Archives For Sermons

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

Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.

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

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

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

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 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.

————–

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

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

     It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? 

     I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. 

     You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. 

     Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’ 

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

     If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford. 

     The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

     No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

   That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs                                                      not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

   That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin. 

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says

All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

     if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

     Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure. 

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

Nocturnal Omission

Jason Micheli —  January 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

Do you have to be born again to be a Christian? Here’s my sermon from this weekend on John 3.1-15.

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

———————

     Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:

If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.

No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?

If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.

You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.

But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.

If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.

Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:

Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?

     It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”

We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.

And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”

So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.

But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:

You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian. 

    If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.

You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.

According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.

You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.

If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.

We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.

———————

     We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.

Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’

You must be born again.

Or-

You must be born from above.

Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

But right there- there’s the question, right?

Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?

Not that question.

And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?

This question:

Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind? 

     Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?

———————-

    We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.

When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”

And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.

When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.

So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.

We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.

Except-

That you in “You must be born again” is plural.

It’s “You all must be born again.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.

And Jesus answers with “You all…”

Like it or not, we are in that you.

But-

Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.

After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.

Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.

When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.

So maybe-

Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.

Only-

Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.

So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.

But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?

What if-

Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.

Take it back.

From those other kind of Christians.

Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.

Being born anothen

It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.

Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.

You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”

Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.

What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.

You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.

Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.

We could push back.

And we’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?

———————

     Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.

We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.

We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.

Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”

In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.

And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.

Skip ahead.

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”

And what does John show you?

Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.

And what does Pilate say?

“Behold, the man.”

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.

And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?

Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.

Water and the spirit, the sixth day.

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?

Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week.

And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?

For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.

Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.

He breathes on them.

Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

They’re made new again.

Anothen.

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.

———————

     Chuck Norris is right.  What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.

But-

We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.

That we are.

Born again. Born from above.

All of us.

Every one of us.

Even you all.

It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.

There is no distinction.

     All of us, in our sin, were in Adam. 

     And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.

     What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.

In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.

There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.

Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.

The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.

Consider yourselves anothened.

Being born again

     It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.

It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.

It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.

It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.

It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.

It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.

     Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God. 

     It’s his work, not ours, that saves.

It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.

What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.

If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.

If we get born again.

What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.

For all of us.

So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-

The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.

Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again

And if that same someone asks you for a when-

When were you born again? When were you saved?

You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.

John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.

———————

     It’s Good News.

But it’s not easy.

What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.

Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.

You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.

You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.

You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.

You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.

You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.

And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.

You’ve got to see.

See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.

It’s about sight.

Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.

To be born again is to be given new eyes.

Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.

He should know-

Even that’s easier than to be born again

To become who you already are in Jesus Christ

To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.

 

Creche If No Cross?

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2016 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent. My text was Matthew 1.18-25.

“…You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.”

     To those of you who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.

Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend Ben to a Christmas party. The party was hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ and was held in the home of their campus pastor.

Back then, I was still new in my faith and in many ways I wasn’t confident about being a Christian. Back then, Ben was the only Christian I knew at school.

As their name implies, Campus Crusade is an evangelistic organization. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and Ben had grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia where most of the Christians he knew hoarded guns and canned goods in their basements in anticipation of the apocalypse. An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed tame to him.

It was during my first semester, about this time of year, that Ben invited to this “party.”

Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word ‘party,’ to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations- none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.

In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where I was asked to take my shoes off at the front door.

Ben and I walked there that night, in the cold and thin snow, to a neighborhood just off of campus. Walking up the short driveway to a small ranch home, I could spy through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.

At first I thought we must be at the wrong house; this must be a Tupperware party or a bridge club. Ben though assured me it was the right address.

I thought about running away then and there- and probably I should have- but Ben’s a lot bigger than me and I didn’t want to aggravate him.

When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. When Ben introduced me, the guy- the student pastor- shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said: ‘Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.’ 

     And I replied: ‘What?’ 

This must have been his secret Christian greeting and because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the bible and because I didn’t reciprocate with ‘Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1’ he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.

But first he asked me to take off my shoes.

Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my watch between bites.

You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-a-long. I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.

On my left was a girl who began every sentence with ‘The Lord just put it on my heart to ________‘ and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.

On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt and had earlier over chocolate covered pretzels asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.

Across from me, sitting on the brick hearth, was a girl named Maria. I recognized her from the little Methodist church I tried to worship at a few times.

I remembered her because every Sunday when it came time for the congregation to share their joys and concerns Maria would grab the microphone and hold the congregation hostage for 20 or so minutes while she narrated the ups and downs of her romantic life.

Unwisely, I thought, Ben sat next to her on the hearth.

We sang songs whose words I knew only vaguely and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his pregnant wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.

When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our bibles. I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. I hadn’t noticed before but I was the only one who hadn’t brought a one.

‘Luke, chapter 2’ Mike said. Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud: ‘In the days of King Herod…’ 

After he finished the reading, Mike asked everyone to share what the passage- what Christmas and the incarnation and the coming of Jesus- meant to them. And for several long minutes people around the room said things like:

‘I’m so thankful Jesus came into the world to die for my sin.’ 

Each person’s sharing was slightly different, but they were all about Sin- about Jesus reconciling it, suffering the wages of it, dying for it.

Then for a few moments a pause settled over the room. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t a holy silence or even a meaningful one. It was everyone waiting on me to say something. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to be released until I offered some testimony of my own.

Okay, maybe it sounded sarcastic but with all sincerity I wondered out loud what was genuinely on my mind. I asked a question:

‘If there’d been no Fall, would Christ still have come?

If humankind had never sinned, would there still have been Christmas?’ 

From the group’s embarrassed reaction you would have thought I’d just called Jesus’ mother a dirty name. Everyone looked at me with confusion. Mike looked at me with pained sadness and Ben looked as blushed as the pastor’s wife’s red corduroy dress.

An awkward silence fell over the room until Ben summoned a fake laugh from somewhere in his belly and somehow just kept the hahaha’s going.

I suppose it was only obvious to me how Ben was hoping he could just keep laughing and laughing and laughing until we sang another song or did something. But for pastor Mike I was clearly a neophyte to the faith (or a fool) and this was what he would’ve called ‘a teachable moment.’

He slung his guitar behind his back and started to gesture with his hands like it really pained him to break it down so simply for me.

     ‘Jason, the reason Jesus came,’ he explained, ‘is he had a job to do: to rescue us from our Sin so that we can have a relationship with God.’ 

For a few minutes more it sounded like he was rattling off lines memorized from a pamphlet about the wages of sin.

     ‘But what I was wondering: If we had never sinned, would Jesus still have come?’ 

‘But Adam and Eve did sin; we do sin. I’m a sinner. I’m not ashamed to admit that’ Mike replied and did so rather condescendingly.
That’s when any hope Ben had for me to keep my mouth shut went out the window.

     ‘That’s not my point,’ I said. I mean…

“Is the incarnation something that comes out of God’s frustration and disappointment with us? Or out of God’s overflowing joy and desire for us?” 

“Is Christmas just the beginning of a rescue package that bails us out of our suffering and sin, or is Christmas even deeper and more mysterious than that?” 

The group just watched us go back and forth, staring at me like I was either an idiot or a heretic. The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first 30 minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.

No one seemed to appreciate the budding theologian in their midst.

It didn’t help matters that the only person sympathetic to my perspective was the bearded 50 year old with the Star Trek shirt whose sole contribution to my cause was to say ‘Dude, that’s deep.’ 

Meanwhile the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.

     Finally someone said out loud: ‘Well, I know I sin all the time and I’m just grateful he came to die for mine.’ 

As if rendering a verdict, Mike said: ‘Praise God!’ Then he swung his guitar around like Church Berry and we sang another song.

For all the confusion my question caused, the answer is YES.
Would he still have come?
Would there still be Christmas if there’d been no Fall? YES.
Even though I couldn’t have articulated it back then, that’s what John’s Nativity story is getting at when it proclaims: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Even before Joseph dreams his dream, before he’s felt in Mary’s womb, HE IS. He’s before time.

Before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed- before creation is even set in motion God had already chosen to one day take flesh and live among us.

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this. In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.

If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity.

That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’

In other words, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.

So what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:

The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation.

The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us.

The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love.

There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.

And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.

Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins.

Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas.

It’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben: ‘Well, that was an awesome party.’

And he belly-laughed, not at the evening but at me, at what he thought was my contrariness.

‘But it’s a good question!’ I growled. Ben just laughed some more, and by the time we were leaving the neighborhood he said: ‘I don’t see what difference it really makes.’ 

Back then our friendship was still new and it was governed by politeness. So I let it go.

Back then I wasn’t bold enough to push the difference.

But I’m the pastor now, so listen up:

INCARNATION names a love every bit as deep and unconditional as CROSS.

You’re holy and you’re loved and you’re graced not only because God took flesh to save you but also because even before creation morning God chose to be with you.

The Gospel’s not just that in the fullness of time God came among us to suffer for our Sin.

The Gospel’s also that before there was time God decided to join his life to ours no matter what.

The Gospel’s not just that Christ died for you.

It’s also that before there was even the promise or notion of you…

Before you did your first good deed or told your first lie…

Before you made your life a success or made it a disaster…

Before you said your wedding vows or before you broke them…

Before you held your children in your arms or before you estranged yourself from them…

Before you first laughed or wept or kissed or shouted out in anger…

Before you gave your life to the Lord or before you turned your back on him…

Before the oceans were even born God said ‘I do’ to you.

Forever.

That’s the Gospel too.

Would he still have come? Would he still have taken flesh?

Absolutely.

And that means-

The invitation for you to come to God is always there.

Because it’s always been there.

15317970_10211005366952360_5805070194313765446_n    For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.

     In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.

My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E).  A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?

Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.

Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.

A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.

I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.

Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.

He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.

You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it. 

Every bit of every one of us. 

On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’

As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

     Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’

Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.

Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.

Says Gregory.

————————-

With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.

 

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

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

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

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

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

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

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

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

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

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

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

     It’s over the top.

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

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

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

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

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

Bam.

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

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

     What? 

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are not great sinners.

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

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

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

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

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

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

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

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

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

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

Sin is about where your love lies.

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

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

Because God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to it.

 

 

The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  November 14, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

So it’s not that the tax was onerous.

It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

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

It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

You see how it works?

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

     What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies.

On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip. And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history.

200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.” 

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King. Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:

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

     Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their nominee. And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.

And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away.

That’s the trap.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’ 

     If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.

If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?

Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?

Which party do you belong to?

You’ve got to choose one or the other.

What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’  And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’ Eikons of Caesar. Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’ 

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question. When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’ But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’ 

    You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?

What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.

But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?

Everything.

Everything.

Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’ 

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation-

you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you:

ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question. The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.  They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides. Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

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

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

—————-

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

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

Idolatry.

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

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan post-election prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

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

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

Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda or demonize those who disagree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re mixing up God and Caesar.

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

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

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

Because when you do-

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

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

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

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

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;

where grace is offered, free of charge;

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;

where peace isn’t a soundbite but a practice;

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

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

Us. The Church.

We’re Jesus’ politics.

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

—————–

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

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

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

Elected: A Sermon for Duke Divinity School

November 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think, however, that is a deep mistake.

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

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

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

We did not elect Jesus to be President.

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

We did not elect him messiah or savior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all we did not elect Jesus.

He elected us.

 

Because I didn’t “write” it, I’m unabashed in calling this the best sermon I’ve ever preached.

For All Saints Sunday my text was John 2.1-11, Jesus turning water to wine at Cana of Galilee. If, as I believe, the whole point of All Saints is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, sanctification is salvation then the witness of a saint’s life should be the text and proclamation on All Saints.

Shirley was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Flannery O’Connor character in my congregation. She sent thousands of emails to me over the years. I miss her and have a little less fun in my ministry without her in it. I got the idea of this sermon from a recent podcast I recorded with Father James Martin.

July 5, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Etc. 

Dear Jason,

Welcome to Aldersgate! We met on Sunday morning. I was the “good-looking lady” with the Arkansas accent who, leaving church, asked you: “You’re not a Republican are you?!” I whispered it pretty quietly so I don’t why you didn’t answer me.

You probably noticed I didn’t “take communion” Sunday. The reason I didn’t was because I nearly choked on the piece of bread  you gave me. It was large and had a lot of crust on it.  I should have gone ahead and dipped it in the wine and just kept it in my hand until I got to the pew, but then my hand would’ve been all sticky and who wants sticky hands? I might’ve had to shake a visitor’s hand after worship and then they would’ve thought I’m one of those terrible, disgusting people who have sweaty hands all the time. Gross.

I can’t helping wondering: do they not teach you in seminary how to break off smaller pieces for communion? Probably not, I guess. They obviously don’t teach you how to slow down and not talk so fast either. You’ll learn. Dennis is very good at breaking off just the right sized pieces of bread, and sometimes he talks so slow I’d swear he’s making up his sermon as he goes. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t take communion.

On another subject, I heard a minister yesterday on TV who I think was just great.  The reason I was so impressed with him was because his message was about Religiosity vs. Spirituality.  He quoted Joel 2:28 and emphasized the noun everyone and how God wants everyone to have an alive spirit. His name was Joel Ostein, I think. You should look him up. I haven’t heard you preach yet but I bet you preach just like him.

Your new friend,

Shirley Pitts

PS: Did your last church not have a problem with your earring?

October 13, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Coffee with the Pastor 

Jason,

To follow up from last night’s Meet the Pastors Coffee- I most certainly did not purposely spill coffee on your “crotch” just because you told everyone how John Wesley (supposedly) was a terrible husband. I told you. It was an accident but, I will say, if I had done it on purpose you would’ve deserved it.

You’re supposed to be proud to be a United Methodist and there you were last night bad-mouthing the founder of United Methodism. I couldn’t believe it. I got so angry I could’ve…well, never mind.

And another thing, I did not roll my eyes at that new member when he said he worked for the House Republicans. Maybe I was a little rude to him but not rude enough that anyone would notice. You’ve got a lot of nerve accusing me of such things! Keep it up and I’ll bet you don’t last at Aldersgate more than a couple years.

Shirley Pitts

Longtime Member

May 22, 2006

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Fall Commitment Campaign 

Jason,

I have decided to withdraw from the commitment campaign committee. I was so disappointed that the last meeting wasn’t more civil. It’s a shame that even in a church setting among Christians that people can’t value another’s opinions. I just hate how some Christians gripe and gossip about other Christians.

I could tell you a thing or two about some of those complainers at the meeting. They’re the reason we’re in the mess we’re in with our debt and I heard one of them hardly even speaks to his wife.

Don’t worry I’ll still be in charge of the Meet the Pastor Coffee. Lord knows if I’m not you’ll never tell our new members about John Wesley or what it means to be a Methodist and then where would we be.

Shirley

September 6, 2007

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Bread

Dear Jason,

Like I told you Sunday, I heard a lot of comments about the bread we had on Sunday for communion.  It was sour dough and it just didn’t taste well with the wine. Think about it for gosh sakes: it’s called sour dough. Who wants to eat that?

I bet Jesus refuses to even make himself present in bread so disgusting. I hope you were joking when you said we could switch to wafers. Aldersgate will never go for wafers- we’re not Catholics! Next, you’ll be telling us to worship Mary and not read our bibles like Catholics.

Blessings,

Shirley

September 9, 2008

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Babies

Jason,

When I was a social worker for Child Welfare in Little Rock, one day I came into to the office to bring a baby for adoption.  My boss looked at the way I was holding the baby and “got all over me” because she said that I should “cradle” a new born baby in my arms. She said a young baby can not hold up their head when they are so young and they could hurt their hearing if it tumbles over.

I thought of what my boss said yesterday watching you juggle that poor baby all over the place during the baptism.

Maybe you should practice a little using a doll baby.

Maybe I could find one at the Goodwill for you to use for practice. Not that I shop at the Goodwill myself but I’d go there for you if you’d like me to look. Hope this is helpful.

In Service,

Shirley

November 11, 2009 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Paul

Jason,

I wish you had known my husband Paul. I still have people coming up to me and saying how they miss him. He held about every position you could have in the church.  He was fun and caring and a wonderful husband and father. He was a commander in the navy and was on 3 submarines.

Mostly though, I wish you’d known him because he was such a good Christian man. He was a better man than I deserved. You would’ve enjoyed him, I think, and maybe you would think better of me if you could see how he thought I was better than I am.

Shirley

August 10, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Muslims

Jason,

I told my niece this weekend how proud I was of our church for welcoming those Muslims from our neighborhood to worship in our fellowship hall. It’s a shame so many people left the church over the issue, and I’m sad that hardly any of them even bothered to talk with you or Dennis before they decided to leave.

Here’s something you didn’t know about me. A couple years ago, when we studied the Jesus Creed for the Church Wide Study, I started praying the Jesus Creed every morning and every night. Every day, twice a day, sometimes more, I prayed to love God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength and to love my neighbor as much as I love God.

I don’t think I would’ve been open to hosting the Muslims here if I hadn’t been praying the Jesus Creed. I think before I’d always prayed mostly for myself and my family. I wish more people had tried praying the Jesus Creed. If they had, then maybe they’d be more hospitable and open-minded.

While we’re on the subject of broadmindedness, I am a Democrat. You’ve never told me what you are. I don’t know why but a lot of young people these days are Republicans.  If you are a Republican I will still write to you.  See, I told you the Jesus Creed had changed me!

Shirley

December 11, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Directory 

Jason,

You probably know- I’m working with Amy on the Pictorial Directory for the church. How are you doing? Are you okay? The reason I ask is because I was looking at your picture in the old directory and your picture for the new directory and you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight. Especially in your face. Like a little baby angel. Ha!

You know who else looks different? Dennis. He looks tired in his new picture. No wonder he takes so many sabbaticals. I’m still mad at Dennis because of the time he told us in his sermon that Bill Perry was his father. I should’ve told him that Bill Perry looks younger than him!

There was a time when I probably would’ve told him that without even thinking about how mean it would sound. I like to think I’m different than I was.

Shirley

December 14, 2011

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jews

Jason,

Where is it in Romans that Paul tells about how the Gentiles were “let in” to be loved by God even though they didn’t deserve it?  I have down here that you told me Romans 9-11 but that doesn’t jive. My daughter-in-law doesn’t think the Jews will be saved and I told her you said they were saved. Of course, the bigger point seems to be that we’re just grateful that God has adopted us Gentiles.

I don’t know why but lately, more and more, I think about how I don’t deserve God’s grace. I’ve not always been a good or kind person. I’ve often been mean. I guess that’s why they call it Amazing Grace huh?

By the way, I hate it when you all make us sing all the verses of hymns like that. Good Lord, who can stand up for that long or huff and puff through 7 verses!?

Love,

Shirley

January 14, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Christmas 

Jason,

I teared up when I read your Christmas sermon thinking about how unconditional God’s love is for us. My love for my boys has always been unconditional, for sure, but for other people? For other people I think my love has always been very much conditional.

I know my love for you certainly wasn’t unconditional. Remember that time years ago when I got furious with you because you wouldn’t teach the Meet the Pastor folks about John Wesley and I stormed out of your office and slammed the door so hard that picture of Karl Barth fell off your wall?

Of course, you have a picture of Karl Barth on your wall and not John Wesley but never mind that now.

See you Sunday,

Shirley

January 23, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: No Subject

Jason,

After church, I went out to eat at Ruby Tuesdays with a bunch of women that usually goes over there after church  They started talking about the election.  After a while, I told them that I was a Democrat. Marguerite Blackwelder said, “Are you a liberal?” I said I wasn’t but I think I am.

Then, someone- I won’t say who but she used to work at the church, I think you know who I mean- said, “All Democrats are liberals!”

I forgave her.

I really did forgive her too. It used to be that I wouldn’t have. You know what I thought about it afterwards? That life is too short to waste it on petty grudges. I don’t know if I thought that because I’m getting older or because I’m getting more Christian. What do you think, I wonder?

I just wish we had more Democrats in our church!  If you ask me, the Republicans need to be in the Baptist Church.

Shirley

February 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: New Members

Jason,

A couple named Kelly and Joe Garr put down that they would like to join the church.  I called her and come to find out she went to middle school, high school, and college with you! I asked her if you’re the same now as you were back then and she said no. She said you were nice back then but that you’re different too.

It got me thinking about what people who knew me way back when would say about me today? Would they say I’m no different than I was?

It makes me really sad to think that maybe they would.

I can’t think of anything worse than to have gone to church your whole life and not end up a different person, can you? If you liked John Wesley I’d ask you if that’s what Wesley meant by sanctification.

I hope my faith has changed me. I suppose I’m about the last person who could judge such a thing.

Shirley

April 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jesus 

Jason,

I know you are busy with Easter things but this has been on my mind. When I’ve prayed before, I’ve always prayed to God not Jesus. I love Jesus and know he did so much for so many but I’ve always thought I needed to pray to God.

I’ve started to pray to Jesus lately like you do in church sometimes and you know what? Praying to Jesus, like I’m talking directly to him, makes me a lot more conscious about being more like him. Thought you’d be interested.

Shirley

August 13, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Naked

Jason,

About an hour ago as I was driving down Ft. Hunt Rd. I saw a man I thought was “naked” like that man in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is arrested- what an odd detail.

Anyways, I thought this man was naked but when I got closer I saw he just had a shirt off and some terrifically short shorts. When I saw that it was you, I whistled out my window. Did you know it was me? You should be careful going around like that half-naked. There’s a lot of older women in our congregation who’ve been missing their men for a long time. Ha!

Lord, I hope you never mention that in a sermon!

My real point was to say that years ago seeing you like that, running around like a Chip n’ Dale would’ve irritated me something awful but instead I just laughed because I’ve grown to appreciate you. I guess that’s God’s grace.

Lovingly,

Shirley

March 15, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Collars

Jason,

I read your blog post about wearing your clergy collar out and about and how it helps you stay accountable to Jesus being a visible Christian.

It made me wonder what people see when they see me and how often, or how infrequently I should say, they’ve seen Jesus when they’ve seen me.

 

Shirley

April 3, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Wedding 

Jason,

About two weeks ago, Alan and Steve got a marriage license in D. C.  They have to wait until this coming weekend to have the ceremony.  They’ve lived together as a married couple for 10 years but they want to celebrate it publicly like any other couple gets to do, and they want to do it for legal protection.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding. If God’s love is unconditional for someone like me, then I believe it’s unconditional for a couple like them- they’re both better Christians than I’ve been in my life.

I’ve been a church person my whole life, but I feel like I’ve only been a Christian for the late part of my life.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding, but I also care about you too much to want you to get into trouble with the bishop. Lord knows you manage to do that plenty on your own. Maybe you can just come to the ceremony as a guest?

Shirley

April 7, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Minister

Jason,

I was just thinking. I bet it’s good to be a minister because you get to see for yourself how God really does change people and work in their lives. You get a front row seat. It must give you a pretty strong argument for the existence of God.

Shirley

May 22, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Les’s Funeral 

Jason,

You did a wonderful job with Les Norton’s funeral yesterday. In fact, I left praying that you’ll be the one to do my service. Funerals should be honest about how every Christian is a mixture of sinner and saint. You know better than most my ratio of those two qualities.

I think funerals can afford to be honest too because of how you put the Gospel one time in your sermon on the prodigal son. You said God says to us: “Nothing you do can make me love you more, and nothing you do can make me love you less.” 

I’ve done plenty, I confess. Your precious boys make me regret every ignorant thing I ever said about Hispanics. I’ve never been racist, I don’t think, but ignorant? Probably. In ways you can’t even notice when you’ve grown when I did in a place like Arkansas. I wonder if that’s what is meant by original sin. You’re just born into sins like racism and you need God’s help to exorcise it from you.

Shirley

February 10, 2015

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Love You

Jason,

I don’t know if you’re checking your email or not. Dennis told me about your surgery and how it’s likely cancer.

I just left a message on your voicemail. I called the nurses station at the hospital too but they said they couldn’t connect me since I’m not family. I thought about telling them a thing or two about church family, the communion of saints, but I worried if I was too pushy they’d take it out on you. I’m sure you’re hard enough to handle as a patient as it is.

Anyways, I wanted you to know I love you. I prayed for you tonight, and for Ali, and your beautiful boys.

Love,

Shirley

February 5, 2016

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Cancer Buddies

Jason,

Who would’ve guessed that we’d end up getting cancer together at the same time? I’m down in Richmond now in a facility. It’s nice and near Alan and Steve, but I miss my church. I hope that before I die (and I know I’m dying) you can come visit me. In the past I would’ve been too vain to have anyone see me like this but I don’t care now. I guess that sounds like bragging doesn’t it? And that’s a sort of vanity too. Being Christian never really gets easier does it?

I’d like to see you one last time when you’re able. To see you, but also I’d like to confess my sins to you too before I go and even more I’d like to hear you tell me how God forgives me for all of them. Not because I don’t believe it but because believing it is what Christians share in common.

You think that’s why John Wesley said the “communion of saints” was his favorite part of the creed?

Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “God’s Not a Republican?”

Lord, I hope they’re not wrong.

In Christ,

Shirley

“Jesus did this in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.”

     We moderns- we find miracles like water into wine problematic. Superstitious even believers secretly say.

But-

Why is it that we find it difficult to believe that Jesus suddenly and immediately turned ordinary water into exceptional wine when Jesus works slow, lifetime-long miracles all around us?

Why is it hard for us to believe that back then Jesus transformed water into wine when, even now, Jesus transforms entire lives?

People like Shirley-

They’re the only proof we have for God. The argument is as simple as this:

There exists a sanctified person- a person changed by Christ, a saint.

Therefore, the Risen Christ exists.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not us. Certainly not him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sermon is for you too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sermon is for you.

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

——————————

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

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

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

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

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

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

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

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

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

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

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

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

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

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

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

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

——————————

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

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

[Play]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

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

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————-

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

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

[Play]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

[Play]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

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

[Play]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

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

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

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

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

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

Or we’re supposed to be.

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

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

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

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

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

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

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

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

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

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

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

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

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

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

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

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

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise that would come true for him.

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

——————————

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

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

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

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

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

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

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want Josh.

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

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

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

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

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

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

I can’t answer the why question.

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

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

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the heart of God.

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

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

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

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

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

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

‘Josh’ he says.

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

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

This kid who’s:

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

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

No, he talks about kids:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

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

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

Saved by (Dis)Grace

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

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

 

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

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

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

Why?

Why are they ashamed?

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t believe me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should be ashamed.

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

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

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

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

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

—————————-

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

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

Why would they be ashamed?

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

So why are they ashamed?

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

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

—————————-

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

A disgrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

About religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.

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

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

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

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or,

Feel foolish for believing in the first place.

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

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

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

The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.

——————————-

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

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

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

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

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

Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:

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

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

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

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

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

Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.

Is not was.

Present-tense not past.

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

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

It’s a message through which God does.

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

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

In other words, the Gospel is not inert.

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

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

Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.

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

It IS- now- the Power of God.

When Potter Becomes Clay

Jason Micheli —  September 11, 2016 — 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The day after.

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

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

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

Then we watched what everyone else everywhere else watched.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vengeance against our enemies.

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

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

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

Enough! Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.

They have dug a pit to capture me,

set traps for my feet.

By you, Lord, you know

all their sinister plots to kill me.

Don’t overlook their wrongdoing;

don’t cleanse their sin

from before you.

May they stumble before you;

when you become angry,

do something about them.”

Look it up.

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

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

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

“Um, excuse me?” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

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

 

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

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

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

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

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

The Bible names the deployments “Exile.”

587: Jeremiah’s 9/11.

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

Except-

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

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

As in, you and me. Christians.

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

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

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

In Jesus Christ.

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

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

Would Jesus really approve of a prayer like that?

What do we do with it?

 

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do?

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

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

It is. And it does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.”

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

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

 

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

The Terri Gross doppleganger asked me a second time.

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

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

So I didn’t know what to say.

Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

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

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

But it’s true.

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

3 times a day.

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

So do the math:

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

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

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

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

210 times.

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

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

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

210 times.

Jesus prayed such prayers.

For the defeat of his enemies.

So I said to Terri Gross:

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s the better question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

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

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

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

He doesn’t retaliate.

He turns the other cheek.

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

He dies rather than kill.

He doesn’t resist evil with evil.

He suffers it.

He dies to it.

And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them.

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Jeremiah’s angry prayer.

Jesus enacts it.

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

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

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

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

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

The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So you tell me what’s more effective.

 

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

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

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

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

‘Here we go again’ I thought.

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

‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

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

And he stormed out.

I wonder-

If our discomfort with a prayer like the one Jeremiah prays

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

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

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

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

S.O.S from the Outer Darkness

Jason Micheli —  September 5, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

     Hey-

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

Yeah, I figured as much.

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s this place.

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

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

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

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

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

So-

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

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

I know, right!?

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

My Master was always telling stories like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

Wrong.

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

And lazy.

Wicked and lazy.

Pretty harsh, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then-

When I saw the Master again?

No gold watch.

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

Not even a Starbucks gift card.

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

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

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

What day is it anyway? Or year even?

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

Or not hard to believe at all I guess.

The truth is-

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

About me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than enough-

To shape communities of mercy.

More than enough-

To bring his healing grace to conflict and suffering.

More than enough-

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

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

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

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

Should, woulda, coulda.

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

Think about it:

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

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

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

Here’s the punchline:

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

In the story, the master says to his servant:

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

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

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

No?

Well, make sure you pack some for yourself.

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

 

Fools Rush In

Jason Micheli —  September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

But not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is TNT.

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

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

And Jesus said:

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

Building towers, making war.

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

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

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

Boom.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just not South Park.

It’s Scooby Doo.

I mean, that’s obvious, right?

—————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s never any mystery.

Not once. Not in any episode.

Is there any actual mystery.

——————————

     * Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every monster is just a man in a mask.

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Go back and look at today’s text.

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

That’s red-letter.

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

Which, includes us.

——————————

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

You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.

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

Call it what you will:

Devil

Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can count up the verses.

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

No Devil, no Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you tell me-

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

Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.

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

—————————-

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

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

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

Because-

When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel

When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama

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

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

—————————-

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

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

Nice, huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We talk like this all the time.

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

LIFE HAPPENS

-and we think God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

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

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

There’s a reason for everything, we say.

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

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

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

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

If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.

The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.

There is a third character in the story.

The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.

     —————————-

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.” 

Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.

You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.

But you need the him.

You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.

      You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.

You need to get Satan back on the stage.

You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.

You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.

You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.

You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.

You need to get Satan back on stage.

Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.

Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:

When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.

You see the face of his Enemy.

 

 

 

 

Trumping Our Fears

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2016 — 1 Comment

IMG_8787Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.

I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.

Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:

  1. Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
  2. If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
  3. Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.

Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.

One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.

I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.

I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.

It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.

A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’

An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.

Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.

After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.

She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.

The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.

The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .

She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.

The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’

And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’

When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.

I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.

‘That’s great,’ some of them said.

‘That will really speak to young people.’

‘This will revitalize the Church.’

The woman from UM Communications was beaming.

‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.

You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.

‘I don’t get it’ I said.

And everyone turned and stared at me.

‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.

‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’

‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’

‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.

She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’

I suppose she had a point.

Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.

Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.

Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.

Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.

First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.

In other words, fear me.

Jesus says.

What do you do with a Jesus like that?

A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”

But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:

“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”

Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?

Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’ 

An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.

Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’ 

Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.

And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” 

That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.

After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.

And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.

A different kind of hypocrisy:

“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”

      Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.

Disciples.

Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.

     Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds. 

Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.

And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.

A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.

When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.

Jesus says.

Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.

 

She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.

One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.

And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’

She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.

Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.

She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.

‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’

She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.

‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.

She just looked at me, confused.

‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’

Some of the pastors chuckled.

They all thought I was joking.

 

The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”

Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.

I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.

To fear God.

It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.

Fear of eroding values and traditions.

Fear of dim economic trends.

Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.

Fear of terrorism and violence.

Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.

     Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.

I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.

Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.

And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.

For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-

He commanded us:

To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.

To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai

commandments.

To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.

To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.

Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.

Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.

The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.

     You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.

     It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.

    We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.

We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.

The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.

Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.

The only way NOT to fear

The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.

Look, I’m not an idiot.

It’s natural to fear the Other.

It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.

We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.

We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

 

political-convention     Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Colossians 3.1-17. 

According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today.

Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that Will Gerig and Becca McGraw, two youth who grew up here at Aldersgate, exchanged marriage vows here at Aldersgate two years ago today.

Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, not the part about fornication.

And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie.

Since Dennis is on vacation- I mean sabbatical- it’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca.

I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.

And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true.

So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony.

I asked them this question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?

Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.

And then-

Then it got worse for me.

Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’

And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another. They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations. Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion. You can only command an action. You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. I told them two years ago today.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love.

Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever?

Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question:

     If that’s how love works for a spouse

If that’s how love works in a relationship

Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God?

      If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land.

For the Christians in Colossae,  you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard.

In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent.

Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works.

Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life.

Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me.

To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

And yet-

Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life.

Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices.

And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication.

How does that happen?

They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick.

They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take.

They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation.

They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves.

They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. Why not? Or, how not?

It’s revealing-

In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits.  And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

    Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice.

We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God.

But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings.

Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.

You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion.

You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility.

You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving.

You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in places like Guatemala and Route 1 and DC.

You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope.

You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him.

Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe.

If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings.

So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism.

If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God.

As James KA Smith says, Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits.

You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you.

That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week.

Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who.

When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep.

That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it.

“That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.

Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private.

It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community.

It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church.

Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- without putting on Christ: in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares.