Archives For Church

With so many talking about Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option, we turned to friend of the podcast, author and professor David Fitch, to talk about “The Fitch Option”or the “Saint Patrick Option.”

Fitch talks to the Benedict Option by way of his fantastic new book Faithful Presence: Seven Discipline That Shape the Church For Mission. The opposite of the Benedict Option, David offers us disciplines that will shape the church for its mission.

Be on the lookout for our own conversation with Rod Dreher about the Benedict Option too.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

We’re doing a live podcast and pub theology event at Bull Island Brewery in Hampton, Virginia on Thursday, June 15th. If you’re in the area, check it out here.

Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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St. Luke tells of Jesus encountering a woman possessed by a spirit. She has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, crippled for 18 years. At least, bent-over and crippled is how her neighbors see her and, presumably, Jesus’ disciples. But at the end of the story in Luke 13, after the exorcism slash healing, Jesus proclaims her to be a “daughter of Abraham.”

The point isn’t so much Jesus healing her as it Jesus teaching his listeners how properly to see her. She was a beautiful daughter of Abraham even before Jesus freed her of the spirit. Such is the entire Gospel.

It’s about learning to see.

Despite having been told that Christ is risen, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus speak of Jesus (to the stranger who is Jesus) in the past tense: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Having been crucified, Jesus now belongs to past history.

In the moment their eyes are opened to him- and the passive voice is key, Jesus is the agent of the revelation and Jesus remains ever thus- they don’t simply see that it’s Jesus there among them. They see that Jesus does not belong to the past, or rather they see that the past history of the historical Jesus has invaded their present, that the Jesus of this Gospel of Luke is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Resurrection means that what is past now isn’t Jesus.

What is past is their lives lived apart from him.

In Luke’s Emmaus story, it’s not- as it’s so often interpreted from pulpits and altars- that the breaking of the bread opens their eyes or that the breaking of the eucharistic bread, magically or mechanistically, can open ours. It’s that Jesus, who is not dead, chooses that particular moment on the way to Emmaus to reveal his presence to them and that Jesus can freely choose still to reveal (or choose not to reveal) his presence to us.

The point of Luke’s story, which Karl Barth said was a lens through which the entire Gospel should be seen, is that these two Emmaus bound disciples do not deduce Jesus’ presence among them. They do not perceive it through their own agency. Jesus, risen and alive, is not only the head of the Church. He is its acting subject.

Disciples are not, in the evangelical parlance, those who’ve come to know Jesus.

Disciples are those to whom Jesus has made himself known.

As obvious a point as this may appear to you and as clear a takeaway as it is in Luke’s Gospel, post-cancer I’ve been convicted (I freaking NEVER use that word) by the extent to which my preaching, prayer, and pastoral ministry treats Jesus in the very manner those two Emmaus bound disciples do, as belonging to the past– distant in history and disappeared now to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Sure, every Eastertide I proclaim his resurrection and I’m even willing to posture apologetically to assert the historical plausibility of his resurrection; nonetheless, I treat his resurrection primarily as an event in the past and his ascension as his departure from earth to heaven, forgetting his Gospel-ending Easter promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”

I shouldn’t need to point out how such forgetting conveniently makes our Christianity no different than functional atheism, for it allows us to live in this world as if Jesus isn’t really, here and now, the Lord of it.

I’ve seen Jesus the same way the disciples see that bent-over woman such that those two Emmaus-bound disciples might as well have never sat down at table with the Risen Christ because I- we- still usually render him they way they did before supper. We study the Gospels as texts of what Jesus did, what Jesus taught, what Jesus said rather than proclaiming that Jesus, being very much not dead, still speaks and teaches and DOES.

To take one important example, we think of faith as something we do. Belief is our possession, we think. Faith is our activity of which we’re the acting subjects. We make a decision for Christ. We invite him into our hearts. But if Jesus is alive, if he reveals himself and open eyes on the way to Emmaus, if he confronts us behind our locked doors and summons out of us, despite our doubts, confessions like ‘My Lord and my God” then our faith is the act of the Risen Christ upon us. What Jesus does on the road to Emmaus is what Jesus only ever does still.

We don’t invite Jesus into our hearts.

The Risen Christ invades our hearts.

To take another important example, we think of the Church in such a way that effectively conjugates Jesus in the past tense the same way these Emmaus-bound disciples do.

This week in my little stream of the Church, the UMC, a Judicial Council is meeting to adjudicate the election last year of a gay bishop. How the UMC is structured just like the U.S. government and we think sexuality is our primary problem is a mystery to me, but my point is:

The UMC is fraught right now with speech about the “future of the Church” that in itself betrays a lack of resurrection faith.

Books like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option portend ominously the demise of Christianity in the West while denominations ratchet up the pressure on pastors to play hero and arrest sobering statistical trends.

As my former teacher Beverly Gaventa says:

“We act as if the Christian faith itself were on life support and it’s our job to find ways of resurrecting it.

We act as if pollsters [behind the Pew Survey on Religion] were in charge of the world rather than simply being in charge of a few questions.”

The Church isn’t our work or creation. It is the means through which the Risen Christ works and creates.

To the extent we ‘see’ him to as he is, risen and alive and acting still, the Church- in some form or another-will always have a way forward.

 

 

 

Alternate Title: “Beard Envy”
Jason enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Addison Hodges Hart, the elder brother of David Bentley Hart- who was his student- and the author of the great books Strangers and Pilgrims and Taking Jesus at his Word. Not only does Addison sound just like DBH, he speaks at length of the contemplative life, how to rethink the faith in a post-Christian culture, and the ins and outs of how he leads bible study for the curious and unchurched.

Takeaway from this episode: Addison thinks Christians need to learn how to become winsome to the world again.

Also, since you’ve bugged us about the queue…Next week – Melissa Febos Week after – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Scot X. McKnight, Robert Jenson, and multiple parts with David Bentley Hart. Oh, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

For Episode 81, Teer, Taylor, and I road tripped to Richmond to record live and in person with Bishop Sharma Lewis, the one person after the Almighty who holds our fate in her hands.

Bishop Sharma Lewis, resident bishop of the Richmond episcopal area, became the first African-American woman to be elected bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church in 2016.

A graduate of Mercer University (B.S., Biology, 1985), the University of West Georgia (M.S., Biology, 1988) and Gammon Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center (M.Div., 1999), Bishop Lewis worked as a research biologist and chemist prior to surrendering to God’s call upon her life.

Coming up, we’ve got conversations for you with Tripp Fuller and Richard Rohr as well as a conversation with the author of a memoir about her time as a dominatrix in NYC.

And starting this week for Lent (and we’ll see where it goes) we’ll be debuting a lectionary-based offshoot of the podcast, spending 20 minutes or so every week with each other and with notable guests to break down the coming week’s lectionary scriptures. We’ll kick that off in advance of Ash Wednesday with the one and only Fleming Rutledge. We’re calling it Strangely Warmed.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

Like the community we call Trinity, I believe the Church is constituted by the sacraments in order to be a community of both difference and peace. I believe the Church is called not to make the world a better place but to be the better place God has already made in the world. I believe the Church is that better place when our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ, when we’re a place where there is neither Democrat nor Republican for we are all one in Christ.

It would be naive to suppose the local church can be a community of such character without intentionality.

Surely a requisite step to becoming a community of difference and peace is to (peaceably) listen to those who are different from you.

Last week here on the blog I posted a pastoral letter we emailed out to my congregation regarding the executive order on refugees. Nearly 1,000 people read the letter, almost a 50% read rate. Of those who responded to it, 81% were positive and affirming while 19% were negative or critical (or, to be no-bullshitting-honest, xenophobic).

Among the critical responses, I received the rebuttal below from someone I consider myself lucky to count a friend, someone who works in politics professionally.

As much as I think many Trump supporters need to get out of their echo chamber, I think progressive Christians right now would be well-served to hear how their cries of outrage are heard by conservative Christians.

In the spirit of aspiring to be that better place that is Christ’s fellowship of differents, I post it here so the cloud of witnesses on this issue has more than one blue hue:

1. Your letter to the congregation took a great deal of effort and perspective and risk and I appreciate that, not only from a detached theological perspective but from a personal one as well.

2.  I am of course pissed you wrote it now because we didn’t do this kind of thing when the previous President legitimized the most murderous regime in the world. Or when he put two supreme court justices who have a callous disregard for human life. Or when we allowed Christians and Yazidis to be slaughtered in Syria AND THEN REFUSED TO ADMIT THEM AS REFUGEES. (True story…you know how many Syrian Christians Obama admitted as refugees at the height of the crisis? Look it up. It’s under 500. And Christians are 10% of the population.)

Why do we now feel like this is the first time in this decade we need to weigh in? (this is a rhetorical question – I realize the pressure in your profession is immense, internal and external, and I truly do appreciate the risks you are taking, as is.)

3. I think a deeper pause is necessary than most protestant organizations, including Southern Baptists, have given on the refugee EO. There is no refugee “ban.” Read the EO itself. It is a 90 day pause, for seven countries – with “countries” being an incredibly generous use of the term to describe Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya since the term “country” would imply a functioning government.

Throughout our history political refugees have been people who were clearly fleeing oppression from a center of government power, but in none of those cases except Iran does any center of power exist on a consistent basis. IT IS POSSIBLE that after 90 days the President proposes something that is completely unacceptable.

But it is also possible that the “extreme vetting” his career state department bureaucrats will design will be a real improvement on the disastrous situation we have today, with not enough vetting, or the wretched European system of no vetting whatsoever to decipher refugee from jihadist.

WHY SHOULD WE, ALL DENOMINATIONS, HAVE VOMIT HATE TOWARD OUR NEIGHBORS DOWN THE STREET over a policy that is not even designed yet, much less implemented?

I realize that the issuance of an executive order on a Friday  night, with confusing language about green cards holders which was easily misunderstood by customs agents worldwide does not inspire confidence that these new procedures will be good. But they are not even yet in existence. And let’s all be honest that our current system is a disaster – with Yazidis and Christians slaughtered in Syria because they are too afraid of lax security in United Nations camps that they decided to stick it out and take their chances in their homes against ISIS than be raped under the auspices of UN protocols, waiting helplessly for an Obama administration that was doing nothing meaningful to get them out of harm’s way.

4. The failure to acknowledge that the pain and suffering and atrocities around the world due to US policies did not begin on January 20, 2017 is perhaps the most irritating thing about all these protests and whining and self-righteous calls to “stand for justice.”

Where have these people been? Why are they suddenly triggered? What makes the PhD students stuck in the Dusseldorf airport more sympathetic than the Yazidi woman raped because we wouldn’t enforce a redline we drew our own damn selves?

The idea of the novelty of the outrage is just too much to take. Plenty of us have been outraged for years and we did not take to the streets to try and tear our culture asunder as a result, or accuse those in the next pew of being unChristian.

The Left, and the professional clergy corporately, sure are not affording those of us on the Right the same presumption of purity of motive that many of us (most of the time) gave them – or at a minimum the same civility.

The glaring lack of that makes me appreciate your efforts at balance more.

church-of-today-1Morgan, Teer, and I- the Crackers and Grape Juice Triumvirate- catch up and kvetch about Millenials.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Eric Hall, Steve Austin, Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

 

 

Crackers & Grape Juice Silhouette Tagline InvertedEric Clapton may to change the world, but Jesus doesn’t call Christians to do so.

According to John Nugent, Social Justice Christians and Heaven Obsessed Christians both get the Gospel wrong. We’re not called to give people Jesus so they can leave this place when they die nor are we supposed to roll up our sleeves and make this world a better. Instead, argues Nugent, Christians are not to make the world a better place. Rather, we’re called to be the better place God through Christ has made possible.
I really enjoyed my conversation with John about his new book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. Try this quote on for size: “The most dangerous religion is not Islam nor is it Atheism but it is a form of Christianity that uses Jesus’ name to keep people happy but doesn’t call them into a community that displays God’s Kingdom. 

Be on the lookout for future episodes. We’ve Rob Bell scheduled for an interview this week and we’ve got a couple of episodes with David Bentley Hart in the queue waiting for editing.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

So…

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

embryo

I was told by a friend, whose views I respect, that my previous post on abortion was insufficiently robust. Here’s another pass through my thoughts on this matter that matters:

A paradigmatic text that can inform Christians’ approach to the question of abortion is found in Acts 4.32-35. In Acts, Luke tells us that the power of the resurrection was made manifest in the apostolic community in concrete ways: in common prayer and eucharist celebration, in mutual care and in the sharing of possessions.

For Luke and for the early church, Easter meant that believers had been freed to share their money and resources with one another. Easter had freed them to care for the needs of one another. A community that so shared their possessions was equipped then to care for the needy and for the needy within their faith community.

What does this have to do with abortion? Within the church at least, abortion should not be necessitated by economic hardship or the inability of the mother to care for a child. If an unwanted or an ill-advised pregnancy occurs in a Christian community, the Christian response, according to Luke’s paradigm of the Acts’ church, should not be abortion but the sharing of the community’s resources: the congregation’s money, time and nurture.

Stanley Hauerwas adds to this perspective by noting how Christians share not just our resources but one another. The sacrament of baptism, he points out, quite clearly makes us all the parents of one another’s children. Again, the church’s response to an unwanted or ill-advised pregnancy should not be abortion but a willingness to live into their baptismal identity and assume the role of parent. Hauerwas observes how such expectations for a Christian community often sound far- fetched and idealistic to white, upper and middle-class Christians, but just such an ethic is commonly practiced by African-American congregations.

In reflecting on the issue of abortion, the model of the early church reminds Christians that often our preoccupations with defining whether abortion is right or wrong and at what point life begins are distractions from a more primary calling. How Christians should advocate their abortion convictions in the public square is a separate question. Clearly, however, Luke reminds Christians that if our congregations more closely mirrored the early apostolic community in terms of sharing and mutual care, then there would, at the very least, be fewer abortions among Christians.

In addition, Richard Hays comments that the early church’s example reveals how Christians’ confusion over abortion is indicative of a greater unfaithfulness to the economic ethic of Jesus. If the Church were more faithful in witnessing against poverty and advocating for greater economic justice, then the tragic factors that lead to many abortions would decrease.

The paradigm offered by the early church also provides Christians another contour to guide our thoughts on abortion. The apostolic community was marked not only by sharing but by mutual- and moral- accountability. Too often the cultural and political debates regarding abortion stigmatize the mothers of the unborn. In doing so, opponents of abortion frequently make these women the bearers of the moral burden. Luke’s model of the early church, however, does not allow Christians to resort to this response. A community of genuine accountability and love will insist on holding Christian men accountable to the responsibilities and consequences of their relationships.

Many of these moral reflections suggest Christian-specific responses to the issue of abortion, but if Christians are meant to transform the world, then a necessary first step is for Christian communities to begin looking more transformed themselves. Before Christians can effectively persuade the public square to their ethical perspective, that ethical worldview should be embodied in their communities. The first measure of our faith in the power of the resurrection is not the legislation we advocate but the sharing and accountability we practice with one another.

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

IMG_1315

Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

12039337_10207483077297320_6129263937925447291_n

Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517Dear friends, HEWHOMUSTNOTBENAMED and random visitors,

As you may already know, I’m going on my 10th year at Aldersgate Church and in all that time I’ve taken 1 paternity leave, several long potty breaks and, count them, 0 vacations.

Working with a man like Dennis Perry, a man whose name will go down in history with names like Michael Scott, Gomer Pyle and Roscoe Peco Train, I simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work. I cared too much about you all to allow you to suffer long under Dennis tired, broken body, diminished mental faculties and antiquated job skills.

I couldn’t even get away and let Dennis ‘phone it in’ at work because even then, I knew, the phone in question would be a rotary phone.

Just think, there’d you be, waiting as long for Dennis to complete a thought as it takes to dial a number with a 9 and a 0 in the area code. People of Aldersgate, I just couldn’t do that to you. I love you too much.

Fortunately for you all, Hedy’s arrival on staff has made me as irrelevant, ineffectual and archaic-seeming as Dennis has proven these past many years, which is lucky for me because, now, like Bilbo Baggins, I’m going to be away for a while.

If you skipped church last Sunday, are not on social media or were just trapped under something heavy this week then you might not have heard already that I have the ‘C’ word.

No, no that ‘C’ word. Don’t be so vulgar. This is church.

No, I have that other ‘C’ word.

Cancer.

The irony in all this is the first thing that hit me too: this past year Aldersgate has had a healthy, in-shape pastor and his name was Dennis Perry. I’m never exercising again.

To make a long story short, I’ve suffered abdominal pains since the early fall, pains I chalked up to too much coffee in my stomach, too much fat in my diet or too many church people in my schedule.

That most of you didn’t even know I was suffering such pains, I attribute to a virility that makes Lee Marvin look like Judy Garland.

Last Thursday I had a CAT scan of my abdomen, which showed that my pain was caused by an intussusception, a rare condition (for adults) where my small intestine had inverted and was ‘telescoping’ in on itself. Ali and I met with a surgeon on Friday morning who explained the surgery and warned us as well that she was concerned about what could be causing the intussusception.

The surgeon had hoped she could do the procedure laparoscopically, but when I woke up on Monday evening, feeling like someone had gone at my gut with an electric Thanksgiving knife and a battery acid chaser, I suspected it had been a bigger surgery.

In fact, they removed about 3 inches of my intestine to correct the inversion, and they also removed from my small intestine a 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, whom I’ve since taken to calling- affectionately- ‘Larry.’

Let that sink in: 10 by 10 inches. I can now say I understand what women go through in child birth, which I think should make me even more appealing to the ladies (if such a feat is even possible).

A 10 by 10 inch tumor baby, unlike a real baby, however is not an occasion for cigars and balloons.

The pathologist took initial slides of the tumor immediately after surgery and on Tuesday the oncologist told Ali and me that, even without the exact biopsy results, he knew:

I had a lymphoma that fell somewhere among 5 rare cancers of the blood.

You can imagine how we took that news. I went to the doctor last week thinking I had a gall stone or an ulcer. The idea that my body, which has always been a source of pride in me and arousal in women- the idea that my body was now trying to kill me was a complete shock to us. The idea that if I do nothing at all I’ll swiftly be dead was an even bigger shock.

We cried.

A lot.

I made lots of apologies for all the ways I’ve been a crappy husband because I assumed we had all the time in the world.

Finally, we dried our eyes and told our boys, Gabriel and Alexander, that Daddy has cancer, which is what was making his tummy sick, that I’m still sick and that the doctors are going to work to make me better but it’s going to take a long time and I’ll be sicker in the meantime.

Today is Friday. We met with the oncologist last evening. It turns out:

I have Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare, non-Hodgkins form of B cell lymphoma that typically only organ music-loving people the age of the 8:30 service get. Its spread through the GI System and bone marrow.

 

I like to think I’m unique in all things and it turns out I am in diseases as well.

Because it’s a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I’ll be fighting it likewise. I will begin 4 two-part phases of aggressive chemotherapy this coming Friday- not much of a break I know.

Each phase will last approximately a month. The lymphoma has spread to the rest of my system so I’ll definitely be hospitalized again for the first phase as the oncologist wants to monitor my kidneys. Hopefully, hospitalization won’t be necessary for the succeeding treatments. At the end of the 4 phase treatment, it’s likely I will need to undergo bone marrow transplants as well.

All in all, I think its safe to say 2015 will be an exceptionally crappy year for the Micheli household. The Nats better freaking make it out of the first round because I’m not going to have much else going for me this year.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be around much for the next 6 months.

I hope you continue to be around for us though. I’m not normally given to sappy, sentimental nonsense, but I can’t tell you how fortunate we feel to be going through this in a church and a community we’ve come to know so well. Already so many of you have been key to getting us through the dark nights we’ve had. We’re going to need you and we’re not the type to ask so don’t wait for us to ask. Just continue to do what you’ve been doing.

ImamPastorI like to yank Dennis’ chain but without him I’d probably still be in the corner crying and sucking my thumb.

I couldn’t have made it through this week without Dennis and I won’t make it through the weeks ahead without him, so cut him some slack. And even though you know I won’t be preaching for quite a while and you know he’s likely to bore you to tears, please show up at church anyway.

It might not surprise you, but my biggest fear- the thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night with panic attacks- has been about my boys. I don’t want to put them through this and I certainly don’t want them to lose me or the family they know. You can help on their end too. When you see them, please don’t ask about me or my cancer.

Please just treat them like normal kids because a normal life for them is my biggest goal in all of this.

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I miss you all. I really do, and I wish I could be there today to say all this to you. And don’t sweat the God thing, people. Please. I never believed before that God does mean-ass stuff like this to people so I’m not hung up on God doing it to me. I don’t believe there’s any mysterious ‘reason’ other than the chromosomal one that cancer- however rare- is happening to me, and I don’t believe there’s a bigger plan behind all of this other than the same plan God has for all of us: to love and glorify him through Christ. I’ve just got to figure out how to do that given my new circumstances.

Finally, don’t pity me.

Cancer’s not all that bad.

For example, just as I was drifting off before surgery I heard one of the surgical staff say aloud: ‘We’re definitely going to need a bigger tube for the catheter…’

See, some dreams do come true. Even amidst nightmares.

– The End. 

PS:  I hope to hell not. 

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517A bit ago I reposted an article asking folks what they want in a sermon. I thought this was a very thoughtful response I received from a friend in my congregation. I offer to you here, with his permission, in no self-aggrandizing way:

What do I want in a sermon?

What I want is clearly not what everyone wants, and the fact that we at church have you pastors at the same time for so long is a terrific asset for the congregation.  It allows different styles to be present in the same location.

So, what do I want?

I want someone who literally struggles with the cynic inside my head.

I see tremendous hypocrisy, which includes myself, throughout our society and community – and throughout our faith.  So, I want someone who is able to identify those same things and point them out in a constructive way that reflects our faith.

I want to be challenged intellectually.

But I don’t want to be challenged to the point where I feel utterly stupid and shamed for my lack of wits.  I was unchurched after I left home in 1988 and moved back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s houses when things were going very badly at my Mom’s home with her second husband.  I started looking for churches again when I was stationed in Germany, after I spoke with a Jewish Rabbi, in 2004.  I attended some traditional and nontraditional services.  Some felt hokey and some felt familiar, “nice,” but maybe boring.

I don’t go to church to hear that I should love everyone.

I know that I should love everyone.

I want to hear how I should love someone who I otherwise would pass by.  I want to hear that Jesus is more likely to be the grumpy half-crazy homeless guy that I’d see on the way to work downtown than anyone else that’s in my daily life.

I want to be challenged, and sometimes that means offended.

I want that.

That’s tempered with not wanting a shock-jock turned preacher – or a preacher that is so full of himself or herself that any semblance of approachability and humility have transmogrified into this puritanical, holier-than-thou, give all your money to the church, “holy man” who is the knoweth and the beginningeth and endeth of all things Jesus.

I don’t want a fire breathing, Bible-thumping preacher man, who tells me that the only folks who get saved are those that are baptized in this church or that one.

I want a sermon to help bridge the gaps.

Between the Christian factions – or to at least help us understand what makes a Methodist sermon different than a Catholic or Non-Denominational one.  That desire goes back to learning bits and pieces about our faith – but through current happenings.  It doesn’t have to be about ISIS, but it can.  It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it can.

When we bought our home, we bought it to be closer to our church and to a particular school.  We want to stay and we want to be part of this community.  I want to be continually challenged.  If I’m not, I tend to wander and stray.

At the risk of your reaching critical mass (get it, “mass”…) of mental acuity and sheer mathematical arithmetical genius, I had only found a small handful of clergy that I could relate to (I guess that’s not just until I found Aldersgate, as it is still the case.

I could tell you a story through these three clergy – one Rabbi, one Catholic, and one Evangelical Preacher… I found bits to identify with each and something to take away.  It’s raised questions that I’ve asked and questions that I haven’t.

I still ended up in the Methodist tradition that I was baptized into back in the Chicago area.  Maybe because of tradition, but maybe also because I’ve found someone like you all.  We are happy here and what we are getting is exactly what we want.

Hopefully that’s helpful.

Thanks for asking.

– JF

While We Were Yet Dogs

Jason Micheli —  October 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

LifeTogetherI continued our community-themed series this past weekend with a sermon on Matthew 15, the passage where Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a b@#$%.

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

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

I’ll tell you- my week was insane, crazy busy, exhausting. Sound familiar?

For example, just the other evening I spent a couple of hours at Mt Vernon Rehab sitting and praying with a family as their loved breathed her last few hours. It’s not like a ‘real’ job but still, that kind of thing, it’s emotionally draining, you know.

And then the next morning, after I sat in the Kiss-and-Ride line for about 53 minutes to drop my boys off for school, I went by the hospital to visit a few church folks. After that I stopped by the office here where our handful of regular pan-handlers gave me their latest sob story before hitting me up for a handout.

The day just got better and brighter from there though because then I had a district clergy meeting I had to attend where for 2 hours of eternity the powers-that-be harped on everything we were doing wrong, everything we were missing and how the future of a denomination in decline rested solely on our shoulders. So it was a fun meeting but, hey, at least it was long.

That afternoon I tried to respond to the like 500 unread emails in my inbox and I spent about an hour helping Dennis log in to his computer.

And after listening to him tell that 1 joke he likes to tell, I tried to carve out a little time to research this week’s scripture text and after that I schlepped everyone over the Waynewood to coach Gabriel’s baseball team.

All the parents on the team know I’m a pastor so they’re all as cloying and emotionally needy as church people so it was anything but relaxing.

So that evening I stopped at Starbucks, hoping for just a little quiet time to myself- a chance to recharge spiritually and gather my thoughts. I hid at a little table in the back where the homeless riffraff normally nap.

But, because I’m an idiot, I was still wearing my clergy collar, which is basically like wearing a sandwich board sign that says ‘Open for Business.’

Sure enough I hadn’t been sitting there for a minute- 60 seconds- when this woman comes up to me and sits down across from me.

Sits down. Doesn’t ask just sits down. Sure, she looked anxious and desperate and poor, but talk about pushy and rude. She didn’t even ask.

And then she says to me: ‘Father (I get that a lot with the collar) I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ That’s what she said: ‘I’d like to unload a burden on you.’ Which is just a passive aggressive way of saying ‘I’d like to make my burden your burden instead.’

Like I said, I was tired and feeling frayed and just needing not to be needed so I was little brusque with her.

     I said to her:

‘Look, not now. I’ve got a ton of people on my To Do List and they’re all more important than a b!@#$ like you.’

mt15_26

 

No, of course I didn’t say that to her. Don’t be ridiculous. I know you think I’m like the Slim Shady of pastors, but I’d never say something like that to a stranger. And neither would you. I mean, we only talk that way to the people we love. Not in a million years would I talk that way to a stranger in need.

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

     “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.”

     Jesus says.

If that didn’t make your sphincter tighten up a few notches when you heard it read, then you didn’t really hear it. You didn’t really hear any of it. Even my 3rd grader refers to this as ‘the mean Jesus story.’

Read it again. Jesus doesn’t just call her a dirty word. At first he ignores her completely, like she’s worse than a dog, like she’s not even there.  And then, after the disciples try to get rid of her, Jesus basically says there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU. I don’t have any spare miracles for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

For SOMEONE LIKE YOU I’m all tapped out. And when she doesn’t go away, Jesus calls her a dog.

The bread (of life) is meant for the children (of God). For the righteous. For believers. For the right kind of people like me.  It’s not meant for DOGS LIKE YOU.

Jesus, the incarnate love of God, says to her.

And you can be sure that in Greek to her ears ‘dog’ sounded exactly like ‘witch’ with a capital B.

Just like in 1 Samuel 17.43 when Goliath taunts David with that word.

Just like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus preaches that you ‘never give holy things to dogs nor pearls to swine.’

     Now, like a pig, Jesus refuses to give anything holy to this woman and then calls her a dog.

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

It’s because of passages like this one that you know the Jesus story is true. It has to be true. It’s too messed up not to be true. Think about it- if the Gospels were just made up fictions, then this passage today would never have made it into the Bible. Just imagine how that conversation would’ve gone. Just imagine the pitch among the writers:

     Hey, I’ve got this new idea for the story- whole new angle. 

     I was thinking we do a change of scenery, put the hero in Gentile territory, have him rub elbows with the undesirable type. 

    And then we have this woman come to him looking for his help. Just like the woman with the hemorrhage in the first part of the script. But I was thinking…what if we go the other way with it? You remember how we had that first woman grab at the hem of his garment for her miracle? 

     And how he looks around for who touched him so he can reward her faith- because that’s how compassionate he is. So this time I thought we could change it up. Have him ignore the woman completely. Pretend like she’s not even there. 

     But get this: we don’t stop there. I was thinking that after she refuses to go away- because she’s just so wretched and pathetic and everything- we can have him call her a b@!$%. 

     Yeah, a b@#$%. Isn’t that a grabber? Keep the audience guessing. He’s unpredictable. Is he going to respond with the love and mercy tack, or will he turn a cold shoulder and throw down an f-bomb?

You see- that would never happen!

     You know the Gospel is true because if it were just made up, this story- along with the cross- would’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

It never would’ve made it in the Bible. There’s no better explanation: Jesus really treated this woman like she wasn’t even there, not worth his time, and then called her a dog. So if he really did do it, then why? Why did he do it? How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus?

 

It’s true that Jesus is truly, fully God, but it’s also true, as the creed says, that Jesus was fully, truly, 100% human.

So maybe that’s the explanation.

Maybe this Canaanite woman caught Jesus with his compassion down.  He’s human. It happens to all of us.

And it’s understandable given the week he’s had. Just before this, he was rejected by his family and his hometown friends in Nazareth. That’s rough. And right after that John the Baptist gets murdered. And everywhere he’s gone lately crowds chase him more interested in miracles than messiahs.

So maybe this Canaanite woman catches Jesus in a bad mood, with a little compassion fatigue. Sue him. He’s human.

Except the way Jesus draws a line between us and them, the way he dismisses her desperation and then drops a dirty word on her- it sounds human alright. All too human.  As in, it sounds like something someone who is less than fully human would do.

So how do we explain it?

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You could say- as some have- that Jesus isn’t really being the mean, insensitive, offensive, manstrating jerk wad he seems to be here in this passage.

No, you could say, this is Jesus testing her.  He’s testing her to see how long she’ll kneel at his feet, to see how long she’ll call him ‘Lord,’ to see how long she’ll beg and plead for his mercy.

He’s just testing her faith. You could say (and many have). But if that’s the case, then Jesus doesn’t just call her a dog. He treats her like one too and he’s even more of jerk than he seemed initially.  WWJD? Humiliate her in order to test her? Somehow I don’t think so.

 

Of course, if you worked for the National Football League, then you could just blame it on her. Blame the victim.

You could suggest that she deserves the treatment Jesus gives her, that she has it coming to her for the rude and offensive way she first treats Jesus. After all, she comes to him- alone- a Gentile woman to a Jewish rabbi, violating his holiness codes and asking him to do the same for her.

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

So she gets what she has coming to her for bursting in on his closed doors; alone, approaching a man who’s not her husband, breaching the ethnic and religious and gender barriers between them and then rudely expecting him to do the same.

If he’s rude to her, then you could argue that she deserves it for treating him so offensively first.  And it’s true that her approaching him violates social convention. It’s true: she not only asks for healing, she asks him to transgress the religious law that defines him. All true.

But that doesn’t explain why NOW of all times Jesus acts so out of character. It doesn’t explain why NOW and not before he’s suddenly sensitive about breaking the Jewish law for mercy’s sake.

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

     Tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU.

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

A contemporary take on this text is to say that this is an instance of Jesus maturing, coming to an awareness that maybe his mission was to the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.

That without this fortuitous run-in with a persistent Canaanite woman Jesus might have kept on believing he was a circumscribed Messiah only. That she helps Jesus enlarge his vision and his heart.

I guess, maybe. But that doesn’t really get around the insult here.

Jews didn’t even keep dogs as pets- that’s how harsh this is. Dogs were unclean, scavenging in the streets, eating trash, and sleeping in filth. And in Jesus’ day, ‘dog’ was a racist, derogatory term for Canaanites, unwashed unbelievers who just happened to be Israel’s original and oldest enemy. Even if she helped him change his mind that doesn’t explain away his mouth.

What’s a word like that doing in Jesus’ mouth?

     How do we explain Jesus acting in a way that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all but sounds a lot more like us instead?

 

 

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Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

To understand this passage, to understand Jesus acting the way he does, you have to go back to the scene right before it where Jesus has a throw down with the scribes and the Pharisees who’ve just arrived from Jerusalem to check him out.

Rather than attacking Jesus directly, they go after the company Jesus keeps. They take one look at the losers Jesus has assembled around him- low class fishermen, bottom feeding tax collectors and worse- and they ask Jesus the loaded question:

Why would a rabbi’s disciples ignore scripture? Why would they eat with unclean hands (and unclean people)?

Their pointing out how Jesus’ disciples were the wrong kind of people was but a way of pointing out how they were the right kind of people. Good people. Law-abiding people. Convention-respecting, morality-keeping,  Bible-believing people.

And Jesus responds with a scripture smack-down of his own, saying that it’s not obeying the rules that makes you holy.

It’s not believing the bible that makes you holy.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, Jesus says.

It’s what comes out of the mouth. And whether or not what comes out of your mouth is the truth about what’s in your heart.

That’s what makes you holy, Jesus says. Pretty straightforward, right?

Except the disciples don’t get it. They think Jesus is just telling a parable, turning the tables on the Pharisees to show how they’ve got it all backwards; it’s Jesus’ disciples who are the right kind of people and the Pharisees who are the wrong kind.

The disciples don’t get that Jesus’ whole point is that putting people into ‘kinds of people’ in order to justify ourselves is exactly the problem.

The scene starts with the scribes asserting their superiority and the scene ends with the disciples assuming their superiority.

 

Turn the page. What does Jesus do next? To drive his point home?

He takes the disciples on a field trip across the tracks. Into Canaanite territory, a place populated by people so unclean the disciples are guaranteed to feel holier than thou. And there this woman approaches them, asking for mercy.

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

But on her mouth, coming out of her mouth, is this confession: ‘Son of David.’

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

Which according to Jesus should tell you a bit about what’s in her heart.

But the disciples don’t even notice. The’ve already forgotten about what Jesus said about the mouth and the heart.

So what does Jesus do?

     He acts out what’s in their hearts. He ignores her because that’s what’s in their hearts. He tells her there’s nothing I can do for SOMEONE LIKE YOU because that’s what’s in their hearts.  And because that’s what’s in their hearts, he calls her a dog.

     What comes out of his mouth is what’s in their hearts:

I’m better than you. I’m superior to you. I’m holier than you.

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Speaking of hearts-

That word on Jesus’ mouth is so distractingly shocking to us, we almost miss that she doesn’t even push back on it.

She owns it. And then she doubles down on her request for mercy:

     ‘Yeah, Jesus, I am a dog. I am a witch with a capital B. I am worthless. I am a loser. I am undeserving. I am a sinner. I am the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, but- hey- have mercy on me…’ 

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

She embodies what Jesus says in Luke’s more white-bread Gospel, when Jesus says:

‘Who is justified before God? The religious person who prays thank you, God, I am not like that sinner, or the person prays Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

     You see-

That’s what Jesus points out by play-acting, what he wants the disciples to see, what he wants us to see when he praises her ‘great faith.’

She doesn’t put up any pretense. She doesn’t try to justify herself over and against any one else. She doesn’t pretend that her heart’s so pure or her life is so put together that she doesn’t even need Jesus all that much.

No, she says: ‘Yeah, I am about the worst thing you could call me. Have mercy on me.’

After the scribes and the Pharisees have not gotten it and thought that it’s their fidelity to scripture that justifies them. And after the disciples have not gotten it and just flipped the categories and thought that it’s their association with Jesus that makes them superior. And after Jesus so plainly says that what makes us holy is whether or not what comes out of our mouth is the truth about what’s in our heart.

     She tells the truth about her pock-marked heart and she boldly owns up to her need.

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If that’s great faith, then what it means to be a community of faith is to be a place for sinners.

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So the good news is-

     If you’re not fine but feel like everyone else is

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

If you lie to your friends or stare at a loser in the mirror

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

If you drink too much, care too little, fail at your job

If you think any one who votes for the other party is an idiot

If you’re a racist or an agist or a homophobe

If you’re a barely tamed cynic who thinks you’re smarter than everyone else just about all the time

If your beliefs are so shaky you’re not even sure you belong here

If you think the insides of your heart would make others throw up in their mouths

If you think you’re worthless, the wrong kind of person in all kinds of ways, that you warrant the worst thing someone might say about you…

Then the good news is: this is the place for you. Because Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

     While we were yet dogs, Jesus came to take our pock-marked hearts and fill them with his own righteousness.

To make us holy.

But he can’t do that until what’s on our mouths confesses what’s actually in our hearts.

‘I’m about the worst thing any one could call me, but Jesus Christ, Son of David, mercy on me.’

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means that this is not a place where we put up pretenses, hide behind piety, pretend that we’re pure of heart, use our beliefs to justify ourselves over and against someone else.

If this is what great faith looks like, then the good news is that to be a community of faith means this is not a place to act self-righteous or judgmental or superior or intolerant or in any way at all that suggests we think we’re the right kind of people.

Of course the bad news is-

That’s about the last thing people think of when they hear the word ‘church.’

oprah-tour-bio-1-949x534Our preaching theme in October is ‘Community’ and my assigned text this Sunday was John 15.1-17. Confession: I’ve always found the ‘I am’ sayings in John just about impossible to preach for their lack of narrative and abundance of repetition.

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

 

     “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He prunes any of my branches that don’t produce…”

     Who are we kidding? This just doesn’t work.

As a message, as a teaching- a sermon- Jesus goes about this all wrong.

It’s all bass-akwards.

Sure, Jesus had a big heart for the least, the lost, the left behind. Sure, Jesus could suffer for my sin. Yes, that whole swallowing up Death in Victory feat is pretty impressive, but take me from an expert: as a preacher, Jesus doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Far be it from me to brag (pause for laughter) but when I was in graduate school, I worked as the teaching assistant for Dr. Cleophus Larue, Princeton’s Professor of Homiletics (as in, Preaching).

Dr Laure is a famous black preacher himself, and, I don’t like to toot my horn, but let’s just say renown professors of the homiletical arts seldom select their worst students to be their assistants.

So, I know of what I speak and I’ve got the resume to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon and this just doesn’t work.

I know a good sermon should pick at and prod against and pull on the tension in the text or in the room, teasing out the MAIN IDEA only at the very end.

I know that preaching isn’t just talking and it’s not the same as lecturing. I know that for a good sermon the rhetorical form of the sermon should match the form of the scripture text.

And I know that for a sermon to be good, for the word to be a living word, then the preacher’s words have to land on target:

     The sermon has to be written for the ear not the eye.

The verbs have to be active.

The imagery has to be relevant and compelling.

You have to convey with the idioms of the day.

You have to meet your listeners where they’re at, where they’re coming, appeal to their self-interest.

You have to excite their passions and answer their questions and, for God’s sake, first rule of all:

     you’ve got to do it in  20 minutes or less.

     Because people get hungry.

I got the grades to prove it. I know what makes for a good sermon.

I used to edit students’ sermon manuscripts, and I can tell you if I took a red pen to this sermon then you would think Jesus preached this on Calvary instead of in the Upper Room.

All of which is to say that this is textbook wrong, or at least you could say…this just doesn’t work.

Savior of the world maybe.

Good preacher no.

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He starts off promising, despite how the rest of it goes.

Jesus begins the sermon with an illustration, actually more like a piece of performance art.

Jesus takes off his robe and ties it around his waist like a slave. Jesus rolls up his sleeves, and Jesus stoops down on his knees.

And like a slave, the savior washes his listeners’ filthy feet.

One at a time he does what no Messiah would ever do and only a servant ever would.

He washes their feet!(?)

The congregation- they have no idea what he’s doing.

They’re hanging on every word he doesn’t say.

It’s a brilliant counter-intuitive way to begin a sermon.

 

And when Jesus finishes and stands up and puts his robe back on, he keeps it short and sweet: ‘Just as I have washed your feet…wash one another’s feet.’

Bam- his words match the ritual action. What they hear echoes what they’ve just seen.

It’s visual. It’s memorable. And the takeaway can fit onto a bumper sticker: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

Jesus starts off with A plus promise. If he’d only stopped there.

But then Jesus commits the first mistake of preaching: he just keeps preaching. He rambles on and on about betrayal and his Father’s House and Comforter coming.

He preaches so long you forget this teaching started with a street theater grabber like the foot-washing.

What’s worse- Jesus then makes the kind of promise that NO preacher should ever make, a Dennis Perry kind of preaching promise.

Jesus says in his sermon: ‘I won’t say much more to you…’(14.30).

Jesus promises he’s almost done preaching and then what does he do? He keeps on preaching.

By my count, Jesus preaches for another 2,040 words, longer than this sermon will end up being, which makes this the only basis on which you could ever argue that Jesus was a Baptist.

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I mean- just because he died for us doesn’t mean we can’t be critical right? 🙂

Even if you just take this sermon within the sermon in John 15, it doesn’t work. Jesus just comes out with his main idea right away: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper.’

It’s like giving away the punchline before you’ve told the joke.

Sure, Jesus doesn’t have as much experience as, say…me, but even Jesus should know that if you begin where you should end you’ve got no where to go.

So it’s no wonder he just repeats himself over and over again.

But it’s not just the mechanics of the sermon Jesus screws up, it’s the substance.

Preaching, as one with a Master of Divinity degree knows, is a proclamation of the Gospel.

Preaching is the announcement of the unconditional promise that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

     Apparently Jesus skipped Preaching 101 though because his sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- is loaded down with very conditional-sounding if/then statements that all run in the wrong direction:

     ‘If you remain in me, then I will remain in you.’

‘If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.’

‘If you don’t remain in me, then you will be thrown away.’

‘If you keep my commands, then you will remain in my love.’

‘If you do what I’ve commanded, then you will be my friends.’

Even a C minus, tone-deaf rookie preacher should know that when you make conditional if/then statements the listeners can’t help but then ponder the alternatives:

     ‘If you don’t remain in me, then I will not remain in you.’

‘If you do not remain in me, then you will produce no fruit.’

‘If you don’t keep my commands, then you will not remain in my love nor will you by friends.’

And then it’s no time before your listeners aren’t even listing to you anymore. Now they’re listening to that voice inside their heads, the one reminding them of each and every instance in which they did not keep his commands.

And then-

It’s no time after that that your sermon- if you can even call it a sermon- starts to sound like something other than Gospel. Good news.

 

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And then-

To make matters worse, Jesus takes his most vivid, arresting, attention-grabbing language and he applies it to the wrong people.

He shoots at the wrong target.

All those metaphors or pruning and throwing away and burning up in fire- that’s the stuff of good, visceral, brimstone preaching.

But Jesus uses it against the wrong people.

It’s just basic, elementary rhetoric.

That kind of rabble-rousing language should be aimed against OUTSIDERS.

     Pruning Off.

     Throwing Away.

     Burning Up.

Every good preacher knows you use those kinds of metaphors to draw a line between us and them. It’s the oldest sermon trick in the book. The quickest way to unite a crowd, to inspire an audience, to mobilize everyone there listening to you is to demonize those who are not there.

Every good preacher knows the surest way to create an ‘us’ is to label a ‘them.’ And to heap hot, heavy language on them like Pruning Off, Throwing Away and Burning Up.

But Jesus takes that language and he turns it in the wrong direction. He turns it towards you.

And he says: ‘If you don’t remain in me. you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up and thrown into a fire…’

What’s he doing?!

It’s a bold, stupid and probably counter-productive move. I would never dare tell my listeners that God might prune them off, throw them away and burn them up.

     Jesus is breaking the unspoken rule of all preaching:

You have to suck up to your listeners and manipulate them into liking you.

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Far be it from me to toot my own horn, but I think we can all agree that, as a preacher, Jesus could benefit from some pointers from yours truly.

Or, if not from me then certainly we can agree that Christ could use some coaching from the greatest of all spiritual teachers…Oprah Winfrey.

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That’s right.

Just the other day, I was working at the Starbucks in Kingstowne, slamming back Americanos while I studied Jesus’ preaching here in John 15.

And then I noticed these cardboard-sleeve ‘sermons’ staring me right in the face:

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“Follow your passion. It will lead to your purpose.”

“The only courage you ever need is the courage to live the life you want.”

 “Your life is big. Keep reaching.”

And then my personal fav:

“Love from the heart of yourself. Seek to be whole, not perfect.”

Take it from a Dean’s List someone who knows: these are great, textbook sermons. They’re brief and to the point. They’re memorable and spoken in the language of our culture and they literally meet us where we’re at.

And they appeal in an unconditional, unambiguous way to our greatest passion: ourselves.

These cardboard-sleeve sermons are all about my freedom to be unique. To be special. To be fulfilled. To be the star of the movie entitled ‘Me’ which at the director’s discretion (ME) may or may not include a (minor) supporting cast.

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Oprah- I think she was wrong about The Kite Runner, but as a preacher she’s textbook.

And when you read her cardboard-sleeve sermons it becomes all the more apparent how Jesus’ preaching just doesn’t work.

Look at it again, his imagery falls flat.

Jesus is the vine, okay.

God the Father is the Gardener, fine.

Which leaves us to be…the branches?!

Just ask Oprah- it should be the other way.

It should be Jesus is the Soil and God is the Gardener, or God is the Soil and Jesus is the Gardener- fine, either will work.

But we should get to be the Plant and we should get to be whatever Plant We Want To Be bearing Whatever Kind of Fruit We Want God To Help Us Bear.

The way Jesus has it sucks. Branches?

Branches are all completely dependent on the plant. If that sounds good to you then fine for you, but that’s not who I want to be.

I want to follow my passion, discover my purpose. live the (big) life I want to live.

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Instead of a branch that can do NOTHING apart from the plant, Jesus SHOULD promise that with him I can do ANYTHING I want, fulfill my desires, realize my dreams, achieve my goals.

Take it from an expert- that will preach. Every time.

For my sins, I’ll turn to Jesus, but for sermons I’ll take Oprah every time.

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The problem with Jesus’ sermon here isn’t just the branch analogy that Jesus draws. The problem isn’t just that a branch is not the object of attention- unlike my self-image. The problem isn’t just that apart from the plant a branch is no better than firewood- again, contrary to my self-image.

No, the real problem with Jesus’ preaching, with his choice of metaphor, is the kind of plant of which we’re supposed to be branches: Vines.

Why not a tree? Or a friggin’ tomato plant?

     Vines are tangled and messy, inefficient and not very attractive when you get right down to it.

Vines get so knotted together it’s hard to tell which is what- not really the kind of anonymity a narcissist like me prefers.

Vines gets so wrapped up together that every blemish and bare spot on every branch is visible to at least a few other branches- that isn’t cool.

The thing about vines- the branches get so twisted up with each other that when fruit does bloom it’s hard to tell which branch produced it.

And the thing about vines- the branches get so wound around each other that when  fruit goes bad you can’t tell whose _________ stinks.

And the thing about vines, they’re as likely to choke and kill each other as they are to flower and bear fruit.

This is a terrible sermon, an awful choice of metaphors.

Even brown-nosing St. Paul gets it better when he chooses the analogy of the Body.

At least the hand and the ear keep a comfortable distance from each other.

“I am the vine and you are the branches.”

Take it from someone who knows: this is a terrible homiletical move.

Because, frankly, I don’t know if I want to get that to close to you, get that tangled up in you, so wrapped up in you that I can see your imperfections.

     Or, to be more honest, I don’t know if I want you to get that close to me.

I’m the pastor for a reason.

I LIKE being able to stand up here at a distance.

I don’t know if I want you to get knotted enough up with me that you can see my prune marks and smell my stink.

John 15- this is a terrible sermon within a terrible, too-long sermon.

I know how to preach a better sermon.

Oprah can squeeze a better sermon onto a cardboard coozie.

Jesus’ sermon- it doesn’t work.

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But that’s the thing, sermons aren’t everything.

As a preacher, as much as it kills me to admit, sermons aren’t everything. Or even much of anything.

Oprah might be able to deliver the pitch-perfect, culturally-determined message we’re hungry to hear.

But when your Mom or Dad dies, Oprah ain’t bringing you any chicken soup. You need a church.*

And when you lose your job or your child or when your spouse leaves you, Oprah isn’t showing up in your living room for coffee and a listening ear and a maybe a prayer. You need a church.

Oprah can tell you what books you should be reading, but she’s not going to show up and read at your hospital bedside. You need a church for that.

And when your _________ stinks- and it will- and when you’re deluded into thinking you’re the plant at the center of the earth basking in the well-deserved light Oprah is not going to show up and point out all your places to prune, notice your bare spots or exhort you to bear fruit for something greater than yourself.

She won’t do that. She won’t.

You need a church to do that.

You NEED a church for for that.

You do. You DO.

Because no one else, no where else will.

“I am the vine and the vine you are the branches.” 

As one preacher to another, Jesus, take it from me: this is a terrible sermon.

But it just might be true.

 

*Paraphrase of a comment from Nadia Weber Bolz

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis is from friend, former youth and now colleague, Taylor Mertins.

You should definitely check out his blog and subscribe to it here. He even gave me a shout-out in his most sermon, albeit anonymously 🙂

1. Every Church Is Different

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and the Tamed Cynic himself, Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

3. It Can Be Lonely

The Tamed Cynic himself has written before about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. Lindsey, my wife, and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (established in 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

  • Rev. Taylor Mertins~I graduated from Duke Divinity School in the Spring of 2013 and recently celebrated my one year anniversary of serving as the pastor of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the bread and wine with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry. 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Last year I wrote this and more about the video series:

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

Though I stand by what I said in reference to that particular video (Church Knows Stoles) and have done my best to resist commenting on even more inane, insider topics (Apportionments, District Superintendents…District Superintendents? WTF?), I took a lot of crap for my critique. I don’t like to be a bully but with a target as easy as Chuck it’s difficult not come across as such.

One response, however, made me feel especially douchey (even if my name isn’t Jeremy):

Hello Jeremy,

I am the creator and senior producer of Chuck Knows Church (one of about 20 staff and volunteers). I just wanted to post here to say that there are real people that work hard each week to bring these short messages. I can assure you we are all very devout Christians who love Jesus and certainly have God at the center of every one of our conversations as we produce the series.

The series, like any on 250 cable networks and more than a million YouTube channels, is not for everyone. I get that. We are trying to reach an audience not normally captured with traditional methodologies. In that regard, it’s rather unique I guess.

And I also get that the success of any series or effort often has backlash. It’s to be expected. I’ve produced videos and films for the denomination and secular studios for more than 20 years, and that’s always the case.

As far as “where is Jesus” and “where is God”, I suggest watching this week’s episode on Transfiguration Sunday. You will find God and Jesus at the center.

I’ll stop there, but thanks for letting me post a comment.

I thought your comments were clever! I wish you the very best in your ministry.

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston

Egg, meet Face.

If I call them like I see them I figure, in a bit irony, I should be gracious enough to throw a bone at the exceptions. So here’s a Chuckie video more along the lines of actual Christianity I said I wanted:

questions_postcard1I learned while preaching in a prison that it’s not wise to ask rhetorical questions in sermons unless I’m prepared for my listeners to answer. Since then, I’ve often wondered what would happen if people in the pews just started raising their hands during the sermon.

Maybe learning?

Aside from the typical depiction of the pastor as well-meaning rube, this clip from an otherwise innocuous show is hilarious:

You: Conduits of Love

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

photo

This is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Minister.

Why is it that people at church are more comfortable talking to others about weddings, new babies or hairstyles but avoid asking them about their unemployment, divorce, or addiction?

Do you know that in your congregation you will find people who have lied, stolen things, or have had extra-marital affairs?

You will also find parents who’ve had to bury their children.

Just because people come to church doesn’t mean that sin and suffering aren’t a part of their life.

I find it ironic when people who don’t attend church expect those that do to be perfect.  It’s just the opposite.

Church should be a place where we can freely let our guard down as we grow and develop our faith.

If we truly are a “church family,” then we should act like a family.  Families accept and love each other regardless of differences or disappointments.  They share what’s happening in their lives, and provide bits of wisdom to help each other along the way.  But mainly, they are there for each other.  Whether they see each other every week, or perhaps take a few years off, families have a bond.

I understand it’s uncomfortable to talk to someone you barely know about personal issues.

But what about the person you have seen at church every week for the last few years?

Have you taken the time to get to know them?

Jesus came to earth to show us how to live.  His parables, miracles, and words were meant to guide us on our path of reconciliation with God.

It is only through Christ that we can accept God’s love and wisdom and thus, give it to others.

We become conduits of love.

Christ love flows into us, changes our hearts and minds, and prepares us to serve others.

If we try to do this on our own, our egos or insecurities get in the way.

This is what the future church should resemble.

A community of faith that forms followers of Christ, depends on fellowship with other Christians for support, accountability, and unity, and finds areas to serve and give back to the world.

It doesn’t care for worldly values, attitudes, or what the neighbors think.  It doesn’t exist to make you feel better.  It should change your thinking which in turn will change your behavior.

It will create Disciples of Christ.

 

 

 

closed-churchThis is from Thom Rainer.

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the rela- tively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did
not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudg- ingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were diffi- cult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expres- sion, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy.

Here are eleven things I learned.

  1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transi- tion toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower- class residents.

  2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I want- ed to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.

  3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other plac- es where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

  5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meet- ings became more acrimo- nious.

  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi- vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.

  8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship ser- vice. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

  10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.

  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

 

 

 

illegalscrossingfence-1I don’t like to wade too specifically into political issues, preferring to keep things theological and let you sort out the connections for yourself. Immigration, however, is different in that it’s a thoroughly biblical concern.

How God’s People think of, treat, care for strangers and aliens is much more a part of our core story than issues, say, of sexuality.

It seems to me that much of the (nativist) rhetoric from opponents of immigration reform strikes a protectionist tone: This is ‘our’ country. This country belongs to us. This is our home. We must protect it from strangers and aliens.

That may be an adequate perspective for Americans.

But it’s not for bible believers.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred…”
And Abram went.
(Genesis 12.1, 4)

In the story the Bible tells it’s Abraham who sends the human story in a new direction—from a steady drifting away from God, to a return toward God.

Christians too easily forget: before Yahweh called him, Abram was a pagan. An idolator. A worshipper of the gods of Babylon.

The gods of Babylon would never call someone away from their kin and country.

The pagan gods were, in fact, the personification of country and kin, or to be more precise, the divinization of kin and country.

Stars-Space-Wallpapers-But Yahweh calls Abraham to leave country and kin and Abraham does and somehow this is the beginning of the means by which God will renew his creation.

As St Paul makes clear in his letter to the Romans, Abraham is the the pattern for every believer. Indeed there’s a sense in which Paul’s understanding means that Jesus isn’t just the Second Adam (Rom 5) but that Abraham is the Second Adam and Jesus the Third.

If Abraham is the prototype for the humanity God’s desired from the very first creation, then how does the pattern of Abraham’s life inform how believers are to reflect on the subject of immigration?

We are all products of our national culture. Our self is formed in large part by the identity our country forms in us. As a result we feel an emotional- almost religious- connection to our country. This is ‘our’ home

This is neither avoidable nor bad.

What it is, however, is inadequate for those who claim Abraham as their true founding father.

For as Abraham, the pattern of genuine, God-desired humanity, shows to be the People of Yahweh always involves the call away from kin and country.

To be a people of faith, a people like Abraham, is to be a pilgrim people.

A diaspora people.

A people not unlike the Magi after they encountered the Christ Child: no longer at ease in their former home.

God’s call for Abraham to leave his country is a call for Abraham to accept being an alien wherever he goes. Yahweh, unlike the conventional pagan gods, isn’t defined by national or ethnic distinctions.

Yahweh’s call profoundly subordinates what previously would have been Abraham’s most precious values: his national and family identity.

Once he’s called by God, Abraham can be at home anywhere even while being a stranger everywhere.

He belongs no where because he belongs to God.

This is why throughout the Old Testament Yahweh is insistent that Abraham’s children care for and welcome aliens, because God’s call makes all of us aliens in this world.

If, as Paul writes, the faith of Abraham is the faith Christ perfects and invites us, through the Spirit, to live, then, like Abraham, we’re called to subordinate/qualify all our loyalties to the living God.

Without faith in this living God, without finding our true ‘home’ in this God, then, as the Abraham story makes clear, those most precious of loyalties, nation and family, quickly become gods. Idols.

Contemporary children of Abraham can welcome anyone because we ourselves are aliens everywhere for our ultimate citizenship resides in another Kingdom. It must be so because, as Abraham’s heirs, we’re called to be different from people who think in terms of ‘my country.’

Instead we’re called be a People through whom God is working to bless all the families of the earth.