Archives For Preachments

sign_of_jonahMy colleague, Hedy Collver, has been posting her thoughts and illustrations on the Book of Jonah lately.

You can and should check out her blog here

Given its size, it’s surprising how much I’ve preached from Jonah over the years.

Here’s a very old sermon from Jonah 1.11-2.1: 

I once pastored in the same small town as a man named Robert. His was the Presbyterian church three blocks down. It was a typical small town in that there was a small church on every corner, a church for every two or three who might want to gather.

Robert and I didnʼt have much in common at first. Except- we were the only two pastors in town who werenʼt fundamentalists. He was older than me. Where

Iʼd just graduated from seminary, ministry was a second-career for him. Where he had twin daughters and a minivan, I had a dog and still ate ramen noodles for most meals.

 

Even so, we became friends. We confided in each other. We commiserated with each other. We advised one another.

As I said, we were at small churches in small towns, where week-to-week, no matter our effort or our skill, our churches were just barely getting by. The margins for error were thin. One bad Sunday or one light offering plate were enough to sink our churches.

 

During the time I pastored in that town, Robert went through a dark, turbulent period. A series of deaths in his congregation had eroded his attendance. His younger families had moved away. Giving fell, and the church soon couldnʼt pay its bills.

 

As congregations sometimes do, they took it out on Robert. They cut his already low salary. They blamed him for the churchʼs decline and for everything the church wasnʼt.

 

We had lunch one day at a smokey BBQ joint. Rain beat against the windows so hard it was difficult to hear. He looked terrible. His eyes looked tired. Heʼd lost weight. His hair had thinned. He looked like anxiety had swallowed him up.

He picked at his food and told me he was afraid he was going to lose his job.

He was afraid that even if he kept it, he couldnʼt afford to feed his family. Things

at home werenʼt good because he never was home. He said he was overwhelmed. All he could see were problems with no solutions. He felt battered from every direction.

 

I listened and didnʼt really know what to say. I offered something bland like:

ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ

ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.

And he had genuine, honest-to-goodness fear in his eyes.

ʻAll this has shown that I donʼt really have the faith I thought I did. I thought I did, I thought I trusted God, but that was because I didnʼt have to.

Everything was going great.

Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ

 

Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-

 

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the boat and a storm sweeps down on the lake. The boat fills water. The waves batter it from all sides. The disciples are frantic, convinced theyʼre going to die.

And Jesus keeps on sleeping.

They shake him awake and scream: ʻMaster, weʼre going to die!ʼ

Jesus yawns and calmly stretches. Then he rebukes the wind and he tells the waves to cease their raging. Then he turns to the disciples and he says: ʻWhy are you so afraid? Where is your faith?ʼ

Storms drag things to the surface.

Lack of faith.

Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.

The truth about ourselves.

Storms drag things to the surface.

Just about two weeks ago I jogged up the stairs to the ICU at Mt Vernon to see Ray Pace, a friend of many of you. When I got there, a nurse was sitting at the bedside with files and papers on her lap, consulting with Mary, his wife.

 

She was asking Mary questions about feeding tubes and do-not-resuscitate orders and gently walking Mary through the likelihoods and probabilities of the coming days.

 

After the nurse left, I sat down next to Ray and I rubbed his shoulder and I talked to Mary. She told me about Ray, about what he was like before I met him, before illness took much of him away.

Iʼve been there many times when families have had to make hard choices about how to care for and how to say goodbye to someone they love. And because theyʼre hard decisions to make, oftentimes families donʼt make the right ones, or the best ones.

And I told Mary I respected her choices, that their love was strong enough for Mary to do what seemed hard so that Ray could enter the next life with the same dignity heʼd lived this one.

 

Mary wiped her eyes and she said: ʻYou know, Jason, it is hard, but heʼs been with me.ʼ

ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ

And when she said it she didnʼt point next to her, to Ray. She pointed up, straight up.

ʻHeʼs been with me,ʼ she said, ʻand heʼs been closer to me than ever before.

Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ

When Jesus preaches on the mountaintop, he tells the crowds that those who hear the Gospel and donʼt act on it, donʼt make it a part of their life, donʼt ingest it and embody it- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on sand. And the rain falls and the flood comes and the wind blows and beats against it and the house…falls apart.

 

But those who hear the Gospel and act on it, those who make it a part of their everyday- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on solid rock. And the rain can fall and the floods can come and the wind can blow and beat against it but the house will hold.

Storms-

Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.

I once had a lawyer in my congregation.

That by itself is no small hardship.

But Pete was an alcoholic, a severe one. Heʼd been drowning himself with a bottle for nearly forty years. His addiction was so bad that his skin had grown sallow. His eyes were yellowed, and his belly was distended.

 

He was the kind of guy whoʼd always demanded to go in his own direction no matter how destructive it might prove.

 

Heʼd thrown everything important in his life overboard just to hold on to the one thing that was killing him. His drinking had left marriages and children and friends in its wake. It eventually sunk his career and wrecked his reputation.

Rehab after rehab, intervention after intervention and his friendsʼ desperate pleading- none of it had persuaded him to change. Because of what alcoholism had done to my own family, I always found it hard to minister to him.

 

I went to see him one day in Charlottesville where he was in the hospital. His body was slowly shutting down after a lifetime of abuse. He kept the curtains in his room pulled tightly shut and the lights turned off, and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him.

 

That visit- it was one of the only lucid conversations I ever had with him. We talked about UVA and about baseball. Just as Iʼd learned to do as a boy in my own family, we danced around the obvious.

 

I was surprised when Pete cut me off and asked me to pray. Heʼd never asked me to pray before. In fact, when Iʼd offered at other times heʼd refused. He gave substantial amounts of money to the church but that was it. He didnʼt want to let God into his heart or into any other part of his life.

 

I started to pray and he interrupted me. He stopped me. He looked at me ferociously and he said: ʻDonʼt you dare pray that I get out of here.ʼ

I asked him why and he told me that, there in the hospital, it was the longest heʼd ever been without drinking, that it was the first time he could remember that heʼd talked to his wife and his daughter sober, that even if it meant he died it was the best thing that couldʼve happened to him.

 

If you read carefully, after he disobeys God- after he runs away from God-

Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:

Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.

Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.

Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.

 

And when they throw him overboard, Jonah sinks DOWN into the depths of the sea.

In other words, the more he tries to control his life, the further Jonah falls, the deeper he sinks.

Hereʼs the thing-

When Jonah hits bottom, when he sinks down to the roots of mountains and he gets swallowed whole- when Jonah hits bottom, he prays for the first time.

 

He prays the long prayer you find in chapter 2, and the prayer is not composed from his own words. Itʼs made up of snippets from the Psalms.

And if you go back and connect the dots and read those Psalms Jonah prays from, the surprise is that theyʼre Psalms of Thanksgiving. Every one of them.

When the storm strikes, when Jonah sinks and hits bottom, when Jonah gets swallowed up and is surrounded by darkness- he responds by saying: ʻThank

You.ʼ

 

We think Jonah needs to be saved from the storm and from the fish, but the storm and the fish are what saves Jonah.

 

Sometimes the only thing that can save us is to be thrown overboard, to hit

bottom, to experience darkness, to lose everything we thought was important.

We resist storms in our lives. We do everything we can to avoid them. We come to places like this and we pray for God to rescue us from them. But sometimes…sometimes the storms can be our rescue.

 

Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-

The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, and they ask Jesus for a sign.

For something that will make it easier to believe.

For something they can hold on to that will make following him worth it.

For something they can point back to later on…when the storms come.

Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.

And Jesus sighs and he says: The only sign Iʼll give you is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up in death and darkness for three days and three nights and yet was saved to live again.

Thatʼs the sign Iʼll give you, Jesus says. Thatʼs the only sign you need.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that victory can come from what looks like defeat.

The sign that you can never sink so low or fall so far that God canʼt lift you up.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that light can still shine in the darkest of nights.

The sign that when all hope seems lost God will still provide.

The sign that, sometimes, what looks like a storm can be our rescue.

 

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

newjudaicia4

Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

Exodus-Chapter-2-The-Child-Moses-on-the-Nile

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

1934842_1140098793643_1336612_n

Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2Here’s my final sermon for this summer’s series through Romans. My texts were Romans 12.2, 13.7-11 as well as Mark 10.17-30. I’ll post the audio when it becomes available.

“Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

This is St. Paul starting to turn towards the finish line in his Letter to the Romans. After long eleven chapters, this is Paul reaching his conclusion.

This is Paul culminating  his dense argument on righteousness and justice and the faithfulness of God with a few sleeves-rolled-up, go-now-and-do ‘therefores.’

Paul has already answered the question that animated his argument from the get-go: Has God abandoned his People?

No, Paul has determined, leaving no room for ambiguity.

No.

No, God has not- God would not, not ever- abandon his promises to his People; so, do not be conformed to this world.

So live now as if the answer is no, as if God will never, could never abandon you.

Live as if God will always be with you. Live as if God never cease being for you.

Do not be conformed to this world.

In other words: live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Everything in Paul’s letter has been building to this point.

From ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for the ungodly’ to ‘nothing- nor height, nor depth- nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

From ‘for I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it is the power of God for salvation’ to ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ to ‘there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus.’

Everything. Every memory verse has been building to this point: Do not be conformed. To the world. This world.

Of course, that just begs the question: What’s that look like? To be not conformed?

What’s it mean exactly to live in the likeness of the Kingdom?

So Paul begins to spell out in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

     Sounds simple enough, right?

     That is, until you remember- as I’m sure Paul wants you to remember- that when Jesus gave the same advice it came with a very big asterisk:

‘Go, sell everything that you own and give the money to the poor.

Then come and follow me.’

     Jesus said to the rich, young man in the Gospels, who had insisted he’d been keeping all the commandments his whole life.

     Sell everything you own. Give it to the poor. Then follow me.

     (If you want to make it to heaven.)

     Is that the kind of commitment Paul has in mind when he says we should not be conformed to this world?

     Now that we’ve heard his argument, now that we know God does not abandon his People, does Paul expect us to be able to do what the rich, young man could not do?

image001-2

A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.

Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’

Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.

The story Paul echoes in Romans 13, the story about Jesus and the rich man- that’s the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.

I did so because in Matthew’s Gospel the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes the rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.

To all of those seniors setting off for college where they would continue to be conformed to the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about the rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in a previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.

I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America.

All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.

I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling.

All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the fellowship hall for the reception. All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.

‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.

‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’ 

He stormed off with his family in tow.

Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.

He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’ 

And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.

I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’ 

I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.

I almost escaped the fellowship hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.

He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’ 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

     ‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’ 

And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’ 

I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

camel needle lego_thumb[3]

I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.

‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’ 

She blushed but didn’t smile.

‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.

‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’ 

She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’ 

‘You must be Baptist,’ I said.

She nodded but she didn’t laugh.

And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.

‘Lady, whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’ 

lightstock_151277_small_user_2741517     

     ‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ 

      That’s the question the rich, young man asks. It’s basically the same question as the one provoked by Paul’s ‘Do not be conformed to this world’ conclusion: What’s it mean to live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

       ‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

Then the Gospel says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ 

This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love all the time but this rich, young man is the only person in the Gospels Jesus loved as an individual.

     ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’ 

He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.

They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’ 

 

lightstock_94805_small_user_2741517

I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: ‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’ 

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus must’ve thought he could make more of his life than what the world tells us to settle for.’

He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

cameldevice-2

When it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we get so jacked up worrying that Jesus might expect us to do what that rich young man could not.

     We get so preoccupied rationalizing ourselves free of the story that we completely miss- don’t even notice- how, in the story, Jesus is the one who loves.

     Jesus is the one who loves God.

     Jesus is the one who loves his neighbor, literally, as much as he loves himself.

 

So then-

What it means to love God

What it means to love your neighbor as yourself

What it means to live as if God could never, would never abandon us

     What it means to be conformed not to this world is to be like Jesus.

And what it means to be like Jesus is to love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his.

Did you catch that?

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

     And that means to love our neighbors requires that we not let the world conform our neighbors to itself.

To love our neighbors requires that we not let the world convince them that happiness can be bought, that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or that possessions do anything for us other than weigh us down like a fully-loaded camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

358x242-ferguson-smoke

To love our neighbors, the way Jesus loved them, requires that we not let the world seduce our neighbors into thinking that they are not their brothers’ keeper, that poverty is a problem that should cost us nothing, that those who live by the sword will live by the sword, that salvation is an individual enterprise.

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them enough to tell them that Jesus thinks they’re capable of more than just a successful or happy life. That Jesus thinks their life can be significant, that Jesus even believes they’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.

What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them with active verbs like GO, SELL, REPENT. CONFESS. COME, FOLLOW. FEED. SERVE. GIVE. FORGIVE. MAKE PEACE. SHOW MERCY. MAKE DISCIPLES.

     What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

iraqui-christians

To teach them to love their enemies.

To tell them they’re meant to be like light to the world.

To exhort them to turn the other cheek and forgive 70 x 7.

To point to the one ditch, to the one in need, to the one in shame and remind them that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to make sure they know that God’s plan is to change the world, to remake the world, and he chooses people like you to be that change.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his. 

     And that doesn’t sound like good news because no one wants a neighbor who’s up in their business like Jesus is up in ours.

But given the news this week from Ferguson and Palestine and Iraq and fill in the blank…maybe that’s exactly the type of neighbor the world needs.

 

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

When you really stop to think about what Jesus and Paul would have us do, it begins to sound a lot easier to just sell all our stuff and give it away to the poor.

I mean to love our neighbors the way Jesus loved his sounds…impossible.

     But I suppose nothing’s impossible with God.

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2

 

IMG_3916-768x1024Here’s a homily written by friend, congregant and seminary student Jimmy Owsley (above…no that’s not me). He wrote this sermon for our evening worship in Guatemala during our mission there in July.

His text was Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:3- ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

 

What do you think it means to be poor in spirit?

According to Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 5, “To be poor in spirit is to be contentedly poor, willing to be emptied of worldly wealth.”

Putting it another way “The poor in spirit have accepted the loss of all things, most importantly the loss of self, so that they may follow Christ,” says German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’d like to start this sermon off with the premise that he Sermon on the Mount demands our whole allegiance. If Scripture is our authority then we don’t get to pick and choose which verses we want to follow and which ones we don’t. And this is one of the most comprehensive segments Jesus’ teaching that we have available.

Furthermore, when Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount, he is not speaking of merely spiritual realities. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of Heaven, he speaks of a present physical kingdom, the kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament which the Messiah was to bring about. This is why the early Christians could say “Jesus is Lord” in direct contradiction to “Caesar is Lord.” It was kind of a big deal. In orthodox Christian belief, this kingdom an already-but not yet reality that Christian are called to live into. This is a paradigm in which the realities of heaven and earth collide.

So when Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, he is not saying that they will be blessed in spirit sometime later, such as when they die. And he’s not saying that being poor in spirit has nothing to do with earthly wealth. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” he says.

Rather, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who would renounce all earthly gains. This is why Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

And when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is saying those who are poor in spirit are blessed now, in this life. They are the partakers of the kingdom of Heaven. Those who have emptied themselves, who seek not their own gain but live according to the principles of the kingdom of God, that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” these people have God’s peace in their hearts. For these are the ones who, as Jesus says elsewhere, have lost their life that they may find it. How contrary to our “American Dream”?

So he says do not store up treasures on earth, but rather store up treasures in heaven. In other words store up treasures based on the principles of God’s kingdom, where poverty, simplicity, justice, meekness, and mercy are valued. Leave behind the values of the kingdoms of this world.

Indeed, every earthly gain can be lost. But it is our relationships with others, established through loving service of God and neighbor, which are the stuff of heaven. Only our relationships with God and with neighbor can bring us the overwhelming peace that comes with the kingdom of God. This kind of peace requires renouncing the false securities that this world has to offer: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety,” says Bonhoeffer “For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe.”

If you are poor in spirit, if you sacrifice your own wealth and aspirations and live on mission for God in this world as you are meant to do, “Seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness,” God will take care of you, Jesus says. But if you strive first and foremost for your own security, then your heart is not with him in his kingdom for “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

“For this reason” Jesus says “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on…” And of course, all of us doubt this. How can we not worry about providing for ourselves? And even for our families?

But Jesus anticipates this. “O you of little faith,” he replies. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?

So what would it mean to live at peace? To follow Jesus commands not to worry? To not be pursuing that next highest paying job, a successful career, or that dream of more comfortable house? What would it mean to live wholeheartedly for the purposes of God, relying on each other and trusting that, if we live according to principles of His kingdom which are vastly different and most often contradictory the principles of our earthly kingdoms, that if we trust and follow God will provide?

This week we all will experience God’s kingdom in some way. I trust that you are here, not to check off a box or fill in that volunteer line on your resumes. You are here in good faith because you feel some calling to serve God by serving your neighbor. You feel the pull to live out your faith, and you have renounced a chunk of your valuable time and resources to be here this week.

This may feel like a mountaintop experience for some of you, or a break from reality in some way. And it is a break from our normal everyday American reality. You might wonder how to live so simply and meaningfully in your everyday life when you return.

I encourage you to soak in the principles of the Sermon on the Mount this week, and to fully enjoy the extent to which you will be able to give of yourself. Please also be thinking about ways in which you might reorient you everyday life around these principles. What would it be like to really live according to the beatitudes day in and day out?

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

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

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

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

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

Linvale Methodist Episcopal Church - Linvale

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

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

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

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

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

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

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

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

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

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

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

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

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

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

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

rp_shapeimage_1.png

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

As in, you and me. Christians.

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

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

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

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

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

So what do we do?

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

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

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

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

People not like us at all.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

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

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

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

She asked me a second time.

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

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

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

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

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

But it’s true.

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

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

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

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

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

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

iraqui-christians

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

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

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

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

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

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

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

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

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

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

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

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

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

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

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

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

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

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

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

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

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

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

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

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

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

Poster

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

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

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

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

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

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

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

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

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

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

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.

Here’s my sermon from Sunday occasioned by the baptisms of Tyler and Parker.

The texts for the sermon were Romans 10.1-10 and Psalm 19.

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

 

image001-2

Dear Tyler and Parker,

 

In the event the bishop has whisked me away to another parish or, more likely, exiled me to the Eastern Shore, allow me to introduce myself.

I’m the right reverend Jason, as in I’m right in most things and reverent about very few. I’m the one who baptized you.

Sorry.

By now, confirmation age, you’re old enough to realize that what I’ve done to you commits you to struggling with some inconvenient choices.

     ‘Will you serve God or Money?’ is one such dilemma.

‘Will you study hard to get as far up the ladder as you can or will you live the posture of servant?’ is another.

‘Will you trust that happiness is what can be captured in a filtered, homogenized Instagram pic or will you cross your fingers and trust that happiness is found among those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice?’ is still another choice.

 

They’re inconvenient choices because in every case the choice your baptism commits you to goes against the grain of both country and culture.

     Therefore, your baptisms- if done rightly- make you not just a Christian.

They make you odd.

By the time you read this letter, Tyler and Parker, you’ll be the age when ‘odd’ is about the last thing you’ll want to be. By the time you read this you’ll be an age where what you want most is to conform, blend in, be normal- a desire from which we never recover.

I won’t be shocked then if you’d like to register your complaint with me for what I’ve done to you in baptizing you. But, truth be told, you should take your gripes up with your parents too. They were more than just accessories to the crime.

Your baptism? They did it without your consent. They did it against your will even. They didn’t wait until you were old enough to ‘understand’ whatever that may mean.

They didn’t postpone your baptism until you could choose it for yourself, and in that your parents may have done the boldest thing they could ever do for you.

Tyler, Parker-

I can guess what you’re thinking: it was just a bowl of H2O. In a school cafetorium at that.

True, but trust me: your baptisms may be the most counter-cultural acts your government employee parents ever commit.

     By baptizing you into the way of the Cross- BEFORE you can make up your mind for yourselves, your parents prophetically, counter-culturally acknowledge that you don’t have minds worth making up.

You don’t have minds worth making up; that is, not until you’ve had your minds (and your hearts and your habits too) shaped by Christ.

How could you possibly make up your own mind? Choose for yourself?

After all, what it means to be free, to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved. So how could you ever make up your own mind, choose for yourself, until after you’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Tyler, Parker-

I realize telling you you don’t have minds worth making up on your own sounds offensive. If it sounds like I’m being offensive in order to get your attention it’s because I am.

Indeed I have to be offensive.

We live in a culture that thinks Christianity is something you get to choose (or not), as though it’s no different than choosing between an iPhone or a Droid.

Notice no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even die for it. But people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

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

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

Our culture teaches us to think we should get to choose the Story of our life for ourselves.

Which, in itself, is a Story none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction.

A lie.

     It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between religion or no religion.

It’s a lie to suppose that the choice is between faith or no faith.

It’s a fiction, to believe the choice is either the Christian Story or No Story.

Today we baptize you against your will, before you can make up your own mind or choose a Story for yourself. We do so because if we do not make you a participant in the story of Christ then another rival Story will soon and surely takes its place over your life.

The Story of More. Or Might.

Today by immersing you in a Story not of your own choosing your parents go against the grain of the culture.

     It’s a prophetic act that’s made all the bolder when you pause to consider that in baptizing you your parents accept that one day you may have to suffer for their convictions, the convictions that brought you to the font.

lightstock_5799_small_user_2741517-2

Tyler and Parker-

You’re just confirmation age, still only padawans, so you might be wondering how in the world what we do to you today could lead to you suffering because of the convictions we mediate to you.

After all, you might be thinking, ‘Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. Faith is private, a matter of the heart.’

Isn’t that what Paul means when he gives what sounds to us like a more eloquent version of the Sinner’s Prayer in Romans 10? Isn’t Paul saying that faith is what we believe (personally and privately) in our hearts?

Actually, Paul doesn’t mean anything like that, but for you to see that requires you to know Paul’s context.

When Paul wrote Romans, around the year 55, Christianity was a small, odd community amidst an Empire antithetical to it. Christians were a nation within a nation. Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

     Baptism then was not a religious seal on a life you would’ve lived anyway. It was a radical coming out.

It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation of everything that had come before.

     For to profess that ‘Jesus is Lord’ was to simultaneously protest that ‘Caesar is not Lord.’

     As you’ll learn in confirmation Tyler and Parker, the words mean the same thing: Caesar, Christ. They both mean King, Lord.

You cannot affirm one with out renouncing the other.

Which is why in Paul’s day and for centuries after when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. And by a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits.

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world, the world of More and Might.

Then, leaving that old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus and everything that new way of life would demand.

In other words, baptism was your pledge allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, Tyler and Parker, there’s a reason for that.

A few hundred years after Paul wrote his letters, the Caesar of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Empire Christian too.

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian.

After Constantine, with the ways of the world ostensibly baptized, what had formerly been renounced became ‘Christian-ish.’

Consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. It moved inside, to our heads and hearts.

What had been an alternative way in the world became a religion that awaited the world to come.

Jesus was demoted from Risen Lord of the Earth to Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

Which meant ‘faith’ became synonymous with ‘beliefs’ or ‘feelings.’

Tyler and Parker-

I apologize for the historical detour, but I do want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with Constantine that makes it possible for us to read Romans 10 and assume that when Paul writes about faith he’s talking about our personal beliefs or private feelings or that when mentions ‘salvation’ he has life after death in mind.

Nothing could be further off the mark.

Because for Paul the word faith is best expressed by our word ‘loyalty.’

Allegiance.

To discover just how complicated being loyal to Christ can get, you need look no further than verse 4 of that same passage, where Paul says that Christ is the telos- the end or the aim or the goal- of the Law.

Of course, by Law Paul means Torah.

By Torah Paul means Scripture.

By Scripture Paul means Revelation.

And by Revelation Paul means….Everything.

     Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People all of it telegraphs the way of Christ.

     All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

‘Eye for an eye?’ It was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

The ‘You shall have no other gods’ command was given so that we could recognize that kind of faith when it finally took flesh and dwelled among us.

When Paul writes that Christ is the telos of the Law, he simply dittos what Jesus himself says to kick off his most important sermon: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

     Another way of saying that is how Paul puts it in a different letter when he writes that ‘Jesus is the eikon of the invisible God.’ 

SONY DSC

     Parker, the way your wood-working Father might translate that would be to say:

The life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe.

     And that’s why being loyal to Christ can be so difficult and complicated, Tyler and Parker, because if the life of Jesus displays the grain of the universe then Christianity entails a hell of a lot more than believing in Jesus.

     It’s about following after Jesus.

     It’s about immersing ourselves in the way of Jesus, which by the way is what the word ‘baptize’ means.

     Immerse.

     Tyler, Parker-

     What Paul intends by calling Jesus God’s Telos is the same claim with which we wet your heads:

     That the truth of the universe is revealed not in the grain of the judge’s walnut gavel, not in the grain of the banker’s mahogany desk and not in the grain of the oval office’s mahajua floor.

     The grain of the universe is revealed in the pattern of life that led to the pounding of nails into wood through flesh and bone.

     If you’re tracking with me that can sound like bad news as often as it sounds like Gospel. Because if Jesus reveals the grain, the telos, of the universe, then that means:

The way to deal with offenders is to forgive them.

The way to deal with violence is to suffer.

The way to deal with war is to wage peace.

The way to deal with money is to give it away.

And the way to deal with the poor is to befriend them.

The way to deal with enemies is to love them and pray for them.

And the way to deal with a world that runs against the grain is to live on Earth as though you were in Heaven.

Perhaps now, Tyler and Parker, you’re beginning to intuit how what we do to you today- if we follow through on our end- will make you two a lot more dysfunctional in our world than you otherwise would have been.

 

It’s no wonder our culture- Christians included- would prefer us simply to ‘believe.’

Believe in a generic god. Or just believe in the freedom to believe.

 

The “beauty of nature may lead you to declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist sings, but the beauty of nature won’t ever lead you to a Jew from Nazareth.

And you can be safe and damn certain it won’t ever lead you to a Cross.

But the way of the Cross is the path we commit you to today.

 

If I’m honest, a part of me feels as though I should say I’m sorry, for if you stay true to that path you’ve no reason to suppose it’ll turn out any better for you than it did for Jesus.

 

On the other hand, Parker, your Dad’s a pretty good carpenter. He can tell you that whenever you work against the grain, even when that seems the easiest, most obvious thing to do, eventually you’ll run into difficulty. And ultimately the fruit of your labor will not be beautiful.

 

Perhaps as much as anything that’s what it means to have faith in Jesus, the telos of the universe. It’s to trust that in the End the shape of his life will have made yours beautiful.

Sincerely,

Jason

20140803_104521

Mark Driscoll is in the news (again) for making cringe-inducing comments about women et al (again). Even I have a line so you’ll have to click here to read about his comments on the ‘pu#@%$#@ nation.’

But, both because this past weekend we read Romans 8 in worship and because Mark’s all over twitter with a very different God than the One I find in scripture I thought I’d repost this from last summer:

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.

They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.

Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.

Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.

No one.

No one is against us.

No one will condemn us.

No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.

Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.

The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.

For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’ mark-driscoll

I thought that would get your attention.

Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.

Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.

If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.

But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.

He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.

The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.

     Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.

And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.

That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’

And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’

Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’

Except it isn’t.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.

It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.

     Technically speaking, I bet Mark Driscoll’s sermon ‘worked.’

I bet it scared the hell out of people.

     But what did it scare them into I wonder?

Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the  response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.

He’s wrong.

But you know that already.

 I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.

You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.

All you need are a handful of memory verses.

Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: …Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’ 

Which means: God is like Jesus.

And God doesn’t change.

Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.

So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.

You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’ 

No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’ 

You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’ 

In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.

It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’ 

God has not had it up to anywhere with you.

You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.

That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.

So that,

     ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’

     ‘We have peace with God…’

Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’ 

That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.

His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’ 

For all.

So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation- there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.

You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways.

But it all boils down to the same simple message:

     God. Is. For. Us.

     Not against us.

 

But you know that.

Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.

You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.

You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.

God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. God’s against you. 

You would NEVER say that to someone else.

Ever.

But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:

 There are plenty of you

who say things like that

to yourselves

all the time.

Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.

Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.

You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.

And yet…

When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.

You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.

Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.

Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.

Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.

Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.

     God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. 

I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.

And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.

 

So here’s my question: why?

I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.

So why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?

If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?

Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?

Maybe.

Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?

Sure we have.

Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel

equation: God is for us?

Is it because we think we’re the exception?

Maybe for some of us.

But I wonder.

I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.

I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?

I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?

I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?

I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.

I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.

And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.

As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.

What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.

The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.

The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.

The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.

We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.

And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.

So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.

And so I called my Mom.

‘We need to talk’ I said.

‘You really think so?’

It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.

 

And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.

 

I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.

Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.

Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.

This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.

 In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.

 It’s about living eternity now.

 

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.

The answers might be obvious and certain.

But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.

I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.

Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.

If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.

And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing should separate us.

From one another.

 

Making Love…a Verb

Jason Micheli —  July 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

10494562_881661191848427_6390847377076382822_nOne of the gifts that comes with serving in one congregation for an extended period of time is watching kids whom I’ve baptized grown in to youth and seeing youth become adults, going off into the world and, sometimes, getting married.

Sometimes to each other.

This weekend I had the honor of performing the wedding ceremony for two special people, Will Gerig and Becca McGraw. I met them when they were both youth in the youth band at church, shortly before they started dating.

Here’s the wedding sermon I wrote for them.

The texts were selections from the Song of Songs and Colossians 3.12-17.

Will and Becca,

Let’s just say I can’t believe the kids I knew in the youth band are now old enough to get married.

And let’s just say I can’t believe I’m old enough to be marrying the kids I knew in the youth band. I’m old enough to have been at this a while.

For example, I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate it’s around 70 times- 70 times that I’ve stood in sanctuaries like this and announced ‘Dearly Beloved.’

By my best guesstimate it’s around 63 times- 63 times I’ve had to suffer through 1 Corinthians 13 (‘Love is patient, love is kind…’) as the scripture passage despite registering my strenuous objections with the bride and groom.

By own best guesstimate it’s around 3 times- 3 times my notes have blown away with the breeze at an outdoor wedding, which makes it 3 times that I’ve lost my train of thought and called either the bride or the groom by the wrong name.

2 times- by my guesstimate that’s how many times the bride has been so late to her wedding I started to seriously wonder if she’d show at all.

     And 1 time- 1 time I’ve had to stand up front with a fake smile plastered on my face as a 12 year old boy, whose voice is newly in the throes of puberty, tries to make Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ sound worshipful.

     God I hope that remains the only time.

I’ve done a lot of weddings.

By my best guesstimate about a baker’s dozen of those occasions have been for close friends of mine, friends from in and out of the congregation, people I know pretty well.

I even presided at my college roommate’s wedding in the chapel at UVA, which I’m guessing Will must’ve vetoed as a location for your own wedding since he still hasn’t come to grips with Virginia Tech’s massive inferiority in all things.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and many of those weddings were for people I knew pretty well.

But to the best of my memory, my best guesstimate is that out of all those weddings- all those brides and grooms, all those rings and ‘for richer for poorers’- I haven’t known any of those couples as long as I’ve known the two of you.

Nearly 10 years. Will you were 8 and Becca was 7 if I remember correctly.

I remember one of my first conversations with Becca. She was sitting on the parking slab outside the youth wing here and alluded to a crush she had on some boy whom she chose not to name.

And I remember hoping, whoever he was, that he was a nice guy because Becca seemed to be the sort who deserved a nice guy.

And I remember Will coming up to me, the new pastor, to introduce himself. I remember thinking Will was kind of corny and a little bit shy but thoroughly sincere; in other words, he was completely different back then.

I remember treading bacteria-infested water in Belize with Becca as she gave me advice on what makes for a good confirmation class and what makes for a bad one.

I remember the many worship services where, after it was done, Will would come up  to me and give me his deadpan assessment of the sermon and I would leave having no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not.

I’ve done a lot of weddings and some for folks I knew pretty well but none for a couple I’ve known as long as I’ve known you.

I mean, out of all those 73 or so grooms Will is the only one who has ever patiently waited inside my tent simply to scare the pants off of my wife.

And of all the photos I have on Facebook from mission teams in Guatemala, Will is the only one to pretend to behead me with a machete from behind.

Of all the weddings and all the couples, you two are the only ones I’ve spent a week with at a monastery in France, singing and praying and hiking and posing awkwardly for photos as all Europeans do.

I remember whispering to my wife in our tent one of those nights at the monastery, both of us thinking you two seemed perfect for each other, that even then your relationship was healthier than most people who’ve been married their whole lives.

And I remember that last night in France as we slept on the airport floor awaiting our flight and you two lay there holding hands when you thought no one else was awake or looking.

I’ve known you guys a long time.

Long enough to know how you two feel about each other.

Long enough to know how you two feel today.

Long enough for me to feel nearly as happy and ecstatic and joyous as you feel.

But then, today at least, that begs a question:

If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever?

     If love is a feeling, how can you two promise that to each other forever?

pastedGraphic.pdf

     The bride in the Song of Songs says that ‘love is as strong as death’ as ‘unyielding as the grave.’

She sings, in fact, that ‘many waters cannot quench love’ nor ‘rivers wash it away.’

Earlier in the song she confesses that her groom’s love for her has the power to make her beautiful and lovely.

But again- there’s the question: if love is just a feeling how can she describe it like that?

 Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over.

You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

Amen.

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Just kidding.

But, it gets worse. When you turn to the New Testament, love isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

And the night before he dies, when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’ And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ And in a different letter Paul goes so far as to command husbands to love their wives and wives to love their husbands.

Those are all imperatives.

Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another.

Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

They’re imperatives. They’re commands.

Here’s the thing.

     You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb.

Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love.

We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, something we fall into (and out of).

The culture has so shaped us that that’s how we hear a scripture like the Song of Songs.

     The culture teaches us to think of love as a noun, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it.

But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

And of course the rub is the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

In scripture, even in an erotic love poem like the Song of Songs, love is an action first and a feeling second.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

You know me well enough to know I’m trying to sound unromantic.

I know that its a feeling that sparks a relationship, but the basis for an enduring relationship, the basis for a relationship that can last a lifetime is making love…a verb.

Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it.

That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And you can ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse.

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. That’s what ‘for better, for worse’ is all about.

Paul says: ‘Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ so that ‘the peace of Christ may rule in your hearts.’

     In other words, where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow.

You do it and then you feel it.

So, in your relationship you may not feel gentle but you act gentle.

You may not feel compassionate on a given day but, just as you would a child, you listen and show them compassion.

You may not feel patient and kind tomorrow evening but tomorrow evening what you do is muster up some patience and kindness.

You may not feel very forgiving the next time the two of you fight but forgiveness is exactly what you offer.

I’ve known you two longer than any of the 73 couples before you. I know how perfect you are for each other. I know how you make each of us better too.

But even the two of you- you can’t promise each other the feeling of love.

That’s not the covenant you make today.

     The covenant is that you promise the action of love every day.

     Love is something you do and today you promise to trust the doing, to trust the doing transform to transform your heart.

Again and again.

Day out and day in.

     That’s the promise.

And that kind of promise…

It doesn’t just take two people. It doesn’t require the perfect relationship.

It doesn’t take a feeling. It takes faith.

It takes faith, I think, because that kind of love?

That kind of love is exactly how Jesus loves us.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish theological concept that refers to God’s commitment to repair the world.

On Friday morning our team of about 30 returned from Chuicutama, Guatemala, an indigenous village about 11K feet up in the Highlands. Over the past few years my church has been committed to providing a complete sanitation system for the 400+ residents of Chuicutama.

In addition, we’ve constructed a community center in the village where volunteer teams like ours can stay to service the neighboring communities and where medical volunteers from North American can come to train indigenous women to provide themselves healthcare.

Ministry has few tangible results to which you can point. I’m grateful that due to the generosity and hard work of many of you we’ve made an impactful differences in the lives of the people in Chuicutama.

This work I believe is one way important way we’ve embodied tikkun olam as a community.

In December/January when the dry season has come the final sewage lines will be added to the system bringing the multiyear project to a close. It should be a cool celebration to experience. If you’re interested in joining our winter team to share in that moment just let me know. 

For my sermon on Sunday I walked people through images from the week’s work. If you’d like to listen to it, you can below. Or you can download the free mobile app.

If you’d like to read my introductory and concluding comments, you can here: Tikkun Olam Romans 4 Sermon

Here’s the slideshow that went with the sermon: Toilet Project Slideshow

Here are some images from the week:

James Matthews, Ron Good and I digging the ditch for the main sewer line.

IMG_3896

Our ladies sorting rocks and sifting sand for the septic tank’s filtration system. IMG_3891

First Manhole (10 ft down)IMG_3897

First Community Street’s Sewer Line
IMG_3903

Jimmy Owsley digging and digging and digging…IMG_3916

200 lb sewer pipesIMG_3904

Mainline about 1/5 of the way dug :(

IMG_3906IMG_3952

The hard work leads to high jinks:

This picture, I think, captures just how invested every member of the community is in this project. It’s something we’re doing with them not for them. IMG_5519

Lorenzo, a member of the community, received a needful wage from our fundraising for the Toilet Project.

IMG_5123IMG_3948

Carrying the sewage pipes a 4-man affair

IMG_5110My brother-in-law, who quit his job and sold his stuff about 16 months to volunteer full-time in Guatemala, overseeing the Toilet Project.

IMG_5107Community Septic System. The Community Center was the first building in the village tied into the system.

IMG_4567IMG_4553The completed Community Center where our team this week lived and ate.

IMG_4566IMG_4862IMG_4552IMG_4554IMG_4555

 

Miguel, the leader of Chuicutama, thanks Aldersgate for all their work and partnership (the power went out our last night so it’s dark):

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

Untitled22

 

In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

Untitled24

And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

Untitled25

So… it has to be one of you.

pastedGraphic.pdf

Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

Untitled12

Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

Untitled20

Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

Untitled19

 

Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

Untitled18

Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

Untitled17

 

Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

Untitled16

 

‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

Untitled14

 

Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

 

I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

 

I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

pastedGraphic_5.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

pastedGraphic_6.pdf

 

Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

pastedGraphic_7.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

pastedGraphic_8.pdf

 

I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

pastedGraphic_9.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

It’s the faith of Jesus that saves us and we simply get caught up in the story of his faithfulness. We participate in it. We don’t agree to it, nod our head to it or even, dare I say it, invite it into our hearts.

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

No, faith is a gift because it’s Jesus’ faith he’s talking about.

And Jesus, as we learn at Christmas, is a gift given to the whole world.

Even you.

pastedGraphic_10.pdf

I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.