If it were a metaphor, we should worship the universal principle behind the metaphor instead of Jesus Christ. Or so I argue. For Easter, Dennis Perry and I did a dialogue sermon for all 5 services. Dialogues aren’t really my forte but I think this one turned out solid. You can listen to it below. You can listen watch the live stream of the 8:30 service here.
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Here’s my sermon from Palm-Passion Sunday on Matthew 26.36-46, Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane.
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus and his friends and family, would’ve been poor.
Throughout that holy week, these hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would gather at table and temple and they would remember.
They would remember how they’d once suffered bondage under another empire, and how God had heard their outrage and sent someone to save them.
They would remember how God had promised them: “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Always.
They would remember how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from a Caesar called Pharaoh.
Passover was a political powder keg so every year Pontius Pilate would do his damnedest to keep Passover in the past tense.
Every year at the beginning of Passover week Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a shock-and-awe storm-trooping parade of horses and chariots and troops armed to the teeth and prisoners bound hand and foot and all of it led by imperial banners that dared as much as declared “Caesar is Lord.”
So when Jesus, at the beginning of that same week, rides into Jerusalem from the opposite direction there could be no mistaking what to expect next.
Deliverance from enemies. Defeat of them. Freedom. Exodus from slavery.
How could there be any mistaking, any confusing, when Jesus chooses to ride into town- on a donkey, exactly the way the prophet Zechariah had foretold that Israel’s King would return to them, triumphant and victorious, before he crushes their enemies.
There could be no mistaking what to expect next.
That’s why they shout ‘Hosanna! Save us!’ and wave palm branches as they do every year for the festival of Sukkoth, another holy day when they recalled their exodus from Egypt and prayed for God to send them a Messiah.
The only reason to shout Hosanna during Passover instead of Sukkoth is if you believed that the Messiah for whom you have prayed has arrived.
There could no mistaking what to expect next.
That’s why they welcome him with the words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” the very words with which God’s People welcomed Solomon to the Temple.
The same words Israel sang upon Solomon’s enthronement. Solomon, David’s son. Solomon, the King.
There could be no mistake, no confusion, about what to expect next.
Not when he lights the match and tells his followers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e., absolutely nothing).
Not when he cracks a whip and turns over the Temple’s tables as though he’s dedicating it anew just as David’s son had done.
Not when he takes bread and wine and with them makes himself the New Moses.
And not when he gets up from the Exodus table, and leads his followers to, of all places, the Mount of Olives.
The Mount of Olives was ground zero. The front line.
The Mount of Olives was the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised that God’s Messiah would initiate a victory of God’s People over the enemy that bound them.
From the parody of Pilate’s parade to the palm leaves, from the prophesied donkey to the shouts of hosanna, from Solomon’s welcome to the exodus table to the Mount of Olives every one in Jerusalem knew what to expect. There could be no mistaking all the signs.
They knew how God was going to use him.
He would be David to Rome’s Goliath.
He would face down a Pharaoh named Pilate, deliver the message that the Lord has heard the cries of his People and thus says he: “Let my People go.”
As though standing in the Red Sea bed, he would watch Pilate and Herod and all the rest swallowed up in and drowned by God’s righteousness. God’s justice.
They knew how God was going to use him.
And when he invites Peter, James, and John, the same three who’d gone with him to the top of Mt. Horeb where they beheld him transfigured into glory, to go with him to the top of the Mount of Olives they probably expect a similar sight.
To see him transfigured again.
To see him charged with God’s glory.
To see him armed with it.
Armed for the final and decisive battle.
The battle that every sign and scripture from that holy week has led them to expect.
There on the top of the Mount of Olives Jesus doesn’t look at all as he had on top of that other mountain.
Then, his face had shone like the sun. Now, it’s twisted into agony.
Then, they’d seen him dazzling white with splendor. Now, he’s distraught with doubt and dread.
Then, on top of that other mountain, Moses and the prophet Elijah had appeared on either side of him. Now, on this mountaintop, he’s alone, utterly, already forsaken, alone except for what the prophet Isaiah called the ‘cup of wrath’ that’s before him.
Then, God’s voice had torn through the sky with certainty “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Now, God doesn’t speak. At all.
So much so that Karl Barth says Jesus’ prayer in the Garden doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue with God. It’s a one way conversation. Because it’s not just that God doesn’t speak or answer back, God’s entirely absent from him, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah.
There, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, and John with their half-drunk eyes- they see him transfigured again.
This would be Messiah who’d spoken bravely about carrying a cross transfigured to the point where he’s weak in the knees and terrified.
This would be Moses who’d stoically taken exodus bread and talked of his body being broken transfigured so that now he’s begging God to make it only a symbolic gesture.
This would be King who can probably still smell the hosanna palm leaves transfigured until he’s pleading for a Kingdom to come by any other means.
Peter and the sons of Zebedee, they see him transfigured a second time. From the Teacher who’d taught them to pray “Thy will be done…” to this slumped over shadow of his former self who knows the Father’s will not at all.
He’d boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion and now he’s telling them he’s “deeply grieved and agitated.”
Or, as the Greek inelegantly lays it out there, he tells them he’s “depressed and confused” such that what Jesus tells them in verse 38 is really “Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die.”
And then he can only manage a few steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses there in verse 39, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless.
He is, in every literal sense of the Greek, scared out of his mind. Or as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus here, crying out frantically with great tears.
He is here exactly as Delacroix painted him: flat in the dirt, almost writhing, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.
God’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair.
As though he’s gone from God’s own righteousness in the flesh to God’s rejection of it.
Peter, James, and John, the other disciples there on the Mount of Olives, any of the other pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy week- they’re not mistaken about what should come next. They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!”
They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.
A final, once for all, battle.
They’re just wrong about the enemy.
The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.
The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.
They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.
A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.
Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”
The time of trial.
That’s not a generic word for any trial or hardship. That’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.
The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.
But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.
Jesus becomes its wages.
That is, the battle is waged in him.
From here on out, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, the will of God and the will of Satan coincide in him.
That’s why they’re both- God and Satan- absent from him here in the garden.
Here in the garden he can longer hear God the Father in prayer.
And here in the garden he lacks what even in the wilderness he had- the comfort of a clear and identifiable adversary.
Here in the garden, they’re both absent from him because they’re both set upon him. Their wills have converged on him. They’ve intersected in him.
He can’t see or hear them now because he’s the acted upon object of them.
He is forsaken- by both God and Satan.
They’ve taken their leave of him to work their wills upon him.
Just as we confess that in Christ’s flesh is the perfect union, both fully divine and fully human; here in the garden we also confess that in him there is another union, a hideous union, of wills:
The will of Sin to reject God forever by crucifying Jesus.
The will of God to reject Sin forever by crucifying Jesus.
That’s the shuddering revulsion that overwhelms Jesus in Gethsemane.
The cross isn’t a shock.
But this is: the realization breaking over him that the will of God will be done as the will of Satan is done.
In him, upon him,‘thy will be done’ will be done for both of them, God and Satan, on Earth as in Heaven and in Hell.
But that’s what Jesus freely assents to here in the garden.
He accepts that he will be the concrete and complete event of God’s rejection of Sin.
He agrees to be made vulnerable to the Power of Sin and God’s judgment of it.
He consents to absorb the worse that we can do, as slaves to Sin.
And he consents to absorb the worst that God can do- the worst that God will ever do.
As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake, God made him to be Sin who knew no sin.”
That’s what he accepts in getting up off the ground in Gethsemane.
And only he could accept it. Only he who was without sin- who was not enslaved by it- only he could freely choose, freely choose, to become it.
To be transfigured into Sin.
Thursday morning one of Aldersgate’s college students texted me a photo from the Washington Post along with a link to an article.
It was a photo of a little child, maybe 2 or 3 years old.
A boy or a girl, I don’t know- I couldn’t tell from the thick curly hair and red cheeks and a drab olive blanket covered up any pink or blue hued clue the child’s clothes might’ve given me.
From the child’s bright black eyes it looked like the child might be smiling, but you couldn’t be sure because a respirator was masking the child’s face where a smile might go.
Gloved grown-up hands rested on the child’s shoulders.
It wasn’t until I read the whole story that I realized those bright black eyes were empty.
“World Health Organization says Syria Chemical Attack Likely Involved Nerve Agent” ran the headline texted to me. And under the headline, under the hyperlink, the student texted me a question: “What do Christians say about this.”
And in the second line of text: a question mark.
Followed by an exclamation point.
What do Christians say?!
What do Christians say?
Looking into the vacant eyes of a nerve-gassed toddler?
What do we say?
Something trite about God’s love?
Maybe because we’ve turned God’s love into a cliche, maybe because we’ve so sentimentalized what the Church conveys in proclaiming “God loves you” but many people assume that Christians are naive about the dark reality of sin in the world.
But we’re a People who hang a torture device on an altar wall- we’re not naive. We’re not naive about the cruelties of which we’re capable. Nor are we naive about the dreadful seriousness God deals with those cruelties.
What do Christians say?
I don’t know that we have anything more to say than what we hear God say in Gethsemane.
The dread, final, righteous, wrath-filled “No” God speaks to Sin.
The nevertheless “Yes” God speaks to his enslaved sinful creatures.
The “Yes” God in Christ speaks to drinking the cup of wrath to its last drops.
That word ‘wrath’ gets confused in Church.
Sure, we’re all sinners in the hands of a wrathful God but scripture doesn’t mean it the way you hear it. God’s wrath doesn’t mean God is petulant and petty, raging at sinful creatures like you and me, reacting to our every infraction.
God, by definition, doesn’t react.
God’s wrath means that God never changes, that in Jesus Christ God has always been determined to reject the Power of Sin that binds his creatures as slaves.
So much so that God is dead set, literally over his dead body, dead set on killing it.
To set his people free from that Pharaoh. Once. For all.
St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
Here in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that.
He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus.
There’s nothing left of his humanity.
He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.
From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.
He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.
You see, Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.
It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.
Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.
He becomes our hatred for God.
He becomes our evil.
He becomes all of our injustice.
He becomes Sin.
So that upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way.
He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it.
He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.
He is every Caesar and every Judas.
Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb.
All our greed. All our violence.
He is every ungodly act and every ungodly person.
He becomes all of it.
He becomes Sin.
So that God can forsake it.
For our sake.
After nearly 15 years of ministry, God finally saw fit to give me a snow day last week. I was as stoked as my fifth grader this week that the Almighty looked down upon my sweatshop-labor-lot and threw me a bone.
And gave me a snow day.
Like many of you, I’m certain, I spent the snow day in my boxers binge-watching Netflix, working my through my Netflix queue. In case you don’t know, queue is the word you use for line if you spend most of your time in drawstring pants eating ice cream and hot pockets.
I spent the day working my way through my Netflix queue until I got to a show I’d saved a month ago but then had forgotten was in my line up. I mean, my queue.
You all probably watched the show weeks ago when it premiered on Netflix, Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.
I know our organist, Liz Miller, watched it 3 times in 1 night, and Dennis who just started another of his sabbaticals is probably watching it right now.
I’m probably the last person to have watched Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. But just in case Karli hasn’t seen it… here’s the premise. Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special begins with Christmas.
It turns out- St. Nick’s little indentured servants made too many toys this year. Supply outpaced demand. Santa’s stuck with more inventory than nice or naughty kids.
So, to get rid of this overage emergency, like Leia to Obi Wan, Santa turns to his only hope.
That’s right, Michael Bolton.
Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve already guessed what comes next in the story. You can anticipate what comes next. Because this is Michael Bolton we’re talking about! The man who combines the skullet hairstyle of Kenny G with a voice that’s practically an audible erogenous zone.
In the story, as soon as Santa calls upon the Soul Provider to provide the North Pole with emergency help, you know how the story will unfold.
Sure, the character Mike Bolton in Office Space calls Michael Bolton a “no talent ass clown” but we know that’s not true.
Michael Bolton’s 1,000 thread-count bedroom voice has scored 9 #1 Billboard hits. His 1991 album Time, Love, and Tenderness won a Grammy as did his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
I know firsthand from my experience as a teenage lifeguard in the 1990’s- nothing got my friend’s moms to flirt with shirtless me faster than Michael Bolton’s single “Love is a Wonderful Thing” in rotation over the PA system.
Michael Bolton is like strawberries and champagne, raw oysters and bitter chocolate. He’s like lace and rose petals on silk sheets. He’s an aphrodisiac.
Michael Bolton can arouse the female species the way block grants and entitlement cuts get Paul Ryan horny.
But I digress.
My point is-
In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, as soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know what to expect.
You know Santa is going to call upon Michael Bolton to host a Valentine’s Day Special on TV that will inspire couples all over the world to make sweet love and conceive 100,000 new babies; thereby, solving Santa’s elf- induced extra inventory problem.
I mean, how cliched is that? You’ve seen that story arc a million times before, right?!
As soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know how the story will unfold because Michael Bolton’s bedroom baritone is so cliched it’s a storytelling convention.
It’s a trope.
A type. An archetype.
Admit it. We see story types like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special all the time.
So we know what comes next.
It’s like how in every romantic comedy, unless he’s in a coma, Bill Pullman will get dumped by his fiance for a stranger she meets on the Empire State Building. And maybe, that’s only in Sleepless in Seattle but you know it feels like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.
Just like you know in every romantic comedy, at some point, a heartbroken girl will be comforted by her emotionally intelligent gay friend. It’s a storytelling convention. It’s never a dumb gay friend.
It’s never a gay friend who always says the absolute wrong thing. It’s always a sensitive, empathetic gay friend. Every time.
It’s like how in every disaster movie there are politicians who ignore and even deny the dire warnings coming from the consensus of the scientific community- not that that would ever happen in real life, it’s a type, a cliche.
A storytelling convention.
Like, how in every outdoorsy adventure movie you know it’s going to be the sidekick of color who gets eaten by the bear first.
It’s a storytelling convention.
Like opposites attract, like beauty on the inside.
Like, obviously, the gawky middle school friend you didn’t appreciate will grow up to be smoking hot (see: 13 Going on 30).
Like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.
They’re all rely upon cliches. Tropes. Archetypes.
Without scenery or spoken word these storytelling conventions advance the plot. They hint and foreshadow what’s to come.
The first time farm-boy Wesley says to Buttercup “As you wish” you know how it’s going to end. And because you know how it will end, you know Wesley the farm boy is not dead. You know he’s really the Dread Pirate Roberts.
And even when he’s mostly dead you know he’s not gonna die because you know that’s not how true love
And when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well, all the stories of scripture, all the Old Testament reruns, they all lead you to expect…a wedding.
Just as surely as you know how its going to go as soon as Billy Crystal ride shares his way back to NY with Meg Ryan, all the storytelling conventions of scripture tell you what to expect when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well.
Abraham’s son, Isaac, he went to a foreign land and there at a well he met a woman who was filling her jar.
And guess what Isaac said to her? “May I have some water from your jar?” And Rebekah said to him, “Yes, and I’ll draw water for you camels too.”
And just like that, before you know it, they’re getting married.
Their son, Jacob, he went east to a foreign land, and in the middle of a field surrounded by sheep he comes to a large, stone well. And there approaching the well, Jacob sees a shepherdess, coming to water her sheep, Rachel.
And this time Jacob doesn’t ask the woman for water, he goes directly to her father and asks to marry her. And before you know, well after laboring for her father for 7 years, they’re getting married.
When Moses fled Pharaoh of Egypt, he goes to a foreign land and sits down by a well. And there, says the Book of Exodus, a priest of Midian comes to the well with his 7 daughters and their flock of sheep.
A group of shepherds gather at the well too and they start to harass the priest’s daughters. Moses steps in to defend them and quicker than ‘You had me at hello” Moses is getting married to one of the priest’s daughters, Zipporah.
Ditto King Saul. Ditto the lovers in the Song of Songs. And on and on.
It’s a type scene, a cliche, a contrivance, a storytelling convention.
Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the rest- they all meet their prospective wives at wells in a foreign land.
Meeting at a well in a foreign land- in scripture it’s like match.com or the Central Perk. You’ve seen this story before.
A man comes to a foreign land and there he finds a maiden at a well. He asks her for a drink. She obliges and more so, and then, faster than Faye Dunaway falls for Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, the maiden runs back to get her people to witness and bless their union.
That’s how the story always goes.
So when John tells you that Jesus goes to a foreign country, Samaria, and meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink-
You might as well cue up the jazz flute baby-making music because all the scenes of scripture have prepared you for what to expect.
Meeting a woman at a well- it’s as reliable a clue as when Jim first talks to Pam at the front desk of Dunder Mifflin. You know they’re going to get married!
And, by the way, don’t forget the first miracle, sign, Jesus performs in John’s Gospel in chapter 2 is in Cana where Jesus is a wedding guest. And how, right before this passage, in John 3, Jesus refers to himself, cryptically so, as the bridegroom. And now here in chapter 4 he’s in a foreign land, at a well, asking a woman for a drink of water.
So, if this scene is as cliched as Michael Bolton’s sex appeal, if a man meeting a maiden at a well is as contrived a storytelling convention as the sensitive gay friend, if what John wants to cue up is a wedding, then why doesn’t Jesus follow the script?
I mean, it’s not hard. It’s like swiping right on Tinder.
In scripture all you have to do is ask a girl at a well for a drink of water and someone’s practically already shouting mazel tov.
If that’s what John has cued up for us, then why does Jesus go from asking for a drink of water to talking about Living Water?
And why does this woman, who according to the convention is supposed to be a maiden, instead seem to have more baggage than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman?
The answer? Is in the numbers.
The thing about storytelling conventions- every song uses more than one.
In every comic book movie, it’s not just that the superhero gets orphaned in front of his eyes as a kid, it’s that you know you’re going to find out later the bad guy had something to do with his parents’ murder.
The thing about storytelling conventions- every story uses more than one. In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, the story doesn’t just turn on Michael Bolton’s siren call sex appeal. That would be too simple of a story. The story would just be Michael Bolton helping Santa fill the world with more babies with his bedroom voice. That would be ridiculous.
No, even Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special requires another storytelling convention to advance the story; in this case, a villain, the owner of a no questions asked money back guarantee mattress company, who vows to kill Michael Bolton after he’s deluged with calls from customers wanting their money back because Michael Bolton has inspired them to reach such bed-destroying heights of ecstasy they want their money back.
The thing about storytelling conventions every story uses more than one. Even the Gospel of John.
Here in John 4, it’s not just the well scene and it’s the numbers.
You need both conventions, the well and the numbers, to mine the meaning of this story.
Numbers in scripture always convey meaning.
Jesus dies at the 6th hour.
12 disciples. 12 tribes of Israel.
Joshua marched around Jericho 7 times on the 7th day.
The menorah has 7 candlesticks.
And God completed creation and rested on the 7th day.
In scripture, numbers always convey meaning. It’s a storytelling convention. And in scripture, the number 7 always connotes completeness. Perfection. Fulfillment.
And if the number 7 conveys completeness, the number 6 is 7’s ugly opposite, a blemish. The number 6 is painful reminder of coming up short, of imperfection, of incompleteness.
So when John tells you this woman has had 5 husbands and she’s shacked up with 1 more (6) and now she’s meeting a 7th suitor at a well, he’s not simply telling you she has baggage. He’s giving you a clue that the tension in this story is between incompleteness and completeness.
The numbers are the other storytelling convention and the most important number to know in this story isn’t even explicit in the story.
John just expects you, the audience, to know it.
The number 3.
3- that’s the number of husbands a woman was allowed under the Jewish Law.
3- that’s it. Not 5. Not 6-ish.
And it’s true Samaritans weren’t Jews, but- you can tell just from her conversation with Jesus- the Pentateuch was their scripture. The shared the same bible. They followed the Torah too.
She’s only allowed under the Law 3 husbands.
So what’s up with John telling us that she’s had 5, 6-ish, husbands?
This is where this hackneyed courtship scene from scripture becomes like a Jane Austen movie where everything turns on language and word play and misunderstanding.
The word husband in Hebrew, ba’al, means literally lord. It’s the same word Hebrew uses for a pagan deity. She’s had 5 ba’lim and now a sort of 6th.
She’s had 5 gods, 5 idols, and now a sort of 6th.
So often preachers want to make this story about Jesus crossing boundaries, gender and ethnic, to show hospitality to this unclean outsider, or they want to make it about Jesus showing grace to this woman with a profligate past.
The problems with preaching this passage that way-
On the one hand, Jesus is in Samaria not the other way around. If anyone here is crossing ethnic and gender boundaries to show hospitality to an outsider, it’s her.
On the other hand, this passage might be about grace and no doubt she’s a sinner but the ba’lim they’re talking about aren’t husbands. They’re idols.
It’s right there in scripture, in 2 Kings 17, where it describes the Assyrian invasion of Israel and how the Assyrians brought with them to Samaria from 5 different Assyrian cities their 5 different gods, 5 different idols, 5 ba’lim, husbands.
Her baggage is different than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman. She hasn’t broken the 6th commandment. She’s broken the first.
She’s not an adulteress. She’s an idolatress.
So who’s this 6-ish husband?
This is where John 4 is like a western or a war movie. You have to know the geography to follow the story.
John expects you to know that near Sychar Herod the Great had turned the capital city of Samaria into a Roman city and named it after Caesar and filled the city with thousands of Roman colonists, settlers with whom the Samaritans did not intermarry as they had with the Assyrians.
Hence Jesus’ line “…and the one you have now is not your husband.” He’s not looking into her heart. What Jesus knows about her is what every Jew knew about her. People.
You see, it’s another storytelling convention.
This woman- she’s a stand in. A symbol.
She represents all of her people.
It’s a different kind of wedding scene because they’re not talking about her checkered past. They’re talking about her people’s worshiping 5 false gods and now they’re under the thumb of Caesar who required his subjects to worship him as a god, as a ba’al.
That’s why she calls him a prophet.
Prophets don’t look into sinners’ hearts for their secrets.
Prophets call out people’s idolatry.
That’s why their conversation so quickly turns to worship. If they’re talking about husbands husbands then it sounds like she’s changing the subject. But if they’re talking about husbands, ba’lim, as in gods, then worship is the next logical topic.
Because the Samaritans believed the presence of the true God was found atop Mt. Gerizim and the Jews believed the presence of the true God was found in the Temple in Jerusalem.
They’re talking about God.
The presence of God. Where God is to be found in spirit and truth.
Not the 5 false gods who can’t nourish, can’t quench but can give only stale water as though out of a cracked cistern, not Caesar who presumed to be a god and humiliated his subjects and forced them to tote water like slaves, but the true and living God who can give light and life like an ever flowing stream, like Living Water.
And that’s why this seventh suitor, this Mr. Perfect who embodies Michael Bolton’s first chart topping hit “How am I Supposed to Live Without You,” this would-be husband who promises to complete her like Rene does for Jerry Maguire.
He turns to her at the well.
Jesus turns to her at the well and he says to her the very same thing God said to Moses at the Burning Bush. Exactly what God said when he first revealed his name to his People. What God first said when he vowed to be their ba’al.
“I am” Jesus says to her. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.
He’s all that is.
And then she drops her bucket, the symbol of how her previous 5 husbands have left her parched and wanting- because they’re not real. She drops her bucket, the symbol of her 6th husband’s subjugation and abuse.
She drops her bucket.
And then she continues the storytelling convention by running off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union.
No one fetches the chuppah. No one shouts mazel tov. No one kills the fatted calf and kicks on the Michael Bolton music.
John continues the storytelling convention of the wedding at the well. She runs off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union just like all the women of scripture before her have done. Come and see, she says.
But then, there’s no wedding, no marriage, no exchange of vows.
It’s like John chooses right here to use another storytelling convention.
A cliffhanger. A season-ending ambiguity.
To Be Continued…
Because, remember, it’s a convention.
She’s just a stand-in, a symbol. She represents her people. All people.
The union is supposed to be with you.
You’re the one- because of you he can’t keep his mind on nothing else. He’d trade everything- power and divinity, his life- for the good he finds in you.
Sure, you’re bad. Sure, you’re a sinner. But his love for you is such…he can’t see it.
I doubt he’d ever turn his back on his best friend, but to him- you can deny him, betray him, run away from him; you can mock him, spit upon him, hang him out to dry on a cross- you can do no wrong.
He’d give up everything for you. Empty himself. Put on flesh. Take the form of a slave. Sleep out in the rain. He’d give you everything he’s got, even his life.
He’d come back from the grave just to hold onto your precious love.
And sure, I’m just cheesily quoting “When a Man Loves a Woman” right now, but the point couldn’t be more serious.
Of all the other suitors in the world, of all the idols vying for your love and affection, he’s the seventh. He’s the light to your darkness, the shepherd to little lamb you.
He’s your Mr. Darcy. The Alvy to your Annie Hall. The Tracy to your Hepburn.
Only he can complete you.
John stops the storytelling convention right here.
There’s no chuppah, no DJ, no mazel to.
There’s no exchange of vows.
Because John’s waiting for you to say “I do.”
I take an attribute of strong preaching to be the ability to take a cliche or convention and upend it. Here, my Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra, takes John 3 and counterintuitively makes Nicodemus the hero of the story. In a world of 3.16 eyeblack and politically compromised evangelicals, this is a fresh word from this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel:
A Sermon Preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York, New York
Sunday, May 28, 2006
by Robert Dykstra
John 3:1-10, John 19:38-42
I thought her invitation a bit presumptuous, a bit out of place, though it was benign enough as invitations go. It was an altar call, really, and I havenít anything much against altar calls, though I donít ever remember issuing one myself as a preacher, perhaps for fear of a lack of any response. But this particular altar call seemed a bit unusual, a little presumptuous, a little out of place.
The place was Miller Chapel on the Princeton Seminary campus, back in my days as a student there. Her invitation came at one of the seminaryís brief weekday morning worship services. The preacher on that particular day was a guest minister from outside the seminary community, a distinguished and eloquent African-American woman ñ I canít even remember her name now. But what I do remember is that at the end of her lively and powerful sermon ñ the way of African American sermons and far more compelling than our usual white-boy-student-sermon fare ñ this preacher issued an altar call to those of us in the congregation. She asked those who wished to commit their lives to Christ to come forward into the chancel for a prayer.
Well, I found this invitation a little odd, a little out of place, a little presumptuous of her. No one can enroll as a student or be hired on as a faculty member at Princeton Seminary without claiming to be a Christian, though I canít fully guarantee that Jesus himself would claim us all as such. You have to say youíre a Christian to get admitted to Princeton Seminary, so whatís up with this preacher issuing an altar call at a place like this, in a place like Miller Chapel?
I thought to myself, No one is going to go forward to commit their lives to Jesus at Princeton Seminary.
I was dead wrong, of course. Of the perhaps hundred or so students and faculty in the chapel that day, a huge throng of worshipers made their way to the front of the sanctuary. In fact, when the procession ended, I looked around and noticed that there were maybe only four or five of us still seated in our pews. The preacher herself looked out on us pathetic holdouts and noticed it, too. So she said straight to our faces, ìYou folks still sitting out there might as well come on up here, too.î
Now it was I, of course, who was feeling a little presumptuous, or, at least, a little conspicuous. Who did I think I was to imagine that I didnít need to commit my life to Jesus, especially when everyone else in that room seemed to think that they themselves did? No matter that, as far as I knew, Iíd been committed to Jesus as long as I could remember. I recall as a boy still in my booster seat asking my parents how God could be everywhere if we couldnít see God ñ asking questions like that and loving how they would reply: God was inside us, they might say; or God is Spirit, they might say.
I remember as a sixth-grader on the cusp of adolescence attending a Presbyterian summer church camp ñ my first time away from home alone for a whole week, a time full of excitement ñ loving every minute, falling in love perhaps for the first time not only with another camper, but fully, knowingly, with Jesus, feeling him in my heart, openly committing my life to him, praying to him, singing songs to him.
As a high school boy I was allowed to become the church organist of our little congregation, and I took this responsibility very seriously, practicing hymns from the same green hymn book you use here at Fifth Avenue, sometimes late into the night all alone in the darkened sanctuary, a room tiny by this sanctuaryís standard but that seemed voluminous to me at that age ñ alone in the dark, the little light on the organ the only one burning. And I felt warm and secure and so at home in the quiet darkness of Godís house. And I still feel that way today, perhaps most at home of any place I could be in a sanctuary like this, especially if all alone in it, especially at night with one light burning.
So in chapel as a seminary student that day, I felt Iíd been committed to Jesus for a long time. But I knew what I had to do, so at the preacherís bidding to us holdouts still in the pews, I slunk up out of my seat, feeling a bit chastised, and made my way with the other four or so of my less-than-devout comrades to pray with everyone else there in the chancel. But I knew by then that I was a little more reluctant to be born again this time after having been born so many times before.
Thereís a part of me that admires the courage of a preacherís altar call to seminarians. Thereís something exactly right about that invitation. But I think itís also true that, as Iíve grown older, Iíve grown even more uneasy than I was as a student in chapel that day with the kind of public declarations of Christian faith that have grown increasingly familiar and have become not a little divisive in our churches and in our nation today. I get nervous about all those Christians who borrow the ìborn againî language from this very passage in John 3 ñ the chapter of the Bible that contains its most comforting verse, ìFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…î ñ but Christians who wear that ìborn againî language as a badge of honor, who use this language to fashion a kind of litmus test or entrance exam into Christian faith, into true discipleship, use it therefore as an instrument of exclusion rather than of grace. Thereís part of me that wishes I had resisted the preacherís second invitation that day to the four of us still remaining in our pews, wishes I had stayed put and prayed by myself there where I was sitting. That would have been more the Christian I now want to be.
I think Iím a born-again Christian going increasingly undercover, becoming increasingly private, increasingly stealthy about my faith. Iím becoming more like Nicodemus, a man who knows that thereís great power and great risk in meeting Jesus, a man who does not take lightly such an encounter with him, who knows thereís a lot at stake. I think Iím someone who now prefers to talk with Jesus in the dark of night, in the middle of the night, as when a boy in that empty church sanctuary with just one lamp burning.
Nicodemusí story, of course, moves in just the opposite direction. His moves from meeting Jesus first in the dark ñ Nick at Night ñ to, by the end of Jesusí life, embracing Jesusí body in broad daylight. You see, Nicodemus shows up several times in Johnís gospel, each time appearing more bold, more public, more decisive about following Jesus, about being seen as his disciple, as if Jesusí lesson that first night about his needing to be born again, born from above, really took hold in his life, really sank in. If my story begins with a public love for Jesus in the daylight to increasingly private encounters with him at night, Nicodemusí story moves from a shadowy encounter with Jesus at night to a powerful declaration of his love for him in the light of day. It is Nicodemus, after all, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish ruling council just 70 members strong, the council that proved finally to be Jesusí undoing, his death ñ this Nicodemus is the man who, with the help of his friend Joseph of Arimathea and at great personal risk, embalms Jesusí body after his death, and he offers this painful and tender declaration of love, this intimate final gift to his friend, no longer under cover of darkness.
The nationís most famous undertaker, Thomas Lynch, lives in Milford, Michigan, a small town just north of Detroit, where he buries his friends and neighbors for a living. He also writes amazing books, the reason heís now our nationís most famous undertaker. In his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch tells of preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:
Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.
Milo is dead….
[In the hospital where he died,] Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe….
I sign for him and get him out of there….
Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself ñ eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features ñ eyes and mouth ñ that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Miloís hands ñ one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.
They will not be doing anything anymore, either.
I wash his hands before positioning them [Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 9-11].
Thatís what Nicodemus will end up doing, though in the light of day, for Jesus. Setting his features. Washing his hands.
Maybe thatís the direction of faith that Jesus prefers, from darkness to light, from stealthy discipleship to public declarations of born-again faith. Maybe thatís what Jesus wants, itís probably what this story in John chapter three is trying to suggest.
But the more that contemporary American Christians insist that everyone become born again and insist too that we all sign on to a prescribed and unyielding roster of accompanying social and political doctrines; the more, so to speak, that weíre pressured to come up to the front of the chapel: the more I want to seek out Jesus in private, at night, undercover, like the early Nicodemus.
The more they press us to become daylight Christians, bumper-sticker Christians, card-carrying, banner-waving Christians, the more I appreciate those stealthy Christians whom I have known and increasingly want to emulate along the way: Christians who are not always so sure of their status before God, seekers who find their encounters with Jesus to be a risky business, who go about their faith without ostentation and perhaps also without complete assurance, in secret, in darkness, undercover, uncertain. The more that born-again Christians fill the airwaves with their certitudes and self-assurance, the more I want to be that Christian with just one lamp burning in the middle of the night.
ìThe wind blows where it chooses,î Jesus tells Nicodemus there in the darkness, ìand you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.î The wind blows where it chooses. God blows where God chooses. We do not control God any more than the wind.
Your being born, my being born, though we can be reasonably sure that we were once born, was not in your or my control, is not something we can take much credit for having done. We had very little to say about our being born the first time, and we would do well to have very little to say now about our being born again, born from above.
It happened once, yes, your birth; it happens sometimes, yes, being born again. But itís not something to spend much time talking about, not if you want to retain any friends. Itís not something in which to take pride or boast. You didnít have that much to do with it. No, better instead just to get on with the business of living, of loving, of serving, of worshiping, of picking up your friends at 2 a.m. and doing for them what needs to be done, however painful or dismal the task. Quiet Christians, steady Christians, stealthy Christians, modest, unassuming, grateful, lunar Christians. Have you known any Christians like that in your life?
A few years ago, as a promising young theology professor at Notre Dame in her early forties, Catherine LaCugna was told by her doctors ìthat there was nothing more that they could do for her and that cancer would kill her within a few months.î At receiving this terrible news, her friend Kathleen Norris writes, LaCugna ìdid not run away to nurse her wounds but continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died.î
Reflecting on her friendís life and death, Norris says:
I can scarcely imagine what it meant to her students when they found out what she had done, when they considered that they and the dry, underappreciated work of systematic theology that they had been engaged in together meant so much to her. Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the churchís liturgical day, ìMay the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,î it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others. (Kathleen Norris, ìPerfection,î Christian Century, February 18, 1998: 180).
I think of Norrisí words and of LaCugnaís death from time to time, for they capture the kind of Christian I want to be ñ quiet, steady, faithful, courageous, but, oh, so aware that time is short, the stakes high, the questions we pose to Jesus in the dead of night so very important, with so much hanging in the balance.
Darkness. Risk. Courage. Faithfulness. A stealth Christian. Thatís the kind that, more and more, Iíd like to be.
Remember Thomas Lynch taking care of his friend, Milo Hornsby? Lynch says:
When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.
After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ìNever mind thatî is what Milo said. ìOne hand washes the other,î [is what Milo said].
I place Miloís right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesnít matter. One hand washes the other either way [Lynch, 11].
One hand washes the other. Thereís Nicodemus at the end of Johnís gospel washing the hand that once washed his, embalming Jesus.
Nicodemus is not filling the airwaves with endless chatter about his having been born again, though he may well have been thus born. Heís just risking his life, his status, his reputation in this last, quiet, heroic act of love for his friend.
Heís not talking about his birth. Heís living his life. Heís giving his life to the one who so loved the world, to the one who gave his life for him.
Jazz vocalist Darden Purcell and Eric Sabo’s trio provided our music for the first weekend of Lent. Because they were there and because I’ve always been a fan of So I Married an Axe Murderer I decided to write my sermon on Psalm 51 as a beat poem with the band underneath me.
‘It works.’ It works, indeed,
It’s more buttoned-down
Than ‘Christos Anesti!’
But such were the first
Easter words pronounced
Over the new heart
A Lithuanian Jew
Was born in 1922.
Louis fought Mussolini.
Having seen El Duce
Strung up by his heels,
(like a fascist pig at the butcher)
Settled down in Cape Town
And opened a grocery.
Pricks to the finger,
And shots to the guts,
Up and down sugar.
Pain down arms, elephant on chest,
1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests
Rendered him habeus corpus
For an experimental test.
The first person after 50
Dogs before him to
Another’s heart receive
(Man’s best friend, indeed).
After 9 hours under,
Of the green grocery
Opened his numb eyes
With the heart of a
Girl, 20-something girl
Beating inside his
Bruised and cracked chest.
His heart’s former owner-
She had been struck by a driver
Who’d had one too many.
It’s always 5…somewhere.
The girl with the heart
Was on her way
To buy tea.
From her local grocery.
By fate or by lots,
Her heart became another’s to bear:
First fluttered his eyes,
His chest beating fresh
And faithfully as
The checkout on aisle
The doctor, a preacher’s kid
From Cape Town,
Like God b’fore the new hewn
Grave: ‘It works.’
Said: ‘It works.’
The girl’s grief-blind Father,
The doctor’s trial and error,
Had given the the grocer
Exactly what each of us
Would gladly broker:
A new- a different- heart.
If we had the hearts
Sufficient to tell
The truth to each other:
My need is as great as that grocer’s.
My desire to back trace my steps
Just as desperate
As his donor.
What the doctor concluded
of Louis Washkansky.
What You first declared
About Adam and Eve
Is what my heart longs to hear
You pronounce over me:
My heart, it works.
But for that to happen
I too first require
Some kind of surgery.
A new, a different, a clean
What harm could it be?
I’ll just repeat:
A new, a different, a clean
That’s what I most need.
Without one, the best I
Can do is plead for
Your, on your mercy.
Which is, perhaps, the
In a life that hides
Trades in them
Thrives on them.
What I’m so stingy to bequeath
Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.
I’m not talking about the one an’ done
Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom
Sort of mercy.
Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.
Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.
Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.
I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down
By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds
Cut oceans in two
Crack water from rock.
No matter what.
You do despite what I do
Have that kinda on me.
But even this plea of mine
Points out my problematic plot line
It’s alway all about
Me, me, me.
The man down the street
She across the bed
I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:
The one thing I ask of you
The one thing I want?
I do not do.
The one thing I ask of you
Is the last I’ll offer you.
When it comes to mercy,
It’s better to receive
Than it is to believe
You must give
When it comes to mercy?
I am reticent.
I am hesitant.
I am no better than Maleficent.
Grace is less amazing
When it’s another’s song.
‘Tis better to be found
Than to get up and to find.
But You already see my blindness
Know my mind, know,
Know that what I solicit
I so seldom show.
I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.
Over my sin-stained self.
Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor
Costlier even than
Easy installments of $19.94.
More chi-chi than gold
Or frankincense and myrrh.
Like Nathan to David,
Like Nicholson to Cruise,
The truth about me
I can’t handle it.
Because I’ve exercised so much equity
With my iniquity
My sin is in me,
Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-
To the fibers and sub-flooring
Of my soul and my Being.
If I were a suit you took the cleaners
You’d get charged extra
And told not to expect me
For at last 3 business
Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean
As she wondered to the woman
With pins in her teeth
Exactly what you’d done in me.
Mercy is what I need.
My sin is ever before me .
Like grace’s doppleganger
In, with and under
Just say the words, no reply
I am not worthy
Of your mercy.
My sin is ever before me
Every pair of eyes
The most unflattering of mirrors
Revealing not the extra 2-inches
Or the male-pattern baldness
But the mystery that we’re
The only members of your handiwork
Who know not how
To be creatures.
Behind my every offense-
If I take measure,
That’s what I should confess:
Thinking the world here for my pleasure
Not me made for my Creator.
Failure to be human:
I’m guilty as charged.
And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you
To the back of the line.
Because against You
Have I sinned.
To you I gave the finger.
And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’
To you I sent the all CAPS email with the
I unfriended You.
For your Tea Party bat crazy,
Your Moveon.org rant.
And hung up when You picked up.
To You I told the
Little white lie
and the outright one.
To You I raised my voice for no good reason.
And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’
To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’
It was Your eyes I forgot were
To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol
Neither patient nor kind
Keeping track of Your trespass
Just as I expect You to forgive mine.
Every sin I’ve committed
Every person I’ve harmed
Count them together
It adds up to one:
Against You alone have I sinned.
Your ledger longer than any other’s.
You’ve seen my worst, every inward part
So You know better than me
How sorely I need
A new and clean heart.
A clean heart!
I’m so far removed
From my mother’s womb
I cannot imagine
What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs
For my ears and my tongue and my mind.
Louis Washkansky knew.
For a time- well, if not clean-
At least more innocent than mine.
The grocer from Cape Town survived
With the unlucky girl’s inside
Him for 18 short days.
But 18 days!
For 400 hours
The grocer who’d seen horrors
The battles and blood
Trenches and marches
The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.
For 18 days-
Found respite inside
an innocent’s heart.
Do the memories recede?
Does the mind forget?
What the heart never learned?
For 18 days
A war-jaded vet
Quickened with her pulse-
That still more days lay
Ahead of her.
Had she had her first kiss?
Been spurned by a friend?
Acquired the scars
Which always become
our kids’ first lessons?
With her’s beating inside him
Did he love his wife, finally
With a love she’d always fancied?
Did he hear what she left unsaid?
Did he show his children
Her love and attention?
Did he sashay around
And leave the toilet seat down?
Did he listen and feel
And, for once, find the right words
What are you thinkin’?
With her inside him
Was it freeing?
To finally, truthfully, be singing:
‘I’m every woman.’
Or was it just enough for the grocer
What we’d mortgage heaven to broker
What we’d plead for You to impart:
A new, a clean, heart.
His new heart, her old one
Beat for only 17 days longer
His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid
Could not give
What only You can offer.
I’ve got to wonder
Can even You impart
Such an illogical grace
As a new, clean heart?
How can what is Yours only
Without it being less than You?
How can the infinite
In this small space I’ve carved for it?
Given what impossible surgery
A new, a clean heart would require
To say nothing of the biological
Might it be sufficient to desire
Not what in me You must do
A new heart to own
But just You.
If so, then the point
Is not a doctor
To bind us
To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days
But to break our spirit
So that, broken, our
Lips may proclaim Your
Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.
Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.
After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.”
It’s our fault.
Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS, derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.
And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.
So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.
If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.
I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.
Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.
Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.
Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.
But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.
I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.
God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.
Just take the parable.
The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:
Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?
Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.
Alters how he sees his father.
Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.
Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.
His father hasn’t changed.
His sin has changed how he sees his father.
Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.
The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.
Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.
‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.
Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.
But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.
Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.
It’s worship of an Accuser.
Which can never be motived by love or joy.
Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.
That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.
To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.
Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.
The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.
The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.
God is like a father whose love without condition.
Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.
God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.
If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.
Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.
No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.
Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.
Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.
Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.
Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.
But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.
God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.
God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.
And then we justify ourselves for having done it.
Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.
Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.
“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.”
Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.
I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.
I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.
After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.
And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.
As judging, damning. You.
I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.
I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.
You see God the way you do because of your sin.
Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.
God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.
Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.
God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.
Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.
God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.
Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.
God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.
If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.
God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.
After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:
God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.
There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.
Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.
It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.
Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.
It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.
Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.
Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.
Not at all.
God never changes his mind about you.
Because God doesn’t change.
No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.
If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.
It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.
It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.
You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.
You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.
Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.
Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.
God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.
That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.
These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.
These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.
Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.
The God you thought was an angry judge.
He’s just a Dad on a porch.
Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.
“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.
I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.
From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in 1 of 2 ways.
I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.
Rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter.
I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage.
I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his Church on him.
That’s how you preach this text:
Go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’
Or, look at Peter- he’s just like you.
Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.
As cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.
I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.
So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.
If this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter profess “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah”
Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?
Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’
Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve?’
If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, satan?’
If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?
In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.
What if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right.
Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.
There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.
What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.
Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.
More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.
Does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good.
Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.
Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become God.
This is where the good news is to be found.
Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.
Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.
No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.
God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.
The light that radiates Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.
It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory.
It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.
It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures.”
That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.
Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.
If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.
You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.
What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build 3 tabernacles.
Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus.
Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.
*David Bentley Hart: The Uncreated Light
Here’s my sermon from this weekend.
The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.
In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:
“Who is my neighbor?” he presses.
It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.
Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.
Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.
Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.
Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.
So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.
Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.
About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.
A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.
Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.
For the man in the ditch.
Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:
He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.
14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’
Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?
You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.
I mean, show of hands:
How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?
How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?
An anecdote like…
On Friday morning…
I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.
I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.
And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:
‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’
I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.
‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out?
I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool.
You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic.
Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’
I thought to myself.
But mostly, I was irritated.
Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.
I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.
I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.
And passed by.
Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.
And passed by.
Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.
And passed by.
When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.
‘I don’t have any cash on me.’
I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’
Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’
And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.
After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.
It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.
And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.
And then I took his picture.
Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.
I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.
See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?
A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’
And, I expect, you would go.
Feeling not inspired. But guilty.
Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.
If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford.
The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.
I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.
Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’
Then it hit me.
‘Say that again’ I said.
‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’
And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.
We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.
It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.
The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.
Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.
And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.
When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’
When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’
Ditto the Levite.
No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by. No one would’ve been outraged.
As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.
The priest had no choice- for the greater good.
According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.
Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.
And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.
Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.
But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.
As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.
If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.
If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.
If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.
Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.
A little context-
In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.
And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.
So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.
They were Other.
They were despised.
They were considered deplorable.
Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.
In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.
That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’
‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.
You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.
The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.
The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.
We’ve gotten it all backwards.
It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.
It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.
The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.
The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.
Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.
You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.
No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.
Therefore, they are our neighbors.
Upon whom our salvation depends.
I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.
On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.
They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.
And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.
So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”
I thought about how to answer.
I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.
Turns out I managed to be both.
“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”
Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.
Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.
As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.
Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?
Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.
Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.
No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:
That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs not between Us and Them but through every human heart.
That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin.
“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says
All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.
“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”
“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”
“No one is righteous, not one.”
if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…
Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure.
We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.
Maybe now you can feel why.
Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-
Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-
Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.
Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.
Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.
Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.
A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.
When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.
He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.
And more counter-cultural.
He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.
They are our neighbors.
Not only our neighbors.
They are our threshold to heaven.
Go and do likewise?
It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.
After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:
Wanting nothing to do with him.
Or, wanting to do away with him.
Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”
Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:
If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.
No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?
If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.
You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.
But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.
If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.
Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:
Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?
It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”
We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.
And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”
So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.
But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:
You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian.
If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.
You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.
According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.
You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.
If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.
Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.
We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.
We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.
Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’
You must be born again.
You must be born from above.
Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.
But right there- there’s the question, right?
Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?
Not that question.
And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?
Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind?
Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?
We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.
When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”
And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.
When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’
Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.
So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.
We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.
That you in “You must be born again” is plural.
It’s “You all must be born again.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.
And Jesus answers with “You all…”
Like it or not, we are in that you.
Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.
After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.
Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.
When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.
Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.
Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.
So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.
But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?
Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.
Take it back.
From those other kind of Christians.
Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.
Being born anothen–
It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.
Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.
You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?
That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”
Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.
What is flesh, i.e. you and me, is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.
You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.
Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.
We could push back.
And we’d be right.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God.
So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?
Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.
We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.
Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”
In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.
And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.
To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”
And what does John show you?
Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.
And what does Pilate say?
“Behold, the man.”
And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?
Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.
And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?
Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.
Water and the spirit, the sixth day.
And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?
Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.
Then Easter, the first day of the week.
And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?
For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.
Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.
Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.
He breathes on them.
Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.
They’re made new again.
And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.
The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.
Chuck Norris is right. What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.
We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.
That we are.
Born again. Born from above.
All of us.
Every one of us.
Even you all.
It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.
There is no distinction.
All of us, in our sin, were in Adam.
And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.
What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.
In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.
There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.
Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.
The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.
Consider yourselves anothened.
Being born again–
It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.
It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.
It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.
It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.
It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.
It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.
Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God.
It’s his work, not ours, that saves.
It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.
What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.
If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.
If we get born again.
What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.
For all of us.
So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-
The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.
Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again
And if that same someone asks you for a when-
When were you born again? When were you saved?
You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.
John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.
It’s Good News.
But it’s not easy.
What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.
Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.
You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.
You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.
You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.
You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.
You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.
And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.
You’ve got to see.
See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.
It’s about sight.
Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.
To be born again is to be given new eyes.
Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.
He should know-
Even that’s easier than to be born again
To become who you already are in Jesus Christ
To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.
Here’s my sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent. My text was Matthew 1.18-25.
“…You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.”
To those of you who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.
Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend Ben to a Christmas party. The party was hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ and was held in the home of their campus pastor.
Back then, I was still new in my faith and in many ways I wasn’t confident about being a Christian. Back then, Ben was the only Christian I knew at school.
As their name implies, Campus Crusade is an evangelistic organization. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and Ben had grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia where most of the Christians he knew hoarded guns and canned goods in their basements in anticipation of the apocalypse. An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed tame to him.
It was during my first semester, about this time of year, that Ben invited to this “party.”
Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word ‘party,’ to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations- none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.
In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where I was asked to take my shoes off at the front door.
Ben and I walked there that night, in the cold and thin snow, to a neighborhood just off of campus. Walking up the short driveway to a small ranch home, I could spy through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.
At first I thought we must be at the wrong house; this must be a Tupperware party or a bridge club. Ben though assured me it was the right address.
I thought about running away then and there- and probably I should have- but Ben’s a lot bigger than me and I didn’t want to aggravate him.
When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. When Ben introduced me, the guy- the student pastor- shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said: ‘Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.’
And I replied: ‘What?’
This must have been his secret Christian greeting and because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the bible and because I didn’t reciprocate with ‘Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1’ he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.
But first he asked me to take off my shoes.
Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my watch between bites.
You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-a-long. I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.
On my left was a girl who began every sentence with ‘The Lord just put it on my heart to ________‘ and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.
On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt and had earlier over chocolate covered pretzels asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.
Across from me, sitting on the brick hearth, was a girl named Maria. I recognized her from the little Methodist church I tried to worship at a few times.
I remembered her because every Sunday when it came time for the congregation to share their joys and concerns Maria would grab the microphone and hold the congregation hostage for 20 or so minutes while she narrated the ups and downs of her romantic life.
Unwisely, I thought, Ben sat next to her on the hearth.
We sang songs whose words I knew only vaguely and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his pregnant wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.
When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our bibles. I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. I hadn’t noticed before but I was the only one who hadn’t brought a one.
‘Luke, chapter 2’ Mike said. Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud: ‘In the days of King Herod…’
After he finished the reading, Mike asked everyone to share what the passage- what Christmas and the incarnation and the coming of Jesus- meant to them. And for several long minutes people around the room said things like:
‘I’m so thankful Jesus came into the world to die for my sin.’
Each person’s sharing was slightly different, but they were all about Sin- about Jesus reconciling it, suffering the wages of it, dying for it.
Then for a few moments a pause settled over the room. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t a holy silence or even a meaningful one. It was everyone waiting on me to say something. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to be released until I offered some testimony of my own.
Okay, maybe it sounded sarcastic but with all sincerity I wondered out loud what was genuinely on my mind. I asked a question:
‘If there’d been no Fall, would Christ still have come?
If humankind had never sinned, would there still have been Christmas?’
From the group’s embarrassed reaction you would have thought I’d just called Jesus’ mother a dirty name. Everyone looked at me with confusion. Mike looked at me with pained sadness and Ben looked as blushed as the pastor’s wife’s red corduroy dress.
An awkward silence fell over the room until Ben summoned a fake laugh from somewhere in his belly and somehow just kept the hahaha’s going.
I suppose it was only obvious to me how Ben was hoping he could just keep laughing and laughing and laughing until we sang another song or did something. But for pastor Mike I was clearly a neophyte to the faith (or a fool) and this was what he would’ve called ‘a teachable moment.’
He slung his guitar behind his back and started to gesture with his hands like it really pained him to break it down so simply for me.
‘Jason, the reason Jesus came,’ he explained, ‘is he had a job to do: to rescue us from our Sin so that we can have a relationship with God.’
For a few minutes more it sounded like he was rattling off lines memorized from a pamphlet about the wages of sin.
‘But what I was wondering: If we had never sinned, would Jesus still have come?’
‘But Adam and Eve did sin; we do sin. I’m a sinner. I’m not ashamed to admit that’ Mike replied and did so rather condescendingly.
That’s when any hope Ben had for me to keep my mouth shut went out the window.
‘That’s not my point,’ I said. I mean…
“Is the incarnation something that comes out of God’s frustration and disappointment with us? Or out of God’s overflowing joy and desire for us?”
“Is Christmas just the beginning of a rescue package that bails us out of our suffering and sin, or is Christmas even deeper and more mysterious than that?”
The group just watched us go back and forth, staring at me like I was either an idiot or a heretic. The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first 30 minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.
No one seemed to appreciate the budding theologian in their midst.
It didn’t help matters that the only person sympathetic to my perspective was the bearded 50 year old with the Star Trek shirt whose sole contribution to my cause was to say ‘Dude, that’s deep.’
Meanwhile the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.
Finally someone said out loud: ‘Well, I know I sin all the time and I’m just grateful he came to die for mine.’
As if rendering a verdict, Mike said: ‘Praise God!’ Then he swung his guitar around like Church Berry and we sang another song.
For all the confusion my question caused, the answer is YES.
Would he still have come?
Would there still be Christmas if there’d been no Fall? YES.
Even though I couldn’t have articulated it back then, that’s what John’s Nativity story is getting at when it proclaims: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’
Even before Joseph dreams his dream, before he’s felt in Mary’s womb, HE IS. He’s before time.
Before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed- before creation is even set in motion God had already chosen to one day take flesh and live among us.
The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this. In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.
If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.
If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity.
That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.
That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’
In other words, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.
So what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:
The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation.
The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us.
The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love.
There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.
And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.
Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins.
Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.
Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.
We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.
It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas.
It’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben: ‘Well, that was an awesome party.’
And he belly-laughed, not at the evening but at me, at what he thought was my contrariness.
‘But it’s a good question!’ I growled. Ben just laughed some more, and by the time we were leaving the neighborhood he said: ‘I don’t see what difference it really makes.’
Back then our friendship was still new and it was governed by politeness. So I let it go.
Back then I wasn’t bold enough to push the difference.
But I’m the pastor now, so listen up:
INCARNATION names a love every bit as deep and unconditional as CROSS.
You’re holy and you’re loved and you’re graced not only because God took flesh to save you but also because even before creation morning God chose to be with you.
The Gospel’s not just that in the fullness of time God came among us to suffer for our Sin.
The Gospel’s also that before there was time God decided to join his life to ours no matter what.
The Gospel’s not just that Christ died for you.
It’s also that before there was even the promise or notion of you…
Before you did your first good deed or told your first lie…
Before you made your life a success or made it a disaster…
Before you said your wedding vows or before you broke them…
Before you held your children in your arms or before you estranged yourself from them…
Before you first laughed or wept or kissed or shouted out in anger…
Before you gave your life to the Lord or before you turned your back on him…
Before the oceans were even born God said ‘I do’ to you.
That’s the Gospel too.
Would he still have come? Would he still have taken flesh?
And that means-
The invitation for you to come to God is always there.
Because it’s always been there.
For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.
In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21
‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’
So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.
It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.
My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.
I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.
To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.
Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E). A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.
Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.
But I digress.
The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.
Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.
But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.
Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.
I called the doctor the next morning.
Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.
No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.
The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.
First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?
Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.
Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.
‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’
‘Just about’ she replied.
‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’
Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.
When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.
Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.
I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.
‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.
A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.
Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.
The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.
“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”
And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.
I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.
Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.
Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.
‘All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.
‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.
For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.
She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.
Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.
Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?
Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’
So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.
And, I was naked.
If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’
‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.
‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’
‘No, I’m fine.’
The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.
He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’
So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.
He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’
Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’
‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.
With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.
The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.
Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.
‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.
‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.
Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.
But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.
‘I’m a minister’ I said.
‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.
‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.
‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.
Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.
You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.
John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’
Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.
The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.
Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.
She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.
Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.
‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.
She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’
‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.
She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’
‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’
‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.
The doctor laughed too.
They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.
James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.
Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”
Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.
Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.
On the inside-
I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.
The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.
I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.
And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.
What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.
So I pretend.
I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.
I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.
And so do you.
And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.
Which is odd.
Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.
No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.
All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.
The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it.
Every bit of every one of us.
On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’
As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.
Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.
Gregory of Nazainzus.
The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.
All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.
It has to be.
Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’
Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.
Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.
Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.
So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.
We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.
With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’
‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.
Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.
Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”
O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.
The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.
And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.
Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher. They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.
Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.
Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.
I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!
Advent for Average Sinners
Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’
I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?
Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?
I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:
Is God’s ego really so fragile?
True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?
Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?
Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?
And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.
Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.
Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?
With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?
Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?
Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.
With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.
And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.
And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.
Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.
We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.
And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”
The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.
No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
Denial that we are sinners.
But, since Advent is a season for honesty-
What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?
Like you? Like me?
Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.
Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’
It’s over the top.
It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.
I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.
Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.
To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.
You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?
We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork.
And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.
No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.
You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.
For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.
So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.
As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.
It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.
Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.
So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.
I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.
We are not great sinners.
I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.
We’re not rebelling day and night against God. Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.
We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.
No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.
Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.
Your sins do not offend God.
There, I said it.
Your sins do not offend God.
No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.
John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.
You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.
No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.
You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.
Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.
But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.
No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.
I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.
As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.
Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.
Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.
They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.
They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:
Sin is about where your love lies.
Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change.
Because God doesn’t change.
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.
God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.
So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.
Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love for you is unconditional- unchanging- because God is unchanging.
Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.
Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.
Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.
When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.
God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.
Who the heck are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?
You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.
You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.
Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.
Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.
And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.
Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.
And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.
You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.
Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.
Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to die. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.
Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.
Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.
Bishop Will Willimon, author of Fear of the Other, was our guest preacher the Sunday after Trumpocalypse. His text was Romans 5. Not only is the book dedicated to Donald Trump (…without whose xenophobia ‘I wouldn’t have been asked to write this book.’) it’s an incredibly timely book for those who are repulsed by Trump and how we’re to love the ungodly which surely includes even Donald Trump.
“We’ve got to love the ungodly…even an ungodly liar like Donald Trump.”
Listen to it.
Here’s my sermon from our Saturday evening worship service. At the last minute, given the cultural climate post-election, I chose Mark 12.13-17 as my text.
For the last 18 months, according to the Principalities and Powers, this Tuesday’s election was supposed to be the most important event in our lifetimes if not in history, an odd and hyperbolic claim for Christians to accept given that the only democratic election portrayed in the Gospels is when we choose Barrabbas over Jesus.
Christians are right to be passionate about the candidates and causes for whom they advocated; likewise, Christians are right to feel somewhere between fearful to righteously appalled over the rhetoric with which Tuesday’s results were purchased.
Still, as divided as we are as a country, as euphoric as some are over Tuesday’s results and as distraught as others are over Tuesday’s results-
it’s hard to imagine Christians in the first century were so preoccupied as us with whether it would be Nero or Britannicus who would succeed the Emperor Claudius.
That’s because Christians in the first century already were shorn of the mythologies into which we as American Christians have been enculturated. Many of us have been conditioned by the liturgies of Civil Religion to believe that America is the Kingdom and to believe, as a matter of consequence, that the Republican and Democratic parties are mutually exclusive means to serve that Kingdom.
The first Christians knew, as a fundamental of their, what we do not. They knew as basic correlative of their confession that Rome was not the Kingdom.
And knowing that Rome was not the Kingdom, the first Christians knew better than we that the politics made available to them by Rome were not God’s politics.
But rather in world captive to the politics called empire, God had taken flesh and sent his Spirit in order to make a different politics possible- the politics we call Church.
The Church doesn’t have a politics; as Stanley Hauerwas says, the Church is a politics.
The way Jesus negotiates the question put to him in Mark 12 clarifies that statement: The Church doesn’t have a politics; the Church is a politics.
Before I continue, I should point out that Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.
Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill.
To insure I don’t end up, like Jesus, on a cross at the end of this scripture, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.
I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?”
The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.
I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.
Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.
Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt.
And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.
Jesus is political.
The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.
The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.
The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.
So it’s not that the tax was onerous.
It was offensive.
One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean.
It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.
You see how it works?
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies.
On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.
On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip. And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.
To answer that question, you need to know a little history.
200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”
So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.
Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.
But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.
That was 200 years before today’s passage.
About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King. Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.
You see what’s going on?
Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:
Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question.
Come down off the fence Jesus.
Which side are you on?
Politics makes for strange bedfellows.
For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their nominee. And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.
The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.
And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.
The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.
The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.
The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.
And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’
If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.
Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
What are your politics Jesus?
Jesus asks for the coin.
And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’ And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’ Eikons of Caesar. Eikons of God.
Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’
But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question. When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’ But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.
Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’
You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?
What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.
But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.
And what does God deserve from you?
Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’
Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation-
you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you:
You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question. The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System. They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.
But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides. Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.
A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.
But with a cross.
Jesus refuses to accept their premise.
Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents. His movement was about dying for his opponents.
And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.
If you’re like me, social media has been a good and uplifting use of your time this week.
The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric we’ve posted and tweeted and liked and shared this week.
And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.
So here’s my one, simple bipartisan post-election prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.
Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda or demonize those who disagree.
Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. Because we’re more complicated than 140 characters and 30 second soundbites. And so is the Gospel.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.
You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.
But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics.
Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him?
You’re mixing up God and Caesar.
You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus.
You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Because when you do-
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom:
where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;
where grace is offered, free of charge;
where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;
where peace isn’t a soundbite but a practice;
where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you.
Us. The Church.
We’re Jesus’ politics.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In case you missed it, here’s our Post Election Live Edition of Friday’s with Fleming (Rutledge):
He encouraged me to post this sermon which he wrote to preach at Duke Divinity School today, Election Day.
Elected: A Sermon for Duke Divinity School
November 8, 2016
Isaiah 65:15-25/Psalm 98/II Thessalonians 3:6-13/Luke 21: 5-19
Jesus just does not seem to “get it.” We should not be surprised as he often did not seem to understand what should or should not be said if he wanted to have followers. He just did not get how there are better and worse ways to say certain things that need to be said; things that should be said carefully. As we have been reminded of late, “words matter.” Jesus should have tried to find a less direct way to say what he feared might happen to the Temple.
Speaking directly, however, seems to have been a habit Jesus could not break. For example, Jesus surely over stated his case when he suggested that we must hate father and mother, wife and children if we are to follow him. Hating brothers and sisters may be closer to the mark, but even that seems an exaggeration. (Luke 14: 25-28) But the real howler is his claim that the temple will end in ruins. You just do not make those kinds of claims if you want to be elected messiah. At least you do not make those kinds of claims about the temple around the people of Israel. He surely must have known how to say what needed to be said so what is said could be heard.
That Jesus spoke so directly is an indication that he was not trying to create a democratic coalition. He held the ancient offices of Israel. He was prophet, priest, and king. Those positions were not bestowed on him by an election. Moreover, how his life reconfigured each of those offices is a story in itself.
Even as he taught as one with authority, he did not act as if his authority depended on a majority vote. Rather his authority seemed to come directly from who he was. That is, he was the messiah who is truth itself and thus the One who speaks the truth. The truth is the temple will be destroyed, and Jesus can speak that truth because he speaks of his own destruction. Jesus is the priest who is at once the altar and the sacrifice.
In troubling his listeners, Jesus doesn’t attempt to persuade but rather trusts that the Spirit will reveal, without ambiguity, to those who have ears to hear that he is the messiah, the One who will be raised again in glory.
In our epistle reading for the day, we come across yet another striking example of someone who lacked political savvy. Saul was knocked off his horse in an encounter with the risen Christ. As a result, Saul becomes Paul and assumes the title “apostle.” As far as we know Paul was not elected by anyone other than God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Yet he assumes he has authority to tell the Thessalonians what to do. So he issues a command. To be sure it is a command “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but it is still a command made by Paul. Paul does not lead by suggesting, “I think you would find this a good idea.” He says: I command you to stay away from those who live in idleness. Those living in idleness may assume that there is no need to work because they think they heard me say that all things are coming to an end, but they are mistaken about what I am about and they thereby should be avoided. Paul even has the audacity to say, “imitate me.”
Accordingly Paul does not think that he must say what the Thessalonians want to hear.
Majority vote will not determine what the church should or will be.
Nor will a poll be taken to determine what the general will might be. Paul has no use for those who will not work. Idleness is surely the breeding ground of the lie and the lie makes violence inevitable. The lie leads to violence because people who have nothing better to do than to do nothing turn out to be a people who spend their lives making other people miserable because they are about one thing: avoiding boredom. Thus Paul exercises his authority, but his authority is the authority of an apostle.
I have called attention to the kind of authority Jesus and Paul enact as a way to suggest that there may be some tension between the political order that is the church and that form of social and political organization called democracy. I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels and the people asked for Barabbas.
Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic.
I think, however, that is a deep mistake.
It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1 percent get to tell 49.9 percent what to do.
I do not mean to underestimate the work elections might do to make our lives less subject to violence, but elections are not ends in themselves. In classical democratic theory elections are only the means to make a people have the kind of exchanges necessary for the articulation of the goods we have in common. I think I can honestly report that the campaign climaxing in election today does not seem to fit that description.
It is tempting to blame Donald Trump for that result, but I think the problem goes deeper than Trump. The problem, quite simply, is us; a sobering but true realization. We get the people we deserve running for office. What made Trump stand out is that he seemed to speak something other than bureaucratic speech. But you know you are in trouble when the kind of speech that is the speech of television sitcoms is identified as plain speech.
We did not elect Jesus to be President.
We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.
We did not elect him messiah or savior.
We did not vote on whether there should or should not be a people gathered to worship Jesus. We thought our leadership could even be determined by lot. We did not vote to legitimate what we now call “the Bible.” There were times and there will continue to be times Christians take votes, but often it takes centuries for what was determined by a vote to be received by the whole church. Elections are no substitute for argument. Thus the observation made often by non-Christians that Christians must surely love one another, because how else could we explain their willingness to engage one another in argument?
Truth matters. We are to be people of truth. The truth that makes us Christians means we are a people who are not destined to be celebrated in any social order whether it calls itself democratic or not. Do not misunderstand! I am not suggesting that there are not better and worse forms of social and political organization. We do not live in a night when all cows are grey.
But it is also the case that Christians are a people that believe what we believe is true.
Such a people cannot help from time to time coming into conflict with those regimes organized on the assumption that there is no truth other than what “the people” say is the truth.
Jesus tells his followers that we will be arrested and persecuted because of his name. This should be received as good news because Jesus tells us we will therefore have the opportunity to testify. To testify is to tell the truth before a world that often does not believe it possible to say what is true. Jesus assures us that we will be given the words and the wisdom to say at the appropriate time what is true. And this, thank God, is the truth: Jesus is Lord.
Lord is not a democratic title; it is a truthful designation for the one we worship. We have the authority to testify to the truth that is Jesus because that Jesus is Lord is not some general truth that can be known without witnesses. That what is true is known by witnesses to Jesus cannot help but be a deep and profound challenge to the status-quo. It is a challenge because the status-quo is based on the assumption that whatever is true must be available to anyone. Christians are not anyone. We are Jesus people who Jesus says will hatred and some of us will even be put to death. But if Jesus is who he says he is what choice do we have.
After all we did not elect Jesus.
He elected us.
Because I didn’t “write” it, I’m unabashed in calling this the best sermon I’ve ever preached.
For All Saints Sunday my text was John 2.1-11, Jesus turning water to wine at Cana of Galilee. If, as I believe, the whole point of All Saints is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, sanctification is salvation then the witness of a saint’s life should be the text and proclamation on All Saints.
Shirley was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Flannery O’Connor character in my congregation. She sent thousands of emails to me over the years. I miss her and have a little less fun in my ministry without her in it. I got the idea of this sermon from a recent podcast I recorded with Father James Martin.
July 5, 2005
Subject: Communion Etc.
Welcome to Aldersgate! We met on Sunday morning. I was the “good-looking lady” with the Arkansas accent who, leaving church, asked you: “You’re not a Republican are you?!” I whispered it pretty quietly so I don’t why you didn’t answer me.
You probably noticed I didn’t “take communion” Sunday. The reason I didn’t was because I nearly choked on the piece of bread you gave me. It was large and had a lot of crust on it. I should have gone ahead and dipped it in the wine and just kept it in my hand until I got to the pew, but then my hand would’ve been all sticky and who wants sticky hands? I might’ve had to shake a visitor’s hand after worship and then they would’ve thought I’m one of those terrible, disgusting people who have sweaty hands all the time. Gross.
I can’t helping wondering: do they not teach you in seminary how to break off smaller pieces for communion? Probably not, I guess. They obviously don’t teach you how to slow down and not talk so fast either. You’ll learn. Dennis is very good at breaking off just the right sized pieces of bread, and sometimes he talks so slow I’d swear he’s making up his sermon as he goes. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t take communion.
On another subject, I heard a minister yesterday on TV who I think was just great. The reason I was so impressed with him was because his message was about Religiosity vs. Spirituality. He quoted Joel 2:28 and emphasized the noun everyone and how God wants everyone to have an alive spirit. His name was Joel Ostein, I think. You should look him up. I haven’t heard you preach yet but I bet you preach just like him.
Your new friend,
PS: Did your last church not have a problem with your earring?
October 13, 2005
Subject: Coffee with the Pastor
To follow up from last night’s Meet the Pastors Coffee- I most certainly did not purposely spill coffee on your “crotch” just because you told everyone how John Wesley (supposedly) was a terrible husband. I told you. It was an accident but, I will say, if I had done it on purpose you would’ve deserved it.
You’re supposed to be proud to be a United Methodist and there you were last night bad-mouthing the founder of United Methodism. I couldn’t believe it. I got so angry I could’ve…well, never mind.
And another thing, I did not roll my eyes at that new member when he said he worked for the House Republicans. Maybe I was a little rude to him but not rude enough that anyone would notice. You’ve got a lot of nerve accusing me of such things! Keep it up and I’ll bet you don’t last at Aldersgate more than a couple years.
May 22, 2006
Subject: Fall Commitment Campaign
I have decided to withdraw from the commitment campaign committee. I was so disappointed that the last meeting wasn’t more civil. It’s a shame that even in a church setting among Christians that people can’t value another’s opinions. I just hate how some Christians gripe and gossip about other Christians.
I could tell you a thing or two about some of those complainers at the meeting. They’re the reason we’re in the mess we’re in with our debt and I heard one of them hardly even speaks to his wife.
Don’t worry I’ll still be in charge of the Meet the Pastor Coffee. Lord knows if I’m not you’ll never tell our new members about John Wesley or what it means to be a Methodist and then where would we be.
September 6, 2007
Subject: Communion Bread
Like I told you Sunday, I heard a lot of comments about the bread we had on Sunday for communion. It was sour dough and it just didn’t taste well with the wine. Think about it for gosh sakes: it’s called sour dough. Who wants to eat that?
I bet Jesus refuses to even make himself present in bread so disgusting. I hope you were joking when you said we could switch to wafers. Aldersgate will never go for wafers- we’re not Catholics! Next, you’ll be telling us to worship Mary and not read our bibles like Catholics.
September 9, 2008
When I was a social worker for Child Welfare in Little Rock, one day I came into to the office to bring a baby for adoption. My boss looked at the way I was holding the baby and “got all over me” because she said that I should “cradle” a new born baby in my arms. She said a young baby can not hold up their head when they are so young and they could hurt their hearing if it tumbles over.
I thought of what my boss said yesterday watching you juggle that poor baby all over the place during the baptism.
Maybe you should practice a little using a doll baby.
Maybe I could find one at the Goodwill for you to use for practice. Not that I shop at the Goodwill myself but I’d go there for you if you’d like me to look. Hope this is helpful.
November 11, 2009
I wish you had known my husband Paul. I still have people coming up to me and saying how they miss him. He held about every position you could have in the church. He was fun and caring and a wonderful husband and father. He was a commander in the navy and was on 3 submarines.
Mostly though, I wish you’d known him because he was such a good Christian man. He was a better man than I deserved. You would’ve enjoyed him, I think, and maybe you would think better of me if you could see how he thought I was better than I am.
August 10, 2011
I told my niece this weekend how proud I was of our church for welcoming those Muslims from our neighborhood to worship in our fellowship hall. It’s a shame so many people left the church over the issue, and I’m sad that hardly any of them even bothered to talk with you or Dennis before they decided to leave.
Here’s something you didn’t know about me. A couple years ago, when we studied the Jesus Creed for the Church Wide Study, I started praying the Jesus Creed every morning and every night. Every day, twice a day, sometimes more, I prayed to love God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength and to love my neighbor as much as I love God.
I don’t think I would’ve been open to hosting the Muslims here if I hadn’t been praying the Jesus Creed. I think before I’d always prayed mostly for myself and my family. I wish more people had tried praying the Jesus Creed. If they had, then maybe they’d be more hospitable and open-minded.
While we’re on the subject of broadmindedness, I am a Democrat. You’ve never told me what you are. I don’t know why but a lot of young people these days are Republicans. If you are a Republican I will still write to you. See, I told you the Jesus Creed had changed me!
December 11, 2011
You probably know- I’m working with Amy on the Pictorial Directory for the church. How are you doing? Are you okay? The reason I ask is because I was looking at your picture in the old directory and your picture for the new directory and you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight. Especially in your face. Like a little baby angel. Ha!
You know who else looks different? Dennis. He looks tired in his new picture. No wonder he takes so many sabbaticals. I’m still mad at Dennis because of the time he told us in his sermon that Bill Perry was his father. I should’ve told him that Bill Perry looks younger than him!
There was a time when I probably would’ve told him that without even thinking about how mean it would sound. I like to think I’m different than I was.
December 14, 2011
Where is it in Romans that Paul tells about how the Gentiles were “let in” to be loved by God even though they didn’t deserve it? I have down here that you told me Romans 9-11 but that doesn’t jive. My daughter-in-law doesn’t think the Jews will be saved and I told her you said they were saved. Of course, the bigger point seems to be that we’re just grateful that God has adopted us Gentiles.
I don’t know why but lately, more and more, I think about how I don’t deserve God’s grace. I’ve not always been a good or kind person. I’ve often been mean. I guess that’s why they call it Amazing Grace huh?
By the way, I hate it when you all make us sing all the verses of hymns like that. Good Lord, who can stand up for that long or huff and puff through 7 verses!?
January 14, 2012
I teared up when I read your Christmas sermon thinking about how unconditional God’s love is for us. My love for my boys has always been unconditional, for sure, but for other people? For other people I think my love has always been very much conditional.
I know my love for you certainly wasn’t unconditional. Remember that time years ago when I got furious with you because you wouldn’t teach the Meet the Pastor folks about John Wesley and I stormed out of your office and slammed the door so hard that picture of Karl Barth fell off your wall?
Of course, you have a picture of Karl Barth on your wall and not John Wesley but never mind that now.
See you Sunday,
January 23, 2012
Subject: No Subject
After church, I went out to eat at Ruby Tuesdays with a bunch of women that usually goes over there after church They started talking about the election. After a while, I told them that I was a Democrat. Marguerite Blackwelder said, “Are you a liberal?” I said I wasn’t but I think I am.
Then, someone- I won’t say who but she used to work at the church, I think you know who I mean- said, “All Democrats are liberals!”
I forgave her.
I really did forgive her too. It used to be that I wouldn’t have. You know what I thought about it afterwards? That life is too short to waste it on petty grudges. I don’t know if I thought that because I’m getting older or because I’m getting more Christian. What do you think, I wonder?
I just wish we had more Democrats in our church! If you ask me, the Republicans need to be in the Baptist Church.
February 6, 2012
Subject: New Members
A couple named Kelly and Joe Garr put down that they would like to join the church. I called her and come to find out she went to middle school, high school, and college with you! I asked her if you’re the same now as you were back then and she said no. She said you were nice back then but that you’re different too.
It got me thinking about what people who knew me way back when would say about me today? Would they say I’m no different than I was?
It makes me really sad to think that maybe they would.
I can’t think of anything worse than to have gone to church your whole life and not end up a different person, can you? If you liked John Wesley I’d ask you if that’s what Wesley meant by sanctification.
I hope my faith has changed me. I suppose I’m about the last person who could judge such a thing.
April 6, 2012
I know you are busy with Easter things but this has been on my mind. When I’ve prayed before, I’ve always prayed to God not Jesus. I love Jesus and know he did so much for so many but I’ve always thought I needed to pray to God.
I’ve started to pray to Jesus lately like you do in church sometimes and you know what? Praying to Jesus, like I’m talking directly to him, makes me a lot more conscious about being more like him. Thought you’d be interested.
August 13, 2012
About an hour ago as I was driving down Ft. Hunt Rd. I saw a man I thought was “naked” like that man in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is arrested- what an odd detail.
Anyways, I thought this man was naked but when I got closer I saw he just had a shirt off and some terrifically short shorts. When I saw that it was you, I whistled out my window. Did you know it was me? You should be careful going around like that half-naked. There’s a lot of older women in our congregation who’ve been missing their men for a long time. Ha!
Lord, I hope you never mention that in a sermon!
My real point was to say that years ago seeing you like that, running around like a Chip n’ Dale would’ve irritated me something awful but instead I just laughed because I’ve grown to appreciate you. I guess that’s God’s grace.
March 15, 2013
I read your blog post about wearing your clergy collar out and about and how it helps you stay accountable to Jesus being a visible Christian.
It made me wonder what people see when they see me and how often, or how infrequently I should say, they’ve seen Jesus when they’ve seen me.
April 3, 2013
About two weeks ago, Alan and Steve got a marriage license in D. C. They have to wait until this coming weekend to have the ceremony. They’ve lived together as a married couple for 10 years but they want to celebrate it publicly like any other couple gets to do, and they want to do it for legal protection.
I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding. If God’s love is unconditional for someone like me, then I believe it’s unconditional for a couple like them- they’re both better Christians than I’ve been in my life.
I’ve been a church person my whole life, but I feel like I’ve only been a Christian for the late part of my life.
I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding, but I also care about you too much to want you to get into trouble with the bishop. Lord knows you manage to do that plenty on your own. Maybe you can just come to the ceremony as a guest?
April 7, 2013
I was just thinking. I bet it’s good to be a minister because you get to see for yourself how God really does change people and work in their lives. You get a front row seat. It must give you a pretty strong argument for the existence of God.
May 22, 2013
Subject: Les’s Funeral
You did a wonderful job with Les Norton’s funeral yesterday. In fact, I left praying that you’ll be the one to do my service. Funerals should be honest about how every Christian is a mixture of sinner and saint. You know better than most my ratio of those two qualities.
I think funerals can afford to be honest too because of how you put the Gospel one time in your sermon on the prodigal son. You said God says to us: “Nothing you do can make me love you more, and nothing you do can make me love you less.”
I’ve done plenty, I confess. Your precious boys make me regret every ignorant thing I ever said about Hispanics. I’ve never been racist, I don’t think, but ignorant? Probably. In ways you can’t even notice when you’ve grown when I did in a place like Arkansas. I wonder if that’s what is meant by original sin. You’re just born into sins like racism and you need God’s help to exorcise it from you.
February 10, 2015
Subject: Love You
I don’t know if you’re checking your email or not. Dennis told me about your surgery and how it’s likely cancer.
I just left a message on your voicemail. I called the nurses station at the hospital too but they said they couldn’t connect me since I’m not family. I thought about telling them a thing or two about church family, the communion of saints, but I worried if I was too pushy they’d take it out on you. I’m sure you’re hard enough to handle as a patient as it is.
Anyways, I wanted you to know I love you. I prayed for you tonight, and for Ali, and your beautiful boys.
February 5, 2016
Subject: Cancer Buddies
Who would’ve guessed that we’d end up getting cancer together at the same time? I’m down in Richmond now in a facility. It’s nice and near Alan and Steve, but I miss my church. I hope that before I die (and I know I’m dying) you can come visit me. In the past I would’ve been too vain to have anyone see me like this but I don’t care now. I guess that sounds like bragging doesn’t it? And that’s a sort of vanity too. Being Christian never really gets easier does it?
I’d like to see you one last time when you’re able. To see you, but also I’d like to confess my sins to you too before I go and even more I’d like to hear you tell me how God forgives me for all of them. Not because I don’t believe it but because believing it is what Christians share in common.
You think that’s why John Wesley said the “communion of saints” was his favorite part of the creed?
Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “God’s Not a Republican?”
Lord, I hope they’re not wrong.
“Jesus did this in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.”
We moderns- we find miracles like water into wine problematic. Superstitious even believers secretly say.
Why is it that we find it difficult to believe that Jesus suddenly and immediately turned ordinary water into exceptional wine when Jesus works slow, lifetime-long miracles all around us?
Why is it hard for us to believe that back then Jesus transformed water into wine when, even now, Jesus transforms entire lives?
People like Shirley-
They’re the only proof we have for God. The argument is as simple as this:
There exists a sanctified person- a person changed by Christ, a saint.
Therefore, the Risen Christ exists.
For my church’s 60th Anniversary this weekend, Stanley Hauerwas preached on the lectionary Gospel text from Luke 18, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I also got to baptize my good friend Taylor Mertins’ son.
You can listen to the audio of Stanley’s sermon below as well as read my introduction of him. Given my adoration of his work, perhaps I should point out that he is a warm and generous man and spending a few days with him will no doubt be a highlight of my work.
When I was a student at Princeton, I had a number of different jobs to pay for my schooling, including working as a waiter at the weekly faculty lunch. At one of those lunches near the beginning of my second semester, around the time I was considering dropping out of seminary, Professor Max Stackhouse got worked up into a red-faced, PO’d lather ranting to his colleagues about this reckless and profane Methodist theologian named Stanley Hauerwas.
Even though I’d gone to UVA for undergraduate and had been taught by many of Stanley Hauerwas’ students, classmates, and colleagues, at the time I wasn’t aware of a Stanley Hauerwas. But I figured anyone who could arouse such animus at a normally tight-sphinctered faculty lunch was worth reading. So as soon as I washed the dishes, I headed over to the library and checked out a book called A Community of Character along with a set of audio cassettes of lectures he’d delivered entitled Discipleship as Craft. Without exaggeration, they changed my life.
If Dennis Perry is the one who made me a Christian, then Stanley Hauerwas is the person who has sustained me as a Christian.
I’ve read everything he’s ever written several times over- and he’s written alot of freaking books. I’ve given many of you several of his books. He’s often in my earbuds when I exercise. His book on suffering helped get me through my near death experience with cancer. I know his work so well to know that when I interviewed him for my podcast, I knew I wasn’t successful in getting him off his familiar talking points.
I also know his work well enough to know that he would judge an introduction of him in a service of worship to be inappropriate. Because more so than any theologian of the last 50 years, Stanley Hauerwas has reminded the Church that what we do here on Sunday morning is about God.
Not us. Certainly not him.
Nonetheless, here’s what you need to know about the person whom Time Magazine called America’s Best Theologian:
Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the awareness that if Jesus is Lord then Christianity can never be reduced to the private or the personal, In other words, he’s responsible for most of the things I’ve preached that have caused you to write to anonymous complaints to the bishop over the years. Today’s your chance to take it up with him.
Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the knowledge that Christianity is like baseball (and by baseball I mean National League baseball): That is, you can’t just do Christianity. You must be coached, apprenticed, by those with wisdom, whom we call the saints.
Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering theology as a servant of the Church (as opposed to just another university discipline). And on that account alone he’s been fruitful, for I cannot imagine my vocation apart from his work and even though this is his first time preaching at Aldersgate it’s not the first time you’ve heard him. You’ve been hearing me speak Hauerwas- or speak Christian like Hauerwas- for a dozen years now.
He is the perfect person to preach Aldersgate’s 60th Anniversary for as we look forward to the next 60 years, without a doubt, the clergy and congregants who come after us- whether they know it or not- will in large measure be shaped by his work.
Having said all of that, Stanley would be the first person to say that it’s time to get on with the Word of God. So listen for it, the Word of God, found in…
For the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.
I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.
I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.
Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.
I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.
Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.
This sermon is for you too.
This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.
This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.
This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.
And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.
This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.
This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.
This sermon is for you.
Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.
Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.
“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.”
Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.
“Jesus” [Play Briefly]
Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.
“Christ” [Play Briefly]
Christ means ‘Anointed One.’
In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’
“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.
“Raised from the dead” [Play Briefly]
Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.
And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.” [Play Briefly]
David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.
The Gospel is like a piece of music.
The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.
We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.
One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.
We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.
In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.
The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.
And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”
And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.”
When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.
In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?
That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.
Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.
The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.
And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.
Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.
This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.
We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.
And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.
All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.
Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.
We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.
in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.
So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.
And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.
Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.
In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.
Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.
The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.
Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.
And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.
A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.
In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.
In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.
In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.
But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.
In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.
Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.
We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.
We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.
Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.
According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.
And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.
The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.
But there’s still too many dissonant notes.
Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.
And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.
Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.
Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.
The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.
David provides the music’s bottom.
David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.
In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.
So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.
God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.
God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.
And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.
God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.
God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.
God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.
What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.
And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.
Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.
Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.
Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.
Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.
Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.
No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that
from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.
So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.
The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.
They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.
Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.
And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.
Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.
New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.
The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.
The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.
That’s the Gospel Music.
And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.
This Gospel Music is for you.
Because if you listen close you’ll hear-
As John Nugent says:
The Gospel does not call us to change the world.
The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.
The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.
The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.
Or we’re supposed to be.
But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.
We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.
We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.
We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.
Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.
And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.
So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.
(And to me).
Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.
Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.
When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.
Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.
We are the change God has already made in the world.
Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.
Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.
While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.
Neither gay nor straight for that matter.
And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.
Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.
Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.
I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.
Listen to it again-
We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.
This song’s for you.
[Play Whole Song]
Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.
As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son, and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.
Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:
“Thy will done.”
“In my Father’s House are many rooms”
“Let the little children come…”
The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.
Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.
If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.
He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.
The truth is-
Josh already was a pastor. To you all.
Josh already was a pastor.
He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.
Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.
Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.
And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.
That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.
They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.
I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.
“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.
If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.
Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.
If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.
And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’
And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’
And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’
Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.
A promise that would come true for him.
With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.
The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘
That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’
God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.
Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-
There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.
Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.
Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.
I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.
I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.
I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.
I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.
I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.
I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.
I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.
I want Josh.
I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.
I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.
And I don’t want to celebrate memories.
Because there weren’t enough of them.
And there are too many dreams still remaining.
These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’
I don’t know why Josh is not here.
- I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
- I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
- I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.
I can’t answer the why question.
And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.
I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.
God’s not the answer to the why questions.
Why did this happen to Josh?
Why did Josh get sick?
Why did Josh die?
I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.
Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.
So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.
No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.
The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.
And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.
“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.”
When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.
That’s the heart of God.
And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.
That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.
And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.
I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.
Let the rainbows help you remember.
I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’
The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.
The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.
The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.
They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.
“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”
And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.
Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.
Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’
And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.
Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.
And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.
‘Josh’ he says.
And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.
That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.
This kid who’s:
kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body
so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift
You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.
This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.
This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.
And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.
You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.
If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy.
No, you’ve got to become just like him.
It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.
And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.
I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.
I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’
Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’
No, he talks about kids:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’
‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.
And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.
Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’
But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.
Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.
And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.
Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.
Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.
And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.