Archives For Grace

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

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

 

How are you doing? How was your week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I said to her:

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

mt15_26

 

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

 

So how come Jesus does?

 

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

     Jesus says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t you just love passages like this!

I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see- that would never happen!

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

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

 

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

So maybe that’s the explanation.

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

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

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

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

So how do we explain it?

mt15_26

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

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

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

 

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

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

Just expecting him to take on sin. For her.

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

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

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

So, no, I don’t buy it.

 

     Jesus ignores her.

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

     And then he calls her a dog.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

mt15_26

Of course, that’s it.

This is Jesus acting just like us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

She’s a Canaanite. She’s an enemy.

She’s unclean. She’s an unbeliever.

She’s all kinds the wrong kind of person.

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

Which is another title for ‘Messiah.’

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

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

So what does Jesus do?

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

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

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

mt15_27

 

Speaking of hearts-

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

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

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

     Is how it reads in the New Revised Jason Version.

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

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

     You see-

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

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

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

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

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

     And Jesus calls that ‘great faith.’

 

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

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

mt15_27

So the good news is-

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

If you’re selfish or petty or stingy

If you yell at your kids too much

Or cheat on your spouse

Or disappoint your parents

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

If you gossip about your neighbors

Or think the worst about people you barely know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To make us holy.

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

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

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

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

Of course the bad news is-

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

171607016-1024x683Yesterday, as you’re no doubt well-aware, the Supreme Court tacitly recognized the lawfulness of same-sex marriage by declining to hear cases regarding it. According to the Washington Post, the only demographic still solidly against same-sex marriage are white Republicans (men mostly) 65 and older. It just so happens that’s the dominant demographic in the Christian Church, portending that this issue will not go away for Christians even as it continues to be irrelevant to everyone else.

RogersEugene Rogers, author of Theology and the Christian Body, makes what I think is a solid, grace-based argument for gay marriage that moves beyond trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

rainbow-cross_april

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

Untitled9-1024x682Here’s the sermon from Sunday. Continuing the summer series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the text was the critical pistis Christou passage in Romans 3.21-31.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the widget on the sidebar or you can download it in iTunes by clicking here. For that matter, you can download the free Tamed Cynic mobile app here.

Like black coffee, I’m an acquired taste. I have a tendency to rub some people the wrong way- shocking I know.

In fact, almost 9 years ago to the day, one elderly curmudgeon- bless his heart- chewed me out and tore me a new one as he left worship.

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

Since then his red-faced finger-pointing, clenched-teeth indictments and patronizing soliloquies went on to become an every sermon ritual.

Fortunately, I was able to dismiss his criticism, seeing as how this sweet saint of the Lord typically fell asleep after the opening prayer and was in no position to evaluate my effectiveness as a preacher.

And because I didn’t take his criticisms too much to heart, I was able to make light of them in my sermons.

About 7 years ago, I started using his gripes with me as a foil in some of my sermons. Since I couldn’t out him outright, reveal his name and his character, I instead adopted an anonymous, affectionate handle for him:

He Who Must Not Be Named.

     Sure, I admit it was my passive aggressive way of exacting revenge, to rebut from the pulpit all the gripes I’d had to grin and bear at the sanctuary doors. But it was also good for a laugh or two.

What goes around comes around.

But then it came around again to bite me in the ass.

Because about 2 years ago, someone set up an email address (HeMustNotBeNamed@gmail.com) and a Twitter handle: HeMustNotBeNamed and started sending me mocking emails and tweets from someone taking the name HeMustNotBeNamed.

His (yours?) tagline on Twitter reads: I taught @jasonmicheli everything I wanted him to know. I am here to expose the truth one blog post at a time.

     For example, last winter I tweeted out a preview of my sermon:

‘This weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church around homosexuality.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

‘@JasonMicheli I can’t wait for the children’s sermon.’

Untitled22

 

In response to a promo for pub theology, HeMustNotBeNamed sent me this tweet:

‘@JasonMicheli if I come to #pubtheology will you buy me a butter beer?’

Untitled24

And I know this has to be someone in the congregation, is because in January I received this tweet:  ‘@JasonMicheli nice red sweater this weekend. The Mr. Rogers look is good for you.’

 

Untitled25

So… it has to be one of you.

pastedGraphic.pdf

Just over a week ago, I published my 1000th post on my blog, and I pushed it out to social media with this line:

 

‘Thanks to Tony Jones for encouraging me to start the blog and trust that if I wrote stuff of substance, readers would come.’

And HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli this stuff makes me want to drink something of substance.’

Untitled12

Then HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli I think you’re brilliant, but I also think you think so yourself.’

Untitled20

Ignoring the put down, I tweeted to @HeMustNotBeNamed: ‘Thanks.’

 

But HeMustNotBeNamed continued: ‘@JasonMicheli But, at times, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Of course, that makes it no different than listening to you preach.’

Untitled19

 

Wounded, I responded by tweeting: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed So sorry you’re not able to understand me!’

Sounding like my mother-in-law, HeMustNotBeNamed replied: ‘@JasonMicheli I don’t think your deadpan humor really helps.’

Untitled18

Which just begged for me to up the ante: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed Deadpan humor?!’

HeMustNotBeNamed wondered: ‘@JasonMicheli Does @DennisPerry ever weary of your constant jokes at his expense?’

Untitled17

 

Of course, a comment like that is ripe for another joke at Dennis’ expense so I tweeted back: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed @DennisPerry is 65. Everything wearies him at this point.’  He didn’t find it funny, I guess, because HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted: ‘@JasonMicheli Your intellect IS your problem.

Untitled16

 

‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What do you mean?’ I asked.

 

 

And HeMustNotBeNamed queried: Untitled15‘@JasonMicheli Why is the intellectual stuff necessary? Why can’t God just come out of the closet and reveal himself so there’d be no doubting?’

 

 

Like a good pastor I asked a clarifying question: Untitled13‘@HeMustNotBeNamed You want God to come out of the closet?’ He didn’t find it funny: ‘@JasonMicheli Haha. If our salvation depends on faith, why can’t God do a better job of convincing us?’

Untitled14

 

Serious for once, I asked him: ‘@HeMustNotBeNamed What kind of convincing would you want?’  He answered: ‘@JasonMicheli Why can’t God write across the sky ‘Here’s your proof. Believe in me. Sincerely God.’ Everyone would be on their knees.’

Then he tweeted a sort of PS: ‘@JasonMicheli After all, no one doubts my existence and they don’t even speak my name.’

 

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

If everything depends on faith- on our faith, on our faith in Jesus, then why doesn’t God make it easier to believe?

 

Whether HeMustNotBeNamed’s tweets and emails are meant to mock me or not, it’s a good question.

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

 

I received those tweets a little over a week ago.  And since then, a number of times I’ve sat down at my laptop and tried to sort through a good answer.

 

Parts of each those answers were good, but I wasn’t content with any of them.

 

Because I’m no good at the 140 characters or less stricture, I opted for email.

 

Untitled11     Those responses still are saved in the drafts folder of my mailbox. The first draft was from the following Saturday, June 28.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

Thanks for your question. Though, your comment about me seeming full of myself makes me wonder if your message was meant for @DennisPerry.

 

Despite what you might assume given my line of work, faith has never come easy for me. John Wesley told his pastors: ‘Preach faith until you have it.’

 

Sometimes I think I need to be a pastor in order to be a Christian. I need people- even satirical Tweeters like you- holding me accountable. I need the Sunday sermon deadline hanging over me to force me to work through what I believe.

 

That’s why I think the notion that you can be a Christian without participating in a church is BS.

 

I suppose this shows I’m sympathetic with your question but doesn’t really answer it.

 

Let me say this:

One of the abiding memories I carry around with me like a scar that’s smoothed over is being at the hospital a few years back with my arm around a mom as she held her son- my confirmation student- and prayed… to God…pleaded…for her son.

 

Who was already gone.

 

Hers was a desperate prayer, a kind of yearning. The sort of prayer from someone who’s wounded and has no where else to turn.

On the one hand, you could say a grieving mother praying for her little boy makes the whole question of belief even muddier: If there’s a God why should she be in such a position? I get that. Trust me, I get that.

 

Leave those questions aside for a moment because I think there’s a way of seeing that mother’s prayer as the absolute embodiment of faith.

All the good examples of faith in the Gospels are from people just like her.

They’re all people who don’t wait for proof. They just bare their wounds and desperation to Christ.

 

Most of the time we do the opposite. We wait to be convinced before we’re willing to lay ourselves bare to God. We’ve got it backwards from the way faith works in the Bible.

 

That mother in the hospital didn’t have the luxury of waiting for proof, but I wonder if any of us ever do.

 

I wonder if it’s not God that’s the problem.

I wonder if we make it hard on ourselves to have faith by our refusal to let go of control and admit we’re every bit as desperate as those people in scripture who come to Christ with their kids’ lives on the line.

Blessings,

Jason

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

 

I never clicked send. It was a good response, a solid answer, but I didn’t face the question head-on.

 

According to my drafts folder, my second attempt came a couple of days later, on Tuesday, July 1.

pastedGraphic_5.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

I appreciate your willingness to push back on my thinking. Of course, thinking about God is challenging; however, your suggestion that I suffer from a lack of clarity makes me wonder if you’d meant to send these tweets to @DennisPerry.

 

I’ve always admired folks with unquestioning faith, but I’m not one of them.

 

I sometimes worry the unspoken assumption at church is that everyone’s faith is rock-solid firm when I know the faith of the person sitting next to you is just as likely to be hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

 

Remember all that Harold Camping hoopla a few years ago about the world ending on May 21?

 

A few days before that I was in Old Town walking down the sidewalk and on the corner near Banana Republic were four or five evangelists holding poster-board signs and passing out tracts.

 

I guess it sounds bad for a pastor to say but I hate evangelists. At least the ones who think fear is an appropriate medium to share the love of Christ.

 

According to them the world is going to end on May 21. I guess we’ll see if they’re right. I suppose if they are then you’ll finally have the proof you want.

 

I could tell they weren’t going to let me pass by without an encounter so when one of them tried to hand me a tract, I held up hands and said: ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

 

He gave me his spiel anyway about the end of the world and how ‘only the saved will survive.’

 

Since I was a Buddhist, I thought I should feign ignorance: ‘Saved? How do I get saved?’

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

And he told me I needed to accept that I’m a sinner etc, etc.

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

I’ve spent 19 years learning how to have faith. It’s crazy to me that this evangelist thought that could all be sped up just by getting me to nod my head to a list of propositions.

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

Maybe because I’ve had those evangelists on my mind, but I guess I’d say that, just like the scribes and the Pharisees in the Gospels, I think sometimes its religious people themselves who make faith hard for others.

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

pastedGraphic_6.pdf

 

Blessings, I wrote. But I didn’t click send that time either. It was a passable way to answer the question. I’d said what faith isn’t, but I hadn’t said what it is.

I tried again on June 7.

pastedGraphic_7.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Thanks for sharing your struggles with me. I assume you were only kidding about @DennisPerry getting wearied by me, but- to be honest- @DennisPerry is getting to that age where it’s not really funny anymore to make age jokes.

He’s now so old he deserves sympathy not sarcasm.

 

Actually, knowing @DennisPerry’s workload, it’s difficult for me to imagine how Dennis could be weary from anything.

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed, whomever you are, I’ve been putting off my reply.

 

I couldn’t come up with a good definition for faith, and without that there’s not a really good way to answer you.

 

I think I finally figured out how I want to put it.

 

On Monday morning I spoke to a woman in the community. Her neighbor gave her my number. She and her husband moved here from the West Coast a little less than a year ago.

 

Right after they moved in to their new house, they miscarried their first child.

Two days after the miscarriage they found out that her husband had a rare and advanced form of leukemia.

 

He’s dying and there’s nothing anyone can do.

As she put it to me: ‘He has his bad days and he has God-awful days.’

 

And then she asked if I’d come over and pray with them some time.

Before the End.

 

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her- to pray. To God.

 

I probably looked like I was gawking at her, but to be honest I was marveling. How could she pray? Or have faith at all?

Because if faith was just ‘belief’ there’s no way it could survive what she and her husband were going through.

 

Here’s what I realized again on Monday. Faith is more like trust.

The sort of trust capable of saying to God: I don’t understand you; it seems you’re breaking your word to me; still I trust you; I trust you because it’s you, because it’s you and me, even though my heart is breaking. I trust you.

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

This is what it means to have a personal relationship with God, a term I normally don’t like because it sounds exclusionary and sentimental.

 

A personal relationship with God means you and God are together through thick and thin…

pastedGraphic_8.pdf

 

I never finished that reply. Even though I’d figured out how to say what faith is, I still hadn’t gotten behind the ‘why’ of the question. I hadn’t gotten at the problem behind so many of our problems with faith.

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

pastedGraphic_9.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

Snark aside, thank you for your question. I’m embarrassed its taken so long to respond. Even @DennisPerry can type faster than this. Well, not really.

 

I could’ve replied much quicker had I dispensed the standard pastor answers: faith is hard because we’re fallen, sinful creatures.

 

God doesn’t make faith easy or obvious for us because God needs to know if we trust him.

 

Faith is hard because it’s a gift from God, some have it.

 

And some don’t.

 

The problem with the standard pastor answers on faith is the same problem as the standard questions we ask about faith.

 

In both cases we assume that when it comes to God and how God regards us it’s our faith in Jesus that’s important, that’s operative.

 

The standard pastor answers and the conventional questions both assume that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us, that makes us right with God.

 

The problem though is that that’s NOT how St. Paul speaks of faith.

 

In Romans 3, probably the most important passage in the New Testament about faith, Paul uses two words: Pistis and Christou.

 

The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’

 

But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’

 

It means ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’ 

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

When you read Romans 3, you realize Paul speaks of faith in a way that’s very different from how we think of it in our questions and answers.

 

Paul’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ. 

     He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you. 

For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.

It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.

It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.

 

For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’

 

That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.

 

What motivates so many of our questions and struggles about faith is the assumption that our justification before God is like a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

 

That’s not good news; in fact, it suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

 

But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.

But none of it is necessary.

None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

And it’s such good news it reveals how our questions about and struggles with our faith aren’t so urgent after all.

 

You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.

 

Because your justification, your being made right with God- it does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

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

 

And this is what Paul freaking means when he calls faith a ‘gift’ from God. He doesn’t mean that some people who have faith have been given a gift while those who don’t have it have been screwed by the Almighty.

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

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

Even you.

pastedGraphic_10.pdf

I clicked send. And, so far, I haven’t heard back.

rainbow-cross_aprilMy nook of United Methodism recently resolved not to resolve (yet) a proposal to change our denomination’s official language on homosexuality, opting to curate a ‘conversation’ instead.

Like a virtual, online Sisyphus, here’s another modest attempt to push the burden forward:

Those who oppose gay marriage in the Church- or even gay membership in the Church- most often do so by citing homosexuality as a sin. Indeed the ‘S word’ predominates much of the discussion on sex.

Homosexuality violates the Levitical codes and while Jesus never speaks of homosexuality neither does he single the subject out for one of his ‘you’ve heard it said’ segues.

While much is made of how scripture views homosexuals as sinners, little commented upon is how marriage’s purpose in the Church- it’s vocation (i.e. it’s calling)- is the healing of our sin.  Our sanctification.

Under this view marriage, same sex couples would appear to be prime candidates for the very covenant denied them by the Church- and for the very reason they’re so denied.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

Sanctification is a theological term that describes one’s growth in grace; it is the process of growing ever more holy in the love of God.

It’s living with the Other and learning to them nonetheless that we learn to love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Married love conveys and communicates to one another and to others something of the grace of God thereby growing us in grace.

The Orthodox Christian tradition, following St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding and reading deeply in the Song of Songs, has understood marriage and sexual intimacy to be a means of sanctification, an entering into Trinitarian love.

Marriage allows for Christians’ sanctification for it creates the space and time for eros (intense but self-centered love) to become agape (charitable, other-directed love. In this fashion, married love teaches Christians how to love as God loves.

Marriage is medicine by which the Spirit heals our sin-sick selves.

Married couples do not stay the same people they were on their wedding day. The binding covenant of Christian marriage provides the context-the confines- in which Christians can grow in holiness by growing in the love of someone other than themselves. In this way, Christian marriage makes visible to others the Holy Spirit’s active, invisible work in our midst.

If Christian marriage is also understood as a means of grace and sanctification, then to deny that source of grace to same sex couples is to withhold the medicine for sin under the auspices of sin.

Thus, to deny that source of grace to same sex couples might be understood to frustrate the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And if you know your bibles, then you know that grieving the Spirit- not what ones does under the sheets- is the only unforgivable offense.

RogersAs Dr. Eugene Rogers my very first theology teacher at UVA writes:

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges, but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

To deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine.

It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing.

Those couples who approach the church for marriage–and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace.

Couples who delay or are denied marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism; they unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. 

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners, but only how it is so. 

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ. 

St Thomas AquinasTim Keller and DA Carson, leaders of the Gospel Coalition, recently and unceremoniously booted a fellow member, the high-profile grandson of Billy Graham, Tullian Tchividjian.

The offense?

Heresy.

As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.

Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.

The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.

After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.

In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.

And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.

The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.

Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.

In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.

The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.

Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.

It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.

According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.

God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.

But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.

The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.

Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.

The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.

To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.

After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).

The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:

1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.

 

2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.

In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.

When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.

But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello Jeremy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston

Egg, meet Face.

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

Barth_Writing

If he could ignore the fact that Barth was not a literalist, John Piper would love §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics.

Karl Barth made his theological debut with his blistering commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. ‘Commentary’ is in some ways a misnomer for what Barth was really commenting upon was the ossified failures of modern western liberalism. Barth channeled Paul’s rhetoric more so than commented upon it, like any good preacher, doing what Paul did rather than simply explaining what Paul said.

Where Paul fixed his ire against the moral corruption of a fallen 1st century world, Barth’s barely veiled enemy is the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ ethos that began the 21st century. In Barth’s (correct) estimation, the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ too easily slipped into the godhead of Man.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach had accused Christians of simply speaking of themselves in a loud voice when they spoke of God, and Barth, surveying the Christianity late 19th century modernity had bequeathed him, concluded: ‘Jah, pretty much.’

Knowing Barth’s predilection for rhetorical bullying when it comes to modernist liberalism, one should approach §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics with trepidation because it’s in this section that Barth applies the theme ‘Praise of God’ to the Jesus Creed from Mark 12:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Expecting Barth to offer an accurate, dispassionate interpretation of Mark is like asking the Capulet’s and Montague’s to provide fair and balanced coverage of one another.

The liberalism, which Barth is so much against, had esteemed the latter clause of Jesus’ command to the point that it eclipsed the former.

So it’s not surprising that §18.3 reveals Barth resisting a plain reading of the text.

Barth begins strong, claiming that the love of neighbor is but another way of saying ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.’ 

But then Barth proceeds to scratch his head like Columbo and suggest that it’s not so clear as first glance.

Barth sees 3 possibilities- he doesn’t really, but he wants us to play along:

  1. Love of Neighbor is another, second absolute command. If that is the case, then everything scripture says about love of God can and should be applied to God.

  2. There aren’t really two commands at all but one single, absolute demand. Love to God and love for neighbor are identical, the one must be understood as the other. If so, then we must show how God is to be loved in the neighbor and vice versa.

  3. Or the commandment to love God is first and absolute and absolutely distinct from all other commands while love of neighbor is first among all other subsidiary commands.

Against #1 Barth notes that the weight of scripture, which overwhelmingly echoes the first commandment, contradicts any reading that yields two rival commands and thus, Barth says, two gods. We can’t simply take everything scripture says about loving God and truck it into a definition for love of neighbor. The love of God is exclusive and cannot be given likewise to our neighbor.

Against #2 Barth plays the exegete noting that the text itself does not allow for us to view love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same. After all, Barth cleverly points out, Jesus does not say we should love our neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Clearly the two commands belong together but they do not cease to be two commands.

To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:

‘…God is the neighbor and the neighbor God.’

To my mind, this is where it becomes clear that Barth is more concerned with his own modernist context than the text itself for Jesus himself resolves the matter in Mark 12:

‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Not one to worry about muddying the waters or inconveniencing us, Jesus makes the plural singular.

As §18.3 continues Barth takes a look at the Good Samaritan story. Given what he does to the Jesus Creed you can imagine how this goes.

Basically, Barth seems terrified by the prospect that Jesus would suggest  that in order to inherit eternal life love of God alone won’t cut it. You also have to love your neighbor in full, equal measure.

It’s always a pain in the ass when Jesus refuses to fit our preconceived theological and political categories, and here in §18.3 Barth wrestles with the fact that Jesus very obviously was not a Reformed Calvinist.

We are not saved by grace alone.

Apologies to Paul.

And this where I sometimes wish theology had the same disciplinary willingness to self-correct as science when it’s clear from the evidence that one’s presumptions were off the mark.

Instead, reacting in a ‘that can’t be’ way, Barth engages in some exegetical creativity.

It’s not that our love of neighbor is necessary ground for salvation (nevermind Matthew 25 also).

It remains the case that we’re saved by grace alone made manifest in our love of God.

What Jesus means by love of neighbor, therefore, is not our giving love to our neighbor (as the Good Samaritan parable clearly illustrates).

Rather love of neighbor refers to our receiving love and charity from our  neighbor as sign of God’s care for us.

Receiving our neighbor’s love is but another way we respond to God’s grace.

Barth thus secures the Reformed doctrine of ‘salvation by grace alone.’

At the expense- as often happens with Reformed doctrine- of scripture.

In another context, I would applaud Barth’s ability to show the relationship between our ability to receive a gift from our neighbor and our ability to receive the gift from God. I’m a terrible receiver of gifts and I’ve no doubt it’s due to a deficiency in my faith.

In §18.3, however, as clever as he is in his interpretation- because of his cleverness- I walk away thinking Barth sounds an awful lot like the hyper-parsing, ever-qualifying scribes and Pharisees:

‘Well, when you say ‘neighbor,’ who exactly is my neighbor?’

lightstock_74897_medium_user_2741517For all the hot air Christian politicos expend on the ‘sanctity of marriage,’ you’d think Christians would- you know- be experts of that which they speak.

Political naif though I be, you’d expect that Christians would have the sort of track record on marriage and relationships which would earn them the right to speak authoritatively in the public square.

Sadly, the statistics bear out something like the opposite as Christians are, unquestionably, just as compromised in their marriages as everyone else.

Indeed not a few studies suggest church-going, bible-believing, sanctity-of-marriage-professing Christians divorce at even higher rates than the general population.

Parenthetically, I can’t help but wonder if the recent cultural swing towards acceptance of same-sex unions has less to do with affirmation of homosexuality per se and instead reveals the extent to which the Church has lost the moral authority to weigh in on marriage at all.

If the above statistics are objectively true about Christians, then, in my experience, this is anecdotally true of the same Jesus tribe:

too often we think that faith alone will secure/strengthen/safeguard/salvage our marriage.

That Christians fail at marriage at the same or worse rate as everyone else is understandable.

After all, we’re sinners. The same or worse as everyone else. Christians are just those people with the particular vocabulary that describes all people.

That Christians would think grace alone in any way guarantees a relationship’s success, however, is foolish.

God’s grace heals and ultimately perfects our human nature.

It doesn’t replace our human nature.

Faith in God’s grace can help us to forgive our spouse.

It is not a substitute for acquiring the skills necessary for a relationship to grow and bear fruit.

A faith held by one or both people in a relationship while great- I AM a pastor remember- doesn’t relieve them from learning the skills (and, yes, they’re skills) upon which their relationship will fall or rise:

How to show discretion

How to balance candor and tenderness

How to listen and how to be speak honestly

How to recognize destructive patterns and habits

How to reframe

How to talk in a way that says ‘I heard’ you

How to act and speak so as to enable your spouse to be their best self.

In the same way God’s People gleaned and borrowed wisdom from Egypt, these are all skills couples are best off learning from books other than the bible. Sometimes people of faith are better looking to Athens than Jerusalem.

Very often when couples come to a pastor or priest for help in their relationship, they bring with them the mistaken assumption- whether conscious or sub- that ‘faith’ is the key that will rescue them.

I mean, that’s why you’d go to a pastor instead of a therapist, right?

If they only prayed more or harder. If only regular worship were a part of their (read: other spouse’s) life. If only they apply their belief in love of neighbor to their spouse. If only they had God in their marriage, all would be well.

Or at least better.

Not to minimize the importance of faith but learning greater loquaciousness in prayer won’t remedy a relationship if a couple haven’t learned how to listen to each other.

Grace is necessary but it isn’t enough.

Faith, for example, is little help to a basketball player if they’ve not also learned how to dribble, post-up and box-out their opponent.

And the grace that’s more helpful to a baseball player is learning how to slide into second with your leg tucked just right, how to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat or how throw the perfect one-hopper to make the tag just so.

Likewise, marriage plays out in such a way that both sides lose if they’re not willing to commit themselves to learning the skills that are the relational equivalent of hitting, fielding and pitching.

So much of relationships really is about learning skills, habits of relating, and concrete practices.

And like baseball, basketball or anything else requiring the acquiring of skills, marriage can require a lot of practice, drills and awkward play before you’re participating in something whose challenge is surpassed only by its beauty.

Grace may be enough for our eternal salvation.

But it’s not enough to start, strengthen or save a marriage.

 

 

 

zipper    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us.

From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther:

Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer1276-3

That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements.

An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message.

To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures.

Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

 “Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’

     God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says.

It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

 

images

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #3: Pelagianism

What Is It?

You tell me.

See if you can comb the cobwebs of your memory and regurgitate the little bit ‘bout Pelagius you probably learned in European History.

Seriously, no?

Well, did you not see the kick-@#$ Clive Owen King Arthur movie a few years back? Wherein Arthur gets re-imagined as a virtuous knight precisely because his adoptive guardian was Pelagius? No?

The movie also stars Keira Knightley, an actress who induces if not heretical thoughts then definitely sinful ones.

Okay, for those forgetful and unaesthetic among you, Pelagianism is the heresy which denies the existence of – and therefore power over us- original sin.

Consequently, Pelagianism asserts that people possess the capacity to choose the good through their own unaided, created natures.

Put in more Pauline terms, we can be saved- actually the passive there is incorrect in this case- we can achieve salvation through our efforts apart from God’s grace.

Pelagians can dismiss original sin one of two ways. Either by contradicting Augustinian readings of Paul and dismissing the notion that the sin of Adam is transmitted to us biologically. AKA: Through the S word. Or, by emphasizing certain passages of Paul and declaring that the power of Sin has been defeated on the Cross by Christ.

Already perhaps you can sense why Augustine saw Pelagianism as both an especially pernicious but also an exceptionally thoughtful heresy.

Who Screwed Up First

You don’t get a heresy named after you if you’re not the first or at least most articulate spokesmen for your anathema.

As Clive Owen reminds us, Pelagius was a British theologian who taught in Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Pelagius had the ill fortune to have lived the same time as St. Augustine of Hippo who was even more astute a thinker than he. Zosimus, the Bishop of Rome (which eventually become the Pope’s office) condemned Pelagius in 418.

Nevertheless, Pelagius’ legacy lives on in more than just celluloid, abiding throughout the centuries just as Pelagius insisted Sin did not.

Much like a vaccine, Pelagianism lurks latent throughout the Body of Christ and one could make a solid case that Mormonism is really just Pelagianism dressed up in a short-sleeve, white-button down.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you believe that God does not care what religion a person practices so long as that person tries to live a good life, then your mind- or your squishy little heart- has got Pelagius’ fingerprints all over it.

If at a funeral, or in the planning of one, you summarize: ‘__________ wasn’t religious at all but he was a good person, then as compassionate as you no doubt are your logic is that of Pelagius and not the Gospel.

If you teach your kids that the meaning of Christmas is that they better be good- not naughty- or Santa won’t give them any gifts, then you’re not only setting them up to inherit some pretty effed up understandings of God you’ve also, like Pelagius himself, got the definition of grace exactly wrong.

If you presume that Christianity is essentially about ethics (about serving the poor, clothing the naked, waging peace) then you’re definitely showing symptoms of a bad case of Pelagianism.

Not to mention, you’ve confused the Gospel (Jesus’ overcoming Sin and Death and being Raised to the right hand of the Father) and the Gospel’s effects (being set free to live a life like Jesus).

If you issue altar calls, require Jesus prayers or accept only adult baptisms because to be a Christian a person must ‘make a decision for Christ’ then, like Pelagius before you, you’ve over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace and you’ve turned conversion into yet another ‘work.’

If you act as though all non-Christians or non-churchgoers are bad, decadent or morally corrupt and self-righteously think that your participation in church makes you a better person, then you’ve once again over simplified the mystery that is Sin and Grace in all our lives, believer and unbeliever.

And you’ve forgotten that God’s grace is active everywhere and in every life preveniently; that is, before any of us ever ‘choose’ God.

If you think that ‘real’ Christians or ‘bible-believing’ Christians or ‘faithful’ Christians must believe/vote/think/act this way on that issue, then you’ve been seduced by Pelagius’ reduction of the complexity of the world into right/wrong, black/white issues.

If you see the Eucharist as nothing more than a memorial to a soon-to-be prisoner’s last supper and, for that matter, if you see all of creation in a non-sacramental way then you’ve got some Pelagian germs in you.

After all, God’s grace has more than just a negative connotation. It isn’t only active in our overcoming of our individual sins.

Grace illumines and animates and charges everything last thing around us.

If you say ‘I do’ foolishly thinking you can have a fruitful marriage apart from God then you’re what practical theologians call ‘a Pelagian.’ Pelagius had to have been celibate. Seriously, marriage is hard enough with God.

If you’re not raising your children in a particular faith tradition because ‘you want them to make up their own minds when their older’ then not only are you instead raising them in the faith called ‘American Individualistic Consumerism’ you’re also assuming a Pelagian capacity in your children to grow up ‘good’ and ‘wise’ apart from grace.

If you insist your nation, its leaders or its founders (cherry tree, _____ was really kind to his slaves) always have good and pure motives then you are a Pelagian, refusing to see how the murky reality of Sin and Grace exist in every person, every tribe and every issue.

Likewise, if you ignore that the lifestyles of Western culture are made possible on the backs of the poor in the developing world then…Pelagian.

If your red politics depends on a Horatio Alger myth of every individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps then you’re politics have a bit of Pelagianism in them, ignoring that Sin is more than what individuals do but also what is done, systemically to others.

Of course, if your blue politics depends on depicting the poor and downtrodden as uniformly noble, well-intentioned and ‘good’ your politics are likewise infected with a heresy that is, if nothing else, simply unrealistic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Parents (especially of the helicopter, dragon, playdate variety)

Americans

United Methodists

The Nones

Celebrities

Mormons

Funeral Planners

Republicans

Democrats

Remedies

Watch Kiera Knightly in King Arthur and be reminded that, despite our good virtue, some sins (lust for example) abide.

To apply this same principle on a more systemic level, watch Django Unchained.

Spy on your kids when they don’t think you’re looking. And notice that Augustine was right, the little bastards have the devil in them.

Sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and then remember that it took what’s-his-name several many years after he was ‘found’ to actually stop buying and selling people.

Affirm the caveat postscript that every Methodist ordinand must: ‘….with God’s help.’

IMG_1411One of the happy accidents of this blog is that I know have ‘friends’ whom I’ve never met save this space here.

One of the downsides of making such friends- the same downside that comes with working for or belonging to any congregation- is that I find myself mourning with or for such friends.

A friend of this blog recently lost her young son in a car accident. Her brother is a real-life, flesh-and-blood friend of mine, whose faith I admire- though his character is such he’d insist it should be the other way ’round.

Her brother, my friend, ‘Ben’s Uncle,’ wrote this reflection about his nephew’s funeral service. It’s a beautiful (made me weep) testimony to grace and our ultimate hope.

Mike had the grace to share it with me and the trust to let me share it with you. If you do me any favors in the back end of ’13, let it be this:

Read…

Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.  But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the Lord, who is good, pardon everyone who sets their heart on seeking God—the Lord, the God of their ancestors—even if they are not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.”  And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.  2 Chronicles 30:18-20

The Gathering Place in the church was bright—lots of windows.  There was a beautiful arrangement of flowers prominently displayed, sent from out of town, and bearing the condolences of family in a distant location.  The mood was subdued—not somber—just subdued.  The immediate family had gathered, and then the friends began to arrive—two groups of friends.  The friends of the family tended to be older—though not exclusively so.  Many had known Ben as he was growing up.

Many were members of the church where Ben’s parents were long-time members.  Some were members at the church where Ben’s grandparents were members and where Ben had participated in youth activities.  The other group—Ben’s friends—seemed youngish to me.  But then most people seem youngish to me these days.

My sense was that they were vaguely ill at ease, worried about being out of place in an unfamiliar environment, wondering, perhaps, how the Ben they knew fit in with these family friends who were right at home in church.  As you would expect, the two groups tended to cluster with their own in the large, open room: the respectable, pillar-of-the-community folks in small groups; and small groups of 21st century James Dean types, both men and women.  They were all well dressed for this memorial service for someone they all knew and loved.  But peeking out from under the sleeves or above the necklines of the young friends was a moving gallery of art.  And some of the ink wasn’t peeking; it was right out there, expansive, striking even.

I have to admit that I find tattoos off-putting.  A long-engrained prejudice.  I tried hard not to judge but could hardly help it.  As I was standing in the receiving line, a young woman held out her hand to me, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the extensive tattoo on her upper arm and shoulder.  But as she said her name—Elise—my eyes snapped to hers.  I knew the name, but not the person.

Just a few days earlier, Elise had gone to the place where her friend, Ben had been killed.  She went looking—looking for a license plate that she hoped had survived the crash.  She knew that little piece of metal had special meaning for Ben—and for Ben’s grandfather.  After a long search, and as she was about to give up, she looked down at her feet, and there it was.  She took it away with her, framed it, and gave it to Ben’s grandfather.  The awkwardness of the moment, there in the line, faded.  We hugged each other, and she moved down the line.

We spent an hour and a half in the Gathering Place, but it was that few seconds with Elise that I was thinking of when the doors of the sanctuary opened up, and the family went in to take our seats.  Those few seconds are prominent in my thinking now, weeks later.  The sanctuary was packed—about evenly split between the two groups.

We sat and listened to a wonderful service—beautiful music, readings from scripture, words of comfort and assurance from the pastors.  All the while, the two groups sat behind us—each person, no doubt, with their own thoughts of Ben.  With their own thoughts of what it meant to be in that place—a place of worship.

Looking back now, I marvel at these two groups, mingled in the pews.  The “good” people and the “maybe not so good” people.  The establishment people, easy to spot in their manicured neatness.  And the renegades, a little rough around the edges and sporting a bunch of body art.  But every one of them was there to remember Ben.

And Elise has become something of an emblem of that day for me.

I don’t know her.

I don’t know what kind of life she lives.

I do know that I judged her when I saw her in that receiving line—once in the negative, and seconds later, very differently.

What a heart!  What a sense of kindness and love!

I very nearly didn’t see that.  It was hidden to my eyes, hidden behind some ink.

And if her goodness was hidden to me, surely everyone in that room—including me—was concealed by some form of camouflage.

But we serve a God who sees through it all—the first time.  A God who knows full well who he created us to be.  And a God who has promised to finish the good work he started in us.  My prayer is that every time we open our eyes, we will see people though his eyes.

That’s our best hope.

For Ben, who was at home with everyone in those pews….

“Because I don’t have to be the old man inside of me;
His day is long dead and gone….” 
Redeemed

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

mainDick Cheney could’ve spared himself a lot of historical ignominy had he opted to force prisoners to read Mark Driscoll’s ebook Pastor Dad: Biblical Insights into Fatherhood rather than submit them to water-boarding.

The cumulative effect of Driscoll’s self-congratulatory screed has been to remind me of Robert DeNiro’s stepfather character in This Boy’s Life, the memoir/film by Tobias Wolf.

DeNiro’s abusive yet pathetically silly character, like Driscoll himself, haunted the Pacific Northwest.

MV5BMTgyODM0NTIzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ1MjMyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_

Chapter 6 of Driscoll’s ebook, ‘Instruction Followed by Correction,’ pretty much follows this theo-literary formula:

‘A wise and godly father SHOULD______________’ 

‘A wise and godly father MUST________________ ‘

Insert tenuous citation from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. 

I began reading this book to anticipate Father’s Day but Driscoll is such a boorish nag the book is better suited to Mother’s-in-Law Day.

The model of ‘biblical’ parenting prescribed by Driscoll presents a telling contrast to that other sacred text opening in theaters tomorrow, Man of Steel.

People who know me or read me will not be surprised that in the comic pantheon I prefer Batman, well tied with Hell Boy actually. Batman is dark and damaged. Cynicism leads him to vigilantism. The costume reveals his true self rather than masks it.

2840438-bg

Superman, on the other hand, has always been a bit too bright, too optimistic and Americana kitsch for me.

Except, I guess I should qualify that by saying I never really cared for Superman until I had kids.

Until I adopted kids, I should add.

My oldest boy, I should specify.

Most reflections (of a theological bent) on Superman focus on how Kal-El is a graphic, American Dream projection of our need to have a Christ-like Savior figure, one whose character is as pure as his powers are mighty. And sure, you can interpret Superman that way. I mean it’s not exactly subtle; Kal- El is a loose play on the Hebrew for ‘voice of God.’

But to read it only that way is, I think, to miss something else entirely.

Superman’s goodness, his kindness and gentleness, his (often unfounded) insistence on believing in the good inside people- all those attributes that led me to dismiss Superman when I was  a boy are exactly those things that give me hope now that I have boys.

Because those attributes of Clark Kent I found so bland and corny as a kid are attributes Clark acquired from Ma and Pa Kent.

His adoptive parents. article-kent-2

This is clear to anyone who’s read the Superman comics- and it’s what makes Superman Red Son, in which Clark’s spaceship crashes not in the Midwest but in the Soviet Union, so interesting.

Clark is the way he is, unfailingly kind (even to the point of naivete), gentle and good, not because he went to K-5 at the Fortress of Solitude Academy.

No, he is the way he is because that’s the example Ma and Pa Kent gave him as his parents.

Superman’s goodness is their goodness.

While Batman shows the life-long impact of tragedy striking a boy in one’s formative years, Superman, more so than any other comic superhero, demonstrates the power- the possibility- of nurture being just as formative in a child’s life as nature.

In the Church, we call that grace. It’s the good news behind Clark’s goodness. And it’s been the good news in our own family.

We adopted our oldest boy when he was a few days shy of his 5th birthday. His preceding years had given us every reason to expect that the proceeding years would be far from easy. Or happy.

The adoption world uses terms like ‘at risk’ and ‘special needs’ to name the possibility that whatever’s happened before this child crashed into your life likely cannot be undone by whatever love you nurture in him.

And often, sadly, that IS how the story turns out.

But I can give you at least two stories, one drawn in reds and blues and the other being told in flesh and blood, that turn out differently.

 

70X7This past weekend as part of our Lenten Sermon Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, I taught from Matthew 18. That’s the chapter where you’ll find Jesus’ double-dog dare command that we should forgive not once, not twice, not even seven times but just shy of 500 times.

Which is Jesus’ Jewish way of saying: Forgive all the time. 

And, because he’s the Christ of the perpetual offense, Jesus follows up that turd of a teaching with this parable, in which a servant- who’s obviously meant to be our doppleganger- receives grace and forgiveness from the King (ie, God, in case you’re terrible at reading stories).

Because the forgiven servant can’t extend forgiveness to to others, he’s thrown in Hell to be tortured for a debt whose math works out to about 64 million days.

Nice.

Of course, we did kill Jesus for telling stories like this.

Unexpectedly, the sermon’s subject elicited several dozen questions from folks who heard it or who’ve since read it online.

Questions about forgiveness.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We all live life, to some degree or another, with other people. Bumping into people. Rubbing and getting rubbed the wrong way. Like milk and bread in a snow storm, conflict and forgiveness are just staples of weathering life with other people.

I’ll try to answer some of the questions in posts this week.

Here’s one question I got:

‘Does forgiveness mean that we have to stay friends with people or is it enough to let go of our anger/resentment and decide to no longer keep a score/ledger of their transgression?

Short answer: no. 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to remain friends, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to restore a broken relationship.

I think we can all probably name people and situations where to do so would be naive, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to stay married to someone who repeatedly breaks their vows. Forgiveness doesn’t mean someone should continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. And forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re obligated to play the fool to a friend who’s shown they’re not actually a friend.

So if the answer’s no, then exactly what are Christians talking about when we talk about forgiveness?

I hate it when people pedantically cite Webster’s dictionary definitions but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The clarity is helpful in this case:

Forgiveness = the action or process of remitting a debt

While I think some people overemphasize debt language as it pertains to the cross, the imagery can be helpful in thinking about our own relationships.

Forgiveness is forgoing what another person owes you. It’s declaring a pardon. It’s eating the cost of what was done to you rather than making the other person pay. Forgiveness is sacrificing what you deserve for the sake of the other. Forgiveness is you no longer needing what the other person has coming to them to come to them. It’s letting go of the (righteous) anger, and putting down the score card.

Forgiveness can be a form of suffering. It usually is, but it’s the only way to stop the cycle of retribution.  

Now, all that is different than:

Reconciliation = the action of process of restoring a broken relationship

Though we often merge them together so they become incoherent, forgiveness and reconciliation are two related, but distinct, terms. Forgiveness and reconciliation name two different poles in the process of healing. Reconciliation is the fruit of which forgiveness is a necessary first seed.

You can’t have a reconciled relationship without forgiveness. 

But, in a fallen world, you can have forgiveness- and sometimes you must- without reconciliation. 

Think of the servant in Jesus’ parable.

He’s been forgiven. His debt to the King was canceled. But the rest of the story shows that he was not in a reconciled relationship with the King because his heart remain unchanged.

Think of us.

Jesus declares us pardoned from the cross. We’re forgiven. The debt, for all time, has been paid. But that does not mean every person- or even every Christian- enjoys a reconciled relationship with God.

To answer the question behind the question:

The hard, scary work of humility, I think, comes in discerning whether you refuse to seek reconciliation with your former friend/spouse/whatever because to do so would be unwise (ie, they’ve hurt you too many times) or if instead you refuse the possibility of reconciliation because you haven’t truly let go of the debt.

You’ve forgiven them in name only. 

Which means you haven’t really forgiven at all. 

And that, Jesus says, has scary stakes. 

 

 

 

 

By the Book

Jason Micheli —  March 11, 2013 — 8 Comments

Here’s my sermon on ‘Forgiveness’ for our Lenten Series on Idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. You can listen to the sermon in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download for free in the iTunes Library, under Tamed Cynic.

70X7

This isn’t the sermon I thought I was going to preach when my week began.

I started out on Monday writing a sermon about the prophet Elisha and a leper named Namaan, but then, because of a decision I made weeks ago, I had an encounter this week that provoked a much different sermon.

If you read my blog, then you know that a few weeks ago I made a Lenten commitment that once or twice a week I would strap a clergy collar around my neck, which I usually only wear to weddings and graveside burials.

I made a commitment that I’d strap a collar on and go to some public space, like a coffee shop or pub or cafe, and just see what conversations came my way by exposing my faith and vocation in plain sight.

 

Since then I’ve worn it to Starbucks a couple of times.

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble.

This past week I went to Whole Foods to eat lunch in the cafe and sketch what I had planned on being a very different sermon.

I sat down in a booth with my food and a few books about the prophet Elisha. And aside from the check-out guy asking me who I was going to vote for- for Pope- it was an uneventful day.

And I was about to call it a day, when a woman pushing a grocery cart crept up to my booth and said:

‘Um, excuse me Father….could I?’ 

 

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me.

 

‘Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______’ I started to say but she just looked confused.

 

‘Never mind’ I said. ‘Sit down.’ 

 

She looked to be somewhere in her 40’s. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red.

 

No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts.

 

‘Maybe this is a mistake. I feel ridiculous and I just interrupted you. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…’ 

 

She fussed with the zipper on her coat while she rambled, embarrassed.

 

     ‘It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.’ 

 

‘Put what down?’ I asked.

 

‘Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.’ She laughed and wiped the corner of her eye.

 

‘Beginning at the beginning usually works’ I said.

 

‘Yeah,’ she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head.

 

And then she told it to me. She confessed.

 

About her husband and their marriage.

About his drinking, the years of it.

About his lies, the years of it.

About her making every effort to help him, to stick by him, to do whatever it

took to keep their marriage together.

She told me about how he’s sober now.

And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never receive what she spent.

 

Then she bit her lip and paused- like she was mentally censoring a part of it.

 

And so I asked her: ‘Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’ 

 

‘No, I know I’m supposed to forgive him’ she said. ‘My priest told me that years ago- that’s when I stopped going to church. I know I’m supposed to forgive.’ 

 

‘What’s your question then?’ I asked.

 

‘I’ve sacrificed enough. He’s the one who owes me. Why does forgiving him just make me feel like a victim all over again?’

 

     ‘Why can’t I just wipe this from my ledger….and move on?’ 

 

And when she said that, I knew I had to write a different sermon.

When Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness, when Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone 7 times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. Peter’s a brown-noser, a butt-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have raised his hand and volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer.

After all Moses had said an eye for an eye, do in turn what was done to you but no more. So 7 times must have struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness.

I mean, think about that. Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as an illustration.

Imagine someone gossips about you. And you confront them about it. 

     1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. Fool 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

 

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

 

And Peter suggests drawing the line at 7 times.

7 is a good, biblical number and, whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery, 7 is a whole lot of forgiveness.

So Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer; Peter must’ve expected a pat on the back, gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one.

 

     Instead Jesus says: ‘You’re off by about 483.’ Not 7 times but 70 times 7. 

 

     490 times. And- it’s even worse than it sounds.

     490 was a Jewish way of expressing perfection. Infinity.

 

So Jesus is saying there is no limit to forgiveness, that forgiving someone is something we never get done with. It’s something that goes on forever.

That forgiveness is not a favor we offer 490 times but when we finally get to 491 we can stop.

     No, Jesus is saying that forgiveness is a way of life that never ends.

 

And as he likes to do, Jesus goes straight from answer to illustration and tells a story that starts with grace and ends with hell.

 

‘And oh, by the way,’ Jesus tacks on, ‘that’s exactly what God will do with you unless you forgive in your heart.’ 

 

On the surface that’s a really crappy story. 

     You must forgive or else. You must forgive or else your heavenly father will lock you in hell and throw away the key? You must forgive…out of fear? 

     That doesn’t sound like Jesus- at all. 

     So, there’s got to be more going on in this story than you can hear the first time through. 

     In fact, what we need is a couple more takes to notice what’s going on in Jesus’ parable. 

So what I need is a few volunteers…

The story revolves around 3 main characters: a King, a servant and a fellow servant.

     Take One: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

    So in the beginning, the king opens his ledger to settle accounts, and he finds a servant who owes him 10,000 talents.

The amount of the debt is key to the whole logic of Jesus’ story. In case you’re rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

     This servant owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 60 million days’ wages or 164 years and 3 months of labor. 

So when Jesus tells the story, Peter and the other disciples would’ve known instantly that this man owes a debt he could never possibly repay. It’s not just a large debt; its an un-repayable debt.

But no sooner is the man forgiven his debt and set free than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about 3 months wages. No small amount but small potatoes compared to the debt he owed the king.

So even though he’s been forgiven and set free he grabs the man, chokes him, demands what’s owed him and sends the man to prison, ignoring the very same plea he’d pled: ‘be patient with me…’

And when the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received,  the King has him thrown in jail to be tortured until all his debt is repaid, to be tortured.

To be tortured for 10,000 talents worth of time. 60 million days.

     Take Two: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s a question:

Why does the king cancel the debt?

Because of the servant’s plea? Because he promises to pay back everything he owes? 60 million days worth of wages?

He can’t ever pay that back.

So if the king forgives the servant because the servant promises to make it up to him, then the king is stupid.

The king just forgives him. Gratuitously. The king offers him grace.

And how does the servant respond?

Immediately he leaves the king and then turns to a fellow servant and demands from his peer what he has coming to him.

Somehow this servant has managed to receive the king’s forgiveness yet he’s remained completely unchanged by it. 

     He’s been forgiven something he could never repay. 

     He’s been spared a punishment that should have been his. 

    He’s been offered grace and somehow its not converted his heart or his character. 

     He’s still the same person he was before. 

     The king’s grace has not made him a person of grace. 

     Take Three: Re-narrate Matthew 18.23-35

     Here’s another question: what happens to the debt? In the story?

The king examines his ledger and sees what’s owed him. But when he forgives the servant, what happens to the debt?

Where does that debt go? What’s the king do with his ledger?

Because the debt doesn’t just disappear. Someone has to pay the debt- that’s the way the world works, that’s the way accounting works.

And this servant can never pay what is owed. So who eats the debt?

The king.

     The king pays the debt.

     The king will have to suffer the cost of this un-payable debt because forgiveness always costs someone something.

But notice, it’s not just that the king pays the debt.

Because the king can’t forgive the servant without in some way tossing the ledger book aside once and for all.

Because there’s nothing this servant can ever do to bring his relationship with the king back in the black.

So when the king forgives the servant, the king also sacrifices the ledger.

Keeping tally of what’s been earned and what’s still owed goes by the wayside for good.

The whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of positive and negative, of + and -, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is owed- the king DIES to that way of life.

He gets rid of the ledger, so that a servant can have new life.

But notice.

After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score? Who’s still keeping track of what people owe him? Who’s still recording what he’s earned? Who’s still tallying what he deserves from others but still hasn’t gotten?

     You see, the king throws his ledger away. Gone for good.

     But the servant clings to his ledger. 

     And he takes his ledger with him, willingly, all the way to hell. 

     In other words, Jesus says, if you insist on treating other people by the book then God will give you exactly what you want. And treat you by the book. 

‘Why can’t I just wipe the ledger clean and move on? Why does forgiving him make me feel like a victim all over again?’ the woman at WF asked me.

I sipped the last of my coffee.

And I said: ‘That’s kinda the way it’s supposed to feel.’ 

I could tell from her face she didn’t follow.

So I tried to explain:

‘The way we forgive is just a small-scale version of how God forgives. There’s no way to reconciliation that doesn’t first go through pain and suffering. Jesus is the pattern. Forgiveness means you bear the cost instead of making the other person pay what they owe you.’

‘That’s a sucky answer’ she said.

‘Sure it sucks’ I said. ‘It sucked for Jesus too, remember.’ 

‘Do you talk like this in church?’ she asked. ‘No, never.’ 

‘Look, the debt your husband owes you is real, but forgiveness means you absorb that debt. And, yes, it’s painful and, sure, it’s hard, but that’s the only way to resurrection.’ 

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘it’d be a lot better if I could just wipe the ledger clean and move on.’ 

     ‘Yeah, but if you wipe that part of it clean it won’t be long before some other part of it shows red. It’s not about wiping the ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the ledger altogether.’ 

 

Pay Attention:

No more pretending. That woman at Whole Foods, and that servant in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Some of you carry around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you.

Names of people who’ve taken something from you.

Names of people who’ve wronged you.

People who’ve cheated you or cheated on you.

Who’ve lied to you or who’ve lied about you.

People who refuse to listen to you, or to understand you, or to accept you.

People who’ve betrayed you, who’ve rubbed you the wrong the way, or who’ve just let you down one too many times.

And in many of your ledgers, you have a whole other list of names, people that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book.

Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you.

Some of you cling to marriage ledgers, tallying the precise daily cash flow of what each person brings to the marriage, which person is costing the marriage more and which person is sacrificing more, working more, contributing more. To the marriage.

And some of you cling to ledgers that look more like a list of accomplishments:

How much you’ve done for others.

How much you’ve given to your church.

How much you attend worship.

All the reasons why you think, assume, God should love you.

While others of you can’t let of go.

Can’t let go of ledgers that list all the sinful things you’ve ever done. All the things you’re ashamed of. All the things you wish you could change about yourself. All the things you wish you could take back.

Ledgers filled with all the reasons why you’re secretly convinced God can never love you.

This sanctuary should not be a place where we lie: there are as many ledgers in this room as there are people.

And, hell, I have my own.

But Jesus wants us to know that we’ve got to put them down. 

     To get rid of them. Toss them aside. Die to that whole way of living. 

     Because clinging to this (the ledger) makes an idol out of that (the cross). Because if you’re still holding on to this, that’s just a symbol from a story that happened once upon a time to someone else. 

I mean, let’s be honest. Some of you have gone to church your whole lives and you’re no different than you were before. The grace of the King has not made you a grace-filled person.

And it’s because you’re still holding on to this.

     When it comes to you, you want the King to throw the book away. But when it comes to everyone else in your life, you insist on going by the book.

But clinging to this, going through your life going by the book, needing to keep score, needing to tally and balance the accounts, it makes that (the cross) an idol. 

      It makes it nothing more than an object- because you’re worshipping the object and not its meaning and power. 

Because the good news of the cross is that you’re more sinful than you’ll ever admit but you’re more loved than you could ever imagine.

The good news of the cross is that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, you can do to earn God’s love.

And there’s nothing you can do to lose it.

God doesn’t keep score. God doesn’t go by the book.

Because the King has tossed his ledger in the trash.

And despite the cost, he’s paid every debt. Every debt. And that includes, by the way, the debts that everyone in your life owe to you.

     So put the ledger down. Put it down. Get rid of it. Die to it.

And instead tit-for-tat, instead of quid pro quo, instead 1 for 1, you do this and I’ll do that, eye for an eye, try 70 x 7.

Show mercy.

Every time.

Just as the King has shown mercy to you.