Archives For Galatians

Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

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

Galatians 3.26-29

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

 

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

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sorcery? Check

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

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

Anger.

Check.

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

So check and check and check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about that other list?

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

How are you doing with that list?

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

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

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

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

I just turned 40.

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

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

I love my kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this is particularly comforting.

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

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

Note the passive voice.

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

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

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

And that’s my first point.

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

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except the Gardener.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

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

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

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

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

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

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

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

Therefore

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

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

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

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

Ergo-

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

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

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith apart from your feelings.

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

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

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are.

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

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

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

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

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about faith.

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

 

 

 

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


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

I like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

As if to say, ‘Me first.’

So Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I still like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t confess his sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

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

Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet.

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

Jacob’s not a bible hero.

He’s a heel.

Still, I can’t help it. I like Jacob.

You might not.

You might not like Jacob.

You might not be like Jacob.

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

Congrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good for you. Gold star to you.

Go ahead and turn your brown nose up at Jacob.

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

Not everyone can relate to Jacob.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob.

Lucky you.

Lord knows I can.

I can.

But that’s not why I like Jacob.

No, I like Jacob-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

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

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

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

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

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

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

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

She smiled just a little.

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

I nodded yes.

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

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

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

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

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

I mean, I’m no Hedy Collver but I am a duly ordained reverend.

A question like that about faith and heaven and eternal life should be my bible bread and butter but the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I did better on her follow up. Another where question.

She smoothed out my crinkled chemo tube and she asked me: “Do you ever wonder where God is…considering…your situation?”

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

“You see a lot of people lose their faith in a place like this. I guess it can be hard to believe there’s a God somewhere in the universe when there’s places like this in it too.”

“Your problem,” I said, “is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

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I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the ‘glory story.’

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way.

It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?”

The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us.

The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension not our ascension. And the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. Rather the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended.

The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles.

And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the glory story and all the unhelpful questions and cliches it begets.

We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God it starts with searching for him in our weakness.

If we hope to find wholeness from God it begins by seeking him out in our woundedness.

If we dream of finding healing from God we first must look for God not up in glory but down into the pit of our nightmare.

Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help and healing we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness and out into the shadows that surround us.

So I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Because it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ,

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- the healing grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s.

Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing- that’s not just the Jacob story that’s the Gospel.

That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by faith alone; we mean that you alone- by your lonesome- do not have the strength to save yourself.

You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint.

That’s why the bread is broken and why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar.

Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give.

“Your problem is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

But I could tell from the squint behind her purple glasses that I hadn’t done much better than “I dunno.”

She didn’t follow me.

“Look,” I said, “since you’re the lesbian evangelist nurse, this might come in handy the next time you see someone on the ledge of faith. Tell them: ‘God didn’t give you cancer, but if God is to be found anywhere it’s in your experience of cancer.’”

And even as I said it, I realized I was saying it as much for me as for anyone.

That I was the one she might one day spot on the ledge of faith.

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

And I need the hope that comes with that new name God gives to him as the dark turns to dawn, the hope that if, in faith, I meet him on the field on which he chooses to reveal himself, my suffering and shame and weakness, then my scars too can become sacraments, not just wounds by places where the wounded hands of a Savior have graced me.

I need Jacob.

I need the promise that one day that “You have struggled with God and prevailed…” can be my name too.

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

Here’s my sermon from Galatians 3 for this weekend.

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

Now if you’ll feel really bad if you fall asleep during my sermon.

An average of 4 days a week for a year and twice a month ever since, I’ve been to the infusion center so often my iPhone recognizes the “Cancer Specialists” WIFI network. On Tuesday my nurse poked around for a vein big enough to handle the chemo. It sounds wimpy but you get to the point where you’re just tired of being sick and stuck all the time with needles.

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

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

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

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

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show. Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

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

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

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

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

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

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

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

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

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

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

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

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

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

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

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

She smiled just a little.

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

I nodded yes.

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

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

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

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

———————-

     Seriously, your duly ordained reverend shrugged his shoulders and said: “I dunno.” No wonder Young Life rejected me as a leader in college. A question like that should be my bible bread and butter.

You people pay me a salary and benefits- too much, Lew says- but someone asks me point blank about faith and heaven and eternal life and the best I can do is shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I was so inarticulate with her you’d think it would take a miracle for me to give her the Gospel.

———————-

     The Apostle Paul says that God has spoken to us in two different words, Law and Gospel, that’s what he’s getting at in the end of our reading today.

And in another of his epistles, Paul urges believers to learn how to rightly divide the Word between Law and Gospel.

And here in today’s text in Galatians 3 we see one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

“Answer me one question: did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the Law or by believing the Gospel?”

      It’s not just that what you do for God does nothing for you and your standing before God; it’s that the Holy Spirit does not come to you through what you do for God.

The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of charity or compassion. The Holy Spirit does not come through your acts of piety or hospitality. The Holy Spirit does not come through your spirituality.

Or your service to the poor. Or your standing up for social justice.

Obeying the Law does not bring the Holy Spirit. Following the Sermon on the Mount does not bring the Holy Spirit. Imitating Jesus does not bring the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit comes to us not by what we do. The Holy Spirit only comes to us by trusting the promise that all has been done. By Christ. That’s Paul’s point here in Galatians, that in exchanging the Gospel for the Law they’ve exorcised the Spirit:

“When God gives you the Spirit…is it because you keep the Law, or is it because you believe the Gospel?”

Those who were best at discipleship and bible study and prayer nailed God to a tree.

If that doesn’t reveal the Law’s inability to make you righteous and justified then the gift of the Holy Spirit should be a convincing Exhibit B.

That’s what Paul is arguing at top of chapter 3:

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified…Did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the Law or by faith in the Gospel you heard?”

The Holy Spirit was present in thunder and fire and wind at the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

But after that first Pentecost on Mt. Sinai, the Holy Spirit did not come to anyone through following the Law.

Not to Moses or the Prophets. Not to John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit did not come even to Paul back when he was Saul and following the Law so fully as to be blameless before it.

The Holy Spirit did not come to anyone doing the Law. The Holy Spirit only came to those who trusted the Gospel.

When Peter preached the Gospel at the second Pentecost and the crowds received it by faith, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. When Phillip was explaining the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit came to him and baptized him, this most untouchable of outsiders. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the Holy Spirit came over him, the enemy. And the Galatians- they received not only the Gospel from Paul but the Holy Spirit too, Gentiles all of them.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through the Gospel not the Law.

     We receive the Holy Spirit through trusting in what Christ has done for us not in our own doing for Christ.

Through faith not works- not, even, your work of worship.

We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as this mysterious, mystical, subjective spirit inside of us, and, as a consequence, people like us- people who tend not to raise their hands during hymns or dance in the aisles or speak in tongues- tend not to speak about the Holy Spirit.

Because we don’t look or act or worship like charismatics, we all quietly conspire to assume that we must not be spirit-filled.

You can take it from the reverend: that’s nonsense.

Mysterious and mystical and subjective- emotional: nothing could be further from how St. Paul and even Jesus talk about the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not primarily something we experience subjectively inside of us because the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to mediate something that is objective, outside of us, something that is historical before it is emotional: Jesus Christ.

     The Holy Spirit comes with the Gospel not the Law because the Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ promised in the Gospel.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just any spirit but the Spirit of the Crucified Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence in our world of the absent Christ.

How Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit is how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room:

“The Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father;  about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”

According to Jesus explicitly and echoed by St. Paul, the Holy Spirit, as the presence of the absent Christ, mediates the work of Christ to us and the Holy Spirit does so in 3 ways.

1. The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

2. The Holy Spirit mediates the priestly work of Christ.

3. The Holy Spirit mediates the work of Christ as King.

I thought I’d preach another 3-point sermon just to show off how I can keep my New Year’s resolutions longer than you.

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, therefore, is not experiential but ethical. It’s not the role of the Holy Spirit to give you a transcendent personal experience; the golden calf gave God’s People a transcendent personal experience.

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

     Your emotions are not reliable evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity in your life.

     But your contrition is.

Because Jesus says it’s the Holy Spirit’s work to teach you about yourself.

It’s the Spirit’s work to show you, prophetically, the truth about you and the world to which, at best, you’re a guilty bystander.

The Holy Spirit’s purpose is not like Kevin Bacon’s in Footloose.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions and get you to dance and sing with abandon. King David did that in front of the ark and that story ends as badly as it did for Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It’s not the Holy Spirit’s work to break through your inhibitions. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work to break down your lies and your self-justifications.

To cut you, as the Spirit did at Pentecost, to the heart.

This is why Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, as in, the Attorney. The Holy Spirit prosecutes Christ’s case against our greedy, eye-for-an-eye world of white-washed tombs. And the Holy Spirit does so by cutting us and speaking the accusation of the Law into our broken hearts.

I know for you baby-boomers who have an overly optimistic self-estimation (even after the Clinton administration) that any talk of sin turns you off, but the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us of the s-word isn’t bad news.

So often when we become aware of our sin we suppose that God must be angry with us or far off from us.

No. Your awareness of your sin is all the evidence you need that God is nearer to you than you are to yourself.

For self-deceivers like us- if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that you don’t measure up, that you need to be forgiven, that’s an achievement. You’ve outdone even the President Trump.

To know you need forgiven- that’s proof the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

For self-justifiers like us- if you can read the newspaper and name racism as sin, sexism as sin, nationalism as sin, in a culture of fake fake news that’s an accomplishment.

Not everyone can do that- that’s proof of the Spirit of the Crucified Christ working on you.

————————-

     But the Holy Spirit doesn’t just convict us of our sin, the Holy Spirit comforts us as well, which brings me to my second point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the priestly work of Christ.

Jesus in the Upper Room calls the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, the Comforter, but Jesus doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, there for you to call whenever you’re feeling sad and lonely.

Jesus doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is a hug from heaven anytime you need one.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter in the sense that, after convicting us of our sin, the Holy Spirit mediates to us the comfort accomplished by Christ our Great High Priest.

That is, the Holy Spirit assures us of Christ as the forgiveness of our sins and the source of all our righteousness.

Contrary to how Christians often (mis)speak, the Holy Spirit is not in you. Your conscience is in you. And the Holy Spirit, who is outside of you, speaks into you. Into your conscience.

As Martin Luther said, the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s priestly work to us by being a Preacher, that if Christ and his Cross are the pledge of the Father’s love for you, then the Holy Spirit is the Preacher of that promise.

And like any preacher of the Church, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim, and the Holy Spirit preaches that particular promise by attaching to particular things: to the Word, to Water, to Wine and Bread.

And, heads up, this particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call BS on counterfeit preachers like Joel Osteen, who speaks of the Spirit through his toothy vacant smile but even while speaking of the Spirit neglects to speak of our sinfulness.

Joel O (baby-boomer) says sin is a downer.

And instead of Christ’s righteousness, Joel O invokes the Holy Spirit so that we can accrue our own righteousness, of which prosperity is the sign.

The particular work of the Preacher called Holy Spirit is how you can call foul on the TV preachers. Ditto the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Al Sharptons. The Holy Spirit might be an accuser of our politics. But the Holy Spirit is not a Preacher of our politics.

Like me, the Holy Spirit has a particular promise to proclaim to you:

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

Despite how trendy it is to say today, the Holy Spirit does not speak a new word. The Spirit is still speaking, but the Spirit speaks the same word, over and over, in new and different ways. The One by whom the Word was made flesh is now the Preacher of the Gospel Word to our flesh.

———————-

     And St. Paul says that Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, frees us from captivity under the Law to be his subjects under grace, which brings me to my final point.

The Holy Spirit mediates to us the work of Christ as King.

As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room, the Spirit “will prove the ruler of this world wrong for the ruler of this world has been condemned.” 

He’s talking about Satan, whom St. Paul calls the Power of Sin, who- in case you haven’t read the newspapers or checked Twitter lately- doesn’t appear to have been deposed.

Because our world in no way looks like anyone has defeated the Power of Sin, the Holy Spirit gives us faith.

When Protestant Christians speak of the solas, faith alone and scripture alone, this is what we mean. We mean that only by faith alone can we possibly believe the Good News isn’t fake news. Because everywhere our eyes would have us believe the opposite.

———————-

     When St. Paul writes about the curse of Christ’s cross and our redemption, he uses the aorist tense; that is, his cross and our redemption are concurrent.

They happen at the same time.

Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Galatians receiving the Gospel in faith and their receiving the Holy Spirit, he uses the aorist again.

They’re concurrent.

———————-

     The Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith.

They’re concurrent, which means our faith in the Gospel is not our doing. Our faith is not another work of the Law because our faith is not our work. It’s not an accomplishment.

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

Maybe my pathetic dribbler of an answer to her question was accidentally more biblical and Yoda-like than I intended. Because if the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the Gospel in faith, then “I dunno” isn’t a half-bad answer for me or for you.

Whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, it doesn’t much matter because you didn’t muster it up.

It’s all miracle.

Look, I used to hate questions like the one my nurse asked me Tuesday: “If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?”

Like every good liberal Mainline Christian, I used to scoff at questions like that from born-agains and street preachers.

I used to dismiss those questions as terrible reductions of Christianity. And they are reductionistic, sure.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got the medical bills to prove that eternity’s no longer abstraction for me, but, while the question is a reduction of the Gospel, it’s also true that if you can’t answer the question simply and straight-up then you don’t understand the Gospel.

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

Ergo, as far as eternity goes, you already have everything necessary.

     How much faith or how little faith you have in that matters not at all because you are saved not by the amount of your faith but by the object of your faith:

Jesus Christ.

And whatever sized faith you have to receive this news you’re sitting on a miracle. It’s not your doing. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.

So if that undercover lesbian evangelist nurse ever asks you that same question, like Peter Venkman advises in Ghostbusters: For God’s sake, say yes.

Say yes:

With water the Holy Spirit drowned me in Christ’s death for my sins.

And with water the Holy Spirit raised me up to give me Christ’s righteousness for my heaven.

And even now the Holy Spirit gives me the miracle of faith to trust what my eyes cannot on their own believe.

Say yes.

Whether you say it sure of yourself or in spite of yourself, that you can say it at all is a miracle.

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

Scott Jones has gone from a name I knew on a box when I worked in the mailroom at Princeton to, in just a year, a good and trusted friend. While his preaching style- a conversational style I envy and cannot emulate- is different than mine, his homiletic is one I share.

He preached this past Sunday at Feasterville Community Reformed Church where his podcast partner, Bill Borror, is the pastor. You can check out Bill’s Resident Exiles page here.

Check out his sermon. It’s worth the listen this season.

 

 

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Cue the candidate’s response: “I do.”

Recently I presented on the Lordship of Christ at a retreat for ordinands. A friend presented on the sacraments. When she got to discussing the rite for baptism she mentioned how this second vow from the United Methodist liturgy about our freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression meant a lot more to her of late.

In the wake of The Donald’s election, she didn’t need to add.

Afterwards, as headed home, I half-joked to her that “I don’t think the Apostle Paul was quite as sunny as our Book of Worship about our power and potential to resist.”

“I’d like to talk more about that sometime,” she replied.

I shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t much matter though since we’ve excised Satan from the baptismal liturgy anyways. That we might be wrong about our power isn’t a problem if the Power of Satan is no longer the problem.”

I was only half-joking.

J. Louis Martyn writes that for the Apostle Paul:

“The Church is God’s apocalyptic beachhead and Paul sees in baptism the juncture by which the person both participates in the death of Christ (Romans 6.4) and is equipped with the armor for apocalyptic battle (Romans 13.22).”

Baptism, for Paul, is both a being put to death and an ongoing empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the baptized, God contends against Another: Satan, whom Paul variously makes synonymous with the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, and the Principalities and Powers.

Not only does God put us to death in Christ through baptism, transferring us from the Lordship of Death to the Lordship of Grace, prior to baptism we are slaves to Death and after, Paul says, slaves to righteousness. Or, as Paul puts elsewhere, apart from the righteousness of God in Christ, Sin is a Power who we are all under and from whom not one of us has the freedom or the power to liberate ourselves.

Christians then have peculiar definitions for freedom and power, and we have a more specific set of names for evil and injustice. Prior to our baptism in to Christ, we have no freedom or power at all, as we are captives to the anti-God Powers, and proceeding baptism freedom is slavery to the righteousness of God. This is why Paul doesn’t use the language of repentance, as the baptismal liturgy does. It makes no sense to tell prisoners to repent their way out of captivity; they can only be delivered.

While God has defeated the Power of Satan through Cross and Resurrection, once for all, this defeat, though real, is not yet realized. God is yet contending against a Power whose defeat is sure if not surrendered. Thus Paul reveals the theme of his letter to the Romans only at the very end: “The God of Peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”

In the sacraments, says theologian Joseph Mangina in Baptism at the Turning of the Ages, “the apocalypse (invasion/irruption/revealing) of God in Jesus Christ becomes an apocalypse now.”

Baptism and Eucharist, in other words, are means (for Paul, in Romans, the Gospel kerygma itself is the primary means) by which God invades territory held by an Enemy, a world that, as the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service once put it: “…is the realm of Sin and Satan.”

Note how different that is than today’s baptismal question:

“…evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Here, evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in varying forms in our world. There is no acknowledged agency behind them.

In the older liturgies (and Romans 8) evil, injustice, and oppression are the forms by which the Power Sin/Satan/Death manifests in our world.

What’s critical about the apocalyptic character of Word and Sacrament in Paul is the active agency of God. When it comes to resisting evil and injustice, God never stops being the subject of the verbs. Even our growth into Christ likeness Paul casts in the passive voice: “…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed…”

It is not that God begins this process of transformation in Christ and then hands it off to us to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Indeed apart from the activity of God in and upon us, we cannot be trusted to identify evil or rightly to resist injustice for the insidious Power of Sin is such that in can corrupt even our best religious impulses. 

God is the acting agent of our transformation into conformity to Christ from beginning to end, acting against the agency of the Enemy.

Likely, Paul would put our baptismal question in the passive as well:

Do you trust that you will be used by God to resist…?

In much of our liturgical practice today, we’ve demythologized the rites such that Satan becomes vague, as in, “spiritual forces of wickedness” or, worse, vaguely anthropocentric, as in, “injustice and oppression.”

Even worse is the example in the present Book of Common Prayer: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

As Joseph Mangina notes: “Striving for justice and peace, respecting human dignity- these high, humanitarian aspirations are as generic as they are idealistic. It is not clear what they are doing in a Christian baptismal liturgy…for only by the agency of Christ can we grasp the true contours of ‘justice’ and ‘peace.’ “

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the baptism ritual asks the candidates questions such as “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you persevere in resisting evil…will you seek and serve Christ…?”

In each case, the requisite reply is “I will, with God’s help.” 

In the previous iterations of the Book of Common Prayer, similar questions required a much stronger affirmation of God’s agency (and betrayed much less interest in our own potential): “God being my helper.” 

The prescribed answer in the United Methodist Book of Worship: “I do.” 

Note the (only) subject of the verb.

God’s agency is assumed to the point of obscurity.

Compare this to the Tridentine rite- if you’ve seen Godfather I you’ve seen it.

Salt is placed on the infant’s tongue to protect it from corruption by the Power of Sin. The priest performs an exorcism, blowing 3 times, on the child. The confession of faith is followed by a robust renunciation: Do you renounce Satan? And all his works? And all his pomps?

Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer kept the exorcism as part of the baptismal rite but it disappeared as the biblical worldview waned and the modern liberal world waxed. In fact, the shift from God as acting subject responsible for faith to acted upon object of our faith, from theology to anthropology, in modern Enlightenment theology is mirrored in worship.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously (and correctly) diagnosed most Christian speech about God as really being speech about ourselves. We could not turn to some of our liturgical texts to disprove him.

Compared to the Tridentine rite and the Book of Common Prayer of John Wesley’s day, the emphasis, intentional or not, in our contemporary liturgies is on human promise-making at the expense of God’s singular action in Jesus Christ. This sole agency of God is itself the foundational principle of baptism’s un-repeatablity. In the act of baptism and in the life of the baptized thereafter, God is the acting agent, overturning the world.

“That a Christian has been baptized should be nothing less than a cause for astonishment,” Joseph Mangina says, for it is the work of the Living God.

Such astonishment at the agency of God is either muted or altogether missing in any question where we are the answer: I do. 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4If it’s true, as the many earnest and somber admonishments I’ve received in response to my recent infernal posts testify, that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question- and forget that it’s God we’re talking about- is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

The panting sanctimony in my Inbox suggests that eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christian clergy, which, I confess, makes me suspect the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures. Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell led to the rise of voluntarism, a theological strain that insists there is nothing more determinative than God’s absolute, spontaneous exercise of his will. God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, voluntarists would speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.

Captivity.

Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers- indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

  • Galatians 5

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.

  • Thomas Aquinas

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true, as I’m told by clergy in all CAPS in my Inbox, that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

4131253271_64251f8068For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.

This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here in the iTunes store.

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.

Here it is:

I noticed the upcoming lectionary epistle for this Sunday is Galatians 2.11-21:

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

Wait, is that the right way of putting it?

The entire evangelical Christian understanding of Justification by Faith Alone is premised upon a particular reading of Romans and this passage here in Galatians.

Justification by Faith Alone, in case you didn’t know, names God’s declaration of forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. For example, this grace hit Martin Luther had transformed him when he heard spoken to him in the confessional by a brother priest: ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven.’ It’s this declaration and our faith in it that justifies us before God. And nothing else (Romans 1-3).

That’s the historic Reformed/Evangelical understanding of Justification.

It also happens to be wrong.

Just because something’s historic doesn’t mean it’s right.

The Founders were wrong about slavery.

And Christian traditions have been wrong about what Paul is intending when he talks about faith and justification.

Exhibit A has to do with the (mis)translated line ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’

Almost everywhere that is written in English it is an incorrect translation. It is correctly translated by the King James version, but by virtually no other translations.

For example:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:20-23,.

 

In Greek, the actual wording is “even the righteousness of God, through the faith OF Jesus Christ.” 

ek pisteos Iesou Christou

A little grammar:

It is in the genitive case. Now because it’s in the genitive means that this phrase can be interpreted as either subjective or objective. That is, it’s like saying the Love of God. We’re referring either to our love for God, or the love that God has for us.

In one instance God is the object of our love. In other instance, God is the subject.

In Greek, ‘the faith of Jesus Christ’ is also a subjective genitive, but it gets translated as an objective nearly all the time: ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’ 

Thus translated, it’s not long before we start talking about how it’s our faith in Christ (see how this now makes our ‘faith’ just another ‘work?’) that makes us righteous before God. 

Huh?

In Paul’s day, Jews called the Messiah, the Righteous One. In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws on the idea of The Righteous One to describe Jesus Christ, who reveals the righteousness of God through his faith. Not our faith.

You see, Paul’s whole argument in Romans/Galatians is that the Law does not justify anyone, not even Abraham was justified by Law, but by faith. And Paul sees Jesus as the Righteous One who was able to maintain faith to the end. Unlike Israel or any of us. Jesus was able to do through his faith what we could not. Jesus was able to trust the Father perfectly. Even unto a cross. That is why he is “The Righteous One who shall live by his Faith.”

Paul is making an argument in Romans is that God’s righteousness was revealed “from faith to faith. God’s righteousness was revealed in and through the faith OF Jesus Christ, and was revealed to faith; that is, our faith as we receive him.

To preach Romans or Galatians well requires out-Pauling evangelicals, who often champion Paul more so than the Messiah for whom Paul gave his life.

But there it is.

Most evangelicals are wrong about what they’ve made their central doctrine, Justification by Faith Alone.

It not our faith in Jesus which justifies us, but the faith of Jesus Christ in us which justifies us. 

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

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty- a line of thinking that only begets vile doctrines like double predestination.

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

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

In the traditional evangelical rendering in which it is our faith which sets us right with God, faith becomes another work, another work of the law, something we must do. That’s neither Paul’s argument nor good news. We can’t do anything ourselves, not even our faith, to improve our situation vis a vis God.

Not to mention, it only succeeds in reproducing Martin Luther’s original dilemma about the veracity of his suaveness and leads to the myriad number of Protestants who make repeated trips forward to the anxious bench or to the font for rebaptism.

The clause ‘we must (have faith/serve the poor/be inclusive/obey the commandments’ in order for God to _________can never be Gospel. It’s exhortation not proclamation. It reduces the Gospel promise to If/Then conditionality.

Paul’s Gospel is instead a Because/Now construction: Because we have been set right before God by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, now we are empowered, emboldened, set free to live for God.

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“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?”

Here’s my sermon this Memorial Day weekend on the Sunday’s lection from Galatians 1.1-12.

When I returned initially from medical leave, I was so excited over coming back to work and I was happy because (most of) you all seemed excited to have me back at church. At least, I thought that was the case.

But then, one morning while I was unpacking and organizing my new office, I heard a soft rap on my door. I looked up and my illusions of happy homecoming burnt away like so much dross. There they were, Murice Kincannon and Marcie Bowker, with a question in their eyes so obvious it bore like a bullet hole straight through me.

“We were just discussing after our meditation group,” Marcie Bowker began “innocently,” “and we thought we’d ask you.”

“Ask me what?” I said as though I was curious but I could already smell sulfur in the air.

Marcie leaned in, wraith-like, through my doorframe and with a ghoulish smile she asked me: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with having an American flag in the sanctuary?” 

And that’s when I knew not everyone was happy to have me back, at least not Marcie and Murice because why else would they have pulled the pin on a query like that and thrown it at my feet?

“Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” That question- it’s like the theological equivalent to when your wife asks you “Does this dress make me look fat?”

There’s no good way to answer because you can tell from the way the question is put to you that there’s no way to slip loose of it without causing offense.

“Not that dress honey.”

There’s no good way to answer especially when you consider that, with Shirley Pitts’ passing, Murice Kincannon is now Aldersgate’s token liberal and Marcie Bowker is most definitely not so I felt trapped. Entrapped.

“Did the Bishop put you put to this?” I asked.

Murice and Marcie- they didn’t catch my meaning. They instead asked me their question again: “Do you think there’s anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?” At least, I think they asked me it again. It was like that scene in Teen Wolf when an underage Michael J. Fox tries to buy a keg of beer and the crotchety guy at the counter asks for his ID. All I could hear was my own heart beating in my forehead as I watched their lips forming the question.

It was like that scene where Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye send a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder crashing into a ravine and they see their entire future destroyed with it.

It’s the kind of question churches have split over, the kind of question theologian bloviate over, the kind of question that preachers get fired over and after my vacation called cancer I’m sort of attached to my health insurance.

So I didn’t answer their question.

Instead I did what I only do in the case of emergencies like when my wife asks me if this shade of makeup makes her look old or when son asks me if he can ask a girl out on a date. I just laughed this high-pitched, manic and hysterical, eye-twitching laugh like a Disney Store worker on an acid trip.

When I regained consciousness and picked myself up off the floor, Murice and Marcie had snuck away like ninja assassins presumably waiting, like the devil himself, for another opportune time to undo me.

So I never answered their question.

But I didn’t forget it.

—————————————

I thought of their question again a few weeks later, a few weeks ago, when Ali and I took our boys to the Nationals Home Opener.

Before the game, the entire outfield was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. The colors were processed into the ballpark with priestly soberness. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung and silence for the fallen was observed. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes.

And it struck me that it felt like a kind of worship service. I mean, there was even organ music and a young family being shushed by an elderly curmudgeon, which is as close to a worship as you can get.

And that’s no great insight on my part because after the silence my oldest son, X, said to no one in particular “that was just like church.”

If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up might have been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of liturgy in that we were celebrating what’s been done for us and offering gratitude. It was a kind of liturgy in that it was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular story. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if and when called upon.

To be honest, looking up at the scoreboard at the pictures of fallen men and women- kids really- I even had tears in my eyes. And here’s the rub- I don’t know that I’ve ever once teared up during a Christian liturgy. Realizing that in Section 136, I thought of Marcie’s and Murice’s question again.

———————————-

Though we haven’t changed out the parament colors to observe it, Memorial Day is a delicate time for Christians. It’s a day that requires discretion not because the valor of fallen soldiers lacks honor- not at all- but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, can become a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story.

As Christians, we have to be cautious that we’re not more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful precisely in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful rival liturgy to the communion liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us.

Now, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with any of the baseball park pageantry. I’m instead suggesting that, like any other good in our lives, Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it the potential temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story.

Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel was from offering God a qualified or confused obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then we have to be discerning about God and Country too.

If you doubt the temptation I’ve posed actually exists, the lure of a rival counter-liturgy to the Gospel liturgy, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. And that’s fine.

Except

People do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’

This is hardly the fault of our troops but why is it that the only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones?

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

How is it that we consider our children’s American convictions non-negotiable, but we deem their Christian convictions something they can choose for themselves, something about which they can make up their own minds?

But if what it means to be fully human, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself just as Jesus loved how could our children ever make up their own minds, choose for themselves, until after they’ve apprenticed under Jesus?

Quite literally, they don’t have minds worth making up until they’ve had their minds shaped by Christ. I know my kids still don’t have minds worth making up for themselves.

Western culture teaches us to think we should get to choose our faith story for ourselves, but notice how that story (the story we should get to choose our faith story) is a story that which none of us got to choose.

Which makes it not just a Story but a Fiction. A lie.

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

And its just such nonsense that should make Christians wonder if the Church is really the who the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as our faith is relegated to the private then Jesus is necessarily demoted from Lord and King to Secretary of After Life Affairs.

And that’s no small thing, for as Paul argues angrily in our text from Galatians today to alter the Gospel is no Gospel, to revise the Gospel is to reverse the Gospel.

—————————————

Look-

The Church is called to reframe everything in our lives in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Christ’ of course wasn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It was a political word.

It’s a title: King.

     The King who elects.

Us.

To be a light not to our nation but to the nations.

And so on Memorial Day that call upon us- it doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of those who’ve laid their lives down for their friends.

It instead means we remember that that love is not how Jesus loves us. Jesus laid his life down not for his friends and countrymen but for sinners, for his enemies. For the ungodly, as Paul puts it.

Our call as Christians is to remember that it’s true, freedom isn’t free, but for us, we Christians, that means “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4).

That call upon us- it means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on our national calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen, though significant, was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death- it’s always good to point out- that was delivered up by the best and brightest of both Church and State.

     The ultimate sacrifice, we proclaim, was made God.

For the ungodly.

Jesus made/Jesus is the Ultimate Sacrifice.

He is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including- in a way we don’t yet understand- the sacrifice of war), and Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

     Maybe that just sounds like a slight linguistic matter to you, but for Christians such matters matter, for as Paul warns us today in Galatians 1 to get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

To get the world wrong, which correlatively is to get our nation wrong too. To get the Gospel wrong is to get everything wrong.

So much so that even Paul says he should be accursed if he communicated any Gospel other than the Gospel of how Jesus Christ has freed us (past perfect tense) from the present (tense) evil age.

—————————————

Such linguistic matters matter for Christians.

They do so because they help us answer questions like that question Marcie and Murice asked me: ‘Is there anything wrong with the American flag in the sanctuary?’

Or rather, they help us to see that such a question is the wrong question. I mean, sure, if you’re more moved by the flag than you are by the cross or the cup then it might be an idol, but it’s still the wrong question.

The question about the flag is the wrong question because as Paul says here in Galatians the spatial metaphors the question relies upon (church vs. country, sanctuary vs. America)- the spatial, place-oriented categories get the Gospel wrong.

According to Paul, here in Galatians, if we’re going to remove anything from the sanctuary it should be the clock.

     We should tear down the clocks in our sanctuaries.

Because according to Paul the Gospel is that God has invaded the present evil age, that in the cross and resurrection the old age has been destroyed, and we have been transitioned into a new time in which Jesus Christ reigns with all dominion, and power, and glory.

The trouble is so much of the world doesn’t yet know it’s been transitioned into a new time.

The dichotomy that matters for Christians, the dichotomy we should be concerned with, isn’t God or Country it’s Before and After.

Before and After- Between the old age and the new.

    Christians aren’t people who occupy one space, the Church, within another space, the Nation.

     Christians are People who live under, belong to, participate in a different time.

The New Age inaugurated by Jesus Christ. And we can live according to that time in any place.

So don’t worry about the flag, get rid of that clock because it lures us into forgetting that Christians are called by God to be the People who know what time it is. It lures us into forgetting that the time we call the Kingdom isn’t something we await far off in the future. It’s now.

And it’s here whenever we gather together to do the things that Jesus did and to proclaim what God did through him.

And that’s why what Christians do in here is the most important thing to do on Memorial Day weekend. We worship the One who sits on the throne.

If the Gospel is true, if the old age has been invaded and destroyed, if we’ve been set free into a New Age then worship is the most important thing we can do because, if the Gospel is true, then that means what’s wrong with the world (the sin that leads to war that leads to Memorial Day) is that it fails to acknowledge that God is God.

The world doesn’t know what time it is, but we do. So come, let us worship God.

 

 

SHOOT1-articleLargeI’m assuming (ie, hoping you’ve been paying attention) to the story of Renisha Marie McBride, a 19 year old black girl who knocked on the front door of a white family to ask for help.

They assumed she wanted to rob them.

They shot her in the face with a shotgun.

And despite any other causal sequence of logic in those preceding sentences, we’re to believe race played no part.

Recalling the Trayvon Martin case almost a year ago, this story from Detroit provokes questions not only about America’s continued idolatry of guns but also its inability to deal frankly with its racial past and the present problems presented by that past.

I’ve got to confess I’m not nearly as sensitive or self-aware on these issues as I’d like to think I am, but I do at least realize and respect that those who are not in my position (white, well-off, men) have a different and compelling perspective on these issues.

993436_1472586196300558_1645231763_nI asked a friend of mine, Adrian Hill, to reflect theologically on the Renisha McBride story. I hope you will receive it with the sincerity in which it was written:

I admit I first struggled when Jason asked me to write this because I didn’t really “see God” when I first heard of this situation.

I saw anger and frustration, and leftover issues from Trayvon Martin. Another Black human, deemed a threat even though unarmed, was shot dead.

Like Martin.

And like Jonathan Ferrell, a former college football player who was shot to death by police while seeking help after escaping a car crash.

Like Jordan Davis, a young kid who was shot to death after he and a man disagreed over the volume level of his music at a gas station.

Like Darius Simmons, shot to death by his elderly neighbor over a theft accusation.

All Black, all perceived to be threats, all unarmed… and all dead.

Now, those who shot all of the aforementioned people are White.

But, statistically, people are more likely to be killed by people of their own race. Blacks mostly kill Blacks. Whites mostly kill Whites, and so on. So a narrative that one race is killing another at an alarming rate is false.

But emotionally?

This feels like an epidemic to the Black community.

Why does it feel like we are threats? Why are we not given the benefit of the doubt BEFORE we are shot? It doesn’t feel like, in 2013, any Black person should die under these types of circumstances. And we can’t help but feel there is something more to this than isolated incidents or accidents.

So when I was asked to think theologically about this, the one thing that popped into my mind was Galatians 3:28

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a wonderful passage that speaks to equality in the Kingdom of God. In a country with a history of gross inequality towards natives, minorities, immigrants, and women, this verse has proved to be liberating in the face of social ills like slavery and segregation. It is a powerful passage.

However, there has also been a sort of, unintended consequence, of this general kind of thinking. The consequence of assuming we have all truly reached equality. Us recognizing that human beings still have different experiences disappears. In our hope for equality, sometimes we assume we have already reached Dr. King’s dreamland and eschew the difficult task that still lies ahead – the task of ensuring that, in America, a reality that “all of you are one” in this great nation.

Sometimes the experiences of inequality experienced by others are dismissed because we really really want to finally all be equal. But ultimately, we are not yet there

It is absurd to think that there is no difference between a Black man and White woman. Or between a gay White man and a Hispanic female. It is silly to deny the glass ceiling women STILL face in the workplace. Or the difference in the quality of public education in neighborhoods across the country.

We all have our different experiences.

We are NOT all the same And if we are concerned with this Kingdom of God, where there is neither Jew, Greek, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, and so, we still have work to do.

That work involves being honest about our differences and our experiences.

I believe Renisha’s story is evidence that the work remains.

There still remains a climate where we all perceive anyone deemed “other” as a threat. Renisha was deemed an “other.” It is hard for me as a Black man, to not believe her skin color played a role in her designation as “other.“

As I have listed the other names of unarmed, innocent Blacks who were unfairly targeted as threats, it makes me question why deadly force was used so quickly. Or why the shooters were so hostile to their presence. Is it something about Black faces that strike fear into others? Why? What can we – Black people and non-Blacks alike – do about this? Can we have a dialogue where we recognize our differences and not just default to “everyone is equal now?”

I think this is vital for Christians today to speak to the continued notion of the “other.”

In Biblical times, if a stranger came to your home, you were obligated to do all you could to take care of the stranger.

Times have changed, but America could benefit from recovering some common sense notion of that practice.

How can we protect ourselves AND still be helpful to our fellow humans? We don’t have to let everyone inside our homes or even let our guard down, but we can figure out a way that deadly force isn’t the default initial reaction.

In Christ, there may be no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; but in America?

Unfortunately, there still is.

Enough: A Letter to My Boys

Jason Micheli —  October 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

fruit-of-the-spirit1This weekend we continue our sermon series on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.

Here’s an old Father’s Day sermon/letter I wrote to my boys that echoes the very same themes of simplicity and sufficiency in our lives.

Everything We Need: Galatians 5

 

Dear Gabriel and Alexander,

 

First, my apologies. I had meant to write this letter and give it to you on Father’s Day. Unfortunately I have this job where I have to work most weekends so instead you’re getting it a week late. In any case, I hope you will take this letter, tuck it away somewhere and save it for a day when you want some advice and life wisdom from your old man. I’m guessing that day will not come until you are in your forties so make sure you store this in a dry place.

 

You might be wondering if this should not be the other way around. Maybe you should be the ones writing me a letter. After all, what kind of self-aggrandizing, cheese-ball writes his kids a letter on Father’s Day and then reads it from the pulpit? Gabriel, if you do happen to ask yourself that question, the answer is your godfather, Dr. Dennis Perry. I got the idea years ago when I was just a teenager, listening to the letters he wrote to Jess and Ben.

 

You should know I went through a phase in my theological development where I didn’t think it appropriate to talk at all in sermons about mothers and fathers and children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t liturgical holidays, after all, and Jesus seemed to have had a complicated relationship with his own family.

 

I can tell you I’ve disappointed no small amount of church ladies with my previous refusals to preach Mother’s Day sermons. Obviously its because of you two boys but these days my thinking is changed. I can’t help thinking that if the Gospel has no bearing on our everyday, ordinary decisions and relationships then the incarnation- God taking flesh and dwelling among us- was kind of a waste of time.

 

Alexander, by now you’ve spent not quite two of your seven years with us. Just as if I’d held you at your birth, I honestly can’t recall a time you weren’t with us. As much as the extra weight around my middle, the weight of your head on my shoulder feels a part of me.

 

X, when I think of how far you’ve come since you first came to live with us and when I think of all the obstacles you have overcome, I’m filled with pride for you. And my faith is reinvigorated. I know your success is not because of your mom or me or even entirely because of you. I don’t often talk about seeing God at work in my life for fear of intimidating people who don’t see their lives that way. X, you are one case where I feel no need to be reticent.

 

Since we promised to be your forever home I’ve watched you go from just a handful of English words to turning the pages of Roald Dahl. This year I’ve seen you step out from your fear of getting something wrong to try new things- and, okay, maybe you should’ve been more afraid of skiing.

And this year I’ve discovered just how empathetic you are Alexander. With everyone. I can’t guess what path you will choose when you are older, but I pray its one in which you get to exercise this gift that God’s given you.

 

Gabriel, you make me laugh. I hope you always will. Some parents wonder what their children will be like when they are older. Considering how often I catch you hiding in the closet eating cheetos and cookies, I mostly wonder how big you’ll be when you’re older.

 

Gabriel, this year you’ve learned to ride your bike, your skateboard and to jump in the pool- all with reckless abandon. As the Fantastic Mr Fox says, that’s your trademark. This year you’ve also developed your potty humor and sarcasm to heights previously unmatched for a four year old. While some will say you couldn’t have inherited this from me genetically, I like to think it certainly has come by osmosis.

 

I can’t believe you’re four years old. I already miss the sound of you tramping down the hallway at 11:30 at night, wrapped in your red Nationals blanket, asking if you can watch Deadliest Catch with your mom and me.

 

But this year we’ve noticed other things about you boys too. For example, Alexander I’d no idea you could recite the Lord’s Prayer all by yourself, and Gabriel I don’t know when you learned to hold your hands out to receive- rather than take- communion.

 

I saw signs of your spiritual development all year, such as the afternoon this spring I listened to the two of you arguing in the backseat of my car about the nature of the Risen Christ. Alexander, I heard you positing that the Risen Jesus is ‘kind of like a Jedi, like Obi-Wan after he dies.’ Gabriel, on the other hand, you felt the Easter Jesus had more in common with Gandalf from Lord of the Rings because when he comes back from the dead ‘he’s sparkly.’

 

That’s hardly all. There was the evening at the dinner table when you, Alexander, matter-of-factly explained that Jesus and God are one and the same and, in your own words, you explained how Jesus was present at creation. Not too shabby for a first grader.

 

And there was the Easter night this Spring when we were all serving the homeless in DC with some church people when you, Gabriel, looked at me with complete seriousness and explained that we were doing what we were doing because Jesus had been homeless too.

 

When people hear this about you, its possible they’ll chalk it up to you being a couple of preacher kids. They’d never believe that in our house we actually talk more about bluegrass, baseball and the X-Men. Despite wearing a robe once a week and having some people call me Reverend, the truth is I don’t know how to plant this faith in you any better than any other parent.

No, the growth of your faith is a testimony to the Church- not just to Aldersgate Church specifically but to the Church with a big C, to the Church as a sacrament, to the Church a visible means of a grace we can’t see with our own eyes.

 

You’ll learn one day, if you’ve not already, that the Church is often easy for people to mock and parody. The Church can be easy to criticize and it can be a convenient scapegoat for disillusionment. Nevertheless, its every bit as true that the Church can transform people. Of that, you are already exhibits A and B.

 

Gabriel, one afternoon this summer while we were at the pool you pointed out how I had a couple of gray hairs on my chest. You then said: ‘Daddy, you’re old. Are you going to die soon?’

 

I like to think the gray hair is just part of my plan to look more and more like Sam Elliot, but even if that doesn’t work out for me the gray hair at least puts me in a better position to begin offering you sagely wisdom. Are you ready?

 

Here it is:

When you get older, one day and probably many times thereafter, you are going to wonder: DO I HAVE ENOUGH?

 

Enough what? you might be asking. Enough of anything.

 

I’m starting my 10th year in ministry and my 6th year at Aldersgate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people its that there’s one anxiety we all share. Its an anxiety about not having enough: money, time, love, health, security, faith.

 

You should know, boys, that question’s as old as the bible; in fact, they even asked it in the bible. A teacher named Paul wrote a letter about it.

 

Gabriel, you already know some of it. Thanks to Mrs. Mertins and the Aldersgate Day School you know all about the fruit of the Spirit. But somehow I doubt Mrs Mertins taught you that Paul writes about the fruit in the middle of a long argument about circumcision. I imagine it is hard to explain circumcision with construction paper.

 

If you were to read Paul’s letter now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was confusing, that you tripped over words like Flesh, Law, Justification and, naturally, Circumcision.

 

Here’s the thing- when you push all the confusing parts to the side, what you discover is that Paul is writing to people who wonder if they have enough. Only their question is: Is Jesus Enough?

 

These people loved Jesus. They believed in him and had faith in him.

 

They believed Jesus was enough to get them into heaven; they just didn’t think Jesus was enough to make sense of their practical, everyday lives. They wanted something else that would tell them what to do and what not to do, who to be, and where to go with their lives. So they hoped that something called the Law could give them the answers that, let’s face it, everyone wants.

 

We do not argue too much about the Law anymore, but the fact is boys: every moment of your lives you’re being bombarded with messages about what to wear, what to desire and buy, how to think, who to fear, what to hate, where to belong, what is possible and what you should aspire to.

 

So its no different than it was in Paul’s day. Everywhere you are confronted with messages telling you that Jesus is not enough to make your way in the world.

 

In response, Paul says we should ‘live by the Spirit.’

 

X, you asked me not too long ago what the Holy Spirit is. And I said it was like wind or breath, something that is everywhere even if you can’t see it. I could tell from the look on your face that that was a singularly unsatisfying answer.

 

I think in general Christians are too sloppy when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit because really its simple: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.

 

The Spirit is Holy because its Jesus’ Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus is at work in the world today. The Spirit does what Jesus did and if the Spirit allegedly does something Jesus would not have done then, chances are, its not really the Spirit.

 

When Paul says that we should live by the Spirit, he means we should follow Jesus: mimic his life, practice his teachings, apprentice our lives to his life. He is the mold we should pour our lives into.

 

That’s where the fruit of the Spirit comes in, Gabriel. Paul says that if we apprentice our lives to Jesus then our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Some bibles have Paul saying ‘There is no law against such things’ but, really, in the Greek, it says: ‘There is no shortage of such things.’

 

In other words, Paul is saying our lives will resemble Jesus’ life. And not only is that is enough for your life, really its everything you need.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you want- you’ve probably learned that already.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you need to be happy and free from disappointment and suffering.

 

But God does give you everything you need to follow him. That’s what we were made to do and that’s what the fruit of the Spirit means.

 

And that brings me back to the Church, boys- the Church with a big C. Because our lives are meant to bear fruit; our lives are meant to look like the life Jesus lived. So its not that your faith can ever be just one part of your life.

 

The moment you become a disciple your life suddenly becomes something for you to cultivate and grow. And you can only do that among the People we call Church. You can only do that by learning how to worship and pray, by learning how to give and forgive, by serving and sharing another’s burdens.

 

I hope when you are my age you have not forgotten that. I hope none of us have.

 

Love,

Dad

imagesChapter 7 of Mark Driscoll’s ebook, Pastor Dad: Biblical Insights into Fatherhood, is entitled ‘Protecting from Sin and Folly.’

Predictably Driscoll focuses so much on sexual sins you’d think this is the only subject which parents need to teach their children.

As a counter to Driscoll, I thought I’d post this old Father’s Day letter/sermon to/about my boys from 3 years ago.

Everything We Need: Galatians 5.1, 13-24

Dear Gabriel and Alexander,

 

First, my apologies. I had meant to write this letter and give it to you on Father’s Day. Unfortunately I have this job where I have to work most weekends so instead you’re getting it a week late. In any case, I hope you will take this letter, tuck it away somewhere and save it for a day when you want some advice and life wisdom from your old man. I’m guessing that day will not come until you are in your forties so make sure you store this in a dry place.

 

You might be wondering if this should not be the other way around. Maybe you should be the ones writing me a letter. After all, what kind of self-aggrandizing, cheese-ball writes his kids a letter on Father’s Day and then reads it from the pulpit? Gabriel, if you do happen to ask yourself that question, the answer is your godfather, Dr. Dennis Perry. I got the idea years ago when I was just a teenager, listening to the letters he wrote to Jess and Ben.

 

You should know I went through a phase in my theological development where I didn’t think it appropriate to talk at all in sermons about mothers and fathers and children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t liturgical holidays, after all, and Jesus seemed to have had a complicated relationship with his own family.

 

I can tell you I’ve disappointed no small amount of church ladies with my previous refusals to preach Mother’s Day sermons. Obviously its because of you two boys but these days my thinking is changed. I can’t help thinking that if the Gospel has no bearing on our everyday, ordinary decisions and relationships then the incarnation- God taking flesh and dwelling among us- was kind of a waste of time.

 

Alexander, by now you’ve spent not quite two of your seven years with us. Just as if I’d held you at your birth, I honestly can’t recall a time you weren’t with us. As much as the extra weight around my middle, the weight of your head on my shoulder feels a part of me.

 

X, when I think of how far you’ve come since you first came to live with us and when I think of all the obstacles you have overcome, I’m filled with pride for you. And my faith is reinvigorated. I know your success is not because of your mom or me or even entirely because of you. I don’t often talk about seeing God at work in my life for fear of intimidating people who don’t see their lives that way. X, you are one case where I feel no need to be reticent.

 

Since we promised to be your forever home I’ve watched you go from just a handful of English words to turning the pages of Roald Dahl. This year I’ve seen you step out from your fear of getting something wrong to try new things- and, okay, maybe you should’ve been more afraid of skiing.

And this year I’ve discovered just how empathetic you are Alexander. With everyone. I can’t guess what path you will choose when you are older, but I pray its one in which you get to exercise this gift that God’s given you.

 

Gabriel, you make me laugh. I hope you always will. Some parents wonder what their children will be like when they are older. Considering how often I catch you hiding in the closet eating cheetos and cookies, I mostly wonder how big you’ll be when you’re older.

 

Gabriel, this year you’ve learned to ride your bike, your skateboard and to jump in the pool- all with reckless abandon. As the Fantastic Mr Fox says, that’s your trademark. This year you’ve also developed your potty humor and sarcasm to heights previously unmatched for a four year old. While some will say you couldn’t have inherited this from me genetically, I like to think it certainly has come by osmosis.

 

I can’t believe you’re four years old. I already miss the sound of you tramping down the hallway at 11:30 at night, wrapped in your red Nationals blanket, asking if you can watch Deadliest Catch with your mom and me.

 

But this year we’ve noticed other things about you boys too. For example, Alexander I’d no idea you could recite the Lord’s Prayer all by yourself, and Gabriel I don’t know when you learned to hold your hands out to receive- rather than take- communion.

 

I saw signs of your spiritual development all year, such as the afternoon this spring I listened to the two of you arguing in the backseat of my car about the nature of the Risen Christ. Alexander, I heard you positing that the Risen Jesus is ‘kind of like a Jedi, like Obi-Wan after he dies.’ Gabriel, on the other hand, you felt the Easter Jesus had more in common with Gandalf from Lord of the Rings because when he comes back from the dead ‘he’s sparkly.’

 

That’s hardly all. There was the evening at the dinner table when you, Alexander, matter-of-factly explained that Jesus and God are one and the same and, in your own words, you explained how Jesus was present at creation. Not too shabby for a first grader.

 

And there was the Easter night this Spring when we were all serving the homeless in DC with some church people when you, Gabriel, looked at me with complete seriousness and explained that we were doing what we were doing because Jesus had been homeless too.

 

When people hear this about you, its possible they’ll chalk it up to you being a couple of preacher kids. They’d never believe that in our house we actually talk more about bluegrass, baseball and the X-Men. Despite wearing a robe once a week and having some people call me Reverend, the truth is I don’t know how to plant this faith in you any better than any other parent.

No, the growth of your faith is a testimony to the Church- not just to Aldersgate Church specifically but to the Church with a big C, to the Church as a sacrament, to the Church a visible means of a grace we can’t see with our own eyes.

 

You’ll learn one day, if you’ve not already, that the Church is often easy for people to mock and parody. The Church can be easy to criticize and it can be a convenient scapegoat for disillusionment. Nevertheless, its every bit as true that the Church can transform people. Of that, you are already exhibits A and B.

 

Gabriel, one afternoon this summer while we were at the pool you pointed out how I had a couple of gray hairs on my chest. You then said: ‘Daddy, you’re old. Are you going to die soon?’

 

I like to think the gray hair is just part of my plan to look more and more like Sam Elliot, but even if that doesn’t work out for me the gray hair at least puts me in a better position to begin offering you sagely wisdom. Are you ready?

 

Here it is:

When you get older, one day and probably many times thereafter, you are going to wonder: DO I HAVE ENOUGH?

 

Enough what? you might be asking. Enough of anything.

 

I’m starting my 10th year in ministry and my 6th year at Aldersgate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people its that there’s one anxiety we all share. Its an anxiety about not having enough: money, time, love, health, security, faith.

 

You should know, boys, that question’s as old as the bible; in fact, they even asked it in the bible. A teacher named Paul wrote a letter about it.

 

Gabriel, you already know some of it. Thanks to Mrs. Mertins and the Aldersgate Day School you know all about the fruit of the Spirit. But somehow I doubt Mrs Mertins taught you that Paul writes about the fruit in the middle of a long argument about circumcision. I imagine it is hard to explain circumcision with construction paper.

 

If you were to read Paul’s letter now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was confusing, that you tripped over words like Flesh, Law, Justification and, naturally, Circumcision.

 

Here’s the thing- when you push all the confusing parts to the side, what you discover is that Paul is writing to people who wonder if they have enough. Only their question is: Is Jesus Enough?

 

These people loved Jesus. They believed in him and had faith in him.

 

They believed Jesus was enough to get them into heaven; they just didn’t think Jesus was enough to make sense of their practical, everyday lives. They wanted something else that would tell them what to do and what not to do, who to be, and where to go with their lives. So they hoped that something called the Law could give them the answers that, let’s face it, everyone wants.

 

We do not argue too much about the Law anymore, but the fact is boys: every moment of your lives you’re being bombarded with messages about what to wear, what to desire and buy, how to think, who to fear, what to hate, where to belong, what is possible and what you should aspire to.

 

So its no different than it was in Paul’s day. Everywhere you are confronted with messages telling you that Jesus is not enough to make your way in the world.

 

In response, Paul says we should ‘live by the Spirit.’

 

X, you asked me not too long ago what the Holy Spirit is. And I said it was like wind or breath, something that is everywhere even if you can’t see it. I could tell from the look on your face that that was a singularly unsatisfying answer.

 

I think in general Christians are too sloppy when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit because really its simple: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.

 

The Spirit is Holy because its Jesus’ Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus is at work in the world today. The Spirit does what Jesus did and if the Spirit allegedly does something Jesus would not have done then, chances are, its not really the Spirit.

 

When Paul says that we should live by the Spirit, he means we should follow Jesus: mimic his life, practice his teachings, apprentice our lives to his life. He is the mold we should pour our lives into.

 

That’s where the fruit of the Spirit comes in, Gabriel. Paul says that if we apprentice our lives to Jesus then our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Some bibles have Paul saying ‘There is no law against such things’ but, really, in the Greek, it says: ‘There is no shortage of such things.’

 

In other words, Paul is saying our lives will resemble Jesus’ life. And not only is that is enough for your life, really its everything you need.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you want- you’ve probably learned that already.

 

God doesn’t give you everything you need to be happy and free from disappointment and suffering.

 

But God does give you everything you need to follow him. That’s what we were made to do and that’s what the fruit of the Spirit means.

 

And that brings me back to the Church, boys- the Church with a big C. Because our lives are meant to bear fruit; our lives are meant to look like the life Jesus lived. So its not that your faith can ever be just one part of your life.

 

The moment you become a disciple your life suddenly becomes something for you to cultivate and grow. And you can only do that among the People we call Church. You can only do that by learning how to worship and pray, by learning how to give and forgive, by serving and sharing another’s burdens.

 

I hope when you are my age you have not forgotten that. I hope none of us have.

 

Love,

Dad