even before Amazon and Black Friday, people were shopping and putting their kids on Santa’s lap to beg for stuff.

Don’t forget- the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, it’s a Christmas movie about a shopping mall. The original version of that movie was filmed way back in 1947. No matter how much we kvetch at Christmas; it’s not a new phenomenon.

Turns out, Bing Crosby was wrong; the Christmases we think we used to know never actually existed.

Advertisers were using images of St. Nick to sell stuff at least as far back as 1830, and Christians were complaining about it then too, probably as they purchased whatever products Santa was hawking.

In 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote a story called “Christmas” wherein the main character gripes:

“Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious and wasteful!”

To which, her Aunt responds: “…when I was a girl presents did not fly about as they do now.”

     Christmas was more spiritual and less materialistic when I was a girl.

According to Ronald Hutton in his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, the commercialization of Christmas isn’t our culture’s fault it’s the fault of Victorian culture.

However, he notes, this is an ambivalent history because prior to the Victorian era Christmas was celebrated exclusively by the rich.

In other words, the Victorian commercialization of Christmas we abhor was actually an attempt to make Christmas available to the poor and the not rich.

In the vein of everything new is old, Hutton cites diary entries as far back as 1600 describing Christians’ habits of spending and gift-giving, but also their complaints about the rising costs of Christmas meals, Christmas entertainment, and Christmas gifts.

Bemoaning what we’ve done to the Christmas tradition is a Christmas tradition at least 400 years old, leading me to wonder if the magi spent their trip back from Bethlehem complaining about the cost of the myrrh.

We’ve been spending too much at Christmas and feeling guilty about it and judging others for it for a long, long time.

So, if you want to continue that tradition by, say, participating in the Wise Men Gifts Program (where your kid only gets 3 presents) go for it. I mean, I would’ve hated my mom if I’d only gotten 3 presents as a kid, and it’s a good thing I didn’t grow up a Christian because I probably would’ve hated Jesus for it too.

But go for it, maybe your kids are better than me.

Or, buy an animal in honor of a loved one through our Alternative Gift Giving Program. But word to the wise- learn from Dennis’ mistake- if you buy an Alternative Gift for your wife, don’t make it a cow.

Or, you could join up with the Canadian Mennonites who started the Buy Nothing Christmas Campaign back in 1968.

A noble goal to be sure, but, you know as well as I do, those Canucker Mennonites are probably zero-fun killjoys to be around at Christmas.

Knowing that the commercialization of Christmas, our participation in it, and our complaints about it after the fact go back older than America, gives me two cautions about trying to simplify and get back to the “spirit” of Christmas.

First-

I worry that, in trying to avoid the excess and extravagance of the season and in exhorting others to go and do likewise, Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

“We could’ve sold that expensive perfume and given the money to the poor!” Judas complains about Mary anointing Jesus.

“I’m worth it,” Jesus pretty much says.

“You won’t always have me [or the people in your lives]. There will be plenty of opportunity to give to the poor.” 

I worry that Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

In a culture where most Americans associate Christianity with judgmentalism and self-righteousness, sounding more like Judas than Jesus, I would argue, is more problematic than our credit card bill.

     And obviously we do spend too much.

     But ‘Why do we?’ is the better question.

And that gets to my second caution-

I worry that the imperatives to spend less and get more spiritual make it sound too easy. I worry, in other words, that they rely upon a more optimistic view of our human moral capacity than scripture like today’s gives us.

Or modern psychology for that matter.

The UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, notes that most of us make free, rational decisions only 13% of the time. Our wills, scripture tells us and psychology confirms, are not free but bound.

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

93% – that’s the percentage of Americans who believe that Christmas has become too commercial and consumer-driven.

     Not only is lamenting the commercialism of Christmas not new neither is it prophetic.

No one disagrees.

Everyone agrees we spend too much money on too much junk at Christmas.

But we do it anyway.

Forget Isaiah and the lectionary, Romans 7 is what we should be reading during Advent:

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

What Paul is wrestling with in Romans 7 is the mystery of our sinfulness such that expectation and exhortation always elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

Me exhorting you, then, or the Church exhorting the culture, to spend less and get more “spiritual” at Christmas will not only not work it will prove counter-productive because, as Paul Zahl paraphrases Paul here:

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

Thus, it’s not surprising we’ve been bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas for going on 5 centuries to no avail.

For the Apostle Paul, the Law of which he speaks in Romans 7 is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed upon every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

At Christmastime, there’s the Law of Pinterest that tells you you must have new adorable matching clothes for your kids for the Christmas Letter photo or you’re a failure as a woman.

Speaking of which, there’s the Law of the Christmas Letter, which is a hard copy version of the Law of Social Media, which says you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection

There’s the Law of Manhood, which tells you should earn enough money to buy your family the gifts they want.

There’s the Law of Motherhood that tells you you must wrap all the presents perfectly, valued at at least what your sister-in-law will spend on her kids, you must make homemade holiday cookies like you think your mother used to do, and you must find time to spend “quality” time with your kids or you’re no better than Ms. Hannigan in Annie.

And there’s the Law we lay down, the Church, telling people they should have a holy, meaningful, spiritual experience at Christmas whilst doing all of the above and tables-caping a Normal Rockwell dinner, not forgetting the less fortunate and always remembering that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

That’s its God-given purpose, says the Apostle Paul, to accuse us, to point out our shortcomings and reveal where we fail to be loving and kind and generous, where we fail to be good neighbors and parents and spouses and disciples.

The Law always accuses, and, when it comes to this time of year, our culture lays down a whole lot of law.

When it comes to Christmas, the Church and the culture does what AA tells people not to do: they should all over people.

That’s why Christmas is such a powder keg of stress and guilt.

We’re being hit from all angles by the Law:

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

Which is to say we’re being accused from all angles:

For who we are not

How we fall short

What our family and our faith and our Christmas isn’t.

That’s why we can all agree we shouldn’t spend so much at Christmas but we do anyway, we’re bound to the Law, St. Paul says.

And it’s the nature of the Law to produce the opposite of its intent; so that, what we do not want to do (overspend) is exactly what we do.

And that’s why our spending coincides with such sadness, we’re prisoners to the Law. We’ve been accused and have fallen short.

Me telling you, then, how you should spend during Advent, what you ought to do to anticipate Christmas, you might applaud or nod your heads but, truthfully, it would just burden you with more Law.

The Apostle Paul said the purpose of the Law is to shut all our mouths up in the knowledge that not one of us is righteous, so that, we can receive on the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

I mean- we’ve memorized the gifts that the magi give to Jesus.

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

     We’ve memorized the gifts the magi give to Jesus.

But could you answer just as quickly and specifically if I asked you to name the gift God gives to us in Jesus?

I didn’t think so.

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I’m not convinced we know the reason for Jesus.

And maybe-

     Maybe the problem is that we spend so much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ.

     And it’s not knowing what God gives to us in Christ that makes us vulnerable to such stress and self-righteousness every Christmas season.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us in Christ- our sin.

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

Our sin isn’t even the whole problem because even our righteous deeds, says Isaiah, even our good works, even the best possible version of your obituary is no better than a filthy rag.

And the word Isaiah uses- in the Hebrew, you’re not going to like this, it means “menstrual cloth.”

In other words, even your best deeds leave you unclean before God.

They do not make you holy or righteous nor do they merit you an ounce of God’s mercy.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us, but our sin is only part of the problem. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel.

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

Christ became our sin, says the Bible, so that we might become his righteousness. His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, given to us, as our own righteousness.

You see, it’s the original Christmas gift exchange. Our rags for his riches.

God takes our filthy rags and puts them on Christ and God takes Christ’s righteousness and God clothes us in it.

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

The magi give frankincense, gold, and myrrh to Jesus.

     God gives to us, in Jesus, Christ’s own righteousness.

It’s yours for free for ever. By faith.

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

And no amount of wasteful selfish spending can take that gift away from you once it’s yours by faith.

Sure, we’re all sin-sick and selfish, and our spending shows it.

     Obviously, we do not give to the poor like we should. 

But in Jesus Christ God became poor not so that we would remember the poor.

No, in Jesus Christ God became poor so that we might have all the riches of his righteousness.

As Christ says in one of the Advent Gospel readings, we already have everything we need to meet Christ unafraid when he comes again at the Second Advent. We’ve already been given the gift of his righteousness.

Once you understand this gift God gives to us in Jesus Christ-

It frees you, the Bible says. It frees you from the burden of expectations.

Until you understand the gift God gives us in Christ, you’ll always approach Christmas from the perspective of the Law.

You’ll worry there’s a more “spiritual” way that you should celebrate the season, as a Christian. You’ll think there’s a certain kind of gift you ought to give, as a Christian. You’ll stress that there’s a spending limit you must not exceed, as a Christian.

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

You have no Christian obligations at Christmas because the gift God has already given you by faith is Christ’s perfect righteousness.

The Gospel is that, no matter what your credit card bill or charitable contribution statement says, you are righteous.

     You are as righteous as Jesus Christ because through your baptism, by faith, you have been clothed in his own righteousness.

The gift God has given to you- it frees you from asking “What should I spend at Christmas?”

This gift of Christ’s own righteousness- it frees you to ask “What do I want to spend at Christmas, now that I’m free to spend as much or as little as I want?”

You see-

Despite all the Heifer projects and holiday hashtags, the Gospel frees you to be materialistic.

In the way God is materialistic.  Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas.

The incarnation isn’t spiritual. The incarnation, God taking material flesh and living a life like ours amidst all the material stuff of everyday life, is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

If Jesus is God- with-us then giving material gifts of love that highlight our withness, our connection to someone we love, really is the most theologically cogent way of marking Christ’s birth.

It’s not that spending money you don’t have makes you unrighteous. God’s already given Christ’s righteousness to you. That can’t be undone.It’s not that overspending at Christmas is unrighteous; it’s just unwise. So, don’t buy junk for the sake of buying junk.

But if you got the money, then maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas is to buy someone you love the perfect present.

Because God got materialistic on the first Christmas in order to give you the gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Maybe materialism- in the freedom of the Gospel and not under the burden of the Law- is exactly what Christians need to put Christ back in Christmas.

 

 

 

Glawspel

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2017 — 3 Comments

I continued our fall lectio continua series through Exodus by preaching on God giving the Law to Moses in Exodus 20.

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.

Thou shall not strip to thine mighty whities and kiss a 14 year old nor touch her through her…No wait, that’s not in there. It’s not in there!

Nor is it etched in the 5,280 pound granite statue of them that Roy Moore installed in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001. It’s not in the 10 Commandments so the 10 Commandments Judge (if he’s guilty) must be in the clear.

According to Sean Hannity, if the 10 Commandments are at all relevant to the allegations against Roy Moore then it’s because Leigh Corfman, Wendy Miller, Debbie Gibson, and Gloria Deason are all guilty of breaking the 9th Commandment.

They’re all lying, Hannity promises. They’re bearing false witness.

Here I was in the middle of the week wondering what I would preach this Sunday, knowing that Exodus 20, the giving of the Law to Moses, was our scheduled scripture text. I didn’t know what I would preach. I was wracking my brain. I even prayed, as I always do, sending up on SOS for God to give me something to say.

And then on Thursday afternoon my iPhone chimed with breaking news from the Washington Post about the allegations of sexual assault (or, according to Breitbart News: “Dating”). My iPhone dinged with the allegations against Roy Moore, the self-proclaimed 10 Commandments Judge and now Alabama Senate candidate.

With Exodus 20 on the preaching calendar, Roy Moore fell into my lap like icky manna from heaven.

I know, it’s not funny.

It’s NOT.

But, if there’s anything funny at all about the sad, sordid story it’s the irony that Roy Moore, the 10 Commandments Judge, doesn’t appear to have read what Jesus and the Apostle Paul say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists like Roy Moore 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.

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 did to Roy Moore this week.

To accuse us.

The mistake Judge Roy Moore makes, in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, is that the primary function of the Law is not civil.

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.

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 – 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 Louis CK did. We’re not like Roy Moore at all.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to Roy Moore’s alleged vice, in his sermon on the mount, 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 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 didn’t sleep with her, I must be Kingdom material.

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. It’s more than posting the 10 Commandments in courtrooms; it’s more than obeying the 10 Commandments.

It’s who you are behind closed doors. 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, 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 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.”

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. I’m no Kevin Spacey.

No, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, Christ’s point is that 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 Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t matter that you never did what Mark Halperin did.

     “Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because 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.

How’s that going for you?

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 Louis CK and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake Judge Roy Moore makes in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces.

     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 Law are not principles by which you live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

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

“…I wielded my power irresponsibility. 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.

As Stephen Colbert tweeted, it leaves him with the desire for a time machine to go back and tell Louis CK NOT TO DO THAT TO WOMEN.

His statement is wanting in a lot of ways; 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?”

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

Martin Luther taught that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words:

Law and Gospel.

And Luther said 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 to Timothy as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” 

It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, Luther 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.

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 commands 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 be surprised to discover that the 10 Commandments Judge may in fact be a white-washed tomb. A hypocrite.

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 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 is like Joe Cocker, fooling you into thinking that you can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from your friend Jesus.

Glawspel is like an infomercial product- that with a dash of grace and a splash of spiritual transformation added to awesome you, Shazaam, you too can forgive 70 x 7.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will 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 it’s exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace.

If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel simply repeats 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.

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 Roy Moore 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, 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 HeavenHe 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.

Don’t you see- Roy Moore is right about one thing.

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.

For All Saints Sunday I continued our lectio continua through the Book of Exodus with chapter 17.

“Renew our communion with all your saints, especially those whom we name before you…” 

Wait just a minute, are we sure this is the right list?

I don’t want to talk smack on the dead, but do these folks really qualify to be called saints?

Isn’t that a little like giving participation trophies to everyone?

I mean, Chuck Kincannon- a great Dad and a moderate poker player but a saint? Chuck sang country songs in a soprano voice just to embarrass his teenage daughter on dates.

Chuck never slayed a dragon like St. George or drove off a plague of snakes like St. Patrick.

And Bud Jordan- this is a guy who got drunk- I mean, over served- with his shipmates in Italy and stole a village fishing boat after they’d missed their ferry back to board their ship.

In 13 years, I don’t think I ever saw Bud wearing a shirt anywhere else but here at church, and in those 13 years I don’t think a Sunday went by that Bud didn’t shamelessly hit on Heather Shue, who compared to him was young enough to be his protozoa.

I loved Bud, but isn’t it a bit much to call him a saint?

And Dwight Newman, good doctor with a good ear for music, but I don’t think Dwight ever walked out of worship without a cranky word about Dennis, which, let’s be fair, is true for half of you.

Often the paraments on All Saints are red to remind us of the blood of the martyrs.

If a saint is a champion of the faith, a person of exceptional piety, do these guys and gals really make the cut?

Their halos aren’t any bigger than yours, and- let’s be honest, I’ve known you for over a dozen years- on your best days, your halo is dinged up and dirty.

Claudia Debus, a wonderful and warm woman, she died having never forgiven her parents. They weren’t much of saints either.

Diane Brooks, when her husband’s death from cancer was followed immediately by her own cancer diagnosis, her daughter just in the 6th grade, she confessed to me she’d lost her faith.

She confided to me over coffee “my faith has been wrung out of me.”

And today we call her a saint, a champion of faith?

Walt Wilson- a few years ago I had to take out a restraining order on him after he became abusive to members of our staff.

One of the other people on our list today took his own life. He so did not believe in the sanctity of his life that he counted it loss, but today we count him a saint.

Really- if saints are exemplars of righteousness, then are these the names we should be reading?

Of course, in a way, they’re in good company.

If you wipe away the stained glass sheen we apply to the saints of the church catholic, then you discover that they’re no different than the saints we name here today.

St. Thomas Aquinas spent his whole life writing volume after volume of theology, but before he died he declared all our God-talk as no better than straw. Worthless.

St. Augustine was a horn-dog in his pagan youth and when he converted to Christianity he completely abandoned his common-law wife and their son. In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts- just imagine that as a statue in your garden.

St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Terminus episodes of the Walking Dead seem Christian by comparison. One of my heroes, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life- in addition to his wife. Twenty years into her mission, Mother Theresa of Calcutta wrote in her diary:

“Where is my Faith- even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness- My God- how painful is this unknown pain- I have no Faith- I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.”

That’s pretty depressing.

Still, Mother Theresa is better than Moses. He murdered a man and buried him in the desert. And Moses is better still than the saints he helped rescue.

They’re worse than you complaining about guitars vs. organs- in our passage today, they’re 24 hours out of Egypt and already they’re complaining to God about the accommodations.

Saints?

500 years ago this week, Martin Luther, who had a mouth dirtier than mine and a prejudice against Jews that would make Richard Spencer applaud, nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, provoking the Protestant Reformation.

1 of Luther’s 95 theses was a protest against the medieval Catholic Church’s teaching on how a saint was made, a protest against who the Church said qualified to be called one.

If you look at church art from the era- and the reason that Luther and the Protestants tore it all down- saints were always painted as having larger halos than everyone else. The bigger halos reflected the Catholic teaching that saints are those heroes who can stand before a holy God based on the merit of their own righteousness.

Saints got the bigger halos because they were the champions of faith, persons of exceptional piety, examples of extraordinary virtue.

Nonsense.

Martin Luther said that whenever you start evaluating yourself, measuring your vice and virtue relative to another, you’re in the territory of the Law not the Gospel.

According to the Gospel-

Saints are not those people who’ve earned bigger halos.

Saints are not those people who can stand before God better than us because of what they did.

Saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not role models of righteousness. They’re not people who are good or do good; in fact, according to the Bible our goodness is usually an obstacle to God’s grace not evidence of it.

Are some of the saints examples of godly living and models of righteousness? Are some of them good people who’ve done good with their lives?

Sure.

Of course.

Obviously.

But that’s not what makes them saints.

Saints are not people running after God; they’re people that God in Jesus Christ has mowed down, killing them and making them alive again with his word, with water, with wine and bread.

Saints are saints because God has sainted them, sanctified them, declared them something they are not apart from Jesus Christ: holy and righteous.

That’s what the word sanctus means, from which we get the word saint. It means holy.

Saints are not role models of righteousness. Saints are those who know they are not righteous

Saints are those who know they are not righteous in themselves but trust-

pay attention-

they have been declared righteous by God.

That’s how the Apostle Paul can address his letter thus: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…”  Read the rest of the letter. The Church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than an Anthony Scaramucci family chapel.

     And yet Paul calls them saints.

Saints are not sinless role models of righteousness. Saints are sinners who know they are the latter and not the former, who know that, on their own, they don’t deserve any sized halo. Saints are sinners who know we’re no better than rocks that God’s got to crack open himself if anything life-giving is going to come out.

Saints are not those who champion the faith. They’re those who know that Christ is the friend of sinners.

Saints are sinners who know they are not righteous but trust that by the blood of the cross God credits Christ’s righteousness to them.

Which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying what the Apostle Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said on the Pet Sounds album (himself a pretty spectacular sinner). 

The Apostle Brian Wilson sang: “God only knows what I’d be without you…”

That kind of credit to whom credit is due, that’s All Saints.

Luther tore down all the icons with the outsized halos because it grates against the Gospel.

Saints do not become saints by their faith or their merit.

     They are made saints by the merit of Christ’s faithfulness alone.

Christians do not become saints. Really, saint is but another word for Christian. Christ makes saints by becoming our sin so that his righteousness might be reckoned to us. We do not become righteous; his righteousness is credited to us.

It’s called All Saints Sunday for a reason. All of us, we’re all sinners that God calls saints. All of us who trust this promise.

Whether you feel or seem or act like one or not.

     Because God forbid that the truth of the Gospel would hinge on how you feel or seem or act or on the strength of what you believe.

Mary Karr, the Catholic poet, writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.”

Even though she’s a Catholic, what Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Reformation doctrine simul iustus et peccator, which is a fancy Latin catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.”

That is, we are always simultaneously sinful and justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We do not ever advance beyond the Ying/Yang of that simultaneity. We are all always and at once saints and sinners. They’re not at all mutually exclusive terms.

Like that guy tells McCauley Culkin in Home Alone said, we’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.

And this is not a disappointment or a deficiency, it’s the Gospel.

It’s the good news:

 you never will be more perfect than you already are in Jesus Christ.

Sure, you’re a sinner- no need to lie or pretend you’re someone you’re not. Sure, you’re a sinner, but simultaneously you have all of Christ’s righteousness already.

Just as bread and wine can convey God’s grace without God’s grace destroying the creatures of bread and wine, so too, Christ’s righteousness can convey to you without destroying you.

So that-

Simultaneous to your poverty- your doubts and your unbelief, your mistakes and your bad character, your apathy and your infidelity- simultaneous to your impoverishment, you already possess the full riches of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther said the gift of Christ’s righteousness to sinners- it’s like two people who each possess 100 gold coins.

The one may carry them in a dirty paper sack, the other may keep them in a gilded fortress.

But for all that, no matter the condition of the vessel, each of them possess the same entire treasure.

One may look rich, the other like a pauper, but they both possess everything.

The gift we’ve been given, Christ’s righteousness, it’s ours, all of it ours, whether your doubts are like mustard seeds or as mighty as a mountain, whether the faith you carry it in is like a castle or a crappy sack, whether you’re a lot more sinner than you feel a saint- it’s yours, Christ’s righteousness, all of it.

Already and for always.

What makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel, isn’t the message: Do better, be better, believe better.

The message of All Saints isn’t:

Shape up, God’s disappointed in you.

Be like those guys with the big halos.

The All Saints tagline isn’t the Army’s- we’re not exhorting you to be all you can be.

That’s the Law speaking not the Gospel.

No, what makes All Saints a celebration of the Gospel isn’t even the message: Become what you already are. There’s no becoming necessary.

What makes All Saints Gospel is the message: You are.

Now. Already and forever. You are: Holy and righteous.

You are: a saint.

You are now the Bride of Christ betrothed by his blood- whether you feel like it or not.

Such that as Steven Paulson says, you might as well shave your legs and put on lipstick because he’s already made you his beloved.

All Saints is about the objective comfort of the Gospel.

All Saints is about what the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s Church calls the “sweet comfort” that the truth and measure of God’s righteousness given to you in Jesus Christ is not determined by the strength of your faith or the severity of your failures.

It’s true about you whether you feel it’s true or feel it’s false, no matter how much you sin, no matter what your sin- God calls you a saint.

The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians that that is your “inheritance.”

Notice, he doesn’t say it’s your wage or your reward.

That you have to earn.

Paul says it’s your inheritance.

An inheritance is earned by another and, my wife is an estate lawyer- she’ll tell you- inheritances are given.

Freely given.

And once they’re given- they’re the last and final word. It is finished.

An inheritance is given away.

And Ali will tell you, they’re given to all sorts of motley people who manifestly do not deserve them.

Speaking of Ali-

A couple of weeks ago, Ali and I both were talking about my book and my cancer at a church in Los Angeles.

And at one point, the pastor asked Ali: “Now that you’ve had this brush with death and grown so much closer to God and each other, how has Jason changed?”

And Ali thought a bit and offered a couple of answers of how she’s seen my faith deepened.

But then she paused, and smiled shyly just a little, and she said:

     “Of course, in a lot of ways, Jason is still the same asshole he was before.”

A couple of weeks ago, in that church, everyone laughed.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, imperfect people like me and Bud and Chuck and Diane and Claudia and Walt and whoever you lost this year whose name will be read in a different church, and, don’t kid yourself, you- we should say “Amen.”

Because…God only knows what we’d be…but in Christ he’s called us…saints.

 

 

 

      The 500th Anniversary coincided this Sunday with our trek through the Book of Exodus. The text for the day was Exodus 16.

“You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” I grumbled to my wife a couple of weeks ago when I realized what little water she’d packed to hike Joshua Tree National Park.

So I can empathize with the recently-rescued Israelites who lodge the same complaint against God.

Still, it sounds a little ungrateful considering they’re still damp from the Red Sea through which God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY. Really?

All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”

Ungrateful or not, it’s a fair gripe because they’re not lost. No one took a wrong turn into the desert. It’s not Siri’s fault.

From the Red Sea forward, God guided them, appearing in a pillar of cloud and fire, straight into godforsaken-ness.

They’re there because God has led them there.

And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s correct.

God has brought them there to kill them.

     (You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.) 

———————-

     God has brought them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them, for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they recall their bondage to Pharaoh fondly is proof that they’re not yet free. So God brings them to the desert for a different kind of deliverance. God answers their nostalgia for Egypt’s stewpots by upping the ante and providing quail every evening.

Quail was considered a delicacy and according to Moses every evening at twilight this abundance of expense, quail, covered their camp. Wherever they were in the wilderness, it was there. God responds to their petty, ungrateful griping with a gesture of unmerited extravagance. Even though they begrudge him their deliverance, God gives them the opposite of what they deserve.

Every day a feathered two-part message: 1) Lose your illusions about Egypt and 2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.

“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes. Every evening, fancy 5-Star fare.

And every morning, under the dew of the desert, the opposite of extravagance: manna.

Bread. From Heaven.

Because we put the loaves on the altar table instead of smearing the dough on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, it’s easy for us to forget.

Bread, in the Bible, is not quail. It’s not food for a fancy feast.

Bread, in the Bible, is a token of the Fall.

Bread is a symbol for original sin. 

After Adam and Eve distrust God in the Garden and disobey God’s only law, God shows them the exit to Eden and God’s parting words to Adam: “Because you have disobeyed…by the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread until you die.”

That comes right before the Ash Wednesday warning: “…for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Garden.

After the Fall, bread becomes a kind of sacrament of their estrangement from the Garden.

And it’s work that requires work: harvesting and grinding and mixing and kneading and rising and waiting and folding and rising and waiting and folding and baking. Bread is the work that marks their sin and fall from grace but now, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Their work- the wages of their sin- becomes grace.

And it’s all God’s work. There’s no harvesting or grinding or mixing or kneading or rising or waiting or folding or rising or waiting or folding or baking. There’s nothing for them to do but receive it. Every morning, what had been their work to perform is God’s grace to provide. Not on any morning is there anything for them to do except trust that wherever they are it will be there and it will be enough.

God takes their work and God makes it grace because God has rescued them from Egypt in order to return them to Eden. God has delivered them from the despot Pharaoh and delivered them into the Desert of Sin in order to undo their original sin.

Our original, originating sin- it wasn’t disobedience. It wasn’t picking the fruit of the tree in the Garden. That would be a stupid story. Our original, originating sin wasn’t disobedience; it was disbelief.

Did God really say?

Our original sin was unbelief, not our failure to obey God’s law but our failure to trust God’s promise, to trust God’s promise that avoiding the tree in the Garden was for our good. And so in the Desert of Sin, every morning God gives them manna according to his promise. The work that had been theirs to do becomes God’s work alone.

The symbol of their unfaithfulness becomes a sign of God’s faithfulness. And God gives it to them as grace.

There’s nothing for them to do but trust God’s doing. Anything other than trust alone in the doing of God and the bread of heaven breeds worms. From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.

Whether they knew or not- the grumblers were absolutely right. God has brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them. God has gotten them out of Egypt and now, in the Desert of Sin, God is getting the Egypt out of them.

     Because it’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s slaves who ask “What do I have to do now? What should I being doing, Lord?”

But it’s children who trust their Father to do everything for them.

It’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s children who trust their Father’s promise that it is done.

It’s children who trust when they’re told “It is finished.”

They might be cranky with the munchies and ungrateful as all get out, but the Israelites- they’re right. God has led them there to Sin to kill them.

     Nude faith-

Faith clothed only in the grace of God, trusting that there’s nothing for us to do but believe and receive, for those of us whose self-image is so determined by what we do, faith alone in the grace of God alone- don’t lie- it isn’t just offensive; it feels like dying.

———————-

     BJ Miller is a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco. I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and this winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.

When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.

There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.

Miller scaled it first.

When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.

BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.

Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.

The broken arms and ears and noses of ancient sculptures helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful.

From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says, “Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.

They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.

For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games.

Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:

“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one-size- fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience.

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”

     Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.

They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough.

———————-

     In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.

“5 loaves and 2 fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for 40 years.”

And Jesus replies (in my Southern paraphrase edition): “Bless your heart.”

No, Jesus replies: Moses isn’t the One who gave you manna. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Bread of Heaven, Living Bread. Manna is me, come down for you. 

And then Jesus shifts metaphors: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and whoever does not will not. 

Those who ate manna in the Desert of Sin, Jesus points out, still died of sin. So Jesus warns them: “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

     Do not work for the food that perishes. 

     And what comes next in the Gospel according to John- it’s only 2 verses, it’s just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the sum of St. Paul’s message. It’s the core of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the reason we’re not worshipping at Good Shepherd Catholic Church this morning.

It’s only 2 verses, just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the Gospel.

First, they ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus the question, the question that captives like us are always asking: “What must we do?”

     “What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?” 

Should we…and you’ve asked the question enough yourself that you can fill in the blank for them. Should we pray more? Should we study the scriptures more? Should we serve the poor more? Spend less at Christmas?

“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”

And Jesus answers by correcting the grammar of their question. He changes the subject of their sentence, from us to God: “This is the work of God…”

     What we think is our work, our burden and obligation, to get right with God, to be reckoned to the good, to be justified before God-

it’s the work of God.

That’s not a ‘we’ kind of question, Jesus says. It’s a God question. It’s the work of God. Alone.

Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the object of their sentence too. We put the question in the plural: “What should I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

What stuff should we be doing? How much do we have to do?

But Jesus answers in the singular: “This the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.” 

There isn’t any stuff we have to do.

We do not have to do several things, or even one good thing, to be justified before God. There is only 1 thing to do, 1 work: your trust.

     Like manna under the desert dew, all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

All you have to do is trust that it’s all already been done. All you have to do is trust what he has done.

Jesus Christ, this manna made flesh, has finished what the Father started in the Desert of Sin. He’s killed off the Old Adam in you, once for all, by drowning him in the baptism of his death and resurrection.

The old untrusting Adam in you has been crucified in him; so that, now, in him, in the New Adam, (present-tense, no conditions or qualifiers) the Gospel promises that you are a New Creation.

Where bread was given to the Old Adam as a sign of sin and punishment, this New Adam, the Living Bread of Heaven, has taken on all your sins and suffered punishment in your place; so that, the curse you deserve becomes the blessing you do not.

     Don’t just do something, Jesus all but answers, stand there.

Stand still- all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but eat.

Eat this promise.

Trust.

Trust that you are the pearl of great price that the King has bought by giving away everything. Trust that you are the prodigal child for whom the Father did not wait to come home to him but has sought you out in his only Son.

All you have to do is trust the doing of God.

Trust that God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, you might become the righteousness of God. Trust that you who were dead to your trespasses have been made (past perfect tense) alive in Christ. Trust that your slate is wiped clean because your sins have been washed in the blood of the lamb. All you have to do is trust.

Trust that in all the ways and places you’ve been unfaithful, your manna molding, the Bread of Heaven has been faithful. He has done what you could never do.

He alone is righteous and by grace alone God reckons his righteousness to you. He credits your account with Christ, such that there’s nothing left to do but trust that it’s all been done.

Faith alone- that’s all there is for you to do because the righteousness of Christ imputed to you is already and will always be overflowing.

Faith alone is the only work you must do.

And it’s not even your work to do because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question: “What should we be doing…?” they ask.

And Jesus responds: “This is the doing of God…”

This is the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.

It’s God’s work. The one and only work we must do, God does in us: trust.

God works faith into us.

The one work we must do to respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ, God also does in us.

It’s just 2 verses in John’s Gospel: 6.28 and 6.29.

It’s just 30 Greek words in John’s Gospel, but it’s the Gospel:

You are saved by God’s grace alone

By Christ alone

By the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven

Through faith alone.

It’s only 2 verses, 30 words, but it’s enough to puncture what BJ Miller calls the competing impulse within us.

“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”

We die the way we live.

He means-

Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety: “What must we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”

     We think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out our debts upon the cross, but now it’s on us to work our way up to God.

     The Golden Rule may not justify us before God but we sure think it makes a good ladder up to him.

And we’re forever anxious that we need to climb it.

Or that we even can.

The Book of Exodus says that way of thinking- it breeds worms.

What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures- more miraculous, I’d argue than 5 loaves and 2 fish or manna every morning- is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

Today is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

And it says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from it that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us, BJ Miller’s work-that’s the work of the Gospel too- to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.

The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith- trust- alone. The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.

The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.

This question:

     What are you going to do with this faith of yours?

Now you have the freedom not to do anything?

Here’s a wedding sermon I wrote, using (you guessed it) 1 Corinthians 13, for a ceremony I celebrated this weekend in D.C. at the Four Seasons. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Bill Murray crashed my preaching. I got to chat with Bill but the highlight was getting to preside over the promises made by friends.

My experience tells me that wedding sermons are really for the married folk sitting in the chairs not the nervous bride and groom, sweating it out until I get to their parts. In that same spirit, I offer to you all. Married or unmarried, I think there’s some legit good news in this old, hackneyed text for those forever feeling the burden of expectation. And, of course, nothing comes fraught and laden expectations as love.

Here we go:

Since Jess and Austin chose a Kanye song for their wedding, I thought I’d offer a pop song for the sermon: “The Pina Colada Song.” Aside from the pleasures of picturing Steve Larkin yacht-rocking circa 1979 to more liquor than he’ll ingest tonight, that’s a terrible song!

Have you ever paid attention to those lyrics?!

I never did until I took my two boys to see Guardians of the Galaxy and “The Pina Colada” song, from Star Lord’s Awesome Mix Volume I, started to play while Rocket and company escaped from their galactic prison.

“The Pina Colada Song,” it’s original title is “Escape.”

Escape. As in, from Marriage.

“If you like pina coladas and walks in the rain…” Have you listened to this supposed love song?

The man and wife of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 #1 hit sound flip about forsaking everything Jess and Austin are about to promise one another tonight.

Each of them, unsuspecting of the other, takes out a Want Ad, searching for someone who is perfect for them, a companion who likes the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne.

I guarantee that if Kathy Larkin stumbled across Steve Larkin on Tinder the ensuing dialogue would not be FCC friendly.  And I’m pretty sure if Steve ever reacted to having been found out by calling Kathy his “lovely old lady” we’d all be at a parole hearing tonight instead of a wedding.

It’s a song about two imperfect people on the precipice.

And if you pay attention to the lyrics there’s an ironic twist on what we mean by the term ‘soul mate,’ for when the imperfect spouses meet each other through the want ads, what do they do?

They laugh.

They say: “I never knew you liked getting caught in the rain…”

And then they laugh.

Each of them laughs at the imperfect other.

     On the one hand, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” is an awful love song, a ballad about betrayal narrowly averted.

But on the other hand, Rupert Holmes’ hit single- maybe it’s a better marriage song than love song. After all, “Escape” is a pop song about being found out and being known in weakness is the very essence of marriage.

Like Jesus on the cross, the crucible of marriage strips you of all your defenses and disguises so that all your imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

Marriage is a risk that requires vows precisely because marriage makes you vulnerable.

Not only is being known in our weakness the essence of marriage, it just so happens to be the experience that sinners (i.e., humans) most loath. Like Adam and Eve hiding in shame, we spend most of our lives hoping to avoid being found out as the frauds we all are. Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves. We do it by filtering our lives through a social media sheen, or by saying “I’m okay.”

The passion- as in, the suffering- of intimacy isn’t that I get to know someone as they really, truly are; it’s that I am known by someone as I really am. Marriage, therefore, holds a mirror up to you and reveals to you the stranger that you call you.

And one of the things marriage constantly reflects back to us is how far we fall short of the sort of love Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 13.

——————-

     No doubt we’d all like a partner who is patient and kind and slow to anger and humble- I know my wife likes having such a partner.

But, if you think Paul’s love song is saying that you should be patient and kind, you should never be boastful or arrogant or rude, then it’s just a matter of time before what’s advice to you becomes an expectation on your spouse.

Your partner should be patient with you. Your partner should be kind to you. 

     As St. Paul says elsewhere, expectation always elicits the opposite of its intent. Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

And so, in short order, your expectation produces resentment in your partner because love that is always patient and always kind is an impossible obligation to meet.

And it produces frustration in you.

You soon wonder why sometimes she’s quick to anger or envy.

You wonder why she’s not always patient like she should be; until, you start to see only what she is not and you stop seeing her altogether, such that you don’t even know whether she likes getting caught in the rain or the taste of champagne.

That way of listening to Paul’s love song (your love should be patient, you ought to be un-envious) is to hear it according to what Paul calls the Law.

     The Law is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed in every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

There’s the Law of Social Media where you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection.

There’s the Law of Beauty where you’re measured against the standard of an ever-shrinking waist line you must attain.

There’s the Law of Parenting where your kids bento-boxed lunches should contain gluten-free, free-range, organic crustless goodness or you may as well be a slumlord in a Dickens novel.

There’s the Law of Weddings which we’re all obeying tonight.

And there’s the Law of Marriage-

The Law of Marriage which tells you that you and your partner ought to pretend your life is like the picture that comes with the frame, perfect, unabated bliss, and if you’re not happy all the time, there must be something wrong with the two of you.

Martin Luther said that the Law always accuses; that is, it points out our shortcomings.

And when we hear Paul’s love song according to the Law that’s just what it does.

When we hear 1 Corinthians 13 as advice or suggestions or, worse, commands, it just accuses us for how impatient and unkind and rude and conceited and quick to anger we know ourselves to be a whole lot of the time.

But Paul’s love song isn’t meant to be Law; it’s meant to be the opposite of the Law. It’s meant to be Gospel.

     It’s the Law that says “Be loving.”

     But it’s the Gospel that says “You are loved.”

And Paul’s song is the Gospel not the Law because the love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t Jess’ love and Austin’s love. It’s Christ’s love.

Faith, hope and love abide, but love never ends…’ 

     For Paul, only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end. He’s talking about Jesus.

“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Jesus does not insist on his own way.”

     This love song…he’s talking about Jesus.

Jesus bore all things, bearing in his body our shame.

Jesus believed all things. He did what we could not do, though forsaken he never lost faith.

Jesus endured all things, in our place, while we were yet his enemies.

The love Paul sings about in 1 Corinthians 13 is the love of Jesus, the love whose arms were stretched upon a cross so that your hearts, whether you believe in him or not, might be crucified by love.

     This love song isn’t the Law.

     It’s the Gospel because it’s not commanding you to love this way.

     It’s announcing to you that you have been loved this way.

You have been loved with a love that is patient and kind and slow to anger. This prior love of God- it makes the present-tense love between partners possible. This prior love of God, made perfect in Jesus Christ- it makes the imperfect love of husbands and wives permissible. The Gospel makes the imperfect love of marriage not only permissible but a kind of sacrament, a sign pointing to the perfect, prior love of God.

The Gospel frees you from the Law.

It frees you from all those shoulds, musts, and oughts that pop into your head. It frees you from adhering to anyone else’s standards for what your marriage must be. Because of the Gospel, you’re free to be patient and kind with one another, and you’re free to give grace when you’re neither patient nor kind. You’re free for your marriage to be nothing more and nothing less than who you are and what, together, you become. You’re free, in other words, to be ordinary because the most extraordinary thing about you has nothing to do with you.

Which means, the Gospel frees you from fear.

In marriage, you can be known in your weakness, unafraid, because the Gospel tells you that God knows the very worst about you and God loves you anyway and God has already forgiven you.

Which means, this love song, the Gospel, it frees you to forgive.

It makes it easier for you to forgive your spouse.

Because when you know the person you’re PO’d at has already been forgiven by God unconditionally, it feels more than a little stingy to keep holding your ledger in the red.

     As unlikely as it sounds, I think Rupert Holmes’ “Pina Colada” single is a wonderful song to marriage.

Because, after all, the rings Jess and Austin exchange tonight, what are they if not outward, visible signs of what no one else can see:

How flawed and imperfect we all are

And yet how God in Christ has answered the Want Ad posted in our souls

Has met us in our loneliness

Has found us out in our deepest failures

And by the happy joke we call Cross and Resurrection, laughed.

The rings-

They’re signs of the Gospel promise that Jess and Austin are imperfect people who are free to laugh with each other over those imperfections knowing that every mistake they make has already been mended by the crucified love of God.

And knowing that- it leads not to happiness but to joy. Amen.

Love Notes

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

     Here’s my sermon on Exodus 12.1-13 from Sunday.

On the night we betrayed him, Jesus’ Passover table in the upper room would’ve been set according to the Seder instructions in the Haggadah from the Book of Deuteronomy.

The reason the disciples fall asleep later that night in the garden is because the Haggadah requires enough wine for 4 cups for each of them. 4 cups of wine not 1.

4 cups, each of which represents one of the promises God makes to Israel about their deliverance:

Cup 1: ”I will take you out of Egypt…”

Cup 2. “I will save you from Pharaoh…”

Cup 3. “I will redeem you from captivity…”

Cup 4. “I will take you as a People…”

Along with the 4 cups, at the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been brick-shaped mixtures of fruits, nuts and vinegar symbolizing the bricks that Pharaoh forced them to build, a plate of bitter herbs and a bowl of salt water symbolizing the bitterness and tears of their captivity, unleavened bread, symbolizing the urgency of their escape, and the lamb itself which the head of the household, the host, would’ve taken home from the Temple to skin it and then roast it for the feast.

Presumably Jesus is the one who kills and skins and roasts the lamb as he’s the host who leads the script that night.

According to the Haggadah, that night in the upper room Jesus blesses the first cup of wine and invites them all to drink.

Then the bitter herbs, which Jesus blesses and invites them to eat with the salt water. Then comes the bread and the dried fruit and the lamb. Next, Jesus the host would have poured the second round of wine, retelling the story of the Exodus, before inviting his disciples to drink. Then, according to the script, Jesus breaks the bread. And according to the script, according to the Haggadah, what Jesus is supposed to do next is bless the bread, mix it up with some of the herbs and fruit and lamb and say to his table mates: ‘This is the body of the Passover.’

But Jesus changes the script.

He inserts himself into it. He doesn’t say ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ He says ‘This is my body.’

He connects the body of the Passover Lamb to his body and then he connects it to their bodies by saying‘Take and eat.’

Jesus changes the script.

Jesus takes the symbolism and promises behind the herbs and the fruit and the bitter herbs and the bread and the lamb and he ties them not to his teaching or his preaching, not his miracles, not to his compassion for the poor or his prophetic witness against power.

Jesus changes the script.

     Jesus takes the symbolism and promises of the Passover meal and ties them to his body. To his death.

‘Take and eat. This is my body broken…’

As the host of his last Passover, Jesus doesn’t just change the script. He adds to it.

According to the Haggadah, after they feast on the meal, Jesus is supposed to pour and bless the third cup of wine, and invite the disciples to drink it. Then, according to the script, they’re supposed to sing from the Book of Psalms before blessing and drinking the fourth cup of wine.

Except, after they feast on the meal, when the time comes, Jesus takes the third cup of wine, the cup symbolizing God’s redemption promise (“I will deliver you from captivity”,) and Jesus says: ‘This is my blood…drink from this all of you…’

     Hang on. Drink what? What’s blood doing on our table? 

     Leonardo DaVinci didn’t quite capture it in his Last Supper but if there was a WTF moment in the upper room it went down right there and then. They’d be better off going back to eating and drinking with hookers and thieves. Blood shouldn’t be anywhere near their table. You didn’t need to be a rabbi like Jesus to know that according to the Law it was verboten to consume blood much less drink it.

The law stipulated that “anyone of the house of Israel who eats any blood, I the Lord will set my face against that person who consumes blood, and will forsake that person as accursed…”

Blood is forbidden. Anyone who consumes it in any way is accursed. That’s why verse 9 in Exodus 12 commands Israel to roast the Passover lamb over a fire not boil it or consume it raw. None of the blood of the lamb can end up on the table.

And this isn’t an arbitrary law designed to bless the world with Jewish delis and kosher hot dogs.

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As the Law says: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be accursed.”

Blood was forbidden because blood symbolized life.

As such, the blood belonged to the Giver of Life alone. The blood belongs to God. Blood can’t be on your menu because it’s not yours to serve.

And because God is the giver of life to every creature the blood of every creature, in fact, represents God’s own life. What makes it a sin to take life, to shed bled, is what makes rabbis give life, sacrifice the blood, back to God.

But now, this rabbi is once again breaking the law of the covenant by inviting them to drink it: “Drink from this all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for deliverance from sins.”

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

According to the Law, the blood on the table makes him forsaken. Which is to say, to obey him and drink his blood is to disobey the Law and share in his forsakenness. To share in the curse he will bear.

You don’t need to be a rabbi to know.

He’s offering them what belongs to God alone. He’s offering them his life. Which is to say, he’s offering them his death. He’s offering them a share in his death.

We got a puppy last month. So now we have two Australian Shepherds in the house. If you’re not familiar with Australian Shepherds then just imagine that you’re in the ocean, just barely treading water, drowning really, and then someone hands you a baby.

I’ve been walking the puppy a lot around the neighborhood, which means I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately.  I listened to an old episode, a rebroadcast, from the NPR program Snap Judgement recently about a rabbi.

A rabbi named Michael Weisser who moved his family from New York City to a synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska of all places.

No sooner had the rabbi arrived when he gets an anonymous phone call from a voice that says simply, “You’ll be sorry you ever moved into that house, Jew Boy.”

A couple of few weeks later a package arrived at the rabbi’s house filled with racist tracts and a business card from the KKK (apparently they have business cards) that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”

The rabbi called the police who quickly figured the perpetrator was Larry Trapp, a man who was notorious in the Lincoln community as a white supremacist. The police suggested to the rabbi that his daughter not walk the same way home from school every day.

This is where the story gets good, Jesusy good: What the Rabbi did next- he figured it be a good idea to reach out to Larry and see if they could talk.

Seriously.

And so every week, right before he taught Bar Mitzvah lessons, this rabbi, Rabbi Michael, would call Larry and leave what the rabbi called “love notes” on Larry’s answering machine.

No BS.

This rabbi would call and say things like: “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there and you’re not getting any of it. What’s wrong with you?”

This rabbi kept at it, kept calling for months, and one day Larry finally picked up the phone.

“Why are you calling me? You are hassling me!” Larry griped.

“I just want to talk to you,” said Rabbi Michael.

“What do you want to talk about?”

And this rabbi says: “I hear you’re disabled and you might need a ride to the grocery.”

“I’ve got that covered, don’t call me anymore” Larry snarls and hangs up.

But this rabbi- he kept calling, week after week, month after month. Love notes on Larry’s answering machine.

Like signs.

Then one evening, on the sabbath, Larry Trapp calls the rabbi back.

Larry tells the rabbi he wants out. He tells the rabbi he is done with his life and he wants to escape. He asks the rabbi to come over, to his house.

And Rabbi Michael and his wife do. When Larry opens the door, he’s holding a gun and you can guess what the rabbi’s thinking.

But Larry hands the gun to this rabbi.

And then he tells the rabbi that he wants to take down all the racist crap he has hanging in his home but he can’t do it himself because he’s in a wheelchair.

So this rabbi helps him take it all down and while they do Larry tells the rabbi about his (unsurprising) childhood history of abuse.

Before they finish, Larry weeps and confesses to the rabbi that he doesn’t want to be who he has been.

This is where the story made me cry on Culver with a sack of dog doodie in my hand.

Larry wasn’t just disabled. He was sick, chronically so. His kidneys were failing. So this rabbi and his wife they decide to welcome Larry into their home, to take care of him.

They invited him to sleep in the bed of the daughter he’d once threatened.

Rabbi Michael’s wife, Julie, gave up her job in order to take care of Larry full time.

During the months the rabbi and his wife cared for him, Larry, the former Klansmen, started talking about becoming a Jew. And, eventually, he did right before he died.

In the podcast, this rabbi observed that it wasn’t enough to say that Larry Trapp had changed or improved or repented or become a different person.

The old Larry Trapp had died, the rabbi said.

When Larry’s kidney’s finally failed, Rabbi Michael told NPR that it felt like he had lost a member of his family.

“This is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the deliverance from sins.”

Not only should the blood of the lamb not be in the third cup or even on the Passover table at all, what’s left of the lamb’s blood Jesus should’ve smeared across the door to the upper room.

The blood-smeared door will a sign, God promises; so that, when Death- God’s angel of Death- passes over, God’s People will be spared the wages of Pharaoh’s sin.

The blood- it will be a sign, God promises.

But hold up, God doesn’t need a sign!

The Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, doesn’t need an SOS streaked in neon blood. God found Moses in all of Midian and met him in a burning bush.

God doesn’t need a sign like the Bat Signal to find his People.

No.

From God’s side, the blood is superfluous.

From God’s side, the blood is absolutely unnecessary.

God doesn’t need a sign.

We do.

Even before he’s delivered them through the Red Sea, even before he’s drowned us in the baptism of Christ’s death and parted the way through Christ’s grave- before we’re freed God makes sure we won’t forget to remember.

He gives us a sign. A love note- the blood: on the door, in the cup.

If God goes to all this trouble before our rescue to make sure we’ll remember, then if the blood is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of our propensity to forget.

When it comes to God’s grace, we can talk a good game.

We can talk about how Jesus Christ has offered his life in your place.

We can talk about how you have died with him and how through him God has redeemed you of all your sins because in him- in his body- all your sins have been nailed to the cross, once-for-all, such that now there is now no condemnation because of Jesus Christ.

No condemnation. The message of grace is the message that God is not in the judgement game.

But we forget.

We talk a good game about what God has done for us, but then we turn around and we act as though our relationship with God depends not on what Christ has done for us but on what we do for God.

We talk about unconditional grace but then we turnaround and we act as though there’s fine print we must meet in order to merit it.

We’ve got to pray. We’ve got to give. We’ve got to serve. We think.

     We talk a good game about how God in Christ loves you despite who you are, but then we turnaround and we act like you must become someone other than who you are.

You must become more virtuous. You must become more spiritual. You must become more compassionate and generous and justice-minded. We say.

We talk about grace, but then we act like what makes us right isn’t Christ’s own righteousness but our works.

A “faithful” Christian must oppose this agenda, we tweet. A “real” Christian must conform to these politics, we comment on Facebook. A “righteous” Christian must stand up for that issue we forward an email to our friends.

     We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but all the time we forget.

We act as though the cross isn’t effective for us until we do something about it: repent, believe, find faith, get saved, go inward.

     But grace isn’t all that amazing if it’s just available.

Grace isn’t amazing if it isn’t actual until we act to access it for ourselves.

Not only is that not very amazing, notice- it makes us the way, the truth, and the life instead of Jesus Christ.

It puts faith not in Christ and what Christ has done; it puts faith in what we do; in fact, it puts our faith in the very doing of our faith.

It relies on us to make our way up to God rather than trusting that God has come down to us and by the blood of the lamb delivered us.

Martin Luther put it thus:

“The Law of the Old Covenant says ‘Do this and you will live, but it is never done.’

Grace in the New Covenant says ‘Trust. Everything is already done. Live.’”

Everything is already done. It’s all been done- that’s the New Covenant Christ pours into the cup. That’s the unthwartable promise of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Our memory though is more easily thwarted.

Including my own.

I forget.

For example, I was tempted to share that Snap Judgement story about Rabbi Michael with you and then to use it to exhort you to go and do likewise: Love your enemy. Forgive your trespassers. Welcome the outcast. Care for the sick.

‘Go and do like that rabbi’ I was tempted to exhort. And it would be good if you went and did like that rabbi. No doubt, the world would be a better place for it but– I forget, I’ve got to remind myself- that’s not the Gospel.

I forget too.

I forget that Jesus Christ is not a new Moses.

Christ does not come to give you a new way to try to become righteous; he comes to give you his own righteousness by his broken body.

He’s not a new Moses. Christ does not bring a new and different Law; Christ brings something new and different.

He brings a promise.

He brings the Gospel- the good news of God’s grace.

The promise that even though you do not love your enemy, despite your failures to forgive your trespassers, whether or not you welcome the outcast or care for the sick, no matter how much or how little you perform your faith like that rabbi in Nebraska, a different rabbi has already forgiven all your trespasses.

     A different rabbi has already shown compassion on your sin-sickness.

A different rabbi has already loved you, his enemy.

This rabbi has loved you enough to welcome you into his home, to share his family with you, to adopt you as his sons and daughters.

This rabbi has done it all.

Everything has been done by him. He needs nothing from you.

Well, except your need. He needs nothing from you but your need.

Before the Passover, Jesus gets up from the supper table, he sets aside his robe, and puts on an apron.

Then he pours water into a basin, stoops over onto his knees and one-by-one he begins to wash his friends’ dirty feet.

When he gets to Peter, Peter starts arguing, “You’re not going to wash my feet-ever!” And Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you can’t be part of me or my kingdom.” And Peter replies: “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head! Wash all of me.”

We forget how the rest of that story goes. We forget how Jesus says to Peter and his disciples “Now, I need only to wash your feet- I will make the rest of you clean forever.”

I’ll make the rest of you forever clean.

We forget how that story goes.

We forget how no sin we do can stain us because, by his broken body, he’s in us and we’re in him and in him, through the waters of baptism, we have died with him.

He’s rescued us from our sin into his own righteousness. Our exodus is over. No matter how far you wander in whatever wilderness you find yourself, you’re never lost and you will never be forsaken.

No matter what you do or do not do it cannot undo what God has done for you.

Everything. Everything has been done.

We can talk a good game when it comes to grace, but we’re so prone to forgetting.

So Jesus gives us a sign. A love note.

And he puts your name on it.

He takes the promise of the Gospel and he gives it a pronoun: ‘Here, take and eat…drink from this…it’s for you.’

The bread on the table. The blood in the cup.

God doesn’t give you these signs as ways for you to earn forgiveness. That’s not the proper application of the pronoun.

God gives these signs for you- for you to remember:  God has already forgiven you.

Once. For all.

No sin you do can undo that because you are forever stained by the blood of the lamb.

 

 

 

 

 

Divine Amnesia

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

 I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.

Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.

And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.

Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.

I’m going to get emails about that.

My point is-

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.

     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. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, 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 the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.

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 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 churches every Sunday.

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: “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 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 Costco 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 Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.

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 man 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 sick.

We’re burdened down with 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-  is 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 Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway 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” (Law and Gospel).

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, Paul Zahl says, 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 for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. 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 (Robert Capon).

     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.

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).

This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you’d never say it was good news.

———————

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

Judgement?

This sounds like bad news.

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

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

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

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

For us.

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

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

It has been good news for 11 chapters.

Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:

Freedom from the Law.

Freedom from having to do right.

Freedom from the burden of human performance.

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

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

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

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

———————

     But-

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

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

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

Not our participation in persecution or war

Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress

Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine

If nothing we do-

If nothing we turn a blind eye to-

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

——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judgement. Mercy.

Which is it, Paul?

It can’t be both/and can it?

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

How do we square it?

Because you have to do something with it.

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

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

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

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

Not some.

All:

unbelievers and believers

unrighteous and righteous

the unbaptized and the born again

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

    The “saved” are not spared.

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

And who did not.

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

Just like Jesus said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.

     Purgation is not damnation. 

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

Again, how is this good news?

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

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

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

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

   ——————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

And what I prayed…I prayed about them.

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

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

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

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

Bring your judgement I begged.

Bring your judgement- upon them.

God damn them all. 

It was a good prayer, I thought.

Not everyone agreed.

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

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

At least he said the magic word.

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

    ———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was already beaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

     And it is- all right here.

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

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

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

It was a debate over politics and identity.

It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’

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

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

Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.

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

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

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

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

“Judgement begins with the household of God.”

Pay attention now-

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

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

To bear judgement.

Upon themselves.

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

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

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

He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.

———————

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

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

He said:

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

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

———————

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

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

It’s us. We’re the good news.

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

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

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

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

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

Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.

Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.

     We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

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

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

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

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

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

——————-

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

It received hundreds of positive reviews.

It helped inspire HBO’s West World.

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

It’s a good movie.

But you’d never call it good news.

You’d never call it good news.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sing “this Little light of mine”]

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

In a word, it was a song sung boldly.

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

“Glorying.”

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

“Glorying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen closely to the passage Paul quotes here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay attention to the passive voice:

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

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

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

“…these times will be made right.”

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

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

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re being used by God for good.

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

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

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

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

“…they are being made strong.”

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     “…these times will be made by right.”

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     Pay attention to the passive:

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

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

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

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

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

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

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

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

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

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

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

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

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

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

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

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all been about what God does.

——————————

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

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

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

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

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

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

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

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

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

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

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

That’s different.

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

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

You are in Jesus Christ.

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

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

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

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

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

Pay attention to the language.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive.

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

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

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

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

She’d had no idea what to say.

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

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

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

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

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

God is living.

Acting.

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

——————————-

     Look-

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

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

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

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

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

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

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

     None of it is possible for you to do.

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

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

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

Razing Hell

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2017 — 3 Comments

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

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

I enjoyed it.

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

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

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

But not for the reasons you might expect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Maybe you should take that as a warning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That got his attention.

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

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

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

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

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

By us.

I said.

Back then.

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But is it?

Is that even possible?

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

If God is for us- all of us

If God is determined to reconcile and redeem all of us

And not only us-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because by definition NOTHING can deny God what God desires.

That’s 2 Timothy 2.13.

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

And one by one Paul proceeds to eliminate the possibilities:

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

Except-

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

There is one possibility missing from Paul’s list.

One potential disqualifier remains: Us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And his list could’ve been a lot shorter.

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

So-

Has God rejected God’s People?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul calls this means a “mystery.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice what Paul doesn’t say-

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

It’s all God’s doing.

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

It’s all God’s doing.

So-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specifically, I highlighted these words:

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

I left the book in his mailbox.

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

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

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

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

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

Because if I had I could’ve told him.

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

     The mystery of our disobedience.

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

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

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

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

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

     It is a whole lot of nonsense. 

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

     God is bigger than our badness. 

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

     The disobedience and disbelief of some is only temporary. 

     God will banish all ungodliness. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Even your disbelief. 

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

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

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

Why should I bother following your Jesus?

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

What’s the point if all are saved? 

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

    Why be found rather than lost? 

     Why know the truth rather than live in ignorance? 

     

     Why be fully human?

     What’s the point? 

To ask the question is to miss the point.

     

     

 

 

 

 

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

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

I’ll post the video when I have it.

God’s Not Throwing You the Curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was confirmed here at Woodlake 23 years ago.

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

For example, back then, 23 years ago…

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

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

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

Like I said, it was a completely different world!

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

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

No, back then everything was different.

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

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

23 years ago I was confirmed here.

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

I was different back then.

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

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

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

immutable.

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

We might change. The world might change.

The circumstances of your life might change.

But God does not change. Ever.

Then he said the word again and underlined it.

Immutable.

God doesn’t change.

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

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

Immutable.

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

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

It was a different world.

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

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

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

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

One-fifth of everybody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

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

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

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

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

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The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

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

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

In order to please and placate god.

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

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

The who the pagans prayed to was:

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

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

Ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

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

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

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

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

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

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

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

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Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver us from the accuser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of me.

But I digress.

My point is-

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

And I daydreamed.

And I raged. And I despaired.

And I asked questions- I asked a question.

You know the question:

Why is God doing this to me?

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

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

LIFE HAPPENS.

LIFE THROWS YOU CURVE BALLS.

-and we think…God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

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

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

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

But we do have an answer about the who.

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

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

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

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

When you pray…pray this way.

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

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

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

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

The reminder that is the reason Jesus gives this prayer.

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

The reminder that God doesn’t change.

God’s never changed. God will never change.

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

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

God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

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

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

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

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

God is for us. You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Because God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

are dead-nuts around 100%.

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

So remember.

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

That 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

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

Pray like this…