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Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

What kind of wedding sermon do you write for two video-gaming nerds? This one.

Galatians 3.26-29

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

 

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

You two still haven’t gotten back to me with the results of your Meyers- Briggs personality tests like I asked, but you’ve obviously spent too much money for us all to be here this afternoon so I’m going to let that one slide. Nonetheless, just because you’re tardy with the test results doesn’t mean I’m all done posing my pre-marital questions to the two of you.

I’ve got one question left: What are you thinking? Are you crazy?

How can two video gaming nerds like yourselves get married today? It’s only been a week since Billy Mitchell, the erstwhile record holder on both Donkey Kong and Centipede, not to mention his perfect Pac Man game, was found out to be an 8-bit fraud and sinner just like the rest of us. Are you guys up for getting married given the dark news about the King of Donkey Kong?

Billy Mitchell was once celebrated by a documentary film, The King of Kong, but last week he was the subject of an NPR investigative report of how he’d lied about his record-setting score all these years- a record around which he’d defined his entire life and identity.

How can two gamers like yourselves celebrate a wedding at a time like this? Shouldn’t you be mourning for Billy’s sake? Or, at least, trying to take his place on the leader board?

I think we can all agree, given the King of Kong’s fall from grace, that this is a bold leap of faith you take today. After seeing Billy Mitchell run out of lives, revealed as fraud not only to the world but to his wife, most gamers would get skittish about moving on to the next level called marriage.

Frankly, even before Billy Mitchell, I didn’t think we’d get to today. I suspected the two of you would never decide on the songs with which you would process in and later dance to today. You couldn’t make up your minds. I remember one of you mentioned something about Etta James’ “At Last,” and instead I suggested the theme music from Legend of Zelda.

I’d also suggested Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” but then you both informed me that Kim’s dress would be coral not white. Now that the Big Day is here, I’m glad I finally get to learn coral is closer to orange than turquoise. Hey, how should I know what color coral is? Like George Constanza, I only pretend to be a marine biologist when I’m at parties or wedding receptions.

The truth is- just as Billy Mitchell’s score has no bearing on us, we don’t need Billy Idol today either because Kim’s wedding dress doesn’t matter.

     What matters- The garment that matters for their marriage is the garment we are given by our baptism.

You are what you wear, the clothes make the man, go the cliches, yet they’re not true. My robe and stole don’t make me any more pious than you, and you all dressed to the nines today doesn’t change anything true about you.

The only clothes that make you who you are- and make you into someone you are not yet– are the clothes given to you by water and the word.

What’s the mean?

In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are clothed with Jesus.

By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Christ’s perfect righteousness.

We are dressed, in other words, in Christ’s perfect score.

And, unlike as happened to Billy Mitchell, nothing- can undo Christ’s high score that is reckoned to you as your own score.

I’m not an idiot. I realize this may sound like religious hokum, but I’m not just a professional Christian. I’m also a full-time sinner and a husband of 17 years, and I can vouchsafe that what St. Paul says about your true wedding garment- the one given to you in baptism: Christ’s own perfect score- they’re not just words to live by; they’re words that give life. 

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to improve each other (because, no matter what you see or suspect, the other already has a perfect score).

Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to try and control the other. We don’t need to treat each other as an improvement project or as an investment we hope will pay dividends later.

     Because each of us already possess Christ’s own perfect score, we don’t need to keep score.

And that’s good, grace-giving news because in a world where we count and score everything (steps, calories, sleep rate, heart rate, interest rates), if you’re not careful, marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping.

 Am I a good enough wife? Am I the man of her dreams? Am I interesting enough? Does she really still like playing Zelda with me? Am I still attractive enough? Are we making enough money? Is this house big enough? Will our kids get into the right schools? What will be the photo on our Christmas card? Whose parents are we spending Thanksgiving with? Didn’t I do the dishes last night? This is the third time he’s done that since promising not to do it.

Marriage can become a crucible of score-keeping that quickly turns into a mine-field of score-settling. But St. Paul says all our score-keeping has been buried in the grave we call baptism. All our heretofore high scores by which we try to justify ourselves are forgotten in Christ’s death and all of our low scores- all of our sins, all of our mistakes and misdeeds, all of our grievances- are covered over by our wedding garment.

The two of you today promise to love one another according to the folly of God’s grace. You’re promising to love one another without keeping score. You’re pledging to love with a love that goes beyond deserving.

No matter what Kim does, no matter what Alex has done- the two of you promise to give the other the opposite of what they deserve.

And, as potentially costly as that sounds, you can afford it because you already possess a perfect and permanent score.

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

I realize, practically-speaking, this can sound like bad advice. Not keeping score- it can leave you vulnerable. You can get hoodwinked. You can get hurt. That’s the leap of faith you two take today. In scrapping the score-keeping ledger, you’re each giving over to the other an enormous power to do damage to the other.

But today isn’t about practicalities. As much as you might like it or need it, today isn’t about you two getting good advice. Let’s face it, there’s not a married person here who knows what they hell they’re doing.

Today isn’t about you two getting good advice for how to love one another.

Today is about the two of you becoming a parable of how God loves each of us.

By giving each of us a perfect score- by clothing us in Jesus- God calls our sin by another name until our every sin is named out of existence. By giving us this wedding garment by which we are all betrothed to him, God credits to us a goodness that isn’t there until, over time, one day all that is there is the goodness that God only at first declared.

Today with vows and rings you two promise to regard each other according to the perfect score the Game Designer has already reckoned to them, to give to them a love beyond their deserving, trusting that one day, through the foolish wisdom of God’s grace, all that will remain of the other is that perfection.

Marriage will afford every opportunity for your badness to be uncovered by the other, but, by regarding each other according to the wedding clothes with which you’ve been covered, even that badness will be transformed into the likeness of the Beloved.

And when the game is over and you’re all out of lives and it’s time for you both to level up, you will be able to look back on your marriage together and say you both enjoyed a love that was more than any of us deserve.

Only then, by the folly of God’s grace, will the cliche prove true: You are what you wear.

 

 

 

Peter Wallace at Day 1 Radio invited me to preach for their nationwide program, and my sermon for this coming Sunday of Eastertide and last Sunday are posted on their website and airing on stations now.

The Day1 radio program was launched as The Protestant Hour in 1945 by an association of denominations and schools. Previous guests include C.S. Lewis, Fleming Rutledge, and Billy Graham so it’s obvious they’re scratching the bottom of the barrel after all these years by inviting me.

Anyhow, here’s the sermon for this coming Sunday based on the lections from John 10 and Psalm 23. If you listen to the broadcast, incidentally, you’ll hear my interview with Peter as well as the sermon itself.

Click here.

 

 

 

 

Why do we always negate a person’s good attributes to hone in only on the bad? Why do we not call him Believing Thomas? After all, Thomas confesses his need and the Risen Christ supplies him with what he requires.

My friend Scott Jones, host of the New Persuasive Words podcast, preached this Eastertide sermon. You can follow Scott on Facebook and Twitter by connecting to his website.

A Jersey native, Scott is a graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary and did his PhD work in theology at Princeton. Here’s his Eastertide sermon on Doubting Believing Thomas.

 

Punch Drunk Love

Jason Micheli —  April 15, 2018 — Leave a comment

We’re doing a sermon series through John for April. Here’s my sermon on John 2.1-11.

Ali had texted me, asking me to stop on the way home and pick up a package of necessaries.

So naturally, I did what any mature, poised, self-confident man would do. I texted back: “Sure honey, no problem at all. Need anything else while I’m there?”

And then I drove to the grocery store, driving past the little Soviet Safeway just down the street, driving an extra 4 miles and through 1 cellphone dead zone and 2 red lights, in order to get to the BIG SAFEWAY at Belle View because the BIG SAFEWAY HAS SELF-CHECKOUT.

What am I, an idiot? I’m not going to risk some checkout clerk announcing into that little microphone “We need a price check…..” I’ve seen Mr. Mom. No thank you. the self-checkout was designed for the expressed purpose to spare husbands like me exactly that sort of shame.

Is it any coincidence that the increase in protected, safe-sex among young people coincides with the creation of self-checkout by Howard Schneider in 1992 for Price Chopper Supermarket in NYC?

     You think Magic Johnson made a difference in the fight against AIDS?

He’s got nothing on Howard Schneider whose invention gifted the world with a less awkward way to buy prophylactics.

So there I was at the BIG SAFEWAY, standing in the self-checkout queue, like a dutiful knight securing his queen what she requires, the feminine hygiene products discreetly hidden in my basket underneath a 6-pack, the latest issue of Garden and Gun, and a bag of potato chips.

Sure enough, as if to prove my hypothesis about Howard Schneider and the purpose of the self-checkout, I watched as the guy at the front of the line scanned and beeped from his basket the following items:

1 jar of kosher pickles

1 bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos

2 boxes of “Protection” and

1 package of Vermont Maple Syrup-Flavored Breakfast Sausages.

 “If you can do that after eating that more power to you,” I said, not as quietly as I’d intended judging from the look he shot me. 

As he did, the cart behind me hit me in the ankles for the third time. The cart belonged to that lady who dresses as Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon.

I know it was her because she was dressed like Martha Washington, her hoop skirt that would make Sir. Mix-A-Lot salivate knocking into the candy bar rack.

I turned around and glared at her again and then looked down into her cart. She had berries and sugar and flour and butter. She’s making a pie, I thought to myself, of course she’s making a pie.

What else would Martha Washington being doing besides white-washing indentured genocide?

Baking a pie- how wholesome is that?

And then I noticed that underneath the berries and the flour and the sugar and the butter, Martha Washington was also buying a copy of the National Enquirer. And, Star Magazine.

Martha caught me looking into her cart, like a Peeping Tom.

“It’s bad manners to be nosy.”

“Lady, people who live in glass houses with slaves shouldn’t throw stones.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

The guy in front me had started to scan and beep the items from his basket. He was wearing khakis and a distressed blue blazer. Standing out against his ruddy complexion was a neatly trimmed white beard.

Sunglasses were perched on top of his curved orange Orvis cap, and his feet inside his boat shoes were bare.

Basically he looked like someone who stills shells out money for Jimmy Buffet concerts.

He had a sticker stuck to the end of his finger.

It caught my eye, and I watched him. He pulled a package of steaks out of his basket, stuck the sticker on it over the one that was already on it, and scanned the steaks, a package of 4.

$4 and change appeared on the screen.

Next, he took out a can of off brand coffee, scanned it, and set it not in the bag but on top of the candy bars and instead from his basket he drew out a bottle of red wine and put it immediately, unscanned, into his shopping bag.

I looked over at the self-checkout clerk who appeared to have the mental acuity of R.P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

He was oblivious; meanwhile, I was transfixed, staring like you do at a car accident or the Trump White House.

Next, he took out a package of shrimp, a couple of pounds it looked like, and he didn’t scan it. He set it down it on the scale instead and then he entered the code for bananas. He did like that for a number of other items too- let’s just say he bought a lot of bananas. Then he clicked “Finish and Pay.”

And, as he pulled out his wallet, he looked sideways at me and he winked: “Surf-and- Turf.”

“That’s the most affordable surf-and-turf I’ve ever seen,” I replied.

He shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the self-checkout machine: “If they’re going to make me work at their store, then I deserve to get paid, right?”

And no joke, my first reaction, my immediate reaction (I’m not proud; I’m a sinner) was: “Huh, that’s a good point.”

———————-

     This happened several months ago. I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article entitled “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft.” Apparently using the code for bananas or a bunch of grapes and then socking a more expensive item of similar weight into your shopping bag- apparently that’s a thing, people.

Apparently that’s such a thing, so common a thing, the entire supermarket industry has a name for it: The Banana Trick.

The industry has other names for other ways customers con the self-checkout. There’s the “Pass-Around,” the “Switcheroo,” and the “Illy” (named for the expensive brand of expresso…basically a version of the Banana Trick).

According to the article: “Beneath the bland veneer of your friendly neighborhood supermarket lurks something dark and ugly.”

It’s you.

The industry estimate is that over 20% of all self-checkout customers shop-lift. Steal.

Actually, the supermarket industry prefers to call it “External Shrinkage,” which sounds like what happens to me after I go swimming in a chilly pool but never mind.

20% steal. 1/5 of you all.

And of those 20% over 50% do so because it’s unlikely they’ll get caught.

What’s revealing is that most of these people aren’t thieves (ordinarily) nor are they so much thrill seekers. They’re just ordinary people like you. Says Barbara Staib, the Director of Communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, most self-checkout shoplifters:

“are in fact law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20. A robot-cashier, though, changes the equation. It gives the false impression of anonymity.”

In other words, the anonymity afforded by the self-checkout reveals our true selves. Without the threat of consequence (or the promise of reward- being thanked for returning that $20) even the best of us do not reliably obey the law.

For this very reason, police departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, now refuse to respond to self-checkout shoplifting calls.

“Of course people steal when they think no one is watching,” one cop commented.

“The Law,” the cop said- pay attention now, “doesn’t change us. The Law can’t change our human nature. The Law can keep us from doing bad, but it doesn’t make us good.”

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. See, you were starting to worry I didn’t have any point. I’ve actually got 3.

What the cop says in that article is what John wants you to see in this sign at Cana: that the Law cannot change us. This wedding shows us what the Apostle Paul tells us about distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t do miracles. Jesus in John’s Gospel performs signs- only 7 of them.

Each of these 7 signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s “hour of glory.”

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is paradoxically his humiliation, hanging naked and accursed on the cross.

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

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

All 7 signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign is intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law.

Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you- he telegraphs it- “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.”

And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. And grace, the Gospel, is not the Law.

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the 6 stone water jars.

There amidst the wedding finery and the china and everyone dressed to the nines and filled with dreams of happily ever afters, the water jars are a reminder of the “dark and ugly truth” about us.

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. As the wedding guests would arrive, the servants would cleanse the guests’ hands with the water from the stone jars; so that, the wedding festival would not be sullied by sin or shame.

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame, but it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were 6 stone jars, and 6 (being 1 less than 7) is the Jewish number for imperfection.

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out, and, in an honor-based culture like first century Judaism, running out of wine was more than a party foul. It brought great shame upon the bridegroom and his family.

So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is that the Law (commandment-keeping, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes.

The Law might give you clean hands.

The Law might compel you to charity.

The Law might keep you from stealing.

But the Law cannot free you from sin and shame nor can it make your heart glad.

And the problem, St. Paul says, isn’t with the Law. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good. Love thy enemies, do not steal, forgive those who trespass against you. Those are holy and good commands. The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us. The dark and ugly truth about us, our sin, is deeper than where water can wash it away.

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and rituals, all the ways we try to be all we can be for God, “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter 2 that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter 2 he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law.

He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then, the One who a few chapters later will call himself Living Water, he tells them to fill the jars with it.

To fill them to overflowing.

In other words:

     Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faith and life.

When they draw out the wine that had been water, it’s no 3 buck chuck. It’s top shelf and it’s already aged. And there’s an abundance of it. I did the math. At a minimum, it’s 2160 glasses of wine- that’s more ridiculously extravagant than a Scott Pruitt pool party.

See what John wants you to see in this sign:

Out of these stone jars

Out of the means by which we attempt to cleanse ourselves of sin and make ourselves right and good and acceptable before God

Out of the Law is drawn the Gospel: the wine of salvation.

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

     He transforms what we do for God into a sign of what God does for us.

This sign shows what that cop says.

The Law doesn’t change us because the Law cannot take away our sins. Only the Lamb of God can take away our sins, as John the Baptist declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel.

     ———————-

You’d never know it from the prodigal way he doles out salvation that Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party.

And that’s my second point-

Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too his grace, his gift of salvation, is not karma.

Grace is not karma.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted 7 days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests.

This wedding is only on day 3. They’ve got 4 more days to go. Unless Steve Larkin was at the party, there’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon.

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to do their duty under the Law. They deserve the shame in which they stand under the Law. They do not deserve what Christ does for them.

And notice, not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves.

The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.

Grace is not karma.

Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.

     Karma is how most of you try to speak Christian.

It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason.

It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did.

It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.

Karma is not Christianity.

When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.

On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma.

And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.

You can’t speak Christian with Karma because God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves. Or, as John puts it here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.”

———————-

     And that brings me to my final point-

     This grace

This gift of salvation is true for you

It’s true about you whether you appreciate it or not.

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine. And he makes not Boone’s Farm but he makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.

    He makes the best wine for people already too drunk to appreciate drinking it.

As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.”

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it come morning.

    His punch-drunk love is such that he sheds his wine for people too far gone to appreciate it.

If this at Cana is the first sign of his hour of glory, and if his hour of glory is when we behold him bleeding and dying on his cross, then his grace, his one-way love, his gift of salvation it’s yours.

     Whether you appreciate it or not.

Whether you give him thanks and praise for it or not.

Whether you know about it or not.

Whether you change your ways because of it or not.

None of that changes what he has done: He has drunk from the cup he prayed would pass him. He has poured himself out to give you the wine of salvation.

     He’s served salvation up for a world too far gone to give two rips about it.

But whether you do or whether you don’t, what he has done- it’s as real and undoable as a hangover.

All is forgiven. Salvation is served. You don’t need to come up here in an altar call for it to be true for you. And you can’t backslide your way out of it either.

We forget-

The rich, young ruler who asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” asked him that question before his hour had come.

But the hour has long since passed.

And now, thanks to his punch drunk love, the answer to that question (“What must I do to be saved?”)…the answer is “Nothing.”

You don’t have to do anything.

Because everything has already been done.

The wine’s been served.

The party’s already started.

And the music has been raging since the first third day.

The only thing there is for you to do is what those disciples in Cana do.

Trust and believe.

———————-

     According to the article, “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft,” the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester audited self-checkout cameras where, over a year, the transactions totaled $21 million, a million of which, they found, left the store without being scanned or paid for.

As a result, the article noted how many stores, such as Albertsons and Big Y Supermarkets, are cancelling out their self-checkout programs.

They just can’t afford the loss, the article says.

The economy of Easter, though, is different.

As Frances Spufford says, grace, the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ, is “love without cost-controls engaged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My friend Scott Jones, host of the New Persuasive Words podcast, preached this Easter sermon on Mark 16. You can follow Scott on Facebook and Twitter by connecting to his website.

A Jersey native, Scott is a graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary and did his PhD work in theology at Princeton.

 

 

WDJD?

Jason Micheli —  April 1, 2018 — 2 Comments

Easter Sunday – 1 Corinthians 15.1-11

This is my 13th Easter at Aldersgate. I arrived here from a church in Rockbridge, Virginia 13 years ago- right around Dennis’ 60th birthday. It’s true. Dennis Perry been putting the senior in senior pastor longer than Fox News has been obsessed with Hillary Clinton. He’s so old now that whenever he stops moving people start to throw dirt on him.

13 Easters- that’s a lot of years of me making Dennis look like a competent contributor to the staff. I mean, really, Dennis manages to put in less time than a Trump cabinet appointee. 13 Easters- that’s a lot of years of me showing Dennis how to login to his computer. Seriously, he chose his password so you’d think he’d remember that Hasselhoff has 2 f’s at the end.

Our bishop is foisting me on unsuspecting strangers come summer, and to help prepare them, because I’m what Karla Kincannon calls “an acquired taste,” Dennis Perry suggested I take the Enneagram personality assessment- it’s like the Meyers Briggs for naval gazers.

According to Russ Hudson, who is the President of the Enneagram Institute (dot com), the Enneagram:

“is one of the world’s most powerful and insightful tools for understanding ourselves and others. At its core, the Enneagram helps us see ourselves and others at a deeper, more objective level and be of invaluable assistance on our path to self-knowledge.”

After forking over $11.99 for the privilege of looking more deeply and objectively into my innards, I took the Russ Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator test (version 2.5), answering a series of binary questions such as:

Others should do: A) What’s right B) What I tell them

Upon finishing, with the authority of the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the RHETI 2.5 told me that out of 9 Enneagram Types I’m an 8.

Why not a 9? I wondered to myself as I clicked open my report.

“The Challenger” it said at the top of my instantaneous report.

Okay, the Challenger, I thought to myself, I like the sound of the Challenger. According to the Enneagram Inventory, 8’s are powerful (obviously), decisive (goes without saying), and self-confident (yep).

This is a good tool, I thought to myself, already starting to cut and paste it to send to Dennis.

Of course, I should’ve known that ever since Sally Ride “The Challenger is something of a bad omen.

I clicked the “Learn More” tab and the next page it called up communicated that as an 8 I’m also willful, confrontational, impatient, sarcastic, and argumentative.

“I am not argumentative,” I shouted at the laptop screen, “This test is stupid.”

No doubt Russ Hudson would roll his eyes and say my response was predictable considering that 8’s allegedly also believe they know better than everyone else, suspect they’re always the smartest person in the room, and where you have opinions I have facts.

After taking RHETI 2.5 5 more times to the total tune of $60.00 and rolling a hard 8 every time, I showed it my wife, Ali, who read the rap sheet of an 8 and replied: “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”

She actually snorted boogery ice-water out through her nose.

Then she took the laptop from me and read a loud, as if for an audience:

“Don’t flatter an 8. It will only inflate their already large ego. When an 8 curses and uses inappropriate humor just remember that’s the way they are. An 8 doesn’t mean to overwhelm you with bluntness they just get restless when they perceive incompetence.”

Then she patted me on my sulking head, and said “Don’t you see sweetie, this is why so many people think you’re a @#$!@#.”

Which is why for my 13th Ash Wednesday here at Aldersgate, I gave up Ali for Lent and told her she can return to our bed sometime around Arbor Day.

 

After spending $72.00 more dollars and taking the RHTI 2.5 6 more times to no variance in results, I decided to email Russ Hudson and ask if I could get a refund from his fortune-cookie, tarot card reading racket.

“Dear President Hudson,

According to Wikipedia,” I typed, “your scratch-n-sniff personality assessment tool was later disavowed by its original developer. As I write this, the Ides of March are upon us. Perhaps you should expand your little ponzi scheme empire and start selling divining rods too. This might not strike you as a good business venture, but I don’t really care, as an 8, I think you should just do what I tell you to do.

Blessings,

Reverend Jason Micheli.”

After I clicked send, I read a little more of my report which told me that some of the other Enneagram 8’s in history are Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, the guy from the Dos Equis commercials, and Jesus Christ.

No.

Russ Hudson the personality test president with the porn star name apparently has it out for me. His report told me that among Enneagram 8’s there are names like General George Patton, Richard Nixon, Homer Simpson, Donald Trump and- I’m not joking- St. Paul.

I’m still contesting my RHTI 2.5 results with Russ, but I bet his read on St. Paul is right-on. Paul’s an 8 with a capital E because, when it comes to Easter Paul doesn’t talk about his feelings or his personal experience.

Paul doesn’t tell us a story about the empty tomb he gives us an argument.

“By this Gospel you are saved…for what I received I passed on as of chief importance: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

And Paul continues for 30 more verses:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is a waste of time…for if Christ has not been raised we are all liars and you are still in your sins.”

The oldest sustained Easter account doesn’t come from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but from St. Paul, and what St. Paul gives us isn’t a story with angels and an empty tomb.

He gives us an argument.

Evidently, you all aren’t the only ones who think Easter is a day for fools because when the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth he doesn’t spin an inspiring story. He doesn’t muddle it with metaphors about butterflies or springtime renewal. He doesn’t contort it into cliches about hope beyond the grave or love being stronger than death.

No, he mounts an argument that the grave really is empty. He marshals evidence that Jesus Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead.

Maybe it’s because he’s an Enneagram 8, but when it comes to Easter, Paul doesn’t think what you need is spiritual uplift or subjective inspiration. At Easter, Paul doesn’t offer advice. He insists on an argument because Paul believes that what you really need isn’t spiritual uplift or practical advice about how to live your best life now.

What you truly need is a God who is real.

Because if God is real, if Christ is Risen indeed, then nothing else matters- certainly not your problems.

And if God is not real, then nothing matters.

Every year we send out an Easter mailer to the community, and every year we receive a stack of them sent back to us with words like MYTH, FICTION, FAKE NEWS scrawled all over them.

Look, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, by definition, is beyond reason, but belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is NOT unreasonable.

And, for those in the church at Corinth who crossed their fingers and their toes at Easter, the Apostle Paul makes an argument.

Christ was buried, Paul reminds them.

As Paul puts it in the Book of Acts, “these things didn’t happen in a corner.”

In other words, Christ’s empty tomb first was proclaimed to the very people who had seen him die and who could have gone to his grave with a wheel-barrow and brought back for themselves his nail-scarred bones. Had they been there.

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

It’s because, Paul tells the Corinthians, after he was raised from the dead, Christ appeared to over 500 people- actually, more than 500 people because, according to Jewish counting custom, Paul only mentions the men.

And among those 500 plus people encountered by the Risen Christ, Paul writes, was James, the half-brother of Jesus who had not been a disciple of Jesus and who thought his brother Jesus was a total nut job while Jesus was alive.

But we know, even from Roman historians, that after Jesus’ death James testified to his resurrection and was eventually condemned by the same chief priests who had condemned his brother.

James was condemned, just like his brother, for confessing that his brother Jesus was the Christ.

The resurrection is beyond reason, but it is NOT unreasonable, Paul argues.

How else do you explain me, Paul says to the Corinthians. After appearing to over 500, finally as to “an aborted fetus” (is how he puts it in the Greek) Christ appeared to me.

Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

If you’re going to dismiss Easter as a fool’s day, fine, but then you have to explain how it is that, right after the resurrection, an Ivy League fundamentalist about God’s Law, a Pharisee, began to willfully break the first and most important commandment by worshipping a man- a dead man at that- as God.

You also have to account for how else it could’ve happened that Paul was not only forgiven by the first Christians, whom he had persecuted, he was given authority by them. They made him an Apostle. The Apostle Peter even referred to Paul’s writing as scripture, the Word of God.

Look, I’m not an idiot. In fact, as an Enneagram 8, I’m convinced I’m smarter than all of you. I’m not a moron.

I know modern medicine and science cannot explain the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s intellectually dishonest to turn the resurrection message into a metaphor.

You don’t have to believe it.

But you owe it to the first Christians to take their testimony or leave it. 

Do not turn it into something else entirely.

They didn’t believe the resurrection message was a metaphor or a myth.

They didn’t think Easter was really about timeless truths.

They thought it was the truth.

That it actually happened.

In history.

At Jerusalem, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3 in 33AD. Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it.

All the little details, they’re there to reinforce to you that it happened. In history.

And if it didn’t happen, all the butterflies and sentimentalities in the world can’t mask over the fact that not only are we wasting our time here every Sunday, we are worse than liars.

We’re still in our sins.

According to Russ Hudson, Enneagram 8’s can be blunt and the “How to Get Along with Me” section of my results suggests that you not take my to-the-point-ness personally. So don’t get offended when I tell you that you can chalk up Easter to a fool’s day and be about your brunch and your bunnies, that’s fine.

You don’t have to believe it.

But you do have to understand that the New Testament understands the resurrection of Jesus Christ not as a myth or a metaphor but as an event in history.

You have to understand that the first Christians understood the resurrection of Christ as a happening because only then will you be able to distinguish what Christianity is from what Christianity is not.

And that’s a distinction most people don’t understand. A lot of Christians and a lot of churches even get it muddled.

Christianity is not a worldview. Christianity is not a philosophy. It’s not a social program or a political agenda. Christianity is not advice or a way of life or helpful lessons for your kids. Christianity is not a tradition of teachings or a set of spiritual practices.

     It is not a morality.

It’s news.

It’s news.

That’s why Paul uses the word “Gospel” to describe what is our non-negotiable, chief concern.

In ancient Rome, that word “Gospel” referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.

     The Gospel was the announcement of what someone done that impacted your life.

Without you having done anything.

     You see, properly understood, Christianity is not a religion.

It’s a report.

It’s not a religion of what we must do for God and others. It’s a report of what God has done for us and others.

Every religion tells you what you must do for God and every religion tells you you should love your neighbor. That’s not unique; that’s moralism.

But only Christianity has the Gospel- this news, this announcement, of what God has done for you despite all your failures to love God or love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

Only Christianity has the Gospel, which means, Christianity is the only religion that is potentially disprovable. Tomorrow if someone finds a thorn-scarred skull buried in Jerusalem somewhere, then we’ll close up shop and we will refund whatever you put in the offering plate. Dennis’ retirement fund be damned.

Only Christianity has this report of a happening in history, the Gospel.

But sometimes it seems like the Gospel is the only thing we don’t want to talk about as Christians.

In the Church-

     You’ll hear people tell you which candidate or what values to vote for- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear how to be a better you or build a better world- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear the latest issue you should advocate- that’s not the Gospel.

You’ll hear people tell you who you’re allowed to love or sleep with- that’s not the Gospel either.

     Scripture says the Gospel, not your politics; the Gospel, not service projects; the Gospel, not your spirituality, is of chief importance.

The Gospel is our most urgent endeavor.

This good news is the one gift, unique to the Church, that God has given us to offer the world.

And it is- good news.

Because of what Jesus did by his cross and resurrection, all your failures to do what Jesus would do are forgiven. One-way, once-for-all forgiveness for you.

That’s what Jesus did.

The tomb is empty so that you will remember that all your sins in his death are forgotten.

     Christ didn’t come to improve your life.

Christ came to end it.

End it in him on the cross and raise it to a newness where there is now and forever no condemnation.

That’s what Jesus did.

St. Paul says in another letter that Jesus Christ rose from the dead for your justification. In Christ, you were crucified with him. Your sin and your old self- it’s been left behind. Buried with him in his death. That’s what he did.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his grave. And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record. His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record. That’s the best news because it means it doesn’t matter if you’re an argumentative 8 like me or a security-seeking 6 or a pretense-keeping 3.

It doesn’t matter- now- you are not who you are or what you do. And you are not what you have done.

Because this Gospel, this report, announces:

You are now who Jesus is.

You are what he has done.

Perfect.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s made you perfect by God’s way of reckoning.

According to the report the Enneagram Institute sent me, as an 8, I’m prone to putting too much pressure on myself.

I’m prone to taking charge and not trusting others to do their part.

So because he won’t refund my sixty bucks, I’m going to prove Russ Hudson and his RHETI 2.5 is a crock.

I’m going to go against type. I’m not going to try and do it all myself today. I’m not going to close this sermon with some awesome, uplifting story. I’m not going to conclude with any irrefutable practical takeaway for your daily life.

No, I’m going to stick it to Russ Hudson.

And I’m going to trust Jesus Christ, who is not dead, to keep his promise that, when we break this bread and drink from this cup, the news of what he has done for us in history gets into us and it changes us from the inside out.

So there, Russ Hudson.

No doing-it-all-on-my-own inspiration.

Just an invitation:

    Come to the table of our Risen Lord.

Eat. Drink. Be merry.

For you have already died.

And tomorrow, you live.

 

 

 

For our Good Friday service tonight, I’ll offer these reflections on the traditional Catholic stations of the cross.

Jesus is Condemned to Death 

The Gospels don’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you by letting you kid yourself that you’d ever choose anyone but the other Jesus son of the Father, Jesus bar-abbas.

Arraigned in purple majesty, crowned in thorns, his spit-upon skin in tatters just like the grief-torn garments of Caiphus who’d cried blasphemy before confessing our original sin “We have no King but the President,”Jesus’ career concludes by collapsing, betrayed by a friend, deserted by the rest, denied by the one who’d always wanted a selfie with him.

It’s the high priest who puts the titles together which the Gospel began: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ The’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The attendance is always light on Good Friday because we’d like to forget-

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.

The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst. And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.

The chief priests’ reasoning: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” is correct. It’s a perfectly rational position. It’s how we’ve arranged our world.

So we let the theologians and preachers console us with theories and, worse, explanations, but what the Gospels give us is the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among people like us.

Deep down, we prefer a God up in glory who watches down from a safe, comfortable distance.

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the other Jesus bar-abbas, every time we would shout “Crucify him, and every time some other Pilate will wash his hands of it and push God out of the world on a cross.

Jesus is Made to Bear the Cross

     “The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. The mystery with which the New Testament wrestles is not the fact of Jesus’ death but the manner of that death. It’s the way in which Christ died, on a cross, that proved foolishness to the irreligious and a stumbling block to the religious. The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it. The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

The shame is the point.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind.

To us, God bears a cross and hides behind suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man.

Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Later, when the dying Christ declares “It is finished,” he’s ending any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than a bloody tree.

Jesus Falls the First Time 

He stumbles because he’s scared.

Sometime last night or early this morning, the Gospels tell us, “Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.”

In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: “How could someone who claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?”

And stumble on his way to death.

St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

If sin is separation from God, then Jesus stumbles because he’s stepping closer to the edge of the only literal abyss where there is only the deafening lonely sound of God’s absence.

Jesus Meets his Mother

She’d taken her boy to Jerusalem every year for years to celebrate the meal which remembers God’s rescue of them.

But now, the sacrifice is her son. The mother’s boy is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And she has to watch as we put those sins on him.

Standing amidst an angry mob, her lips trembling and tears welling up in her eyes, as she watches her boy outrage the chief priests and elders for the last time, watching on as he stands with torn clothes and a bloody face and tells Pilate that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority. I bet Mary will wish she never taught her boy that song:

“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.”

Simon Carries Christ’s Cross

Is it a brave, noble deed?

Or is Simon just getting the condemned man off his sidewalk?

St. Paul says we’re a mystery to ourselves. Our sin deceives us; such that, what we want to do we leave undone and what we want not to do we do.

Sin, St. Paul says, seizes an opportunity in us and elicits the opposite of what we intend. If so and if our sin is in Christ, then who’s to say whether Simon helps to carry Christ’s cross out of simple charity or out of sin? As an act compassion or as an act of cowardice, wanting to get the whole mess over with as quickly as possible and far away from him?

Simon couldn’t be sure about Simon’s motives any better than we can assess Simon’s motives. The truth of himself is in the cross he helps to carry. The cross to which Christ is condemned is the cross from which Simon is freed from no longer pretending he’s anything other than a sinner in need of the righteousness that God will credit to him from Christ’s account alone.

Veronica Wipes Jesus’ Face 

It’s a wasted gesture, wiping his bloody face when very soon it will be flowing from his hands and his feet and his side. The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” Jesus had said. “For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste’ when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper. Two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman.

She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil- about $35,000 worth. This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body and his face. She anoints him.

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him, for her waste of a gesture. Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the ‘good’ they could have done with that much money. They estimate the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the count the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. If she hadn’t wasted it.

Yet it’s her faith that Jesus praises.

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the ‘waste.’ Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste, an example of how we too should pour ourselves out in love for one another. With Jesus all the ‘good’ we can do isn’t the point. It’s not an End in itself. It’s just what happens when we pour ourselves out completely, when we waste everything we have, for someone else.

Jesus Falls Again 

St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

And in Gethsemane early this morning, Christ emptied himself even of that,

pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says there’s nothing left of Jesus now. There’s nothing left of his humanity.

Jesus isn’t just a substitute. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus will die an innocent among thieves. He will die as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.

He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.

He is every Caesar and every Judas.

Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror and gun violence.

He is everything we scream at each with signs.

He has become all of it.

He has become Sin.

     St. Anselm argued that those who dispute Christ’s substitutionary death in our place “fail to consider the weight of sin.”

It’s the weight of sin, all of our every sins, upon him that causes Christ’s knees to buckle a second time.

Jesus Consoles the Women of Israel 

     The Book of Revelation calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.’ According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible ‘what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’ The blood of Jesus, says Luke, ‘makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was ‘destined since before the foundation of the world.’ St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that everything that unfolds in Christ from cradle to cross is “in accordance with the scriptures.” The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. When we arrive at the foot of the cross, the Gospels want to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. The comfort Christ offers his mother and the women of Israel, whilst bleeding and dying, is the comfort longed for by the prophet Isaiah. Finally, God is comforting his comfortless people. Only, it’s the cold comfort of the cross. Only a death paid in our place by the Son who is the suffering servant will ransom captive Israel.

Jesus Falls a Third Time

Once for every time we deny him, Jesus falls carrying his cross where he’ll die nailed up like a scarecrow. He falls whilst we deny him to the tune of the cock’s crowing, hiding like Adam behind a fig leaf with fruit stuck in his teeth.

In falling with the cross religion and justice have handed him, Jesus makes clear the Fall need not refer to Eve and Adam in a garden. To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, we make the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of ourselves. The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular people revealing their inhumanity to man. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The cross is our fall.

The cross is our original sin.

Jesus is Stripped

Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, Jesus is naked, absolutely vulnerable before us. The Church has always read that erotic Old Testament poem as a parable for Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church, the people joined to his body by their baptism into his death.

Like scorning, unfaithful lovers, we betray him with a kiss and strip him bare, but all God needs is nothing to do anything and God takes the naked shame of Christ’s cross and by the baptism of suffering and death he makes us his betrothed.

Jesus is Nailed to a Tree

We boast in the cross, Luther says, because in nailing him to the cross God has nailed all our sins there once and for all. They’re forgotten in his body. ‘He has born our grief.’ ‘He has carried our sorrow.’ ‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’

Jesus Dies

He could not die because it’s impossible for God to die.

He ought not to have died because Death had no claim on him.

Were you and I not in him, he’d have no sin in him. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly. He dies with the ungodly in him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. In Christ, you’re crucified, Paul says. You’re Buried with him in his death.

Good Friday is your funeral.

You’re condemned with him because you’re in him who is the pardon of God; therefore, after tonight there is now no condemnation.

His Body is Taken Down

St. Paul calls Jesus the Second Adam, the first fruit of a second creation.

Adamah, is the name of the dirt from which God made the first Adam.

When Jesus finally dies, and all of his friends have fled in fear or shame and even his mother is gone. It’s Nicodemus who had lurked in the shadows who steps from the safety of the sidelines to take his body down from the cross and bury him in the plain light of day.

The priest who had scoffed at his teaching about being born again is the one who lays his body like a seed in the adamah of a garden as though he is who were always meant to be.

His Body is Laid in a Tomb

He was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome.

He wasn’t even the only one crucified on Good Friday.

The names of all the others are unknown to us. Only his name abides.

And the Jewish people to which he belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. Take those together and I am convinced that we would not be here tonight with him in his death had God left him there.

Temple Tantrum

Jason Micheli —  March 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

Mt. Olivet UMC – Lent 3: John 2

I want to thank you all for taking the time out of your Oscar Party preparations to be here this morning. I mean, Teer Hardy didn’t get a hipster haircut or start wearing beard oil until he became a pastor here at Mt. Olivet so I assume that means you’re a sophisticated, culturally savvy bunch of cinephiles.

For an erudite community of aesthetes like yourselves, coming to church on the dawn of Oscar night is akin to worshipping the Sunday after Christmas, a day when only the old, lonely guy from Home Alone attends church. Oscar Sunday is like the Sunday of Thanksgiving or Memorial Day.

Just for being here this morning, you deserve a gilded statue all your own.

I had a special Oscar-themed outfit I was going to wear for you this morning, but my wife thought it showed a little too much nipple for a guest preaching gig. Plus, I’ve not shaved my chest in days.

Show of hands, how many of you are planning to watch the Oscars tonight?

Show of hands, how many of you have seen the Vegas favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? How many of you have seen the Darkest Hour? The Post? Dunkirk? How many of you have seen the critical darling the PT Anderson flick The Phantom Thread?

How many of you are lying?

Every Oscar season I think of an article I read in Slate Magazine 10 years ago.

Back in 2008, when Netflix was not yet a streamed-movie service, reporter John Swansburg investigated which mail-order Netflix movies languished the longest on customers’ coffee tables and television consoles.

Swansburg discovered that it was Hotel Rwanda.

Even though at the time Hotel Rwanda was the 10th most popular rental among Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, only a fraction of people ever got around to watching it.

In fact, Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix, confessed to having had a copy of Hotel Rwanda on his nightstand for 2 years without having watched it, which is about how long we left it on our nightstand before sending it back, unwatched.

Other Oscar-bait films that people requested by mail but never got around to watching included No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth (made by this year’s Best Director favorite, Guillermo del Toro) and Last King of Scotland about dictator Idi Amin.

It goes without saying that Schindler’s List and the English Patient were also perennial dust collectors.

Turns out many of Netflix’s most popularly requested movies never left their red pre-paid postage sleeves. Their most requested films are also some of their least watched films.

As Swansburg notes, you add a movie like Hotel Rwanda to your Netflix queue because you don’t want to be thought a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy.”

Truthfully, most of us don’t want to watch a movie about genocide, we’re too tired for aThere Will be Blood, and we’re already too depressed for a No Country for Old Men but neither do we want to appear as the sort of people not interested in watching those worthwhile films.

We don’t want to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, but we do not want to be perceived as people who do not watch movies like Hotel Rwanda.

Unlike political pollsters who have difficulty prognosticating how prejudiced we’ll prove to be behind the voting booth curtain, Netflix knows the truth about us.

     We’re not who we pretend to be.

We’re not as sophisticated or concerned or altruistic or woke as we feign.

     Our queue reveals more about us than our feed.

Netflix knows that, when it comes to social justice, we’d rather hashtag than roll up our sleeves.

Netflix knows we’re more likely to stick a sentiment on our bumper than we are to know an honest-to-goodness human-style poor person by name.

Netflix knows that even though we have 12 Years a Slave sitting in our queue, we’re just as likely as anyone to cross the street when we see a black man in a hoodie walking our way.

Netflix knows that no matter what we tweet or pin or like, Vegas-odds are we spend more on our gym memberships- we spend more on Netflix– than we do on church or charity.

Netflix knows we’re all going to add The Florida Project to our queues when it becomes available because we all want to be perceived (and to perceive ourselves) as the sort of person who watches a film like The Florida Project.

But, odds are, we won’t.

Watch it.

Because, after a day of dealing with your boss and yelling at your kids about homework, who really wants to watch a movie about child homelessness?

For example, I’ve had The Hurt Locker in my Netflix queue for years, but I’ve never watched it; meanwhile, I’ve seen Sahara, the Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz straight-to-video action movie about Confederate gold and Civil War Ironclads in Africa at least 60 times.

And I love it.

Netflix– it’s just one example of what we do across our lives.

We pretend and we perform and we prevaricate.

We crop out our true selves and filter it through a social media sheen.

We virtue signal from behind the masks we wear.

We project a false self out onto the world.

Which makes it ironic that the one theological conviction our culture has conditioned you into believing is that God loves you just the way you are.

You don’t even love you just the way you are. You wish you were a Hotel Rwanda, Phantom Thread kind of person.

You don’t even love you just the way you are, yet our culture has conditioned you into thinking that God is just like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which- again- is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you Baby Boomers love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you.

Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you. Look, I know guest preachers, like Oscar hosts, are supposed to charm and delight. I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. But today in John’s Gospel- Jesus doesn’t just cleanse the Temple, whipping the money-changers and turning over their tables.

Notice- in the midst of his Temple tantrum, Jesus refers to himself as the Temple: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers at his trial. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, claiming Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the accusers make Jesus the agent of destruction but today, in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes us the agents of destruction.

Which makes Jesus the Temple. And if Jesus is the Temple then it makes sense today to point out the basic presupposition behind the Temple.

It’s this:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between your sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. You have to be rendered acceptable. You have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple.

And that’s the thread that stitches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death and understood himself as the Temple.

You have to go back to Jesus’ Bible, to the Book of Leviticus, which begins with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even.

We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.

—————————

     But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Or, at least, knowingly.

Not one.

By contrast, the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which frames Jesus just as Jesus frames himself here in John 2- as the Temple, describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin.

All. One sacrifice. Offered once. For all.

    Ephapax is the word: “once for all.”

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.  For just the way you are and all the ways you aren’t who you pretend to be.

———————-

     Not only is Jesus the true Temple. Not only is he the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin. He’s our Great High Priest.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too. And there this Great High Priest offers a gift. Not a calf or a goat or grain. But a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

A gift that can’t be reciprocated, it can only redound to others. He offers a gift exceeding our every debt. Such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again. His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross.

To make atonement.

Once for all so that all of us can be free and unafraid before the holy love of God just the way we are.

——————————-

     Ironically, Atonement, the high-brow, arthouse film starring Keira Knightley and based on the award-winning novel by Ian McEwan, has sat idle and unwatched in my Netflix queue since 2007.

I put it in my queue after it cleaned up at the Oscars.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched all 7 seasons of Californication 3 separate times, and just last night I wasted 2 hours of my life watching 3,000 Miles to Graceland starring Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and Courtney Cox,

(And I loved it).

     And last night too, I was short with my kids.

And I only half-listened to my wife as she told me about her day.

And I didn’t call a friend who I know is hurting and then I told myself I’d forgotten, but I hadn’t.

And after dinner I tossed the recycling into the trashcan because it was too chilly to take it outside. 

     Martin Luther said the cross frees us to cut out our BS and call a thing what it is.

So here goes: Despite how sexy I am, I’m not anyone’s idea of a leading man. I’m no hero. I’m certainly no saint.

But I don’t have to be. There’s no role I have to play. There’s no mask I need to wear. There’s no character I need to project out onto the world other than the broken, butt-headed but baptized person I am.

     Because Jesus Christ has taken on the role of our Great High Priest…

Because God judges me not according to my sins

But according to Christ’s perfect sacrifice…

I’m free.

Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, the Apostle Paul says, sets us free from performing the obligations of the Law.

And that frees us from the obligation to perform.

It frees us from the obligation to pretend. It frees us from the burden of projecting a false more faithful self. The cross frees me to be me. The cross frees me to play no other role than me because, honestly, if anyone were to play me it would probably be Steve Buschemi. Or that creep Willem Defoe.

     The cross frees me to be me, unafraid and unashamed

Because my life is not the good news- and that’s good news.

You’re free to be you, just the way you are, like Adam before the apple: naked and unashamed.

Because you are not what you do.

And you are not what you have done.

You are what Christ, our Great High Priest, has done in the Temple that is his Body by his blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of a cross.

     Because his sacrifice is perfect, once-for-all:

There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.

And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.

     That’s called the Gospel.

     And you don’t have to wait in any queue for it.

     You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to deserve it.

You certainly don’t need a fake ID to purchase it.

It’s yours. By faith. And it’s free.

Just the way you are because of the way he was all the way unto a cross.

Ironically, this free gift alone has the power to transform you into more than just the way you are.

 

 

Patience

Jason Micheli —  February 27, 2018 — Leave a comment

Here’s a sermon on Mark 8.31-38 from my friend and colleague, Drew VanDyke Colby:

 

Did you know that here at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church we have a discipleship plan? We do! When we first started to write down how it is that disciples become disciples at St. Stephen’s we were sure that we wanted something special. We were Northern Virginia people in a Northern Virginia church, we wanted the best plan to make the best disciples. At least I did…

 

I wanted to be able to greet new people and say, welcome to St. Stephen’s a place where God isn’t just an angry dude in the sky who wishes you would come to church more often. No, here God is the one who has saved the world from sin and evil and death. Has saved you from this. AND has saved you for something: which is discipleship. Christ in his cross has invited you to get behind him and follow him into the perfect love of God and neighbor. I wanted to be able to say, we’re different, and we have a plan for you! And I wanted it on the website, and in the welcome center, and in neighborhood mailings, and roadside banners. I was pumped!

 

The threat here for Northern Virginia people in a Northern Virginia church is that what’s intended as a gift to be received will quickly become another ladder to climb, and another achievement to accomplish. If you were to describe the posture of a Northern Virginian you might name things like hard-working, efficient, results-driven, busy, upwardly mobile, and in traffic. So, In order to avoid a posture towards the God of upward mobility, we name in our plan the postures of Christ instead. Postures we believe Christ welcomes us into as a way to get behind him and follow. This Lent we are looking for these postures of Christ in the scriptures each week. We looked at humility on Ash Wednesday with Pastor Abi. And last week Pastor Mark tried to convince us that the posture of self-control was fun. I actually think he did a good job.

 

In fact, we’ve asked folks to share with us some artwork on these postures. [pictures on screen] This one by Gabby Ducharme is called “Ball of Events” with the explanation “we encounter many colors of trouble as our life rolls on. This develops patience. And that is the posture of Christ we look for this week: patience.

 

One day Jesus and the disciples settle in for a chat. Jesus says to them, “who are people saying that I am?” They say “some say Elijah, others say John the Baptist, others say one of the other prophets.” Then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, our idiot-in-chief, says “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” Peter is right. Jesus tells them not to spread this around because, the timing isn’t right. It’s not time yet for that to be revealed. And then Jesus talks about what it really means to be the Messiah, the Christ, also known as the Son of Man. Here is what he says it entails.

 

A reading from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (The word here is even stronger than that. He’s berating Jesus)

But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The Word of the Lord

Peter messed up. We should not be shocked. He had the best of intentions. He thought that the Messiah, the Christ was the one who was going to Make Israel Great Again, by any means necessary. Peter and the disciples had planned to be part of a winning revolution, and they were looking for a guy who would overtake this corrupt government and throw a big military parade in the capital as he took his throne. Peter and the other disciples were walking around strapped, with swords at the ready at Jesus’ signal to cut off some ears and start the revolution.

 

So, when the leader of their movement says, look guys, I’m gonna lose, Peter’s instinct was to say, like hell you are! We’re destined for glory, there is no way I’m letting you lead us to suffering. And Jesus whips back, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”

 

And finally we see Jesus behave like a human! Finally, Jesus loses his patience, just like we do. Or does he? What if this is actually not a story of Jesus losing his patience, but of Jesus exhibiting patience.  

 

Not just the patience of a teacher with a distracting disciple; but a bigger picture patience. The patience of one who is willing to suffer, and endure discomfort, because he trusts in something bigger. Do you believe in that kind of patience? I do. And actually, it’s a very old Christian tradition. Don’t believe me? Ask an African.

 

Picture Africa. It’s the year two-hundred-four. The church there has no missionaries, they have no evangelists, they don’t even use the word evangelism. They have no neighborhood mailings, or eggstravaganzas, or welcome centers, or websites, or google ads, or roadside banners. The general public, interested parties, would-be visitors who are curious about becoming Christians are not even allowed in worship. Members only. To top it all off, the church is either barely tolerated by the government, or actively under threat. And in these conditions in Africa, in 204, the church is growing like wild flowers.

 

Scholars disagree on the actual numbers; but it’s clear that the growth was staggering. And in Africa, in the year 204, one of the leaders of this growing church was named Turtullian. And when he sits down to put into writing what makes the church the church, what does he write? A treatise called “On Patience.”

 

In it he first admits he has none, and gravels at the feet of Jesus, the only one who does. Then he explains that this is one of the greatest gifts that awaits us in Christ is a capacity for patience, and in fact, their survival as church can be owed to his patience in them. See, Turtullian is writing to Christians who are being jailed and killed. It was a time when your neighbor could find out that you went to bible study and turn you in to the authorities. And what was Turtullian saying to them? Stand up? FIght back? No. He was saying, “Patience. Have patience. It’s free. It comes from Christ.” In more specific terms, just so you’re not confused, what he’s really saying is, “Be willing to suffer for this. Suffer. It’s okay. It comes from Christ, and in a sense, Christ comes to us in suffering.” He writes, “When God’s Spirit descends, then Patience accompanies Him indivisibly.” And “Patience is hope with the lamp lit – or Patience is hope with the lights turned on.”

 

Fast forward another 50 years. Cyprian, an African, and a bishop of the church writes another treatise, On the Good of Patience. Then fast forward another hundred and fifty years. Augustine of Hippo, an African, writes his teaching On Patience.

 

For the church in its first few centuries, under persecution, and before finding its way to cultural power, the church was growing and growing, and if you asked its leaders why, they said, it’s because we have been given the patience of Christ.

 

To be clear, we are not talking here just about the patience you and I lack in traffic, or in the grocery line, or when we’re waiting on someone to reply to a very important text. No, this is big-picture patience. Patience in the midst of suffering like cancer. Like estrangement. Like prolonged conflict. Like perpetual war. Like profound segregation. Patience when the future is unclear. Patience in the midst of suffering like the suffering Christ was about to endure when Peter tried to stop him.

 

If you’re like me, when you’re in that kind of situation, everything from bad traffic to systemic injustice, if you’re like me, you’d like to fix it. Now. Demand. Protest. March. And the Spirit very well may be behind that; who am I to say it’s not.

 

But, we also have another well-established tradition of what some Christians have always been able to do in situations like this: it is patience. Don’t believe me? ask an African. Because what our African ancestors of the faith tell us is that there is no suffering we can endure that Christ will not endure with us or has not already endured for us.

 

Still don’t believe me? Ask an African-American. Just as our generous God spoke through the church in Africa in its first 500 years. God has also spoken in the last 500 years through the descendants of enslaved Africans in our own country. In both cases, through the faithful of African descent, Christ has modeled for the church the posture of the long-suffering patience..

 

There are countless examples of this, but, as we near the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, I have one example I’d like to share from the civil rights movement. In this clip, you’ll see a young man leading a group to go and register to vote in their precinct. Their plan, should the courthouse be closed, is to pause for a time of prayer at the courthouse and return home. Watch with me what happens next.

Watching that, we may want to race in there and shake that officer and shout in his face or worse. Like Peter, we probably would love a show of force to put that officer in his place! But the young man in that video does not seem to require that from us. He seems to be well planted, sure, and patient. How is that possible? How, in the midst of suffering, and in the face of such antagonism is he able to be patient? Two words: first, practice. The posture of patience. Long-suffering. It’s a posture that is learned through practice; and learned quickly by people forced to practice in suffering regularly.

 

And the second word? Christ.

 

The patient love that young man showed his enemy, even inviting him to pray with him, or at least pray for him, has its source in the patience of Christ. What is not pictured in this clip is what likely happened immediately before this confrontation: Christian worship. One thing that was true of the vast majority of civil rights demonstrations, protests, and marches is that they started in a church, praising God, focusing on Christ, and getting behind Jesus.

 

See, when Jesus rebuked to Peter it was a command. “Get thee behind me. I’m not gonna let nobody turn me around.” And then he went and fulfilled his mission. So to us, the people of his resurrection, the command “get thee behind me” ceases to be an admonition and becomes an invitation.

 

For it is Christ who suffered patiently so that those who suffer would not suffer alone. It is Christ who suffered at the hands of the upwardly mobile so that their upward mobility could be redeemed into humility. It is Christ who took the hate and violence that should have been directed by him toward murderers, and terrorists, and demagogues, and slave traders, and school shooters, and instead bore it in his own body out of love for the unlovable, like me. And today, we who suffer, and we the perpetrators of suffering are invited once again to hear the words of the crucified and resurrected One. “Get behind me. Get behind me and walk the patient way of love trusting that there is nothing that can defeat the one whom you are behind.”

 

The invitation to get behind Christ is an invitation to be covered by him.

Christ covers over our sin–he gives us some cover and invites us behind him to walk in the way made possible by his salvation.

And, for those of us that are not persecuted, the invitation is to find refuge from our own demons, destructions, and delusions of grandeur and to get behind him.

 

That is the invitation answered by those early Christians in Africa, those Christians of the civil rights movement, and it is Christ’s invitation to us today. I stand as one thankful to have been commanded and invited and welcomed behind the cross of Christ; and it is in his name that I invite you once again, or for the first time, to flee from sin, be patient in suffering, and get behind Christ. Hear the good news, The Risen Christ invites you saying, “Get behind me.”

So may it be. Amen.

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.

     ‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.

John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.

     John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

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

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

Our baptism is a work God does.

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

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.

Probably not– NO.

That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.

Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.

Buried with him in his death.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.

 

 

 

 

In Episode #139 we talk with Chaim Saiman about his viral article for The Atlantic Magazine titled “Why the Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.”
Chaim Saiman is a Law Professor at Villanova University and is interested in the intersection between law and faith. The conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

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Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

——————————

     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

——————————

     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”

 

 

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

I closed out our Epiphany series through Galatians by tackling my least favorite passage of scripture, excepting Proverbs and James.

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  

Thanks to having binge-watched season 7 of Game of Thrones this weekend I can scratch fornication off of Paul’s list.

And Thursday afternoon I had a meeting with Steve, one of our lay leaders, so, as inexorable as water around a rock, I had quarrels, factions, and dissension checked off that list in under an hour.

You can ask Ali about my envy. She’ll tell you it’s not easy for me to be green.

The bible tells you so about my idolatry but my bank account and my Facebook feed and my every day could confirm it for you.

Just last week we took our boys to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and we bought both of them not only magical wands but robes- sorcerer’s robes- and not even robes from House Gryffindor, the good guys, but from Slytherin, the House of the Dark Lord.

So, sorcery? Check

Not to mention, this was Orlando, where even 2 traveler’s tablets of Advil at Disney World cost $11.00, therefore those 2 wands and those 2 sorcerer’s robes set me back- before tax- approximately $900.00.

But Ali insisted we were there “to make memories.”

Anger.

Check.

Don’t forget, I went to UVA and Princeton where drunkenness and carousing and licentiousness are practically club sports.

So check and check and check.

And thanks to Trump’s stock market- I mean, Obama’s stock market- I can cross off enmity and strife and even impure thoughts of rage and violence.

When it comes to the works of the flesh, I’ve got them covered.

If this were a Honey-Do List, I’ve done them all.

I’m like a brown-noser of bad behavior.

And don’t lie- that’s on another naughty list- you’ve got this list pretty well covered too. Sure, given how sexy I am it’s not your fault I afflict you with impure, licentious thoughts, but the other items on this list- those are on you.Anger, quarrels, dissension, factions- you all check those off just by how you treat Dennis on a day-to-day basis.

And I’ve heard about the adult pool parties in the summer (Riverside Gardens, Stratford Landing, I’m looking at you). Nearly all of you should take out your bibles and a red pen right now and scratch off drunkenness, carousing, and maybe fornication too.

Seriously, I’ve been here long enough to know that most of you all are just one bad day away from tales that would make the tabloids if you were famous.

Most of you would love to have a John Kelly keeping your secrets.

I’ve got this list covered and so do you. This list- this is us.

What about that other list?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

How are you doing with that list?

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

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you don’t hear this list as an accusation. Maybe you don’t think Christianity is easier said than done. Maybe for you every Sunday here doesn’t feel like an appointment with a Great Physician who lies and tells you you won’t feel a thing.

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

As of me, right after the entire Book of James, without a doubt, this is my least favorite piece of scripture. Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

I just turned 40.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was a Christian- for 22 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek. But if this is what a genuine, authentic, Holy Spirit-filled Christian does on a daily basis, I’m a fraud.

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

I love my kids.

Of course, I love my kids. How could I not? They think I’m awesome.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true. I tell myself I love God and I tell you that I even comprehend what that means. I’m good at preaching about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last. So, I’ve got ‘love’ down.

22 years and, at best, as far as I can tell, on a consistent basis I’m 1 for 9.

If 9/9 is the expectation for who we will be and what we will do on Jesus, then Jesus just ought to give back the heart I gave to him all those years ago. Because even my mommy would tell you, my basket of fruit is so bare nothing but blind faith could ever lead you to believe it won’t always be so.

Forget crock-pots and melodrama, staring down 1/9- this is us. This is us.

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

She writes:

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed.

It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. It must be so comforting.”

I do not find religion to be comforting in the way that I think nonreligious people mean it.

It is not comforting to know quite as much as I do about how weaselly and weak-willed I am when it comes to being as generous as Jesus demands.

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

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

Thanks to church, I have looked deeply into my own heart and found it to be of merely small-to-medium size.

None of this is particularly comforting.

I come to sit next to people, well aware of all we don’t have in common, and face together in the same direction because we’re all broken individuals united only by our brokenness, traveling together to ask to be fixed. It’s like a subway car. It’s like the DMV.

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

Note the passive voice.

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

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

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

And that’s my first point.

(I know, another 3-point sermon! I may not be kind but I can be consistent.)

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive. It’s proclamation; it’s not exhortation. They are indicatives. They are not imperatives. Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Paul does not say: “Become more patient.” To turn the fruit of the Spirit into aspirations or expectations of who you will be or what you will do as a Christian is to stumble back into the Law just like the Galatians.

As Paul said earlier, if the Law is in any way necessary for us to follow then Jesus Christ died for absolutely no reason.

To hear this list as goals or, worse, a code of conduct is to hear it as Law, and the Law, Paul says, always accuses, reminding you of who you’re not, what you’re lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete you are.

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

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

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

Because notice- After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do, Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’ Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’ No, he changes the voice completely.

He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit. He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith.

     You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue.

The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches. When Paul speaks of our life lived in light of the Gospel, he shifts to a passive image.

 What you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort.

Except the Gardener.

Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy. To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point- his point that, apart from Christ’s bleeding and dying for you, you are dead in your sins.

Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ you are a dead plant, but by your baptism you have been made alive such that now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit.

     This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel.

It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s not what you do but what the pardon of God produces in you in spite of still sinful you.

In quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity. It’s counter to much of Christian culture too. On the Left and the Right, so much of Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit. It’s all about behavior modification.

But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven. This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth.

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

When you hear Paul’s list as Law, you think that this is prescription for who you must be and what you must do in order to be right before God.

But the Gospel is that Christ by his obedience has fulfilled all the righteousness that the Law requires of you. He’s fulfilled the demands of the Law for you. And he bore all your failures to follow the Law upon the cross. Because of Jesus Christ, though you are not, God reckons you as righteous. God credits Christ’s righteousness to you as though it were your own.

The Law, Paul has said, no longer has any power to condemn you. There is now, Paul says in Romans, no condemnation for those who are in Christ and to whom his righteousness has been imputed. Your sins are forgiven, once for all.

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

impatient and unkind, frequently faithless, and often harsh and out of control.

Every work of faith has already been done for you. As gift. And its yours by faith not by works.

No work you do, no fruit you yield, adds anything to what Christ has already done for you. Everything. He’s done everything already.

Therefore

     God’s not counting. God’s forgotten how to count.

The God who longer counts your trespasses isn’t counting your good works either (thank God).

     God’s neither a score-keeper nor a fruit counter. 

The Gospel is that you are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith. Alone.

Ergo-

The fruit of the Gospel is not for your justification. It’s for your neighbor. It’s a community garden the Spirit is growing in you.

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

I mean, Paul’s repeated it like 100 times thus far:

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

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

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

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

Paul’s not blinking and he’s not BS-ing.

For freedom Christ has set you free.

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

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

But for the sake of your neighbor…God will yet make you loving and gentle and joyous.

You see, the question that the fruit of the Spirit should provoke in you is NOT “What must I do now that God has saved me?”

No, the question the fruit of the Spirit should lead you to ask is this one: “What work is God doing in me and through me-in spite of sinful me- for the sake of my neighbor?” And the answer to that question can only come to us by the same route our justification comes: by faith alone.

And that leads to my final point: the fruit of the Spirit teach us that not only are you justified by faith apart from your works, very often you’re justified by faith apart from your everyday experience.

By faith apart from your feelings.

Forget Christmas and the resurrection, in no small part, what it means to have faith is to believe about you what your feelings can’t seem to corroborate.

The biggest obstacle to faith isn’t science- only an idiot would think that.

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

I know it about a whole lot of you. Surely you know it about you too. You’re not always kind or patient or generous.

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

And that’s an even bigger leap of faith than it sounds because because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular. As in, it’s all one gift: Love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and all the rest. God’s working all of it, every one of them, in you.  Even though you might feel at best you have only a few of them.

God’s working all of them, every one of them, in you. Which makes the Spirit’s work in you is as mysterious and invisible as what the Spirit does to water and wine and bread and the word.

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

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

You are.

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

And if you are in Christ, then the Spirit is at work in you.

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

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

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

If you are in Christ, Christ’s Spirit is in you.

And the pardon of God is powerful to produce in you what your eyes cannot see and what your feelings cannot confirm.

God works in mysterious ways, we say all the time without realizing each of us who are in Jesus Christ are one of those mysteries.

Joy, peace, love, gentleness…as unbelievable as seems…this is us.

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

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

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

Constantly feeling that you should be meeting people, impressing people, shocking people (just the right amount) is a strange way to live your life.

And one of the reasons that I go to church is that church is the opposite of that.

I do not impress anyone at church. I do not say anything surprising or charming, because the things I say are rote responses that someone else decided on centuries ago.

I am not special at church, and this is the point. Because (according to the ridiculous, generous, imperfectly applied rules of my religion) we are all equally bad and equally beloved children of God.

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

I’m a person but, for 60 minutes, I’m not a personality. Even better, I’m not my personality because Church is not about how I feel.

It’s about faith.

It’s about looking at the light until our eyes water, waiting to receive the promise that the something missing in us (love or joy, or peace) will be provided.

 

 

 

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


I guest preached at Plantation UMC in Ft Lauderdale this Sunday. The theme given to me was ‘Dreaming of Healing’ and I chose Genesis 32 and Galatians 6 as my texts.

I like Jacob.

I like Jacob even though its not clear from the biblical witness I’m supposed to like Jacob.

In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t.

In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t.

I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name ‘Jacob’ that we’re meant to root for this character.

When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest.

As if to say, ‘Me first.’

So Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’

Which in 2018 is a little like naming your kid ‘Donald.’

In Hebrew ‘Jacob’ means: heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, cheat.

In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob.

It’s true scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob.

More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother.

One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove.

When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return.

As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion.

And even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did.

But I still like Jacob.

It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother.

It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son- a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back – the old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear.

After a while he heard someone enter and say ‘My father.’ And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked: ‘Who are you my son?’

The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time.

And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him.

Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted.

If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 of the 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop.

Still, I’ve got my own reasons. I like Jacob.

It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream- gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels- it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness.

He didn’t confess his sin.

He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience.

Instead Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal:

‘If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.’

Yet, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob.

I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, wives and a family.

I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth.

I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah because Leah’s husband Jacob gave her neither a thought nor a care.

If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart.

Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet.

Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems.

Jacob’s not a bible hero.

He’s a heel.

Still, I can’t help it. I like Jacob.

You might not.

You might not like Jacob.

You might not be like Jacob.

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.

Congrats.

Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father or your husband or your wife.

Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend or a neighbor wanders out of your life and in to trouble and then beyond your reach.

Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed.

Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

Maybe your family’s never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years.

Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed.

At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else but Jacob.

Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that.

Good for you. Gold star to you.

Go ahead and turn your brown nose up at Jacob.

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Just because I like him doesn’t mean you must.

Not everyone can relate to Jacob.

Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past.

Check the text- Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn.

Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated but had no actual reason to expect.

In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him.

Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob.

Maybe your rap sheet is clean. Maybe your conscience is clear.

Maybe your you-know-what really doesn’t stink and so whenever the you-know-what hits the fan it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced: “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin.

Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve.

Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob.

Lucky you.

Lord knows I can.

I can.

But that’s not why I like Jacob.

No, I like Jacob-

Because after 2 years of living with incurable cancer, after 8 rounds of stage-serious chemo, after a dozen more rounds of maintenance chemo, after 1 surgery and thousands of needle pricks and transfusions and panic attacks and wondering if my wife wonders if wedding me was worth it…

Jacob might be the one person who would never dream of sending someone like me a card that said:

“God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Someone like Jacob would never cross-stitch a cliche like that onto oven mitts and leave them with a casserole at my front door.

I like Jacob because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised below the belt, knows that the good news is NOT “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

Jacob has the scars to prove it- the only good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

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I spent last Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network.

Before my chemo infusion, my oncologist felt me up for lumps and red flags.

Like he’d done at my previous two visits, the doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and, with a sharpie, sketched out the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Despite the title of my book, cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

When the doctor was done feeling me up, my nurse came to poke around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show.

Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what they’re promising.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

I mean, I’m no Hedy Collver but I am a duly ordained reverend.

A question like that about faith and heaven and eternal life should be my bible bread and butter but the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I did better on her follow up. Another where question.

She smoothed out my crinkled chemo tube and she asked me: “Do you ever wonder where God is…considering…your situation?”

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

“You see a lot of people lose their faith in a place like this. I guess it can be hard to believe there’s a God somewhere in the universe when there’s places like this in it too.”

“Your problem,” I said, “is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

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I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the ‘glory story.’

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way.

It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?”

The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us.

The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension not our ascension. And the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. Rather the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended.

The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles.

And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the glory story and all the unhelpful questions and cliches it begets.

We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God it starts with searching for him in our weakness.

If we hope to find wholeness from God it begins by seeking him out in our woundedness.

If we dream of finding healing from God we first must look for God not up in glory but down into the pit of our nightmare.

Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help and healing we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness and out into the shadows that surround us.

So I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Because it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ,

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- the healing grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s.

Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing- that’s not just the Jacob story that’s the Gospel.

That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by faith alone; we mean that you alone- by your lonesome- do not have the strength to save yourself.

You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint.

That’s why the bread is broken and why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar.

Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give.

“Your problem is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

But I could tell from the squint behind her purple glasses that I hadn’t done much better than “I dunno.”

She didn’t follow me.

“Look,” I said, “since you’re the lesbian evangelist nurse, this might come in handy the next time you see someone on the ledge of faith. Tell them: ‘God didn’t give you cancer, but if God is to be found anywhere it’s in your experience of cancer.’”

And even as I said it, I realized I was saying it as much for me as for anyone.

That I was the one she might one day spot on the ledge of faith.

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

And I need the hope that comes with that new name God gives to him as the dark turns to dawn, the hope that if, in faith, I meet him on the field on which he chooses to reveal himself, my suffering and shame and weakness, then my scars too can become sacraments, not just wounds by places where the wounded hands of a Savior have graced me.

I need Jacob.

I need the promise that one day that “You have struggled with God and prevailed…” can be my name too.

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

I spent this Tuesday at the infusion center near Alexandria Hospital receiving my latest monthly maintenance chemo to keep the cancer at bay.

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

On one of the two TV’s in the lab every commercial break- I’m not exaggerating- featured an advertisement from Lexington Plastic Surgeons, who, according to the voiceover pitchman, have more offices around the country than Skynet.

“Do you think I’d look good if I got a Brazilian Butt Lift?” I asked my nurse as she clamped the needle down into my arm.

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

“Um…maybe?” she replied, “You’re not really my type, butt lift or no butt lift.”

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what Skynet is promising.”

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

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

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

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

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

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

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

Scott Jones has gone from a name I knew on a box when I worked in the mailroom at Princeton to, in just a year, a good and trusted friend. While his preaching style- a conversational style I envy and cannot emulate- is different than mine, his homiletic is one I share.

He preached this past Sunday at Feasterville Community Reformed Church where his podcast partner, Bill Borror, is the pastor. You can check out Bill’s Resident Exiles page here.

Check out his sermon. It’s worth the listen this season.

 

Yours truly ranked #12 on the Christian Century Magazine’s 17 Most-Read Blog Posts of 2017.

You can check out the ones that beat me here. Here’s the post itself, a homily on the Transfiguration:

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 one of two 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 professes, “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. 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 like 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 from 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 threetabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus. Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

A Sheep Without Verbs

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2017 — Leave a comment

Among all the disciplines for which seminary prepared me well, preaching funerals was not one of them. Like distinguishing law from gospel, balancing the gathered’s desire for eulogy with my charge to preach Gospel is an elusive art. Of course, it may not matter at all as no preached word communicates as effectively as putting the dead into the dirt, but if it matters then I offer this as help to whomever might be helped by it.

Maybe even the Shepherd will use the preached word to find.

Text:Psalm 23 – Funeral Homily for Warren Smith 

My first funeral sermon 16 years ago flopped.

“It didn’t sound like you knew him at all” a worshipper told me on the way out of the funeral home chapel.

“Uh, I didn’t know him at all” I replied.

I didn’t know then- they don’t warn you in seminary- that most lay people consider it the mark of a good funeral sermon when the preacher sounds like he knows the deceased.

When it comes to funerals, lay people don’t usually judge whether I’ve proclaimed the Gospel or done a good job unpacking the scripture text or pointing to the promise of Cross and Resurrection.

For funerals, it’s a good sermon only if the gathered can shake my hand at the door and say “It sounded like you really knew her” or “You really captured him.”

    Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people don’t care whether or not I speak of the Shepherd or proclaim that the Shepherd is Good.

Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people want to want to hear about the one lost sheep not the singular Shepherd.

They want to be assured that I know the person whom they’ve lost.

They don’t think they need to be reassured that the lost member of the flock is known by the Shepherd.

So, consider yourselves assured.

After 13 years here, I know Warren- not as well as you, but I know him.

I know, because he told me, that both of us grew up in Ohio and, by the grace of God, both of us got out of Ohio.

I also know- maybe for that reason- I was Warren’s favorite pastor, and I know Warren well enough to know that he knew I’m sufficiently vain that knowing I was his favorite was sufficient to make him one of my favorite parishioners.

I know Warren loved woodworking and genealogy and Huntley Meadows Park but not like he loved Becky and Brady and Matthew.

I know Warren would anticipate a joke and start to guffaw at the mere mention of Dennis Perry’s name in one of my sermons.

I know Warren loved carving and drawing and antique tools but nearly like he loved Megan and Kylie and Adam and Carina and Quinn.

I also know that after having sung in the church choir for so many years worth of Sundays, Warren had certainly heard this song from Israel’s hymnal as much as me.

And I don’t know but I suspect that, like me, Warren had heard these lines about “thy rod and thy staff” recited or prayed or sung so many times in worship he no longer heard the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.

     “The Lord is my Shepherd…”

To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.

A lamb even.

I don’t know if Warren was one of those grandparents who got addicted to playing Farmville on Facebook; nevertheless, Warren spent enough Sundays here at church to know that lambs are lame.

Sheep are stubborn, and I’m sure his wife Becky would attest that stubborn doesn’t describe Warren at all.

     Sheep wander.

Sheep get lost.

Sheep fall into valleys.

Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.

Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd.

Warren wasn’t like that at all. Warren was a director (at the VA). Warren wasn’t a lamb in need of direction. Warren loved Native American history. Warren would know. There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs.

No, sheep are stupid.

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.

     To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep.

 And to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes.

Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless.

Sheep aren’t like other animals.

Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do.

Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.

     The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.

If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness.

It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat.

So Psalm 23 is an odd, offensive song to hear on a day given over to commending Warren to God. Aren’t we commending him to God based on the good, worthwhile work Warren performed in the time given to him? Aren’t we commending him for the many ways he was not like a sheep but a goat?

Or an ox?

Besides being a father and a husband and a grandfather and a neighbor, Warren served in the Air Force and worked for nearly 40 years at the VA and then volunteered his work at Huntley Meadows Park. Isn’t that what we commend today?

Warren wasn’t a sheep at all, was he? Warren worked with his hands in his shop. Warren worked with his voice in the choir.

Warren wasn’t like a lamb at all; Warren earned his worth through his work- his love toiled on behalf of his neighbor and his God. Isn’t that what we commend about him today?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?” 

Notice-

Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding.

The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset.

     How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness?

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost.

All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd.

The sheep doesn’t search out the flock.

The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold.

The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd.

And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost.

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.

It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word.

The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” 

As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God.

———————-

     Sheep are strange.

They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety.

The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice.

And as God’s frightened flock- that’s our only work to do today too.

Here in the valley of the shadow of Death, I invite you to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets our sins in the darkness of our graves.

Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more.

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing.

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable.

Trust the Shepherd- for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need to worry about our place in the house of the Lord.

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life.

 

 

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.

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The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from www.ancestory.com:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy. Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

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Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.

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I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.

No.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.