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James 3

Harrison Scott Key teaches writing at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. His memoir The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for Humor. Southern Living described Key as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Seinfeld. 

In a recent essay entitled Confessions of a Bad Christian, Harrison Scott Key fesses up:

“The rumors are true. I am a Christian. I go to church. There, I said it.

Let me begin this confession by apologizing to my godless friends: I know you’re worried about me. I know a respected atheist scholar who thinks I’m insane because I believe the Christmas story actually happened in space and time. 

I’ve known many young mothers who are virgins, [in the South] we call them “Baptists.” But I’m not here to preach the Virgin Birth or cite studies showing how weekly church attendance reduces gingivitis. I’m here to confess.

I may be a Christian, but I am a very bad one.

I’m not good at that honeysuckle sweet Christianity that treats Jesus like a baby kitten who says church is silly and all you need is to love your neighbor. I don’t love my neighbors. I can’t even tell you their names. 

One is named Janet or Joy or Cheryl, and she has two loud tiny dogs that I pray will soon die. She is too old to be cutting her grass, and I should volunteer to help her mow it, because one day she is going to die out there in the yard. But I don’t help, because she derives great pride from her independence, I internally surmise, based on absolutely zero evidence.

I’m not even good at the social justice Christianity that longs to affect change with protests and placards featuring clever genital puns. I don’t march in the Women’s March or the Pro-Life Parade or the Pro-Death Parade. I marched once in a Pirate Parade and instantly regretted it, and I am ashamed.

I am ashamed that I find it hard to hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus says I should. Remember everybody standing with Standing Rock? I envy people who cultivate informed, nuanced positions of righteous anger. I barely have time to mow my grass. I stand with a lawnmower, and I push it, after which I hunger and thirst for food and water.

If I find matters of social justice so boring, why do I persist in believing in a God who showed the greatest compassion for the downcast? Fair question. Pray for me. It will have to be you who does the praying. I start in praying about a friend’s fragile marriage and in a second or two, I’m wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult to return gifts.

I’m a bad Christian— we all are in various states of lapse and relapse.” 

————————-

If you were looking for reliably good Christians— if good Christian were even a coherent category— James’ congregation in Jerusalem should be ground zero for Christian perfection. 

Think about to whom James is writing. The church in Jerusalem, these were first generation Christians.

We know from the Book of Acts that James himself was the leader of the “Circumcision Party.” You think the Methodist cross-and-flame logo is a problematic image for a denomination that started in the 1960’s South? 

“Circumcision Party” has got to be the worst branding in the history of the Church. Still, it says more than a bit about their commitment. 

The Christians in this congregation in Jerusalem— their faith was so intense, their discipleship was so earnest that grownup Gentiles among them got circumcised for Jesus. Of all the possible places, you’d think you’d find “good Christians” here in James’ congregation. 

Don’t forget, they were ringside to redemption. The proof doubting Thomas had demanded in order to believe they all received. 

Like James, some of these Christians in Jerusalem had encountered the Risen Christ, face-to-face and hand-to-hole-in-the-hand. They’d eaten breakfast with the Risen Christ. 

If anything could get you to take the log out of your own eye, you’d think it would be the crucified Christ (who’s no longer dead) sitting across a fire from you and passing you sausages. 

These Christians— their faith was such that after Easter, almost overnight, they broke the greatest commandment and started to worship James’ brother as the Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Blaspheming the sabbath had gotten Jesus strung up on a tree, but almost immediately after Easter these Christians wantonly violated the fourth commandment by worshipping Jesus not on the sabbath but on Sunday. 

I mean, they even pooled all their money together and shared it with one another— that’s not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; that’s the Book of Acts. 

You all don’t even like sharing your pew. 

These were not your lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter-only Christians. You’d expect them to be good Christians. They’d experienced Pentecost firsthand.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on them like tongues of fire, and yet their own tongues set blaze after consuming blaze.

James says today that we cannot do the one thing God in the Garden gave to us to do. In the beginning, God gave us to name every living creature, and then God gave us dominion over all of them and we did a pretty good job of it. 

We managed to tame every kind of beast and bird, every sort of sea creature and reptile. We have tamed every last creature except the beast inside of us. We can charm even a snake, but we cannot control our own forked tongues. 

“You bless God and you curse others with the same mouth, setting off fire after fire,” James judges the church. 

“Your tongue is a world of iniquity, James says, it stains the whole body.”

“This ought not to be so,” James concludes in verse ten. 

Notice—

James, who is a moralist, doesn’t lay down the Law. James doesn’t write: You ought not to be this way. James doesn’t offer: Here’s some advice to get your act together. He doesn’t give them 3 easy steps to tame their tongue. 

He just says: “This ought not to be so.” 

St. James here sounds like St. Paul when Paul describes the Christian life after baptism. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes after Romans 6, “the one thing I want to do is the very thing I do not do, and the very thing I do not want to do is what I do.” 

Both of them sound like Martin Luther describing the life of discipleship “The Law says ‘Do this,’ Luther says, “but it is never done.”

This ought not to be so, James says. 

As though to say: This will always be true of you. 

———————-

Harrison Scott Key, St. Paul, Martin Luther, the believers in James’ congregation— when it comes to being bad Christians, they’re in good company. 

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 Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones seem Christian by comparison. 

My Mt. Rushmore hero, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life— in addition to his wife. John Wesley preached about Christian perfection and growing in holiness, but even he never stopped being anxious about his salvation and in the name of piety left his family destitute when he died. 

This ought to be so. 

If you were searching for some good Christians, you’d start with saints like these, yet even the best Christians aren’t all that good. 

Mary Karr is another funny, Flannery O’Connor type writer. About her own conversion to Christianity, she 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.” 

What Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Protestant doctrine simul iustus et peccator. Again, whenever the Church whips out its Latin you know it’s important so pay attention. 

Simul iustus et peccator is a fancy catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.” 

That is, we are always simultaneously (simul) sinful and yet justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Simul iustus et peccator. 

As that black-and-white television gangster tells Kevin in HomeAlone: “We’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.” You dear faithful— though you are baptized believers, you do not ever advance appreciably beyond being what Harrison Scott Key calls “fools in varying states of lapse and relapse.” 

Simul iustus et peccator. 

To render the Latin into the language of everyday: even on your best Jesus day, you would simultaneously give David Pecker and the folks at AMI ample fodder for you to be found out as a hypocrite. 

Notice— 

This doesn’t make you a bad Christian. 

It makes you a Christian. 

———————-

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the message of Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks— foolishness because they expected that the Gospel should give them what Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle had given them. 

Morality. Ethics. Teaching. 

Christianity was foolishness because they expected the Gospel to give them a philosophy, a manual, a way of life. Christianity was foolishness because they were looking to grow in goodness. 

In order to find happiness. 

In order to tame the tongue. 

In order to live your best life now. 

That last bit was Joel Osteen not Plato but the point still stands. 

Christianity was absolute foolishness to the Greeks because Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

I’m going to say that again because most Christians today are more Greek than a full house of John Stamoses, and this— though true— likely sounds foolish to you too. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people coping with their failures to be good.

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people holding on for dear life— literally, for life— to the promise that God in Jesus Christ has met you in your failures to be good. 

And God has forgiven you. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people proclaiming to other bad people that God has met you in your failures. 

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, to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister, or a compassionate son, or a good boss, or an understanding daughter. 

God has met you in your failure to tame your two-faced tongue and God has said: “You know not what you’re doing. I forgive you.” 

I know what some of you are thinking: 

Christianity isn’t about good people getting better, it’s about bad people coping with their failures to be good— that can’t be all there is to being a Christian?! 

Even the Boy Scouts manage to make more sense. They’ve got “Do a Good Turn Daily” as their slogan. 

There’s got to be more to being a Christian, right? It can’t all be grace. It can’t be grace and nothing but grace— so help me, that would be foolishness. 

In order to be a good Christian, surely there’s stuff we should do. 

Of course, I’d argue that as soon as you attach a “should” to grace it’s no longer grace, but that’s a debate for another day. 

In the meantime, I’ll see your questions, and I’ll raise you. 

I’ll ask my own question:

Just how is it, do you think, that a religion based on acknowledging our own sins and faults and shortcomings has become (in America especially) virtually synonymous with judgmentalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy? 

How is it that good news for sinners has become bad news for so many? How is it that what Jesus says is medicine for the sin-sick tastes like poison? How is it that his yoke feels hard and his burden heavy? How is it that the Great Physcian has gotten wrapped up in a Judge’s robe? 

Is it because when you circumscribe Christianity to a religion of good people getting better— or just people becoming good— it’s not long before you’re telling people to do better, be better, which inevitably sounds like “I’m better than you.” Or worse, “You’re not good enough.” 

Good enough for God. 

This isn’t an abstract issue. 

I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years. You know how many atheists I’ve encountered who’ve told me “Oh Christianity, it’s just too merciful for me, too gracious?” 

Goose egg. 

You know how many I’ve met who’ve written us off because we’re the opposite? 

Too many to count. 

Christianity is endangered in our culture because of a self-inflicted wound. 

We’ve defined Christianity in terms of the Law and not the Gospel. 

And the Law, Paul says, is not only exhausting and futile, it’s a ministry of death.

It’s the Law that says “Do this.” It’s the Gospel that says “It’s all already done.” The Law is what God demands. The Gospel is what God gives. And God gives in the Gospel what God demands in the Law. 

But we’ve mucked it up and muddled it. 

And if you don’t believe me, notice. 

Notice how we distinguish good Christians from bad Christians based— not on their trust in the promise of the Gospel— but upon behavior, morality, deeds. And we do this on the Left and the Right, conservative and liberal alike. 

Notice how we define a good Christian versus a bad Christian based upon obedience to scripture’s commands or adherence to Christ’s teachings. 

In other words: to the Law. 

But the purpose of the Law, scripture says, is to shut our mouths up. 

In repentance and humility. 

No human can tame the tongue, scripture says. 

But the purpose of God’s Law— Old Testament and New— is to shut us up. 

The first step in being a good Christ-following Christian— and, for Greeks like you, it’ll likely take you a lifetime to learn— is knowing that Christ has to carry you most of the way. 

———————-

“I used to be a good Christian,” Harrison Scott Key writes in his Confessions of a Bad Christian. 

  In my boyhood, I was attentive in Sunday school and sang songs about the devil without irony. I was a good boy back then, and longed to be loved for my goodness. And then, around puberty, something happened to transform me into a bad Christian, in addition to puberty.”

  Harrison Scott Key was asked to help a little blind boy find his way to the sanctuary. He was so caught up in thoughts of his own goodness, he walked the blind boy face-first in the floor-mounted drinking fountain.

Key confesses:

“The experience permanently fractured my belief in the purity of my intentions. It would take me years to understand this fact, but the understanding commenced in that church hallway: that a good human being is a temporary and imaginary creature, that even the best of us can believe ourselves gods, and that we are all fools, in various states of lapse and relapse.

I am grateful to the thing we call God for that enduring awareness of my tendency to forget I am no god, not even close, which is what allows me, if not to do good in every moment and for the right end, at least to spot the good from far off and pray for the strength to walk in that direction.

If there’s one thing my long internship at Jesus Enterprises, LLC, has taught me, it’s that I should be much more watchful of what’s inside me than what’s inside you. That is where we have to start.”

The irony?

Just like the owners of those untamed tongues in James’ Church, the author of Confessions of a Bad Christian, he’s actually good one. 

Down the Up Staircase

Jason Micheli —  February 11, 2019 — Leave a comment

James 2.1-5, 8-10

Along the way and over the years there have been certain game-changing moments that have forever altered how I’ve understood and performed my ministry. 

For example, there was the time when I decided to preach off-the-cuff, without notes— just shoot from the hip. And I got animated and agitated and argumentative—as I’m wont to do— and what shot out of my hip and into my congregation’s earballs was a certain four-letter word. 

Let’s just say the word was not YHWH. Nor was it— as the bishop made clear to me— holy. In order to tame my tongue, I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

For example, there was the Holy Thursday at my first parish in Princeton. When kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insisted on filling those ridiculous little personal-sized communion cups themselves and when they then insisted on carrying those stacks of tiny cups in their kindly but shakey hands from the basement sacristy to the altar table the night before, I said “sure thing, ladies.” 

I didn’t realize that the grape juice would spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the heavy brass trays of cups. Neither did I realize that when I presided at the table the next evening and solemnly attempted to lift the lid from the blood of our savior, for a chilling second or six, I would lift the lid along with all five of the brass trays. 

Locked by the sugary seal of the spilt grape juice, they all came up together— lid and brass trays— in one terrifying motion. 

Then, just like that, the seal broke, the trays fell, the off-brand generic Welch’s grape juice poured out like that elevator in the Shining, and, though Good Friday was still another twenty-four hours away, the table suddenly looked like I had just desanguinated Jesus Christ on that very altar. 

Let’s just say that was another time a certain four-letter word escaped my lips. I’ve double-checked the Lord’s Supper before the worship service ever since. 

For example, there was the Lent when I thought it would be a good idea as fundraiser for the church’s mission project (a sanitation system in Latin America) to shoot a series of videos of me wearing my clergy collar sitting on a toilet talking about the importance of sanitation in rural villages. 

We’ve go to make sanitation sexy, I told our mission committe. 

Let’s just say I went from safe anonymity to the bishop’s doodie list so fast you’d swear I had a flux capacitor strapped to my back. I’ve kissed the bishop’s ______ ever since. 

Along the way, there have been moments that have hijacked me and changed how I understand ministry.  

For example, there was the Atlantic Monthly article I read a while back. It was the article’s headline that grabbed me: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity.”

In it, the author, Larry Taunton, described how his non-profit organization, the Fixed-Point Foundation, conducted a national survey of college students. 

They canvassed students from campus groups like Secular Student Alliance and the Free Thought Society— atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade for Christ. 

To the Foundation’s surprise, thousands upon thousands of students from all over the country volunteered to share their journey into unbelief. Almost of all of them, the author noted, were former Christians. 

Let’s just say the findings from the survey surprised the Fixed-Point Foundation. 

According to Larry Taunton, the Foundation’s director, the overwhelming majority of those young people who now identify as former Christians attribute their lost faith to the fact that the teaching of their churches was soft and vague:

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the necessary relationship between that message and Jesus Christ or the Bible. They didn’t see why the church was necessary for those messages which they heard echoed everywhere else in the culture. This is an incisive critique. These young atheists— former Christians— seem to have intuitively understood what the church often doesn’t understand about itself; namely, that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. Because that was missing in their churches, they saw little incentive to stay.

The church does not exist to address social ills, but to proclaim a message, Jesus Christ— his death and resurrection. “We would hear this response again and again,” Larry Taunton writes— in the Atlantic, which is not a Christian or even a religious magazine.

Let’s just say the article convicted me. 

And now ever since I’ve been a lot more cognizant of how I speak Christian. 

———————- 

When it comes to the Letter of James, everyone always wants to rush to the end of chapter two where James writes to the church in Jerusalem that “faith without works is dead.” 

Clearly, you can see from today’s passage at the top of chapter two that the church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced that faith without good deed doing is dead. The church in Jerusalem needed to be convinced. But do we? 

According to the survey in the Atlantic Monthly, not only does the church in America not need to be convinced about the goodness of good deed doing, no one in America needs to be convinced. Social justice, community involvement, doing good— it’s in the ether. 

Even secular schools require community service hours. 

Not only do we not need convincing about good works, survey says our always rushing to the end of James chapter two has undone God’s work of faith in young people. 

Our words have consequences, James tells us in his letter. All our words about good works, the survey says, have had consequences for faith. The survey says that by stressing the effects of the Gospel (good works) rather than the Gospel itself we’ve starved people’s faith on the vine. 

The survey says we don’t need to remind anyone that faith without works is dead. 

The survey says need to remind Christians that Christ is not dead. 

Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins, is not dead; he has been raised for your justification—  for you to be in the right with God, there is therefore now no condemnation— that is the faith.  That is the faith whose fruit is good works. 

Follow the logic: if the former dies, the latter disappears. 

If he is the Vine and we are the Branches and good works are the Fruit, then works without faith— they’re like apples on the ground; they’re not going to last long.

So I don’t want to rush to the end of chapter two today. I want to point you to the very top of chapter two. And I don’t want to exhort you to do good works. I want to make an argument to strengthen you in the faith.. 

———————-

In the first verse of chapter two, James refers to his half-brother Jesus as “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the translation you heard this morning. Except, in the Greek, it’s not adjectival. 

In the Greek, what James writes is “our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory.”

In Hebrew it’s called shekinah. 

James, who’s Mary son also, a good Jew, would know that “the glory” is what appeared to the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire and accompanied them along their exodus from Egypt. James would know that “the glory” is what Moses had to hide his face from in the cleft of a rock as God passed by him. It’s what resided behind the temple veil in the holy of holies.

Jesus is that, James is saying so simply you run right past it to the end of chapter two.

The reason James here at the top of chapter two asserts that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the Kingdom is because James believes God chose Jesus to be the heir of his Kingdom. And James knew better than anyone that Jesus was poor. 

The reason James is so hot and bothered here about Christians making distinctions between rich and poor is that such partiality lures us into forgetting that the glory of God has come down the up staircase and disguised himself in the poverty of Jesus Christ. 

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory. 

Don’t forget— James was not his brother’s disciple. James thought his brother was a nut job, but here in chapter two James is quoting his brother almost verbatim about the Law of God. “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point of it becomes accountable for all of the Law,” James says, just like his brother said in the sermon on the mount right before he said “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” 

James, who did not believe in his brother, here at the top of chapter two quotes his brother. 

And we know from the Jewish historian Josephus that  James was executed by order of the very same Sanhedrin that sent Jesus to a cross. That is a FACT of history.  The charge against James? Blasphemy. James, who had not believed in his brother, was executed for worshipping his brother as the Christ, the Messiah.

It’s a claim of faith that Jesus is worthy of our worship, but it’s a fact of history that James worshipped Jesus. 

Of course, as a good Jew, James would know that even messiahs do not warrant our worship. It’s in the Top Ten. Even a bad Jew would know it, would know that the first and most important commandment is “you shall worship nothing but God.” 

And here at the top of chapter two, James calls his brother not only Lord and Messiah he refers to him as the Glory.   He’s the blaze that did not burn up the bush before Moses in the desert, James all but spells out for you. 

James wasn’t the only one. 

Think about it—

What would it take for Jews, virtually overnight, to worship Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous messiah? What would it take for Jews, almost overnight, to start worshipping on Sundays, which violated the fourth commandment? Don’t forget as well that if they just made it up— well, that’s false witness; that’s the ninth commandment. And probably if anything qualifies as taking the Lord’s name in vain it’s called Jesus God, that’s commandment number three. 

What would it take? 

What would it take for Jews almost immediately to begin breaking four of the ten commandments?

By definition, the resurrection is beyond reason. 

But belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

Christianity is the only movement in history that began after the death of its leader. 

Riddle that. 

There’s an argument for the resurrection right here hidden like an Easter egg in the top of chapter two. Think about it— James is still so Jewish he refers to the church in chapter two as a synagogue, but the One whose name Jews will not even utter aloud James calls by his brother’s name. 

Think about it—

What would it take to convince you that your brother is God?

The resurrection is beyond reason— yes—but belief in the resurrection is not unreasonable. 

———————-

In the Young Atheists article in the Atlantic Monthly, Larry Taunton quotes one former Christian who says: 

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he or she isn’t trying to convert me. I don’t respect Christians who don’t evangelize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s resurrection and eternal life, but you think that it’s not really worth telling someone about because it would might be socially awkward for you…How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that something as good as the resurrection is true and never tell them about it?

Christians talk about good works all the time, but how could you be good and never share something so good?

———————-

As much as we muddle Easter with metaphors about springtime renewal, we forget that the first Christians did not think it a myth or a metaphor. As the Apostle Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things did not happen in a corner.” In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. If they’d been there.  

Paul and James didn’t think resurrection revealed a timeless truth. They believed it was true, something that made Paul, an Ivy League Pharisee, call all of his good works no better than a four-letter word. 

Paul doesn’t make metaphors.  Paul names names. Paul names more than 500 people. He appeared to these people, Paul says, go ask them. It’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a myth. A myth is something that could happen anywhere or nowhere, at anytime or no time. A myth is Once upon a time. But the first Christians didn’t give you A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They gave you: It happened, in history, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, at Jerusalem, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3:00 in 33AD.  Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

They didn’t believe the resurrection was a metaphor. They didn’t believe it was a myth. They believed it happened. An event. In real history. 

Which means those young atheists in the survey, the ones who left Christianity, they’re not wrong about Christianity. They’re absolutely right that Christianity is not primarily about doing good or correcting social ills. If the resurrection of the crucified Christ is an event, if it happened in history, then they’re absolutely correct— Christianity isn’t about the good you must do for God. If the resurrection really happened, then Christianity— it’s about the good God has done.

If the resurrection isn’t a timeless truth, if the resurrection is true, if it happened, then Christianity— before it’s anything else— it’s news. 

It’s news. 

And what is there to do with news but trust it and tell it?

———————-

Along the way, over the years, there have been moments that have grabbed me and changed how I understand our ministry. 

For example, there was the service just a couple of years ago, a funeral for a woman about my age. She left behind two kids and a husband who was shell-shocked by grief. 

The man and his wife were every Sunday types. 

I stood in the front of her casket, my hands outstretched, and I delivered my lines memorized from the prayerbook— Jesus’ lines from his friend’s tomb: “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks his dead friend’s sister.

At that point, I’d buried probably four hundred people and two dozen kids. But never once— never a single instance— had anyone engaged my memorized Jesus lines as anything but a rhetherical question. “ I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 

“No.”

“No,” the deceased’s husband said from the front pew. 

“ I am the resurrection and the life…do you believe this?”

“No,” he said. 

Let’s just say he looked as surprised as me at his answer, and neither of us was the same afterwards. Let’s just you’d never dare suggest that faith in the resurrection had nothing to do with this life if you could see the expression their Dad’s “No” left on those kids’ faces. 

The survey says we’re all bound and determined to rush to the end of chapter two and hear James tell us that faith without works is dead. Okay— here’s a good work you can do.  Get someone like that Dad to “Yes.”

Because resurrection might be beyond reason, but it’s not unreasonable.

It’s not unreasonable.

 

 

The Alien Word

Jason Micheli —  February 4, 2019 — 2 Comments

James 1.18-25

True story— I heard it on NPR:

One warm summer night in DC, eight friends gathered around a backyard supper table. Toasting family and friends, clinking wine glasses, laughing— they were throwing a celebration. 

“It was one of those great evenings,” the celebrant of the party, Michael, told the host of Invisibilia, “lots of awesome food and french wine. It was a magical night.” 

It was getting late, he remembers, maybe around 10:00 PM, when it happened. 

“I was standing beside my wife. And I just saw this arm with a long-barrel gun come between us. It was as if in slow motion…this hand and a gun, and then it just really quiet.” 

The trespasser was a man of medium height in clean, high-end sweats. The trespasser raised the gun and held it first to the head of Michael’s friend, Christina, and then to the head of Michael’s wife and then he said: “Give me your money.” 

And he kept repeating it, louder and louder. 

“The problem was,” Michael said, “none of us had any cash.”

So the celebrants started to grasp for some way to dissaude the instruder out of his trespass, grasping for some way to change his mind. 

But then—

One of the women at the supper table, his friend Christina, piped up and she spoke a strange word, a word that passed from her lips to the trespasser’s ears and cut through all the angry noise and frightened chattering. 

She said: “We’re celebrating here. Why don’t you have a glass of wine?” 

“The words, her invitation…it was like a switch. You could feel the difference it made,” said Michael to Invisibilia. “All of a sudden, the look on the man’s face changed. The words arrested him. It was like the words gave him something he didn’t know he was searching for.” 

According to Michael— 

The trespasser tasted the wine offered to him in spite of his trespass. “That’s really good wine,” the trespasser said to Michael. 

“We had some bread too,” Michael added, “so he reached down for some of it but because he had the wine glass in his other hand…he put the gun in his pocket to free up his hand.”

The trespasser drank his wine. 

And then the trespasser said something surprising: “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” Everyone stood there in the backyard garden, the trellis walls like a sanctuary and the treetops a steeple, everything silent as a grave save the thrum of summer insects. 

Then the trespasser said something strange: “Can I get a hug?”

First Michael’s wife embraced him. 

Then his friend Christina embraced him. 

Finally, like they had no choice— like they had to celebrate with him— the whole party gathered around and embraced the trespasser. “I’m sorry,” the man said, “I’m sorry I trespassed against you.” And then he walked out into the street, still carrying the wine as though he were savoring still at how he’d been given it. 

In the episode of Invisibilia, Michael’s story is cited as an example of what psychologists call noncomplementary behavior. 

But in the Church, Michael’s story is an example of what scripture calls saving faith. Michael’s story of the word of invitation to the trespasser who trespassed against them— it’s an example of how saving faith works. 

Now, I know that’s not immediately obvious to you so I’m going to say it again. 

Michael’s story is an example of how faith works. 

———————-

Despite the word on the street, the gossip’s got him all wrong. 

St. James in his four page letter— and keep in mind, it’s just four pages— does not contradict the teachings of the Apostle Paul, which, keep in mind, total almost two hundred pages of your New Testament.  And you don’t need to take my word for it. 

According to Luke in the Book of Acts, James, who was Jesus’ half-brother and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, eventually agreed with the Apostle Paul’s preaching.  In the Book of Acts, Luke records James agreeing with the Apostle Paul that absolutely nothing should be added to the Gospel of Grace. And nothing can substract from your standing in it.

So if you hear James here exhorting you that God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ requires you to respond with good works of your own, then read it again. Read it through the Apostle Paul rather than alongside him because, well, it’s two hundred pages to four pages, and James himself says that’s how you should read him. 

In fact, James here in chapter one is riffing on what St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” And what James tells us here in chapter one echoes what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “No one can confess Jesus is Lord— no one can have faith— except by God.” In other words, saving faith comes not from within but from without. 

Faith is not your doing— that’s Paul to the Ephesians. 

James makes the same point in today’s text. “In fulfillment of his own purpose,” James writes, “God gave us birth…” God gave us birth as believers. That is, God gave to us faith. How? By “the word of truth,” James says. By the promise— by the Gospel of grace. 

And God gives us faith, James says, “so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” 

Fruit— just like Paul and just like his brother Jesus, the controlling image that James chooses is a passive one. We’re not the Gardener. We’re not even the plant. We’re fruit. God gives us faith not so that we will go do. God gives us faith so that we might become fruit— signs— of what he has done. 

It’s not so much that we are to bear fruit. It’s that faith makes us fruit. A couple of verses down from here, James continues with the metaphor of God as Gardener by calling the Gospel the implanted word.

What James tells you here is no different than what the Apostle Paul preaches in the other two hundred pages of the New Testament. Namely, God uses the Gospel promise to plant faith within us. 

The promise that Christ has died for all our sins, once for all, that everything has already been done, that nothing needs to be done to redeem you or your neighbor, creates faith. 

You see, when scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s not primarily faith in something— you can have faith in all sorts of things, just ask the Golden Calf or Tom Brady fans. When scripture speaks of saving faith, it’s faith from someone. 

———————-

Faith, the Protestant Reformers said, is an alien word. That’s what James means by that phrase “the implanted word.” 

Faith comes extranos, the first Protestants taught. And whenever someone whips out the Latin, you know it’s important, so pay attention: faith comes extra nos, from outside of us. Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. A gift, not like an attribute innate to you. A gift given to you, from outside of you. 

What makes faith personal isn’t that you discovered it on your spiritual journey. What makes faith personal is that it was given to you by the person of Jesus Christ himself. We think of faith as our part of the Gospel transaction. God gives sinners like us justification by grace, and we must return the favor by giving God faith, which God needs…why exactly? Grace isn’t amazing if God demands payment in return. No, faith is not what God requires you to give him in order for your justification to be true for you. 

The Good News is better than that!

Faith is what God gives you; so that, you will trust that your justification is fact. Faith is what God gives you to trust that the party-called-salvation has already started and it’s for you— no matter your sins or your second-guessing it. The promise of the Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

Not by faith alone. 

Through faith alone. 

Faith isn’t the expectation you must meet in order to be invited to the party. 

Faith is the means God gives you to enjoy the party to which your invitation has already been sealed by his blood.

Faith is a gift from outside of you, scripture says. 

Faith comes by what is heard. 

Not inside of you. 

Extra nos.

And notice— our way of thinking about faith, as something we do, it turns faith into another work of the Law, and then you’re left with the same dilemma as riddles all your other good works:  How do you know if the faith you have is enough faith?  How do you know you feel your faith for the right reasons? What if you can’t feel your faith like you felt it when you first felt your faith? What if you don’t feel it like the person in the pew in front of you feels it? What about your doubts and your questions? How many are too many?

Faith understood as something we do— faith as something that comes from within us— is bad news. 

It’s the worst kind of news because it makes your salvation determined not by a savior but by your own inner subjectivity.

Not only is it bad news, it loses the plot of the Good News because according to the plot of the Good News, apart from God giving you faith, you have no capacity to find it on your own.

Go back to James’ birth image in today’s text, saying to someone without faith “Well, you’ve just gotta have faith” is like telling an unborn fetus to deliver itself. 

Faith is not the faculty by which you grasp after God. 

Faith is the bruise left behind by the God who has grasped you and pulled you into newness of life.  

We’re all like that intruder in the garden. We need a word from outside of us to arrest us in our trespasses and get us to join in the celebration that started long before we showed up.

Faith is a gift. 

You can’t give yourself faith anymore than you can take away your sins. 

You need Jesus Christ for both. 

Nor can you give anyone faith. Christ is the Giver and the Preacher.  You can’t give anyone faith. 

But— You can get in the way. You can get in his way.

———————-

“Give me your money,” the trespasser said in Michael’s backyard garden.

“But none of us had any cash,” Michael told Invisibilia. 

So we started grasping for ways to dissaude him, to change his mind. 

Some of the celebrants tried guilt. What would you mother think? they asked him. Other celebrants tried reasoning with the trespasser. This is only going to land you in prison— can’t you see that mister? A couple of celebrants appealed to the trespasser’s emotions and aspirations. Is this who you want to be? How does this make you feel? Still other celebrants got angry at the trespasser. Just who do you think you are? 

All of them, the whole congregation of celebrants, they started talking at him. 

This cacophony of anxious, angry chattering. 

None of it— not their anger or anxiety— made the situation right. 

“I remember thinking,” Michael told Invisibilia, “it was getting so noisy…this is headed towards a bad end. Someone is going to get hurt. If all our noise had drown out Christina— if the trespasser hadn’t heard Christina’s words because we were raising so much other commotion, if he hadn’t heard her words of invitation, because of all the other angry noise we were making— it would’ve ended bad.” 

———————-

Despite the grapevine, James and the Apostle Paul do not contradict one another on the miracle that is the unconditional mercy of God in Jesus Christ for sinners like you. But unlike Paul, James spends a lot more time on the noise that can get in its way. 

Faith comes by what is heard, scripture says— by a promise where Christ is the Preacher. 

But unfaith comes by what else is heard— in the church. 

“…your anger does not produce righteousness” James warns the church today. The New Testament teaches us that righteousness is ours through faith; in other words, your anger frustrates God’s work in the church to give to another faith. 

Whenever I hear someone lament that Christians today need to be more like the early church, I usually respond with “What are you smoking?” I mean, James’ church in Jerusalem makes Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity seem like kissing cousins. James’ church was diverse with believers from different races and religious backgrounds, rich and poor. So the congregation was divided into clicks and factions, insiders and outsiders, and they were consumed by conflict. 

Conflict over politics. 

Conflict over worship traditions. 

Conflict over leadership. 

Conflict over how they allocated their time and their resources. 

I know it’s difficult to imagine such a church— just do your best. Unlike Paul, James spends so much time on behavior because his congregation was a congregation beset by conflict, consumed with anger and apathy, gossip and back-biting, undercutting and second-guessing, hypocrisy. So James warns them here: “…your anger does not produce faith.”

You see— James is not saying that your anger or your gossip or your second-guessing disqualifies you from what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. No, nothing can undo what Christ has done for you. Your anger and all the rest of it— it doesn’t disqualify you. It just disables another from hearing from Christ what he has done for them. 

James’ point is not that gossip or back-biting make you a poor Christian.  His point is that your gossip or back-biting prevent another Christian from being made. We do not have the power to create faith in Christ, but we do, James is saying, have the power to create alumni of the Christian faith. A survey just this week in Christianity Today echoes James’ point— most of the people who leave church do so (any guesses why?) because of people in church. 

Sticks and stones we say but words…but think about it. If God’s work in the world is oral and aural, then any other racket we add it does hurt. ALL YOUR NOISE—stop getting in my brother’s way with your behavior. You see— James would have you think of the whole church as a pulpit or an altar. Just as you expect Chenda or me to have nothing on our lips but Christ and his mercy for sinners, James would have you bear nothing on your lips but grace and mercy. Don’t let anything you say or do get in the way because you never know when the real Preacher will show up. 

———————-

“We later found the empty wineglass the trespasser had taken with him. He’d wiped it clean and placed on the sidewalk in front of the house” Michael said. 

But before they found the wineglass, Michael said, they cried. 

In gratitude. 

“We had no idea that words— an invitation to a celebration— could grasp hold of someone and change them. It was like this miracle. It was like a miracle. But it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t heard those words, if we’d gotten in the way of the miracle.” 

Faith in Jesus Christ

Faith in the promise he preaches to you (“Your sins are forgiven”) 

Whether it’s the size of a mustard seed or a mountain, it’s not your own doing. 

Faith in Jesus Christ is never not a miracle. 

And don’t forget—

No one knows that faith in Jesus is always a miracle better than Jesus’ brother. 

Don’t forget—

James thought his brother was crazy. James was not with his mother at his brother’s cross. James did not bury his brother, as was his obligation under the Law. Yet James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Until he was condemned to death. By the very same Sandhedrin who sent his brother to a cross. 

Like Paul, James knew: Jesus Christ is not dead. The one who came preaching the forgiveness of sins preaches still. With his word, with water, with wine and bread. Faith is his work to do. Just don’t get in his way.

Because the wine? It’s really good.

The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. They get the credit that is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”

 

 

While We Were Yet Naughty

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2018 — 1 Comment

Christmas EveGalatians 4.47

The Etta James at the end of the sermon got cut off from the audio, but we got the rest…

Due to the #metoo movement, this year everyone has been up in arms about the Christmas standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I get it. 

Though, I’m not so sure— as Christians, that that is the song that should bother us. As Christians. 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 love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine— a voice so manly 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 Kenny Loggins. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people, but maybe— maybe on a night celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, maybe Kenny Loggins is exactly who we should be talking about?!

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

     You have be on the hopeless downward slope of 40 to know how much that’s a cliche.

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 the Washington Redskins have holes in their starting lineup.

     We love music in my house. 

     We love Christmas carols too.

     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. 

     My 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 fills Ali’s 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— compared to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” what’s the matter with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” 

     I mean— what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves 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 consumers but— don’t mishear me— I love Santa.

I do— in fact, 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’ve always loved Santa Claus.

     Until…

     Until one day— this was 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, my son 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  we’re good.’

IF.

     ———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

I know it sounds like I’m just being silly, but I’m not. 

I’m not. 

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

Our cultural myths and holiday songs are just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions. 

     Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian myth 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 demonic goat creature 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, according to a Dutch myth, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat, accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men— I’m not making this up.

     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’m no expert, but 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.

Nonetheless, in Holland, Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine. 

     In any case, it gets worse— 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… don’t spare the rod…and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and abscond away with him. 

     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. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shame you by asking you to raise your hands if you’ve bought one (Pat Vaughn). 

     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, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, watching and judging and keeping score of your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick. 

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

———————-

     You better watch out, 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 other 364 days of the year. 

     The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus and songs like “Santa Claus is Coming” 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 everything you’ve wrought wrong in 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 first 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. 

No wonder people don’t like coming to church. 

We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.

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, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Daniel Snyder, or Verizon wireless.

     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 an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations. 

      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’m not joking—

I do know— getting us to believe that God’s 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.”  

     Boom. 

     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 of Jesus Christ 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— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’

     This can be your Christmas gift to me:

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 the naughty marks on your list have been wiped clean.

     “You better watch out?” 

No—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 given to you tonight and completed on Golgotha, the gift of God given to you 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 in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like every other gift underneath your tree tonight, this gift is true. 

For you.  

Whether you ever open it or not. 

     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. 

———————-

        For goodness sake, this is important to remember— pay attention now— because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better. 

Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and 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 can make you a better you. 

Soul Cycle can make you a better you. 

Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t. 

     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 repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you.

     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’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good: 

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”

And speaking of Galatians— just as an aside, I chose this passage tonight because I know there’s a lot of you grown-ups out there who basically think of our Christmas story (with the wise men and the angels and the virgin birth) as just another myth, like Krampus. 

I know there’s plenty of you who think the nativity story is just another myth added to the Jesus story later. 

But tonight’s passage from Galatians shows you that you can tell the Christmas story without the magi or the shepherds or the inn with no room. 

Indeed Christians were telling the story that way from the very beginning. 

Tonight’s passage from Galatians is dated by historians to less than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, making it almost 100 years older than Luke’s Christmas story— riddle that. 

Combine that with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. 

Take all those facts together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of the Christ child born tonight.

This isn’t a children’s pageant. 

We’re not messing around. It’s not a myth. 

Christmas is not Krampus. 

We’re not here tonight because it’s an uplifting, sentimental story.

We’re here because it’s true.

The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need- isn’t a life coach. 

We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.

We need a savior. 

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

Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says. 

None of us can get our act together— not one.

     That’s why the Apostle Paul and the angel Gabriel describe Christmas as a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. God comes to us when we would never come to him, first in a creche and then on a cross. 

The cultural myths get it backwards:

God comes to help those who cannot help themselves.

The Christmas Gospel according to St. Paul is that our salvation is not found within us. 

That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! 

     The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued! 

     Christ is not born to Mary to show us the way to a holy God. 

     Christ comes to be the way to God. 

As St. Paul says: 

“God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might have the righteousness of God.” 

He’s taken our naughty list onto himself, once for all. 

And his permanent perfect record has been reckoned to you as your own. 

And all this is yours by grace. 

Gift. 

And it’s not a cheap gift. 

It’s not even an expensive gift. 

It’s free. 

It’s free. 

     No matter what your life looks like, whether you think deserve coal or a Krampus,  how good or bad you, what you’ve done with your life or what you’ve left undone with those in your life. 

His goodness is yours. 

By grace. 

     ———————-

     

So it’s too late this year, but next Christmas— just a piece of advice—

     If you put your kids on Santa’s lap next season: 

     Stand your ground. 

     Convince old St. Nick to fess up and tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong. He’s not like Sting, watching every move they make, and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows those kids are 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 next year tell that little 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 whistle-blowing rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so— like Christ crushing the head of the serpent— you interceded for them. 

     And you tell them you found that elf a job as acting secretary at one of the many vacancies in the Trump administration. Tell them you sent that elf packing for DC because you love them and the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness. 

The gift of Christmas it’s yours regardless of your goodness. 

It’s yours. 

Gratis.

And next year—

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9…

     You could use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Enemy and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Prince of Darkness will hear it and come for them. 

Or you could just play them a different song, one not obviously about magi or mistletoe, but one that is absolutely about Christmas because it’s about no-matter-what, while-you-were-yet-naughty, blindsiding, one-way love that we call grace.

At last my love has come along

My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah

At last the skies above are blue…

     

     

Not Empty Away Forever

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2018 — Leave a comment

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35.1-10

     I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, 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 boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their 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. 

I know it’s lame. 

In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children? 

I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.

I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us. 

I’d been blind, but then I saw. 

Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone. 

The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton. 

At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

      I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, 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. 

      ———————-

     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, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story. 

Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck 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. 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. 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. 

    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 lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).

     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 has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

     I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me. 

We’re rich. 

     Just listen again to today’s text: 

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

        Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says: 

“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

    I mean you have to give King Herod credit. 

     Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. 

         Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had 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 those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)

    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— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news. 

     And they were smart enough to know it. 

John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People.  He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath. 

Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Here is your God. 

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 

     Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?

Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality. 

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.  

If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us? 

————————

Remember—

The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people. 

Not good news of great joy for the poor alone. 

Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively. 

Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry. 

The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people. 

Pas. 

All the people.

So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too? 

How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?

  ————————

A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:

“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’

Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter. 

He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.” 

He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”

You’re not going to be like that anymore. 

As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us. 

As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you. 

For you.

What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation. 

The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets. 

What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.

What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless). 

It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all. 

Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.

That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today. 

Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more. 

The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.  

 ————————

The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature. 

Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting. 

The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves. 

The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger. 

And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon. 

We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year. 

That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well. 

In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean. 

And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed. 

I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says. 

The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.

Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.” 

God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does. 

For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it. 

I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention. 

So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word. 

Dikaiosoune.

It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.

God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making. 

So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world. 

And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed. 

And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone. 

You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness. 

God has forgiven all your sins, yes. 

God loves you just as you are, double true. 

But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are.  He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.

I don’t want to be selfish anymore! 

The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger. 

The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you. 

God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ. 

That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish. 

His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right.  And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert.  All of creation. 

For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary! 

Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever. 

God is at work— in the church. 

God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us. 

God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed. 

God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.

 ————————

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 or are being held in detention centers. 

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

         Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.” 

I opened the tapestry and looked at it.

She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble. 

Like I’d just been swept off my throne. 

Works without Faith are Work

Jason Micheli —  November 18, 2018 — 1 Comment

Galatians 5.1, 16-23

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace?

In a little over 4 months as your pastor, I’ve only mentioned it once— maybe you know. 

Three years ago, after emergency surgery, my family and I learned I have a rare, ultimatley incurable cancer in my marrow. I’ll never be in remission. Even now I keep it at bay with maintenance chemo and quarterly scans. I feel like Lazarus, having escaped death to hear you’ll die again. 

So last Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. 

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. 

Cancer doesn’t feel very funny when you’re staring at the bell curve of the time you’ve likely got left. Until. Leaving my oncologist’s office that day, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner in my former congregation. He was a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear and now he was dying.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill- in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him. 

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Peace? Peace? Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. 

I’d have to tell you: I don’t have peace.

How about you?

How are you doing with this list?

      Generosity? 

      How about we pass the offering plate again and then ask you to answer?

Gentleness?

I’ve read some of your anonymous comments in the Way Forward survey.

Patience? Self-control?

How about I ask your spouse? 

What about love? You love your kids, you say? 

Of course you love your kids— they look just like you. 

How you doing with this list?

And before you answer, you should know that Paul puts the fruit in the singular. Meaning, it’s all one fruit. You can’t pick and choose. It’s not love or joy or peace or patience or kindness or generosity or faithfulness or gentleness or maybe self-control. It’s singular. The fruit of the Spirit is Paul says.  

It’s love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. 

It’s singular. You’ve either got all of them or you’ve got none of them, said John Wesley. 

So let me ask you now— how you doing with that list?

I know I drive some of you bonkers with my relentless emphasis on grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone rather than good works. 

I know I’ve got some of your sphincters all twisted up because of my stubborn refrain about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ instead of what we must do for God following Jesus Christ— but, honestly, when you’ve got what I got every day is Ash Wednesday. Each day is a reminder that the dust whence you came is the dirt to which you’re gonna go. 

And all it takes is to see the bell-curve of time you’ve likely got left and suddenly the prophet Isaiah’s Advent words hit you like a brick between the eyes:

Compared to the holiness of God all our good works— our best deeds— are no better than filthy rags. 

When every day is Ash Wednesday, you realize:

Your problem before a holy God is not that your sins are too egregious.

It’s that your good works will never be good enough. 

Nor will they ever accrue for you enough enoughness. 

Or, as the Apostle Paul put it at the begining of this epistle: If our good works could ever be good enough, then Jesus Christ was crucified for absolutely nothing. When you see your death sketched out in sharpie somewhere along a standard deviation, you take stock. You do an inventory. You count your fruit. And you realize how your basket of produce looks so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so. 

———————- 

I’m not the only one counting, the only one who knows their lack. 

Dorothy Fortenberry is a Hollywood screenwriter who writes The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu. In post-Christian California, Fortenberry is also unabashedly religious not spiritual. In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, she explains her odd habit of going to church every Sunday. 

She writes: 

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.” I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it. It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

Thanks to church, I have a much stronger sense of the sort of person I would like to be, and every Sunday I am forced to confront all the ways in which I fail, daily.

Nothing promotes self-awareness like turning down an opportunity to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Or avoiding shifts at the food bank. Or calculating just how much I will put in the collection basket.

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size. None of this is particularly comforting. I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

Church is like The Wizard of Oz: We are each missing something, and there is a person in a flowing robe whom we trust to hand over the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided.”

Note the passive voice.

We’re all missing something, and we’re here to receive the promise that the something we’re missing will be provided. 

————————-

     When we hear this list as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do— in Paul’s terms— we twist this from Gospel back into Law. 

     As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled!  That way of hearing turns this list into the Law. 

     And that’s my first point: This list is not the Law. It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. 

     Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” 

     As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough. 

     If it’s Law, then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy. 

     But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian. 

     Because notice- 

     After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, they’re not equivalent clauses. Paul changes the voice completely. He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. 

     He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith. 

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue. The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. 

     It’s popular to pit Jesus against Paul, but both of them— when they speak of our life lived in light of the Gospel, they shift to the passive image of plants and fruit. Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit not the works of faith; Jesus says you are but the branches of a vine that is him. 

It’s a passive image.

Just as sheep— unlike goats— do not perform any actual work other than trusting the Shepherd, what you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort. Except the Gardener. 

     Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy.

     Doers like us always want to contradict the Apostle Paul with that line about how faith without works is dead, but with this list Paul counters that the inverse is true. 

Works without faith are work. 

They’re just work. 

They’re exhausting.

And they cannot justify you. 

To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point— his point that, apart from grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone, you are as silly and pathetic as a dead plant worrying about what it’s got to do and to produce.  This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel. It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s what the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you in spite of still sinful you.  

Paul’s point here to the do-gooding Galatians is that by your baptism you who were dead in your trespasses and sins have been made alive; such that, now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit

In a quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, Red and Blue— so much of so-called Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification. But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. Forget Joel Osteen when you get to Galatians 5. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth. 

———————-

     And that’s my second point: 

    The fruit of the Spirit— they’re for your neighbor. 

     When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is a prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God. But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the commandments perfectly for you. He has by his perfect faithfulness fulfilled the Law for you.

In Christ because of Christ— none of the thou shalts or thou shalt nots can condemn you.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are: impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control. Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift.  And its yours by faith not by works. 

     No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. 

     Everything. He’s done everything already.

     Therefore- 

     God’s not counting.

     The God who no longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

    God is neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification.  It’s not for you to measure up in God’s eyes. The fruit of the Spirit isn’t for God— God ain’t hungry.  The fruit of the Spirit— it’s for your neighbor. 

     It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you. 

     God doesn’t need your love— don’t flatter yourself. God doesn’t need your your peace or your patience either. God certainly doesn’t need your generosity. God doesn’t need any of them, but your neighbor does. 

     I mean, Paul’s griped it at the Galatians like 100 times thus far: For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     Christ didn’t set you free for fruit. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not for a return on his investment. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can clean yourself up and get your act together. 

     Christ freed you for freedom. Not so you can go out and earn back what he paid for you. And not so you can build a Kingdom only he can bring. 

     Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing. For freedom Christ has set you free. 

     There’s no one else you have to be before God. 

     And there’s nothing else you have to do for God. 

Christ came to us while we were yet sinners and we will return to him while we are still sinners. In the End, the only people you can be dead-certain will be in the Kingdom of Heaven are sinners.

Ergo— the Gospel. 

It’s called good news for a freaking reason.

This is the reason:

There’s no one else you have to be before God. 

And there’s nothing else you have to do for God. 

     But for the sake of your neighbor…

     God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous. 

     You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT What must I do now for God?

     No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?

     And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone. 

———————-

And that leads to my final point: 

The fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience. By faith apart from your feelings.

In no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate. The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science. The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror. 

         Face it:  You’re not always kind or patient or generous. 

     Yet the Gospel promises and the Gospel invites you to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work like a patient Gardener to yield in you and harvest from you kindness and patience and generosity. 

     And that’s a big leap of faith because, as I said, the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you. Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them. God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word. 

     The fruit of the Spirit is a matter of faith not feeling. 

     By your baptism in to his death and resurrection, you are in Jesus Christ. 

     You are. 

     No ifs, ands, or buts. Nothing else is necessary. 

     And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you. No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications. 

     No matter what your life looks like

     No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

     No matter how up and down, there and back again, is your faith 

     No matter how bare you feel your basket to be.

     If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you. And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm. God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries. The fruit of the Spirit— it’s the pledge of God’s commitment to yield in you.

————————

     Dorothy Fortenberry is on in the mystery and puts it better than me:

“Being a screenwriter in Los Angeles is like being on a perpetual second date with everyone you know. You strive to be your most charming, delightful, quirky-but-not-damaged self because you never know what will come of the encounter.

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting. Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.  And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that. 

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago. I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

We are all exactly the same amount of sinful and special. The things that I feel proud of can’t help me here, and the things that I feel ashamed by are beside the point.

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel. It’s about faith. It’s about trusting God’s commitment to do something in us. It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.”

     

 

    

Nude Faith

Jason Micheli —  November 12, 2018 — 1 Comment

Galatians 3

He’s a lumbering giant of a man.

A Norwegian, Jim is 6’6 with all the girth that goes with such a hulking frame. He looks like and sounds like a clean-shaven Santa Claus in street clothes. He’s a pastor and a professor of theology. 

 

I heard him lecture on faith and absolution at an event, and during his presentation he shared a story about how he’d been traveling long hours and many miles from conference to conference. 

“I hate traveling, he said, “and I despise airplanes— when you’re my size, riding on an airplane is like doing penance. I don’t hardly fit on any of them.” 

“I was flying coast to coast— a long flight,” he said, “and I got on this plane and, of course, per every airline’s policy wouldn’t you know it but the guy sitting in the seat next to me was every bit as big and fat as me. We buckled up as best we could and got ready for take-off. Sitting there on top of each other, I’m sure we looked like two heads on the same pimple.”

“Since we were practically on each other’s laps, it would’ve felt strange if we didn’t visit with each other and chat the other up. As the plane was taking off, he asked me what I did for a living. I said to him: ‘I’m a preacher of the Gospel.’ Almost as soon as I got the words out, he shouted back at me: ‘I’m not a believer!’”

“He said it loud to me too because it was take-off and the plane was noise.” 

“But the man was curious,” Jim said in his presentation. “Once we got to cruising altitude, he started asking me about being a preacher. After a bit, he said it to me again: ‘I’m not a believer.’ So I said to him: ‘Okay, but it doesn’t change anything— he’s already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.” 

“The man next to me,” Jim said, “was quiet for a while and then he started talking again and, at first, I thought it was a complete non sequitor, complete change of subject. He started telling me stories about the Vietnam War.”

He’d been an infantryman in the war. 

And he’d fought at all the awful battles— Khe San, the Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill. 

Jim said: 

“He told me— ‘I did terrible things for my country and when I came home my country didn’t want me to talk about it. I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.’”

“This went on the whole flight,” Jim said in his presentation, “from coast to coast, him giving over to me all the awful things he’d done.”

“As the flight was about finished, I asked him. I said to him— ‘Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?”

And notice—

Jim used the language of confession and sin. 

He didn’t just listen. He didn’t say I feel your pain. He didn’t minimize it and say Well, you were just doing your duty, don’t be so hard on yourself. He didn’t dismiss it Sounds like PTSD. He didn’t deflect and say I’m here for you. 

No, he offered him absolution. 

He offered him the Gospel.

“Have you confessed all the sins now that have been troubling you?” Jim said to him.

“What do you mean confessed?! I’ve never confessed.” The man replied.

“You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.” 

“I’m done now,” the man next to him said, “I’m finished.” 

“And then he grabbed my hand,” Jim said to us in the presentation, “He grabbed my hand like he’d just had a second thought, and he said to me: ‘But, I told you— I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.’”

“I unbuckled my seatbelt and I said to him: ‘Well, that’s quite alright brother.  Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. Nobody has faith inside of them— faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature.  I’m going to speak faith into you.’”

“So I unsqueezed myself from my chair and I stood up. The seatbelt sign had already dinged on and the tray tables had been secured back in their upright positions and the seats were all back up straight and proper, but I stood up over him.”

“The stewardess then— she starts yelling and fussing at me: ‘Sir— SIR— you can’t do that. Sit down. You can’t do that.’”

“I ignored her, which meant pretty soon others around us were fussing and hollering at me too. ‘You can’t do that. Sit down,’ they said to me.” 

“Can’t do it?” I said to the stewardess. “Ma’am Christ our Lord commands me to do it.”

  “And she looked back at me, scared, like she was afraid I was going to evangelize her or something. So I turned back to the man next to me and, standing up over him, I put my hand on his head and  I said: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’” 

“You— you can’t do that.” 

He whispered to me. 

“I can do it. I must. Christ compels me to do it, and I just did it and I’ll do it again.”

“So I gave him the goods again. I tipped his head back and I spoke faith into him, and I did it loud for everyone on that plane to hear it: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” 

“And just like that,” Jim said, “the man started sobbing… like somebody had stuck him. Soon his shirt was wet from all his weeping. It was like he’d become a little child again and so I sat down and I held him in my arms like I’d hold a child.”

And then Jim, in telling his story, started to weep too. 

He said:

“The stewardess and all the rest who’d been freaking out and fussing at me— they all stopped and became as silent as dead men. They knew,” he said, “something more imporant was happening right in front of them— something more important. 

“This man’s life was breaking open. Jesus Christ by his Spirit was raising this man from the dead— from being dead in his trespasses— right in front of them, and even if they didn’t know it to put it that way, they knew it was grace they were seeing. They knew it was holy.”

And telling the story, Jim looked out at the conference audience and smiled and patted his Santa Claus paunch, and he said: “After he stopped sobbing, as the plane was landing, he asked me to absolve him again, like he couldn’t get enough of the news, and so I did (‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.’), and the man laughed and wiped his eyes and he said to me: 

“Gosh, if that’s true, it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

“And I just chuckled,” Jim said, “and I told him: ‘Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.’” 

———————-

Faith in the promises of some gods come easy to all of us. Faith in the flag. Faith in tribes whose flags are the colors of our skin. Faith in the god whose altar is politics. 

Our hearts are idol factories indeed— and maybe it’s because the unconditional promise God gives us is so prodigally gratiuitous that it would take a miracle for us to believe it. Maybe we’re so quick to forge idols because faith in the Gospel is impossible.

I don’t need any help at all to believe in the Law— that’s easy. 

You ought to love your neighbor as yourself. You ought to forgive the enemy who wronged you. You ought to show compassion to those less fortunate than you. Every religion teaches those Commands; no one disagrees with them. 

I mean— if we think Christianity is about commandment-keeping then it’s no wonder we suppose it’s the same as all the other religions. It would be the same as all the other religions.

I don’t need any help at all to believe the Golden Rule. I can believe them on my own just fine— and so do you.

The same goes for the muddled concoction the church in Galatia had cooked up. If you recall from our reading last week, the Galatians had taken the Gospel and added the demands of the Law back into it, creating a kind of Glawspel. 

God has done his part (forgiving us our sins in Christ), but now, the Galatians taught, we must do our part (faithfully following his commands). 

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, the Galatians exhorted, but now God will one day judge us based on what we do with that new slate. Christianity is about deeds not creeds, the false teachers in Galatia insisted.

By your baptism, Christ has given you— freely— the riches of his righteousness. But now— the false teachers taught— you’ve got to earn it. 

The burden is back on you. 

Of course, this Gospel muddled with the Law— it makes sense: God’s done his part but you must do your part. It sounds fair. It’s no wonder Paul’s churches kept falling under the spell of false teachers. 

You’ve got to earn what you’ve been given— that strikes us as right and good. 

You don’t require any help— not really— to believe it. 

But the Gospel—

The unconditional promise that you are justified. 

You are in the right with God. 

By grace alone— by God’s irrevocable gift alone. 

In Christ alone. 

In his deed for you, not in any of your deeds for him. 

You are in the right with God, always and forever— irrevocably. By grace sola. In Christ sola. And all of this is yours— everything, he has done everything already for you— through faith sola. 

Faith alone. 

Nude faith.

Trust and nothing else. 

Nothing else— no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you will do, no matter what you’ve left undone or will leave undone, nothing— nothing in all of creation in fact— can undo what he has done for you. 

The everything he has accomplished will always be yours through faith. 

Alone. 

Who could believe that?

Paul says just before today’s text that if God in any way regards us relative to our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came for absolutely nothing. Think about that— it’s crazy and counterintuitive. 

None of the good you do matters— that’s offensive.

None of the sin you do matters— that’s immoral maybe. 

The Gospel in Paul’s shorthand to the Galatians is this: 

Christ + Anything Else at All = Nothing at All.

He’s taken your sins by his dying and rising. 

And by your baptism he’s given you his own righteousness. 

Christ + Anything Else at All = No Gospel at All. 

But it’s no wonder we add all sorts of things to this Gospel.

This Gospel of Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone— who could possibly believe it? 

It would take a miracle to believe it. 

———————-

In teaching children about the Apostles’ Creed, the Small Catechism professes: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, nor come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me into the Gospel and kept me in the faith.”

Faith is the Spirit’s doing, the catechism instructs us. 

And that way of understanding faith— it comes straight out of today’s scripture, towards the end of chapter 3 where Paul writes: “Now before faith came, we were guarded under the Law which came until faith would be revealed. Therefore the Law was our Schoolmaster until Christ came.”

Notice how the Apostle Paul speaks of faith in the same way he speaks of the Law. Notice how Paul makes faith the subject of a verb. Notice how Paul makes faith synonmous with Christ himself. 

In other words—

Just as God gave to us the Law, God gave to us Jesus Christ. 

And just as God gave to us Jesus Christ, God gives to us faith. 

That’s exactly Paul’s point here today at the top of chapter 3. When the Galatians received the Gospel in faith, Paul says— when they trusted the promise— they experienced what no one ever experienced through commandment-keeping. 

They experienced the Holy Spirit.

When they trusted the Gospel alone they experienced the Spirit because— pay attention now— it is the work of the Holy Spirit to give faith to us. 

It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to give us faith. 

I know it’s popular nowadays to pit Paul against Jesus, but Christ says the very same thing about the Holy Spirit. He says it on the night we betrayed him. 

Right after washing our feet, Jesus promises to send us the Holy Spirit, and he promises that the work of the Holy Spirit will be to convict us of our sins and to convince us of righteousness— his righteousness reckoned to us as our own. 

The Spirit is Jesus Christ’s answer to the grieving father who begs of him “Lord, help my unbelief.” 

Faith is not another work of the Law because faith is not our work. 

Faith is not even our response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. 

Faith is the work of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ upon us. 

     Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up. 

     How much faith or how little faith you have matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, whose very Spirit gives you the faith to receive him. 

      So whatever sized faith you have to receive this promise, you’re sitting on a miracle.

———————-

I know what some of you are thinking: 

In 4 months worth of sermons, Jason, you’ve not handed out any homework. You’ve given us zero Go and Do marching orders. You’ve offered up not a single exhortation about what we ought to do as Christians. 

And now— you’re telling us our faith isn’t even something we do?!   It’s all God’s doing?! 

It’s odd. 

And I think it reveals the extent to which we’re all captive to civil religion that when we hear the Gospel of justification in Christ alone by grace alone through nude faith— when we hear the promise that everything has already been done by Christ’s bleeding and dying and rising for you— it’s odd that when we hear the Gospel promise of grace, we rush to the conclusion that there’s nothing for us now to do. 

Why do we assume that the Gospel message that everything has already been done means that there’s nothing for us to do? 

Why do you think the promise that Jesus did it all leaves you with nothing to do?

How could there be nothing to do?

NOBODAY BELIEVES THIS CRAZY PROMISE! FESS UP— YOU DON’T EVEN BELIEVE THE GOSPEL MOST OF THE TIME! I ONLY BELIEVE IT HALF OF THE TIME!

HOW COULD THERE BE NOTHING FOR YOU TO DO?!

YOU HAVE ONE VERY BIG THING TO DO!

Bear witness. 

Bear witness to the absolution that is for all by grace through faith. Bear witness— this one thing could keep you busy for the rest of your life. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people who’ve screwed up their lives or screwed over people in their lives. All you need to do this one thing are sinners— people with heavy hearts, people carrying a burden of shame and a yoke of regrets. All you need for this one thing to do are sinners, and— guess what— they’re everywhere and there’s danger of them becoming endangered. 

And (just as an aside) as a pastor I can tell you—The difficulty is not in getting people to confess to you; the difficulty is in learning how to listen so you notice they’re trying to unburden themselves to you. 

This one thing is the first thing you promise to do whenever you witness a baptism. At every baptism, we promise that “With God’s help, we will proclaim the Good News.”  With the Holy Spirit’s help, we will bear witness to the absolution that is in his blood. At every baptism, you’re promising to be party and accomplice to the Spirit’s faith-making miracle.  

This one thing—

It’s actually the one and only thing the Risen Christ commands us to do. 

It’s odd. 

Whenever Christians talk about doing the things Christ commands us to do, we usually mean feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or lifting up the lowly.

That is—

we’re usually talking about the good things you need not be a Christian to agree are good things. 

 

But the one and only thing the Resurrected Jesus comands us to do is to bear witness.

It’s the one thing.

On Easter Eve, Jesus finds his frightened faithless disciples hiding behind locked doors. Peace be with you he says and says it again, Peace be with you.

And then He breathes his Holy Spirit out upon them. 

And he says to them: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, by my authority, they are forgiven them. 

The Easter Jesus commissions us, and the Holy Spirit conscripts us to bear witness to the absolution that is for all through faith, and to do it over and over and again— drilling it into sinners’ earballs— until, by the Spirit’s miracle-making, they have faith.

———————-

When we thought Jim’s airplane absolution story was over, he started to cry all over again and he said: 

“After the plane had landed, we were getting our bags down from the overhead compartment. I pulled my card out of my briefcase and I handed it to him. I told him: ‘You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do— you really do— trust and believe it.’”

And then Jim laughed a big, deep laugh and said:

 

“Wouldn’t you know it. He called me every day— every day— just to hear me declare the forgiveness of the Gospel. It got to be he couldn’t live without it. And I bore witness of it to him every day right up to the day he died.” I told him: In the name of Christ Jesus I forgive you all your sins. 

He said and paused, before adding through his tears: 

“I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear Jesus himself say to him in the next life.”

———————-

  This is what you can do even though everything has already been done. You can bear witness, offering the world the promise of forgiveness that Jesus himself will speak when this world passes away. With God as your Helper, give them the goods of Gospel absolution again and again and again…until, by some miracle, they believe it.

. 

Better Than Deserving

Jason Micheli —  November 4, 2018 — 1 Comment

We started a new series through Galatians for November. Here’s my sermon for All Saints Sunday on Galatians 1.3-9.

You could call him a saint, hang a halo around his head. 

He’s a hero of the faith— and isn’t that what we mean by that word we celebrate today? Saint, a champ of the faith. 

Maybe you saw the story. A little over 13 months ago, Albuquerque police officer Ryan Hollets responded to a routine call reporting a convenience story robbery.  As Officer Hollets later told journalists, he assumed it was a “mundane assignment I could quickly clear from the call log.” 

Officer Hollets dealt with the dispatch, exited the convenience store, and walked out into the parking lot to his squad car to leave. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw a ragged-looking couple sitting down in the grass, up against a cement wall, near a dumpster. 

As Officer Hollets approached the couple, he noticed they were shooting up. 

Heroin. 

In broad daylight.

And as he crept up closer to them, he saw something that shocked him. The woman who was shooting up herself and her companion— she was about 8 months pregnant. 

The junkie mother-to-be looked up, dazed, at Officer Hollets. A needle in her hand, not yet high, she grew agitated. When prompted, she told Officer Hollets that her name was Chrystal Champ and that she was 35 years old. 

At first, seeing her there pregnant and shooting up, Officer Hollets started to scold her. Or, as St. Paul might put it, Officer Hollets started preaching the Law at her: 

“What are you doing?! You’re going to kill your baby! You shouldn’t do that. Why do you have to be doing that stuff. It’s going to ruin your baby.” 

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, only (and always) accuses us, and that’s what it did to Chrystal Champ too. Initially she responded to Officer Hollets scolding and lay-lawing by getting defensive and angry: “How dare you judge me. I already know what I should and shouldn’t do. I know what a horrible person I am and what a horrible situation I’m in.”

Officer Hollets had turned his body camera on as he left the convenience store and approached the couple. The video footage shows him scolding Chrystal Champ and interrogating her— preaching the Law at her— for over 10 minutes. 

Until—

Chrystal Champ starts to weep. 

And then she confesses. 

She tells Officer Hollets that she has prayed desperate prayers for someone to come along and adopt her baby. And you can watch it all on the body-cam footage— something about that word adopt triggered a change in Officer Hollet’s countenance. 

Officer Hollets later said it was like something compelled him: all of a sudden he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and pulled a picture out of his wallet and showed Chrystal Champ a photograph of his wife and his 4 kids, including a 10 month old baby. 

And crouching down in front of her, he said to her, to this helpless junkie mother-to-be: “I’ll adopt your baby.”

You can see it in the footage. 

Chrystal Champ looks up at Officer Hollets, absolutely stunned at his risky, gratuitous gesture to rescue her and her baby. 

I’ll adopt your baby. 

Officer Hollets forgot to shut off his body camera. 

The rest of the footage shows him driving frantically to find his wife, who was at a party, walking up to her and telling her: “I just met a pregnant woman shooting up heroin, and I offered to adopt her baby.”

And, on camera, without hesitation— as though compelled by something— his wife said: “Okay.”

Chrystal Champ gave birth to a baby girl last October 12. 

Officer Hollets and his wife Rebecca— they named her Hope. 

Today— All Saints Sunday— seems as good a day as any to tell you his story, right?

Surely he’s the sort of Christian we’re talking about when we talk about saints. He’s got everything but the stained glass. He’s a modern day icon. What he did for Chrystal makes him a champ. 

Of the faith.  

He’s a saint. 

———————-

The problem though:

Singular stained-glass heroes— that’s not how the New Testament understands that word saint. 

We think of saints as persons of exceptional piety. We think of saints as examples of extraordinary virtue. We think of saints as role models of righteousness. And in medieval Catholic paintings artists always gilded the saints with bigger halos. But in the New Testament, saints are not examples of godly living. They’re not honor roll students in the school of holier than thou. 

That’s why, beginning 501 years ago this week, Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers tore down all that artwork from church altars. 

If saints were role models for right living and righteous doing, then you can be damn sure St. Paul never would’ve called the Christians in Corinth saints. 

Saints would be the last word you’d use to describe the Corinthians— that would be like calling Chrystal Champ instead of Ryan Hollets a saint. 

But that’s exactly how the Apostle Paul addresses his letters to the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those saints in Christ Jesus…”

Read the rest of those letters. 

The church at Corinth was more messed up (in a bible-bad kind of way) than a Bill Clinton-Donald Trump sponsored bachelor party in Vegas.

And yet Paul calls them saints. 

Congregants at Corinth— these supposed saints— were having sex with their mothers-in-law. These so-called saints were getting drunk at the communion table, and they were mean drunks too because they kept the poor from sitting at the communion table with them. 

Saints?

There’s a reason Paul had to lecture them that love is patient and kind. They weren’t any kind of either. 

Yet Paul calls them saints, holy ones. 

And not just the Corinthians:

The Ephesians— despite being one Body in Christ, they persisted in treating strangers and immigrants as strangers and immigrants,. And yet, even though they did not practice what he preached, Paul calls them saints too. 

And the Christians in Rome— Paul didn’t even know them; he only knew they had a serious problem with making distinctions between good people and bad people, but despite their behavior Paul calls them saints. 

Same goes for the Philippians— Paul calls them saints from his jail cell, all of them. 

No remainder. 

And the Galatian Christians, Paul calls them— no.

Nada. 

Not a one.

———————-

When it comes to the Galatians, Paul is all piss and vinegar. Have you read it? Galatians reads more like an angry election-season Facebook rant than an epistle. 

Not only does Paul refuse to call them saints, he completely skips past the customary salutations. He grabs them by the collar and gets right down to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4: 

…the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free according to the will of God our Father.

By the time you get to verse 7, Paul’s calling them perverts, cussing at them and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them. Why is Paul so torqued off at them? 

Why aren’t they saints?

The Galatians weren’t sleeping with their in-laws. None of them were turning the eucharist in to a keg stand. They weren’t neglecting the poor among them. They weren’t treating strangers and aliens with suspicion. As far as behavior goes, the Galatians were better than all the rest. 

The Galatians were role models of right living and righteous doing. They were singular stained glass do-gooders. The Galatians were so hard core about being Christ’s hands and feet to the world for the sake of the least, the lost, and the left behind that they exhorted one another to be super-disciples. 

How can super-disciples not be reckoned saints? 

If anyone should get gilded with bigger halos it should be the Galatians. 

Yet somehow holy scripture does not call them saints. 

Why?

———————-

The Letter to the Galatians is proof that deep-down, despite what we sing and say on Sundays, we’re addicted to bad news not the Good News. 

Like a lot of Christians today, the Galatians assumed they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ and him crucified 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 now? 

The Galatians insisted. 

The Galatians took the Gospel for granted. 

They turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all, Paul says, 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.

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

As Paul goes on to say in chapter 2: If God in any way regards us based on our obedience to his teachings and commands, then Jesus Christ came and died and was raised for absolutely nothing. 

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

There can be no middle ground at all between: “Christ has done everything for you” and “This is what you must do.” There’s no reconciliation between those two. 

Scripture doesn’t say: While were yet sinners, Christ died for us, on the condition that eventually we would become the kind of people no one would ever have had to die for in the first place. Otherwise the whole deal is off.

No.

Jesus Christ came and Jesus Christ yet comes— in word and water and wine and bread— not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improvable. 

Christ came and Christ comes still to raise you who are dead in your trespasses. 

And— I do more funerals than you all, I can testify firsthand— corpses don’t contribute anything to their resurrection. 

Thus Paul’s emphatic point in Galatians: 

There are irreconcilable differences between “Christ has done everything necessary for you” and “This is what you must do.” 

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in 6 words is this: 

Christ plus anything else is nothing.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it. The way to annul the unconditional promise of the Gospel is to add obligation to it:

This is what you must do now— as a Christian. This is who you must be now. This is the lifestyle you must have now. This is how you should spend your money now.  This is who you’re not allowed to love now. This is how you must vote now. This is the issue you must advocate now. This is the candidate you must resist now. 

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add extras to it, modify it:

progressive Christian, conservative Christian, social justice Christian, family values Christian, inclusive Christian, traditional Christian.

No.

The Gospel message is not the Army’s message. It’s not Be All You Can Be. You don’t need to die to self or do anything because the promise of the Gospel is that you have already died with Christ.  You have been crucified with him for all your sins.  And by your baptism, all of you, warts and all, is in him. You don’t need to become anyone else.

The easiest way to erase the Gospel is to add to it. Be better, do better, build a better world. 

The Gospel message is something else entirely. The Gospel message is not Here is what you must do. The Gospel is Everything has already been done. By another. For you.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel at all. In fact, 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— the teachings and commands of God— you can’t pick and choose.

You can’t say I’ll advocate for the poor and oppressed but protecting the unborn—- really not my issue. 

Likewise, you can’t say I’m for protecting the vulnerable in the womb but when it comes to the vulnerable at the border— not my problem.

I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to point out how when it comes to our obedience under God’s Law there is no distinction between any of us. 

All of us fall short. Not one of us is righteous, not one. 

When it comes to the teachings and commands of God, there’s no A for effort. 

It’s all or nothing, God says.  

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 in Galatia, 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. 

But Christ already fulfilled the Law perfectly.  

He was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

For you.

His perfect record— it’s your inheritance, scripture promises. 

Notice, scripture doesn’t call it your wage. Something you earn. Something you deserve. Scripture says it’s your inheritance. 

Something gifted to you freely by way of another’s death. 

Something better than deserving. 

Something you need only receive in trust.

Trust— faith, alone— that’s why Paul doesn’t call them saints. 

———————-

The word saint, sanctus, simply means “holy.” 

As the theologian Robert Jenson says, what makes the God of the Old and New Testaments holy, in distinction from us, is God’s ability to make and keep unconditional promises. Only God can make and keep unconditional promises because only God is not bounded by death. 

What makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise.

Therefore, what constitutes God’s People as holy is not decency, cleanliness, propriety, temperance, civility, or sobriety. The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, eating and drinking and befriending scoundrels and sinners, was in no wise “holy” and Jesus had harsh words for those begrudgers who presumed to be so “holy.”

If what makes God holy is God’s ability to make and keep an unconditional promise, then what makes us holy is how we relate to God’s unconditional promise. 

Holiness is not about behavior.. Holiness is about belief— trust— in the promise of God.

Holiness is not about being good or doing good. Holiness is about trusting the good work God has done for you in Jesus Christ.

The unconditional promise we call the Gospel.

If holiness is about trust— faith— then:

The opposite of vice is not virtue. 

The opposite of sin is not sinlessness. 

The opposite of vice and sin is faith. 

Which means:

Saints are not those who’ve managed to live their lives carrying around their necks bigger and heavier millstones than the average rest of us. 

Saints are just sinners who know— by faith— that they’ve been rescued. 

Adopted undeservedly into Christ.

They’re not so much champs of faith like Officer Ryan Hollets. 

They’re more like…well, they’re more like Chrystal Champ.

———————-

Chrystal Champ had been homeless for over 2 years when Officer Hollets encountered her. She’d been battling a heroin and crystal meth addition since she was a teenager, scraping up $50 a day to score hits. She’d tried before, multiple times, to get clean. 

She told the press: “I’d tried before to do good, to be good, to change. Every time, I failed. It had me captive. Every time I tried to save myself it just kept coming back to ruin my life.”

Not incidentally, Chrystal Champ has been clean and sober nearly a year this week. When asked what made this time different than all the others up and down the wagon, Chrystal Champ chalked it up to her rescue.

She chalked it up to the nature of her rescue.

Remembering the change in Officer Hollet’s countenance, how he’d crouched down and condescended to her with his offer (I’ll adopt your baby), Chrystal Champ said recently: 

“It was like, all of a sudden, he became one of us. A human being. Not high and mighty, a police officer, but one of us…The way he rescued me…I didn’t deserve it…I guess it’s just changed me.”

The good news— 

If super-disciples like the Galatians are not saints, then saints are not sinless stained-glass heroes. 

Which is how on All Saints Sunday, you all get to light so many candles today for so many imperfect Christians. 

We can light those candles for them without lying about them. 

The crazy fun and folly of the Gospel is that when it comes to holiness— 

Thanks to the cross, the bar ain’t that high. 

Saints are just sinners without a trust problem.

     

 

     

 

John 13 – Manrique and Tricia

 

Manrique, here it is— the big day.

After all the planning, after all the anticipation, after all the anxiety and chagrin that maybe this day would never come for you and you’d be left, alone, to be a canine version of a crazy cat person— after everything— the big day is finally here. And I only have one last pre-marital question for you.

Manrique, here it is: What are you thinking!?

What in the world are you thinking? How can Serendipity be your favorite romantic comedy? It’s bad enough that rom-coms are your favorite genre, but Serendipity isn’t even in the Top 3 John Cusack romantic comedies. Someone who prefers a soapy rom-com like Serendipity might not be able to appreciate a scripture text like tonight’s, but surely an english major like Tricia can discern the paradox in the passage— the paradox that we see the most high God by looking down. Maybe it takes an english major to savor the irony that the most high Lord reveals himself to us as the most low.

Like Manrique taking off his tool belt, this son of a carpenter takes off his outer robe. He stoops down on his knees. The fingers that crafted the universe bear callouses like Manrique’s, and, no longer content to paint the cosmos, they wash our feet painted with dirty and stink and sweat.

And when Jesus stands up, a bowl of brown water beside him, he says he’s just given us an example.

Of love.

Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel that the two greatest commandments in the Law are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The problem though—

The Bible also says that Christ is the end of the Law and its commands, including that bit about loving God and neighbor like we love us.

It’s not that love isn’t important in the New Testament. The apostle Paul tells the Romans that all of the ten commandments are summed up by loving others while St. Peter writes in his own letter that loving others covers a multitude of our sins.

But if Christ is the end of the Law, then is the love commended by Peter and prescribed by Paul the love commanded by the Law? Is it the same love like we love ourselves love?

Notice what Jesus says here, notice exactly how he puts it: “A new command I give you (this is something different). Love one another as I have loved you.”

NOT as you love yourself.
Love one another as I have loved you.

Christ is the end of the commandments, even the greatest commandment.
Christ is the end of a love that need not go further than self-love as the standard.

The old commandments are over and done. Christ has given us a new command, and it’s no wonder Peter didn’t want God washing his feet. The way he has loved us is nothing like the way we love even ourselves. Jesus broke bread with those he knew would betray him with a kiss. Three times he forgave Peter who cheated him on thrice. He gave his life not for the good but for the ungodly.

The golden rule and all the rest are bygones from a covenant Christ has closed with his cross.

The good news is that Jesus isn’t a liar. He really does give us a burden that is lighter of obligations. The bad news is that the only obligation attached to Jesus’ yoke is what Christians call grace, which is a lot less amazing when you’ve got to give it.

Because, by definition, everyone to whom you give it is undeserving.

Love like this, Jesus says.

The apostle Paul summarizes that sort of love by saying that in Christ God was in the world not counting our trespasses against us. The new command isn’t to remember to love another as we love ourselves; the command of Christ is to love that remembers to forget the sins sinned against us.

Not to quash the mood— a life lived with another exposes the worst in us. Marriage would be hard enough if the love we talk about when we talk about love was the love of the Law, love with self-love as the standard. Unfortunately, it’s even harder. It’s a love that leaves the ledger book behind and— take it from any married person here— those ledgers would have plenty of ink spilt in them if we could hold on to them.

By your “I do” you’re pledging “I won’t” when it comes to the tit-for-tat score-keeping by which we game the rest of our lives.

Forgive but don’t forget goes the cliche, but for Christians, especially in Christians caught up in a marriage, there’s no distinction between the two, for forgiveness just is forgetting— forgetting to count the slights and sins suffered by way of the other.

This is the new law of love Jesus commands.

This is the love you pledge one another in his name.

Bride and groom not only forsake all others from their hearts, they forsake also the calculators we all carry around with us— the ones we covet in order to balance the credits and debits we’ve accrued between us.

Without a calculator, you’ve no recourse but to take each other at your word that all will be forgiven and forgotten.

In other words—

As it is with the Beloved’s unconditional promise called the Gospel so it is with your beloved’s unconditional promise called Marriage. There’s nothing for you to do in response to it but trust it.

And just as in the preached word of the Gospel, from this day forward, God is present on the lips of your every “I do.”

Today your marriage becomes a manger for the Word of God.

Therefore, there is no other clearer way of imitating the love revealed to us in Jesus Christ than in the divine amnesia you promise to practice on each other everyday.

This new command of Christ— a love that forgets how to count— henceforth it makes your marriage more of a ministry than any soup kitchen or service project. And it means you will never have any holier vocation than the grace you bestow with your daily “I do” to the (often) undeserving other.

This new command—

This way of grace-giving is in no way a guarantee for happily.

But it is the way the two of you together become a parable of the One who is Ever After for all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Graveside Wedding

Jason Micheli —  October 23, 2018 — Leave a comment

Graveside services are tricky. Families expect more than a drive-by dirt throwing, but invariably it’s cold or hot or rainy or windy and there’s never enough seats. I admire Catholic priests— its more difficult to preach clearly with concision. Here’s my best, thrown together 20 mins before the service, effort:

Psalm 121

John 14

I can’t speak for you, but I can say that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of their scripture a belief in life after death.

Take those together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus Christ. But you’re here to bury your beloved, earth to earth and ashes to ashes.

Except the language of earth-to-earth and ashes-to-ashes won’t quite do today because you’ve chosen to pay your respects by reading Jesus’ promise in John 14.

“I go to prepare a place for you…”

“I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

As often as we hear that line read on days like today, it’s actually an allusion to a bretrothal not a burial. Before a Jewish wedding, the Bridgeroom would go and build an addition to his father’s house where the newlyweds would live once they were wed. Once the addition on the father’s house was finished, the Bridegroom would return to wed his wife and take her to his home. 

This line we associate with death is actually an allusion to a wedding, which maybe isn’t as surprising as it sounds given the fact that the most common analogy Jesus draws to the Kingdom of God is that of a wedding feast a wedding party. 

And St. Paul, for his part continues mixing the funeral and wedding metaphors, when he writes that our baptism in to Christ’s death and resurrection is the means by which Jesus Christ betrothes us to himself. 

Unconditionally.

Irrevocably. 

That’s a better deal for your Alice then than even the Psalmist can put it in Psalm 121– the Lord doesn’t just watch our coming and going forevermore. By his bleeding and dying and our baptism into it, God in Jesus Christ has wed us to himself and, by his resurrection, that is a betrothal that not even death can tear asunder. 

And as it is at any wedding, every bride brings with her into her marriage every memory that has made her who she is until she says “I do” to her groom.

In other words— 

Just as the Risen Jesus still bears the scars life gave, just as nothing of Jesus’ life is lost in his death and resurrection

Neither is any part of your Alice lost in the love we call the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

God doesn’t forget anything about us but our sins; so that, we will celebrate at the wedding feast with one another minus nothing but the sins still between us.

When Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a wedding feast, he says that people will come from east and west and north and south to gather at the banquet table. 

The wedding party Christians call the resurrection, therefore, will be like any wedding party worth the expense and the hassle— it will be a reunion of friends, family, and loved ones, drunk uncles and prick elder brothers, scoundrels and saints all served the same feast-going fare because the Bridegroom’s Father has not spared any expense.

Indeed he’s saved the very best vino for us for last.

The Right to be Wrong

Jason Micheli —  October 22, 2018 — Leave a comment

I continued our fall series on the Questions God Asks Us by looking at Mark 12 and Jesus’ question to our question about money and politics.

This question about taxes to Caesar and the Law of God itself violates the Law of God, Jesus implies.

Jesus responds to their question about the commandments with another commandment, a commandment given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “Do not put the Lord your God to test,” the same commandment Jesus recites when tempted by the devil in the desert. In other words, our question to Jesus about Caesar’s claim on our stuff makes us sound like satan.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

“But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them: ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’”

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Should we or shouldn’t we, Jesus? Yes or no?”

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. And the Gospel story ends with Pontius Pilate killing Jesus— on what charges? On the charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen.

Incidentally, this same tax where we get the word gospel from in the first place.

In ancient Rome, that word gospel referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the awesome privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.

The Roman head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint. The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter— just a quarter, less than a cup of coffee. So it’s not that the tax was onerous. It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: “Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.”

Carrying the coin broke the first and most fundamental Law: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

And because it broke the Law of God, the coin rendered anyone who carried it under God’s wrath.
The coin made anyone who carried it ritually unclean; therefore, it couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped. You see how the system works?

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

You see— what they’re really asking here is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that— in order to see what they’re really asking— you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place during Holy Week, on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus pitches a temple tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.

And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history. 200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. The Sledgehammer traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before he becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean— he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band Judas the Galilean rode into Jerusalem to shouts of what? Hosanna. Judas the Galilean cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.

Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years just like. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is to declare a revolution, to stand up to injustice, to deliver the oppressed, to cast down the principalities and powers from their thrones.

To take up the sword.

That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? That’s the real question.

Come down off the fence, Jesus. Which side are you on, Jesus? And Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me [the Lord your God] to the test?”

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their president. Wait, bad analogy. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Ted Cruz asking Donald Trump to stump for him. Wait, that doesn’t work either.

You get the picture— the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. This is important. If you don’t get this, you don’t get it. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options. And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought the adminstration was making Israel great again. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and— even if it took a sword— Rome had brought stability to the tinderbox called Israel.

The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. They were the resistance movement. The Pharisees were bible- believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and Son of God printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a grass-roots, righteous revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff. They’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.

“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’

If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be?
The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
Check the box, Jesus.
What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’

And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is eikon, the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be eikons of God.

Eikons of Caesar.
Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for give isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.

When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means give, as in “to present a gift.”

But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus uses the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier.

Jesus says:

“Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.”

You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is? What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him. But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?
Everything.
Everything.

Jesus is saying is: “You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.”

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation, you mustn’t give to your Tribe—

You mustn’t give to those things, what they ask of you:
ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.

The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.

They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different just of a different hue. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

His movement was about defeating his opponents by dying for them.
His movement was about overcoming their sin by suffering it in their stead.

That while we were yet his enemies, Jesus the Galilean took up not a sword or a sledgehammer but a cross.

And that qualifies all our politics.

If you’re like me, then every election season social media proves to be a good and uplifting use of your time.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric post and tweet and like and share this week; the Bible has a word for how we scream at each other with our signs and fence ourselves off with hashtags and draw lines always with ourselves on the faithful side of the righteousness equation.

Idolatry— that’s the Bible’s word.

And for some, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan election season prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

Don’t put Jesus in a box.
Don’t make Jesus choose sides.
Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party.
Or against that Party,

Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue.
Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda, should support this issue.
Don’t insist that this or that Christian value ought to have only a one-party solution.

Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.

I mean, it should chasten all of us in our political pride that the only scene resembling anything like a democratic election in the Bible is when we shout crucify him, casting our vote on Good Friday for Barabbas rather than Jesus Christ.

So that’s my election season exhortation to you:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

You’ve been stamped with a different image.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself— that’s my prescription for you.

Considering the supposed stakes this election season, I realize how that probably sounds like a modest prescription. But maybe modesty is the best policy. Given what the Gospel reveals about us and what was required for us— for our redemption— maybe modesty is the best policy.

Don’t do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself.
Of course, as much as you might like me to do so, I can’t conclude there.

If I left it there, if I ended only on Do or Don’t Do, I’d leave you having just given you moralism pimped out in theological drag. The fact is— what I’ve given you thus far doesn’t even qualify as preaching because— modest or not— prescription is not proclamation. Exhortation about what you need to do for God is not the same thing as the announcement of the news of what God has done for you.

The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, is not the Gospel, and the Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ for us not to our work for God.

The Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ; therefore, the Gospel stories are not primarily collections of teachings Jesus taught about this or that topic.

They’re stories about Jesus, about his work for us. Indeed the entire Bible— it’s not an encyclopedia of the universe; it’s about Jesus, from first to last.  The center and circumference of all of scripture is Christ and his grace given to you freely by his bleeding and dying and rising.

Which means— our passage today ultimately is not about us or what we should do or not do this election season. It’s about Jesus Christ and what he has done to elect us for himself.

To turn today’s text into nothing more than a teaching on how we should regard our money or our politics or our relationship to the state, as Gerhard Forde says, it’s to misuse the very best thing in the worst manner.

It’s to turn the Gospel back into the Law.

Because notice— notice the Gospel promise in this passage:

‘“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denariuus and let me see it.””

And they all reach into their pockets to produce one.
But notice— Jesus had to ask for one.

The coin that condemns us under the Law— Christ isn’t carrying one.

His pockets are empty.

He alone among us is fully faithful.

He alone among us is obedient.
He alone is blameless.
He alone is righteous.

Just as Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus says that he’s come in the flesh— not to judge and condemn sinners, not to turn sinners into non-sinners, not to set sinners straight so they’ll fly right— in order to fulfill all righteousness.

For us.
In our place.

Jesus is our substitute not only on the cross but in his faithfulness.

He comes in order to fulfill all the righteousness required by the Law.

And that righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect score, the Bible promises— it’s gifted to you, gratis and forever, at your baptism.

The currency exchange that matters in Mark’s Gospel isn’t what happens with the moneychangers outside the Temple; it’s what the ancient church fathers and mothers called the Great Exchange wherein our unrighteousness is imputed to Christ, as though our sin was his own, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as though it were our own.

Christ isn’t carrying the coin that condemns. His pockts are empty. He alone among us is righteous. But in taking the unclean coin from our hands, Christ takes our sin into his own hands. And then two days later takes our sin in his body to a tree.

The baptism of his death and resurrection is a refining fire that has rendered all of you purer than silver and more precious than gold no matter what you render to Caesar.

You see, it’s a snapshot of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, sinners like us might become the righteousness of God.”

That’s the Gospel promise hidden in this Gospel story, like a seed sown in a field.

What is yours is his now, your sin.
And what belongs to him is yours always, his righteousness.

Where we worship idols at the altar of politics, he loved God with all of his heart and all of mind and all of his soul and all of his strength— and all of his faithfulness is as good as yours by grace through your baptism.

Where our pocketbooks prove that we have no King but Caesar, he brought down the mighty from their thrones by being lifted up on his cross— his victory, by grace through your baptism, it’s as though you had won it by your own obedience.

Where we fail to render to God the everything that belongs to God and give a lot more heartburn and bother to the Rome we call America, by grace through your baptism you are credited as blameless as Jesus Christ himself.

You bet your ass that’s too good and too prodigal (and too offensive maybe) to believe.

Of course it is— that’s why you need a preacher.

That’s why you need the church, that’s why you need water and wine and bread.

You need tangible, audible reminders of the Gospel promise that you need not worry— ever— because your ledger will never run red because you’ve been washed in his blood.
Maybe that’s why Jesus implies we sound like satan when we ask him our questions about what we should do.

With our money.
With our politics.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet or what you do with it— for that matter, it doesn’t matter what skeletons are in your closet; for that matter, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the closet— or out of the closet— because by your baptism you’ve been clothed irrevocably with Christ’s own righteousness.

To get hung up on another’s unfaithfulness or sin— to get hung up on your own sin— it’s like stealing from Jesus.

All of it belongs to Christ now.
Cling instead to what Christ has given you.

What justifies you before God is Christ’s faithfulness and death not your faith in his death, and your not faithful doings in response to his death.

By grace, through your baptism— your credit score is always now Christ himself.
His permanent perfect record is yours, and there’s no take-backs or do-overs.
God is not an Indian Giver.
There is therefore now no undoing it.
So there—
There’s the Gospel promise attached to the modest prescription I gave you.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t insist that Jesus fit into your red or blue box.

You don’t need to.

Because you’ve been gifted Christ’s own righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

When it comes to politics or your marriage or anything else— there’s no pressure, no stakes, no score-keeping.

You’re free to fail.
You’re free to make foolish choices.
You’re free to make sinful ones.

You have the right to be wrong.

Because you already have Christ’s perfect righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.

And here’s the rub:
So does your neighbor. They have the right to be wrong too.

God is Not a Pharaoh

Jason Micheli —  October 8, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sound familiar? 

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

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

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

     That’s Exodus 1.9

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

     That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition) 

     So what’s Pharaoh do? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

     A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach. 

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

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

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

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

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

     And Jesus gives us his own Law. 

     Jesus commands us to work for justice. 

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

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

     God is for them. 

     You have a a duty to be for them too. 

     Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     We would be free, Nietzsche predicted. 

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

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

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

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

     He was wrong. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Says McClay: 

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

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

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

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

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

     We’re captives to guilt. 

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

     But…he says

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

     We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness. 

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

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

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

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

     It’s true-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not news.

That’s moralism.

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

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

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

      This never stops being true for you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion: 

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

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

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

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

     That’s a history professor, not a preacher. 

     Translation:

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

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

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

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

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

That’s our unique vocation.

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

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

     And the Gospel is not the Law. 

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

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

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

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

     This news- 

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

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

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

 

     

     

     

     

 

The Gospel is Not…

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

 

No Ground for Boasting

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

Why did you do that to yourself?! 

God told me. 

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

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

There’s jokes we could make about the Bible. 

Jokes like:

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

Speaking of the 7th Commandmet:

Why is divorce is so expensive?

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

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

Jokes like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know that story? 

Check this out:

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

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

They laugh at Jesus. 

What was the punchline? 

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

Life from Death. 

Good news in the face of grief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s funny— these are not impressive people. 

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

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

He lied about her. 

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

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

But before you start feeling sorry for Sarah, remember. 

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

What a joke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course (Haha!) the joke’s on us. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice—

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

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

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

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

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

Listen— this is no laughing matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s give Sarah the benefit of the doubt. 

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

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

 

Righteousness. 

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

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

You got it? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put it this way:

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

 

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

Righteousness. Justice. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here’s a joke:

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

Mom.

Here’s another:

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

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

I know. They can’t all be pearls. 

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

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

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

He brings nothing to table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewayne’s free now. 

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

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

Told me how the case almost ruined his marriage. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s funny. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is not great.

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

They actually call themselves ‘Brights.’

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

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

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

He steals from Freud:

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

He steals from Ludwig Feuerbach:

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

He steals from Woody Allen:

God is not great.

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

He steals from Nietzsche.

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

He steals from Kant.

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

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

Take Elisha.

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

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

What do we say about Elisha?

 

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

Or-

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

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

Or instead-

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could argue that.

If you did-

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

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

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

You could argue that.

And you could take it a step further-

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

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

You could argue that.

And many have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you rather torture a cat or date your mother?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he summarized my psychological test results:

I usually thought I was right and others were wrong.

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

I still had many doubts about my faith.

My family of origin was broken and troubled.

I had a tendency to be contrary and confrontational.

I could be abrasive and short-tempered.

I may have trouble working well with others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

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

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

That which is most embarrassing is most true.

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

And the prophet Elisha-

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

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

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

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

You would choose people:

who were always strong in their faith

who never wavered in their commitment to God

whose character was pure and spotless

You would choose saints:

who never drank too much

who were never seduced by money or prosperity

who never chose the wrong side

who never made a rash decision

who never forgot their purpose in life

who never lashed out in anger

who never escalated a petty argument

who never broke a promise or a vow.

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

Biblical scholars call it the ‘criterion of embarrassment.’

But you and I- we call it grace.

I hate Christopher Hitchens.

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

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

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

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

I think he’s shallow, reptilian and obnoxious.

He’s cruel in his sarcastic judgments.

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

I can’t stand Christopher Hitchens.

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

Isn’t God great?

Should’ve Stayed in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2018 — 2 Comments

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

 

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

Stupid kid.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich honor roll student from the suburbs comes up to him with a question. And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile millenial types. So Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.  

    ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus asks him: “Why do you call me good?” And then Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything last thing you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’

They watch the rich young man walk away.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s impossible even.’

Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

    It’s just not just the Top Ten:

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

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

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

That’s not their purpose.

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

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

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

To accuse us.

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

———————-

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

The primary function of the Law is theological.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-  

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

You must be perfect. 

As perfect as God himself. 

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

How’s that going for you?

———————-

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

Yeah. Right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

For you.

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

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

———————-

He did what you cannot do for yourself.

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

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

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

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

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

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

Nothing. 

You don’t have to do anything. 

Just throw yourself on Christ’s mercy. 

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

Search History

Jason Micheli —  September 9, 2018 — 3 Comments

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

Let’s not dicker around. 

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

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

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

Every last one of them.

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

Amen.

There you go. 

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

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

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

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

———————-

Why are you hiding?

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

So why are you hiding?

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

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

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

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

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

As Seth Stevens begins his essay: 

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

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

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

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

We lie. 

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

Says Stevens:

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

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

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

Is my husband cheating?

#myhusbandisthebest

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

But Google knows us better than Facebook. 

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

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

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

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

And the words most often used in searches about Muslims: 

Stupid

Evil

Kill.

In fact, according to Google’s seach history:

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

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

It gets worse. 

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

Says Seth Stevens in his essay:

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

It’s not just our prejudice we hide. 

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

Survey says we’re sinners. 

We lie. 

And we hide. 

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. 

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

So, my first point: we are lost. 

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

Where— God’s question is about location. 

Meaning, our problem is about lostness. 

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

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

How could you have betrayed me, Adam?!

What did you do?!

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

God asks: Where are you?

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

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

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

And what’s the Hebrew word for blame?

Satan. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see, God is a loquacious God. 

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

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

————————

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

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

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

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

You are sought. 

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

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

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

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

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

Because—

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

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

———————-

  And that brings me to my final point. 

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

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

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

For you nerds, you can put it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

But one form of words worked

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

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

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

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

God’s gospel word works.

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

The gospel is the word by which God does. 

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

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

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

God gave them animal skins to wear. 

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

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

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

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

God became your neighbor. 

God sacrificed. 

God gave himself for you. 

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

God clothes you with Christ’s righteouness. 

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

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

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

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

Mortalism Not Moralism

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

Dear Aaron, Ryan, and Maddie,

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

This is the day you died. 

Hold up, kids. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God baptized you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The armor of God is about something done to you.

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

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

Permanently. 

You got that? 

Permanently.

No amount of prodigal living can undo it. 

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

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

Pay attention kids-

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

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

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

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

Christianity isn’t about moralism.

Christianity is about mortalism. 

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

You have Christ. 

Christ’s faith. 

You’ve been clothed with it. 

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

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

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

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

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie- 

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

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

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

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

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

No condemnation.

And thus, no conditions. 

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

All your sins are free. 

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

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

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

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

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

God will bless you even if you’re bad.

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

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

They’re easy to identify, kids. 

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

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

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

Someone named Aaron should know better.

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

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

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

Remember-

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

Aaron, Ryan, Maddie-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skeptical? 

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

Still not buying it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

All your sins are free.

Don’t get me wrong, kids.

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

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

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

Look kids, brass tacks time:

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

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

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

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

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

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. 

It doesn’t make you nice and clean.

It makes you new.

After first making you dead.

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

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