Archives For Grace

Pentecost marked my final sermon after 13 years at Aldersgate. A fitting holy day to close out my time given that I’m a flawed vessel of the message relayed to us by the Holy Spirit that God justifies flawed people. The texts were Acts 2 and Romans 8. The article I reference below can be found here. Her memoir here.

    “Suddenly from the skies there came a sound like the rush of a strong wind and fire fell and all of us were filled…with terror, but it’s given me the power to proclaim.” 

     You’ve seen the picture, the image of a girl about the age of our confirmands. It’s a picture that made the world gasp and groan with sighs too deep for words. In the grayscale foreground she’s stumbling down a puddled road that cuts through rice fields. 

     Soldiers carrying guns in their arms but no expressions on their faces amble behind her- one solider looks like he’s checking his watch. 

     Four other kids are running alongside her, their shrieking faces match hers. She’s the only one who’s naked. You can see the tan line at her waist. She’s running with her arms out, like her body is playing hot potato, like she hurts all over. 

     In the background, across the entire horizon, there are billows, wind-filled clouds, of fire fallen from bombers in the sky, fire that had incinerated her village, then her clothes,  and then her skin from her scalp to down to her heels. 

    The photo, titled “Napalm Girl,” was taken 46 years ago next month. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. The AP photographer who snapped the picture, Nick Ut, took her to a hospital where he insisted that reluctant medics, who were convinced she was a lost cause, treat her. 

    The little girl, Kim Phuc, lived along trade routes traveled by Viet Cong rebels and bombed by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese. She wasn’t a target. 

     She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage captured for all time on film. 

    The Napalm Girl. The Girl on Fire. 

     She’s a woman now, still being treated for her burns after 4 decades and 17 surgeries. 

     Everyone has seen the picture, the shrieking snapshot and the confused agonized speech on the children’s lips, but the fiery wind is only part of the story. What the picture doesn’t show, what the Pulitzer committee doesn’t have time for is what Kim Phuc calls “the mountain of rage” that followed in the days and months and decades later. In a first-person essay in Christianity Today, she writes: 

“[I bore a] crippling weight of anger, bitterness, and resentment toward those who caused my suffering—the searing fire that penetrated my body; the ensuing burn baths; the dry and itchy skin; the inability to sweat, which turned my flesh into an oven in Vietnam’s sweltering heat. I craved relief that never would come. And yet, the most agonizing pain I suffered dwelled in my heart.

“I could not turn to a friend, for nobody wished to befriend me. I was toxic, and everyone knew it. I was alone, atop a mountain of rage.”

     Everyone knows the image, the billow of fire falling from the sky but the fire is only part of the story. 

     The fire, Kim Phuc writes, brought more than rage and confusion. Years later, she writes, she found herself in a little church not a mile from where that photo was shot. 

     Though she had been raised a pagan, she found herself sitting in a church. 

     And pay attention to the passive voice- she didn’t go to church (like maybe you did today); she found herself sitting in church (like maybe you did today). She found herself at church. There’s an unseen agency at work. 

    The tinsel and the lights and the calendar said it was Christmas but it was for Kim Phuc a Pentecostal moment because that night, she says, she “was given Christ in word and wine and bread,” and she “put on Christ with water.”

     She said yes to the Christ who had said yes to her. 

     And what she received in Christ, she writes, was a peace that moved her mountain of rage. It razed her mountain of rage into a mustard seed. Such that now, she writes, that image of the fire that fell like a mighty rushing wind symbolizes not only the sin and evil we do to one another, but also it symbolizes the opposite of sin. 

    The fire is only part of the story. 

     The real story, she says, is that “the fire brought me Christ.”

———————-

     And that’s my first point- 

     When it comes to Pentecost, the medium is not the message. 

     Don’t get distracted by the imagery in the familiar picture of Pentecost: the fire, the ecstatic speech, the diverse crowd, and the understanding amidst such difference. The medium is not the message. 

    Just as the image of fire is inseparable from Kim Phuc’s story but it is not the point of her story, so too the fire and ecstatic speech and the diverse crowd are a part of the Pentecost story but they are not the point of the Pentecost story. 

     The message of Pentecost is not their experience of the Holy Spirit when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. The message of Pentecost is the message the Holy Spirit empowers them to proclaim: the mighty acts of God. 

     Every Pentecost we zero in on how they speak in tongues and how they each hear in their own language, but Luke, the author of Acts, zeroes in on the message they speak and hear. 

     The message about the mighty acts of God. 

     And the mighty acts of God, as Peter makes clear in his sermon in the very next verses, are what God has done in and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     The point of Pentecost isn’t the experience the Spirit brings. 

     The point of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit brings the work of Christ for them to them. 

     The Holy Spirit comes so that we will not focus on the Holy Spirit. 

     Rather the Holy Spirit comes so that we will know, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus Christ is for us, which is exactly what Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do the night before he died:

“When he comes, the Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned…He will glorify me and declare it to you what I’ve done.” (John 16)

     We get hung up on the imagery of it, the wind and the fire and their experience of the Holy Spirit, but those who experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost didn’t dwell on it at all. 

     Luke doesn’t mention Pentecost again Acts. 

     Peter never mentions his experience of the Holy Spirit in either of his letters.

     Paul, who writes about the Holy Spirit than anyone in the Bible, never writes about this experience of the Spirit at Pentecost- evidently the apostles didn’t think it worth mentioning to him. 

     In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament does anyone recount the events at Pentecost the way the New Testament constantly recounts the exodus and the cross and the resurrection. 

     Those who had the Holy Spirit poured out on them at Pentecost never talk about their experience of the Holy Spirit. 

     The speaking in tongues, the seeing visions, the strangely warmed hearts- they don’t describe it or dwell on any of it. Nor do they even anticipate anything like it again after Pentecost. 

     Peter in his Pentecost sermon that follows our passage today does not exhort his hearers about what they must do now to get this experience for themselves. 

    He proclaims only what Christ has done for us, once for all of us. 

     The medium is not the message. 

     Because the message is the Gospel. 

     Not what you must do for God but what God has done for you. 

———————-

     Kim Phuc was raised in the Cao Dai religion. In her memoir, Kim Phuc compares the religion of her upbringing to a charm bracelet, something they’d turn to whenever times got tough, a talisman to handle in order to manipulate god’s favor towards them. 

     In such a religion, “the burden,” Kim Phuc writes, “was all on me to get in god’s good graces.” 

     In the religion of her parents, “the burden of success, the path to holiness, the way to salvation,” she writes, “all of it rested on top of my weary, slumped shoulders. I realized later the religion of my parents was what St. Paul calls the Law, what we, weak in our weakness, can never fulfill and so it only accuses us.” 

     And that brings me to my second point – 

     Because the Gospel is not the Law, this Pentecost in Acts is the fulfillment of the first Pentecost. 

     Even though we celebrate it every year by breaking out the red paraments 50 days after Easter, the New Testament doesn’t mention this Pentecost again because this Pentecost fulfills the first Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     Literally, in the Greek, Luke tells you as much at the beginning of Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled…” 

     Don’t forget- 

     All those pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora gather in Jerusalem at Pentecost because it’s Pentecost. 

     Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover, when Jews would remember and celebrate the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” 

     The Holy Spirit was present at the first Pentecost as well in fire and thunder and lightning and smoke. So much so that Moses described Mt. Sinai as a kiln covered in billows of smoke.

     And the people on that first Pentecost act drunk as well, drunk not with ecstasy with terror. So much so that they beg Moses to go before God instead of them. 

     When Moses returns to them from Mt. Sinai with the Law, Moses first sacrifices oxen and pours half their blood into buckets. 

     And then Moses reads the Law to the people, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. And the people respond to the Law by promising: “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

     And then Moses dashes them with the blood from the buckets. 

     Blood being the penalty if they fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     Of course they do. 

     We do.

     Fail. 

     Fail to live up to the demands of the Law. 

     No sooner did Moses go back up to Mt. Sinai after giving them the first commandment than they start to worship not God but a golden calf, and in the fullness of time our worship of false gods becomes our murder of the true flesh-bearing God. 

     Because the Law, St. Paul says, only increases the trespass. Even a Law as obvious and good as the Golden Rule- it just increases our trespasses, such that we’re captive to doing exactly what we don’t want to do and captive to not doing what we want to do. 

     And that’s why the Gospel is not the Law. 

     The Gospel is not more of what we must do for God, the 613 plus our Jesus-flavored additives. The Gospel is what God has done for us despite our failures at doing. 

     And that’s why- notice- on the first Pentecost the people promise: “All this we will do.” 

     But on the final Pentecost that promise gets turned into a question: “What must we do?” 

     Answer, nothing. 

     Not a thing.

     Peter doesn’t invite them to make any promises about what they will do. 

     He invites them instead to trust the promise of what God has done. 

     Peter tells them not to do the Law but to trust the Gospel, to trust this news that, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, another Pentecost passage: 

“The Spirit has set you free from the Law…for God has done what the Law could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just demands of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

     This promise is yours, Peter and Paul promise. Not as your wage- something you must earn. But as your inheritance- something earned by another, something given to you by by way of death. And this inheritance is bestowed on you, St. Paul says, at your baptism into Christ’s death, which Peter then invites his Pentecost hearers to receive. 

     This Pentecost fulfills that first Pentecost because Christ has fulfilled the Law by his perfect faithfulness and by his blood he has suffered the penalty for all our failures to be faithful. 

     And because his perfect righteousness according the Law is reckoned to you as yours by your baptism, now baptism is Pentecost. 

     That’s why you don’t hear any more about Pentecost in the New Testament.

     Now, pentecost is baptism. 

     The gift of the Holy Spirit is poured out henceforth not by fire but in water. 

————————

     Before she was baptized on Christmas Eve, Kim Phuc was browsing in Saigon’s central library when suddenly, she writes, “something compelled” her (again, pay attention to the passive voice) to pull the library’s religious books off the shelves. 

     The Koran. 

     Books on Hinduism and Buddhism and Baha’i. 

     And finally a New Testament. 

     An hour later, she writes, I’d picked my way through the Gospels and I was bowled over by the straightforward claim of the New Testament: that the Gospel is not religion at all. 

     Religion is what we do for God. Religion is what we do for ourselves, really, to get right with God and get God on our side, but Jesus presents himself in the Gospels as the opposite of religion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the one who takes us to God in his own scarred body.

    Hers point is my final point- 

     This Pentecost in the Book of Acts isn’t just the fulfillment of that Pentecost in the Book of Exodus. 

     It’s the end of religion. 

     It’s the end of religion

     Which maybe sounds like an odd thing for a minister in a robe to preach from a pulpit in a sanctuary on Confirmation Sunday, but the oddness is exactly why you can trust it to be true. 

Christianity is the medium for the message about what God has done in Jesus Christ in whom there is now and forever no condemnation. 

And this work of Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Therefore, Pentecost is the end of religion. Christianity is the medium for the message that religion’s days are over.

     As Robert Capon says:

“Christianity may use the forms of religion, but it does so only to proclaim not a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions, but the end of religion. The cross is the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring single human being to do a single religious thing.”

     What’s that mean?

     It means you’re free. As St. Paul says in his Pentecost passage: “The Spirit of Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law.”

     It means you’re free. Free to doubt God’s done any of it. Free to question all of it. 

     But before you do so, realize- 

     It means you’re free too to take off the masks you wear. 

     And you’re free to let go of your pretense that you have your shit together. Because it means you’re free to be imperfect. Because if there’s now no condemnation then all your sins are free. There is no cost to any of them (other than what they cost your neighbor).

     And if you’re free to be imperfect, you’re free from regret. 

     And you’re free from anxiety, free from worrying that you should believe more, have more faith, give more, serve more, pray more….you’re free from being anxious over any of it. 

     You’re free from anxiety because, really, you’re free to forsake to God even. 

     Go for it. Try it out and you’ll find out: 

     He won’t forsake you. 

There’s no condemnation, remember.

He’s taken away the sins of the world- and he didn’t miss any. 

 He’s chosen you, in fact, from before the foundation of the world.

So how are you going to gum that up?

     You’re free. 

     You’re free to be as faithful as you like in whatever way suits you. 

      Because your good work and your pious believing doesn’t get you a key to heaven nor do any of your bad deeds get you locked out. You see, you’re free to be every bit the hypocrite as all the rest of us. Which means- pay attention, now- you’re also free not to judge others.

     You’re free.

     You’re free from keeping score. 

     The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, the Greatest Commandment- because the Gospel is the news that God is not in the religion business the Law is an exam that God doesn’t grade. 

     You’re free to honor your Mother and Father. You’re free to serve the poor. You’re free to forgive 70 x 7. 

     But doing it doesn’t get you any credit. It doesn’t get you even extra credit because, by your baptism, you already have all the credit that is Christ’s own. 

     Not even your faith can add to that credit given to you already. 

     Which means- 

     You’re free from measuring your faith against another’s.

     Because your faith, your belief, your trust- it doesn’t earn you this gift. It doesn’t even enable you to access this gift. The gift is yours already and it’s irrevocable. 

     All that your faith does is let you enjoy the gift. 

     All your faith is- is the way you enjoy the gift. And this gift of grace, this Gospel of no condemnation- it’s freaking fun, people. Sure, it’s crazy, but God forgive us if we’ve made anyone think it’s anything but crazy-good fun. 

     In a world where everyone is counting, keeping score, measuring, judging, telling you what you must do and who you aren’t but ought to be, in a world of “forgiveness” without forgetting- in such a world this gift of grace, the Gospel of no condemnation is fun. 

     And your faith in it is your way into the fun. 

     Your faith doesn’t change anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t add anything. 

     Your faith doesn’t access anything extra that isn’t yours already. 

     Which is good news on a day when our confirmands make a profession of faith in God and make promises to be faithful to God.

     Because, brass tacks time confirmands: 

     Your faith will ebb and flow. 

     You’re going to fail at these promises as often as not. 

     Don’t let anyone here fool you. 

     The Church is a fellowship of failures and frauds, hypocrites and haters, liars and louts, deadbeats and dolts and drinkers, sinners not saints. 

     And that’s just the people on staff. 

     And it’s MORE THAN OKAY because, in this case, the medium-that-is-us IS the message. 

The message that your success as a Christian has NOTHING to do with your loyalty to Jesus Christ or his Church. Your success as a Christian has EVERYTHING to do with Christ’s loyalty to you. 

     Really, at confirmation, on Pentecost of all days, instead of asking you all to make promises, we should just read at you Christ’s unconditional promises to you: 

“I am with you always to the end of the age.”

“I am the resurrection and the life whoever trusts me will never die…”

“Come to me all of you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

“Take and eat. Drink. This is my Body and Blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

“I am the Bread of Life whoever feasts on me will live forever.” 

      “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” 

     Kim Phuc, the Napalm Girl, she says in memoir that, upon discovering the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, she held Christ’s promises in her mind like holding a gem in her hand, relishing the light they cast from all sides. 

     Instead of asking our confirmands to make promises, we should present Christ’s promises to them like the light-casting, life-giving gems they are. 

     And all they’d need to do is all any of us need to do. 

     Say“Amen” to them.  

      

     

     

     

     

     

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. 

     Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

     When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

    The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”

     Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

     “What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

     And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

    “They’re both gay” she said.

     “Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

     They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

     “This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

     “But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “Of course. Absolutely.”

     I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

     “You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

     “Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

     “You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. 

    Once for all. 

     In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave-

we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

     Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

     And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. 

     Therefore- by your baptism- there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies and of women, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

     Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

     I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

     In all our arguing about getting it right on this one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. 

     His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because by baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his). 

     And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). 

     You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

     So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed? 

     Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive or conservative- it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it- none of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. 

     If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself-

Then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, frees us from the Law.

     The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

     The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ. 

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness. More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of your lives.

     God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free. 

     I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

    Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. 

     Why would he?

     The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

     You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there is STILL CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

     The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. 

     The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.  

     THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

     I don’t know what will come of the Bishops’ recommendation and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us; nonetheless, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

    For our Saturday Service, I wrote a letter to Noah on the occasion of his baptism. The texts were 1 Corinthians 15 & Romans 6

Dear Noah,

Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.

This is the day you died.

The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.

Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.

We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.

By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.

God baptized you, Noah.

 God baptized you.

That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.

Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.

You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.

And our resistance.

God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”

Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.

Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.

Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.

I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.

Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”

Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.

Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.

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

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

     Permanently.

Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.

This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.

Pay attention Noah-

 If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.

His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.

And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.

You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).

What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.

Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.

“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Noah (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.

You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.

Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.

The Gospel of total, unconditional freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is. 

Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.

Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.

But today, May 5, 2018 in shallow water, you died.

Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No condemnation.

     Think of it this way, Noah:

All your sins from here on out are FREE.

All your sins are free. There is no cost to any of your sins other than what they cost your neighbor. You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.

Such a life has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him. Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.

“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear it: God will bless you even if you’re bad.

    The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our anxious hearts and fearful imaginations

I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.

They’re easy to identify, Noah. Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot. They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and build a better world.

Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water. Someone named Noah should know better.

Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.

If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.

In the face, of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.

Remember-

You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.

Noah, to those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.

Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.

As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.

Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.

And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.

The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.

That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.

Still not buying it?

Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do? Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.

Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others.

You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them.

You’d stop pretending.

And you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.

Such a scenario, Noah, isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into. All your sins are free. Don’t get me wrong, Noah.

It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor don’t matter. Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word. 

Look kid, brass tacks time:

Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church.

The world is a wicked and hard place.

And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.

 You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.

Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap. It doesn’t make you nice and clean. It makes you new. After first making you dead.

As you grow up, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”

And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:

“God kills with water all the time.”

Sincerely,

Jason

My friend David Zahl and the folks at Mockingbird Ministries have been gracious enough to invite me to be a part of their NYC conference later this week where I will do a dialogue with Fleming Rutledge. As readers of the blog and listeners to the podcast already know, Fleming Rutledge is both my preaching muse and my back-up wife.

Taking the theme of the conference as my cue, I’ve chosen the following as springboard quotes off of which I’ll dialogue with Fleming. Thought I’d share them here as they’re golden.

Here they are:

“Religion does not define all human beings on the same level of need before God. Religion may see everyone on the level of spiritual potential, yes; but this is precisely what the gospel does not, because the gospel is not about human potential.”

 

“For all their various biblical resonances, there is something missing in the social justice gospel and its close cousin, liberation theology…they’re not inclusive enough.”

 

“The destructive separations and divisions among us…demand an apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible…for it, with its stress on the common plight of all humankind, is the one thing that unites scripture and binds us together.”

 

“The radicality of the statement ‘circumcision is nothing’ is almost unthinkable…the end of the Law is as close as anything to the revolutionary leveling of all human social organizations.”

“We must not let the idea of inclusiveness be wrested away from us. The gospel of the justification of the ungodly is more inclusive than anyone who does not know scripture could imagine.”

 

“Christian social action arises out of the radical breaking down of distinctions, not the introduction of new distinctions. This radical breakdown is expressed most succinctly in Paul’s crucial words: ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’”

 

“God loves everybody…the Golden Rule… no one who cares about God’s justice can be satisfied with those. Nothing will do but this Word: Christ died for the ungodly.”

Alex and Kim’s Wedding – 4/21/18

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

Galatians 3.26-29

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

 

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

– Robert Capon

Alex and Kim,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     You’ve got nothing to lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Rev. Sarah Condon joins the podcast to talk about progressive Christianity, hitting television preachers with cafeteria trays, and explains how she’s experienced God’s grace while serving as a hospital chaplain. Along the way she dispenses hilarious but helpful advice for female clergy and clergy spouses (she’s both).

We thought Sarah had stood us up for the interview (time zone mix-up) and Teer and I were just bs-ing with each other when all of sudden Sarah appeared, catching us by surprise. The spontaneity made it a fun, irreverent conversation. We say our “without stained glass language” tag line refers to our trying to avoid jargon. Really, it’s a caveat that sometimes we say @#$%.

Sarah is an Episcopal priest at St. Martin’s in Houston. She is the author of Churchy, and a frequent contributor at Mockingbird Ministries.

Speaking of Mockingbird, Sarah will be (with me) at the Mockingbird NYC Conference next week. Check it out.

She also has a piece (with me) in the latest Mockingbird Magazine, the Humor Issue.

I think you’re going to enjoy this conversation.

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Joke:

What did the guy say after being hit by a Prius?

I didn’t hear it coming.

Actually, it doesn’t work as a joke because we all know the guy would’ve heard, if not the engine, then the Prius’ radio tuned into NPR.

Until very recently, my wife and I were the doting owners of 2 Ford Broncos, which collectively got about 11MPG. We’ve only got her superior, classic Bronco now.

It’s not only kick-ass awesome, as a classic car, it’s also culpable for less of a carbon footprint than all those shiny new silent Priuses churned out every week by factories; nonetheless, driving the Bronco around on a Sunday afternoon is a reliable way to elicit self-righteous jeers from the electric car crowd. So, admittedly, I approached the question from a jaded place when a friend recently asked me for my thoughts on how we, as Christians, should reflect on Earth Day this coming Sunday.

My first thought:

Earth Day this Sunday? No, I’m sorry but according to my calendar, the one marked by colors (white, green, purple, and red) and cross and creche, this Sunday isn’t Earth Day it’s the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide- also known as Good Shepherd Sunday.

The takeaway for this Sunday is that we’re just sheep in desperate need of a Shepherd to take care of the verbs in our world; therefore, it’s not our job to make the earth come out okay anymore than it’s the sheep’s job to landlord the Shepherd’s estate.

I was only being slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Obviously the Principalities and Powers who put Earth Day on a different calendar did so for very understandable reasons. It’s freezing 3 weeks into the baseball season. I don’t really care about polar bears but I do care about Ryan Zimmerman’s On Base Percentage: climate change is real (sorry, Donald). Obviously, its good to recycle, invest in renewable energy, make the world a better place, leave no trace, yada yada yada. You’ll hear no quibble from me. We try to do all that in our house.

Recycling, reusing, reducing waste-

Those are good things to do.

But doing them does not make me or you ‘good.’

Or (sorry) godly.

According to my calendar, more important than what we do with our aluminum cans is the message (and unlike Reduce/Reuse/Recycle, it’s a message available nowhere else) that Jesus is the Good Shepherd crucified for your sins and raised for your justification whether you separate your paper from your plastic or not

All the ways we construct sentences with imperatives like “faithful Christians must_______” obscure the irrevocable indicative of our justification.

It’s true, as Christians are quick to point out, that God gave Adam (i.e., all of humanity) the role to tend the garden that is God’s creation. Christians are less nimble in noticing, however, that Jesus is called the Second Adam not you or me. The stewardship role over creation given to Adam belongs to Christ the New Adam now not to us. We’re sheep ‘in’ the Good Shepherd not ‘next’ to him; the tending role that was the Old Adam’s is Christ’s now. By our baptism, we are not the New Adam but we are in the I Am who is.

Stanley Hauerwas argues the United Methodist Church’s position against nuclear armament, in its (understandable) haste to rescue the Earth from destruction betrays a lack of eschatological conviction in Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord. Hauerwas’ point is that a correlative of our confession that the Risen Jesus is the present Lord, who has promised to return in future glory, is that it’s not our calling to make the Earth and its history come out right.

Indeed, as Christians, we believe by Cross and Resurrection the Earth and its history already have come out right. The same argument Hauerwas makes about nuclear weapons could be levied against those Christians who construe Earth Day in apocalyptic dimensions.

According to the Eastertide calendar, God has erased all our records by Christ’s death and raised us all by grace with nothing but Christ’s perfect record. By baptism, in other words, we’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness. We’re justified by Christ alone through faith alone.

In other words:

What we do with our paper or plastic-

It can never chip away at the perfect score we permanently possess in Christ.

Ergo-

A proper understanding of Earth Day has nothing to do with our “Christian” responsibility to God (such hortatory only renders the Gospel the Law) but to our neighbor in the form of our children. What bin into which we drop our bottles and cans has nothing to do with our status as “good” Christians (the only goodness any Christian possesses is the alien goodness of Christ’s goodness reckoned to us) but it has everything to do with our status as good neighbors.

Honestly, one of the reasons people hate Earth Day is that it becomes but another occasion for self-justifying sinners like us to keep score over and against our neighbors, to practice our spiritual but not religious piety before others. Isn’t it telling how the shame-based, Law-laying language we once used for sex has just been transferred to how we speak about food and fitness and creation-care? For Christians, though, Earth Day isn’t an obligation of the Law. It’s an invitation that follows from the Gospel.

Knowing there’s nothing we “have” to do, no position we “have” to hold, to be counted as “authentic” Christians (because the only righteousness we possess is Christ’s own gratuitously imputed to us) we’re free to care for creation for the sake our neighbors and children.

Punch Drunk Love

Jason Micheli —  April 15, 2018 — Leave a comment

We’re doing a sermon series through John for April. Here’s my sermon on John 2.1-11.

Ali had texted me, asking me to stop on the way home and pick up a package of necessaries.

So naturally, I did what any mature, poised, self-confident man would do. I texted back: “Sure honey, no problem at all. Need anything else while I’m there?”

And then I drove to the grocery store, driving past the little Soviet Safeway just down the street, driving an extra 4 miles and through 1 cellphone dead zone and 2 red lights, in order to get to the BIG SAFEWAY at Belle View because the BIG SAFEWAY HAS SELF-CHECKOUT.

What am I, an idiot? I’m not going to risk some checkout clerk announcing into that little microphone “We need a price check…..” I’ve seen Mr. Mom. No thank you. the self-checkout was designed for the expressed purpose to spare husbands like me exactly that sort of shame.

Is it any coincidence that the increase in protected, safe-sex among young people coincides with the creation of self-checkout by Howard Schneider in 1992 for Price Chopper Supermarket in NYC?

     You think Magic Johnson made a difference in the fight against AIDS?

He’s got nothing on Howard Schneider whose invention gifted the world with a less awkward way to buy prophylactics.

So there I was at the BIG SAFEWAY, standing in the self-checkout queue, like a dutiful knight securing his queen what she requires, the feminine hygiene products discreetly hidden in my basket underneath a 6-pack, the latest issue of Garden and Gun, and a bag of potato chips.

Sure enough, as if to prove my hypothesis about Howard Schneider and the purpose of the self-checkout, I watched as the guy at the front of the line scanned and beeped from his basket the following items:

1 jar of kosher pickles

1 bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos

2 boxes of “Protection” and

1 package of Vermont Maple Syrup-Flavored Breakfast Sausages.

 “If you can do that after eating that more power to you,” I said, not as quietly as I’d intended judging from the look he shot me. 

As he did, the cart behind me hit me in the ankles for the third time. The cart belonged to that lady who dresses as Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon.

I know it was her because she was dressed like Martha Washington, her hoop skirt that would make Sir. Mix-A-Lot salivate knocking into the candy bar rack.

I turned around and glared at her again and then looked down into her cart. She had berries and sugar and flour and butter. She’s making a pie, I thought to myself, of course she’s making a pie.

What else would Martha Washington being doing besides white-washing indentured genocide?

Baking a pie- how wholesome is that?

And then I noticed that underneath the berries and the flour and the sugar and the butter, Martha Washington was also buying a copy of the National Enquirer. And, Star Magazine.

Martha caught me looking into her cart, like a Peeping Tom.

“It’s bad manners to be nosy.”

“Lady, people who live in glass houses with slaves shouldn’t throw stones.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

The guy in front me had started to scan and beep the items from his basket. He was wearing khakis and a distressed blue blazer. Standing out against his ruddy complexion was a neatly trimmed white beard.

Sunglasses were perched on top of his curved orange Orvis cap, and his feet inside his boat shoes were bare.

Basically he looked like someone who stills shells out money for Jimmy Buffet concerts.

He had a sticker stuck to the end of his finger.

It caught my eye, and I watched him. He pulled a package of steaks out of his basket, stuck the sticker on it over the one that was already on it, and scanned the steaks, a package of 4.

$4 and change appeared on the screen.

Next, he took out a can of off brand coffee, scanned it, and set it not in the bag but on top of the candy bars and instead from his basket he drew out a bottle of red wine and put it immediately, unscanned, into his shopping bag.

I looked over at the self-checkout clerk who appeared to have the mental acuity of R.P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

He was oblivious; meanwhile, I was transfixed, staring like you do at a car accident or the Trump White House.

Next, he took out a package of shrimp, a couple of pounds it looked like, and he didn’t scan it. He set it down it on the scale instead and then he entered the code for bananas. He did like that for a number of other items too- let’s just say he bought a lot of bananas. Then he clicked “Finish and Pay.”

And, as he pulled out his wallet, he looked sideways at me and he winked: “Surf-and- Turf.”

“That’s the most affordable surf-and-turf I’ve ever seen,” I replied.

He shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the self-checkout machine: “If they’re going to make me work at their store, then I deserve to get paid, right?”

And no joke, my first reaction, my immediate reaction (I’m not proud; I’m a sinner) was: “Huh, that’s a good point.”

———————-

     This happened several months ago. I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article entitled “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft.” Apparently using the code for bananas or a bunch of grapes and then socking a more expensive item of similar weight into your shopping bag- apparently that’s a thing, people.

Apparently that’s such a thing, so common a thing, the entire supermarket industry has a name for it: The Banana Trick.

The industry has other names for other ways customers con the self-checkout. There’s the “Pass-Around,” the “Switcheroo,” and the “Illy” (named for the expensive brand of expresso…basically a version of the Banana Trick).

According to the article: “Beneath the bland veneer of your friendly neighborhood supermarket lurks something dark and ugly.”

It’s you.

The industry estimate is that over 20% of all self-checkout customers shop-lift. Steal.

Actually, the supermarket industry prefers to call it “External Shrinkage,” which sounds like what happens to me after I go swimming in a chilly pool but never mind.

20% steal. 1/5 of you all.

And of those 20% over 50% do so because it’s unlikely they’ll get caught.

What’s revealing is that most of these people aren’t thieves (ordinarily) nor are they so much thrill seekers. They’re just ordinary people like you. Says Barbara Staib, the Director of Communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, most self-checkout shoplifters:

“are in fact law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20. A robot-cashier, though, changes the equation. It gives the false impression of anonymity.”

In other words, the anonymity afforded by the self-checkout reveals our true selves. Without the threat of consequence (or the promise of reward- being thanked for returning that $20) even the best of us do not reliably obey the law.

For this very reason, police departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, now refuse to respond to self-checkout shoplifting calls.

“Of course people steal when they think no one is watching,” one cop commented.

“The Law,” the cop said- pay attention now, “doesn’t change us. The Law can’t change our human nature. The Law can keep us from doing bad, but it doesn’t make us good.”

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. See, you were starting to worry I didn’t have any point. I’ve actually got 3.

What the cop says in that article is what John wants you to see in this sign at Cana: that the Law cannot change us. This wedding shows us what the Apostle Paul tells us about distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t do miracles. Jesus in John’s Gospel performs signs- only 7 of them.

Each of these 7 signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s “hour of glory.”

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is paradoxically his humiliation, hanging naked and accursed on the cross.

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection:

  • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day.
  • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
  • Jesus calls his Mother “Woman” just like he will- the only other time he will- from the cross: “Woman, behold your Son.”
  • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All 7 signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign is intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law.

Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you- he telegraphs it- “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.”

And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. And grace, the Gospel, is not the Law.

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the 6 stone water jars.

There amidst the wedding finery and the china and everyone dressed to the nines and filled with dreams of happily ever afters, the water jars are a reminder of the “dark and ugly truth” about us.

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. As the wedding guests would arrive, the servants would cleanse the guests’ hands with the water from the stone jars; so that, the wedding festival would not be sullied by sin or shame.

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame, but it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were 6 stone jars, and 6 (being 1 less than 7) is the Jewish number for imperfection.

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out, and, in an honor-based culture like first century Judaism, running out of wine was more than a party foul. It brought great shame upon the bridegroom and his family.

So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is that the Law (commandment-keeping, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes.

The Law might give you clean hands.

The Law might compel you to charity.

The Law might keep you from stealing.

But the Law cannot free you from sin and shame nor can it make your heart glad.

And the problem, St. Paul says, isn’t with the Law. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good. Love thy enemies, do not steal, forgive those who trespass against you. Those are holy and good commands. The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us. The dark and ugly truth about us, our sin, is deeper than where water can wash it away.

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and rituals, all the ways we try to be all we can be for God, “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter 2 that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter 2 he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law.

He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then, the One who a few chapters later will call himself Living Water, he tells them to fill the jars with it.

To fill them to overflowing.

In other words:

     Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faith and life.

When they draw out the wine that had been water, it’s no 3 buck chuck. It’s top shelf and it’s already aged. And there’s an abundance of it. I did the math. At a minimum, it’s 2160 glasses of wine- that’s more ridiculously extravagant than a Scott Pruitt pool party.

See what John wants you to see in this sign:

Out of these stone jars

Out of the means by which we attempt to cleanse ourselves of sin and make ourselves right and good and acceptable before God

Out of the Law is drawn the Gospel: the wine of salvation.

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

     He transforms what we do for God into a sign of what God does for us.

This sign shows what that cop says.

The Law doesn’t change us because the Law cannot take away our sins. Only the Lamb of God can take away our sins, as John the Baptist declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel.

     ———————-

You’d never know it from the prodigal way he doles out salvation that Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party.

And that’s my second point-

Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too his grace, his gift of salvation, is not karma.

Grace is not karma.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted 7 days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests.

This wedding is only on day 3. They’ve got 4 more days to go. Unless Steve Larkin was at the party, there’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon.

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to do their duty under the Law. They deserve the shame in which they stand under the Law. They do not deserve what Christ does for them.

And notice, not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves.

The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.

Grace is not karma.

Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.

     Karma is how most of you try to speak Christian.

It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason.

It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did.

It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.

Karma is not Christianity.

When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.

On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma.

And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.

You can’t speak Christian with Karma because God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves. Or, as John puts it here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.”

———————-

     And that brings me to my final point-

     This grace

This gift of salvation is true for you

It’s true about you whether you appreciate it or not.

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine. And he makes not Boone’s Farm but he makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.

    He makes the best wine for people already too drunk to appreciate drinking it.

As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.”

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it come morning.

    His punch-drunk love is such that he sheds his wine for people too far gone to appreciate it.

If this at Cana is the first sign of his hour of glory, and if his hour of glory is when we behold him bleeding and dying on his cross, then his grace, his one-way love, his gift of salvation it’s yours.

     Whether you appreciate it or not.

Whether you give him thanks and praise for it or not.

Whether you know about it or not.

Whether you change your ways because of it or not.

None of that changes what he has done: He has drunk from the cup he prayed would pass him. He has poured himself out to give you the wine of salvation.

     He’s served salvation up for a world too far gone to give two rips about it.

But whether you do or whether you don’t, what he has done- it’s as real and undoable as a hangover.

All is forgiven. Salvation is served. You don’t need to come up here in an altar call for it to be true for you. And you can’t backslide your way out of it either.

We forget-

The rich, young ruler who asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” asked him that question before his hour had come.

But the hour has long since passed.

And now, thanks to his punch drunk love, the answer to that question (“What must I do to be saved?”)…the answer is “Nothing.”

You don’t have to do anything.

Because everything has already been done.

The wine’s been served.

The party’s already started.

And the music has been raging since the first third day.

The only thing there is for you to do is what those disciples in Cana do.

Trust and believe.

———————-

     According to the article, “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft,” the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester audited self-checkout cameras where, over a year, the transactions totaled $21 million, a million of which, they found, left the store without being scanned or paid for.

As a result, the article noted how many stores, such as Albertsons and Big Y Supermarkets, are cancelling out their self-checkout programs.

They just can’t afford the loss, the article says.

The economy of Easter, though, is different.

As Frances Spufford says, grace, the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ, is “love without cost-controls engaged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was a guest on Scott Jones’ Synaxis podcast to talk about the lectionary scripture texts coming up for the 2nd Sunday of Lent. During the conversation, we reflected on using the Romans 4 lection, where Paul talks about faith being worded (‘reckoned’) to us as righteousness, to rethink Jesus’ command in Mark 8 to take up our cross and follow him.

If the only righteousness we possess comes to us as Christ’s own, by imputation not sanctification, then perhaps the mortification of self that Christ commands looks more like a continual revisiting of our justification. We take up our cross, in other words, by remembering, in word and sacrament, that on our own we have neither the desire nor the capacity to follow Jesus.

Here it is:

 

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

Here’s my sermon for the first Sunday of Lent where I was the guest preacher at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, Va. The lectionary text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John but I chose to lean on Matthew’s fuller version of it.

Even though Blades of Glory is one of my favorite movies, I’ve steered clear of the Winter Olympics ever since my second year at UVA when, during a Halloween party, I was mistaken not once, not twice, but four times for Brian Boitano.

On the prowl for girls, I didn’t think I could afford for girls to confuse my costume for that of a gay figure skater. I had thought my purple crushed velvet tights and loose, flowing shirt- the sort worn by Meatloaf in the Bat Out of Hell video- gave me away as a dead-ringer for Hamlet, which, it occurs to me now, is just as gay.

But no, I got Brian Boitano. I didn’t have a sword.

And South Park had just gone viral the year before with an episode of the animated Olympian refereeing mortal combat between Jesus and Santa Claus.

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

But this Winter Olympics a headline in the Washington Post grabbed me:

“She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, 30 years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin.

All 115 passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea.

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for 10 years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children.

The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her.

Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die.

But she didn’t die.

Today she’s a 56 year old mother of 2 teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass.

She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God.

Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life cooking and cleaning, raising her kids and going to church. She was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by the question: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

The headline is what grabbed me. It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. The headline could’ve read:

“He killed 17 people at Douglas High School. Now he wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’”

The headline could’ve read:

“They watched apathetic as 122 children got shot since Columbine (home of South Park) and they did nothing. Now they wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’”

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

“Through hole in heaven, Father declares love with a dove. Wild-eyed prophet asks: ‘Can I baptize you?’”

‘Can I baptize you?’

The answer to all our questions about pardon come by noticing John the Baptist’s question: “‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?’

All 4 Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire- a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them.

All 4 Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism; in fact, the only 2 events mentioned across all 4 Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross- they’re connected. Mark doesn’t have an Easter encounter. John doesn’t have a Christmas story. But all of the Gospels have got a baptism story. Mark leaves out what Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions.

     ‘Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?’ 

John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. John’s initial objection to baptizing Christ is important because it reminds us to distinguish between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. John’s baptism was a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy.

John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness). The water was a visible sign of your admission of guilt. But the water did not wash away your guilt.

John’s baptism did not make you righteous. John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. But it could not make you righteous.

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism. It’s not because Jesus needed to repent. Jesus is without sin, as such, he’s got no reason to be baptized. No, Jesus insists on baptism not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do.

     John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.

“It is necessary,” Jesus tells John, “[not for me or my repentance] to fulfill all righteousness.” 

In other words, the winnowing fork judgement that John the Baptist had preached, Christ takes on in his baptism. The winnowing is in the water. With his baptism, Christ isn’t acknowledging his unrighteousness. He’s entering into ours. He’s not repenting. He’s repenting us.

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

As Martin Luther said, at Christmas, he becomes our flesh but, at his baptism, he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with thieves beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with thieves all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

Right before God.

Justified.

As the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” And as Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

Either headline could work as an alternative for what God declares with a dove through a hole in heaven.

     “Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Post.

Probably not? Probably not!?

Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame talking because she’s not speaking Christian.

You only get an answer like ‘Probably not’ when you don’t understand the distinction between Jesus’ baptism by John and your own baptism by Jesus into him.

John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.

John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.

Our baptism is a work God does.

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.

     It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us.

Once.

For all.

For everything.

Our baptism is not an act of repentance. Our baptism incorporates us into the act by which God repented us into righteousness.

“Probably not?”

It’s John’s kind of baptism that produces “probably not” because John’s baptism is just a token of your contrition. It’s not a visible pledge of your pardon. John’s baptism leaves you in your sin, hoping that God will forgive you.

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

By your baptism you are not in your sin- though a sinner you are- because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.

Probably not– NO.

That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness.

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says.

Your sin and your old self- it’s left behind, Paul says.

Buried with him in his death.

And by his resurrection your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.

And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his righteousness.

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

There is no place on that record for our “Probably nots.” Because if you have been baptized into this baptism, then you are in Christ. And if you are in Christ, then there is now no condemnation.

No matter who it is who is in Christ, there is for them no condemnation.

No matter what you’ve done it cannot dilute what God has done.

In Christ.

And it cannot dilute what God has done to you by drowning you into him.

The answer to Kim’s question about her sins being pardoned- it requires another question: ‘Have you been baptized?’

Because if so, whether as a baby or a born-again, your sins have already been pardoned. Because by your baptism you are in Jesus Christ, who is himself the pardon of God. At his baptism, a hole in heaven declared him to be loved. And by your baptism into the holes of his hands and his side, heaven is opened to you- you, though you belong to a brood of vipers, are beloved.

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

One of my friends, a member of my church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled.

And bled.

He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list.

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.

I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did.

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

Our reconciliation by grace through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection- it can’t be reconciled with any of our notions of right. What we mean by what we do with water- it’s not sentimental nonsense (though it may be nonsense). A message that makes sense, message that squares with the headlines, would be:

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

You repent. You make amends. You pay back what you’ve taken.

But the promise of the Gospel that comes attached to water and wine and bread is that because you have been baptized in to Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, your sins are forgiven.

The grammar of grace is Because/Therefore not If/Then.

It makes no sense, but if you add anything to the forgiveness of sins, a single qualifier or condition, you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

It isn’t expensive. It is even cheap. It’s free.

     And grace begins exactly where we we think it should end.

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

     You can object. It is offensive. It is outrage-ous. After this week it sticks in my mouth too. I’m right there with you. If God’s grace for sinners offends you, if his pardon seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation:

We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother.

It’s offensive, I know. And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote.

In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends- maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our trespasses.

 

 

 

 

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

I want to thank you all for coming out tonight instead of staying home and watching the Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Special with your kids.

There is a Michael Bolton Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, but there’s no Peanuts Ash Wednesday Special. Nobody grew up watching a stop-motion Burl Ives saying ‘Hey kid, you’re a sinner and you’re going to die.’

Ash Wednesday doesn’t get anyone like Kris Kringle or Krampus. Starbucks doesn’t unveil any Sin-themed soy lattes for Ash Wednesday.

Christmas has been commercialized and loaded down with crap. Easter has been sentimentalized by bunnies and butterflies and metaphors of springtime renewal, but, there aren’t any Ash Wednesday office parties.

Meanwhile, we ship our ill and aging off to die in private while we put inflatable Grim Reapers in our front lawns on Halloween in the hopes that death will turn out to be a joke because when we lie awake at night we know our sin is not make believe.

What we mean by the soot we smear on Ash Wednesday- culturally speaking- remains an unsullied message. There’s no marketing, no media, no movie tie-ins or product placements for Ash Wednesday.

Nobody but Christians want anything do with talk about Sin and Death, which is a shame because, as allergic as our culture is to the ashes, what we do with them tonight has more to do with love actually than any saccharine Hugh Grant movie.

As allergic as our culture is to Death and Sin, what we do tonight with oil and ash is about love actually.

Because when you do away with the concept of sin, the category of shame is your only alternative. With sin, what’s wrong with me is just what’s wrong with me. Leaving sin behind is lonely-making. Without a concept of sin, there is no correlative category of grace, and you’re left only with what St. Paul would call the crushing accusations of the Law.

Accused by the Law and in the absence of Grace, we self-justify. We perform and we pretend. We wear masks- like Jesus condemns in our text tonight. We project a purer false self out into the world, which of course is just a way to shame others lest we be shamed first.

This is what I mean-

Frances Lee is a Cultural Studies scholar in Seattle. In an article entitled Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice, Lee describes her decades-long exodus out of a shame-based conservative evangelical Christianity only to find the same sort toxic dogma practiced by progressives in the social justice-minded activist communities where she landed.

She writes:

“There is an underlying current of fear in my community, and it is separate from the daily fear of police brutality, eviction, discrimination, and street harassment. It is the fear of appearing impure.”

Both communities, Lee argues, both sex-obsessed evangelicals and justice-driven progressives seek to justify themselves in the relentless pursuit to acquire purity according to the standards of their convictions.

Law, whether it’s law according to evangelicals or activists, always accuses, and Lee notes how the need in progressive social justice communities to be reckoned as pure produces a suffocating, shaming fear of being counted as impure:

“[A kind of] social death follows after being labeled a ‘bad’ activist.

When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, showing goodness, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I believed I would never be good enough, so I had to strain for the rest of my life towards an impossible destination of perfection.

I feel compelled to do the same things as a [progressive] activist a decade later. I self-police what I say in activist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions for fear of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate- no questions asked. The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous.

Progressive activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.

“Ultimately,” says Frances Lee- and, pay attention- this is the point on Ash Wednesday- “the quest for purity is a treacherous distraction for the well-intentioned.”

——————————

     What Frances Lee describes is what the Apostle Paul means when he warns that our well-intentioned efforts to acquire righteousness on our own lead to death.

It kills us.

Frances Lee escaped the toxic dogma of one community only to discover it again in an opposite sort of community.

She left her evangelical Church hoping to find respite from the demands of purity and relief from the suffocating pretense those demands require.

In St. Paul’s terms, she fled the Law but the Law found her.

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

What Frances Lee found in neither, not in her evangelical upbringing nor among her progressive activists, is what the Church offers you tonight with oil and ash and a promise that sounds frightening at first.

     “To dust you came and to dust you will return.”

Ash Wednesday is the antidote to the treacherous distraction of the well-intentioned because the medicine administered tonight is not grim but, to those who know they are sick, it is the good news of the gospel.

No matter how much booze you give up or how much bible-reading you take on for Lent, tonight isn’t about penance in a quest for purity and it’s not about needing to pretend when you fail to find that purity through your piety.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about your performance in life or your piety in religion at all. Ash Wednesday is about the grace of God given to us and for you in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

But it’s not your fault if you experience some cognitive dissonance tonight.

Ash Wednesday can look and sound like it’s exactly the sort of righteousness-chasing, purity-performing that Frances Lee critiques and, even worse, what Jesus Christ forbids.

After all, in the Gospel passage assigned for every Ash Wednesday, Christ in his Sermon on the Mount commands us to do the very opposite of what it appears we’re about to do.

We will practice our piety before others; there is no ad space more public than your forehead.

We will disfigure your face with oily ash, and then we’ll send you forth with unwashed faces not into the privacy of your prayer closet but out into the world where you will be tempted to repeat after the Pharisee “Thank God, I am not like other men.”

Ash Wednesday’s promise of grace can get lost in the contradictions.

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

For example, when you come forward tonight, we’ll say “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return” but then we’ll mark your forehead with ash not dust.

Hang on-

God formed Adam not from ash but from the dust of the earth, and when you die- and, news flash- you’re not getting out of life alive- it’s dirt I will throw on your casket, mud not ash.

Shouldn’t we be soiling your head with soil not ash?

Sure, ash is a symbol for repentance and mourning in scripture, but it’s a pile of ashes Job sits on in sackcloth not a smudge streaked across his brow.

If you’re not clear about what we do here tonight, then, despite your good intentions, the ashes and the oil will be but another example of what Frances Lee calls a treacherous distraction.

That is, they’ll be nothing more than an exercise of purity-seeking piety, a work of worship that, King David tells us tonight, God despises- a work of worship that God tells the prophet Isaiah is no better than a filthy rag.

In which case, it’s probably a mercy there aren’t any Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Specials.

——————————

     Because the stakes are high then, I want to set your ashes straight before you come forward for the cross.

The first point- I know, another 3-point sermon. If you want me to give these up for Lent you better tell me tonight. The first point to know about the ashy cross we smear across your fore-head is that it’s a cross.

What we do tonight with oil and ashes is not a treacherous distraction.

It’s not, as Jesus warns, practicing your piety before others because the cross on your forehead marks you out not as a pious person but as an impious person.

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

The cross is a reminder the very best of our piety put God to death; therefore, on Ash Wednesday Christians come out of the closet and with a soot scarlet letter freely admit that we are not just flawed and not just broken (that’s a romantic Christian word) but sinners.

Sin is the only word that appropriately names our racism and our prejudice, our violence and apathy and avarice.

We are the worst text messages that we send. We are the email we accidentally reply all to. We are the school shootings we tolerate.

We’re sinners.

The cross on your forehead announces that before God’s Law you are a failure.

You have not loved God with your whole heart. You have not loved your neighbor as much as you love yourself, and you haven’t even begun to love your enemies.

In fact, loving your enemies is just one of the many commandments you’ve left undone- and that’s the real problem for most of you, what you’ve left undone.

You see, like Job’s, the cruciform ashes are ashes of mourning because the cross on you is the outward, visible sign that inside and unseen the hammer of God’s Law has crushed your sinful heart; so that, no longer curved in on itself your heart has no where else to turn but the grace of God alone.

What’s important about the ashen cross is that it’s a cross.

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

What we do with ash and oil tonight does not violate Christ’s command against virtue-signaling because the cross signifies your vice. It brands you not as someone who thinks he’s holy but as someone who knows his need.

A soot colored cross is more inclusive than any rainbow flag.

Tonight Christians remember that- on paper at least- we are, in fact, the most inclusive people in the world.

We are all sinners.

Smudged or not smudged. Christian or not, activist or evangelical, whether you’re resisting or making America great again- none of us are clean. None of us are pure. All of us would love to have a John Kelly keeping our secrets.

There is no need for us to shame one another because between us there is no distinction.

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

     And the wage paid out for sin is death. The wages of sin is death, the Apostle Paul writes.

We mix up our metaphors tonight, dust…ash…dirt…sin…death…because the wage for the sin we should mourn with ashes is a death marked by the throwing of dirt.

Or the sprinkling of water.

And this is the second point you should understand as you come forward tonight.

     The words we will say to you invite you to remember that you’re going to die.

The cross we smear on you invites you to remember that you deserve to.

That’s as offensive and counter-cultural as anything Christians do.

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

     The cross on your forehead isn’t just a symbol of your sin. The cross on your forehead is a symbol of your death to sin. That is, the cross is an oily and ashen reminder of your baptism. ‘To dust you came and to dust you shall return’ – you’re gonna die- is grim godawful news not good news unless it presumes the prior promise that by your baptism you have already died.

     You will die, sure. To dust you came and, when your DNR kicks in or the safety net gets gutted or your children lose their patience, you’ll just as surely return to the dirt.

But the death that should haunt. The death that should keep you up at night, meeting God in your sins, the death that should haunt you is a death you’ve already died.

You’ve already been paid the wages your sins have earned.

What you have done and what you have left undone- what you have coming to you has already come to you by way of the grave we call a font.

By water and the Spirit, God drowned sinful you into Christ’s death.

The death Christ died he died to sin, once for all. The death Christ died he died for your sins, all of them, once, and in his blood by your baptism all your sins have been washed away.

The way we mix the metaphors tonight it’s not your fault if you missed it. What we do tonight neither confirms Frances Lee’s critique nor does it contradict Christ’s commandment. This ash is not a means to achieve purity or practice piety. We’re not inviting you to pretend or perform or prevaricate or protect your impurity from the shaming of others.

We do not smudge our foreheads to solicit God’s forgiveness for our sins. We smudge our foreheads to celebrate God’s once for all forgiveness of them.

The dust on your forehead says: “You were dead in your trespasses.”

But the cross on your forehead says: “You have been baptized. Into his death for your trespasses.”

The wages of sin smudged on your head is good news not grim news.

Your sin, though incontrovertible, cannot condemn you. There is therefore now no condemnation for you. The seal of that promise is your baptism into his death. The sign of that promise is the symbol of his death smeared on your temple.

And that promise should give you not only joy, it should- as Paul says- shut your mouth up. It should stop whatever words of judgment you might have on your lips because the ash marks us out as those who know that the Judge was judged in our place.

Of all the people in world we should be the least judgiest. Or at least the quickest to own up to it.

——————————

     “Where is our humility when we examine the mistakes of others?” Frances Lee asks in her essay.

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world. And yet grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in my circles.”

Humility and Grace and Forgiveness- in this circle at least, they shouldn’t be hard to find.

And that’s my final point:

The most important thing about the ashy cross you’re about to receive is that it won’t remain there.

You’re going to wash it off.

You’re going to wash it off because you’ve not only died with Christ to sin, but in your baptism you’ve been raised with Christ too. Because it’s not just that your sins have been reckoned to Christ, it’s that his purity has been imputed to you. As the Apostle Paul says in another Ash Wednesday reading: ‘He who knew no sin was made to be sin so that we might become the purity of God.’ 

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

However ‘woke’ you think are, whatever righteousness you have, whatever purity you have- it didn’t come from you.

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

Just to make sure you didn’t miss the offense of that exchange, Martin Luther referred to the purity we do posses as ‘alien.’

Our alien purity. Our alien righteousness. Alien- as in, we don’t have either, purity or righteousness, on our own.

So what you’re doing tonight, by wearing a cross and then, just as quickly, washing it off again, you’re puncturing the inflated anthropology our culture gives you. The flattering self-image to which our culture would convert you- tonight, you’re kicking it in the ash, and you’re opting instead for a low anthropology.

As stern and old fashioned as it sounds, with ash you’re insisting that ‘No, we’re not- none of us- basically good people who are doing our best so that God can do the rest.’

We’re worse than flawed. We’re more than broken. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ doesn’t begin to put it right. We’re sinners.

And that’s how what we do here tonight is about love actually.

Such a sober assessment about ourselves is the only true path to patience and empathy and understanding for another- because acknowledging the worst about you is the surest way for you to accept it another.

So, ironically, or maybe not ironic at all, what you do with ash tonight has everything to do with that other holiday tonight.

For, if the fruit of a low anthropology is compassion and empathy and understanding and acceptance, then

Being able to say “I am a sinner who deserves to die” is the necessary precondition to saying “I love you, unto death.”

 

 

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sorcery? Check

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

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

Anger.

Check.

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

So check and check and check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about that other list?

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

How are you doing with that list?

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

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

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

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

I just turned 40.

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

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

I love my kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this is particularly comforting.

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

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

Note the passive voice.

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

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

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

And that’s my first point.

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

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except the Gardener.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

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

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

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

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

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

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

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

Therefore

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

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

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

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

Ergo-

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

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

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith apart from your feelings.

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

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

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are.

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

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

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

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

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about faith.

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

 

 

 

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


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

I like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

As if to say, ‘Me first.’

So Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I still like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t confess his sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

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

Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet.

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

Jacob’s not a bible hero.

He’s a heel.

Still, I can’t help it. I like Jacob.

You might not.

You might not like Jacob.

You might not be like Jacob.

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

Congrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good for you. Gold star to you.

Go ahead and turn your brown nose up at Jacob.

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

Not everyone can relate to Jacob.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob.

Lucky you.

Lord knows I can.

I can.

But that’s not why I like Jacob.

No, I like Jacob-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

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

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

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

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

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

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

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

She smiled just a little.

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

I nodded yes.

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

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

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

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

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

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

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

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

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

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need Jacob to remember that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t follow me.

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

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

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

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

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

I need Jacob.

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

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

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

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

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

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

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

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

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Skynet?”

“Nevermind.”

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

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

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

She smiled just a little.

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

I nodded yes.

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

The Law does not bring the Holy Spirit:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So my first point…

———————-

    The Holy Spirit mediates the prophetic work of Christ.

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

     Ignore your Pentecostal in-laws.

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

     But your contrition is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross and Resurrection

Grace

The Gospel:

The forgiveness of your sins

The gift of Christ’s righteousness reckoned as your own

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

They happen at the same time.

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

They’re concurrent.

———————-

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

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

Which gets back to my undercover lesbian evangelist nurse-

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

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

It’s all miracle.

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

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

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

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

It’s another simple formula:

     Your sins are forgiven.

Christ’s righteousness is your own.

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

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

Jesus Christ.

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

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

Say yes:

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

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

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

Say yes.

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

Thanks to professors at UVA and Princeton, I first fell in love with Martin Luther and John Calvin by tracking back to them through the footnotes in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Even Barth admitted he would’ve made a good Lutheran. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this year past prompted me to reread a lot of Luther without Karl chaperoning. What I’ve (re)discovered in Luther is someone who is able to diagnose my dis-ease with evangelicalism.

One of the charms of Martin Luther (if you’re predisposed towards him) is how gun shy he was not when it came to polemic and bald assertion. More than any other church ‘father’ Luther wasn’t afraid to risk being wrong in arguing what was at stake in being right. In that same spirit, owing to Luther, here are three errors inherent in evangelicalism.

Proving that evangelicalism (or, really, pietism) is the water in which we all swim, these errors are just as often evident in the mainline church, especially in the UMC, as they are in your friendly neighborhood bible or baptist church.

Evangelicalism denies the complete reconciliation of humanity with God through the saving death of Christ upon the Cross, which amounts to a denial of Christ himself. Redemption, contrary to what you’ll hear from most evangelicals and- because they’re the majority- Methodists too, is complete.

The sins of the world, all of them, have been blotted out. Neither Christ nor Paul is a liar. It is finished; therefore, there is now no condemnation for sinners.

If Christ died for the sins of all people, then that’s the same as all people dying and making satisfaction for their sins. Nothing, therefore, is required of any of us save the faith which saves. Righteousness lies ready to be received it is not achieved.

Evangelicalism turns the Gospel into a conditional promise, contingent upon the disposition of the hearer. Whether it’s 3 biblical principles for an improved marriage, 5 tips to become a better you, 7 steps to tap into the fullness of the Spirit, or just inviting Jesus into your heart- all of which are derivative of the anxious bench altar call- evangelicalism is premised upon what you need to do to get to Christ rather than getting you to recognize that God in Christ has already gotten to you by coming down and dying for your sins and, by baptism, incorporated you into Christ fully.

The Gospel promise, shorn of any ifs ands or buts, is one in which we’re passive objects at best. In the Gospel, God carries the action of the verbs, for it is not Gospel if God is not the subject of the verbs.

Evangelicalism manipulates “faith” into a work by making it the mechanism by which we are the agents of our salvation. Evangelicalism, in other words, makes the same rhetorical blunder as the rich young ruler who asked “What must I do to be saved?” The answer to the rich young ruler is the same given to the jailor in Acts 16: “You are to do nothing except accept what God has done for you.”

Faith, according to the New Testament, is not a rational decision such that “making a decision for Christ” is what saves you; faith is the trusting recognition that Christ has saved you by his shed blood for sinners. Faith contributes nothing to salvation. Just as God created Adam’s world ex nihilo so God kills the Old Adam in us and makes of us a New Creation ex nihilo.

Faith does not contribute; faith clings to Christ who already contributed everything necessary for our salvation.

“The Word of God is not rightly divided between Law and Gospel when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law.”

Any reader already knows the truth of it.

Adverbs are the tell of every found-out liar. I whole-heartedly apologize for any offense I might have caused…

Adverbs are the trademark of every dime-per-word pulp fiction story. Sam Spade braced the suspect’s shoulders menacingly. 

Notice, no children’s book worth the encroachment into bedtime employs the little modifiers that most often end in -ly, not because Timmy can’t handle sounding-out ‘swiftly’ but because adverbs aren’t needed for a good and true story.

In case you were sleeping boorishly in high school English class, Stephen King helpfully explains:

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

In On Writing Stephen King asserts that “Fear is at the root of most bad writing.” The fingerprints of the fearful writer are adverbs.

Thank Christ whoever crafted the wedding vows- Thomas Cranmer, I believe- had the cahones to avoid the adverbial.

Consider how the common, seemingly harmless little adverb transforms the marriage covenant from a clear and simple (if terrifying) promise into a Sisyphean endeavor I can never know if I’m upholding aright.

Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

vs.

Will you sincerely love her, whole-heartedly comfort her, genuinely honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, resolutely forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

The former is merely an enormous and outrageous promise.

The latter is psychological torture.

Implied by and requisite to the Gospel is that neither my will nor the rest of me is free.

Consequently, I am a stranger to myself.

Most especially am I in the dark as to the truth of my motivations.

Whereas Thomas Cranmer had a pair in Stephen King’s estimation, the authors of the United Methodist Church Book of Worship were not likewise endowed, for in our eucharistic liturgy what we give in the invitation to Christ’s table we take away with adverbs:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

King, in On Writing, says adverbs signal a timid writer because they betray the writer’s lack of trust in the telling of the story thus far. The timid writer must tell you X slammed the door menacingly because the timid writer doesn’t trust you can deduce the character’s menacing character from the preceding prose.

Similarly the authors of the UMC’s eucharistic liturgy betray a fear about a lack in the Gospel story that they seek to remedy with adverbs.

The Gospel’s all about grace but it can’t be cheap so we got to make sure they’re earnest about their repentance…

As the angel Gabriel all but says to Mary and the shepherds, fear is the opposite of the Gospel. So then, the adverb doesn’t just weaken the Gospel- and the sacrament of which it is a sign- it transforms it.

From Good News to Bad.

From an invitation to the Table of Christ who is the friend of sinners, full stop.

To an invitation to the Table of Christ who is dinner date of sinners who really, truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, resolutely repent of their sins.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is the Risen Christ’s invite to his Table, a Christ who initially provokes death threats precisely because he ate and drank (too much) with recalcitrant unrepentant sinners and prodigals who had not yet come to themselves.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is an invitation to his Table, where we feast on the bread and the wine which are the visible words of his full and final, once-for-all, forgiveness of your sin.

Where does a treasonous adverb like earnestly belong in such an invitation or on such a Table?

An adverb like earnestly makes your welcome to Christ’s Table conditioned not on the completeness of his cross for you (which happened objectively outside of you) but conditioned upon the sincerity of your interiority.

Of course, the bitter Gospel rub is that, apart from the Gospel and its edible form, you’re in absolutely no position to assess your interior state.

If Christ does not welcome me to his Table of visible, edible Gospel forgiveness until I am certain of my subjective earnestness about repentance of sin and neighbor love then, quite simply, the Eucharist is not a means of Grace but a work of the Law, in which case I’m relieved most United Methodist Churches ignore Wesley’s admonition about constant communion. Church-goers don’t deserve to be burdened with adverbs like earnestly on the daily basis Wesley would admonish we take communion.

Let me make it plain.

Here’s why we need to stop serving adverbs at the Table:

  1. The wine and bread are visible, tangible, edible signs of a promise that lies outside of us. Adverbs drive us to look within, the very opposite trajectory of the salvation to which the Table points. The truth of the Table is not determined by your disposition; therefore, the invitation to the Table cannot be premised upon the earnestness of your disposition. The strength of our faith; in other words, lies not in the strength of our faith but in the object of our faith, Jesus Christ and him crucified for un-earnest us.
  1. The New Testament witness is that we are prisoners to the Power of Sin (Romans 3) such that the good we wish (like coming to the Table in earnestness) is the good we cannot will (Romans 7). In bondage to the Power Sin, we’re in no position whatsoever to assess our ‘earnestness’ for repentance. As sinners we deceive no one else more so than ourselves. To staple a subjective inventory to the invitation is to insist upon something we cannot do and will only do in sin apart from the grace offered in the visible Gospel of bread and wine. The bitter irony of our adverbial invitation is that the very thing provided by the sacrament (sincerity of repentance given by God) is made a precondition to come to the sacrament.
  1. The adverb switches the agency. Earnestly. Sincerely. Whole-heartedly. The adverbs shift the focus from what God in Christ has done for us, once-for-all, to what we must do now for God. Adverbs make a hollow mannequin, says Chad Bird, that we nail to the cross in Christ’s place. We imply through the adverbial invitation that it’s the sincerity of our contrition that merits our seat at the Table. Because sinners like us can never know if we’re sincere enough, earnest enough, whole-hearted enough but the promise of the Gospel, made tangible in wine and bread is that Christ is the only enough. Adverbs are spiritual quicksand. Christ’s word of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness is solid rock that creates earnest repentance.

“The adverb is not your friend,” warns Stephen King.

Indeed perhaps no where is the adverb more your enemy than when the adverb comes between you and the banquet of heaven, duping you into believing that repentance is your work at all.

This is what the street preachers and most other preachers get wrong.

Repentance is God’s work.

As Chad Bird notes, God repents us is the better way to understand it.

Repentance is not a work we perform (or a decision we make or a disposition we determine). Repentance is a gift Christ gives. As with the Ninevites, as with the crowds at Jesus’ baptism, repentance is made possible by God’s encounter with us. Repentance is being encountered by God (in his word in the case of Jonah, in Christ in the Gospel of Mark and, for us, through word and sacrament).

The repentance insisted upon in our invitation is the same fare served up by the street preachers, and the reason the street preachers rub us the wrong way is that it’s bad news.

It throws all the work back on us and our ability to repent- that’s what leads to judgementalism; it’s works righteousness.

If my repentance is something I can accomplish then I’m liable to be judgemental about others who couldn’t or chose not to.

The good news is that none of us can repent on our own, we’re all lost sheep in the process of being found and the fact that God repents us regardless how earnest we feel about the matter is proof- in the eucharist, tangible edible proof- that God’s complete forgiveness is always prior to our repentance. The latter the product of the former.

Jesus Christ eats and drinks with sinners. This is his Table 

You’re welcome. 

No adverbs necessary.

      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

We listen to a lot of music in my house.

Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.

I’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant.

I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

In my apartment.

Every last album.

‘Every’ except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. Ali’s and my first kiss was to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

Cliche, I know.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The boys and I- our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

Favorite because it drives Ali crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

Seriously, nothing tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent? If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas.

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith. So I never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day a couple of years ago.

We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.

And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel said- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

A terrifying Goat-Demon if you’ve been naughty.

Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”

In Holland, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.

“I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.

That sounds amazingly like grace.

It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves.

According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

     It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf– it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.

The balance sheet of your life has been reckoned right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace- but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup:

The word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but you must have faith.

That’s not a promise.

That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice if/then conditionality- it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.

If you repent…then God will love you.

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.

And if you don’t?

Krampus.

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

I’m only half-joking.

In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and a Gospel that is Law.

If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.

But I do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.

Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”

We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.

There’s just the unconditional promise that-

Yes, you’ve been naughty.

No, you’ve not been nice.

No matter, all your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness- upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.

The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.

Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.

In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, the gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, that the Church is here to help you become good.

Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you.

Joel Osteen and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel- to be saved. Your therapist can improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that. The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re sinners like him. And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

And tell that Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.

When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

I offer it to you, in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

     

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.

On Tuesday a 30-something journalist from Redskins country, Danica Roem, defeated, soon-to-be-octogenarian, Robert Marshall for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly. Marshall has served as a Delegate for decades and has done so, in his own self-indicting words, as “Virginia’s Chief Homophobe.”

As with male pattern baldness- apparently there’s a club of which he’s not only a member but it’s president.

Marshall represents a district of the Northern Virginia exurbs sufficiently conservative as to make the Ayatollah seem middle of the road; nonetheless, on Tuesday they handed Marshall an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Danica Roem who, it’s not incidental, is transgender.

Take it from me, Gainesville, Va is not San Francisco.

Turns out, regardless of their views on sexuality and identity most ordinary voters don’t care all that much about issues of sexuality and identity. They care more about the concrete, literally; as in, tolls and transportation.

Caveat Ecclesia 

As Gainesville, Virginia goes likely so will go the Church of Jesus Christ in all but the flyover states.

My United Methodist tradition stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed, butt-cheeks-tight- and-nervous impasse over the issue of sexuality, awaiting a recommendation from a special 30-person commission on a “way forward” that will inaugurate what may be the United Methodist Church’s final debate over the issue. The result will either be peace amidst difference, agreeing to unity generally amidst our disunity particularly on this topic, or the result will be for us to contribute (at least) two new denominations to the carnage created by the Reformation’s rupture with Rome (40K+ denominations since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses).

The election of Danica Roem, I suspect and fear, reveals how the very fact we’re even having this all-consuming argument is evidence that we’ve already wandered too far down the mineshaft holding hands with the likes of Robert Marshall.

Look- I get it.

I really do.

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church.

Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ.

On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, the election of Danica Roem grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

Like those NOVA voters who cared more about public works than Danica Roem’s privates, as much as I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate, I find other issues more urgent.

Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder shouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

Like those voters this Tuesday who cared more about the tolls and transportation of their daily lives than transgenderism, I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law.

And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law.

The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law.

The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing.

If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone unlike them, then the fighting isn’t worth it.

If our leveraged-future brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

And if the election of Danica Roem is any indication, to say nothing of the confused look on my 15 year old son’s face that I’m even writing this post, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this debate.

Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Daphne was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. The culture has moved on whether we like it or not. This isn’t a hill the Apostle Paul would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel.

So, given the missional context of the culture in which we find ourselves, I offer this modest proposal for the Way Forward. 

I’ve read reports that the UMC’s Special Worldwide Sex Conference (my name for it) in 2019 will cost the UMC approximately $11 million dollars. 

Given that this issue of sexuality was already settled for most potential converts to Jesus Christ  back in 1996 when Robin Williams starred in the Bird Cage, I propose:

We, the United Methodist Church, instead invest that $11 MILLION DOLLARS until the day, say, when my son is my age, 2050.

On that day, sex will be even less the issue for his children as it is for his peers, but- I’m betting, broken world as this is- they’ll still be hungry for grace.

And- unless the Donald or Skynet screws things up-

At 3% interest that $11,000,000 will be worth close to $24 MILLION DOLLARS.

I know, like Solomon and the baby, it’s an incredibly difficult choice to weigh.

Do we spend $11M now for the same people who couldn’t reach a decision 2 years ago to argue it again and hope for different results?

Or, do we invest for the future so that we have 24 million dollars to proclaim the good news that God in Jesus Christ is for sinners?