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A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

adcfd2d05c188b8c49c4a8f5f709e357Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher.  They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.

Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.

Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.

I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?

Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?

I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?

And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?

With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?

Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?

—————

Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.

With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.

And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.

And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.

Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.

We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.

And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”

The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.

No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s over the top.

It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.

Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.

You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?

Bam.

We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork. 

And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     What? 

No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

     You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.

For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.

—————

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.

As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.

It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners.

I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.

We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.

We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.

No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.

I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.

They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:

Sin is about where your love lies.

Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change.

Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.

Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional- unchanging- because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.

Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.

Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No.

When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.

God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.

You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.

Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.

And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

9781501824753Bishop Will Willimon, author of Fear of the Other, was our guest preacher the Sunday after Trumpocalypse. His text was Romans 5. Not only is the book dedicated to Donald Trump (…without whose xenophobia ‘I wouldn’t have been asked to write this book.’) it’s an incredibly timely book for those who are repulsed by Trump and how we’re to love the ungodly which surely includes even Donald Trump.

“We’ve got to love the ungodly…even an ungodly liar like Donald Trump.”

Listen to it.

 

 

The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  November 14, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dHere’s my sermon from our Saturday evening worship service. At the last minute, given the cultural climate post-election, I chose Mark 12.13-17 as my text. 

For the last 18 months, according to the Principalities and Powers, this Tuesday’s election was supposed to be the most important event in our lifetimes if not in history, an odd and hyperbolic claim for Christians to accept given that the only democratic election portrayed in the Gospels is when we choose Barrabbas over Jesus.

Christians are right to be passionate about the candidates and causes for whom they advocated; likewise, Christians are right to feel somewhere between fearful to righteously appalled over the rhetoric with which Tuesday’s results were purchased.

 Still, as divided as we are as a country, as euphoric as some are over Tuesday’s results and as distraught as others are over Tuesday’s results-

it’s hard to imagine Christians in the first century were so preoccupied as us with whether it would be Nero or Britannicus who would succeed the Emperor Claudius.

That’s because Christians in the first century already were shorn of the mythologies into which we as American Christians have been enculturated. Many of us have been conditioned by the liturgies of Civil Religion to believe that America is the Kingdom and to believe, as a matter of consequence, that the Republican and Democratic parties are mutually exclusive means to serve that Kingdom.

The first Christians knew, as a fundamental of their, what we do not. They knew as basic correlative of their confession that Rome was not the Kingdom.

And knowing that Rome was not the Kingdom, the first Christians knew better than we that the politics made available to them by Rome were not God’s politics.

But rather in world captive to the politics called empire, God had taken flesh and sent his Spirit in order to make a different politics possible- the politics we call Church.

     The Church doesn’t have a politics; as Stanley Hauerwas says, the Church is a politics. 

————————

    The way Jesus negotiates the question put to him in Mark 12 clarifies that statement: The Church doesn’t have a politics; the Church is a politics.

Before I continue, I should point out that Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.

Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill.

To insure I don’t end up, like Jesus, on a cross at the end of this scripture, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.

I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?” 

The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.

I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.

Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.

Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt.

And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On 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. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

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 important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean.

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 it works?

      “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

     What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place 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 has a temper 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. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer 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 he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he 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. 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 declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:

           Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question.

     Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on?

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 nominee. And that’s not even an exaggeration because 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. 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 government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to 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.

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. 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 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, and 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.

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 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 can’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. 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. Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents. His movement was about dying for his opponents.

And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.

—————-

     If you’re like me, social media has been a good and uplifting use of your time this week.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric we’ve posted and tweeted and liked and shared this week.

Idolatry.

And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan post-election 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 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. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda or demonize those who disagree.

Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. Because we’re more complicated than 140 characters and 30 second soundbites. And so is the Gospel.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.

You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.

But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics.

    Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him? 

You’re mixing up God and Caesar.

You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus.

You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Because when you do-

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom:

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;

where grace is offered, free of charge;

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;

where peace isn’t a soundbite but a practice;

where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you.

Us. The Church.

We’re Jesus’ politics.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

—————–

In case you missed it, here’s our Post Election Live Edition of Friday’s with Fleming (Rutledge):

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dOne of the gifts of starting a podcast is that, by virtue of having interviewed him late this spring, I’ve become pen pals with my theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas.

He encouraged me to post this sermon which he wrote to preach at Duke Divinity School today, Election Day.

Elected: A Sermon for Duke Divinity School

November 8, 2016

Isaiah 65:15-25/Psalm 98/II Thessalonians 3:6-13/Luke 21: 5-19

Jesus just does not seem to “get it.”  We should not be surprised as he often did not seem to understand what should or should not be said if he wanted to have followers.  He just did not get how there are better and worse ways to say certain things that need to be said; things that should be said carefully.  As we have been reminded of late, “words matter.”  Jesus should have tried to find a less direct way to say what he feared might happen to the Temple.

Speaking directly, however, seems to have been a habit Jesus could not break.  For example, Jesus surely over stated his case when he suggested that we must hate father and mother, wife and children if we are to follow him.  Hating brothers and sisters may be closer to the mark, but even that seems an exaggeration.  (Luke 14: 25-28)  But the real howler is his claim that the temple will end in ruins.  You just do not make those kinds of claims if you want to be elected messiah.  At least you do not make those kinds of claims about the temple around the people of Israel. He surely must have known how to say what needed to be said so what is said could be heard.

That Jesus spoke so directly is an indication that he was not trying to create a democratic coalition.  He held the ancient offices of Israel.  He was prophet, priest, and king. Those positions were not bestowed on him by an election.  Moreover, how his life reconfigured each of those offices is a story in itself.

Even as he taught as one with authority, he did not act as if his authority depended on a majority vote.  Rather his authority seemed to come directly from who he was.  That is, he was the messiah who is truth itself and thus the One who speaks the truth.  The truth is the temple will be destroyed, and Jesus can speak that truth because he speaks of his own destruction.  Jesus is the priest who is at once the altar and the sacrifice.

In troubling his listeners, Jesus doesn’t attempt to persuade but rather trusts that the Spirit will reveal, without ambiguity, to those who have ears to hear that he is the messiah, the One who will be raised again in glory.

In our epistle reading for the day, we come across yet another striking example of someone who lacked political savvy. Saul was knocked off his horse in an encounter with the risen Christ. As a result, Saul becomes Paul and assumes the title “apostle.”  As far as we know Paul was not elected by anyone other than God to be an apostle to the Gentiles.  Yet he assumes he has authority to tell the Thessalonians what to do.  So he issues a command.  To be sure it is a command “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but it is still a command made by Paul.  Paul does not lead by suggesting, “I think you would find this a good idea.”  He says: I command you to stay away from those who live in idleness.  Those living in idleness may assume that there is no need to work because they think they heard me say that all things are coming to an end, but they are mistaken about what I am about and they thereby should be avoided.  Paul even has the audacity to say, “imitate me.”

Accordingly Paul does not think that he must say what the Thessalonians want to hear.

Majority vote will not determine what the church should or will be. 

Nor will a poll be taken to determine what the general will might be.  Paul has no use for those who will not work.  Idleness is surely the breeding ground of the lie and the lie makes violence inevitable.  The lie leads to violence because people who have nothing better to do than to do nothing turn out to be a people who spend their lives making other people miserable because they are about one thing: avoiding boredom.  Thus Paul exercises his authority, but his authority is the authority of an apostle.

I have called attention to the kind of authority Jesus and Paul enact as a way to suggest that there may be some tension between the political order that is the church and that form of social and political organization called democracy.  I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices.  We will be told this is the day the people rule.  That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels and the people asked for Barabbas.

Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic.

I think, however, that is a deep mistake.

It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections.  After an election 50.1 percent get to tell 49.9 percent what to do.

I do not mean to underestimate the work elections might do to make our lives less subject to violence, but elections are not ends in themselves.  In classical democratic theory elections are only the means to make a people have the kind of exchanges necessary for the articulation of the goods we have in common.  I think I can honestly report that the campaign climaxing in election today does not seem to fit that description.

It is tempting to blame Donald Trump for that result, but I think the problem goes deeper than Trump.  The problem, quite simply, is us; a sobering but true realization.  We get the people we deserve running for office.  What made Trump stand out is that he seemed to speak something other than bureaucratic speech. But you know you are in trouble when the kind of speech that is the speech of television sitcoms is identified as plain speech.

We did not elect Jesus to be President.

We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.

We did not elect him messiah or savior.

We did not vote on whether there should or should not be a people gathered to worship Jesus.  We thought our leadership could even be determined by lot.  We did not vote to legitimate what we now call “the Bible.”  There were times and there will continue to be times Christians take votes, but often it takes centuries for what was determined by a vote to be received by the whole church.  Elections are no substitute for argument.  Thus the observation made often by non-Christians that Christians must surely love one another, because how else could we explain their willingness to engage one another in argument?

Truth matters.  We are to be people of truth.  The truth that makes us Christians means we are a people who are not destined to be celebrated in any social order whether it calls itself democratic or not.  Do not misunderstand!  I am not suggesting that there are not better and worse forms of social and political organization.  We do not live in a night when all cows are grey.

But it is also the case that Christians are a people that believe what we believe is true.

Such a people cannot help from time to time coming into conflict with those regimes organized on the assumption that there is no truth other than what “the people” say is the truth.

Jesus tells his followers that we will be arrested and persecuted because of his name.  This should be received as good news because Jesus tells us we will therefore have the opportunity to testify.  To testify is to tell the truth before a world that often does not believe it possible to say what is true.  Jesus assures us that we will be given the words and the wisdom to say at the appropriate time what is true. And this, thank God, is the truth: Jesus is Lord.

Lord is not a democratic title; it is a truthful designation for the one we worship.  We have the authority to testify to the truth that is Jesus because that Jesus is Lord is not some general truth that can be known without witnesses.  That what is true is known by witnesses to Jesus cannot help but be a deep and profound challenge to the status-quo.  It is a challenge because the status-quo is based on the assumption that whatever is true must be available to anyone.  Christians are not anyone.  We are Jesus people who Jesus says will hatred and some of us will even be put to death.  But if Jesus is who he says he is what choice do we have.

After all we did not elect Jesus.

He elected us.

 


14721514_10207107287831567_5379723068154767442_nFor my church’s 60th Anniversary this weekend, Stanley Hauerwas preached on the lectionary Gospel text from Luke 18, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I also got to baptize my good friend Taylor Mertins’ son.

You can listen to the audio of Stanley’s sermon below as well as read my introduction of him. Given my adoration of his work, perhaps I should point out that he is a warm and generous man and spending a few days with him will no doubt be a highlight of my work.

When I was a student at Princeton, I had a number of different jobs to pay for my schooling, including working as a waiter at the weekly faculty lunch. At one of those lunches near the beginning of my second semester, around the time I was considering dropping out of seminary, Professor Max Stackhouse got worked up into a red-faced, PO’d lather ranting to his colleagues about this reckless and profane Methodist theologian named Stanley Hauerwas.

Even though I’d gone to UVA for undergraduate and had been taught by many of Stanley Hauerwas’ students, classmates, and colleagues, at the time I wasn’t aware of a Stanley Hauerwas. But I figured anyone who could arouse such animus at a normally tight-sphinctered faculty lunch was worth reading. So as soon as I washed the dishes, I headed over to the library and checked out a book called A Community of Character along with a set of audio cassettes of lectures he’d delivered entitled Discipleship as Craft. Without exaggeration, they changed my life.

If Dennis Perry is the one who made me a Christian, then Stanley Hauerwas is the person who has sustained me as a Christian.

I’ve read everything he’s ever written several times over- and he’s written alot of freaking books. I’ve given many of you several of his books. He’s often in my earbuds when I exercise. His book on suffering helped get me through my near death experience with cancer. I know his work so well to know that when I interviewed him for my podcast, I knew I wasn’t successful in getting him off his familiar talking points.

I also know his work well enough to know that he would judge an introduction of him in a service of worship to be inappropriate. Because more so than any theologian of the last 50 years, Stanley Hauerwas has reminded the Church that what we do here on Sunday morning is about God.

Not us. Certainly not him.

Nonetheless, here’s what you need to know about the person whom Time Magazine called America’s Best Theologian:

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the awareness that if Jesus is Lord then Christianity can never be reduced to the private or the personal, In other words, he’s responsible for most of the things I’ve preached that have caused you to write to anonymous complaints to the bishop over the years. Today’s your chance to take it up with him.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the knowledge that Christianity is like baseball (and by baseball I mean National League baseball): That is, you can’t just do Christianity. You must be coached, apprenticed, by those with wisdom, whom we call the saints.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering theology as a servant of the Church (as opposed to just another university discipline). And on that account alone he’s been fruitful, for I cannot imagine my vocation apart from his work and even though this is his first time preaching at Aldersgate it’s not the first time you’ve heard him. You’ve been hearing me speak Hauerwas- or speak Christian like Hauerwas- for a dozen years now.

He is the perfect person to preach Aldersgate’s 60th Anniversary for as we look forward to the next 60 years, without a doubt, the clergy and congregants who come after us- whether they know it or not- will in large measure be shaped by his work.

Having said all of that, Stanley would be the first person to say that it’s time to get on with the Word of God. So listen for it, the Word of God, found in…

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dFor the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.

I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.

     I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.

I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.

Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.

This sermon is for you too.

This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.

This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.

This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.

And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.

This sermon is for you.

Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.

——————————

     Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.

“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.” 

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

     Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’

“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

     Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.

And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.”  [Play Briefly]

     David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.

We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.

——————————

     One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.

We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.

[Play]

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.

The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.

And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”

And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.” 

When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?

That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.

This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.

We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.

And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.

All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.

——————————-

     Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.

We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.

[Play]

     in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.

So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.

And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.

In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.

Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.

The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.

Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.

And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.

——————————

     A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.

In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.

[Play]

     In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.

In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.

But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.

In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.

Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.

We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.

We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.

Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.

And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.

And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.

Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.

Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.

——————————

     The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

     David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.

[Play]

     In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.

God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.

God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.

And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.

And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.

Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.

Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.

Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.

Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that

from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.

The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.

They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.

And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.

Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.

We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.

Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.

Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.

We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.

Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.

Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

     We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.

As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son,  and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.

Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.

If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.

He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.

Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.

Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.

And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.

That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.

They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.

I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.

“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.

If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.

Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.

If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.

And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’

And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’

And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’

Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.

A promise that would come true for him.

With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.

——————————

The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘

That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’

God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.

Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.

I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.

I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.

I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.

I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.

I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.

I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.

I want Josh.

I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.

I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

  • I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
  • I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
  • I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.

I can’t answer the why question.

And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.

I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.

Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.

So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.

No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.

The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.

And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.

“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.” 

When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.

That’s the heart of God.

And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.

That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.

And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.

I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’

The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.

The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.

The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.

They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.

“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”

And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.

Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.

Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’

And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.

‘Josh’ he says.

And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.

That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.

This kid who’s:

kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.

This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.

And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy. 

No, you’ve got to become just like him. 

It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.

And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.

——————————

I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.

I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’

No, he talks about kids:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 

‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 

And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.

And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.

Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’

But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.

Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.

And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.

And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.

Saved by (Dis)Grace

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

5892-sigmund-freud-quotes-on-religionHere’s the sermon from this Sunday’s epistle, 2 Timothy 1.1-8

 

“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Do not be ashamed, in other words, of the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul is barely a tweet’s worth of words into his final correspondence with the Christians in Ephesus and already, right out of the gate, he’s admonishing them not to be ashamed of the Gospel, which implies that they are ashamed of the Gospel.

Why?

Why are they ashamed?

Obviously, we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

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

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

Were it not for Christians, Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s evangelical little brother, never would’ve recovered from starring with Pauly Shore in Biodome.

Just right there we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

I mean, Christians are the ones who can’t accept that the Earth is older than 3,000 years but somehow can swallow the $60 price of admission to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Christians the ones who believe that nature isn’t natural; it’s creation. It’s given- every sunset, every rainbow trout, every note of every sonata, every piece of thick cut bacon, it’s all- Christians believe- a good, gratuitous gift from God, who charged Christians to steward and care for his creation.

Yet Christians are the ones who make up the majority of people who deny climate change and disabuse any suggestion they have a responsibility to arrest it.

From Duck Dynasty themed Bibles to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on the Porsche Boxster yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Christians executed Galileo. Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. Christians excuse Franklin Graham. The reason so many protest that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. Matter.

We should be ashamed.

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

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

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

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

And don’t even get me started on19 Kids and Counting.

—————————-

But the sort of embarrassment we feel as Christians knowing that Jeff Foxworthy and MC Hammer are both sheep in the same flock as us- that’s different than being ashamed of the Gospel.

When the Apostle Paul wrote this final letter he was so old that, like Dennis Perry, whenever he stopped moving people would throw dirt on him. And here, in what may be his final letter as he passes the mantle to his protege Timothy, the first thing Paul tells them- he commands them: not to be ashamed of the Gospel.

Why would they be ashamed?

At that point, the Church was incredibly tiny, too young and too small to churn out bad music or cheesy movies or choose the wrong side of history. It would be centuries before Christians cozied up to empires or launched the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

So why are they ashamed?

Just as we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers would be ashamed of the Gospel.

What’s shameful about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

—————————-

To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful.

A disgrace.

Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul essentially says.

To the Romans, crucifixion was so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society.

But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed.

That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

So in case you’re still hung up on my crack about 19 Kids and Counting and haven’t been following along, to sum up:

Paul commands Timothy “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel” because the Gospel was shameful. And the shame of our Gospel is the Cross itself.

You can see why to Jews and Romans alike Paul’s Gospel about a crucified messiah was a tougher sell then trying to raffle off Trump Steaks at a South American beauty pageant because no one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

Paul’s Gospel was scandalously, profanely counter-intuitive.

By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, which, by the way, I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel.

——————————

Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment.

Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires. Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure.

The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true.

My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right.

About religion.

I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made.

We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him.

That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it.

Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form or someone returning from the dead. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others.

But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God.

The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes. It’s a disgrace. It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.

Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely.

No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man.

Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.

Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel.

Maybe that’s the only real hedge we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much fantasy and nonsense.

Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.

—————————-

Last Sunday I was headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, one of you sent me a text message about a 12 year old boy at Stratford Landing dying (actively so) of brain cancer.

One of you asked Josh’s parents if they wanted me to come be with them.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned south down Interstate 95. I hate my job sometimes and, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse and the palliative morphine dosage is written on the dry erase board.

Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers in a casket.

Josh had written them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak that Wednesday. On Saturday he lost control of his eyes. By Sunday when I arrived his breathing was shallow and labored.

After I helped Josh’s mom wash him, for several hours I held her hand and I listened as she whispered to him, in between sobs, “It’ll be okay. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she kept whispering to him. But maybe I’ve made a mistake for believing in Him, I thought.

I came back the next night. I stood by his bed and I wiped the spittle from his mouth and I rubbed his head as praise songs played on the tablet laying next to his shoulder.

It was close I could tell. So I prayed something about how Jesus says children are first in the Kingdom, prayed it to the God with whom, in that moment, I was righteously PO’d.

Your heart would have to be tone deaf to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious at God.

Or,

Feel foolish for believing in the first place.

When I left, his godmother was rubbing his feet and shouting at him, through stubborn tears, to wake up. He died just a little while later.

It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too.

And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it, but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief.

The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.

——————————-

But if the shame of the cross saves me from my unbelief how was it able to convert the Apostle Paul out of his former beliefs?

How was this irreligious Gospel able to convert him from his religion?

A Pharisee like Paul knew that according to Jesus’ own bible someone executed on a cross was cursed among the People of God by the God of the Law.

So how was Paul able to get to the point where he could unashamedly proclaim this shameful Gospel?

He spells it out not in this letter to Timothy but in another letter: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” Paul says “because it is the power of God…” 

Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:

Paul says “the Gospel is the power of God.”

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel is the message about the power of God.

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel points to the power of God back then.

Paul doesn’t say anything like the Gospel is the record of the power of God.

He doesn’t say the Gospel describes how the power of God was worked in Christ upon the Cross.

Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.

Is not was.

Present-tense not past.

That the Gospel message makes NOW the power that was revealed THEN upon the Cross.

You see Paul was able to be converted from his religion to this irreligion, Paul was able to not be ashamed of this shameful Gospel because Paul discovered that the Gospel is not a message about something God did.

It’s a message through which God does.

Paul can be not ashamed because God- as Paul says in Colossians- isn’t the content of the Gospel, God is the active agent of the Gospel.

So no matter what God’s commandments say about the shamefulness of the Cross, Paul can proclaim this Gospel unashamed because God is the Preacher of this Gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is not inert.

When we proclaim the otherwise shameful Word of the Cross the Risen Christ is present to bring salvation and healing and justice and faith, Paul says.

The Gospel can give faith, Paul says, and give life to the dead and give existence to things that do not exist.

Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.

—————————-

To be honest, for most of this week all that present-tense isness about the Gospel felt like a heavy faith lift for me.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to summon the conviction to convince you today.

But then, as I showed her around the sanctuary for Josh’s funeral, Josh’s mom told me this week that the person from this congregation who sat with them there in the hospital, who comforted them and counseled them throughout his illness and did so again after his death, you were to them the presence of Jesus, she told me.

And as she hugged me in the hallway here, crying, she told me that my prayers with them there in the hospital, which were really just paraphrases of the scripture Josh had scribbled on those printer sheets, those prayers made them feel connected to Christ, she said, and to Christ’s Church, where before, she said, they’d felt terribly alone.

And then as soon as you heard she and her husband did not have the means to bury their son you- and yes some SL families but, I checked, mostly you- raised $20,0000 in less than 24 hours. And one of you told me that if we didn’t raise anything then you’d pay everything.

Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.

Because when we proclaim it, in prayer and in presence, in deed and in generosity, by God- it’s exactly what Paul says.

It IS- now- the Power of God.

When Potter Becomes Clay

Jason Micheli —  September 11, 2016 — 3 Comments

fullsizerenderFor this weekend’s sermon, in view of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I chose to use all of Jeremiah 18, a passage that begins with the familiar Potter/Clay metaphor but ends in a visceral, spittle-on-the-lip prayer for vengeance against enemies.

Special props to my dear friend, Laura Paige Mertins, who worked at her potter’s wheel while I preached (and distracted everyone from anything I said). You can find LP’s work for sale at her Etsy shop here. You get this blog for free so you should at least make up for it by buying something of hers.

     ‘Just what the blankety blank is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen her before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th, 2001.

The day after.

I’d been working in the campus mailroom at Princeton, my supervisor, Vince, on the phone with his wife who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall. The TV was on mute. And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched what everyone else everywhere else watched.

     I remember Vince, a Catholic, his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red as he pointed angrily at the TV and said through clenched teeth: ‘God damn them!’ 

     In the moment, it struck me as faithful a thing to say as anything.

 

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems present NOT at all.

The other scripture passage I used I used as the opening prayer: a lament. A clench-fisted, spittle-on-the-lips cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I took the lament from the Book of Jeremiah. Chapter 18.

Jeremiah 18, as you heard, begins with that beautiful- and possibly even flattering- metaphor of how we’re like clay in God the Potter’s hands. But only a dozen verses later Jeremiah turns ugly:

“Pay attention to me, Lord; listen to what my enemies are saying…

Enough! Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.

They have dug a pit to capture me,

set traps for my feet.

By you, Lord, you know

all their sinister plots to kill me.

Don’t overlook their wrongdoing;

don’t cleanse their sin

from before you.

May they stumble before you;

when you become angry,

do something about them.”

Look it up.

Because I used Jeremiah’s prayer as the opening prayer, we ended it by saying ‘Amen.’ As in: ‘May it be so.’

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: “What in the…is your problem?!”

“Um, excuse me?” I replied.

“Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!”

As is my habit, I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘“Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘stumble’ in the prayer it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

“Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!” she shouted softly. “They’re supposed to love everybody.”

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

“Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?”

 

I’d thought the lament from Jeremiah an appropriate scripture for the day after.

After all, Jeremiah’s own career as a prophet coincided with a date seared into the collective memory of God’s People every bit as much as 9/11 is scarred into our own.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

The date Babylon attacked and invaded the Promised Land, burning the City of David and razing the Temple, the symbol that Israel was, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

Not long after the attack there were deployments. Deployments of the nation’s best and brightest and, too often, the tragically young.

The Bible names the deployments “Exile.”

587: Jeremiah’s 9/11.

So what better piece of scripture to pray on the day after the 11th, I thought, than one of these six laments woven throughout the Book of Jeremiah.

Except-

That woman with the Terri Gross hair and the horn-rimmed glasses, she had hit upon a problem.

She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like that? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

Because, of course, we don’t just believe we’re clay in the Potter’s hands. We believe the Potter became Clay.

We believe that the Creator became a Creature, that God became flesh.

In Jesus Christ.

And we believe that, in Jesus, God the Potter displays what it looks like for us to be his earthen vessels. And, of course, a big piece of that is what Jesus tells us to do about our enemies. To LOVE them.

So…what do we do with a passage of scripture like Jeremiah’s prayer against his enemies?

Would Jesus really approve of a prayer like that?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Jeremiah’s nasty prayer for vengeance and violence against his enemies.

You know, roll of the eyes and dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Jeremiah 18- we could say- it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Jeremiah 18, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who proclaimed and prayed Jeremiah’s lament weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People who, on most days, are not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like Jeremiah 18.

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Jeremiah’s prayer isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it.

That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they?

“Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.”

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy.

It’s hard to imagine the Potter who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the wailing of their children.

 

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

The Terri Gross doppleganger asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say.

Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed prayers like that.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 prayer from his Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And of the prayers contained in Jesus’ Bible, the single largest genre are laments- prayers for vengeance against enemies.

So do the math:

At the very least, Jesus prayed a prayer like Jeremiah 18 every 50 days.

At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

When you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed something like: ‘By you, Lord, you know all their sinister plots to kill me.’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, a sentiment like “Don’t overlook their wrongdoing; don’t cleanse their sin from before you” had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed a prayer that ended just like Jeremiah’s in chapter 18: ‘Do something about my enemies.’

Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had them all memorized.

210 times.

Jesus prayed such prayers.

For the defeat of his enemies.

So I said to Terri Gross:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that, Jesus prayed a prayer just like that.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed a prayer just like Jeremiah’s, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed like Jeremiah?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

 

It’s the better question.

Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed his Bible’s laments?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation.

Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed prayers like Jeremiah’s?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

He doesn’t retaliate.

He turns the other cheek.

And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

He dies rather than kill.

He doesn’t resist evil with evil.

He suffers it.

He dies to it.

And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them.

Destroys them, the apostle Paul says. Triumphs over them.

When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Jeremiah’s vengeful, clench-fisted lament.

We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New.

     But the confusion we feel about a passage like Jeremiah 18 is really our confusion about Jesus

Because it’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer is antithetical to Jesus.

No.

Jesus is God’s answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.

Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Jeremiah’s angry prayer.

Jesus enacts it.

It’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer for his enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that when the Potter becomes Clay we discover:

the love of enemies is the way the Potter defeats them.

We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

      (If that’s what you think, then why are you even here on a Sunday morning?)

The Gospel is that the way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the something Jeremiah prays for God to do against his enemies.

And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

So you tell me what’s more effective.

 

After the woman with the Terri Gross hair and horn-rimmed glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

‘Here we go again’ I thought.

‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

And he stormed out.

I wonder-

If our discomfort with a prayer like the one Jeremiah prays

If our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies

is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus, the Clay in whom we see what the Potter desires for all of his vessels.

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s the sermon from this weekend from Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25.

     Hey-

Hey, you got a flashlight? Or even a match?

Yeah, I figured as much.

What about ear-plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear-plugs. I mean that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to used to that gnashing of teeth sound.

But the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That it’s you. That you’re the one weeping.

You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member?

Yeah, that’s this place.

With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead it’s just creepy quiet. And even though it’s dark, you can just feel it- there’s a lot of people here.

A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer or TMZ reporter. Neither the Donald nor Hillary is here.

Other than Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here.

Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as me.

I suppose that’s the money question isn’t it? Why am I here?

So-

Just before my Master went away, he tells us this story- my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke in anything but stories.

He told this one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, and then left home and blew all the money. And when the snotty kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? Blows even more cash on a welcome home party.

I know, right!?

My Master told this other story about an idiot shepherd who had 100 sheep and goes off and abandons 99 of them to search for the one sheep too dumb to stay with the flock. It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd.

My Master was always telling stories like that.

And just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us this story about another master who had 3 servants.

The master gives the first servant 5 talents, and the master gives his second servant 2 talents- and 1 talent is worth about 20 years’ income so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount.

Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with.

And that’s the thing, that’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on…nobodies…like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money.

And what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it?

But in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did) because they managed to double their investment. 5 talents becomes 10 and 2 talents becomes a fourscore gross.

And their master praises them for it: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The third servant though- the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune- he does the prudent, responsible thing.

He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days when you didn’t have a bank or a safe, especially when it’s not your money to risk. Plus, interest is forbidden in scripture so by not investing his master’s money I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing.

No.

Wrong.

In my Master’s story, when the master returns he calls this third servant wicked.

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

That’s what I thought too. Then this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth.

At the time, I thought outer darkness was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong.

So just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories.

Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important so I tried to live my life according to it.

I tried it produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me.

I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence.

I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a Bowflex and Redskins season tickets I never wasted the wealth God gave me.

I earned as much as I could so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats?

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

No ‘My servant is good and faithful’ bumper sticker.

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing then someone should call a plumber.

I guess this beats being cut up into little, tiny pieces- that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories.

And maybe it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it be like, fire and brimstone. But it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely.

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here.

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot.

About me.

It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now.

I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me ‘successful’ and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world.

That you can’t fill the poor with good things if you’ve got empty pockets. That before you can give gifts you need to earn money to buy them. That you can’t make a difference in a life, in the world, without investing aggressively the financial blessings God gives you.

Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money.

Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was.

Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master was some sort of economist. He didn’t even HAVE money!

This one time- right after he told this story actually- some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And he tries to answer them with an illustration. So he asks them if any of them have any money on them…as a sort of visual-aid.

He asks them if they have any money on them. Because he doesn’t. Doesn’t carry it. Doesn’t have it. Doesn’t have anything positive to say about it at all for that matter.

So why- how could I be so dumb- would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money?

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And being rewarded for it. And being encouraged to go make still more of it.

What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? The master in this story is supposed to be my Master.

And money- talent- that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away.

I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy.

The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin or CODs.

No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray and interpret scripture. And he showed us how to reconcile and forgive.

Before he went away, he gave us wisdom and knowledge and faith and prophecy and healing and miracles and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit.

And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough.

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

To set captives free and to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and the powerful.

It’s more than enough to bring about forgiveness and redemption and resurrection.

The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us the gift is more than enough for each of us to do everything that Jesus did, which includes training others to do the things that Jesus did.

Even the servant with 1 gift- the ability to pray or receive the sacrament or forgive- even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world. That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away.

Should, woulda, coulda.

It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me.

Think about it:

After spending so much time with his master and then being given a life-changing, world-redeeming treasure, one of the master’s servants still don’t know how to do the things the master had done.

One of the master’s servants acted as though the gift they were given still belonged to someone else, as though it were someone else’s job to do something with the gift.

After so much time and such treasure, one of the master’s servants somehow thought their relationship with the master was just between them. Personal. Private.  Which makes the gift about as useful as hiding it under a basket or flushing it down the toilet or hiding it in the ground.

Here’s the punchline:

There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 servant like that. There’s only 1 servant like that in the story, but there’s not only 1 disciple like that. There’s not. Or else I wouldn’t be here, rubbing my teeth down weeping. The joke’s on me.

In the story, the master says to his servant:

 “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own plus some.”

But what the Master says in real life sounds more like:  “After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Listening to me? After seeing how I share food with the outcast and bring all sorts of sinners around my table. After seeing the way I transform people and heal brokenness and refuse to condemn. After seeing how I forgive. How I invite people to follow me and how I challenge them to lead an eternal kind of life. And then after I give you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve done…you don’t?! You don’t!? What were you thinking!? Whose job did you think it was?! My Kingdom isn’t just good news; it’s responsibility. You can’t accept my Kingdom without being enlisted by it. And don’t I say I didn’t warn you, didn’t tell you that my disciples will be held accountable. Therefore, for a worthless disciple like you it’s outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

You’re sure you don’t have any ear-plugs you could spare?

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too someday.

 

Fools Rush In

Jason Micheli —  September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

liturgica-e-sacra-canzoni-da-chiesta-gesuThough I wont be preaching on it, the lectionary Gospel for this Sunday is Luke 14.25-33.

Going through my closet recently I found a box of all my sermons from my first year of preaching while I was a student at Princeton. As you’ll see, rookie Jason wasn’t all that good but maybe I was clear.

There is a scene in the black and white film, The Gospel of Saint Matthew, in which a wild-eyed, long-haired, dark-skinned Jesus shouts at a crowd these very words from Luke’s lectionary text for this Sunday: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” 

The visual effect of the scene is to render Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher who seems so reasonable when Joel Osteen is presenting him, as someone whose intensity we would associate with Islamic fundamentalists. When you hear preachers and politicians talk out both sides of their greasy mouths about “family values” this election year, I’ll be very surprised if you ever hear them mention this bit of scripture from Luke’s Gospel, corroborated by Matthew in his own. This is the sort of scripture that, rather than bringing comfort to the disturbed, gives heartburn to all of us who have domesticated discipleship, reducing it to Jesus-flavored strategies to help us better endure our domestic families.

Of course, you expect a preacher like me to explain what Jesus meant here as clearly as Jesus would have been able to explain it if he’d had the benefit of a Princeton education. Meaning, you want me to tell you ‘Don’t worry. What’s going on here isn’t as radical and offensive as it sounds.’

Almost.

But not quite.

Remember, we killed Jesus not so he could save us from the wrath of his Father. We killed him because of the teachings he taught, the company he kept, and the stories he told.

This morning is another stop along the way as Jesus journeys inexorably to Jerusalem. To his cross, and maybe to ours as well. While on the road, Jesus has stirred up stories, roused rumors of a Messiah, and managed to attract quite a crowd.

The people gathered in Luke 14 are people who have come to him. Unlike the 12 disciples, these are not people Jesus has called. Unlike other Gospel scenes, this crowd surrounding Jesus is not a hostile one. For whatever reason, it is an eager one.

Perhaps they’re curious to see if this strange rabbi will put on a show at his next stop. Perhaps they want a front row seat for his next miracle. Everyone loves a parade. For this excited crowd it’s Jerusalem or Bust as Jesus fulfills all the hopes and dreams of the People Israel.

The bottom line is this: they don’t have a clue as to why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They have no clue what lies in store for Jesus, and they certainly have no idea what discipleship, following Jesus, will entail.

They’re like enthusiastic children, waiting for their religious recess from the troubles of the world. So, before taking another step in Jerusalem’s direction, Jesus needs to sober them up. He needs to give them words that taste like strong, black coffee. A reality check. He needs to pause and advise them to read the fine print attached to our baptisms: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

The word ‘hate’ here that Jesus deploys is an example of scripture’s wonderful texture. It doesn’t convey what you hear in it so don’t get your panties in a wad. It’s a Hebrew idiom, meaning to de-prioritize. Think: “God loved Jacob but hated Esau.” Unless God’s an incredible jerk, “hate” here doesn’t mean how we hear it today. What Jesus is saying then isn’t as harsh as it first sounds but that hardly means it gets any easier to swallow because what Jesus is saying is that belong to the community of Christ’s Kingdom affects the way we belong to others, especially those to whom we most belong.

What Jesus is saying is that, in our vast and tangled network of loyalties, if we are to be disciples than our loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom must be paramount, even if such loyalties conflict with our bonds to family, friends, work, lifestyle, tradition, or nation.

Are you sure you want to follow me? There will be hard choices and constant challenges and conflicts of interest- even crosses- for each of you. Think about what you’re doing before you stay with me. 

Jesus is not telling us to abandon our families; he didn’t abandon his own. He is candidly telling us something I suspect is even more difficult for us: to make this unremarkable, inefficient, and often uninspiring community called Church your surrogate family. And to make it your primary one too.

All this scary Jesus-talk reminds me of the baptismal liturgy in the hymnal. The covenant of baptism cues me to ask the candidates or the parents questions like ‘Will you renounce evil and repent of your sin? Will you accept the power God gives you to resist evil? Do you promise to put your whole trust in Christ’s lordship?

During such a service, we tend to just through the motions and recite the words. After all, it’s a big day and a pretty ceremony, but really what we’re doing is the same thing Jesus commands in Luke 14. We’re asking the soon-to-be-baptized to read the fine print. There’s a kind of cruelty about baptizing babies against their will.

Before you go further in the faith are you sure you know what you’re getting into?Are you sure you want to give your child to a family even more dysfunctional than the family you gave them? Do you know what this means? You’re not joining an organization. You’re giving away your children to a new family. You have to be Christ now for others now. That may roll off your tongue like honey but, remember, Jesus got himself killed for being Christ. 

I believe this same sort of reality check is why we go through the Great Thanksgiving before we share the sacrament. Every Lord’s Supper, before we spill any crumbs on the floor, we have to say things like “Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the Body of Christ…and make us one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.”

If we’re going to be regulars at Christ’s Table, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. If we’re going to take a seat at his table, then it makes sense to prepare ourselves for a long, raucous, unpredictable meal.

Annie Dillard, in her book Holy the Firm, asks Christians if “we have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blindly invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are like children, playing on the floor with chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill on a Sunday morning.”

We’re like kids playing with dynamite. We’re playing with potential poison that we call repentance and conversion. Maybe Annie Dillard’s right. Maybe if we stopped and really dwelt on what we’d get ourselves into if we took it seriously, then we’d need to be strapped down in these pews against our wills every Sunday morning.

This is TNT.

None of you knows what God might call you to do. You never know when God might, after years of vacant-minded churchgoing, finally decide to wake your butt up and draw you into something with which you’re uncomfortable, to somewhere from which you can’t go back.

And that should feel as threatening as a loaded gun pointed at you.

And Jesus said:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost…”

Building towers, making war.

Consider the cost, Jesus warns, because, if you do this discipleship thing right, it just may be a cross.

I’ll leave you with this bomb from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Discipleship without costs is always Christianity without the Living Christ. There may be trust in God, but if there’s no cost there is no following Christ and, thus, it’s only your own way of choosing.”

Boom.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    14021732_10207304739360375_480901097151863019_n Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the Gospel lection from Luke 13.10-17. The sermon below feels incomplete without the rendition of South Park‘s Satan song “Up There” that preceded the preaching in worship. I owe the Scooby Doo angle to my inter-webs friend Richard Beck and his awesome new book Reviving Old Scratch.

 

When the Comedy Central animated series South Park debuted in August 1997- after a pilot episode the year before became one of the internet’s first viral videos- it created much controversy and met with many indignant complaints for the way it parodied Christianity generally and Jesus particularly.

For example, in the Y2K episode titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” (my personal favorite episode) Jesus worries that for the new millennium we may crucify him again and, turns out, Jesus wasn’t so crazy about being crucified the first time.

So Jesus decides to do something cool to distract for us from crucifying him. He organizes a Rod Stewart comeback concert.

And in the pilot episode, “Jesus vs. Santa,” Jesus challenges Santa to a cage fight to settle once and for all, to the theme song from Mortal Kombat, the real meaning of Christmas.

The carnage doesn’t cease until Jesus and Santa are pulled apart by the gay figure skater, Brian Boitano, who teaches them that the real point of Christmas is presents, to which Kyle, the lone Jewish boy in South Park, observes “If you’re Jewish you get presents for 8 days not just 1.”

Naturally, the episode ends with all the children of South Park converting to Judaism.

When South Park debuted 20 years ago this week, it sparked heated controversy. The Christian Childcare Action Project protested that “children’s ability to understand the Gospel would be hindered and corrupted” by South Park.

While the Christian Family Network complained that South Park impeded their work to restore morality to our nation and protect the American family.

Twenty years ago this week, for many Christians, an animated television series posed an ecclesial emergency, threatening to inoculate us against the Gospel.

And, of course, the single cultural force that has done more damage than any other to our ability to speak Christian is a long-running animated TV show.

It’s just not South Park.

It’s Scooby Doo.

I mean, that’s obvious, right?

—————————-

     I didn’t become a Christian until I was 17 and, even then, I only did so kicking and screaming. I think my being born again was every bit as painful and drawn out as my initial birth because of Scooby Doo.

     I should’ve seen it coming. GI Joe, which came on every weekday before Scooby Doo, had warned me that “knowing is half the battle” and I knew how every episode of Scooby Doo was going to go. So I should’ve known Scooby Doo was forming me in such a way to make it impossible to read the Gospels rightly.

     Scooby Doo has aired continuously on television since 1969. It’s spun off into dozens of series and 37 films, including three due out this year.

Scooby Doo has been everywhere for a long time so, chances are, you already know all about Scooby Doo. You could probably sing the theme song right now if prompted, and now you’re probably singing it in your heads instead of listening to me.

Chances are, you already know that “the gang” is led by Fred Jones, the blond Hardy Boy lookalike who apparently owned not one orange ascot and white v-neck sweater but an entire wardrobe full and that, despite being a detective, seemed clueless about Daphne, the hot red head in the miniskirt who always played not so hard to get.

Scooby Doo has been around a long time so I’m betting you already know all about it. You know that Vilma not Ellen was the first lesbian on TV. You know that Scooby and the gang drove around in a van decorated with flower-powered artwork, constantly complaining of having the munches…so, no mystery there.

And you probably know that Scooby Doo would often feature crossover guest stars, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and characters from other non-animated shows like the Andy Griffith Show, which is odd and just shows how baked they were because, otherwise, you’d think it would’ve occurred to a team of detectives that the real mystery in Mayberry is “Where are all the black people?”

But that’s the problem, the Gospel-corroding problem with Scooby Doo. 

There’s never any mystery.

Not once. Not in any episode.

Is there any actual mystery.

——————————

     * Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.

The sleuths of Mystery Inc. drive their psychedelic Mystery Machine van into a little town where a rattled resident lets slip how their quiet hamlet has recently been haunted by some ghost, spook, or monster.

Scooby and the gang then commence an investigation, examining clues and interviewing locals. Eventually- every time, every episode- contrary to common sense and all the previous episodes, Vilma will suggest the gang split up. Always a bad idea.

The gang will then encounter the ghost or monster in a hair-raising way, but eventually, after a suggestive hit or two of Scooby snacks and a comedic chase scene, they’ll nab the creature.

And always, every time, Scooby and his friends will unmask the monster, revealing- every episode, no exceptions- it to be not a ghost or a monster but someone from the town using the monster to scare people away from noticing their shady, criminal, very much human, activity.

At the end, unmasked, the crook will always walk off in cuffs grousing “…and I would’ve gotten away with too, if it weren’t…”

Fred, Vilma, Daphne, and Shaggy- they should drive a trippy van called the Secular Enlightenment Machine because there is never any mystery.

Every monster is just a man in a mask.

All Scooby Doo has to do, we’ve learned in every episode since 1969, is peek behind the spooky mask to learn what’s really going on.

——————————

     Whether Scooby Doo has shaped us or whether Scooby Doo reflects us, we try to read the Gospel the same way.

We try to look behind the spooky, supernatural covering of a text to figure out what’s really going on.

And so when we came to the Gospel text where Jesus exorcises a Gerasene demoniac, who’s been left to wander a graveyard in chains, we pull away the spooky mask and we say that what’s really going on is that Jesus healed a man with a severe mental illness.

Or when we come to one of the many Gospel texts where Jesus heals someone of an unclean spirit, we try to pull away the mask and we conclude that what’s really going on is that Christ healed someone of epilepsy.

We try to pull away the mask on a text like today’s from Luke 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis.

Demons and devils- they’re just monster masks, we say.

And like in Scooby Doo if we but pull off the mask and peek behind it we’ll discover the human problem behind the spooky story, the mortality behind the mystery, the simple explanation behind what’s really going on.

Spirits and Satan- they’re just symbols, we say.

Except, by definition, symbols can never be pretend or make believe.

By definition, symbols (bread, chalice, cross,) always point to something real.

And that’s the problem with trying to pull away the spooky mask to see what’s really on in the Gospel behind it.

Because even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just masks to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did.

“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at today’s text.

That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

That’s red-letter.

That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.

Which, includes us.

——————————

     Thanks to Fred and Vilma, we think we have to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.

Because when you pull away the monster mask, you tear off too much of the Gospel with it.

Call it what you will:

Devil

Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point. “The Devil,” as Richard Beck says, “l is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.”

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him.

Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary, the monster behind so many human masks.

——————————

     Our impulse is to Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel, but we can’t.

The mask can’t come off because it does the Gospel comes off with it.

     If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

No Devil, no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place. It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

     According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story.

     There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama.

We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan.

And the battlefield runs through every human heart. Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to you. Fantastical.

But you tell me-

Take a look at the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, the exploitation splayed out all over your newspaper pages every day. And you tell me it doesn’t require an almost willful fantasy not to believe the human race is captive to some other Power, in rebellion still against God.

Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.

So, you tell me the monster masks scripture gives us aren’t the best explanation for what’s really going on in our world.

—————————-

     Look- we’ve all been watching Scooby Doo since 1969.

There’s no way I can convince you today to stop trying to look behind the monster masks in these spooky stories. There’s no way I can make you believe in the Devil if you don’t already.

But maybe, I can show you why we need him, why, without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because-

When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel

When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama

When we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us)

What happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

—————————-

     Just a few weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox, from someone I do not know. Sometimes having a blog has its downsides. The fact that the sender still has a hotmail address tells me plenty about them.

Anyway, the sender felt compelled to email me to tell me that he believed “God gave me incurable cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.”

Nice, huh?

After I dug my fingernails out of the wood of my desk, I snarled the same four-lettered expressions you’re wearing on your faces right now.

But step back from the nastiness of it and it’s not that unusual of an assumption. I have cancer and the sender of the email assumed there must be a reason (from God) that I do.

A few days after I received that email, a woman came up to me, here in the sanctuary, after the 9:45 service.

She’s has a kid my son’s age. She lost her husband a a couple of years ago after a long illness. Only weeks after her husband died, she found out she had a serious form cancer. After surgeries and treatments, she’d thought she’d beaten it.

She came up to me after worship a few weeks ago to tell me goodbye. Her cancer had come back and it had spread. She was going home to her family, she told me, so that they could care for her daughter after she died.

Crying, she wondered the same question she’d asked when she was first diagnosed: Why is God doing this to me?

Not nearly as nasty as the email but it was the same assumption.

After I hugged her, before I could even get out of the sanctuary, a man came up to me and wept in a stoic sort of way, telling me how his college-bound daughter had fallen into addiction yet again.

And he put it into different words, but it was the same question with the same assumption lurking behind it, like a face behind a mask: Why is God doing this to us?

We talk like this all the time.

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

LIFE HAPPENS

-and we think God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

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

We speak like this all the time, as if there must be a direct, causal, 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every event on earth and in our lives.

There’s a reason for everything, we say.

But think about it- a world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world where there is no gap between the already of what Christ has done and the yet of what Christ promises still to do.

     A world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world already exactly as God would have it be.

     But that’s not the world as scripture sees it.

But you can’t see that world when you reduce the cast of the Gospels’ salvation story to two, God and us.

If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.

The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.

There is a third character in the story.

The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.

     —————————-

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.” 

Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.

You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.

But you need the him.

You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.

      You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.

You need to get Satan back on the stage.

You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.

You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.

You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.

You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.

You need to get Satan back on stage.

Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.

Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:

When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.

You see the face of his Enemy.

 

 

 

 

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

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

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

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

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

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

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

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

political-convention     Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Colossians 3.1-17. 

According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today.

Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that Will Gerig and Becca McGraw, two youth who grew up here at Aldersgate, exchanged marriage vows here at Aldersgate two years ago today.

Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, not the part about fornication.

And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie.

Since Dennis is on vacation- I mean sabbatical- it’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca.

I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.

And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true.

So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony.

I asked them this question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?

Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.

And then-

Then it got worse for me.

Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’

And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another. They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations. Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action. You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. I told them two years ago today.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love.

Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever?

Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question:

     If that’s how love works for a spouse

If that’s how love works in a relationship

Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God?

      If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land.

For the Christians in Colossae,  you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard.

In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent.

Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works.

Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life.

Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me.

To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And yet-

Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life.

Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices.

And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication.

How does that happen?

They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick.

They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take.

They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation.

They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves.

They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. Why not? Or, how not?

It’s revealing-

In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits.  And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

    Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice.

We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God.

But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings.

Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.

You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion.

You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility.

You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving.

You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in places like Guatemala and Route 1 and DC.

You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope.

You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him.

Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe.

If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings.

So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism.

If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God.

As James KA Smith says, Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits.

You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you.

That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week.

Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who.

When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep.

That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it.

“That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.

Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community.

It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church.

Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- without putting on Christ: in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares.

 

 

 

icons-10

(The Harrowing of Hell)

Here’s the sermon from this weekend based on the lectionary epistle from Colossians 2.6-15.

If you’re receiving this by email, you can find the audio by clicking here.

 

Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.

Not- “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”

That’s not the question.

     It’s this one: If you’re already forgiven, then why bother following?

If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year- if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?

If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?

Because you don’t, you know- have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.

That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin with a capital S and cancelled out the stain of all your little s sins.

You are forgiven.

You have no reason to fear.

Because the whole reality of God (without remainder), dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated in to Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.

Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word- there is no lack in your relationship with God.

At least, from God’s side there’s not.

And for Paul-

Your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation.

Christ’s incorporation of us has happened- literally- over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.

And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once. For all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if/then proposition. It’s not if you believe/have faith/roll up your sleeves and serve the poor/give more money/stop your stupid sinning THEN and ONLY THEN will God forgive you.

No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.

It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or- or– subtract from it.

From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved- already- in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.

It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.

What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his Family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to you can’t undo family.

You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.

And it’s not just your little s sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the Principalities and Powers, Paul says.

He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and on his way up he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business. God literally does not give a damn anymore.

Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgment. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it-it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.

But, that begs the question:

If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all

If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God

If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear

Then, why bother following?

————————

     If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?

If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7 times? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?

Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?

You know as well as I do-

It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.

It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.

And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.

So why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Easy and light my log-jammed eye.

Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.

Easy and light- have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.

So why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?

————————

  I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 6 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.

     Or, if I want to see more of Matthew Mcconaughey than I need to see I can rebinge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles; it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.

     Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral wake make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual purient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.

Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.

Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinseltown dreams.

After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.

She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in the Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.

Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelley. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous L.A. architect.

But then-

In 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her- called her- to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat.

After the retreat, she returned to her red carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.

So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement- renounced all of her former dreams- and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, postChristian, purient and radically secular.

Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it.

They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by her life.

Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, she is somehow more human than most of us.

You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.

————————

     That’s why-

Why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven.

Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.

If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human- totally, completely, authentically human- then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.

We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human too.

Fully human.

The reason Christ’s yoke does not feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet. Human. Fully human. As human as God.

It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be.

We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.

So we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.

———————-

     That’s the why, so what about the how?

How we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?

If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus.

And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark- the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism:

With Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved. In you I delight.’

It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.

What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching. Or, even, that he died on a cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved.

Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.

When Delores Hart took her finals vows as a Benedictine nun, 7 years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red carpet Hollywood wedding.

She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.

If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing in Jesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed.

You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1680 (2)  In July we’re tracking our way through the lectionary epistle, Colossians. The text this Sunday was Colossians 1.15-29.

It happened over a month ago, but I haven’t preached in a while and it’s stuck in my craw this whole time the way sunflower seeds leave little nagging cuts in your gums.

The night after the deadliest shooting in U.S. history, a baptist preacher all the way on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California, stood up in a pulpit just like this one, in a sanctuary just like this one, and he preached an impassioned sermon (just like this one).

A sermon praising– praising- (I’ll repeat it again just so you don’t miss the tone: praising) the brutal massacre of gay nightclubbers in Florida.

Preaching, the “Reverend” Roger Jimenez exhorted his congregation of bible-believing baptists that “Christians should not mourn the death of 50 sodomites.”

“No,” he qualified, “I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando is better off tonight.”

“The tragedy in Orlando,” I’m still quoting here, “is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is that [the shooter] didn’t finish the job.”

I’ll let you all swallow the vomit I pray is now creeping up the back of your mouths.

The problem is that his sermon wasn’t just impassioned. It wasn’t just red meat for a particular nasty tribe. It wasn’t just ugly and hate-filled and merciless in its stunning lack of empathy. The problem with his sermon, for you and for me, is that it was biblical.

It was biblical. It was biblical. It was biblical.

Leviticus 18.22.

Leviticus 20.13

To name two but not the only two biblical texts.

In the wake of the violence in Nice this week, when many are rushing to condemn Islam and the Quran, perhaps it’s important that we acknowledge that we’ve got texts in our own scripture that endorse, proscribe, and justify violence and terror. Plenty of such texts.

While “Reverend” Jimenez made the front page of the Washington Post, we all have that family member, that coworker, that neighbor who shares a perspective that’s substantively no different than that pastor in California.

And, chances are, that family member, that coworker, that neighbor believes the bible is on their side.

So what do we do with them? Those texts?

YouTube removed the video of that California pastor’s sermon so I haven’t watched it, but he could have easily turned to page whatever of his King James Bible (I’m sure it was King James) and he could have easily concluded his preaching by saying:

‘The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.’

But, that’s the problem isn’t it? It doesn’t settle anything because the Bible says lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.

And that can lead you to believe lots of things. Lots of contradictory things.

So that doesn’t settle it. It doesn’t settle anything.

Just take John 8 as Exhibit A. In John 8 the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt of Olives and throw her at Jesus’ feet.

She’s guilty.

The Pharisees remind the rabbi how the Bible clearly commands that they stone this woman to death for her sin.

And certainly any rabbi, who can quote scripture chapter and verse like Jesus, knows they’re correct.

Leviticus 20 commands it.

Deuteronomy 22 commands it.

Numbers 5 commands it too.

Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22, Numbers 5- these aren’t just random, man-made laws. They’re commands, given to Moses on Mt Sinai by God.

It’s easy to forget that after God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, the ones we like and want to nail on walls everywhere, God kept on talking, face-to-face, with Moses. Giving Moses 623 additional commandments. Including those ones in Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5.

The Bible says it.

A rabbi should believe it.

So they ask Jesus to settle it.

And Jesus responds with the parry ‘whoever is without sin cast the first stone’ and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself Jesus tells her ‘I do not condemn you. Go. And sin no more.’

Jesus chooses mercy not sacrifice.

In this instance where the Bible is clear and unambiguous, in this instance where the crime and the commanded punishment are spelled out unequivocally in black-and-white- in this instance, Jesus chooses grace and mercy.

And by choosing grace and mercy, in this instance Jesus chooses to violate the explicit command of God.

The Bible says it. They all believe it.

But in this instance belief in the Bible does not settle it for Jesus.

 

I wonder though- is this just an instance?

Would Jesus say stone her next time? Sure, he tells the woman to go and no longer sin.

But what if she did? What if the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time? Or, say, the fifth time?

Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees ‘You’re right guys. The bible’s black and white on this. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first stone?’

Doesn’t feel like it jives with the Jesus story does it?

Of course, the woman at Jesus’ feet on the Mt of Olives- she’s just one example.

Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus trespasses upon the clear, black-and-white, face-to-face commandments of God.

God commanded Moses to stone Sabbath-breakers. And Jesus heals so many people on the Sabbath it’s like he refuses to do anything but.

God promised to Moses that he would visit the sins of the parents upon their children to the 4th generation. And Jesus says to a man born blind that God would never punish him for his parents’ sin.

God commanded Moses to exact vengeance upon enemies, to take an eye for an eye taken. And Jesus refuses to take up the sword, giving up his life rather than take one.

And then when you get to the end of the Jesus story, it’s those most committed to the Bible who conspire to kill Jesus. The Bible tells them to.

In Leviticus 24 and Deuteronomy 13.

God told Moses, face-to-face, to do that very thing to blasphemers and sabbath-breakers and false prophets.

The Bible said it. They believed it. So that settled it.

Saying ‘The Bible said it’ doesn’t settle anything because, let’s be frank- the Passion story makes clear- the Bible can lead you to carry a cross or to build one.

 

Of course, that’s only a problem if you confuse the Bible for the full revelation of God.  It’s only unsettling if you think the Bible is the capital -W- Word of God.

Now, I know when we read scripture in worship we’ll say ‘This is the word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.’ And you hear all the time that the Bible is infallible or inerrant or inspired by the Spirit.

Except, notice:

The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes about Jesus.

Now that couldn’t be more important so let me repeat it:

The claims we so often make of the Bible, the Bible makes of Jesus.

That’s how you heard Paul proclaim Jesus today in Colossians 1:

Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the one in whom all things hold together.

Jesus is the one in whom the fullness of God dwells.

     Jesus is the one through whom the totality of who God is is revealed. What Paul proclaims about Jesus in Colossians 1 is what John proclaims in chapter 1 of his Gospel. John make this audacious claim:

‘Scripture was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.’

And then John doubles-down on that claim in his first letter:

‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other (as Christ loved)   then God is seen in us.’

With those verses, Paul and John deliberately up-end the entire way we read the Bible because, according to the Bible, lots of people have seen God.

A former Pharisee like Paul would know that Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. A bible-believing Pharisee like Paul would know that Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre and that Jacob freaking wrestled God by the riverside. A rabbi like Paul would know that Moses saw God on top of Sinai where he received from God the 633 commandments that comprised Jesus’ Bible. And Paul would know that Moses wasn’t alone up there either. Scripture says 70 Elders of Israel ate with Moses and God on top Sinai.

So they saw God too. As did the prophet Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died. So did Daniel and Ezekiel. According to the Bible lots of people, patriarchs and prophets, saw God so what could John possibly mean by asserting that no one has ever seen God? What could Paul mean when he proclaims that Jesus, only in Jesus, is God made visible, that only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell?

Listen up-

This couldn’t be more fundamental. They mean that Jesus, not the Bible, is the full revelation of God.

Paul means that the Logos, the capital -W- Word of God became flesh; the Logos did not become a book.

He means the Bible is not perfect, Jesus is. The Bible is not the redemptive mediator between God and humanity, Jesus is.

The Bible is not infallible or inerrant but what it can do is reliably point us to Jesus Christ.

The claims we so often make about the Bible the Bible makes about Jesus.

Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible. Jesus is what God has to say to us. Jesus is the fullness of God made visible.

Compared to Jesus, you might as well say ‘No one has ever seen God.’ Because all those patriarchs and prophets who saw God, they saw God only partially. Only imperfectly. At most incompletely.

Only Jesus has made the Father known. Only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell. Only Jesus is the image of invisible God.

And that means, as Brian Zahnd likes to say: “God is like Jesus.”

And more importantly, it means “God has always been like Jesus. It means there has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.”

It means that we have not always known what God is like— Moses, Abraham, the prophets…they caught only glimpses.

We didn’t see God fully. But now, in Christ, we have.”

And that means if there’s one calibrating principle of Christian belief, one grammatical rule for Christian speech, one foundational posture we present to others, it’s this from Tripp Fuller:

     “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

     I know that sounds like the bare minimum but, given the world we live in today and the preachers who make the front pages of the Post and the Christians who comment on CNN and social media, I’ll take it.

     God is at least as nice as Jesus. Because Jesus, not the Bible, is the fullness of God revealed.

 

When it comes the character of a congregation, I think there is no more important distinction to draw than that one.

Because, let’s be honest, it would be much easier and would require much less of us to be a community based on the Bible, a community devoted to the Bible, a community that believes in the Bible and believes it to be the full revelation of God.

A community that makes the Bible an end in itself can find within the Bible justification for all sorts of attitudes and actions that came naturally to sinners like us.

A community can be based on the Bible and be angry and judgmental and holier than thou.

A community can be based on the Bible and be hateful and homophobic; a community can be based on the Bible and be sexist and self-righteous. It can be a community that condemns sinners and cast stones and convinces itself that God blesses their violence.

A community that treats the Bible as the capital -W- Word of God, the fullness revelation of God, can find within the Bible justification to believe in all sorts of contradictory, callous and un-Christlike ways.

But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, that believes Christ to be the fullness of God, the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.

It has to be a community characterized by love. Humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, enemy-forgiving, sacrificial, merciful, gracious love.

The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

 

The Bible says that Jesus- NOT THE BIBLE- is the Word of God, the fullness of God, the image of the otherwise invisible God.

And that’s our answer to fraudulent Christians like that pastor on the front page of the Washington Post.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what the Bible says about this or that because what some claim about the Bible, the Bible claims about Jesus.

     Jesus Christ is the Word God speaks to us.

     So we cannot speak anything of God that we cannot imagine Jesus saying.

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517When I was about to begin serving as a pastor for the first time over a dozen years ago, I decided to ask one of my seminary professors, Dr Jim Stewart, for advice on what to do when starting out in a congregation- something for which seminary doesn’t actually prepare you.

Dr. Stewart looked top heavy with his mop of curly white hair on top of his short, heavyset body. He wore thick brown glasses, which when removed revealed that Dr Stewart was a dead ringer for the actor Charles Durning who played Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie.

After class one day, I walked up to Dr Stewart as he was stuffing papers into his leather satchel and I asked him for advice on beginning in my first congregation.

He answered so quickly I almost thought he was responding to someone else’s question:

“Don’t change ANYTHING for the first 6 months. Earn their trust. Don’t do or say anything provocative. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.”

He slid more papers into his satchel as I processed what sounded to me like an insult in the form of advice. Dr Stewart looked up and smiled and said:

‘Don’t worry, that’s a comment about you. I give the same advice to every new pastor.’

I can’t speak for the other denominations whose clergy Dr Stewart has advised, but I can say that his words are frustrated by the fact that United Methodist bishops appoint their pastors to churches during the last week of June/first week of July.

So, in the United Methodist Church new clergy are making just their first or second impressions over Independence Day weekend, a time when most folks are not in church and others come to church with a diversity of expectations.

I packed Dr Stewart’s advice along with my books and my belongings and I took it with me to my new church.

On Day 1, my secretary first walked me through the church directory. Second, she gave me the skinny on church gossip, and third she informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing the self-destructive implosion that would be this new pastor’s Independence Day sermon.

Like all things 4th of July, the ecumenical service was held outdoors, in a city park. I arrived early. Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ was booming through the speakers as I parked my car.

When I got to the pavilion area, I spotted a large, wooden cross in the center of the stage- the kind of cross you’d see on the side of the highway.

Only this cross had a large, car dealership-sized American flag draped over it.

And I swear, in that instant, Dr Stewart appeared to me like Yoda to Luke Skywalker. And starting at old glory covering up the old rugged cross, I heard Dr Stewart’s advice ring in the air:

‘Don’t ruffle feathers. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.’

I walked up to a guy who looked like the master of ceremonies- a Pentecostal preacher, it turned out. I introduced myself and then I said:

‘Say, maybe we should take the flag off the cross before people show up for the service and get upset.’

The Pentecostal preacher just stared at me- the same soothsaying way my secretary had- and then he said: ‘Why would anyone get upset? This is the Independence Day Service after all.’

And I was about to respond at least as colorfully as the stars and stripes, but then I saw Dr Stewart appear in an angelic haze, like Obi Wan to young Luke, and I heard Dr Stewart say:

‘Don’t upset anyone.’

So I said nothing.

Cross-Wooden-with-Draped-American-FlagA couple hundred people gathered for the ecumenical Independence Day Service, which began with a greeting by a Brethren pastor.

Before we realized what was happening, the Brethren pastor had slid from words of welcome into a ‘Fatherwejust’ prayer. His prayer was a confession, a lament, of all the ways America has absconded from the Christian values of its founding.

His lament was exhaustive and exhausting, and all the while I gripped my bible and sighed, trying to conjure the image of Dr Stewart.

After the fatherwejust prayer, we sang ‘America’ and the ‘Battle Hymn,’ which in hindsight were the high points of the service. And after the ‘glory, glory, hallelujahs’ the local Episcopal priest got up and offered another prayer- this one thanking God that we live in a nation where we’re free to pursue what sounded to me like positions from the Democratic Party platform.

Again, I sighed and death-gripped my bible, waiting for some mention of Jesus to make its way into the prayer. But it never did.

Next, the Master of Ceremonies, the Pentecostal preacher, stood in front of the flag-draped-cross and read the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished, he said:

‘I’d like to invite the new Methodist pastor, Rev James MacChelly, to come up and preach for us.’

I’d come that day armed with a few pages of a sermon on serving your neighbor, a harmless, vanilla homily I could’ve easily delivered at a Kiwanis meeting as at a worship service.

But walking up to the flag-draped-cross, I decided a different message was needed. I decided to change gears and improvise. I decided I should trust the Holy Spirit not to let me crash and burn.

And I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

First, I read not from the Golden Rule as I’d planned, but from the Apostle Paul- not today’s text but one just like it, where Paul writes:

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to sit at the right hand of the Father and given him the name that is above every name; so that, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

When I finished reading the scripture, a few people said ‘Amen,’ which I erroneously took as a promising sign.

And then I began:

I know a lot of you are expecting me to speak about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I’m a preacher. The bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

I looked out in the crowd and saw Dr Stewart sitting on a lawn chair near the 3rd row. He was shaking his head and mouthing the words: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’

But I ignored him.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye. 

     The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord. The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world fromheaven. 

     You see, I said, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives. 

     To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace. 

Dr Stewart sat in his lawn chair, giving me a sad, ‘it’s-not-too-late-to-turn-back’ look. But it was too late.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel, I said.

     And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. 

     I could tell from the crinkled brows in the crowd that they could yet tell if or how I was subverting their expectations.

So I decided to make it plain.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative to it too. 

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord. 

     As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world. 

The crinkled brows in the crowd had turned to crossed arms and angry faces, and a few people got up and left.

Dr Stewart was now sitting in his lawnchair mouthing the words ‘I told you so.’

I’d lost them, all of them, and I knew if any of them in the crowd were members of my new congregation they wouldn’t be for much longer. I knew I had to steer this wreck of a sermon off the road as quickly as possible.

So I said:

Independence Day Weekend is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports. We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country. 

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom, and even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ. 

     That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’ 

I thought that sounded like a good place to end the sermon so I said: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

And the gathered crowd responded with ‘harummphhhhhhhhhhhhh…….’

I looked up in the crowd and saw that Dr Stewart was no longer there, which wasn’t all that surprising because neither were several dozen other people.

Though its harder to decipher, in Romans 6 Paul makes the same point as that passage I read a dozen years ago.

Paul builds on his argument by showing you how Jesus is the 2nd Moses, how Christ has delivered us from the domain of Sin and Death so that we might walk in newness of life.

And that word ‘walk’ is key. It’s ‘halakah.’

It comes from the Exodus, when God- through Moses- rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a  new life by parting the Red Sea so that they could walk across it on dry land.

 Paul’s point is that through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

For Paul, the resurrection inaugurates a new reality in the world; so that, baptism is for us what the Red Sea was for the Israelites: a doorway into a new Kingdom, a new and different and distinct People in the world.

That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism isn’t so much the outward symbol of a believer’s faith. Baptism unites into Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us, and what’s true of him is that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God where he is the Lord over the nations of the Earth.

 

You see, for Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

After the service ended, the pastors formed a receiving line to shake hands with folks as they left. I was at the far end of the line. Not wanting any guilt by association, the other pastors had left ample buffer space between them and me.

Most people just walked by me and glared at me like I was a wife beater.

A few people joked: ‘I wouldn’t unpack my new office just yet if I were you Rev. MacChellee.’

 Finally a man in his 50’s or 60’s came up to me.

He had a high and tight haircut and was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm.

And he said: ‘Preacher, I just want to thank you.’

‘Thank me? For what exactly?’

     ‘I never have understood how Paul got himself executed, but listening to you preach I finally understand why people would want to kill him.’

‘Look, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I admit it. It wasn’t a good sermon for a new guy to preach.’

     ‘No, I’m dead serious. I always thought being a Christian was about believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime we’re supposed to be kind to our neighbors.

‘But that doesn’t make Christians much different than the Rotary Club or any other American.’

‘As stupid as your sermon was, it helped me see that being a Christian is a whole lot more complicated than I thought, but maybe a lot more interesting too.’

     12 years ago, Independence Day Weekend- that was the wrong sermon to preach. I know that now.

It ruffled feathers.  It sounded offensive. It upset nearly everyone.

They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I was serving up flip opinions or speaking out of a sincere faith. I hadn’t earned their trust.

It was the wrong sermon to preach.

For them.

     But I’ve been here 8 years.

You do know me. You’ve learned how to listen to me. You know that even when I sound flip my faith is sincere.

I’ve been here 8 years and I think I’ve earned at least a little of your trust.

So trust me when I tell you that I’m grateful to live in a nation where I am free to irritate you every other Sunday.

But hear me when I tell you:

as baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

(And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

(And very often, it isn’t.)

I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

(And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness. And faithfulness. And service. And sacrificial love.

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  June 20, 2016 — Leave a comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nFor the sermon this Sunday, I sat down with my good friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz, and the innocent man he got off of death row, Alfred Dewayne Brown. Dewayne is only the 13th exonoree from the state of Texas. Not only is it a story of Brian’s incredible challenge and the injustice done Dewayne, it’s also a story of the Church- both the big C Church that formed Brian into believing that the death penalty is unethical and our local congregation that sustained him during the decade he spent trying to free Dewayne.

Brian’s and Alfred’s story is told in Brian’s forthcoming book, Grace and Justice. Check it out on Amazon here.

Here’s the sermon:

I preached the local high school’s baccalaureate service yesterday afternoon.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me. The text I preached was from Genesis 12 and 15, the call of Abram:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; And Abram journeyed on by stages and…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless,  The Lord brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

I don’t have the text of the sermon in a way that won’t elicit snarky comments about grammatical mistakes etc, so you’ll just have to listen to it below. If you subscribe by email, you may have to click on the link here.