Archives For Gospel

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

Due to heavily sourced and corroborated claims of misconduct, the role of Santa Claus this Christmas will be played by Christopher Plummer.

Just kidding. But after Garrison Keillor would anyone be surprised for Kris Kringle to be next?

Of course not. I mean, we already know he got handsy with somebody’s Mom underneath the mistletoe. And Mr. Claus doesn’t allow Mrs. Claus to leave their North Pole home. That’s not a happy marriage. That’s Ike’s and Tina’s marriage.

Father Christmas hasn’t yet been named alongside Al Franken, but who wouldn’t want the stress of this season to disappear as fast as Matt Lauer disappeared this week from Good Morning America?

Who wouldn’t want Christmas, and all its attendant heartburn and headaches, to go on hiatus like House of Cards?

Here it is only the first Sunday of Advent and yesterday after my wife handed me a list of everything we needed to do, to buy, to plan, to clean, to attend, to send, and to cook just to get ready for Christmas, I woke up in the corner, on the floor, sucking on my thumb.

Don’t lie- Who wouldn’t want Santa and his season and all of its stress to go the way of Charlie Rose?

Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor. This time every year my inbox, my mailbox, and my social media get flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags.

From the Heifer Project to the Advent Conspiracy to #makeadventgreatagain, from Simple Christmas to the War on Christmas, this time every year my already overflowing holiday To Do List gets bombarded with exhortations about how I should be celebrating the season.

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

My Christian “obligation” to opt out of the commercialization and consumerism and materialism of the culture’s Christmas.

But to be honest, lately, I’ve grown wary of the Christmas “tradition” of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas in our culture.

Too often, we begin Advent not with Isaiah’s laments or John the Baptist’s words of judgement but our own words of lament and judgement, criticizing others for being so materialistic about Christmas.

And, of course, like all cliches, there’s truth to the complaint about consumerism. Like all traditions, there’s a reason we’ve made it a tradition to lament and judge what commercialization has done to Christmas.

———————-

     Consider- the average person last year spent $1,000 at Christmas.

And maybe some of the complaining we’re doing at Christmastime is actually self-loathing because apparently over 15% of all the money we spend at Christmas we spend on ourselves.

We don’t trust our wives to get us the gift we really want so we buy it for ourselves.

It’s true- we spend a lot at Christmas. Very often money we don’t have.

In 2004, the average American’s credit card debt was $5,000. Now, it’s $16,000. Retail stores make 50% of their annual revenue during the Christmas season, which I can’t begrudge since this church brings in nearly 50% of its budget during the Christmas season. We spend a lot at Christmas. But we give a lot at Christmas.

And we worry and we fight a lot at Christmas too. Everyone knows the Christmas season every year sees a spike in suicides and depression and domestic abuse. We not only make resolutions coming out of Christmas, we make appointments with AA and therapists and divorce lawyers too.

So the reason complaining about consumerism at Christmas has become a Christmas tradition is because there’s some serious, repentance-worthy truth to it.

     The problem though in critiquing how our culture has co-opted Christmas is that it’s too simple a story.

That is, the critique itself is much older than our culture. Even before Amazon and Black Friday, people were shopping and putting their kids on Santa’s lap to beg for stuff.

Don’t forget- the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, it’s a Christmas movie about a shopping mall. The original version of that movie was filmed way back in 1947. No matter how much we kvetch at Christmas; it’s not a new phenomenon.

Turns out, Bing Crosby was wrong; the Christmases we think we used to know never actually existed.

Advertisers were using images of St. Nick to sell stuff at least as far back as 1830, and Christians were complaining about it then too, probably as they purchased whatever products Santa was hawking.

In 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote a story called “Christmas” wherein the main character gripes:

“Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious and wasteful!”

To which, her Aunt responds: “…when I was a girl presents did not fly about as they do now.”

     Christmas was more spiritual and less materialistic when I was a girl.

According to Ronald Hutton in his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, the commercialization of Christmas isn’t our culture’s fault it’s the fault of Victorian culture.

However, he notes, this is an ambivalent history because prior to the Victorian era Christmas was celebrated exclusively by the rich.

In other words, the Victorian commercialization of Christmas we abhor was actually an attempt to make Christmas available to the poor and the not rich.

In the vein of everything new is old, Hutton cites diary entries as far back as 1600 describing Christians’ habits of spending and gift-giving, but also their complaints about the rising costs of Christmas meals, Christmas entertainment, and Christmas gifts.

Bemoaning what we’ve done to the Christmas tradition is a Christmas tradition at least 400 years old, leading me to wonder if the magi spent their trip back from Bethlehem complaining about the cost of the myrrh.

We’ve been spending too much at Christmas and feeling guilty about it and judging others for it for a long, long time.

So, if you want to continue that tradition by, say, participating in the Wise Men Gifts Program (where your kid only gets 3 presents) go for it. I mean, I would’ve hated my mom if I’d only gotten 3 presents as a kid, and it’s a good thing I didn’t grow up a Christian because I probably would’ve hated Jesus for it too.

But go for it, maybe your kids are better than me.

Or, buy an animal in honor of a loved one through our Alternative Gift Giving Program. But word to the wise- learn from Dennis’ mistake- if you buy an Alternative Gift for your wife, don’t make it a cow.

Or, you could join up with the Canadian Mennonites who started the Buy Nothing Christmas Campaign back in 1968.

A noble goal to be sure, but, you know as well as I do, those Canucker Mennonites are probably zero-fun killjoys to be around at Christmas.

Knowing that the commercialization of Christmas, our participation in it, and our complaints about it after the fact go back older than America, gives me two cautions about trying to simplify and get back to the “spirit” of Christmas.

First-

I worry that, in trying to avoid the excess and extravagance of the season and in exhorting others to go and do likewise, Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

“We could’ve sold that expensive perfume and given the money to the poor!” Judas complains about Mary anointing Jesus.

“I’m worth it,” Jesus pretty much says.

“You won’t always have me [or the people in your lives]. There will be plenty of opportunity to give to the poor.” 

I worry that Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

In a culture where most Americans associate Christianity with judgmentalism and self-righteousness, sounding more like Judas than Jesus, I would argue, is more problematic than our credit card bill.

     And obviously we do spend too much.

     But ‘Why do we?’ is the better question.

And that gets to my second caution-

I worry that the imperatives to spend less and get more spiritual make it sound too easy. I worry, in other words, that they rely upon a more optimistic view of our human moral capacity than scripture like today’s gives us.

Or modern psychology for that matter.

The UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, notes that most of us make free, rational decisions only 13% of the time. Our wills, scripture tells us and psychology confirms, are not free but bound.

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

93% – that’s the percentage of Americans who believe that Christmas has become too commercial and consumer-driven.

     Not only is lamenting the commercialism of Christmas not new neither is it prophetic.

No one disagrees.

Everyone agrees we spend too much money on too much junk at Christmas.

But we do it anyway.

Forget Isaiah and the lectionary, Romans 7 is what we should be reading during Advent:

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

What Paul is wrestling with in Romans 7 is the mystery of our sinfulness such that expectation and exhortation always elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

Me exhorting you, then, or the Church exhorting the culture, to spend less and get more “spiritual” at Christmas will not only not work it will prove counter-productive because, as Paul Zahl paraphrases Paul here:

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

Thus, it’s not surprising we’ve been bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas for going on 5 centuries to no avail.

For the Apostle Paul, the Law of which he speaks in Romans 7 is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed upon every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

At Christmastime, there’s the Law of Pinterest that tells you you must have new adorable matching clothes for your kids for the Christmas Letter photo or you’re a failure as a woman.

Speaking of which, there’s the Law of the Christmas Letter, which is a hard copy version of the Law of Social Media, which says you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection

There’s the Law of Manhood, which tells you should earn enough money to buy your family the gifts they want.

There’s the Law of Motherhood that tells you you must wrap all the presents perfectly, valued at at least what your sister-in-law will spend on her kids, you must make homemade holiday cookies like you think your mother used to do, and you must find time to spend “quality” time with your kids or you’re no better than Ms. Hannigan in Annie.

And there’s the Law we lay down, the Church, telling people they should have a holy, meaningful, spiritual experience at Christmas whilst doing all of the above and tables-caping a Normal Rockwell dinner, not forgetting the less fortunate and always remembering that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

That’s its God-given purpose, says the Apostle Paul, to accuse us, to point out our shortcomings and reveal where we fail to be loving and kind and generous, where we fail to be good neighbors and parents and spouses and disciples.

The Law always accuses, and, when it comes to this time of year, our culture lays down a whole lot of law.

When it comes to Christmas, the Church and the culture does what AA tells people not to do: they should all over people.

That’s why Christmas is such a powder keg of stress and guilt.

We’re being hit from all angles by the Law:

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

Which is to say we’re being accused from all angles:

For who we are not

How we fall short

What our family and our faith and our Christmas isn’t.

That’s why we can all agree we shouldn’t spend so much at Christmas but we do anyway, we’re bound to the Law, St. Paul says.

And it’s the nature of the Law to produce the opposite of its intent; so that, what we do not want to do (overspend) is exactly what we do.

And that’s why our spending coincides with such sadness, we’re prisoners to the Law. We’ve been accused and have fallen short.

Me telling you, then, how you should spend during Advent, what you ought to do to anticipate Christmas, you might applaud or nod your heads but, truthfully, it would just burden you with more Law.

The Apostle Paul said the purpose of the Law is to shut all our mouths up in the knowledge that not one of us is righteous, so that, we can receive on the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

I mean- we’ve memorized the gifts that the magi give to Jesus.

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

     We’ve memorized the gifts the magi give to Jesus.

But could you answer just as quickly and specifically if I asked you to name the gift God gives to us in Jesus?

I didn’t think so.

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I’m not convinced we know the reason for Jesus.

And maybe-

     Maybe the problem is that we spend so much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ.

     And it’s not knowing what God gives to us in Christ that makes us vulnerable to such stress and self-righteousness every Christmas season.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us in Christ- our sin.

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

Our sin isn’t even the whole problem because even our righteous deeds, says Isaiah, even our good works, even the best possible version of your obituary is no better than a filthy rag.

And the word Isaiah uses- in the Hebrew, you’re not going to like this, it means “menstrual cloth.”

In other words, even your best deeds leave you unclean before God.

They do not make you holy or righteous nor do they merit you an ounce of God’s mercy.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us, but our sin is only part of the problem. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel.

     The Gospel is incomplete if it doesn’t also include what God gives to us: Christ’s own righteousness.

Christ became our sin, says the Bible, so that we might become his righteousness. His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, given to us, as our own righteousness.

You see, it’s the original Christmas gift exchange. Our rags for his riches.

God takes our filthy rags and puts them on Christ and God takes Christ’s righteousness and God clothes us in it.

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

The magi give frankincense, gold, and myrrh to Jesus.

     God gives to us, in Jesus, Christ’s own righteousness.

It’s yours for free for ever. By faith.

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

And no amount of wasteful selfish spending can take that gift away from you once it’s yours by faith.

Sure, we’re all sin-sick and selfish, and our spending shows it.

     Obviously, we do not give to the poor like we should. 

But in Jesus Christ God became poor not so that we would remember the poor.

No, in Jesus Christ God became poor so that we might have all the riches of his righteousness.

As Christ says in one of the Advent Gospel readings, we already have everything we need to meet Christ unafraid when he comes again at the Second Advent. We’ve already been given the gift of his righteousness.

Once you understand this gift God gives to us in Jesus Christ-

It frees you, the Bible says. It frees you from the burden of expectations.

Until you understand the gift God gives us in Christ, you’ll always approach Christmas from the perspective of the Law.

You’ll worry there’s a more “spiritual” way that you should celebrate the season, as a Christian. You’ll think there’s a certain kind of gift you ought to give, as a Christian. You’ll stress that there’s a spending limit you must not exceed, as a Christian.

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

You have no Christian obligations at Christmas because the gift God has already given you by faith is Christ’s perfect righteousness.

The Gospel is that, no matter what your credit card bill or charitable contribution statement says, you are righteous.

     You are as righteous as Jesus Christ because through your baptism, by faith, you have been clothed in his own righteousness.

The gift God has given to you- it frees you from asking “What should I spend at Christmas?”

This gift of Christ’s own righteousness- it frees you to ask “What do I want to spend at Christmas, now that I’m free to spend as much or as little as I want?”

You see-

Despite all the Heifer projects and holiday hashtags, the Gospel frees you to be materialistic.

In the way God is materialistic.  Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas.

The incarnation isn’t spiritual. The incarnation, God taking material flesh and living a life like ours amidst all the material stuff of everyday life, is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

If Jesus is God- with-us then giving material gifts of love that highlight our withness, our connection to someone we love, really is the most theologically cogent way of marking Christ’s birth.

It’s not that spending money you don’t have makes you unrighteous. God’s already given Christ’s righteousness to you. That can’t be undone.It’s not that overspending at Christmas is unrighteous; it’s just unwise. So, don’t buy junk for the sake of buying junk.

But if you got the money, then maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas is to buy someone you love the perfect present.

Because God got materialistic on the first Christmas in order to give you the gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Maybe materialism- in the freedom of the Gospel and not under the burden of the Law- is exactly what Christians need to put Christ back in Christmas.

 

 

 

This week White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, before she would agree to evade answer their question, compelled each member of the press corps to cite one reason they were grateful this Thanksgiving holiday. As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker commented, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ demand for expressions of gratitude left her feeling not thankful but resentful. She writes:

“My first impulse when someone asks me to share is to not-share. This isn’t because I’m not a sharing person — you can have my cake and eat it, too — but because sharing, like charity, should be voluntary.”

What Kathleen Parker illumines and what Sarah Huckabee Sanders “preached” in the White House briefing room is what the Apostle Paul calls the Law. For St. Paul, the Law names not only the biblical laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Law, which Paul says is inscribed upon every heart and is thus extra-biblical and universal to human experience, is shorthand for an exacting moral standard of human performance.

The Law, as Martin Luther paraphrased Paul from Romans 3, always and only accuses.

Lex semper accusat. That is, the Law can only ever convey to us God’s expectation of perfection (“Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”) and our privation in fulfilling such righteousness. The Law always and only accuses for the Law has no power in itself to create that which it commands; in fact, as Paul unpacks in Romans 7 (“I do what I do not want to do”), the Law very often elicits in us the opposite of its intent. As my new favorite theologian, Gerhard Forde, puts it in On Being a Theologian of the Cross:

“The Law says, “Thou shalt love!” It is right; it is holy, true, and good.’ Yet, it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels, and say, “Look here, you’re supposed to love me!” the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be jus the opposite from what ‘our’ Law demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love, Law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”

Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul and the Protestant Reformers is that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ imperative to the press corps (“Be more grateful!”) likely provoked the very opposite of anything resembling gratitude.

Christianity teaches what your heart knows to be true: Command- what Christians call Law- cannot create gratitude. Thankfulness, as Kathleen Parker Christianly pointed out in the Post, cannot be willed from wishing or exerted based on another’s expectation. If the Law only and always accuses, then gratitude can only ever be by grace. Gratitude can only ever be a free response not to an imperative but to an indicative.

Gratitude can only be an effect of the Gospel not Law. In Christian terms, gratitude is the response created within us by the no-strings-attached promise that all our sins have been forgiven because of another. I wonder, though, is it possible that gratitude is only intelligible in Christian terms such as these? We don’t call our sacrament the Eucharist, which means gratitude, for nothing. i wonder if gratitude is only intelligible in the Christian terms we call Gospel? John Tierney says Thanksgiving is the most psychologically correct holiday, but I wonder if its the most Christian holiday; specifically, I wonder if Thanksgiving can only be a Christian holiday.

I mean, if Christians only possess a religious flavor of that which is true already for everyone everywhere (gratitude) then we should sleep in on Sundays and fix brunch and bloody marys.

Apart from the story Christians rehearse every week, in Word and Sacrament, of God’s goodness in spite of human failure, what other story contextualizes Thanksgiving such that gratitude is created not compelled? Does the (false) story of happy natives and pilgrims put enough flesh on Thanksgiving to elicit true gratitude?

Is a Thanksgiving table that is not in some sense an extension of the altar table just a hollow holiday?

Gratitude, don’t forget, requires a corollary awareness of our own fault and finitude such that we’re appreciative of others. Can the story of the pilgrims do the heavy lifting or our sentimentality about family and football? Or does the Gospel alone better tell us about what has been done for us that we could not do for ourselves? Does the Gospel do better at teaching us not to trust in our own ability or merit such that appreciation for another arises freely within us?

Apart from the promise of the Gospel, Americans at Thanksgiving are just like the White House Press Corps this week, being told (by the Law) to be grateful but, as a consequence, feeling the opposite of gratitude.

So, before you carve the turkey, remember that at a holiday table Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave thanks…

Glawspel

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2017 — 3 Comments

I continued our fall lectio continua series through Exodus by preaching on God giving the Law to Moses in Exodus 20.

Thou shall have no other gods but me.

Thou shall not make for yourself any idol.

Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God.

Thou shall not commit murder.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

Thou shall not steal.

Thou shall not strip to thine mighty whities and kiss a 14 year old nor touch her through her…No wait, that’s not in there. It’s not in there!

Nor is it etched in the 5,280 pound granite statue of them that Roy Moore installed in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001. It’s not in the 10 Commandments so the 10 Commandments Judge (if he’s guilty) must be in the clear.

According to Sean Hannity, if the 10 Commandments are at all relevant to the allegations against Roy Moore then it’s because Leigh Corfman, Wendy Miller, Debbie Gibson, and Gloria Deason are all guilty of breaking the 9th Commandment.

They’re all lying, Hannity promises. They’re bearing false witness.

Here I was in the middle of the week wondering what I would preach this Sunday, knowing that Exodus 20, the giving of the Law to Moses, was our scheduled scripture text. I didn’t know what I would preach. I was wracking my brain. I even prayed, as I always do, sending up on SOS for God to give me something to say.

And then on Thursday afternoon my iPhone chimed with breaking news from the Washington Post about the allegations of sexual assault (or, according to Breitbart News: “Dating”). My iPhone dinged with the allegations against Roy Moore, the self-proclaimed 10 Commandments Judge and now Alabama Senate candidate.

With Exodus 20 on the preaching calendar, Roy Moore fell into my lap like icky manna from heaven.

I know, it’s not funny.

It’s NOT.

But, if there’s anything funny at all about the sad, sordid story it’s the irony that Roy Moore, the 10 Commandments Judge, doesn’t appear to have read what Jesus and the Apostle Paul say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.

Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists like Roy Moore would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.

That’s not their purpose.

I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it did to Roy Moore this week.

To accuse us.

The mistake Judge Roy Moore makes, in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, is that the primary function of the Law is not civil.

The primary function of the Law is theological.

It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.

But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves.

And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street – we deceive ourselves. And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Louis CK did. We’re not like Roy Moore at all.

To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to Roy Moore’s alleged vice, in his sermon on the mount, Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.

To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.”

To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel, then you’ve cheated on your wife.”

He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.

And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it less great by trading out neighbor for enemy.

“You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”

Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.

     Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions. The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct.

Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.

I didn’t sleep with her, I must be Kingdom material.

No.

The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. It’s more than posting the 10 Commandments in courtrooms; it’s more than obeying the 10 Commandments.

It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off. It’s what’s in your head and in your heart, your intentions not just your actions.

That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom. That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says.

And then, Jesus closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:

     “You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. I’m no Kevin Spacey.

No, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, Christ’s point is that we must measure ourselves according to God. There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you.

It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t matter that you never did what Mark Halperin did.

     “Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because perfection is actually the obligation.

     Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. 

You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect. You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life.

How’s that going for you?

Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.

Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you.

Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Louis CK and, as much as them, we should tremble.

You see, that’s the mistake Judge Roy Moore makes in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces.

     The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. 

     The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law are not principles by which you live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings you down to your knees.

In his statement to the NY Times on Friday, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:

“…I wielded my power irresponsibility. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”

Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.

As Stephen Colbert tweeted, it leaves him with the desire for a time machine to go back and tell Louis CK NOT TO DO THAT TO WOMEN.

His statement is wanting in a lot of ways; nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.

The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.

     The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question:

“How could God love someone like me?”

     When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.

Martin Luther taught that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words:

Law and Gospel.

And Luther said the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel.

Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes to Timothy as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” 

It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, Luther said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.

Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.

You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.

But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.

Focus on Law alone yields a God of commands and oppressive expectations.

The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose.

So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental.

And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians.

It can only produce hypocrites.

That’s why none of us should be surprised to discover that the 10 Commandments Judge may in fact be a white-washed tomb. A hypocrite.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.

Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality.

“God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.

Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.

     Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting.

Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. 

Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.

Glawspel is like Joe Cocker, fooling you into thinking that you can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from your friend Jesus.

Glawspel is like an infomercial product- that with a dash of grace and a splash of spiritual transformation added to awesome you, Shazaam, you too can forgive 70 x 7.

No.

The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.

The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.

The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.

The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.

The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.

For you.

The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or exhaustion but recognition.

The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not Glawspel.

The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached.

The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.

If it’s exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace.

If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel.

The Gospel simply repeats the question:

WDJD?

    What DID Jesus do?

———————-

     He did what you cannot do for yourself.

Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it.

Because behind closed doors

When we think the mic is off

In the backstage dressing room of our minds

And in the secret thoughts of our hearts-

Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Roy Moore and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others.

Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.

The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.

     If Christ is just your teacher or example, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven.

Because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of HeavenHe took that fear from you.

He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.

His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.

Don’t you see- Roy Moore is right about one thing.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

Here’s a wedding sermon I wrote, using (you guessed it) 1 Corinthians 13, for a ceremony I celebrated this weekend in D.C. at the Four Seasons. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Bill Murray crashed my preaching. I got to chat with Bill but the highlight was getting to preside over the promises made by friends.

My experience tells me that wedding sermons are really for the married folk sitting in the chairs not the nervous bride and groom, sweating it out until I get to their parts. In that same spirit, I offer to you all. Married or unmarried, I think there’s some legit good news in this old, hackneyed text for those forever feeling the burden of expectation. And, of course, nothing comes fraught and laden expectations as love.

Here we go:

Since Jess and Austin chose a Kanye song for their wedding, I thought I’d offer a pop song for the sermon: “The Pina Colada Song.” Aside from the pleasures of picturing Steve Larkin yacht-rocking circa 1979 to more liquor than he’ll ingest tonight, that’s a terrible song!

Have you ever paid attention to those lyrics?!

I never did until I took my two boys to see Guardians of the Galaxy and “The Pina Colada” song, from Star Lord’s Awesome Mix Volume I, started to play while Rocket and company escaped from their galactic prison.

“The Pina Colada Song,” it’s original title is “Escape.”

Escape. As in, from Marriage.

“If you like pina coladas and walks in the rain…” Have you listened to this supposed love song?

The man and wife of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 #1 hit sound flip about forsaking everything Jess and Austin are about to promise one another tonight.

Each of them, unsuspecting of the other, takes out a Want Ad, searching for someone who is perfect for them, a companion who likes the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne.

I guarantee that if Kathy Larkin stumbled across Steve Larkin on Tinder the ensuing dialogue would not be FCC friendly.  And I’m pretty sure if Steve ever reacted to having been found out by calling Kathy his “lovely old lady” we’d all be at a parole hearing tonight instead of a wedding.

It’s a song about two imperfect people on the precipice.

And if you pay attention to the lyrics there’s an ironic twist on what we mean by the term ‘soul mate,’ for when the imperfect spouses meet each other through the want ads, what do they do?

They laugh.

They say: “I never knew you liked getting caught in the rain…”

And then they laugh.

Each of them laughs at the imperfect other.

     On the one hand, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” is an awful love song, a ballad about betrayal narrowly averted.

But on the other hand, Rupert Holmes’ hit single- maybe it’s a better marriage song than love song. After all, “Escape” is a pop song about being found out and being known in weakness is the very essence of marriage.

Like Jesus on the cross, the crucible of marriage strips you of all your defenses and disguises so that all your imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.

Marriage is a risk that requires vows precisely because marriage makes you vulnerable.

Not only is being known in our weakness the essence of marriage, it just so happens to be the experience that sinners (i.e., humans) most loath. Like Adam and Eve hiding in shame, we spend most of our lives hoping to avoid being found out as the frauds we all are. Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves. We do it by filtering our lives through a social media sheen, or by saying “I’m okay.”

The passion- as in, the suffering- of intimacy isn’t that I get to know someone as they really, truly are; it’s that I am known by someone as I really am. Marriage, therefore, holds a mirror up to you and reveals to you the stranger that you call you.

And one of the things marriage constantly reflects back to us is how far we fall short of the sort of love Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 13.

——————-

     No doubt we’d all like a partner who is patient and kind and slow to anger and humble- I know my wife likes having such a partner.

But, if you think Paul’s love song is saying that you should be patient and kind, you should never be boastful or arrogant or rude, then it’s just a matter of time before what’s advice to you becomes an expectation on your spouse.

Your partner should be patient with you. Your partner should be kind to you. 

     As St. Paul says elsewhere, expectation always elicits the opposite of its intent. Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

And so, in short order, your expectation produces resentment in your partner because love that is always patient and always kind is an impossible obligation to meet.

And it produces frustration in you.

You soon wonder why sometimes she’s quick to anger or envy.

You wonder why she’s not always patient like she should be; until, you start to see only what she is not and you stop seeing her altogether, such that you don’t even know whether she likes getting caught in the rain or the taste of champagne.

That way of listening to Paul’s love song (your love should be patient, you ought to be un-envious) is to hear it according to what Paul calls the Law.

     The Law is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed in every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

There’s the Law of Social Media where you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection.

There’s the Law of Beauty where you’re measured against the standard of an ever-shrinking waist line you must attain.

There’s the Law of Parenting where your kids bento-boxed lunches should contain gluten-free, free-range, organic crustless goodness or you may as well be a slumlord in a Dickens novel.

There’s the Law of Weddings which we’re all obeying tonight.

And there’s the Law of Marriage-

The Law of Marriage which tells you that you and your partner ought to pretend your life is like the picture that comes with the frame, perfect, unabated bliss, and if you’re not happy all the time, there must be something wrong with the two of you.

Martin Luther said that the Law always accuses; that is, it points out our shortcomings.

And when we hear Paul’s love song according to the Law that’s just what it does.

When we hear 1 Corinthians 13 as advice or suggestions or, worse, commands, it just accuses us for how impatient and unkind and rude and conceited and quick to anger we know ourselves to be a whole lot of the time.

But Paul’s love song isn’t meant to be Law; it’s meant to be the opposite of the Law. It’s meant to be Gospel.

     It’s the Law that says “Be loving.”

     But it’s the Gospel that says “You are loved.”

And Paul’s song is the Gospel not the Law because the love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t Jess’ love and Austin’s love. It’s Christ’s love.

Faith, hope and love abide, but love never ends…’ 

     For Paul, only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end. He’s talking about Jesus.

“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Jesus does not insist on his own way.”

     This love song…he’s talking about Jesus.

Jesus bore all things, bearing in his body our shame.

Jesus believed all things. He did what we could not do, though forsaken he never lost faith.

Jesus endured all things, in our place, while we were yet his enemies.

The love Paul sings about in 1 Corinthians 13 is the love of Jesus, the love whose arms were stretched upon a cross so that your hearts, whether you believe in him or not, might be crucified by love.

     This love song isn’t the Law.

     It’s the Gospel because it’s not commanding you to love this way.

     It’s announcing to you that you have been loved this way.

You have been loved with a love that is patient and kind and slow to anger. This prior love of God- it makes the present-tense love between partners possible. This prior love of God, made perfect in Jesus Christ- it makes the imperfect love of husbands and wives permissible. The Gospel makes the imperfect love of marriage not only permissible but a kind of sacrament, a sign pointing to the perfect, prior love of God.

The Gospel frees you from the Law.

It frees you from all those shoulds, musts, and oughts that pop into your head. It frees you from adhering to anyone else’s standards for what your marriage must be. Because of the Gospel, you’re free to be patient and kind with one another, and you’re free to give grace when you’re neither patient nor kind. You’re free for your marriage to be nothing more and nothing less than who you are and what, together, you become. You’re free, in other words, to be ordinary because the most extraordinary thing about you has nothing to do with you.

Which means, the Gospel frees you from fear.

In marriage, you can be known in your weakness, unafraid, because the Gospel tells you that God knows the very worst about you and God loves you anyway and God has already forgiven you.

Which means, this love song, the Gospel, it frees you to forgive.

It makes it easier for you to forgive your spouse.

Because when you know the person you’re PO’d at has already been forgiven by God unconditionally, it feels more than a little stingy to keep holding your ledger in the red.

     As unlikely as it sounds, I think Rupert Holmes’ “Pina Colada” single is a wonderful song to marriage.

Because, after all, the rings Jess and Austin exchange tonight, what are they if not outward, visible signs of what no one else can see:

How flawed and imperfect we all are

And yet how God in Christ has answered the Want Ad posted in our souls

Has met us in our loneliness

Has found us out in our deepest failures

And by the happy joke we call Cross and Resurrection, laughed.

The rings-

They’re signs of the Gospel promise that Jess and Austin are imperfect people who are free to laugh with each other over those imperfections knowing that every mistake they make has already been mended by the crucified love of God.

And knowing that- it leads not to happiness but to joy. Amen.

Divine Amnesia

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

 I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.

Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.

And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.

Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.

I’m going to get emails about that.

My point is-

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.

It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.

     The Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis.

This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.

Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.

Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.

When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:

Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.

That’s Exodus 1.9

Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.

That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)

So what’s Pharaoh do?

He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.

He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.

Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.

Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.

And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.

A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.

It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.

I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.

And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.

The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.

In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.

God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.

You have a duty to be for them too.

You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.

You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”

It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.

And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.

Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.

Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.

It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.

It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.

God is for them.

You have a a duty to be for them too.

Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.

It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.

It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.

     It would be simple to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture, but I wonder- would it be the Gospel?

     Or would it-

     Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel

and turn it into a burden?

Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?

Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”

——————-

     In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.

Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.

We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.

After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.

With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.

Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.

The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.

He was wrong.

Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”

Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse.  It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”

In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”

McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”

And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”

What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.

It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.

Says McClay:

“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…

Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.

Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…

In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”

McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.

We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”

But…he says

As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.

If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.

———————

     The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-

It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.

It’s true-

God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.

And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?

For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.

St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.

Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:

The Law always accuses.

     That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.

The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.

“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”

The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.

———————

     The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.

God is not a Pharaoh.

The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.

You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s not news. That’s moralism.

     What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel-  is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not. 

    The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.

God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.

God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.

God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.

God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.

This never stops being true for you.

No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.

God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.

Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).

It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.

The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.

This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.

     It’s God’s grace.

     It’s the gift we call the Gospel.

     And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free (Robert Capon).

     It’s free.

———————-

     Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:

“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.

Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?

One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”

That’s a history professor, not a preacher.

Translation:

The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear.  The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.

Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.

The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.

By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.

Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.

And the Gospel is not the Law.

The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.

Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.

The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.

The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”

This news-

This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.

You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).

This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having received a steady diet of Gospel from our summer sermon series through Romans, I stumbled upon Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints by David Zahl et al. I encourage you to check it out. It’s slim and digestible.

The book concludes with a spot-on, convicting (for me), and helpful guide to distinguish whether what you’re hearing in church is Law or Gospel.

The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom
–Martin Luther

Zahl writes:

“A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—“the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines.

This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide:

1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.

2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.

3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.

4. Watch for exhaustion: If the yoke is hard and the burden heavy week after week, then the letter’s probably overpowering the Spirit.

5. Examine the language: If you hear ‘If… then,’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nice…,’ ‘We should all…,’ or anything else that smacks of the imperative voice, it’s implicit works-salvation. If you hear the indicative voice—‘God is…,’ ‘We are…,’ or ‘God will…’—then it’s probably Gospel.

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.

7. Finally, keep an eye out for the ‘Galatians effect,’ summarized by St. Paul:

Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal 3:2-5)

If how you’re approaching or being told to approach Christianity now feels different from “believing what you heard,” we’re in Galatians territory. Christianity is Good News, and it never ceases to be Good News.”

     I continued our summer sermon series through Romans with 12.1-2, 9-16.

Pay attention to the passive voice:

“Our society is broken, pretty much, but there will be a time when these times will be made right.”

“…these times will be made right” said the principal of Goose Creek High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

“…these times will be made right” he said just days after Dylann Roof stormed into Mother Emmanuel AME Church and shot 9 parishioners gathered for bible study. One of the nine victims was the track coach at Goose Creek High School.

“…these times will be made right.”

Which is to say, despite the brokenness we can see everywhere an unseen agency is at work, making right. Or as Paul would say, rectifying.

Only four days after Dylann Roof stormed into Emmanuel AME and left six black women and 3 black men in a bloody pile in the church basement, the leaders of the congregation concluded the only way to press forward was for them to go back to exactly what they’d done before, to do the Sunday after that shooting what they had done the Sunday previous.

Worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

Proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel which Paul says is the rectifying power of God unleashed in our world (1.16-17).

Preaching that Sunday at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, Reverend Norvel Goff, an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, proclaimed: “through our proclamation of the Gospel on this day a message will be sent to Satan.”

Note the passive voice again: “through our proclamation…a message will be sent.”

The worshippers at Emmanuel Church were not the ones sending the message.

Later in his sermon, his voice roaring, Reverend Goff added: “Something wants to divide us- black and brown and white- but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”

Notice- he didn’t say Dylann Roof wanted to divide us. He didn’t say racists and bigots want to divide us. Something wants to divide us– there’s another agency at work in the world.

Speaking of that other agency, that same Sunday, outside the church, the Reverend Brandon Bowers, who is white and the pastor of Awaken Church, said: “What the Enemy intended for evil, God is using- God is using us- for good.”

He said Enemy with a capital E- even the NY Times caught it.

And he did not say we’re using this for good.

Pay attention to the passive: “God is using us for good.”

We’re being used by God for good.

The service at Mother Emmanuel AME Church began with a hymn: “You are the Source of my strength, you are the strength of my life.”

Meanwhile, while they sang at Emmanuel AME, the family of 21 year old Dylann Roof worshipped at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

The pastor of St. Paul’s read the names of the victims and the congregation prayed for them and their families. The victimizer’s family prayed for the victims and their families.

About the victimizer’s family, the pastor of St. Paul told his congregation later: “They are shattered but through their faith they are being made strong.”

“…they are being made strong.”

——————————

     “…these times will be made by right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…do not be haughty…do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…overcome evil with good.”

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed… but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

If you don’t understand what the therefore is there for, not only do you miss Paul’s point here you mishear this passage as bad news instead of good, as burdensome rather than freeing.

Because, let’s face it-

Genuine, 100% of the time, love

Unflagging zeal

Patience in suffering

Perseverance in prayer

Feeding your enemies

I’ve been here coming on my 13th year and I don’t know any of you who score better than a D on this long list of attributes of what transformation looks like. I’d bet the house that behind closed doors Pope Francis doesn’t do better than a B-.

I mean, half of you can’t even get along on Facebook, let alone blessing those who curse you. This is DC- a lot of you make your livelihood claiming to be wiser than you really are.

“Do not be haughty?” So long as Donald Trump is in office that’s an impossible command for some of you.

Assuming it’s a command, that is.

If you don’t know what the therefore is there for, you’ll mishear this passage.

You won’t hear it as Gospel. You’ll hear it- if you’re honest enough to admit it- as a guilt trip. You’ll hear it as a To Do list of musts and shoulds, as a prescription of what we have to do.

Without the therefore there, you’ll hear Paul saying: A real transformed Christian looks like this…a genuine Christian must do this…must love enemies, must bless those who curse them, must be patient in suffering and ardent about their faith.

     No.

That’s what the therefore is there for.

The therefore signals that what comes next depends upon what came before.

The therefore signals that what proceeds is possible only because of what preceded.

The therefore signals that what follows is a part of everything prior.

Or, in other words, chapter 12 comes after chapter 11.

Chapter 12 comes after chapter 8 and chapter 6 and chapter 5 and 3 and 1.

The therefore is there for you to remember that what comes next here in chapter 12 continues and concludes what has come before.

Just before this, the verse that sets up this therefore- it’s a doxology. It’s a song of praise, thanking God for the work of God to save all of God’s creation (11.33-36).

And before that, Paul has said that even the disbelief of some is a part of God’s work to show mercy to all. Before that, Paul has said that the all-ness of God’s saving work includes not just creatures like you and me but all of creation.

All of creation because all of creation, Paul has said before, is in captivity to the Power of Sin with a capital S. A Power that, just before, Paul made synonymous with the Power of Death with a capital D.

A Power, Paul said before that, whose power we are all under such that not one of us can free ourselves. We have no power against this Power. We’re prisoners, Paul has said before.

Which gets back to what Paul said just before that, at the very beginning of his argument (and remember, it is all one, long argument). In his thesis statement at the beginning, before the therefore and everything else, Paul announced that his letter is about what God is doing:

“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the rectifying power of God is invading [the world].”

You can only invade territory held by an Enemy.

The Gospel is the Power of God to take God’s world back from the Enemy who binds it. The Gospel, Paul has said, is the means by which God takes God’s world back from the One who holds it captive.

Pay attention to the present tense.

The Gospel isn’t about what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

Everything that has come before the therefore has been about God’s doing.

     You didn’t invite Jesus into your heart. God has poured God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit, Paul has said.

You didn’t journey to God. God has transferred you from the dominion of Sin into the dominion of grace.

You didn’t decide to become a new you. God killed off your old self- you have died with Christ- and now you are in Christ.

You didn’t sign up to serve God. God has set you free from slavery to Sin and Death and made you instead a slave of righteousness.

It’s all been about what God does.

——————————

     So, why should we suppose that when he gets to this point in his letter Paul is suddenly talking about us, about what we do?

What the therefore is there for is to remind you that what comes next describes what God is doing not what we do.

It’s proclamation not exhortation.

It’s indicative not imperative.

The therefore is there so you don’t mistake this as a prescription of what we must do: We must be genuine in love. We must be patient in suffering. We must be zealous for God all the time. We must bless those who curse us and love our enemies. 

If there’s a must or a should or a have-to in your sentences, you’re not speaking Gospel.

The therefore is there for you to know this is not a prescription of who you must be or what you must do. It’s a description of who Jesus Christ is and what God is doing.

Pay attention to the passive: “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We’re not the ones doing the transforming.

The therefore is there for you to see that this transformation isn’t up to us. You’re not left to your lonesome to live up to impossible ideals. The point of this passage isn’t that you have to become a new you; it’s that you are being made new.

By God.

By the mercies of God, Paul says.

That’s not a throwaway religious cliche.

The word Paul uses there, dia, refers to the instrumentality of God, i.e, what Paul is saying: Only by the merciful activity of God upon you can you be conformed not to this world but transformed into conformity to Jesus Christ.

That’s different.

That’s different than Paul simply telling you to emulate and imitate Jesus. Jesus didn’t even have an easy time being Jesus; how could you possibly emulate and imitate him? No, Paul’s not exhorting you to imitate Jesus.

Paul’s already told you before, back in chapter 6, by faith and by baptism- by God- you NOW are in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean that as a metaphor.

You are in Jesus Christ.

And now- therefore- Paul is telling you, God is shaping you into Christ likeness.

Patience in suffering. Blessing those who curse you. Perseverance in prayer. Genuine love. This isn’t a To Do list or a Christian Code of Conduct. They’re not exhortations or expectations. They’re attributes of Christ.

He’s describing the mind of Christ.

The mind according to which God is at work to conform us.

“I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God…do not be conformed…but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Pay attention to the language.

That word renewing- it’s anakainosis. It means literally “completely taken over.”

God is at work to transform you. To conform you to Christ.

To completely take over your mind with the mind of Christ.

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no sin (why?) so that (therefore) we might become the righteousness of God.”

What Paul says here is what Paul says to the Philippians: “…the God who began a good work in you will in the fullness of time bring it to completion.” Not, you now have to bring it to completion. God will bring it to completion.

What Paul says here is what Paul said at the very beginning of this letter:

The Gospel, what we announce in Word and Sacrament- it is the power of Almighty God to invade, to completely take over, until you are rectified, put right, according to the mind of Christ in whose image you are made.

And through you…the world.

“…these times will be made right.”

——————————

     Pay attention to the passive.

Last May, Dennis and I attended Hedy’s graduation from Wesley Theological Seminary, held at the National Cathedral.

The pastor of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, killed by Dylann Roof, would’ve been in the graduating class.

They awarded his degree posthumously, and when it came time for Reverend Pinckney’s name to be read, they invited his wife Jennifer forward to receive his diploma and to speak.

She acknowledged that the ceremony was a bittersweet moment for her. She painted a picture of her husband asleep in his man cave, his coursework still on his lap. And then she confessed that she’d had no idea what to say to those gathered there in the cathedral.

She’d had no idea what to say.

‘But then,’ she said, ‘I was hit with the words to share.’

I was hit.

By God. By the Holy Spirit.

And what followed was plain and unremarkable, but it was powerful- more so than the sermon that had come before, a sermon that had been all exhortation, an exhausting litany of musts and shoulds.

But what Jennifer Pinkney from Emmanuel AME Church said was powerful not because of the pathos of the moment nor for the profundity of her words.

It was powerful because she had reminded us- testified to us- that God is real.

God is living.

Acting.

At work: “…I was hit with what to say…”

——————————-

     Look-

You can’t become unflagging in your zeal by exerting more zeal.

You don’t persevere in prayer by practicing prayer.

Your love doesn’t become genuine through effort.

You don’t achieve patience in suffering by enduring it.

Blessing those who curse you doesn’t come about by you biting your tongue.

You can forgive 70 x 7 times but if it takes in your heart even 1 of those times it’s not your own doing.

You don’t walk in newness of life because you set out to do so.

You don’t become lovers of enemies by trying- neither will they cease to be your enemy because you’ve attempted to love them.

     None of it is possible for you to do.

     But all of it is possible for the Living God to do in you.

The therefore is there for you to remember that the Christian life is pointless if the God we serve is not a Living God.

The therefore is there for you to remember that Christianity is bigger than simply doing the things Jesus did because you can’t do any of the things Jesus did if God did not raise him from the dead to conform and transform you.

And sure that takes different kind of patience, sure that sounds messier and slower and more frustrating than if Paul just handed us a simple To Do List of Musts and Shoulds.

But our understanding of the Gospel, our understanding of what it means to be a Christian, should at least require that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the world.

—————————-

     The Sunday after Dylann Roof shot nine at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston members of Citadel Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist Church with a long and complicated relationship with racism, walked the mere steps from their church to Emmanuel Church and they placed purple daises around the front of Emmanuel.

The Reverend David Walker, pastor of Citadel Baptist, explained the gesture thus.

Pay attention to the passive: “Something compelled us to do this…”

Christ is Risen indeed.

   

 

 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

25. What is the Gospel? 

The Gospel is Jesus.

The Gospel is the life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity made flesh in Jesus Christ and made known to us through the community constituted by the narrative which witnesses to him, what we call the Gospels.

In that narrative we hear the good news of how the God who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Kingdom, defeating the kingdoms which had crucified him, and inaugurating a New Age in which Jesus is Lord and we are called to witness to the God who refuses to let our violence and sin determine our relationship to him.

The Gospel is not the effect of the Gospel.

It is not atonement. It is not justification. It is not salvation. It is neither being forgiven your sin nor is it going to heaven when you die.

The Gospel is the entire story of Jesus Christ, for the person and work of Christ cannot be separated or abstracted from one another; that is, there is no meaning to what we mean by Gospel- no universal human dilemma- that can be known prior tom or without submission under, the story we call Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The Gospel is the entire narrative about Jesus Christ because there is no way to know Jesus apart from discipleship, apprenticing under him through this story in which he reveals himself to us.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” 

– 2 Timothy 2.8

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dFor the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.

I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.

     I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.

I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.

Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.

This sermon is for you too.

This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.

This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.

This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.

And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.

This sermon is for you.

Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.

——————————

     Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.

“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.” 

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

     Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’

“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

     Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.

And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.”  [Play Briefly]

     David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.

We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.

——————————

     One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.

We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.

[Play]

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.

The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.

And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”

And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.” 

When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?

That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.

This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.

We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.

And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.

All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.

——————————-

     Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.

We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.

[Play]

     in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.

So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.

And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.

In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.

Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.

The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.

Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.

And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.

——————————

     A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.

In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.

[Play]

     In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.

In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.

But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.

In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.

Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.

We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.

We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.

Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.

And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.

And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.

Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.

Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.

——————————

     The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

     David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.

[Play]

     In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.

God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.

God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.

And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.

And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.

Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.

Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.

Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.

Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that

from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.

The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.

They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.

And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.

Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.

We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.

Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.

Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.

We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.

Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.

Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

     We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

Saved by (Dis)Grace

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

5892-sigmund-freud-quotes-on-religionHere’s the sermon from this Sunday’s epistle, 2 Timothy 1.1-8

 

“Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Do not be ashamed, in other words, of the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul is barely a tweet’s worth of words into his final correspondence with the Christians in Ephesus and already, right out of the gate, he’s admonishing them not to be ashamed of the Gospel, which implies that they are ashamed of the Gospel.

Why?

Why are they ashamed?

Obviously, we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Christians, after all, are the ones responsible for the trite, saccharine Jesus-in-my-pants pop odes to the Almighty all over the 91.1 airwaves.

Christians are the ones who revived Kirk Cameron’s post Growing Pains career with the straight-to-video Left Behind movies, and Christians are the ones who bailed Nick Cage out of his back taxes by watching his theatrical reboot of the same crappy film.

Were it not for Christians, Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s evangelical little brother, never would’ve recovered from starring with Pauly Shore in Biodome.

Just right there we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Don’t believe me?

Go to Barnes and Noble after church today and look at the shelves underneath the sign labeled “Christian Literature.”

On cover after cover Joel Osteen’s pearly whites and vacant botoxed eyes pull you in, like the tractor beam on the Death Star, into becoming a better you and living your best life now.

And next to them, 63- I counted them the other day- Amish romance novels. Amish romance novels. And no they weren’t 63 copies of the Harrison Ford-Kelly HotGillis film Witness. They were 63 different Amish romance novels with titles like Game of Love, Let Go and Let God, and- my personal favorite, Mail Order Bride: The Brave and the Shunned.

If anyone here likes to read Amish romance novels, I’m not judging you. Actually, that’s not true but my point is…we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

I mean, Christians are the ones who can’t accept that the Earth is older than 3,000 years but somehow can swallow the $60 price of admission to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Christians the ones who believe that nature isn’t natural; it’s creation. It’s given- every sunset, every rainbow trout, every note of every sonata, every piece of thick cut bacon, it’s all- Christians believe- a good, gratuitous gift from God, who charged Christians to steward and care for his creation.

Yet Christians are the ones who make up the majority of people who deny climate change and disabuse any suggestion they have a responsibility to arrest it.

From Duck Dynasty themed Bibles to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on the Porsche Boxster yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Christians executed Galileo. Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. Christians excuse Franklin Graham. The reason so many protest that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. Matter.

We should be ashamed.

Christians have made bedfellows with colonizers and conquistadors. In whichever nation in whatever era Christians have found themselves they’ve never missed an opportunity to bless every power grab, baptize every war, perpetuate every prejudice.

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian.

Survey says we’re the ones who want to keep our neighbors in the closet, keep death row open for business, and keep our communities closed to Muslims.

We have plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

And don’t even get me started on19 Kids and Counting.

—————————-

But the sort of embarrassment we feel as Christians knowing that Jeff Foxworthy and MC Hammer are both sheep in the same flock as us- that’s different than being ashamed of the Gospel.

When the Apostle Paul wrote this final letter he was so old that, like Dennis Perry, whenever he stopped moving people would throw dirt on him. And here, in what may be his final letter as he passes the mantle to his protege Timothy, the first thing Paul tells them- he commands them: not to be ashamed of the Gospel.

Why would they be ashamed?

At that point, the Church was incredibly tiny, too young and too small to churn out bad music or cheesy movies or choose the wrong side of history. It would be centuries before Christians cozied up to empires or launched the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

So why are they ashamed?

Just as we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers would be ashamed of the Gospel.

What’s shameful about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

—————————-

To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful.

A disgrace.

Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul essentially says.

To the Romans, crucifixion was so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society.

But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed.

That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

So in case you’re still hung up on my crack about 19 Kids and Counting and haven’t been following along, to sum up:

Paul commands Timothy “Do not be ashamed of the Gospel” because the Gospel was shameful. And the shame of our Gospel is the Cross itself.

You can see why to Jews and Romans alike Paul’s Gospel about a crucified messiah was a tougher sell then trying to raffle off Trump Steaks at a South American beauty pageant because no one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

Paul’s Gospel was scandalously, profanely counter-intuitive.

By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, which, by the way, I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel.

——————————

Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment.

Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires. Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure.

The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true.

My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right.

About religion.

I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made.

We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him.

That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it.

Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form or someone returning from the dead. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others.

But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God.

The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes. It’s a disgrace. It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.

Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely.

No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man.

Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment.

Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel.

Maybe that’s the only real hedge we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much fantasy and nonsense.

Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.

—————————-

Last Sunday I was headed to Princeton for a week-long con ed course on philanthropy. Just shy of the bridge, ordering coffee at Peets, one of you sent me a text message about a 12 year old boy at Stratford Landing dying (actively so) of brain cancer.

One of you asked Josh’s parents if they wanted me to come be with them.

I changed my order to a double expresso and turned south down Interstate 95. I hate my job sometimes and, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes.

If there was such a thing as a believer’s thesaurus, then “Pediatric Oncology” would be a synonym for atheism. Especially when the name of the hospice nurse and the palliative morphine dosage is written on the dry erase board.

Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers in a casket.

Josh had written them before his hands palsied, because of the brain tumor, and he couldn’t write anymore. His mother told me he stopped being able to speak that Wednesday. On Saturday he lost control of his eyes. By Sunday when I arrived his breathing was shallow and labored.

After I helped Josh’s mom wash him, for several hours I held her hand and I listened as she whispered to him, in between sobs, “It’ll be okay. God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she kept whispering to him. But maybe I’ve made a mistake for believing in Him, I thought.

I came back the next night. I stood by his bed and I wiped the spittle from his mouth and I rubbed his head as praise songs played on the tablet laying next to his shoulder.

It was close I could tell. So I prayed something about how Jesus says children are first in the Kingdom, prayed it to the God with whom, in that moment, I was righteously PO’d.

Your heart would have to be tone deaf to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious at God.

Or,

Feel foolish for believing in the first place.

When I left, his godmother was rubbing his feet and shouting at him, through stubborn tears, to wake up. He died just a little while later.

It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too.

And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it, but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief.

The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief.

——————————-

But if the shame of the cross saves me from my unbelief how was it able to convert the Apostle Paul out of his former beliefs?

How was this irreligious Gospel able to convert him from his religion?

A Pharisee like Paul knew that according to Jesus’ own bible someone executed on a cross was cursed among the People of God by the God of the Law.

So how was Paul able to get to the point where he could unashamedly proclaim this shameful Gospel?

He spells it out not in this letter to Timothy but in another letter: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel” Paul says “because it is the power of God…” 

Notice, this is everything so pay attention now:

Paul says “the Gospel is the power of God.”

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel is the message about the power of God.

Paul doesn’t say the Gospel points to the power of God back then.

Paul doesn’t say anything like the Gospel is the record of the power of God.

He doesn’t say the Gospel describes how the power of God was worked in Christ upon the Cross.

Paul says the Gospel is the power of God.

Is not was.

Present-tense not past.

That the Gospel message makes NOW the power that was revealed THEN upon the Cross.

You see Paul was able to be converted from his religion to this irreligion, Paul was able to not be ashamed of this shameful Gospel because Paul discovered that the Gospel is not a message about something God did.

It’s a message through which God does.

Paul can be not ashamed because God- as Paul says in Colossians- isn’t the content of the Gospel, God is the active agent of the Gospel.

So no matter what God’s commandments say about the shamefulness of the Cross, Paul can proclaim this Gospel unashamed because God is the Preacher of this Gospel.

In other words, the Gospel is not inert.

When we proclaim the otherwise shameful Word of the Cross the Risen Christ is present to bring salvation and healing and justice and faith, Paul says.

The Gospel can give faith, Paul says, and give life to the dead and give existence to things that do not exist.

Because it is NOW not Then the Power of God.

—————————-

To be honest, for most of this week all that present-tense isness about the Gospel felt like a heavy faith lift for me.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to summon the conviction to convince you today.

But then, as I showed her around the sanctuary for Josh’s funeral, Josh’s mom told me this week that the person from this congregation who sat with them there in the hospital, who comforted them and counseled them throughout his illness and did so again after his death, you were to them the presence of Jesus, she told me.

And as she hugged me in the hallway here, crying, she told me that my prayers with them there in the hospital, which were really just paraphrases of the scripture Josh had scribbled on those printer sheets, those prayers made them feel connected to Christ, she said, and to Christ’s Church, where before, she said, they’d felt terribly alone.

And then as soon as you heard she and her husband did not have the means to bury their son you- and yes some SL families but, I checked, mostly you- raised $20,0000 in less than 24 hours. And one of you told me that if we didn’t raise anything then you’d pay everything.

Do not be ashamed of this Gospel.

Because when we proclaim it, in prayer and in presence, in deed and in generosity, by God- it’s exactly what Paul says.

It IS- now- the Power of God.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nThe summer has been a busy time, and it’s been a while since my Crackers & Grape Juice co-conspirators have all recorded a podcast together. Morgan, Teer, and I recently got up at the butt-crack of dawn to discuss the Confessing Church Movement and just how we understand the Gospel.

In this episode, I rib Morgan for being on the Confessing Church’s mailing list in the first place and later I rant about the Confessing Church Movement co-opting their name from those few Christians who resisted the rise of Nazism in Germany.

We’re now up to 1k individual downloads per episode.

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

So PLEASE…

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

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

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Check out his new album.

14DavidFitch-420For our 16th Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, I sat down for a conversation with David Fitch. David teaches at Northern Seminary in Chicago, hosts the Theology on Mission Podcast, and is the author of Prodigal Christianity and the Great Giveaway.

He’s pastored and participated in many church plants including Life on the Vine Christian Community a missional church in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Most recently he and his family have joined Peace of Christ Church, Westmont, a church planted from Life on the Vine. He writes on the issues the local church must face in Mission including cultural engagement, leadership and theology. His theology combines Neo-Anabaptist streams of thought, his commitments to evangelicalism and his love for political theory.

Here, David talks about the challenges of the Church’s present post Christendom context, and he and Jason share their mutual affection for both Fleming Rutledge and Stanley Hauerwas.

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

Give us a Many Starred review there 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.

What is the Gospel?

Jason Micheli —  June 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

13507008_887704071358691_3074117591234776256_n This week, a group of about 45 of us are continuing our mission partnership with the community members at Ft Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Here’s one of my reflections from our evening worship.

A few springs ago, I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.”

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me. But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus? Or the message of Jesus?

Christians often are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

  • All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 
  • Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 
  • Strangers and Enemies would be seen to share in God’s promise and blessing. 
  • All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 
  • All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

As you engage in mission this week, it’s critical you not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

10109_10200197878452575_1696261927_nWe just arrived in Guatemala this afternoon to begin the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:

Guatemala Toilet Project.

As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee.

Last spring I was walking down the sidewalk in Old Town Alexandria. Heading into a Banana Republic to buy a tie for an upcoming funeral, I came across a group of self-professed Christians standing with sandwich-board signs on the street corner. They were preaching- gleefully I might add- about the imminent end of the world on May 21, which to my relief has come and gone without any of the anticipated apocalyptic misery.

Unable to avoid them, I crossed an intersection, smeared a weak smile across my irritated face and received one of their slick tracts.

It was illustrated like a graphic novel, showing contemporary-looking Americans being consigned to perdition while other joyous, virtuous-looking people (who kind of looked like the cast from Mad Men) ascended to heaven.

At the tract’s end, a happy ending was dangled as a possibility. The caption read: ‘Avoid Eternal Damnation, Become a Christian Today.’ Sounds like a commercial doesn’t it? Eternal Life for Only Three Installments of $49.95. 

Below the caption it explained:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save you from the guilt your sins. He shed His blood at Calvary to pay your penalty and to provide for your cleansing. Believe in Him and not only will His salvation deliver you from eternal death and hell, but because He is risen from the dead, it will give you the present possessions of eternal life.” 

Not every Christian is the sort who stands on street corners with theological picket signs; nevertheless, their version of the Gospel is how a great many mainstream Christians if asked would define the Good News. Street corner preachers distinguish themselves from other Christians in the vividness of their imagery, in the ferocity of their apocalypticism, or in the urgency of their evangelism, yet in their rendering of the Gospel into an otherworldly, spiritualized message they are hardly distinctive at all.

We assume the Christian Gospel is a message about how Jesus died on the Cross for our sin. We assume the Gospel is a message about how God raised Jesus from the dead to be the first fruit of an eternal like offered to us too if only we have faith in Jesus. We assume the Gospel is a message about our admission into the next world that Jesus’ death makes possible for us.

The Gospel, we assume, is a message about Jesus.

For me.

But isn’t the Gospel also (or first and foremost) a message from Jesus?

Or the message of Jesus?

As Richard Stearns argues in The Hole in Our Gospel, Christians are guilty of taking the Gospel preached by Jesus and narrowing it to a simple transaction between God and me. We’ve circumscribed the Gospel to a message about a far-off Kingdom, about heaven or eternal life when the Gospel preached by Jesus was a message meant to change and challenge and redeem this world.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, just after he’s emerged from the wilderness having been tested for 40 days, Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach his first sermon before his hometown congregation.

The text he chooses comes from the prophet Isaiah (61):

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Gospel to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That’s the first time Jesus uses the term ‘Gospel’ himself, and he ties it Isaiah’s prophecy about the ‘year of the Lord’s favor.’

      The year of the Lord’s favor- that’s shorthand for Jubilee.

Jubilee was part of the covenant God gave to Israel after he rescued them from slavery. Within the Torah, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is the notion that Sabbath applies not just to individual believers but to the land and the community as well.

The Jubilee year came at the end of seven cycles of seven years- so every fifty years. God commanded that at Jubilee:

Fields would lie fallow in trust that God would provide. 

All debts incurred by the poor would be forgiven by the rich, gratuitously. 

All those enslaved (by debt usually ) would be released, gratuitously. 

 All property that had been lost through hardships or lawsuits or debts would be redistributed to its original owners, gratuitously.  

Jubilee is Sabbath spelled out in social and political and economic terms. Jubilee is exodus embodied and remembered by the whole community of the faithful.

Jubilee was a time when all the inequities accumulated through the years were crossed off and all God’s people would begin again as though there’d been a new creation.

Here’s the thing: there’s no evidence Israel ever actually followed through with Jubilee. Once the People of God moved into the Promised Land, once the majority of believers were no longer poor themselves, once they’d forgotten what it was like to be oppressed or just unlucky- Jubilee didn’t sound like good news anymore.

So Jubilee was never practiced by Israel, but it was never forgotten either. Centuries after God delivered them from slavery, the memory of Jubilee lingers among prophets like Isaiah who looked at the affluence and greed and poverty of their people and began hoping God would send a Messiah who would establish Jubilee once and for all.

And for his very first sermon, his first public words, Jesus opens the pulpit bible in his home church and of all the passages in the bible he turns to the prophet Isaiah 61 and he reads this long-abandoned promise.

And then he says: this time there really is going to be a Jubilee and it’s starting today and I’m it.

It’s tragically ironic, suspiciously convenient, and scripturally tone-deaf that well-off Christians so often reduce the Gospel to a sanitized, spiritualized, otherworldly message about Jesus when Jesus’ own Gospel was so much the opposite of our ‘Gospel’ that his first sermon was met with rage and death threats from the very people who knew him best.

Why all this talk about Jubilee?

     As we engage in mission this week, it’s critical we not mistakenly think that hands-on service is somehow a practice separate from the ‘Gospel.’

As though ‘service’ and ‘proclamation’ were two distinct Christian practices.

As though ‘spirituality’ is what happens in a sanctuary and ‘service’ is only an implication of our worship.

Jesus’ Gospel was Jubilee. His ‘spirituality’ was Jubilee. His ‘mission’ was to bring Jubilee once and for all. Jesus’ Gospel was about this world, about rich and poor, about discovering the blessings of strangers and enemies, about setting things right in anticipation of God’s new creation.

And where the People of God had so often failed to live up to Jubilee, Jesus called a new community of followers to practice and embody it.

 

 

scot-mcknight-jesus-creedWe continue our Romans sermon series, Justified, this weekend by taking a dip in Romans 3.21-31, the magna carta for the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone: that because of Christ’s death in your place, you’re made right with God by nothing other than faith.

Indeed for many in Reformed and Evangelical circles, Justification is synonymous with the ‘Gospel.’

The problem with conflating Justification with the Gospel is that the Gospels themselves do not so identify Justification as the Gospel.

According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (in fact, Peter and Paul as well), the Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus the crucified Messiah has been raised and ascended to be Lord over creation.

Conflating Justification with Gospel leads to this provocative question: Did Jesus preach the Gospel?

Listen to Scot McKnight tackle this question, taking many a evangelical to task:

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

alain_de_botton_melbourne_7-620x349Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has this list of virtues or ‘commandments’ for those who can’t believe in the God of the more famous 10 commandments. This is a good list; in fact, in several ways this list seems a bit more practical and everyday than the list Moses brought down with him.

But de Botton’s list suffers from the same mistake as though who wish to post the Mosaic Commandments in public spaces: it’s a list of virtues stripped of any guiding narrative or interpretative community. Just as it’s not self-evident what it means to refrain from covetousness (in the case of scripture), it’s not self-evident what the practice of empathy entails. One person’s version of empathy will differ markedly from another person’s definition based upon the narrative around which they orient their lives. For Christians, after all, any definition of empathy, hope, forgiveness etc is determined and shaped by the Christ story. Because that’s our narrative we’re stuck with a 70X7, turn the other cheek notion of forgiveness.

It’s not a question of whether we will be shaped by a guiding narrative but which one we will allow to shape us. The very notion that we don’t need a controlling narrative to our lives is in fact the narrative of modernity; it’s its own story.

  • Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  • Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  • Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
  • Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  • Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, -the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
  • Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
  • Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  • Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
  • Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  • Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

IMG_6036

Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

—————————————————————–

A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.