rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgTo kick off our September sermon series, I spun the wheel and tackled people’s questions about the Holy Spirit at random as well as fielding some questions from the congregation too. It’s something a bit more interactive than traditional preaching that I try to do on a fairly regular basis.

I call it ‘Midrash (the Hebrew word for commentary on scripture) in the Moment.’ photo-1

Thanks for everyone who submitted questions from all over the world! The ‘best’ question came from someone named Jason Campbell and it was a long thoughtful reflection that used Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Mozart to ask if the reason why I don’t talk about the Spirit much is because I prefer to live in my head instead of in the moment/heart. If Jason will be so bold as to send me his address, I will- as promised- send him a free copy of Scot McKnight’s new book, The Kingdom Conspiracy.

Alright, so here’s the audio from Sunday’s sermon. It’s not great- I apologize. You can download it in iTunes as well here. You can also listen to it and old sermons in the sidebar to the right.

 

Holy Spirit
This weekend we kick off a September sermon series on the Holy Spirit. I’ll begin the series this Sunday by tackling people’s questions about the Spirit at random during the preaching time. Unlike the doctrine of the Trinity and the Logos, Christians never gathered together in an ecumenical council to hammer out exactly what we believe about the God the Holy Spirit. This explains why the 3rd Person of the Trinity is almost an afterthought in the Apostles’ Creed and fares only marginally better in the Nicene Creed.

Despite the popularity of the charismatic movement, theologically the Holy Spirit remains what Adolf Von Harnack called ‘the orphan doctrine’ of the Church. You can see the truth of Von Harnack’s words in the many questions- both confused and utterly appropriate- that people ask about the Spirit.

I’ve solicited questions from folks for the Sunday sermon time and I’ve gotten a lot of good ones.

Today, though, is a different question.

My own.

My Holy Spirit question is this: Is the filioque clause a good doctrine? Or was it a mistake?

I know, it’s an unnecessarily obscure word, filioque.

If you’re not a nerd, quickly:

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

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Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

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I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

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That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

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As Karl Barth, who was accused by Christians in his day for ‘failing to perceive the powerful work of the Holy Spirit as it was being demonstrated in the Fuhrer of the Nordic race,’ wrote:

when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

 

rp_lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2-1024x682.jpgLast Sunday two friends from my congregation capped off our summer sermon series by tag-team preaching on Romans 15.18-24.
Here is the initial reflection from Marco Santangelo.
Presently, Marco is the Director of the George Washington Presidential Library; however, Marco is also a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary as well.
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The alarm went off at 3:15 in the morning.
I was disoriented.
Not just because of the time.
Or the fact I had only gone to bed 3 1/2 hours earlier.
It was not my bed, I wasn’t home. I had never been here before and it took some time to recall my location and what I was doing.

I dressed, quickly, stumbled out the door, & walked through a long, dark corridor,  down two flights of stairs, and into the main sanctuary.

Where 52 men -robed in white- were already singing psalms to God.

 I was late.
It was my first experience on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani: a monastery in Central KY known for being the home to a famous Christian writer, Thomas Merton.
The monastery was located 30 minutes from Asbury Seminary, where I was a student.
I wanted to learn about how best to synchronize my Words about Jesus,  with my daily Actions. I was a Leader on campus and wanted that Leadership to be Christ-Centered.
The Apostle Paul makes it seem so easy. . .
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My professor recommended a 5 day monastic retreat, as a good place to start.
After the 3:15 morning worship service I was escorted to a coffee station where I fueled up before beginning my first day of work at 4am. The monks have a motto: “Pray & Work,” whether they are assigned at the Mill, the Farm, or in their Cheese Factory, they have created an environment where words and deeds exemplify Christ; and they are known for their Christ-Centered Leadership.
They assigned me to the cheese factory. Apparently, I look like the cheese-making type. I was okay with that and I worked hard. There were several other retreatants, like myself, working alongside the monks. But we couldn’t get their same rhythms.
And as hard as we worked, they worked even harder, but in a joyful, peaceful manner, singing psalms and hymns.
It was evident that Christ’s presence was among us.
I felt something sacred in the middle of a cheese factory. And nobody explained a single word, they all lead by example.
At the end of the week I realized that my words and my actions didn’t exemplify Christ in the same way as the monks. I was unaware of my role in the Body of Christ;  How was I to reach out to the Asbury community, as I hoped?

I had compartmentalized so many aspects of Me and I did not know how to combine my spiritual life with my work life; or, with my social life, academic life or dating life (at that time).

Whereas the monks had only one life, a Spiritual One centered on Christ, and everything else wrapped around it…. I heard their silent example at full volume.

 

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On the last day of the retreat,  it just-started to make sense.  I asked one of the monks, “how can I  take this spiritual exercise back home and make Jesus the center of my Words & Actions?
He said,
“First of all, I’ll be honest, this is a monastery. It’s not easy to replicate this outside of a Christ centered environment. So, don’t treat it like something you conquer. It’s part of your daily spiritual growth.

You may want to start by Stop speaking so much, open your heart and your ears.

Turn off the outside chatter and the inside chatter. Think of your favorite scripture. Recite it to yourself once in a while throughout your day.”
That’s a good place to start.
Wow, A practical, powerful answer; More than I ever received at Seminary.  I was looking for a way to make a spiritual difference in my community, and he told me to start with my own heart.
As I stand before you, today, I wish I could tell you how I have done this successfully, but I haven’t.  I wish I could tell you how I practice this regularly, but I don’t.  But I can say that the more we think about God and His Word throughout our day, the more our faith is expressed through our Words and Actions, and the more we understand our role in the Body of Christ.
And that will affect our community.
But to be frank, between those Seminary days and today I often say to myself, “Oh, I express my faith, ‘Leading by Example.’”  And ‘Leading by Example’ is a fantastic beginning but it’s not everything. If faith is expressed by example, alone, then it might be unclear that we are followers of Jesus. We could be following anyone. We don’t live in a Monastery, and our compassionate behavior can be interpreted in a number of philanthropic ways, including making tax-deductible gifts, to off-set taxes, when it really comes straight from the heart.
This morning’s scripture reading from Romans not only has meaning for our individual lives, but also draws a parallel to what we are building here at this satellite church. In the scripture reading from Romans, Paul summarizes his methods of evangelism. He is aware of his role as a leader-of-a-young Christian movement, and the fruitfulness of his work is solely dependent upon God. So, he leads by both word and action:
“I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by my words and actions.”  Then he continues, “it has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
Paul knows his role, and his goal is to preach the gospel where it has not been heard…. What is our role to this community with the establishment of this church? There are many living in the area who are unchurched or who have little experience of Church in their lives.
This Church Is an Instrument of Christ’s love and we, too, must act by Word and Deed to reach others for the Gospel.
And, it starts with our own hearts.

10462358_558970827611_2628863336748251575_nOne of the fortuitous charisms of a blog such as this is the community of friends I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to ‘meet.’ It’s the peculiar nature of a blog that I’ve never actually ‘met’ Bobby Ray Hurd in the flesh. Indeed apart from this blog I count it unlikely I would be friends with someone named ‘Bobby Ray Hurd’ from Missouri.

It’s true that ours is an incarnational faith for which virtual things like social media pose a real risk; however, it’s also true that things like blogs make it possible for me to know another’s thoughts and theology better than many of the people I know in the flesh.

Such is the case with Bobby Ray Hurd560364_10151505504791979_1456634000_n

He’s smart as a whip, passionate, speaks the hard, uncomfortable truth and has called this disciple to deeper faithfulness.

Bobby Ray has studied theology at George Fox, he currently works at Touchpoint Autism Services and lives in the Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood.

For all the above reasons I asked him if he’d write a post about Michael Brown’s murder and the consequent violence.

Here it is:

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

In the wake of the events that have happened (and continue to happen) because of the shooting death of Michael Brown (and the social unrest in Ferguson, MO), I have become disillusioned from our pluralistic society’s attempts to give a truthful account.

I am disillusioned from the false hope promised by the latest abstract social theories (that is, anthropology without theology) or the latest development in identity politics (that is, politics without theological anthropology).

Such disbelief is the reason why I am disillusioned by the ecclesial left and right’s attempts to reduce the dilemma exposed in Ferguson to the solutions of abstract empiricism typical of what happens when church politics are collapsed into worldly politics.

I am disillusioned because all such abstract accounts I have come to see as vanity and impotency.

They are vain because we are looking for a hero to save society in general rather than the church turning to the particularities of the Gospel that cannot be reduced to a savior of society in general but only to the double grace (justification and sanctification) received as a gift in union with Christ.

Thus, it is only through an embodied way of holy living in union with Christ we may be granted the possibility of prophesying against the unbelief of pluralistic philosophical accounts in a way that can tell the truth.

They are impotent not only because they cannot possibly tell the truth but because all such abstract attempts dismiss having the sort of faith it might require to tell the truth.

rp_faith4.jpgAs Stanley Hauerwas has often said, the first political task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.

This is precisely why I say racism is a demonic possession. It is not because I lack a better word and must now rely on my religion to comfort the meek and angry who cannot explain what has happened (because, if you live where I live, the black community already knows). It is not so I may “fill in the gaps” of what my rationality and enlightenment cannot yet explain.

It is because I believe that a leap of faith is precisely the sort of foolishness we might need to begin assessing the problem with clarity.

This is because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

It has left the black community re-traumatized, old wounds gaping, a perpetrator (Darren Wilson) who cannot make complete sense of what happened to him, and a victim (and their advocates) who are once again presented with the possibility that they might not be able to prove the demonic force of racism is indeed why another young black man has been executed under the guise of public service and protection.

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

As a demon is well aware, the claim of a demonic possession cannot possibly meet the requirements of empirical evidence necessary to have justice in our world of evidence-based everything. As a demon would be well aware, the modernist abstract disciplines can certainly get into the very important issues of pathology, psychology, and cognitive dissonance.

But as the history of America continues to demonstrate, you cannot prove the occasion of a demon in the moments they prey.

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It is a matter of faith.

After all, you can hardly “prove” something that is invisible; and yet, if I am correct, it is precisely this sort of move that might explain what has happened time and time again.

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

We have learned, as part of a Liberal society, you can legislate in the best ways we can against racism with civil rights, special interest groups, and political correctness, but when the particularities of our theology begin their descent into being collapsed into the next abstract social theory with a savior complex, we have then resorted to merely throwing rocks at Goliath from the spiritually anorexic space of our unbelieving world (at worst) or the spiritually bulimic space of the modernist church (at best). But then the demons come to prey again and we are left scrambling for the next impotent explanation. How much longer must the church repeat this failure (I would expect it from the world)?

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

On the other end of the issue, if we learned anything from the puritans it was that we may not be witch hunters and stand for justice either. For while demons are indeed real, they deceive us all.

For it is the craft of a demon to create a culture of fear where we blame each other but cannot explain why with any true conclusivity.

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This is why racism is a demonic possession above all empirical, rationalistic accounts of it. It is an invisible deceiver that cannot be mastered by the tools of mere materialism and empiricism. It is an embodied orientation of deniable evil; a place the human matters of legislation and social theory cannot possibly reach.

Like the nature of all demonic possessions, we know the effects of demonic activity (deception, wrath, fear-mongering) but we are ultimately left numb with no good answers equitable to the lives lost and history marred by it.

We are ultimately left without justice; at least in the holiest sense of it (shalom).

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it

I now turn to what Acts demonstrates as the reality of the world; that is, our idolatrous, pluralistic, pantheist world that has, since the fall, been in a spiritual conflict against Satan and his demons.

Thus, contrary to our modernist sentimentalities, what we encounter in Acts is not myth or metaphor but it is realism in every sense.

In 16:16-24, Paul becomes “annoyed” (Greek: diaponeomai) by a slave girl’s antics who was evidently possessed by a demon. However, the deeper meaning of “annoyed” is not “annoyed” in the sense of “slightly peeved” or “minor inconvenience” but “annoyed” as in “deeply moved” or “grieved.” A similar emotion is found in John 11:33 when Jesus is with the recently deceased Lazarus. Scripture notes that Jesus was “deeply moved” (indignant) at the sight of his death. Thus, Paul is more than a little irritated in this episode with the manic slave girl. It is evident that he is aware of a presence of deniable evil and death; and it has stirred him significantly. Nevertheless, Paul’s emotion of grieving annoyance is ultimately not directed toward the slave girl who is being taken advantage of by greedy pimps but toward the deniable evil called “spirit” as he responds: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”

And so, the truth is clear:

when presented with the evidence of deniable evil, indignant confrontation is in order.

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

Police Shooting Missouri

Bonhoeffer once wrote in his letters from prison that it is imperative that:

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

When we see the world as Bonhoeffer would have us see it, we begin to see the truth:

both Darren Wilson and Michael Brown are in fact victims.

Darren Wilson a victim of enslavement to the deniable evil of racism.

Michael Brown the tragic recipient of its scorn.

Thus, victims create more victims; hurt people hurt people.

 

And so, how can there be an account for justice given for Michael Brown? How can Christians be a part of giving such an account?

We carry forward knowing that Darren Wilson is merely a tool. He is a tool because those who have known the demon of racism know that this is what it is; demonic possession.

Wilson is a police officer caught in the middle of the politics of this world that are under the control of Satan and his demons (Lk. 4:5-7, 1 John 5:19).

Darren Wilson is the product of my idolatrous, mammon-worshipping, segregated city ripe for demon possession such as the one that cost Michael Brown his life.

Thus, we carry forward not aiming our scorn for Darren Wilson. Such a thing could be retribution at best. Thus, we carry forward with the confidence that the rite of exorcising this demon comes with the ministry of the double grace of union with Christ and the “one new humanity” that is promised because of it.

This does not mean we excuse Darren Wilson. Far from it! If he is indeed a murderer, he is a murderer that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But as a good Calvinist, I can only believe this to be “mediocre good” at best.

Taking the holy ground will mean taking the leap of faith necessary (despite our modernist unbelief) to confront our demons with the sort of righteous indignation that casts out demons in the name of Jesus Christ.

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, draw your strength and might from God. Put on the full armor of God to protect yourselves from the devil and his evil schemes. We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places. And this is why you need to be head-to-toe in the full armor of God: so you can resist during these evil days and be fully prepared to hold your ground. Yes, stand—truth banded around your waist, righteousness as your chest plate, and feet protected in preparation to proclaim the good news of peace” (Ephesians 6:10-15 VOICE).

10687178_10152668205238879_7484344374239755611_nAt Hospitals?

Instead of for Schools?

Stanley Hauerwas often contrasts the loose, a la carte curriculum of most seminaries with the rigorous, defined expectations of medical schools. While seminary students can usually choose whichever courses resonate with them (pastoral care over theology), medical schools afford their students no such luxury.

Why the difference?

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Hauerwas attributes it to the fact that in modern America everyone rightly believes that a poorly trained physician could kill them.

But no one in America any longer thinks an inadequately trained priest might jeopardize their salvation.

Americans give lip service to God, but Death is the reality in which we wholly believe.

We believe in Death- fearfully so- and consequently we revere anyone who can extend Life.

We don’t really believe in God- we certainly don’t fear God- and consequently we devalue those people who form our character such that it’s sufficient for salvation.

I mention this because today is my boys’ first day of school.

I blinked.

And now my youngest, who still tries to scootch in between his mother and me every night, is in the 3rd grade. He knows his times tables and how to slide into second. My oldest is already in the 6th grade. This former AAP student can’t even help his current one with his math homework anymore.

Today is my boys’ first day of school and not until this moment has it ever occurred to me that I should pray for them.

For their studies. For their learning.

For their challenges.

For their wonder, joy and curiosity. rp_augustine.jpg

Today is their first day of school and not until today has it ever struck me that I should pray for their teachers and administrators whose vocation it is to apprentice them into wonder, joy and curiosity.

Today is the first day of school and it’s never occurred to me to pray for my kids and their teachers.

And I wonder if it’s because what Hauerwas says about the contrast between priests and doctors extends to the other vocations too?

Could we paraphrase Hauerwas and say:

‘in modern America everyone rightly believes that a poorly trained physician could kill them, but no one in America any longer thinks an inadequately trained priest teacher might jeopardize their children’s salvation?’

Is it the case we really believe in Death but not Salvation and so the formation of character necessary for our salvation, of which teachers play no small role, gets treated as inconsequential?

Or worse, believing in Death more than God, we treat teachers merely as the ones who can inculcate a certain set of skills in our children which will ultimately net them a certain degree or income in this Life.

What does it reveal about us and our fidelities that we pray so often at hospitals but so seldom for classrooms?

As a pastor, as you would well expect, I routinely go to hospital rooms, ER and Pre-Op units to pray with people before they face whatever procedure awaits them.

But no one has ever asked me to pray for their children’s year in school, their children’s teachers or the love of God and God’s creation they hope will be the result of their children’s education.

I’ve never even done it for my kids or their teachers. Until this morning.

A lot of ink and hot air gets spent every year debating the separation of Church and State and, most particularly, how it plays out in schools.

Hardly ever do Christians(!) acknowledge that sheer learning itself is a Christian discipline.

After all, as one of my old teachers at UVA, Robert Louis Wilken, writes:

“The Christian religion is…uncompromisingly moral (‘be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ said Jesus), but also unapologetically intellectual (be ready to give a ‘reason for the hope that is in you,’ in the words of 1 Peter).

Like all the major religions of the world, Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history.”

The Resurrection of Jesus, Wilken says, is not only the central fact of Christian worship but also the ground of all Christian thinking “about God, about human beings, about the world and history.”

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It’s the Christian’s calling not just to worship Christ but to think about and interpret the world in light of Christ.

Math, science, literature, music: everything in Creation is bathed in the light of Christ.

Sure, it takes faith to see that light- the Church’s task-but it also takes a well-formed mind to understand and articulate it- our teachers task.

Education in this world is a matter of salvation because salvation is NOT escape from this world for heaven. Just as Jesus said to Zaccheus, salvation is something that starts now. It’s living fully, as fully human as Jesus lived, as creature of God in the creation of God.

Salvation is learning to live with joy and wonder and awe and passion and advocacy in this beautiful but broken world that God has graciously brought into existence and sustains at every moment of existence.

And learning Pi is surely as necessary to that awe and wonder as learning Trinity.

And so today, for the first time, with the same urgency I’d muster in the ER, I’m praying for my boys’ school year and the teachers et al who will make it possible.

Their salvation depends on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ADIP-465_copy__14891_zoomIn his book on ethics, one of my muses, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe, has these dynamite words for Labor Day:

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“You shall not steal. Certainly the most misunderstood of all the commandments. It has nothing to do with property and its so-called rights. What ‘You shall not steal’ refers to is stealing men. Taking away their freedom to enslave them.

It is curious irony that in the name of this commandment we have built up a whole theory of the sacredness of possessions, of objects.

A theory that has led to the wholesale enslavement of men- the very thing the commandment in fact denounces.

The slavery of men is, together with violence, the great characteristic of the idolatrous society.

And so the commandments go on to complete the picture of the society that worships the work of men’s hands, where justice is perverted (‘You shall not bear false witness’) and the weak are the victims of rapacity and covetousness.

The idolatrous society thus presents two faces: on the one hand it is a religious society with great respect for the traditional ways; it will be a society in which patriotism is highly valued and in which there is much concern for the country’s heritage. On the other hand, it will also be a society of institutionalized violence in which brutality and injustice is either hidden or given a mask of legality.

It is important to see that any society may become idolatrous in this way, that in fact every society betrays a built-in tendency to worship the work of men’s hands.

In any society men are liable to find their identity simply in what they themselves have achieved.

The rejection of this is the beginning of the discovery of Yahweh.”

The_Holy_TrinityNext Sunday we kick-off our September sermon series which will be devoted exclusively to God, the Holy Spirit.

Even if you sleep through most of my sermons, pay no attention to anything I say and glaze over these blog posts, you’ve probably noticed an apparent absence of the Holy Spirit in my work and speech. Or, if not absence then, like my heroes Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas, I tend to be so Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) that I leave little room for the role of God the Spirit.

Some of that’s intentional while some of it no doubt says more about me and my prejudices than I realize.

I hardly alone though.

Non-charismatics; that is, Catholics and mainline Protestants, often have no idea how to speak or think of the Holy Spirit and do not understand what others mean when they talk about ‘experiencing’ the Spirit.

So I thought it would be best to begin a month-long sermon series on the Holy Spirit by finding out what questions you or your friends have about the Holy Spirit.

This is how it’ll go:

- Leave a question here below or email (jamicheli@mac.com)

- Submit ANY question about the Holy Spirit (who the Spirit is, what the Spirit does, how we can experience the Spirit etc). Doubt and skepticism welcome.

- I will tackle them at random, in the moment, during the sermon time on Sunday, 9/7 and post the audio here.

- The person who submits the most ‘challenging’ question will receive a free copy of Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book, ‘The Kingdom Conspiracy.’

Props to Andrew DiAntonio for the art.

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

You can and should check out her blog here

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ

ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.

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

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

Everything was going great.

Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ

 

Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-

 

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

And Jesus keeps on sleeping.

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

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

Storms drag things to the surface.

Lack of faith.

Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.

The truth about ourselves.

Storms drag things to the surface.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ

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

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

Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ

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

 

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

Storms-

Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.

I once had a lawyer in my congregation.

That by itself is no small hardship.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:

Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.

Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.

Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.

 

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

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

Hereʼs the thing-

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

 

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

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

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

You.ʼ

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-

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

For something that will make it easier to believe.

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

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

Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.

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

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

The sign of Jonah:

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

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

The sign of Jonah:

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

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

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

 

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

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Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

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In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

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

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

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

Without permission, here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason and Gabriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.