Archives For Preachments

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

The Christian blogosphere has been all atwitter lately over the National Cathedral’s welcome of an Islamic prayer service into their sacred space. Living here in DC as I do, I can say that Muslims praying in the cathedral will be neither the first non-Christian activity on the cathedral’s schedule nor will it be as a-religious as much of the silliness which transpires there (seriously, I was once forced to take a ‘Laughter Yoga’ class there).

True to form, my mentor and partner-in-crime, Dennis Perry, was well-ahead of the curve in showing Christian hospitality to our Muslim neighbors when their mosque was under renovation. Fidelity to Jesus, Dennis points out, involves much more than tribal allegiance to him. It requires us to embody his life and ministry, and when it comes how we should offer hospitality to our despised, feared neighbors Jesus even gives us a handy-dandy, black-and-white parable to abide: the Good Samaritan.

Our church welcomed our Muslim neighbors 4 years ago. It was not without controversy. Many church members got angry. Others left. Only one ever actually came to me to tell me they were upset.

In the end, in a denomination whose highest value is most often making members happy, we’re a stronger congregation for welcoming the stranger.

Here’s the sermon I wrote 4 years ago, the Sunday after the Friday we first welcomed our local mosque into our sacred multipurpose room. I preached that Sunday while Dennis sat in the middle of a firing line of questions between services.

As luck would have it, it’s this coming Sunday’s lectionary text.

Also, just for shits and giggle, here’s a bit the Daily Show did about our hospitality.

The Form of God’s Shalom – Matthew 25

A few years ago, before she graduated, I went with my wife, Ali, to a law school party. I hate parties. I avoid them. I go only begrudgingly and when I’m in them I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a minister- a marine biologist, say, or an architect. Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks like saying you’re a minister, and nothing provokes unwanted conversations like saying you’re a minister.

So, there I was at this party full of wannabe lawyers, gnawing like a beaver on celery sticks, desperately trying to keep conversation to superficial things when this Urban-Outfitted guy asked me what I did for a living. And because my wife was nearby I told him the truth.

Sure enough, the first thing he did was discretely move his wine glass behind his back. Then he copped an elitist air and said:

‘Well, I’m not religious, of course, but I do try to live a good life and help people when I can. Isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about?’

And I thought: ‘Wow, that’s really deep. Is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? I should write that down. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.’

Today’s scripture text from Matthew 25 seems like the perfect example of such do-good moralism.

One of the most obvious features of this judgment scene is what’s missing from it. When it comes to the sheep and the goats, there’s no mention of a confession of faith. There’s no mention of justification. Nothing is said here about forgiveness of sins or grace.

There’s nothing here about what we say or believe about Jesus. Many conclude from this text then that our beliefs, our doctrine, our faith are all incidental when compared to our deeds, that this parable shows us that what really matters is what we do, that one day we will be judged not on the strength or sincerity of our faith but on the presence of our good deeds to others.

The only problem with such an interpretation is that its an interpretation that doesn’t require Jesus; in fact, you can forget Jesus is the one telling the parable.

The suggestion that ‘doing good to others is really what it’s all about’ is hardly a novel concept. It’s not specifically Christian or even particularly religious.

There has to be more going on here.

Jesus and the disciples have just left the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus preached a series of woes against the faithless city. It was while they were there that the disciples couldn’t help but marvel over the impressive architecture of Herod’s temple mount.

And hearing their amazement, Jesus responds by predicting the complete destruction of every building they see, stone for stone.

Then Jesus leads them up to the Mt of Olives. When they get there, the disciples ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5). Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’ That this is the setting for today’s scripture is key to understanding Jesus’ parable.

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read this parable rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture.

Every year I spend the first three weeks of our confirmation program drilling into the confirmands’ heads that harmony was God’s intention from the very beginning. Harmony with creation, with one another, with Father, Son and Spirit.

Sometimes we spend so much time praising God for dying for our sins we forget that Sin was not in the first draft of God’s story. We forget that harmony was God’s original design, and we forget that harmony is God’s promise for a

New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. By telling this parable here the Shepherd is passing his vocation on to his sheep. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

You see-

The point of this parable is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se. The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point of this parable is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged. The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to his way of life which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep are saved not because of their good deeds. The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to live the life that redeems the world. The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about? The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation came to me, quite upset, and told me they couldn’t understand why we would allow for an Islamic congregation to hold their Friday Jummah prayer services here in our building.

‘How can we ask our youth to give their lives to Christ when we’re condoning the practice of another religion in our fellowship hall?’

It was an honest question. I don’t doubt the sincerity of it, and it was just one of many such questions I’ve received in the last few weeks.

Implicit in the question is the suggestion that by welcoming the Islamic congregation we are watering down our beliefs in Jesus when in fact I think it’s the opposite.

I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I believe he’s the savior of the world. And because I believe that, I believe his way of life is the form of God’s shalom. And there is no better description of Jesus’ life than as the One who welcomes the stranger, love his enemies, cares for the outcast, heals the sick, and brings good news to the captives.

Do I believe the worlds’ religions are all just different paths to the same destination? No.

Do I believe Islam rightly understands the God of Abraham? No.

Do I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Yes.

But when we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

That we would welcome Muslim strangers into our sacred space with no strings attached is not a reduction of what we believe about Jesus (or a betrayal); it is, I think, the fullest possible expression of what we believe about Jesus.

This isn’t just a relevant question for our congregation. As globalism and secularism spread, the question for the Church in the future is: how do we as Christians engage the stranger?

We do so as Christ, who regarded the stranger as neither darkness nor danger.

Today’s scripture is Jesus‘ final teaching moment before the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel- where Jesus sends out the apostles to make disciples of all nations. What that means, I think, is that the necessary condition for evangelism, the necessary condition for sharing our faith, is the presence of a People who embody the life of the One whom we wish to share with others.

Fundamentally, you can’t share a message about the One who welcomed strangers and loved enemies and forgave sin and conquered the power of Death in a hostile, suspicious or fearful way.

The manner in which we share our faith has to match the content of our message. Otherwise we’re practicing an ideology and not the ministry of Jesus.

Look-

There are irreconcilable differences with how Christians, Muslims, and Jews worship the God of Abraham. Secular culture tries to tell us that those differences don’t really matter. Extremists try to tell us that those differences are worth killing over.

I believe what the Church has to offer the world right now is a gift we’ve already been given by Jesus. What we have to offer the world is a ministry that welcomes the stranger. What we have to offer the world is a community where there is no danger in the Other’s difference because welcome of the stranger is an attribute of God’s own life.

Let me make it plain:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

We do this because this is the form of God’s shalom. This is the labor Christ has given us. I recognize such labor at times can be painful, uncomfortable and difficult. But ask any mother- labor pains always come before new life.

In Discipline and Punish, the philosopher Michel Foucault reflects on Bentham’s image of the panopticon as the ideal prison. Prisoners constantly under the gaze of a lone guard in a central tower, Foucault argued, is an image of pure- and ultimately degrading-power and, for that reason, worse than torture.
For Sunday’s sermon I tried to apply Foucault’s argument to the 3rd servant’s confession ‘I know you’re a harsh Master’ in Matthew 25. I did so by way of Bette Midler.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or in iTunes here. I broke the mic Sunday so you’re going to have to turn it up!
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     I didn’t always know Him. Thought I did.

And before that, for a long time, I didn’t know him at all.

God, that is.

 

I mean, I wasn’t always a disciple, a ‘servant of the Lord.’  I didn’t even attend a regular worship service- ever- until about the same time I was attending Driver’s Ed. My excitement for the latter was in inverse proportion to the former.

I didn’t make God the Master of my life until around the same time I was teaching life-saving at the neighborhood pool.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a religious home. We didn’t intone His name at suppertime. We didn’t invoke His fickle nature when we stubbed our toes or languished in the Brew-Thru line or came up nada on the Pick 6.

For a long time, I didn’t know Him.

Before I was a teenager, I graced the doorway of the Master’s house only once, for my Aunt Lisa’s nuptials to a guy whose name I was convinced must be a joke: ‘Chet.’

I was a part of the Master’s ‘Dearly Beloved’ that day, but more so than the grim, gothic sanctuary or the ancient smells and bells or the priest’s alien incantations, what I best recall from that ceremony was the unfortunate Val Kilmer/‘Iceman’ haircut my mother imprudently allowed me to bring to the wedding.

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I didn’t always know Him; I didn’t grow up in a religious family.

We never thought to begrudge the talent or treasure He had given us because He wasn’t really a part of our lives. Nor was Jesus (as in: Jesus H. Christ!!!) even a word in our vocabulary.

We were neither a spiritual nor religious family.

I never flannel-graphed the Good Shepherd in Sunday School. I never fell asleep during gassy, finger-wagging sermons. No one ever taught me to sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for that unread book tells me so.’

In fact, I only knew who Jesus was because my Italian Grandmother, who had a pasta-maker’s forearms and a steel-worker’s mustache- it’s true, I look just like her- she had what must’ve been a 5×6 foot Harvey Keitel-kind-of-crucifix with blood and nails and a ‘You did this to me, bastard’ look on his face.

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The crucifix loomed over the head of the pine guest room bed where I slept whenever my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.

I remember-

When I first saw that crucifix, I asked my grandma ‘who did that to him?’ And she replied without ambiguity: ‘I did.’

(‘What in the _________. You did? That’s crazy!’) I thought to myself.

And looking for solace, I asked her: ‘Well, he’s dead now, right?’ But she calmly replied: ‘No. No, he’s alive.’

And again I thought to myself: ‘Wait, you did that to him and he’s still alive? That does NOT sound good.’

So, needless to say, on those sleepover nights at her house I’d cover the crucifix as best I could with a pillowcase. Elementary-me thought something that looked like a ghost on the wall was less terrifying than this guy named Jesus that my paisano  grandma had apparently failed to whack.

But that freaky, torture-device, 5×6 foot roadkill Jesus above the headboard of my bed was as close to meeting the Master as I ever got. We weren’t a religious family. We didn’t pray or worship. If we had a Bible it stayed in mint condition.

I was never exposed- introduced- to Him, the idea of Him; that is, not until 1990.

I was in Jr High, still playing with GI Joe after school but newly in the throes of ‘the puberty’ as it was called in gym class.

1990- it was the year Nelson Mandela was released from Robbin Island, the year Saddam was roused from Kuwait.

1990- it was the year the Simpsons first aired on TV, the year Driving Miss Daisy fooled everyone and somehow won Best Picture and the year Milli Vanilli did NOT sing ‘Girl, You Know It’s True.’

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But what is true, no doubt, 1990 that was the year someone first told me about Him.

God, the Lord, the Father…the Master. 1990 was the year someone got through to me, the year someone got me thinking long and hard and always about Him.

1990- the year John McEnroe’s god-complex got him banned from the Australian Open was the same year I became God-obsessed. All because of the revelation I received from one ginger prophetess:

From a distance I just cannot comprehend

what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,

and it echoes through the land.

And it’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves,

it’s the heart of every man.

It’s the hope of hopes, it’s the love of loves.

This is the song of every man.

And God is watching us, God is watching us,

God is watching us from a distance.

Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.

God is watching us from a distance.

1990- that year, like a chanteuse evangelist, Bette Midler’s hit song ‘From a Distance’ lodged in my brain where it haunted me in a way that her overacting in Beaches never could.

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Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ from the album Some People’s Lives went all the way to #1 on the adult contemporary chart. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top 100.

In 1991 it won a Grammy for Best Song of the year, which meant the song was everywhere, always as near as its subject was allegedly far. Omnipresent.

Everywhere, anywhere, I went in 1990 Bette Midler and Him were there, like the prodigal parable in reverse. What was found couldn’t be shaken.

Not just on my mom’s cassette tape in her maroon Honda Accord, but wandering around the mall as an awkward adolescent, sipping an orange julius and spying on the girls shopping in Claires and- for a brief moment- thinking life looked not too bad…I heard Bette Midler pipe on the PA: ‘…God is watching us…God is watching us…’

At the Friday night skate party at the roller rink, as I took my first ever stab at talking to an actual human-style girl, I heard Bette’s voice cut through the humid darkness: ‘…God is watching us…’

Pushing the cart behind my mom at the grocery store, I even heard a muzak version of it, no words. But it didn’t need any words because by that point in 1990 I’d heard ‘From a Distance’ so many times I’d started making up my own words to it:

‘God is watching you.

God is watching you.

God is watching you, Jason- from a distance.’

Despite its commercial success- or maybe because of it- ‘From a Distance’ met with much critical derision.

VH1 ranked it #37 on its 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of All Time list. A critic at Rolling Stone reviewed that, even from an eternal distance, Bette Midler’s drum machine FX would sound too loud, while still another critic speculated that if God does exist then surely God hates cliches and forced rhyme schemes.

So as popular as it was on the charts, a lot of critics and aficionados hated Bette Midler’s epic, monster ballad cover of ‘From a Distance.’

Middle school- me hated it too.

Not because of the drum machine FX. Not because I was still in my Phil Collins stage and liking Bette Midler would’ve felt like a betrayal. No, the song terrified me.

Or rather, the assertion in the song terrified me: that every moment, all the time, no matter what I say or do (or 100x worse: think!), no matter where I go- that every move I make, God- like that lover in Sting’s superior song, will be watching you. Me.

Which means that with God my heart is always an open book, all desires are known, no secret is hid.

No. Secret. Is. Hid.

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I don’t know what becoming a teenager was like for you, but this was NOT good news to me.

I mean-

The same year Bette Midler’s ‘From a Distance’ was topping the charts and dominating the play lists of low impact aerobic studios everywhere, I was conscripted into selling chocolate bars as a fundraiser for my school.

I was gunning to hawk enough chocolate to earn the Rickey Henderson rookie card, but it turns out I’m not much of a salesman. The prize I did earn initially struck me as a little lackluster, a Sports Illustrated subscription. I like sports and all, but I didn’t think it was anything to get excited about.

That is, not until that fateful February day when I discovered, like Charlie’s golden ticket, that that Sports Illustrated subscription had hidden inside the fine print the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

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One winter day there they were.

Elle McPherson, Rachel Hunter, Kathy Ireland (I had to look up their names because I don’t remember them) waiting in my mailbox, with my name on them, hours before my mom would come home.

In that revelatory moment, turning each diaphanous page, what middle school-me should’ve heard ringing in his pubescent head was Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus or maybe the Pointer Sisters’ ‘I’m So Excited.’

But no.

Thanks to Bette Midler, all I could think, hear, was that little voice inside my head. In her voice actually: ‘God is watching you…God is watching you, Jason.’

1990 bled into 1991and, after enduring 3 semesters of shame and abuse, I finally stood up to a bully named Frog, getting off at his bus stop and pummeling him like a 7th grade Joe Pesci, I didn’t hear the cheers erupt from the steamed-up bus windows. I didn’t hear ‘Eye of the Tiger’ start to play as the soundtrack of my life kicked-on.

No, I heard her.

Sing about Him. The Master. Watching me.

And it was the same when I knowingly ripped off my friend Jim in a baseball card trade that would make Fannie and Freddie proud, giving him my Chris Sabo (!?) for his Roger Clemens rookie card.

And when a woman in the neighborhood paid me and a friend to pull down a rival politician’s campaign signs in the cover of darkness- even in the darkness I was convinced that we were being watched. Thanks to Bette Midler.

And when I refused to accept the apology of a girl in my class, Kathy, for intentionally embarrassing me in class Bette’s chorus came on in my head and in anger I grumbled to her: ‘You should be apologizing to God, Kathy. He’s watching you.’

Which…made her cry.

That song was still everywhere in 1991 when I watched my grandmother disappear behind an Alzheimer’s fog and then what I took issue with was His Distance. His watchful but ineffectual Distance.

In 1990 Bette Midler became the first person to implant the idea of Him in my head- the Source and Sustainer of all that Is, the Master of all our lives- and for that you might think I’d consider her the wind beneath my wings.

But no.

Because behind the saccharine, synthesized pop idioms and pre-K poetics, her song haunted me.

From a distance…God is watching us. Me. Big Brother is watching me. Like Dr. TJ Eckleberg, the Master’s eyes are always on me. Watching.

Checking to see if I’m nice or naughty.

Like a guard in a prison tower.

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‘From a Distance’ was originally penned in 1985 by Julie Gold, a songwriter who was working as a secretary for HBO at the time.

When Nanci Griffith covered the song and made it a moderate hit in 1987, Julie Gold told a reporter that her song was about how the way things are is not the way things appear, that God is watching us.

‘But,’ she added, ‘listeners can find whatever meaning they want in the song.’

Well, I can tell you and Ms Julie Gold exactly what meaning I took away from it.

You’ve got no place to hide, no place to hide the parts of you you should hide.

He is always watching us.

Which means He must always be evaluating us. Judging us.

Marking our mistakes in His ledger like an absentee landlord.

Checking to see what we’ve done with what we’ve got every moment.

Like He’s in the tower in the center of a prison, and- if He’s always watching us- that’s where we belong, right?

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When Nanci Griffith first received a demo of Julie Gold’s song in the mail in 1986, the singer told the songwriter she thought the idea of God always watching us was beautiful.

My takeaway in 1990?

That if He’s always watching us, then He must be a hard, harsh Master.

It didn’t take long after I first heard Bette Midler’s cover of ‘From a Distance’ on B103.7 (the Best Mix of Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow) for that song to change me.

Here’s the thing, here’s everything-

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Who you think you are.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master, you’ll be hard on and harsh to others.

If you believe God is angry watching us, you’ll get angrier towards others.

If you think He’s always watching, always judging us, you’ll be quick to judge.

If you think He’s constantly gazing upon the sins we can’t hide, you’ll surely start to point out the logs in others’ eyes.

If you believe He’s stingy with grace and mercy after looking at a lot like us, then you be ungenerous with the same.

If you think God is like a guard in the tower at the center of a prison, then you will internalize that gaze, seeing yourself every bit as worthless as you imagine you’re seen.

You’ll want to hide from Him. You will hide your true self from others.

You’ll want to bury every good thing about you down deep because you won’t trust that it’s good.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- always watching, always judging- you’ll soon resent Him, begrudging how He harvests where He does not bother to grow, gathers where He hasn’t bothered to lift a finger and sow and how He’s never given you your fair share in life.

If you think God is a hard, harsh Master- never near but always spying- then eventually (take it from Middle-school me: it doesn’t take long) you’ll hate God.

And (take it from Middle School-me) hating yourself will soon follow.

Who you think God is, shapes who you are.

Conversely, or consequently:

You can’t ever really become who you truly are, until you see who the Master really, truly is.

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I didn’t always know Him.

In 1990 Bette Midler introduced me to Him, got me thinking about Him. And, for a while, I thought that meant I knew Him.

But I didn’t.

And truly that’s the scary thing: you can think you know Him, serve Him even, and never actually know Him.

That way is Darkness. Teeth-grinding darkness.

For me, by the time I finally got to know Him, really know Him, was years later. By then, Bette Midler was doing guest slots on Seinfeld and re-packaging covers of ‘From a Distance’ for Christmas albums.

I didn’t come to really know Him until much later.

I won’t go into all that now. Not every parable should on a happy note.

Suffice it to say:

The story involves a church. Bread and wine. And brilliant teenager with a sexy physique.

And a guy named Dennis in a robe repeating S. Paul’s #1 hit: ‘While we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

Which of course is like an old school rap for saying that worse than any of our sins- worse than any of your sins- is thinking God a hard, harsh Master who doesn’t forgive them.

 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2For all of November I plan to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. Found in Matthew 25.14-30, the parable is both juicy enough and sufficiently cryptic for multiple takes and interpretations.

This Sunday I assumed the point of view of a servant consigned to the outer darkness where, Jesus says, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

You can listen to the sermon below or in the widget in the sidebar. You can download it in iTunes here.

Hey-

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

Yeah, I figured as much.

You can call me #3. No, I was never a Next Generation fan, why?

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. I mean, sure, Ted Cruz is here; he keeps yammering about repealing the incarnation.

But other than him and 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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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; its 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.”

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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. I’m not a risk-taker, but if I had to make a bet…you’ll be here too. Someday.

 

 

 

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

lightstock_61665_small_user_2741517-2This weekend I concluded our ‘Life Togther’ sermon series by doing the sermon ‘together’ with those gathered for worship. Since Paul’s letter to the Corinthians generally and chapter 12 specifically concern what happens when Christians gather for worship, I thought it most ‘biblical’ for us to do the sermon together.

So I began by giving the congregation a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series of options and let them choose the course we took:

1. What’s not on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts?

2. What’s right here in the passage that’s easy too miss but very important to see?

3. Share an anecdote that this passage calls to mind.

4. What is on this list that’s important?

5. If you had to condense this passage in to a Tweet, what would it be?

6. How is this list different from Paul’s other lists of gifts?

7. Show a video and explain how it relates to the text.

8. How do I find and use my spiritual gift?

9. Field a random question.

While I think this makes for good ‘in the moment’ preaching time, it’s probably a bit uneven to listen to afterwards.

To make it up to you, I offer you this ‘parable’ that occurred while I was preaching this Sunday. Names have been disguised to protect the guilty.

The Gifts of the Spirit – A Parable

Once a young, newly graduated Master of Divinity was in the critical care unit of the local hospital, visiting a member of his new congregation.

The patient was terribly bad-off with sores all over whose smell made the rookie Rev queasy and distracted. After a brief visit, the young minister stumbled and mumbled his way through a prayer and then left, leaving both he and the patient dissatisfied.

Outside in the hospital hallway, the pastor just happened into a middle-aged woman from his church. They exchanged pleasantries like you do and each explained that they were doing there in that hallway.

The pastor expressed his disappointment with his own discomfort when visiting the previous patient. In that moment, the pastor spontaneously asked the woman if she would go in and pray for the same patient. She agreed and they went to his bedside.

Startling her minister, the woman embraced the patient’s foul sores and uttered what sounded to the pastor as the most sincere, Spirit-filled prayer he’d heard up to then.

As they were leaving, the young pastor asked the woman:

‘Do you think perhaps you have the gift of healing?’

The woman began to cry.

‘Yes, I do think so’ she said.

‘You just never have asked me.’

 

 

LifeTogetherI continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?

For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.

And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.

The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.

That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.

And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.

All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.

So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.

But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’

Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.

Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.

And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’

Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.

     I said to her:

‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’

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No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

     “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

     Jesus says.

If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’

Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.  And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.

The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.  It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

     Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

     Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle. 

     I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type. 

    And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle? 

     And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there. 

     But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%. 

     Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!

     You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?

 

It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.

So maybe that’s the explanation.

Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.  He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.

Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.  As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.

So how do we explain it?

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You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.  He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.

He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.  WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

 

Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.

You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.

If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first.  And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

     Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.

That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.

I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.

Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.

What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

     How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?

 

 

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Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping,  Bible-believing people.

And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.

It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.

It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.

That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.

The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

 

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?

He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.

But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

     He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts.  And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.

     What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:

I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

mt15_27

 

Speaking of hearts-

That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:

     ‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’ 

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:

‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

     You see-

That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’

She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.

No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.

     She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

mt15_27

So the good news is-

     If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job

If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot

If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe

If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time

If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here

If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths

If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

     While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.

To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’

What’s Heaven Like?

Jason Micheli —  October 9, 2014 — 4 Comments

In the last few years, thanks largely to the work of NT Wright, the Church has recovered the understanding that going to heaven when we die is not the point of believing in Jesus nor is it, even, a primary concern of scripture and seldom do our notions of heaven resemble anything in our scripture or tradition.

However, to say that Christianity is not about going to heaven when we die is not to say that reflection on and belief in eternity is inappropriate.

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When I worked as a hospital chaplain at UVA, one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to identify the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.

One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.

She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.

Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.

When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.

A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.

The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room.

A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.

And then she lost her breath.

And then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.

I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.

The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.

She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.

But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said:

That’s alright. She’s not here. That’s just a shell…’ 

I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.

Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried:

‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter.

She’s not just anything. She’s Amanda. Until I say otherwise, that’s my daughter.’ 

Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.

I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.

In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at me and asked me:

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. 

I need to be able to picture her there.’

I fumbled it.

I didn’t describe streets of gold exactly, or pearly gates and billowy clouds, but I didn’t do much better than that either.

I’ve been around death enough to know that almost every one of you is as prone to cliche as that terrified med student, and only a few of you would handle that mother’s question about heaven any better than I did.

I’ve buried something like 80 people and stood vigil at I don’t know how many bedsides.

But Amanda’s mother with the sweater on backwards, who’d just been kicked in the teeth by grief, she’s the only person who’s ever put the question to me straight:

What’s heaven like?

Given my line of work, you might expect that question to come up all the time, but she’s the only one who’s ever asked.

Which tells me that before trying to answer what heaven is, maybe I should’ve said what heaven is not.

I wish I’d had the wisdom to lay my hand on her daughter’s head, and find the right way to tell her no matter what anyone said Amanda’s body was more than just a shell because heaven is not the continuation of a person’s eternal soul.

No doubt that would surprise her.

After all for centuries people have taken comfort in the belief that you have an eternal, spiritual soul apart from your physical, embodied self.

But that isn’t a belief rooted in scripture.

God makes us embodied creatures, I wish I’d found a way to say.

We’re one in life, body and soul, and we’re one in death, body and soul.

When we say things like ‘Death’s nothing at all…her body’s just a shell…her soul’s just slipped away’ we may be offering words of comfort but we’re not proclaiming the Gospel.

I think she would’ve understood.

She would’ve known you couldn’t look at her little girl- at the scar on her right hand that she could tell you Amanda got when she was nine, helping in the kitchen- and say her body doesn’t matter.

Death is real, I wish I’d said.

But then she already knew that.

Just like it was for Jesus from noon on Friday to Easter Eve, our death is the end of us.

Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, not in speculating about a detachable part of us Socrates called the soul.

Our hope lies in knowing that God promises to raise us to life everlasting and, just as he did with Jesus, God is determined not to leave any part of us behind.

And I wish I’d warned her about funeral homes- that the funeral home would most likely want to distribute memorial cards with Amanda’s name and dates on one side, and- odds were- the other side would have a terrible poem on it that said:

“Do not stand by my grave and weep. I am not here. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” I wish I’d warned her to refuse a poem like that because heaven is not our becoming one with the infinite. We don’t disappear into the ether.

I should’ve warned her the funeral home would tell her that people found those to be comforting words, but that, for Amanda’s sake, she should care not just that the words are comforting, she should care that they’re true.

Her reaction to the lie the doctor tried to offer as comfort tells me Amanda’s mom already knew that.

She already knew our platitudes about heaven can’t do the heavy lifting because they offer an understanding of heaven in which God is completely absent or, worse, unnecessary. Jesus’ work on the Cross and victory on Easter don’t seem to have achieved anything.

Before I tried to tell her what heaven is, I wish I’d given her advice about Amanda’s funeral.

I wish I’d advised her not to allow any family member or friend or preacher to stand before a congregation and say something like: ‘I’m sure Amanda’s up there now playing field hockey just like she loved to do down here.’

Maybe that sounds obvious, but I hear it enough to make it worth pointing out.

When we say things like that, we’re assuming heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical lives in all their ordinariness.

Heaven is a physical existence; the Risen Jesus is tactile.

But heaven’s also somehow altogether different and more mysterious than our lives now.

Heaven is not simply the continuation of our earthly lives.

For her sake, I wish I’d been clear about what heaven is not.

What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. I need to be able to picture her there.’

She let go of Amanda’s hand when she asked me. And squeezed my hand.

She squeezed it hard.

 

For a mother having to come claim her daughter- being able to distinguish between what the bible promises and what Hallmark cards promise really is a matter of life and death.

I’ve replayed that night a thousand times in my head. Instead of fumbling with images of billowy clouds and streets of gold, I wish I’d found the right way to tell her that the first thing heaven is is worship.

I wish I’d told her that when scripture pictures heaven it imagines a choir- not because heaven is all harps, organ music and polyester robes or even literally filled with music and praise.

I wish I’d told her to picture a choir because a choir is the perfect image for what it means for her little girl to have a body of her own but find her true self as part of a much greater body, a body where her unique voice sings most truly in harmony with the voices of others, where she rejoices at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are hers alone.

I could’ve told her that the reason Christians put so much care and attention into the way we worship is because the way we worship is the clearest way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven.

So I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda enjoying what we hope for here in worship: that every ounce of her energy and passion is focused on the God, that every part of her that was is now lost in wonder, love and praise – that’s what heaven’s like.

And I wish I’d asked about Amanda’s friends.

If I’d had the presence of mind to ask about Amanda’s friends, then I could’ve told her that in scripture heaven is about friendship- that the heart of God is three persons in perfect community, and that heaven is being invited to the table of friendship of  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I wish I’d asked about her daughter’s friends, about the joy and fulfillment they gave her because, in scripture, heaven is about friendship, not just the friendship between you and God but friendship between you and me.

That’s what Isaiah sees when he envisions Jerusalem the new city, coming down from heaven.

The life we live here and now, as friends and neighbors- its not just for the time being.

It won’t be transcended by the coming of heaven.

There will always be community.

There will always be friendship.

That’s why we work so hard as Christians to be engaged in service in our community and around the world- because learning to live together as friends is at the heart of preparing to live in heaven.

Picture Amanda as she was with her best friends, I wish I’d said.

Because that’s what heaven is.

Instead of fumbling with streets of gold and pearly gates, I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda at a party, at a wedding maybe.

I wish I’d asked her to picture Amanda with food and wine and music and dancing because heaven is about feasting together.

Maybe the most common picture of all in scripture is that of heaven as a wedding banquet, where God the Father celebrates the union of the Son with God’s children.

Just imagine, I wish I’d said, a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag.

That’s why John Wesley told Christians to share in the Eucharist as constantly as possible- not because the Eucharist grimly recalls Christ’s last meal but because when we gather together as two or three or twenty or two thousand and we eat together as friends we’re a little icon of the Trinity, we’re a little glimpse of heaven.

Heaven is where where food, friendship and worship all come together, I wish I’d said when she squeezed my hand.

Of course, there are questions that answer still doesn’t answer. It doesn’t answer whether heaven comes to us on the day we die or whether we lie at rest, awaiting our resurrection on the last day.It doesn’t answer how God will raise us or in what way we’ll be physical creatures.

It doesn’t answer whether only Christians or only Christians of a particular stripe get into heaven. It doesn’t answer those questions, but I don’t think Amanda’s mom would’ve cared all that much about those questions.

Like the cliches we so often use, those questions are all about us. 

And heaven is all about God.

Heaven is coming face to face with the only thing greater than the fear of death- the overwhelming love of God. That’s all Amanda’s mom wanted to know.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…

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Dear Pastor, 

     We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question. 

     My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it. 

     I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do? 

     How do I know God’s plan for me?

She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

She was wrong, of course. About her question.

In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:

Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?

Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?

Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?

Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?

Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?

Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

What am I supposed to do?

How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?

Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’

It’s a dicey question.

For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.

It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’

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.

So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.

For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.

Therein lies the trap.

If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.

No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.

By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.

Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’ 

Which means….?

What exactly?

All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.

Confused is a better translation.

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.

If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, right?

So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?

Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?

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The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.

It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.

We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.

I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.

‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’ 

I asked her what she meant, and she said:

‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.

Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’

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It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.

Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.

‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.

And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’ 

You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.

That just begs a whole other question:  What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?

Should they pay the tax or not?

It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.

And not have him.

So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.

As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.

God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.

He gives us a person to follow.

Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.

Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?

Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?

Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How do I know God’s plan?

The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.

But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.

As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.

For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.

Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.

But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.

The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.

God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.

Always.

oprah-tour-bio-1-949x534Our preaching theme in October is ‘Community’ and my assigned text this Sunday was John 15.1-17. Confession: I’ve always found the ‘I am’ sayings in John just about impossible to preach for their lack of narrative and abundance of repetition.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes here.

 

     “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He prunes any of my branches that don’t produce…”

     Who are we kidding? This just doesn’t work.

As a message, as a teaching- a sermon- Jesus goes about this all wrong.

It’s all bass-akwards.

Sure, Jesus had a big heart for the least, the lost, the left behind. Sure, Jesus could suffer for my sin. Yes, that whole swallowing up Death in Victory feat is pretty impressive, but take me from an expert: as a preacher, Jesus doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Far be it from me to brag (pause for laughter) but when I was in graduate school, I worked as the teaching assistant for Dr. Cleophus Larue, Princeton’s Professor of Homiletics (as in, Preaching).

Dr Laure is a famous black preacher himself, and, I don’t like to toot my horn, but let’s just say renown professors of the homiletical arts seldom select their worst students to be their assistants.

So, I know of what I speak and I’ve got the resume to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon and this just doesn’t work.

I know a good sermon should pick at and prod against and pull on the tension in the text or in the room, teasing out the MAIN IDEA only at the very end.

I know that preaching isn’t just talking and it’s not the same as lecturing. I know that for a good sermon the rhetorical form of the sermon should match the form of the scripture text.

And I know that for a sermon to be good, for the word to be a living word, then the preacher’s words have to land on target:

     The sermon has to be written for the ear not the eye.

The verbs have to be active.

The imagery has to be relevant and compelling.

You have to convey with the idioms of the day.

You have to meet your listeners where they’re at, where they’re coming, appeal to their self-interest.

You have to excite their passions and answer their questions and, for God’s sake, first rule of all:

     you’ve got to do it in  20 minutes or less.

     Because people get hungry.

I got the grades to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon.

I used to edit students’ sermon manuscripts, and I can tell you if I took a red pen to this sermon then you would think Jesus preached this on Calvary instead of in the Upper Room.

All of which is to say that this is textbook wrong, or at least you could say…this just doesn’t work.

Savior of the world maybe.

Good preacher no.

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He starts off promising, despite how the rest of it goes.

Jesus begins the sermon with an illustration, actually more like a piece of performance art.

Jesus takes off his robe and ties it around his waist like a slave. Jesus rolls up his sleeves, and Jesus stoops down on his knees.

And like a slave, the savior washes his listeners’ filthy feet.

One at a time he does what no Messiah would ever do and only a servant ever would.

He washes their feet!(?)

The congregation- they have no idea what he’s doing.

They’re hanging on every word he doesn’t say.

It’s a brilliant counter-intuitive way to begin a sermon.

 

And when Jesus finishes and stands up and puts his robe back on, he keeps it short and sweet: ‘Just as I have washed your feet…wash one another’s feet.’

Bam- his words match the ritual action. What they hear echoes what they’ve just seen.

It’s visual. It’s memorable. And the takeaway can fit onto a bumper sticker: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

Jesus starts off with A plus promise. If he’d only stopped there.

But then Jesus commits the first mistake of preaching: he just keeps preaching. He rambles on and on about betrayal and his Father’s House and Comforter coming.

He preaches so long you forget this teaching started with a street theater grabber like the foot-washing.

What’s worse- Jesus then makes the kind of promise that NO preacher should ever make, a Dennis Perry kind of preaching promise.

Jesus says in his sermon: ‘I won’t say much more to you…’(14.30).

Jesus promises he’s almost done preaching and then what does he do? He keeps on preaching.

By my count, Jesus preaches for another 2,040 words, longer than this sermon will end up being, which makes this the only basis on which you could ever argue that Jesus was a Baptist.

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I mean- just because he died for us doesn’t mean we can’t be critical right? :)

Even if you just take this sermon within the sermon in John 15, it doesn’t work. Jesus just comes out with his main idea right away: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.’

It’s like giving away the punchline before you’ve told the joke.

Sure, Jesus doesn’t have as much experience as, say…me, but even Jesus should know that if you begin where you should end you’ve got no where to go.

So it’s no wonder he just repeats himself over and over again.

But it’s not just the mechanics of the sermon Jesus screws up, it’s the substance.

Preaching, as one with a Master of Divinity degree knows, is a proclamation of the Gospel.

Preaching is the announcement of the unconditional promise that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

     Apparently Jesus skipped Preaching 101 though because his sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- is loaded down with very conditional-sounding if/then statements that all run in the wrong direction:

     ‘If you remain in me, then I will remain in you.’

‘If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.’

‘If you don’t remain in me, then you will be thrown away.’

‘If you keep my commands, then you will remain in my love.’

‘If you do what I’ve commanded, then you will be my friends.’

Even a C minus, tone-deaf rookie preacher should know that when you make conditional if/then statements the listeners can’t help but then ponder the alternatives:

     ‘If you don’t remain in me, then I will not remain in you.’

‘If you do not remain in me, then you will produce no fruit.’

‘If you don’t keep my commands, then you will not remain in my love nor will you by friends.’

And then it’s no time before your listeners aren’t even listing to you anymore. Now they’re listening to that voice inside their heads, the one reminding them of each and every instance in which they did not keep his commands.

And then-

It’s no time after that that your sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- starts to sound like something other than Gospel. Good news.

 

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And then-

To make matters worse, Jesus takes his most vivid, arresting, attention-grabbing language and he applies it to the wrong people.

He shoots at the wrong target.

All those metaphors or pruning and throwing away and burning up in fire- that’s the stuff of good, visceral, brimstone preaching.

But Jesus uses it against the wrong people.

It’s just basic, elementary rhetoric.

That kind of rabble-rousing language should be aimed against OUTSIDERS.

     Pruning Off.

     Throwing Away.

     Burning Up.

Every good preacher knows you use those kinds of metaphors to draw a line between us and them. It’s the oldest sermon trick in the book. The quickest way to unite a crowd, to inspire an audience, to mobilize everyone there listening to you is to demonize those who are not there.

Every good preacher knows the surest way to create an ‘us’ is to label a ‘them.’ And to heap hot, heavy language on them like Pruning Off, Throwing Away and Burning Up.

But Jesus takes that language and he turns it in the wrong direction. He turns it towards you.

And he says: ‘If you don’t remain in me. you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up and thrown into a fire…’

What’s he doing?!

It’s a bold, stupid and probably counter-productive move. I would never dare tell my listeners that God might prune them off, throw them away and burn them up.

     Jesus is breaking the unspoken rule of all preaching:

You have to suck up to your listeners and manipulate them into liking you.

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Far be it from me to toot my own horn, but I think we can all agree that, as a preacher, Jesus could benefit from some pointers from yours truly.

Or, if not from me then certainly we can agree that Christ could use some coaching from the greatest of all spiritual teachers…Oprah Winfrey.

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That’s right.

Just the other day, I was working at the Starbucks in Kingstowne, slamming back Americanos while I studied Jesus’ preaching here in John 15.

And then I noticed these cardboard-sleeve ‘sermons’ staring me right in the face:

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“Follow your passion. It will lead to your purpose.”

“The only courage you ever need is the courage to live the life you want.”

 “Your life is big. Keep reaching.”

And then my personal fav:

“Love from the heart of yourself. Seek to be whole, not perfect.”

Take it from a Dean’s List someone who knows: these are great, textbook sermons. They’re brief and to the point. They’re memorable and spoken in the language of our culture and they literally meet us where we’re at.

And they appeal in an unconditional, unambiguous way to our greatest passion: ourselves.

These cardboard-sleeve sermons are all about my freedom to be unique. To be special. To be fulfilled. To be the star of the movie entitled ‘Me’ which at the director’s discretion (ME) may or may not include a (minor) supporting cast.

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Oprah- I think she was wrong about The Kite Runner, but as a preacher she’s textbook.

And when you read her cardboard-sleeve sermons it becomes all the more apparent how Jesus’ preaching just doesn’t work.

Look at it again, his imagery falls flat.

Jesus is the vine, okay.

God the Father is the Gardener, fine.

Which leaves us to be…the branches?!

Just ask Oprah- it should be the other way.

It should be Jesus is the Soil and God is the Gardener, or God is the Soil and Jesus is the Gardener- fine, either will work.

But we should get to be the Plant and we should get to be whatever Plant We Want To Be bearing Whatever Kind of Fruit We Want God To Help Us Bear.

The way Jesus has it sucks. Branches?

Branches are all completely dependent on the plant. If that sounds good to you then fine for you, but that’s not who I want to be.

I want to follow my passion, discover my purpose. live the (big) life I want to live.

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Instead of a branch that can do NOTHING apart from the plant, Jesus SHOULD promise that with him I can do ANYTHING I want, fulfill my desires, realize my dreams, achieve my goals.

Take it from an expert- that will preach. Every time.

For my sins, I’ll turn to Jesus, but for sermons I’ll take Oprah every time.

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The problem with Jesus’ sermon here isn’t just the branch analogy that Jesus draws. The problem isn’t just that a branch is not the object of attention- unlike my self-image. The problem isn’t just that apart from the plant a branch is no better than firewood- again, contrary to my self-image.

No, the real problem with Jesus’ preaching, with his choice of metaphor, is the kind of plant of which we’re supposed to be branches: Vines.

Why not a tree? Or a friggin’ tomato plant?

     Vines are tangled and messy, inefficient and not very attractive when you get right down to it.

Vines get so knotted together it’s hard to tell which is what- not really the kind of anonymity a narcissist like me prefers.

Vines gets so wrapped up together that every blemish and bare spot on every branch is visible to at least a few other branches- that isn’t cool.

The thing about vines- the branches get so twisted up with each other that when fruit does bloom it’s hard to tell which branch produced it.

And the thing about vines- the branches get so wound around each other that when  fruit goes bad you can’t tell whose _________ stinks.

And the thing about vines, they’re as likely to choke and kill each other as they are to flower and bear fruit.

This is a terrible sermon, an awful choice of metaphors.

Even brown-nosing St. Paul gets it better when he chooses the analogy of the Body.

At least the hand and the ear keep a comfortable distance from each other.

“I am the vine and you are the branches.”

Take it from someone who knows: this is a terrible homiletical move.

Because, frankly, I don’t know if I want to get that to close to you, get that tangled up in you, so wrapped up in you that I can see your imperfections.

     Or, to be more honest, I don’t know if I want you to get that close to me.

I’m the pastor for a reason.

I LIKE being able to stand up here at a distance.

I don’t know if I want you to get knotted enough up with me that you can see my prune marks and smell my stink.

John 15- this is a terrible sermon within a terrible, too-long sermon.

I know how to preach a better sermon.

Oprah can squeeze a better sermon onto a cardboard coozie.

Jesus’ sermon- it doesn’t work.

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But that’s the thing, sermons aren’t everything.

As a preacher, as much as it kills me to admit, sermons aren’t everything. Or even much of anything.

Oprah might be able to deliver the pitch-perfect, culturally-determined message we’re hungry to hear.

But when your Mom or Dad dies, Oprah ain’t bringing you any chicken soup. You need a church.*

And when you lose your job or your child or when your spouse leaves you, Oprah isn’t showing up in your living room for coffee and a listening ear and a maybe a prayer. You need a church.

Oprah can tell you what books you should be reading, but she’s not going to show up and read at your hospital bedside. You need a church for that.

And when your _________ stinks- and it will- and when you’re deluded into thinking you’re the plant at the center of the earth basking in the well-deserved light Oprah is not going to show up and point out all your places to prune, notice your bare spots or exhort you to bear fruit for something greater than yourself.

She won’t do that. She won’t.

You need a church to do that.

You NEED a church for for that.

You do. You DO.

Because no one else, no where else will.

“I am the vine and the vine you are the branches.” 

As one preacher to another, Jesus, take it from me: this is a terrible sermon.

But it just might be true.

 

*Paraphrase of a comment from Nadia Weber Bolz

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‘The first hour of heaven is like an endless room filled with 2-top coffee tables…’

So says my friend Scot McKnight, author of the Jesus Creed blog and book, who preached for us this weekend. In advance of his upcoming book, A Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot preached on the church as a kingdom community of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We should be about the work of forgiving the people in our lives, Scot argues, because we’ll have to do the first hour in heaven any way.

His text was the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.

You can listen to his sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right, or download it in iTunes here.

 

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpgThis weekend I concluded our Holy Spirit series with a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit as Paul outlines it in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is, without question, my least favorite scripture.

You can listen to the sermon here below or download it in iTunes here.

Much of the text you see below was left unspoken, allowing the slides on the screen behind me to carry the message.

     

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

My first thought whenever I read this list of ingredients for a genuine Holy Spirit-made Christian: ‘Crap. I’m screwed.’

It’s true.

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on the list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? That’s not me. I’m not that person.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was- for 20 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek.

But if this is what a genuine, Holy Spirit-filled Christian looks like, I’m screwed.

 

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true.

I tell myself I love God and that I even comprehend what that means.

I’m good at blogging about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last.

So, I’ve got ‘love’ down. 1 out of 9.

     But if this list is what the Spirit is supposed to yield in us, if this is the Holy Spirit harvest in someone who’s genuinely following Jesus, then I’m screwed.

The Holy Spirit’s work on me has been slower than beltway construction.

20 years and I’m 1 for 9.

I hate this list. I hate this scripture passage.

 

Paul, who wrote this scripture passage, had only been a Christian for about 10 years when he wrote it. Less than half the time I’ve been pretending to be a Christian.

 

Paul! A Pharisee who stood idly by while one of the apostles, Stephen, was tortured to death. I may be an SOB but I’ve never offered to hold the rocks for a lynch mob.

Paul did, but apparently the Holy Spirit’s work in him was just so awesome that in 10 years he scored 9 for 9 on this list.

I hate him too.

 

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe I’m Holy Spirit resistant, Pentecost flame retardant.

Maybe you read this list of what the Spirit’s supposed to yield in you, and you think ‘Sure, I’ve got those. That’s me.’

 

If so, I hate you too.

It’s not as if I don’t try.

I wake up every morning with every intention of being patient and kind and all the rest. But then, after I wake up, I’ve got to deal with- you know- actual people. And a lot of those are church people so it’s doubly hard and it’s in no time that my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all deteriorate faster than a Roger Goodell press conference.

This list- it isn’t me.

If this, 1-9, is what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled person looks like, I don’t measure up.

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Last Sunday night we took the boys to the Jack White concert at Merriweather Pavilion. And watching my kids dance and clap along to the blues filled me with joy, absolute joy. And knowing I had to preach on this text this coming Sunday I thought to myself ‘Alright, not bad, 2 out of 9, making progress.’

But then I remembered how we got in to the concert in the first place.

You see, I’d gotten the tickets back in May. When they arrived in the mail, I stuck them in the desk drawer with the bills and, like the bills, forgot all about them until Thursday when I couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

And so what did I do?

I called Ticketfly and I said to the customer service lady: ‘Yes, I ordered tickets for this Sunday’s Jack White concert back in May for my little boy’s birthday and I’d forgotten all about it but I just realized those tickets never came in the mail. They must’ve gotten lost. In the mail.’

So that night at the Jack White concert my Facebook status looked like this: #whitelieformysonshappiness.

But my list, my Holy Spirit inventory, looked like this: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

And that Monday I was at Safeway in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 10 Items or Less Line- 10 Items, or Less, Line.

I was in line behind this old blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 10 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm. I didn’t point out that calling hers an express purchase was like saying water-boarding is not torture.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I did good. Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Middle East Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

“Oh my God! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!”

I thought I’d said to myself.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And then on Tuesday some jerk pastor somewhere in the country left this comment about my last sermon on a clergy Facebook Page: ‘I hope you understand the Holy Spirit better than you [don’t] understand prayer…for your congregation’s sake.’

My thoughtful reply to this jerk pastor has since been removed by the webmaster, but suffice it to say:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And on Wednesday my son Gabriel had his first baseball game of the season. I’m managing his team this year. This is the first time I’ve ever managed a little league team before so I didn’t know what that really means is that I’m managing the little leaguers’ parents. Especially the dads.

So there we were, playing our first game. It’s the first inning. We give up 4 runs and one of the dads decides to come up to me and ask when I’m going to make ‘defensive adjustments’ because, he says, his son’s ‘exceptional skills are being wasted in right field.’

I was about halfway through my measured reply to him before I realized all the players on the field and all the parents on the sidelines were staring at me. Or listening to me is more like it.

#blesshisheart

 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control 

I hate this list.

 

On Thursday night, I led a prayer vigil in Aldersgate’s sanctuary for Hannah Graham, the missing UVA student who is/was a part of our Aldersgate community.

And during the service I led a long litany prayer emphasizing the goodness and sovereignty of God even as- in my head and in my heart- I was questioning those very things.

Questioning God’s goodness in a world like ours. Second-guessing God’s wisdom for making our world the way he made it.

And during the silent prayer time and the lighting of the candles I listened to the hundreds of people gathered there, crying and sniffling and pleading softly under their breath.

And I couldn’t utter a single prayer, silent or otherwise, because really what I wanted to say to God was ‘@#*& *&$ God! Where the #$%^ are you?!’

As Dennis offered the candle-lit benediction that night, I looked like this:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list, because then I’d have to confess how much I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage.

Because if this is what a real Spirit-filled Christian looks like, then all this picture does is remind me of what I’m not, what I’m lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete I am.

This passage is like a glossy, air-brushed, cover-shoot picture of the Christian that Paul in advertising thinks I should be instead of the blotchy, blemished, and thoroughly ordinary Christian that I am.

I hate this passage.

 I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage because, intentionally or not, the message it conveys is no different than the message we see and hear 3,000 times a day:

 You’re not good enough.

This passage- it’s like that Ciallis commercial. You know, the one where the husband and wife are relaxing in separate claw-footed bathtubs- outdoors- enjoying a breath-taking view and then the woman suggestively brushes the man on his hand.

Because, you know, scenes like that unfold all the time.

Translation: Your marriage isn’t passionate enough.

This passage- it’s like those Dos Equis commericals featuring the world’s most interesting man and the gorgeous women who want to be with him and the men who want to be him, which of course is awesome until you pop the top on a bottle and no fawning beauties or admiring men appear.

Translation: You’re not really all that interesting.

Just as you already suspected.

 

This fruit of the Spirit passage- it’s like those iPhone 6 commercials that all but say the iPhone 5 you bought 4 weeks ago makes you an outdated, antiquated, hopelessly uncool loser.

I hate this passage because all I hear in it is the same message I hear everywhere else: I’m not good enough.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     When it comes to lists, I score a lot better on that other list, the one Paul gives just before this list of fruit:

  • Fornication: Game of Thrones, binge-watching, 5/14
  • Moral Corruption: Ordained in the UMC, 6/07
  • Doing Whatever Feels Good: ask grandmother, ‘you’ll go blind…’
  • Idolatry: M-F, Weekly
  • Drug Use: 2nd Hand, Jack White Concert, 9/14
  • Casting Spells: Renaissance Faire, 10/13
  • Hate: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Fighting: Bishop’s Cabinet re: Guatemala Toilet Project
  • Obsession: Baseball
  • Losing Temper: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Oppositional: see: personality, Jason
  • Selfishness: ask: Ali, wife of Jason
  • Jealousy: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Conflict: Starbucks Barista who doesn’t know how to make an Americano, 9/26/14
  • Drunkenness: college, ’96-’00
  • Partying: see above (and graduate school ’00-’03… and last Saturday)

When it comes to this list, the life of the flesh list, I’m 16 for 16, 24/7, 365 days a year.

But I hate this fruit of the Spirit list.

20 years in and most days I’m just 1 for 9. It’s just another reminder of the same message we see and hear a thousand times a day. #youarenotgoodenough

Paul, here in Galatians, is like that Mom I’m friends with on Facebook. Every day- every day- she posts pictures of her kids’ perfect, healthy, nutritious, all-organic, bento-boxed school lunches.

     #perfectparent

Meanwhile I send my kids to school with leftover gambling money where they buy smiley fries and pancakes cooked in plastic bags.

     #baddad

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     #badchristian

#godsdisappointedinyou

 

If this list is an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, if it’s like a commercial for who you will be on Jesus, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

Because, trust me, I know way more Christians than you and, most days, even the best ones are lucky to go 2 for 3. It’s too good to be true.

Actually, it’s worse than too good to be true.

Because where it says ‘there is no law against such things’ in verse 23, in the Greek it actually says ‘there is no shortage of such things.’

As in, the Holy Spirit’s cultivating kindness and patience and faithfulness and joy all over the place- there’s no shortage of such things- so what’s the problem with you? 1/9 faux Christian?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s even worse than that because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular.

As in, it’s all one gift: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s all one gift.

You either have all of them or you have none of them. And if you think you have one of them, you actually have not one of them.

They all go together.

Require one another.

The fruit of the Spirit- it’s singular.

But maybe that’s not bad news after all.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

That Thursday night I led the long litany prayer affirming God’s goodness and wisdom even as the words stuck in my throat and rang false in my heart.

Sitting there in the pew, doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, my mind wandered to the one thing I could be certain of- my own kids and my love for them.

1. Love

After Dennis offered a candle-lit benediction, I stood in the sanctuary aisle and I noticed a man sitting in the middle of a pew behind me, an ordinarily gruff man just sitting there staring straight ahead as the people on either end of his pew leaned over and furiously whispered their prayers.

The man in the middle- he just sat there calmly.

He didn’t say excuse me. He didn’t try to scootch past them. He didn’t sigh like he was in a hurry. He just waited for them. For them. For as long as they needed.

2. Patience

And after the service as the crowd thinned out I watched as some of the youth, touched by Hannah’s disappearance in a way I can’t fathom, gathered around the altar rail together and got on their knees and prayed. Even as the guy in the collar *me* was having a hard time praying at all.

3. Faithfulness

And in the sanctuary aisle I saw our new youth director hug kids he barely knows and ask them as though he’d known them forever how they were doing.

4.Gentleness

And in the lobby I watched as a mom, whose own daughter is Hannah’s best friend, held back tears and anger as a nosy reporter peppered people with questions.

5. Self-Control

And after the reporter went her way, I stood next to the mom and listened as other parents, one by one, came up to her and asked her to relay a message to Hannah’s parents: ‘Tell them if there’s anything we can do for them…’

6. Kindness

7. Goodness

And eventually those offers of help turned to reminiscing of each other’s children and the friendships that bound them.

8. Joy

As I walked out to my car that night another mother, her car parked next to mine, spoke about ‘perspective’ and, as she fumbled for her keys, she mentioned to me that she felt like she should call her own daughter with whom she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.

9. Peace

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

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

It’s singular.

It’s all one gift, there’s not one without the other.

It’s all one gift, and- Paul says- there’s no shortage of such things. The Spirit’s fruit is everywhere if you but look.

But where Paul wants you to look is not to the individual believer but to the Body.

 

You see if this list is a description of what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled believer looks like- if it’s like an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

 

Because, let’s face it, even the best of you score barely better than 1/9 me.

Some of you are not patient or gentle. Some of us are not consistently kind or self-controlled. I know I’m not always faithful and I know some of you struggle with loving the people in your lives.

Some of you have no peace and for good reason. Ditto when it comes to joy.

 

If this list is meant to be a commercial for who you will be on Jesus then like all commercials it’s too good to be true.

     But this list, this letter- it’s not written to you.

It’s not a promise meant for you.

     It’s written to us. It’s a promise for us.

And that makes it completely different than the message we hear 3,000 times a day.

Because the promise, the incredibly good but still believable news- the gospel- behind this list is that the Holy Spirit can take all you impatient but good people and all you joyful but out of control people and all you people with great faith and kindness but little peace and all of you who love God but have a hard time loving others- the promise is that the Holy Spirit can take 1 for 9 people like you and put you into a community that we call Church and somehow, by the grace of God, you all together- we- can look like Jesus.

This list, this letter, it’s not written to you. It’s meant for us.

And that means the proper reaction to this fruit of the Spirt list is not:

         “Crap, I’m screwed.’

It’s:

     “Crap [turn to the person sitting next to you] I need you.”

And you won’t ever hear a message like that on TV.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgDennis Perry, my assistant pastor (pictured here below on the Daily Show), continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit by spinning roulette wheel and tackling your questions at random. The first one was a good one: ‘Can the Spirit do anything the Son can’t?’

ImamPastor

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right,

or download it in iTunes here.

For those of you receiving this by email, you may have to click over to the blog directly to access the audio player.

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

I saw a friend on FB post something regarding 9/11 with the words ‘Remember But Remember Rightly.’

Oddly enough it’s the same chord I tried to strike in my sermon on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Whether it measures up to the challenge of the FB prompt I’ll let another judge.

Here it is: 9-11-300x205

Psalm 137

9/11/11

It’s a date seared into memory.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

 

The date the unthinkable happened.

A date that would be shared by all

and yet an experience that, for each and every person who survived it,

would be incredibly personal too.

 

The date they were attacked

when they never thought they could be:

their’s was a nation too strong.

They were, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

 

And yet they were

attacked.

By an enemy from far away.

An enemy they didn’t know

and would never really understand.

 

Their enemy razed the city.

Buildings

that had once been symbols of blessing and wealth

reduced to rubble.

 

Many died.

And there was much heroism.

 

For a time

the nation appeared rudderless.

And the familiar language of faith

stuck in the throat.

 

Not long after the attack

there were deployments.

Deployments of the nation’s

best and brightest

and, too often,

the tragically young.

 

The deployments split families.

Marriages were stretched across a crucible of time and distance.

Children grew up faster than their parents returned home.

Spouses worried if their partner would ever return.

Or if they would return the same person.

 

They named the deployments Exile.

 

587:

a date that seemed to change everything.

A date they’d always remember.

 

I remember

where I was.

 

Working in the mailroom at Princeton

my supervisor, Vince, got a call from 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:

the towers falling one after another

as though they were made of sand or ash

the dust-covered New Yorkers running for their lives

the firemen forsaking their lives

the bodies falling from broken windows

having chosen what they took to be a better fate.

 

I remember Vince, a Catholic,

his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red

as he pointed angrily at the TV and asked me through clenched teeth:

     ‘Just where the hell is God right now?’ 

For the first time Vince had just realized

that ours is a God who isn’t always useful

in a crisis.

 

I fumbled some responses to answer Vince.

And that was the first time I realized

sometimes words

even religious words

just won’t do.

 

I remember that afternoon

at the elementary school where I tutored

all of us determined not to tell the children

what had happened.

The adults all had tears in their eyes

but tried to smile them away for the kids

who knew better even if they didn’t know what.

The school

like everywhere else

felt like a funeral home.

 

I remember the lanes of Route 1

running north in to NYC empty

traveled by nothing but trash blowing in the breeze.

I remember the digital DOT signs outside my apartment

blinking the auspicious alert: ‘All roads into NYC closed.’

 

I remember running into a classmate that evening.

Joseph was Egyptian.

He’d just had insults hurled at him at WAWA

by passersby too angry and too scared to learn

that he was, in fact, not a Muslim

but a cradle Presbyterian.

 

I remember my sermon that Sunday after Tuesday.

My first sermon ever.

The pews were filled to capacity.

But more notable than how many were there

was who wasn’t there

who would never be there again.

I remember the prayer list that Sunday swelled 8-fold

with lists of sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and uncles

and what floor of which tower they worked on.

I remember my sermon that Sunday wasn’t good or bad.

It was inadequate.

Words just wouldn’t do that day.

 

I remember my counseling professor

the Wednesday morning after.

All of us in class still shaken and numb.

Someone asked him how we should respond

as Christians.

He made mention of the prophet Jeremiah

and then told all of us who were married

that we should respond by going home

and making a baby.

I remember how that struck me

as unconventional

and maybe inappropriate.

I didn’t understand what he’d meant

until I held my son for the first time

six years after that Tuesday.

I remember the first high school graduate I ever prayed with

before he shipped off to basic training

and who knows what else.

I remember the first time I flew after 9/11

from the Newark Airport

looking around me

scared and suspicious

in a way I wasn’t raised to be

and had never been before.

I remember after I was appointed here

going to visit at Walter Reed

and understanding

maybe for the first time

both the tragedy

and the honor

in what our men and women in uniform sacrifice.

I remember the conversations I’ve had with you

5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 and 10 years

since that day.

Listening to you tell me about your deployments

and learning how your work is far more complicated

than what fits onto a bumper sticker

whether its red or blue.

 

Listening to you tell me

what its like

to hold your family together

while your spouse is deployed.

What it’s like

when your little kids have trouble remembering

the parent who’s not there

what it’s like

when your teenager starts to resent

the parent who’s not there.

What it’s like

to have a baby

with your husband not there.

What it’s like

to listen to the news

everyday

on eggshells.

 

Psalm 137

is the only psalm

out of 150

that can be dated reliably.

 

Most psalms

because its poetry

you have to guess at the context.

So Psalm 51

‘Against you and you only, Lord

    have I sinned’

we guess is about David

and his sin with Bathsheba

and his murder of her husband.

Or Psalm 72

‘Give the king Your judgments, O God 

    And Your righteousness to the king’s son.’

we can guess is about the crowning of Solomon.

 

With most psalms you have to guess.

But not Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 was written just after it happened

just after the enemy

invaded

killed

destroyed

and took the nation’s strongest citizens away

to Babylon.

 

Psalm 137 is very obviously written

by those living as prisoners and exiles in their enemy’s land.

It’s written in response

to their enemy’s taunts and jibes:

Where is your God now?’ 

    Now that your city’s in ruins 

    Sing a song for us of your God 

    Sing us a song of Zion

    A praise song.

 

But notice

how these victims respond.

Notice what they do.

They refuse.

They don’t plaster over the pain

with piety or platitudes.

They don’t try to justify their faith.

They don’t defend God

with answers or explanations

or arms.

They don’t take the bait.

They don’t answer.

They don’t sing a song of Zion.

They don’t avenge.

They weep

and lament

and they remember.

 

They remember:

life as it was before

and should be again.

They remember:

what was done to them

who and what was lost.

 

And they plead for God

to remember them.

 

When they were victims

when they couldn’t sing

when they couldn’t praise or pray

when they couldn’t answer why this had happened

when no other words would do

God’s People remembered.

 

The psalmist even writes

if God’s People don’t remember

one day

music and praise and prayer

won’t just be difficult

it will become impossible:

‘Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

     if I do not remember…’

 

As painful as remembering is

not remembering

says the psalmist

will be even more painful.

Because without remembering

you forget the way things were

and you resign yourself

you surrender

to the way things are now.

Or you resort

to the ways of the world.

For the victims of the exile

for God’s People

memory offers hope.

Remembering is resistance.

To remember is to refuse to be a victim

Because

to remember is to not lose sight of

to not let God off the hook for

the way things should be in this world.

 

As a pastor

words are my job.

Words are what you pay me for.

Standing in the pulpit on Sundays

when something happens to you

when you come to my office looking for advice

you expect me to have a word.

 

But on days like this

I don’t much want to be a pastor.

Because on days like this

I’m suspicious of words.

 

I’m mindful that it’s religious words

murderers say to themselves

to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.

I’m mindful that no words of mine

(or any pastor)

can answer or explain or ameliorate what happened.

I’m mindful of the preacher’s temptation

to exploit a terrible experience

just to make a pious point.

On days like this I’m suspicious of words

because I know

maybe better than any of you

how often we use religious words

to deceive ourselves

and cover-up our pain.

I could preach you a sermon

about how new life comes out of death

about how light shines in the darkness

about how God, in Christ, bears the wounds of the world

with us

about how ‘suffering produces endurance

     and endurance produces character

     and character produces 

     hope.’

And it’s not that those things are not true.

It’s not that those things are inadequate.

It’s that those words are premature.

Ten years is still too soon for those words.

After 9/11

there were many preachers who were quick

to get to the affirmation and praise.

And I suspect after this 9/11 it’ll be much the same.

But the Bible knows its own dates like 9/11.

And in the Bible

the People of God never do that.

They never rush prematurely to praise

or certitude.

Nor do they retaliate.

In the Bible the People of God

grieve and protest and complain

with sorrow and rage and anxiety

for years and years and years and years and years.

They remember.

So today I simply invite you to take this psalm as your cue

and do what people like you in the Bible do.

Remember

those who died

the heroism that was the only clear and steady thing that day.

Remember

those who’ve born the burden of protecting us in the years since

and the families who’ve born them

the children and the youth who’ve known nothing in their lives

but war and fear and terror.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember how united we were after that day

and how unafraid we were before that day.

Take this psalm as your cue

and remember what was done to us.

Because it’s in remembering that we refuse to settle.

Take this psalm as your cue

and call on God to remember

that he’s promised us better.

When no other words will do

God’s People

remember.