Archives For Preachments

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“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”

Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.

When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.

But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.

“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”

“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.

Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?” 

And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”

There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.

“Not that dress honey.”

There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.

“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.

Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.

It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.

It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.

So I didn’t answer their question.

Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.

When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.

So I never answered their question.

But I didn’t forget it.

—————————————

I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.

Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.

And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.

And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”

If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.

To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.

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Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

When engaged couples tell me they plan to let their children choose their religion for themselves when they’re older, I often reply to those couples that they should raise their kids to be atheists, for at least that would require their children to see their parents held convictions for which they might have to suffer.

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.

Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

It’s a lie that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ 

And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.

And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.

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Look-

The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It was a political word.

It’s a title: King.

     The King who elects.

Us.

To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.

And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.

It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.

Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).

That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.

     The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.

For the ungodly.

Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.

He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

     Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.

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Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.

They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’

Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.

The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.

According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.

     We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.

Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.

The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.

Before and After- Between the old age and the new.

    Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.

     Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.

The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.

So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.

And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.

And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.

If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.

The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.

 

 

Ascension

…Until Jesus Ascends to the Father

Here’s my Mother’s Day Ascension Day sermon from this weekend. I used God’s self-revelation in Exodus 3 and the Ascension story in Acts 1 as texts. You an listen to the sermon below. Or, you can download it in the iTunes store here.

     Show of hands-

How many of you made sure to call your mothers this morning to wish them a Happy Ascension Day?

Or maybe you’ll go out to lunch after church to celebrate Ascension Day, this ancient Christian holy day that is the climax of the Easter season where we learn that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but he is Lord of Heaven and Earth too?

Don’t feel guilty.

What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King and given him dominion over all the nations of the Earth is now just Sunday. Or, thanks to Hallmark, Mother’s Day.

Ascension is now largely ignored. It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job. What about world hunger and war? What about Cancer and Verizon Wireless? What about the fact that the music world no longer has Prince in it but still is stuck with Huey Lewis and the News?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus. Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it. Just look at the picture Luke draws for you.

The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong: Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink, Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away. Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we trade Ascension Day for Mother’s Day. It’s more fantastical than a Norman Rockwell family.

Ascension is the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously. To take belief in God seriously.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples.

But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky? Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

Those disciples, and the ones that came after them, the ones who wrote the creeds and compiled the canon- they believed God was ‘up there.’ They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. Not only that- They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.

And it gets even more embarrassing- They believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, seriously the ‘firmament,’ a sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

It’s laughable.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth. Beyond the clouds and the firmament. Up there. In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there.

     And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us? We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. Ascension calls BS on our unspoken secret- we know that that God doesn’t exist. And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s the fastest growing faith in America.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension. It reminds us that we live in a different age. But we didn’t get here overnight. It’s been a long time coming.

In the survey we sent out this week about the video screens, a lot of you said in the comments section that you’re so smart you don’t need images or visual aids to dumb down the sermons. Think so, huh?

We’ll see if you can keep up:

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, gave birth to the modern world in which we all live. Descartes was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 = 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation.

Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was himself, his own interior life.

I think; therefore, I exist, Descartes concluded.

After Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God. And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too. From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

To our senses. To our experience.

But, the problem with thinking that is that…the universe is expanding. Changing. In transition.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. They’re changing. They’re in transition. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly 66 thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over 1 thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding. They’re moving and changing and in transition.

The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding. And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others). We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed. Just think about that…right now, you’re breathing in the dead skin of the people from the _____ worship service.

We’re in transition. Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing. Even bodies we bury in the ground keep changing; when God raises them from the dead, they will not be the same collection of atoms they were when they were buried.

We know that.

Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Nothing is unchanging. Nothing is not in transition. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing. But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

 If everything is constantly changing, 

if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head and the skin that we shed, 

then how can we be the measure of all things? 

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how- How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

And just think about that word ‘being.’ We call ourselves ‘human beings.’ But that’s not right. The word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it, like say a mother.

A being is someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change.

Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant. We’re not changeless. We’re not necessary or permanent.

We’re not beings.

More and more, modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there. But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist. As human beings, we don’t exist.

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

For that matter, we can take a celebrity and make them a presumptive Presidential nominee. Even more impressive, we’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

We can do a lot of things but we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…they don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming.

Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

 

Human beings- don’t exist.

Only human becomings exist.

Listen up-

‘God’ is the name we give to Being.

‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ In other words, I am Existence itself. Being.

As Dennis first taught me when I was a confirmand: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else. Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God.

You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is Being itself can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

I bet the reason they’re staring up at heaven is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, hair-losing, skin-shedding Jesus, a human becoming, like you or me, could enter Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being? How can something that is constantly changing enter into what never changes?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel.

The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming.

The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our transitory humanity into the timeless life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

Or, as the first Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might become what God is.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

I know what you’re thinking: I wish we had the video screens back.

Being and becoming- you’re thinking:

Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does.

It does. Here’s what I mean:

Not long before I got sick last year, I got called to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager from Aldersgate who’d tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

The tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last year, when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

The tragedy is that when he looked in the mirror he didn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

The gospel good news that you’re more than just a constantly changing creature.

You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds.

You’re more than what your ex thinks of you.

You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you.

You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time.

You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone. You’re more than something that’s losing skin until you lose your life. You’re more than dust until you return to the dust.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the very Being of God. And that means we can handle whatever changes that come to us in life because we live and move and have our being in the Being of God who never changes.

“Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

But of course they would.

They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’

God is the name we give to Being itself.

God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’

God, by definition, has to exist. God is the most obvious thing of all.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes.

Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father.

Bigger than Burning

Jason Micheli —  April 18, 2016 — 1 Comment

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_n     This weekend I preached on John’s Easter story as part of our ‘Building Lives’ capital campaign. For the first time since planting a church I preached with a screen and projector. Here’s the PDF of my manuscript with the slides included for those dying to see: Sermon with Slides

Attachment-1     Um, excuse me.

Eyes up here.

Look at you. Put a screen in front of your faces and you’re as glued to it as my kids do when they watch Game of Thrones.

Anyway-

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I figure a picture as sexy and impressive as this one has to be worth at least, what, three thousand words? In which case, thus endeth the sermon. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This picture was taken three weeks ago on Easter Sunday when, in my sermon, I noted how in Matthew’s resurrection story God’s angel doesn’t bother reassuring Caesar’s people to be not afraid. Maybe, I preached, for people like us, people like Caesar’s people- people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty darn well- the proper response to the news of resurrection is fear.

Maybe we should be scared, I concluded.

To which, one of you primped and seersuckered listeners, was later overheard from two tables down at River Bend Bistro excoriating my sermon, complaining that “his point was absurd and insensitive and he was even vulgar in getting to it.”

And while stabbing his breakfast sausages with feral glee, this Easter brunch begrudger was overheard griping “It was almost like he didn’t care whether his sermon hurt our feelings or not.”

Fair enough. Both my spouse and my Strength Finders report rank me low in the sensitivity department. Fine. Whatever.

But then, from across his two top bistro table, his wife, reportedly threw up her hands over her french toast and groused aloud: “Easter’s supposed to be comforting not upsetting.” And then, as if polling the brunch crowd, she asked: “What’s so scary about Easter?”

Obviously it didn’t take long for my post-cancer honeymoon to end and things to settle back to normal. Don’t worry, though, I’ve since reconciled with Dennis and Sharon and I got their permission to share that anecdote so no harm, no foul.

I’ll you tell though that question still sticks in my craw “What’s so scary about Easter?” because “Sharon” wasn’t the only one who asked me it on the way home Easter Sunday.

(It wasn’t Sharon, but it did happen.)

What’s so scary about Easter? Isn’t it obvious?

I mean, you don’t even have to turn to scripture to realize what’s so scary about Easter. Clearly, Exhibit A is the Easter Bunny. At least Santa lets you sit on his lap. Has anyone ever come across a single one of those little rodents who would let you hold them without nicking up your arms?

And as soon as my youngest began Family Life at school this spring, he started asking me where the Easter Bunny gets these eggs? Does she baby-snatch them? Is she in a close, committed relationship with a rooster? Is she even a she? He wondered while riding shotgun in my Bronco.

The Easter Bunny is creepy scary.

I mean-

Have you seen the 2001 film Donnie Darko?

Frank

In that movie the Easter Bunny managed to come across as even creepier than Patrick Swayze playing an oily self-help guru-

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That’s even more terrifying than Patrick Swayze singing “She’s like the Wind” all the way to the top of the charts in 1987.

That’s scary stuff. And as Bodhi says in Point Break:

     “Fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes even your worst fears to come true.”

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     And, we all know, nobody puts Bodhi in a corner.

It’s not just Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny that are flesh-crawling frightening.

     Mark and Matthew, Luke and John- the Gospels all agree: the very first reaction to news of the resurrection is fear.

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear.

The women, come to anoint the body, run away. Terrified.

The disciples lock the door and cower in the corner.

The first response to the news “Christ is Risen” is not “He is Risen indeed!”

It’s panic.

Fear.

Terror.

Why?

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Why are they so scared?

Are they afraid that what Caesar did Jesus might still be done to them?

Or do they fear the news that this particular Jesus has come back? This Jesus who harassed them for three years, who called them to abandon their family businesses and complicated their lives with talk of cross-bearing.

Are they afraid that they’re not finally rid of this Jesus after all? Is Jesus what’s so scary about the news “Jesus has been resurrected!”?

Or-

Is it the word itself that makes them white-knuckled afraid?

Was that word, resurrection, enough to provoke not just awe but frightened shock?

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Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in Daniel 12.

Not only was Daniel the last book added to the Hebrew Bible, it was the most popular scripture during the disciples’ day.

For their entire history up until Daniel’s time, the Jews had absolutely no concept of heaven. When you died, you were dead.

That was it, the Jews believed. You worshipped and obeyed God not for hope of heaven but because God, in and of himself, was worthy of our thanks and praise.

But then-

When Israel’s life turned dark and grim, when their Temple was razed and set ablaze, when their Promised Land was divided and conquered, and when they were carted off as exiles to a foreign land, the Jews began to long for a Day of God’s justice and judgement.

If not in this life, then in a life to come.

     And so the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection.

Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God.

But for those who’ve committed suffering, they might be on top now in this life but one day God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to everlasting shame and punishment.

So, in the only Bible those disciples knew, that word ‘resurrection’ was a hairy double-edged sword, even scarier than Patrick Swayze and the Easter Bunny. Resurrection wasn’t about lilies and cloud-wisped harps.

Resurrection was about the justice owed to the suffering and the judgment that belonged to God.

     In the disciples’ Bible, if you were long-suffering, resurrection was good news.

If you were good.

If you weren’t, resurrection was hellfire and damnation.

You can imagine, then, how those disciples heard that first Easter message. If God had raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus who was the only Righteous One, the only Faithful One, as St. Paul says, then that must mean God was about to judge the living and the dead.

The disciples are afraid of the Easter news not because they fail to understand resurrection but because they do understand. They knew their scripture, and they knew they’d abandoned Jesus.

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail, turned a blind eye, washed their hands of his blood. They’d scapegoated him into suffering, and stood silently by while others mocked him and taunted him.

They’d let the world sin all its sins into him and then left him forsaken on a cross.

For sinners like them, resurrection could only mean one thing: brimstone.

What’s so surprising about the Easter news isn’t just that the tomb is empty but that hell is empty too.

It’s shocking that the Risen Christ doesn’t encounter his disciples and indict them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me.

I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink.

I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending to know me not.

I was hungry for justice, wretched upon the cross, and I remained a stranger to you.

The shock of Easter isn’t just the empty grave it’s that God comes back from the it and doesn’t condemn the unrighteous ones who put him there.

All of them- while they were yet sinners, God comes back from the death they’d consigned him to and he doesn’t pay them the wages their sin had earned. He forgives their sin. He spares them the everlasting judgment and shame they had every reason from their Bibles to expect.

What should’ve been terrifying news becomes good news.

But-  pay attention now, that good news- that isn’t the Gospel.

     The Gospel is bigger than the forgiveness of our sin.

The Gospel is bigger than our being delivered from damnation; it’s bigger than burning.

Because when the Risen Christ slips behind our locked doors on Easter night, the first word he says to his disciples is “Peace.”

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And that word “Peace” it’s not the first century equivalent of “S’up.”

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Or, “Howdy.” Jesus isn’t like “Hey, how’s it going guys?”

John renders it into Greek, eiríni. It comes to us through the Latin, pax. Jesus would’ve spoken it in Aramaic, ܫܠܡ, which the disciples would’ve received from the Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם.

And in the Hebrew Bible, shalom doesn’t mean simply “peace.” It’s a thick, pregnant word that means health, prosperity, wholeness, restoration, and repair- all of it. Literally, shalom is “the state where nothing is broken and nothing is missing.”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Those are the last words of the Old World, and peace, shalom, is the First Word of the New World, and it’s not an incidental salutation. It’s the word that summarizes what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Practically everyone in the world can recite John 3.16 by heart.

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But even though Tim Tebow has plenty of time on his hands now he, like everyone else, forgets the very next verse:

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that through him the world might be healed.”

     God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it but to heal the world, to repair the world, to restore the world, to shalom it. That’s what the Easter Gospels want you to see.

The judgement that word ‘resurrection’ signaled comes not to us but to our Judge, who was judged in our place and who comes back from death and forgives us.

And the life with God that word ‘resurrection’ promised is a life here, now and forever, where the Kingdom comes- just as he taught us to pray. The life promised by that word ‘resurrection’ isn’t an evacuation but a restoration.

It’s not about a new location; it’s about a new creation.

New Creation- that’s why John gives you the otherwise embarrassing detail that Mary took Jesus, wearing only his birthday suit, to be the gardener.

John wants you to see that Mary is right. He is the Gardener. He’s a New Adam for a New Creation. The Old World died with him in the Good Friday night- he put Sin to death- and now God walks in the garden not in the cool of the evening but in the dawn of a new day.

John wants you to see that just as the Old World had been born in a garden, on Easter a New World is inaugurated in a garden where Jesus, like a Second Adam, walks with another Eve, naked and unashamed.

You see- don’t you?

See that what John wants to show you through story is what Paul proclaims in his preaching:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the New Creation has come: the Old World has gone, the New World has arrived.”

“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The ministry of restoration. The ministry of healing and repair. Of שָׁלוֹם.

It’s our work now- that’s what John shows you next, when a presumably still naked Jesus breathes on to them.

Weird- unless what John wants you to see is that just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, and breathes into it the breath of life and from it brings forth life, Jesus takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

He reconstitutes them. He shaloms them, as a new humanity, and then he gives to them his new creation work of makings things on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Gospel- the message we proclaim- isn’t that Christ died for you. No, that isn’t the Gospel because judgement is only one half the meaning of that word ‘resurrection.’

And our message isn’t that God loves you. I wish it were that easy, but the other half of that word, resurrection, asks so much more of us.

     The Gospel isn’t just that you’ve been saved from burning.

     The Gospel is that you’ve been saved for something.

שָׁלוֹם

If that’s the whole Gospel, if that’s both sides to that word “resurrection,” then the question we need to ask isn’t “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

The right question to ask is “Is anything keeping us from entering Christ’s New Creation work fully?

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our Easter commissioning?

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Perhaps you’ve heard already during this capital campaign that the debt we carry costs us about $22,000 per month.

You heard that right: $22,0000 every month. More than Aldersgate pays its pastors in a year, it gives to BB&T for a debt it has carried longer than it has had Dennis leading it.

So let me rephrase that Gospel question: could we fulfill more of our New Creation calling without that debt?

Before you answer, consider:

In 2012, we raised money for and we built a kitchen for an elementary school in Chikisis, Guatemala, a community where that school provides the only hot, healthy meal those hundreds of kids will eat during the day.

That kitchen cost us about $15,000 or about 3 weeks worth of debt payments.

In 2013, we raised money for and we built a clinic in the neighboring village of Chuicutama because those highland communities are too remote for easy access to medical care.

The clinic cost us about $35,000, a little more than what we pay out in 6 weeks to BB&T.

Next, we fundraised and we built a complete sanitation system for Chuicutama. We worked our tails off, and I got in all kinds of trouble with the bishop for using the word ‘toilet’ in church because when you’re lucky enough to take toilets for granted you’re lucky enough to judge the word toilet inappropriate

That project took 2 years and cost about $50,000. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done and it still only cost us 9 weeks of debt payments.

This summer we’re building a high school in that community and an irrigation well in Ft Apache, Arizona. The well costs less than a month’s worth of debt payments.

Does anything prevent us as a community from living a life worthy of our commissioning? You tell me.

Already this year Aldersgate helped a woman, with two young children, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and unable to work for a few months.

We assisted a nurse whose teenage daughter was the victim of violent, physical abuse by her boy friend and unable to work.

We paid rent for a young mother whose husband had lost his job. They have a 3 month old boy, a 3 year old boy, and a 1 yr old daughter with Downs Syndrome.

And none of it comes close to what we give BB&T in a month.

On Sundays we make dinner, go into DC, turn on soul music, set out tables and chairs, and sit down for a meal with not for the homeless, treating them like people not charity cases, like they are the brothers and sisters that Jesus Christ has in fact made them to us.

And in a year we do that for less than we spend on 1 week’s worth of debt.

It’s not that buildings are bad. No, I taught confirmation in Shepherd Hall just last Sunday. It’s the space where we shape our kids’ character. It’s not that the building is bad; it’s that the debt is sinful.

Aldersgate is changing lives around the world and not too far from here.

But we could be doing so much more.

That Toilet Project- it’s so desperately needed in the surrounding communities in Guatemala we literally could build 1 sanitation system per year until I’m older than Bernie Sanders.

We could do so much more.

In our own neighborhood even. Just think- at Stratford Landing Elementary there are 200 kids living in poverty. 100 of the kids there have no father in their lives and all but 3 of them live in poverty too.

And, it’s not just about spending money. It’s about whether we want to keep expending so much of our church’s time and energy and so many of our most talented lay people on debt work instead of on Gospel work.

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You know-

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced I was wrong this Easter. What’s really frightening about Easter, scarier even than the Easter Bunny and Patrick Swayze, is the fact that the Risen Jesus believes we’re capable of more than we think we’re capable of.

It’s unnerving to think that Jesus thinks we can accomplish more significant things than the the status quo we settle for, that we’re capable not just of charity but his shalom.

When you think about Easter in those terms, you’ve got to wonder if, subconsciously at least, our debt isn’t like that locked door the disciples try to put between them and the Risen Christ.

Maybe it’s our way of keeping Easter at a comfortable remove from us.

If so, it should scare us that the Risen Jesus apparently has no trouble slipping past the doors we try to close against him.

 

 

 

 

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nLibby asked. Here’s the Easter sermon from this weekend. Texts: Matthew 27.15-28.10 1 Corinthians 15.12-17a

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there you can choose.

For example, there’s the Jesus on the cover of the sympathy card I received from one of you a year ago.

Jesus is depicted from the rear. His cloak is piled around his ankles falling on the tile of a bathroom floor. Someone- maybe his mother, Mary- is holding his long, dark hair back away from his face. He’s squatting.

You know it’s Jesus even from the rear because you can see his wounded feet tucked under his knees. And his pierced hands are gripping the sides of a toilet bowl with the lid up.

He’s about to hurl.

The speech balloon above Jesus’ head reads: ‘Don’t listen to my followers. I never said my Father won’t give you more than you can handle.’

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

I don’t think I realized how many until last year.

At the beginning of Lent last year, I learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer. I’ll spare you the grisly, melodramatic details.

Easter is not a day to dwell on me sniffing Death and living again.

Suffice it to say, by this time last year I’d received hundreds of sympathy cards and emails, and I discovered just how many different Jesuses are available to us.

 

One came to me as a YouTube link to a music video titled ‘Cancer Jesus’ wherein a skinny, bald Jesus who looks either like Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares to You’ video or like a caucasian Fight Club Gandhi.

This Cancer Jesus is wearing a hospital gown and, to an electronica soundtrack, Cancer Jesus gatecrashes a concert and then proceeds to get medieval on a fictitious boy band who, I guess, must symbolically represent cancer.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.

One card I received showed Jesus wearing not a crown of thorns but a stocking cap, crucified on two IV poles. ‘Feeling forsaken?’ this Jesus asks. ‘Remember, I’m with you always’ he goes on on the inside of the card.

There’s a lot of Jesuses to pick.

Like the pen and ink Jesus who stood in the middle of a card with sheep on one side of him and goats on the other side and above him were the redacted words from Matthew 25: ‘….I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in chemo and you gave me medicinal marijuana.’

That card came from a seminary student. An Episcopalian.

 

When it comes to Jesus, you have a lot of choices available to you- even if you don’t have cancer.

I mean-

If you want a Jesus who sounds more like a horny boyfriend than a Lord and Savior, you need only tune your radio to 91.9 FM.

If you want a Jesus who sounds more practical and helpful than a Vitamix, you can tune in to Joel Osteen after church this morning.

There’s lots of Jesuses to choose.

If you want a Jesus so good-looking he makes me question my own sexuality, then you just have to wait until August when Paulo from season three of Lost plays Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur.

If you want a Jesus who leans forward towards all of your pet social justice issues then all you have to do is login to www.progressivechristianity.org or, I suppose even, www.umc.org.

Or, if you prefer your Jesus camouflaged in red, white, and blue then you can order the Duck Dynasty Faith Commander Bible (I’m not lying, such a thing exists) from Amazon for the hardcover price of only $21.14.

There’s a lot of Jesuses out there.

 

There’s even more than one Jesus to choose right there in Matthew’s Gospel.

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One of the things we forget in all our Easter piety is that there was always going to be three crucifixions on Good Friday.

There was always going to be a man in the middle named Jesus.

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If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think King Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could spiritualize your faith and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either terrorists or freedom fighters.

The real Barabbas was not like the suave, manscaped actor who played him last Sunday in Fox’s The Passion: Live. 

The real Barabbas was a Zealot, and the Gospel indicates that he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Or, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds.

Usually, Pilate chose both.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

And notice, here it is, according to the Gospel: they’re both named “Jesus.”

They both bear a name which means ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means (you don’t even have to know Hebrew to figure it) ‘son of the Father.’

The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. To be the Son of the Father, the Son of God, the Father.

In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.

They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.

They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be delivered.

Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two Jesuses.

‘Pick one’ Pilate asks.

You get your choice.

Between a Jesus who tells you to return hate with love, or a Jesus who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil.

You can choose between a Jesus who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a Jesus who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains.

 

A Jesus who promises to liberate the poor or a Jesus who becomes poor and invites you to do the same?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesuses.

Pick one, Pilate says.

Jesus Barabbas asks his people to take up arms, to make his country great again.

The other Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus.

But you know as well as I do, they didn’t have to try very hard.

The reason we hang crosses on walls is so we don’t lie to ourselves that we’d ever choose a different Jesus than the crowd chose.

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Of course, the promise and the threat, the good news and the bone-wracking, bad news of Easter is that we’re not the only ones who make a choice.

Even louder than we can cry crucify him, even before Jesus’ body is cold and buried in the ground, God announces his choice- by splitting rocks into shards, cracking open the graves of the dead, and quaking the earth itself.

God calls forth his entire creation- rocks, graves, tectonics- to witness that this is the Jesus God wants, this is is the savior God chooses.

That’s what resurrection meant for the first Christians: vindication.

Resurrection was about God declaring with the rumbling of the earth and the shock of zombies and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that this Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

 

For three years, this Jesus had taught a different kind of Kingdom than that other Jesus, a Kingdom where the poor are lifted up, where those who curse us are blessed, where strangers and aliens are welcomed not walled off, where those who have hungered for justice are filled with good things.

A Kingdom where cheeks are turned and enemies are prayed for, where trespasses are forgiven even when the trespassers know exactly what they’re doing.

He preached a Kingdom of mercy not might.

For three years, this Jesus had taught this kind of Kingdom, and on Friday we put all our chips on the kingdoms of this world and we bet on a president called Pilate to have the last word.

But then on the third day, God rocks the earth, pops open the grave and plucks this Jesus up from the dead and says ‘Yeah, my Kingdom is exactly like that.’

And just in case you’re deaf to the shaking of the foundations, God rolls away the stone from the tomb, a stone that bore King Caesar’s image, and God has his angel sit down on top of it.

God’s angel sits his butt right down on King Caesar’s face and says ‘This Jesus, he’s not here, he is risen.’

Don’t miss this. This is everything Easter-

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom and the empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.

God’s vindication of Jesus.

This Jesus is exactly what the sign above his head says he is: a King.

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Of course, the bad news is that a King requires not your opinion but your obedience.

A King demands not to be invited, subjectively, in to your wishy-washy heart.

A King demands your objective loyalty over all other allegiances.

Look-

I’m just like you. I’m fully invested in the kingdoms of this world. If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d prefer to think of Easter as a metaphor for springtime renewal- even though it’s winter in Israel now.

I’d prefer to imagine Easter as story about how our soul lives on after our body dies- even though that’s pagan not scripture.

I’d prefer to dismiss Easter as a primitive superstition- even though resurrection was no easier to swallow for the ancient Christians than it is for us.

If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.

I’d choose to think of Easter as a sign we’ll go to heaven after we die- even though Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in heaven.

I’m just like you. The kingdoms of this world have worked out pretty well for me so, if it were up to me, I’d pick a different sort of Easter.

I’d take tulips and bunnies over tremors and zombies. I’d choose an Easter where my soul flies away into the sweet bye and bye. I wouldn’t choose this quaking invasion by God that shakes loose any excuse I might have not to pick up my cross and follow.

I’d choose anything other than this Easter where God grabs creation by the collar, shakes away our obfuscations, and shouts with an empty grave: ‘What do I have to do to get your attention?! This is the way and the truth and the life I want from you.’

I’m with you.

I’d like to have Easter / and / have my world left alone.

My life is pretty good. Like most of you, I’ve got the right skin color, the right passport, and the right education to make the principalities and powers of this world work for me.

If I were to swap my citizenship to his Kingdom, it would rock my world to rubble.

It would feel like an unnatural disaster.

That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile.’

If God has not resurrected this Jesus then we’re off the hook, you can take what Jesus taught or you can leave it. Allegiance not required.

If God has not resurrected this Jesus, then you can put his Kingdom teaching away in to a nice, gilded box and bring it out on Facebook when it suits you.

But-

If God has raised this Jesus from the dead, then we Christians-

We welcome strangers and aliens, we pray for our enemies, we forgive those who trespass against us, we show mercy to those who curse us and show compassion to the poor, we offer grace where it’s not deserved.

We do so not because we have a My Little Pony naiveté about the world, not even because it’s a strategy to make the world a better place. It probably doesn’t work.

But we do it simply because Jesus commanded us.

And God has raised this Jesus from the dead, so he’s not just our teacher.

He’s our Lord and King.

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Look, I’m no different than you.

I’m a nice guy. And I need to be needed. You can ask Dennis- they don’t let you become a United Methodist pastor unless you’re fundamentally risk-averse and narcissistic.

 

I want you to like me, especially you every Sunday types who pay my health insurance.

I wish it was my job to comfort you with any of those other versions of Easter that we’d prefer over this one.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t ordained to serve you. I was ordained to serve this Risen Lord. To herald this Easter announcement.

And just as much as you, I’d like to ignore this Easter. I’d rather choose another Jesus.

But I can’t because this Jesus…he’s alive.

He is. Trust me, after the year I’ve had- I know it.

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But I understand. It’s no wonder we put so many Jesuses out there to choose from because the Jesus God chooses- it would shake our world if we took him seriously enough to give him our obedience.

Our loyalty. Our pledge of allegiance.

Maybe (look again) that’s why the angel at the tomb doesn’t bother to tell Caesar’s guards ‘Do not be afraid.’

The angel tells the women with their spices not to be afraid, but the angel doesn’t say ‘do not to be afraid’ to Caesar’s people.

And, let’s be honest, here in 22308, that’s who most of us are in the story: Caesar’s people, people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty well.

Maybe for people like us, we should be afraid.

Maybe for people like us Easter shouldn’t be a comfort.

Maybe Easter should afflict us with the right kind of nightmares.

Maybe we should be afraid.

Because God has raised this Jesus from the dead, he’s alive- I know he is- and that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do.

 

 

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

descent     Here’s the Good Friday sermon. Texts were Mark 15.25-34 and Galatians 3.10-14.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.

     I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.

Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.

On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.

‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.

They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.

Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.

Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.

The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.

Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.

The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.

The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.

The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.

The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it.

The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.

When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.

God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.

To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.

It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.

Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.

The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.

The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.

No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.

Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

– Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

 

According to Jesus’ own scriptures:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.

Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?

Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?

Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?

It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?

You see-

Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.

God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.

God forsakes God for us. In our place.

Which means-

Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?

——————————-

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’

His accursed, godforsaken death.

You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.

Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?

Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:

Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?

By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?

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

 

Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. My text was Matthew 28.16-20. You can listen to it below or download it in iTunes here.

Thanks to artists’ renderings and Mel Gibson, we all know what Jesus looks like.

Obviously there’s slight variations but, basically, we all know what Jesus looks like. We all know he’s white (just kidding…please don’t write a letter to the bishop) and we all know Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Loggins from his pre-‘Danger Zone,’ ‘This is It’ yacht rock period.

So we know what Jesus looks like, but we don’t know what Jesus sounds like.

When Jesus says ‘…go therefore and make disciples…’ we don’t know what he sounds like. There’s no recordings, not even an 8 track. It’s like the opposite of radio; we have the images we’ve got to supply the voice.

And for each of us it’s somewhat different sounding For a lot of you, Jesus sounds like a gentle, soft-spoken, inspiring teacher someone like the dog whisperer, say, or Donald Trump.

Scripture does say the Father and the Son are one, the same, so no doubt some of you think Jesus sounds just like God, who, we all know, sounds just like Morgan Freeman.

Because this is DC, I know a lot of people in politics and to them Jesus sounds…just like them. It’s amazing. It might be the only thing in town on which there’s bipartisan consensus. Whether they want to make America Great Again or they’re Feeling the Bern, they all hear Jesus in their own voice.

Not me though.

On my good days, Jesus sounds to me just like Gandalf- not Dumbledore, that would be childish. On my good days, Jesus sounds exactly like Gandalf.

     But on my not-so-good days, on my bad days, you know who Jesus sounds like to me? That’s right, Sally Struthers, which I think qualifies me as a feminist.

Not the Sally Struthers of Five Easy Pieces or The Getaway. Not Gloria from All in the Family. Not even Sally Struthers the voice of Pebbles Flintstone on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show.

No, on my bad days and my not-so-good days, Jesus sounds to me exactly like Sally Struthers of those once ubiquitous Christian Children’s Fund commercials.

You know, the ones where she shoves a Starvin’ Marvin kid with flies in his eyes in front of the camera and, with tears and earnestness in her eyes, stares through the television screen at lazy, fat, self-centered you, who can’t even spare the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life.

On my bad and my not-so-good days, when I hear Jesus say something like ‘…go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them everything I’ve taught you…’ 

Jesus sounds to me like Christian Children’s Fund Sally Struthers, her/his whiney voice guilting me that if I just gave more money, sacrificed more time, exerted more effort, mustered-up some more mindfulness then I could do what I’m supposed to do (the things that Jesus did) and I could be who I’m supposed to be (just like Jesus).

Maybe it’s just me. When you’re a pastor you spend a lot of time thinking about what you should be doing as a Christian.

It doesn’t mean you’re a better Christian (and if you’re a United Methodist, probably the opposite is the case), it just means the rhythms of the job and people’s perceptions of you make you feel like you should be saying Jesusy stuff and doing Jesusy things 24/7.

I mean, you never read about Jesus sitting in his boxers, eating a family-sized bag of potato chips, drinking a beer, and binge watching an entire season of Californication. Not that I’ve done that; it’s just a ‘for instance.’

My point is Jesus never does anything like that. Time’s too precious. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all that.

Last Sunday I taught our confirmation class, and at the beginning of class I asked the students to throw out at me all the attributes of their all-time favorite teachers. Kind. Nice. Generous. Challenging. Engaging. Fun.

And when I asked which of those attributes Jesus possessed as a teacher, guess which one they left off the list? Fun.

Jesus wasn’t, isn’t, fun they all concurred.

Who can blame them for thinking that way?

Sure, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners but even that’s to prove a point about who is in and who is out when it comes to the Father’s love. Jesus never just Wang-Chungs on any night.

Yeah, Jesus slips away a lot for quiet time but whenever he does it’s to pray to God. How annoying is that? Jesus never just chillaxes.

It seems like he’s always speaking truth to power and showing compassion to the poor, and, as disciples- as we tell our confirmands, we’re supposed to be just like Jesus and do the things Jesus that did.

And, as a pastor, you’re never not auditing your shortfalls on both counts. It comes with the job.

And so, even though we know Jesus looks like Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall, on a lot of my crappy days our Lord and Savior sounds to me like ‘Save the Kids’ Sally Struthers, her Christian Children’s Fund commercials making my faith feel like a guilty monkey on my back.

For example, for Christmas we bought the boys a Playstation 4. I insist on using the whole title, Playstation, because I’ve already learned that when you say ‘I’m going to go play with my PS’ too quickly, it can sound dirty and lead to unproductive potty humor.

Anyways, we bought the boys a PS4 for Christmas. If you have an actual human style life and you’re not a gaming nerd and you don’t know, the PS4 costs approximately $8,000.

Plus tax.

This is true: for the same amount of money we spent on the PS4, we could have provided clean water to an entire, impoverished village in Africa.

I know that stat because I’m a pastor and because Jesus/Sally reminded me in her guilt-tripping voice as I swiped my debit card at purchase.

Sure the PS4 was expensive but we had to buy it. I mean, their Nintendo Wii was at least 2 years old. What else were we supposed to do? We had no choice.

Still, though, I couldn’t shake the sense of shaming buyer’s remorse that ‘PS4’ is seldom the answer to the question ‘WWJD?’

So when my boys unwrapped the PS4 and opened it up and invited me to play with them, what did I say?

‘Well, I’d love to boys but unfortunately I’ve got more important things to do. I’m going to go pray and then read the Bible and then maybe I’ll go find some sinners to eat with.’

It’s true.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from creeping down to the basement after everyone had gone to bed and playing the Last of Us, a violent, sex-filled, apocalyptic, zombie-killing game for like 9 hours on end.

I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I just peed in a cup. Even my dog, lying next to me on the sofa, looked at me like I was pathetic.

And looking back at her, I saw in her eyes Sally Struthers’ pained expression and in my head I heard Jesus…reminding me that this was not something he would do and so- he didn’t need to point out- it wasn’t something I needed to waste my time with.

After all, the Last of Us costs about $50.00 and, according to that other Christian Children’s Fund guy, the bald guy with the Wilfred Brimley beard, a cup of coffee only costs $0.39. I don’t know where he buys his coffee but apparently somewhere a cup of coffee only costs $0.39.

Do the math: that PS4 game costs the same amount as 128 cups of coffee and, according to that aforementioned bearded guy, that’s 128 starving children for whom I could provide food, water and medicine.

Jesus saves and so could I, but instead I spent a fortnight trying to advance to the next level of a video game that makes Games of Thrones seem like the 23rd Psalm.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m back to being an on-the-clock Christian, but math like that runs through my head all the time and it’s usually followed by Sally Struthers doing Jesus voice over in my head.

I mean-

According to World Vision, 3/4 of the world’s population- 75% of everybody- live on less than $10/day. That’s $70/week.

Just to put that into perspective, because I’m a professional Christian and that’s the kind of math I do: I’ve rented the 2010 John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine 3 times from the iTunes store.

I’ve rented it on 3 separate occasions.

At $2.99/rental that equals roughly $9.00, plus what I paid to see Hot Tub Time Machine at the theater on opening night ($24) and figure in the ankle-grabbing concession cost ($50) and, according to the Sally Struthers- narrated abacus in my brain, that comes out to a grand total of $83.00.

More than what 75% of everybody in the world has to survive off of for a week- that’s the amount of money I’ve spent on a terrible, infantile movie with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine.

Even a hot tub is a luxury item. And I’m supposed to be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did!

It’s no wonder Jesus sounds like Sally Struthers to me and not just when it comes to poverty and money.

Not too long ago, I was at Starbucks, sitting at the bar and doing some research on today’s scripture text, when a friend from church- a friend about my age, though not as young-looking as me- sat down next to me.

I don’t want to violate his privacy so let’s just say his name rhymes with Ryan Polarz. 

And he said to me: ‘Hey, I just listened to your Ash Wednesday sermon from a few weeks ago, the one where you mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It really got me thinking.’

And I replied: ‘Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.’

Now, take a guess where our conversation went from there.

Did I ask him if that sermon edified his faith or helped nurture his relationship with the Lord? Nope.

Did I inquire about the state of his soul or ask ‘If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ No. None of it.

No, we spent about 25 caffeinated minutes Googling 1990 era swimsuit supermodels and reminiscing about our adolescent infatuations. Nearly a half of an hour.

About as long as Jesus was scourged for my sins, instead of teaching anyone everything Jesus taught his disciples. I Googled the women I’d once oogled as a newly pubescent boy.

And even then, in the back of my head, I heard Sally Struthers from the sermon on the mountain saying: ‘If you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.’

     I mean, is this the kind of uncertain, self-incriminating agony we want to confirm our kids into?

I could go on all day just telling you about my day yesterday or the day before that so it’s not surprising that on a whole lot of days the Jesus in my head sounds a whole lot like ‘Call this # now’ Sally Strutters.

And… it’s why, I think, those first disciples, when they met the Risen Jesus up on that mountain, they doubted.

They doubted.

According to Matthew, when the women go to the womb at dawn on Easter morning, they’re eventually encountered by the Risen Christ, who tells them to go find the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee, to the mountain.

And they do, says Matthew. And just before today’s text, Matthew says that when they see the Risen Christ, they worship him.

Just like that.

In a moment, they break the first- and, really, the only- commandment. Immediately on that mountain they toss aside everything it meant to be a Jew: to worship no gods but God.

As soon as they encounter the Risen Christ, they do what they’d never before. Not when he’d walked on water. Not when he’d multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Not when he’d declared himself the Son of Man.

Only now, vindicated by resurrection and having triumphed over the Powers of Sin and Death, do they worship him as God-in-the-flesh.

But- Matthew reports in the same breathe, the very same sentence- some of the disciples doubted.

     While they’re on their knees worshipping him, some of them doubted.

     What did they doubt?

Did they doubt, as Thomas does in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was really resurrected?

Maybe. But the Risen Christ is right there in front of them, and you don’t kneel down and worship something you’re not really sure is even there. And you certainly don’t worship him if you think he might be someone else entirely.

Speaking of worship- did they doubt whether or not they should be worshipping him?

I doubt it.

If ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is the lynchpin of your self-identity, then you don’t turn your back on that and worship with fingers crossed behind your back.

No, I think their doubt has everything to do with that mountain they’re on.

Notice, Jesus didn’t need to specify on which mountain they were to meet him. They knew which mountain. They knew that ‘the mountain’ in Matthew’s Gospel only refers to one mountain, to the place where Jesus gave the sermon on the mountain.

     In fact, a better translation of v.16 reads: ‘Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had laid down the rules for them.’

Rules.

Rules like ‘Blessed will be the peacemakers.’

Rules like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’

Rules like ‘Do not hide your faith in the dark’ and ‘Worry not about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a 2×4 in your own.’

Commands.

Commands that not one of those disciples had proved capable of emulating like Jesus when Jesus was alive and, now, he’s alive again.

And as they worship him on that mountain, I’m willing to bet that what they doubt is themselves. I’m willing to bet what they doubt is their ability to embody those commands like Jesus embodied them. I bet they doubt they can do it. Be just like him.

And if they’re doubting it as they’re worshipping him, I’m willing to bet it gets even worse a verse and a half later when Jesus tells them it’s their turn now. To make disciples of every last person, teaching them every last thing he commanded them on that mountain, every last command they couldn’t keep like he did. I’m willing to bet the house- also not very Jesusy- they doubt that they can be just like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did.

Still though, those same disciples (plus others just like them)- they changed the world.

Despite their doubts about themselves, despite their serious and abundant shortcomings that the Gospels don’t even bother to gloss past, they changed everything.

Sometimes in all our pious jargon and churchy lore we forget something. We forget a simple fact of history:

Jesus did not change the world. 

     When Jesus died, he had a grand total of 0 disciples.

And just after Easter, he had only a handful.

Jesus did not change the world.

The disciples did. Those disciples did.

They took Jesus’ Kingdom movement and in less than 300 years they literally converted the heart of an Empire.

Those disciples and others just like them, who were just as bad as us at being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus did, changed the world. How? How did they do it?

The Holy Spirit is the easy, obvious confirmation class answer, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just think it skirts the question.

I wonder-

I wonder if something else is a part of the answer too.  I wonder if, after the mantle was passed to them, those disciples discovered something that we- or me, at least-so frequently miss.

Here it is, and this is everything so wake up now:

     Discipleship does not mean we try to be just like Jesus.

     Discipleship does not mean we try to do everything Jesus did the way Jesus did it.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a byproduct of ordination but, as important a distinction as this, I forget it all the time.

To be a disciple is to live your life- your life- as Jesus might live it if he were you. 

Do you see the distinction?

     To be a disciple is NOT for you to be just like Jesus.

To be a disciple is to tease out what you would be like if Jesus were you.

If yours was the life Jesus had been given to live, not as a first century Jewish carpenter but you, your life. With your humdrum job or your jerk boss or your remaining years and failing health. What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your kids or your aging parents or your shame and regrets or your addiction or your student loans and mortgage bills.

What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your pain-in-the-butt in-laws or your spouse. Who would you be if he were you? If he was a single Dad or a stay-at-home Mom or an enlisted soldier? What if Jesus had cancer? What if he had enlisted? What if he were gay? What if his parents didn’t understand him? How would you be different if he were you?

Discipleship is the word we give to how we answer that question. And obviously it’s necessarily different for each one of us.

I think that’s something we miss when we confirm our kids into the faith.

We make them, make you, mistakenly think that discipleship is mainly about prayer and bible reading and preaching and serving the poor- because that’s the kind of stuff Jesus did in his life.

And then you make the mistake and think that someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis or even me is somehow more of a disciple than you.

And so it’s only natural that Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples would be left to those kind of ‘real’ disciples.

But if discipleship is about who you would be if he lived your life, then discipleship is not even about what you do. It’s about how you do what you already do.

It’s about how you do what you already do.

Let me say it this way:

     No apprentice must become the exact, carbon copy of their Master. God only needed one Savior.

You don’t have to live his life.

Jesus already lived his life, and God gave you yours.

There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you. There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you.

No other.  All God wants is for you to live your life the way Jesus might have lived it if it was your flesh he put on. If it was your shoes he was standing in.

I mean-

Sure, Jesus of Nazareth never wasted time playing inane games on the PS4, but if Jesus of Anesbury Ct had 2 sons who wanted to spend time with their Dad?

Yeah.

He probably still wouldn’t play a soft-porn, vigilante zombie game in the beer-drenched darkness of a basement, but Star Wars Battlefront with his boys? You bet.

Sure Jesus of Galilee wasn’t married (no matter what Dan Brown claims) but if Jesus of Alexandria was married to his high school sweetheart, a woman who perfected even him.

And if his wife had had a crush on John Cusack ever since he played Lloyd Dobler held Peter Gabriel aloft over his head, then maybe even Jesus would spend $70 to take his wife to opening night of Hot Tub Time Machine.

Yes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s doesn’t seem to have an off-color sense of humor, but if Jesus, Mark and Sue’s son, was sitting at Starbucks one day and if a friend wanted to become more of one by being silly and hashing over the silly infatuations of youth, then (don’t call the bishop) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even Jesus might Google ’90’s swimsuit covergirls.

You see-

If discipleship isn’t about you being just like Jesus

If discipleship is about figuring out who you would be if he were living your life, then the good news is that the only way to fail at being a disciple is to decide not to try.

That’s the only way to fail.

You see-

It’s not on you to be just like Jesus and to change the world.

Jesus already lived his life.

You only need to figure out who you might be if he were you, in your shoes, in your little part of the world.

If we all, each of us, just did that-

Not only would it get rid of that Sally Struthers voice (let’s face it) we all have in our heads. It just might change the world.

The only way to fail is not to try.

     If you’ve never confessed Jesus Christ as your savior, if you’ve never invited him into your heart, if you’ve never come forward for an altar call, if you’ve never held your hand up during up a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve been confirmed but never really converted…

However you want to put it- if you’ve always held Jesus at arm’s length, if you’ve always only been a maybe, kinda, sorta, almost Christian…DON’T BE.

There’s no reason to be because the only way to fail at being a disciple is not to try.

Give yourself to him. Give your life to him.

And then live.

Live as if yours was the life he was given to live.

 

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this 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 15 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.

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 kept my vow. I was 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 Syrian 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 Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.

Psalm 51

Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?

And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?

—————

     We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’

Fine. Whatever.

But-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.

And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.

Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.

I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?

Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.

When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.

—————

     King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

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

I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

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

We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.

     Your sins do not offend God.

     There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

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

Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.

Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

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

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

You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

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

But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.

No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.

I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.

Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

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

—————

     Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

     Sin is about where your love lies.

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

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

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

God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.

So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

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

Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

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

You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

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

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

And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.

Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.

Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.

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

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

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

I dipped my toes back into the preaching breach last night by leading a chapel service at the local retirement community. Since its Transfiguration Sunday this weekend, I chose Mark’s version of the scene which closes the Epiphany season.

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

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

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

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.

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

Or-

Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.

I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.

I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.

That’s how you preach this text:

Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’

Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.

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

——————

     Except-

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

For one-

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

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

For another-

If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him?

Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

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

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

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

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

I wonder-

What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.

—————-

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

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

Just think-

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

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

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

————–

     I wonder-

Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good. Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

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

This is where the good news is to be found.

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

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

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

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

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

Peter’s right.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory. It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures*. That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

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

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

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.

Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

 

 

*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light

 

 

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” 

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.

Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself.

 

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide.

And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth.

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With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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

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

     ‘Favored one.’ 

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

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things would never be simple again.

 

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

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

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

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

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

Made flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth.

With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

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

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

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

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

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This weekend I had the privilege of returning to my first appointment in Virginia, St. John’s UMC, for their 125th Anniversary.  My text was Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1.15-23. You can listen to the sermon below or you can download it in the iTunes store, here. Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic App.

I bring you all greetings from Aldersgate United Methodist Church. They also send along their sympathies that you, too, had to endure me as your pastor.

The lay leader at Aldersgate, Steve Larkin, even me wanted to register his irritation with you, St. John’s, complaining:

“had you not been so tolerant towards Jason as a rookie pastor then perhaps I’d have been spared having to deal with the tight-sphinctered griping, angry emails and calls from the bishop that seem to Jason him wherever he goes.” 

     Nonetheless, he wanted to be sure I wished you a happy 125th anniversary.

125 years! That’s a long time. 125 years is about how old I feel when I think about the Hudson and Shewey and Boatwright and Austin kids being old enough to serve in congress.

125 years! I was only here for 2 of those 125 years but, still, I’ve got a lot of memories from those years.

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     I remember the day we moved into the parsonage here. Some folks from St. John’s stopped by to say hello and help us move boxes.

I remember John Kyle Shewey shook my hand and glanced around at my beer-making equipment on the front porch and, deadpan, asked ‘Does all that belong to you?’ And when I said yes, Jake just nodded and, with an opaque expression, replied ‘Hmmm.’ It took me a year before I realized he’d just been messing with me.

I remember my first day in the office here at St. John’s, the day I learned that I should never ask Barbara Catlett for directions, not unless I was prepared to decipher vague hand gestures that looked like aerobic moves performed to the beat of ‘yonder as the crow flies.’

I remember Virginia Waggoner smiling and feeding me a freshman’s 15 worth of pizza at the Italian Restaurant downtown, and I remember Bill Crawford covering for me while I was out of town, praying at Virginia’s bedside as she died.

I was with you for only 2 of your 125 years, but I’ve got a lot of memories nevertheless.

I remember Betty Ward introducing herself with that fake teacher’s scowl of hers and commenting to the air ‘We’ve never had a minister with an earring before…this should be interesting.’ And I remember June Page standing behind her, smiling at me because, she assumed, a pastor with an earring just had to be a Democrat. I remember Warren Slough tapping his cane and telling me how it is and Grace Biles vetting me on points of theology and Kitty Irvine and Dottie Hostetter feeding me when Ali was away at law school.

I remember Billy Snider and Joe Boatwright dressed up for a Christmas pageant, looking less like biblical characters and more like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember how Don Drake, a retired forester, could retell any bible story for the children and, in doing so, would make sure you knew said story took place at, near, around or underneath a tree.

     I remember all the Sundays here I’d sit in the back with the acolytes and glance over at Mr Dickinson and then glance down at my watch at 11:00, at 5 after, at 10 after, wondering where in the hell was Ralph, the organist.

I remember how I’d then hitch up my robe and run around the outside of the sanctuary to find him asleep in the choir room.

I remember the night I walked over to Lewis Graybill’s house to tell him the bishop would be moving me to another church. Lewis answered the door in his black bikini briefs.

And nothing else.

I told him I had something to share with him and we sat down on his love seat in front of an Orioles game. I started to tell him, but when our knees touched…I said ‘Dude, I can’t take you seriously. You’ve got to put some clothes on first.’

I remember David Burnett taking me for a ride in his pickup along the Blue Ridge and stopping at an overlook to ask me about heaven. And I’ll always remember everything you’ve done for us, your prayers and emails and cards, during this past year as we’ve gone through my cancer treatment.

I was here for only 2 of your 125 years, but you gave me more memories than I deserved.

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     Maybe because it’s Advent- the season when we await God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ- some of the memories that came to mind this week were from Christmas Eve here at St. John’s.

My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s- I had my fingers crossed the whole time, I couldn’t really believe anyone would let me screw with their holiday. And, I held my breath through the whole service, waiting for Ralph Grant to fall asleep and collapse on the organ keys.

Perhaps as a consequence, what came out of my mouth was as straight-forward a sermon as I knew how to preach.

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

I just said- and I still have the thumb drive to prove it:

This baby we await at Advent, this infant we get a peek at in the manger…

This child who makes us spend time with our in-laws and tolerate Rod Stewart’s craptastic cover album Merry Christmas Baby…

This long-promised newborn who makes us gain weight and run up our credit cards and pretend not to be creeped out by a bearded fat man who spies on our kids…

This baby, Jesus, is God.

He is, as the scriptures and songs say: Immanuel.

Which means: ‘God with us.’

If you were here that Christmas Eve, 13 years ago, then I’m sure you remember my sermon word for word, but if you weren’t here, then that’s the basic gist of it.

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

Like any Christmas Eve service, we had some visitors that night, visitors who had never heard that message before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

I remember-

One visitor that night was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the  service.

She was about my age, I guess. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

She had this hectic sort of presence about her- like she hadn’t been sure about coming to church that night and she was even less sure about approaching the likes of me.

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, in the narthex, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying.

That’s how she identified herself.

I started to empathize with her, but she went on to tell me how none of them had ever really gone to church or been religious before. Lots of people apologize like that at Christmas, I’ve since learned. Before I could really say anything in reply she asked me: ‘Is God…’ she caught herself, ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ 

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Did you not hear me tell everyone how I graduated from Princeton?’ But instead I said: ‘Yes, God…Jesus…they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else. I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her Mom, her Mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church and might not ever go to church until she was dead.

My guess was she liked the idea that the God who would meet her Mom was as loving, merciful and forgiving as Jesus is supposed to be.

Or maybe her smile masked a confusion about how she was supposed to square her deployed husband’s mission with how the baby Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace we call God.

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

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     She wasn’t the only who came up to me that night.

Another was an older man. He was dressed neatly in tweed and wore a black wool stocking cap on his head.

To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he said he was from out of town so, chances are, he belonged to somebody here. In which case, you still owe me.

He told me he was in finance. He said he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me on the sidewalk outside, after the service.

Standing in front of the church sign, he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’ I couldn’t tell whether he was curious or if he was condescending.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

‘Really?’ he said, and his face suddenly looked irritated, worried.

He didn’t say anything more and I can’t read minds, but my guess is he was thinking that this baby Jesus was going to grow up. That one day this baby was going to say and do things, this baby was going to make unrealistic demands and exert unqualified expectations that made him uncomfortable.

That if incarnation is the ante then he didn’t want to get stuck with Jesus.

I thought about messing around with him, but Ali was waiting on me. So I just said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

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He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…

     …St. Paul writes a good 3 decades before St. Luke sets down to write the Christmas story.

The trees and decorations this time of year, the carols and the candles, the shiny gifts and friendlier-than-usual greetings- the Christmas cheer, it all collides and contrasts with Paul’s point here in Colossians.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

    I’m no longer the pastor here so I don’t need to worry about making a bad impression on any bright-eyed visitors. I can get away with ruining your holiday spirit and leave Sonja to clean up the mess. I can go ahead and break the gloomy news that the baby in the manger- he grows up to be Jesus, one who we would rather kill than be with or be like.

That’s what Paul’s Christ Hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of Christmas, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, the problematic particularity of Mary’s child, it isn’t just ‘God is with us.’

That sounds nice and comforting and maybe even flattering. It’s that God is with us…as Jesus.

The message of Christmas isn’t that God came among us as a baby, that doesn’t sound too demanding.

     No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the-baby-who-grows- up-to-be-Jesus.

     Those are the uncomfortable claims we anticipate this Advent season. That in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen all of Godall of God- there is to see.

     The message of Christmas is not, that in Jesus we get a glimpse of the divine. No.

The message of Christmas is not, that in Christ we discover but one path (among many) leading to God.

God, I wish.

No, Paul’s claim around incarnation is that in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen (and heard) all of God there is to find.

Now, even though I’m a professional Christian, what’s true for you goes for me too: my life would be whole lot easier if God would remain at a comfortable distance, abstract and aloof. I could get to my wants more quickly if I could just say: Well, God’s mysterious, Jesus- he only gives us a glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

That’s what the Colossians wanted. Colossae was a diverse, cosmopolitan city, and like many degreed, smartphone-wielding Nones and Dones today, they believed that the true god was too majestic to be identified with a particular person.

The true god couldn’t be found in specific stories. God was too big to be boxed into 1 tradition, in to 1 flesh.

In their sophistication, the Colossians, preferred to find god in nature, out among the stars. They even composed a hymn, dedicated to the unknowable god who lay behind the cosmos and creation.

Then, decades before Matthew tells us about the wise men or Luke Caesar’s census, Paul gets his hands on the Colossians’ hymn, and he rewrites it. He turns it into the Christ Hymn at the beginning of his letter.

Paul wants Colossae to know that things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular. Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. It’s Jesus, not the Defense Department, who shows us what the real world really is.

Think about what that means. Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’ No, now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

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    When someone wrongs us or hurts us, we’ve got to work out how to forgive them not just once but, maybe, over and again because Jesus said so and in Jesus all things hold together.

     When someone asks for our help and we don’t want to, we don’t have the time or we doubt the sincerity of the request, not only do we have to help we’ve  got to go farther than they’ve even asked because that’s what Jesus said to do, and through him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

     When social media soundbites tempt us into boxing people into black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to worry about the log in our own eyes and he is the firstborn of creation. 

     When the arbiters of secularism try to relegate our faith to the private, the personal, then we’ve got to shake our heads because the one who told us about the samaritan and about rich Lazarus in hell and about the sheep and the goats and about thirsting and hungering for justice- he’s the same one to whom all of heaven and earth belong. 

I couldn’t say that if I was still your pastor.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes.

Its better to distract yourselves with sentimentality and Santa songs and the fake ‘War on Christmas’ because this is one difficult, demanding baby.

If I was still your pastor, I couldn’t ruin your Christmas season by asking: Are you nursing a grudge against someone you love? Have you gossiped about a neighbor maybe? Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Strangers, aliens, refugees you just wouldn’t welcome?

     If so, you may want to think twice before you say Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen. You shouldn’t sing him to now and if you’d just rather shut him up later. After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

    In other words, we Christians say:

It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks words about God or words inspired by God.

It’s that Jesus is the Word God speaks to us.

It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God.

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God.

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

You can search under every star in the sky but the totality of God’s Truth and Beauty and Splendor is to be found in this particular Jew from Nazareth, in his life from cradle to cross.

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.  For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. You can baptize your kids but never expect them to suffer for it. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. Joel Osteen might seem more inspiring to us. The Donald or Hillary might make more sense to us. But to wait for this baby at Advent, to sing to him at Bethlehem is to find yourself, after the trees dry up and die and the decorations are put away, stuck with Jesus.

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  My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I was a new pastor. I had no idea what I was doing and I was distracted by the prospect of Ralph passing out on the organ. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me as I was untying my robe. The Christmas Eve crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up. This man was old, maybe Larry Blackwell’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

He came up to me down here by the altar rail and he shook my hand. And, with sincerity, he said: ‘I enjoyed your talk. Now were you saying Jesus and God are the same person?’

And I felt like saying: ‘How much clearer can I be? I must have said it a dozen times. Do you people need me to get Carl Allen to draw you pictures?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’  And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’ His voice trailed off. He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

That if Jesus and God are one and the same, then that means that everything Jesus said and did- that’s the fullness of God.

     And to try to live his life- even though it’s difficult and demanding, even though we can’t do it perfectly- to try living his life that’s what it means to be fully alive.

That for you or I to be fully human is for us to be as human as Jesus, to be like him.

     ——————————

     I’m not appointed here anymore so I can just give it to you straight up:

What we wait for at Advent and welcome at Christmas, it’s an impossible, unending task.

I mean-

Jesus himself tells us we’ll always have the poor with us.

And that we’re commanded to love our enemies implies that we’ll always have them.

And there’s never any shortage of people who, like Pilate, ask ‘What is Truth?’ assuming they already know the answer.

To worship the baby-who-grows-up-to-be-Jesus, it’s a summons that will always make us ill-fitting in the world and should always make us odd in America.

But it’s not all bad news to be stuck with Jesus.

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

It gives you all plenty to do for the next 125 years.

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

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Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

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When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

Five Plus Two

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:

At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.

Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.

Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.

Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.

One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.

The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.

He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.

Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.

‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.

‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.

To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.

‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.

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It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.

All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.

In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.

And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.

Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.

But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.

Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.

The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.

And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.

How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.

The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.

For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.

Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.

When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.

Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.

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Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.

After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.

Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’

I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.

He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.

‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.

‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.

And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.

I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.

‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’

He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.

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John in his Gospel tends to include details.

At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.

John likes details.

When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’

And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.

John likes details.

So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.

The fact is-

You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.

Because:

It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.

It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.

It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.

It doesn’t matter.

Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.

That boy is us. He’s you and me.

Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.

Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.

Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.

And whatever you have to offer is enough.

Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.

 

I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.

And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’

I just smiled and nodded, and I said:

‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’

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That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’

 

Healing

Jason Micheli —  June 3, 2015 — 1 Comment

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgAfter a 4 month hiatus from the pulpit, I joined Dennis Perry this Sunday for a dialogue sermon on John 5’s story of the healing at Bethsaida.

You can download it in iTunes here.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

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

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.

 

#Blessed

Jason Micheli —  January 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-2 I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.

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

Here it is:

Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’

It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.

     Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.

So…

 

Once upon a time-

In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.

Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.

They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.

As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.

Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.

Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.

In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.

And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.

Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.

Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.

As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.

Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:

When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.

And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.

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When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.

A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.

Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’

New packaging.

Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.

Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.

Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?

Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.

As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.

 

After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.

As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)

It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.

As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.

Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.

She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.

Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the  pictures of their houses?

So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!

And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.

     Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.

And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.

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The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.

Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.

This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.

It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.

Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?

Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’

As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.

While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?

It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.

Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.

He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.

If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.

Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.

 

At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.

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His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.

She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.

And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.

A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.

But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?

What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.

A fact that always made her feel blessed.

She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.

Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.

     How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?

Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.

It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?

It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.

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That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…

But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.

As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.

It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.

Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.

His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.

They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.

We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.

They don’t have it to give. We do.

Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.

I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.

Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.

I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.

 

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

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

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

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

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

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

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

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

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

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

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

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

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

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

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

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

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

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

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

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

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

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

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

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

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Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…

Matthew 2.1-12

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

I read.

I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.

In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.

Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.

For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”

The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.

I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.

Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.

You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.

Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.

Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.

     A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.

‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.

That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.

And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.” 

But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.

The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.

The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.

“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.

     Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.

 And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.

That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.

The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.

I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.

Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.

Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. 

Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

     Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.

What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.

Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.

Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.

And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.

Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.

Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.

If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:

  • The mercy of God in the flesh
  • The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
  • The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly

     If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…

In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.

If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.

Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:

  • How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
  • How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
  • How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.

And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.

So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.

Amen.