Archives For Jesus

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

StJosephbyGerritVanHonthorst1620As promised, here’s the audio and video from the weekend’s sermon on Joseph. You can also download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the FREE Tamed Cynic mobile app linked in the sidebar.

Here’s the audio:

And here’s the video:

 

jules-hr-600x300It’s a Wonderful-But-Also-Cliched-And Moralizing Life

This time of year, with Gabriel’s ‘Do not be afraids’ and the heavenly host’s ‘glorias,’people tend to have questions about angels.

Much like the devil, pop culture’s assumptions about angels run far afield of what we actually find in scripture.

And as with the devil, the ubiquity of pop culture stereotypes on angels often makes people reluctant to jettison their Touched By An Angel/Highway to Heaven/Fat Cherub Baby Calendar images of angels.

So, if you’re like all the other people who’ve ever asked me about angels and devils then you’ll read my sober, scripturally based response and decide you like Michael Landon better.

As my son says before I smack him, ‘whatever’ (just joking).

First, what are angels?

Simply put, angels are messengers.

That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means.

And you should notice how similar it is to the word ‘evangel’ or ‘proclamation.’

Angels do evangelism.

That, with few not contradictory examples, is what they do.

Angels are creatures of God and thus subordinate to God. They’re creatures given over to a specific purpose: the mediation of heavenly revelation or messages.

They’re God’s tweets in other words.

Because they’re creatures given for a specific purpose, they have no free will.

Because they are without free will, they are subordinate in creation to human beings- and if you’re about to push back on that it’s because you’ve got Milton’s Paradise Lost in your head not the bible.

Check.

Mate.

Now, this heavenly revelation bit is key.

The message angels deliver is straight from the presence of Yahweh.

Think of the Holy of Holies and how risky it was for Israel’s priests to venture close to it.

Angels bring the holiness of God near into the present. Therefore, they’re scary. In a fear of God kind of way.

There’s a reason Gabriel is constantly having to say ‘Do not be afraid.’

Just like Jewels in Pulp Fiction, Gabriel is a ‘Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(’

And Clarence, no matter how we might feel about the Jimmy Stewart movie, could never ever be mistaken for a Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(

An angel as sweet and reassuring as Clarence is not an angel sent from the holy presence of Yahweh, the God who is, as Hebrews says, ‘a consuming fire.’ clarence

Back to the Christmas story or just the Gospels in general. What makes the Gospels take an angels distinct (especially compared to some of the Jewish writings in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth) is how the Gospels take on angels is thoroughly Christocentric (Jesus centered).

You’ve got angels, most notably Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel in the Nativity story.

You’ve got angels at the end, in the form of the strangers at the tomb, when Jesus is raised from the dead.

In the middle, you’ve got Jesus.

Why no angels? Because, back to the top, angels mediate God’s revelation.

And Jesus Christ is himself the perfect, complete revelation of God.

No other messengers necessary.

Which leads to a theological question I don’t have time for now but you can feel free to weigh in on:

Since God has sent us Jesus, the complete revelation of God’s message….

And since Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit….

Do we need

and/or

does God continue to send angels?

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The following is a small group reflection written for our church planting planning team. 

“I would rather be with someone who is real than someone who is good.”

- Philip Yancey

During the 2006 campaign, ‘political correspondents’ for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart purported to provide election coverage from locations all over the state of Ohio. You can see a clip here.

From different towns and cities and polling places.

Every correspondent though reported their story while standing in front of an Applebee’s restaurant.

Each exactly like the other.

As usual, the Daily Show skewered something very true about our culture.

Just think of the homogeneity of our shopping centers. When there is a combination of Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Target and Panera everywhere, it begins to feel as though every place is the same, or that no place is unique. Or real.

What we experience in shopping centers isn’t that different in kind from the fake reality we see on television.

What we see on television isn’t that much different from the abundance of fake foods sold in our supermarkets.

What we find in our supermarkets is but another example of the digitally altered and perfected music we hear on the radio or the false sounds we hear from politicians.

On many levels, ours is an inauthentic culture:

the artificial is everywhere and everywhere it is promised to trump the real thing.

In such a culture, Christians are called to be a People who are honest, genuine and real.

There’s a story in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s the last in a series of 3 ‘Kingdom moments’ in which Jesus non-violently upends the status quo. Jesus calls Simon, who is a tax collector and, as such, is a Jew who makes his living by colluding with the Roman Empire.

Tax collectors were sinners. Outcasts. And even among the ‘ochlos’ (the despised and outcast poor) tax collectors were the most loathed of people.

Not only does Jesus call Simon to follow him, Jesus promptly eats and drinks with Simon and other sinners. Mark’s telling of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners includes the curious phrase “on his left elbow.”

That is, Jesus is reclining at the dinner table on his left elbow.

The left elbow was a 1st century colloquialism for being casual with another.

For being real.

Authentic.

Not a high and mighty Messiah, Jesus was authentically himself with sinners.

And by giving them his left elbow, Jesus gave sinners the right signal to be authentic themselves.

Incidentally, it’s when Jesus and his followers are being real around a table that Mark uses the word ‘disciple’ for the first time.

The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, commenting on the fake reality of contemporary culture, writes that what is needed is a “substituting the signs of the real for the real.”

There’s both a need and a hunger, he argues, for a reality that’s really real. He’s right. From farmers’ markets to home-brewed beer to handmade clothes sold on Etsy, people crave the authentic.

What’s more, today people are so numbed to the artificiality marketed to us from every angle that increasingly they have what Ernest Hemingway called a “a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector.”

[What things in or about church would set off Hemingway’s BS Detector?]

Missiologist Michael Frost says this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

On the one hand, more and more people long for authentic relationships and experiences, communities of truthfulness and vulnerability.

On the other hand, this is exactly what many churches tend to avoid.

Churches too, Frost points out, peddle the artificial and inauthentic. Often churches are not places where folks recline on their left elbow with each other, sharing what’s really going on in their lives.

Churches are sometimes guilty, Frost says, of painting the Christian life in the sweet, sentimental glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. When Norman Rockwell fails to match people’s reality (because, admit it, it does for all of us), churches can end up alienating people.

Which leads to an interesting question:

[What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?]

Which is just another way of asking:

[Why do Christians so often value respectability over authenticity?]

It’s important that we have an answer to that last question.

As Frost writes, in our increasingly post-Christendom culture Christians need to earn the right to be reheard:

“Is it too simplistic to say that we earn that right through our authentic lifestyles?

In a culture yearning for authenticity- the real- the pressure is on us in the Christian community now more than ever to put our time and our money where our mouth is and live what we preach.”

We’re called, in other words, not to be perfect Christians.

We’re called to be genuine people.

Who are trying to follow Jesus.

Which is good news.

Because if authenticity is what more and more people hunger after, then they’re searching not for the former but for the latter.

[What does a community of authenticity look like?

What’s the congregational equivalent of a farmers’ market?]

[What might it mean to practice an organic, homebrewed faith?]

 

 

 

reza-aslan-muslim-zealot-book-author-slams-Jesus-christianity

This past weekend we concluded our sermon series on Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, brought the homiletical thunder.

Or at least a couple of sermonic sparks.

Here’s Dennis’ sermon:

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‘A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” Moved with anger, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Snorting with indignation, Jesus dispatched him, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 

On Facebook this week I shared an article I found on the Daily Beast with the amusing title, ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God.’

I only glanced through the article but I read enough to catch a whiff of the author’s condescension, subtly mocking the (often vague and contradictory) religious beliefs of porn stars and their (often equally vague and contradictory) justifications for their work in light of their faith.

What came across in the article is exactly what the headline was meant to pique: Surprise.

Surprise that ‘those people’ would believe in God.

I don’t know why it would surprise.

Many porn stars apparently believe in a personal God who bears a slight familial resemblance to the God of the Bible but not enough to be overbearing.

Just like many plenty of church do.

I confess I shared the story on Facebook with a little added snark about the possibilities for creating a niche, micro-targeted church just for porn star Christians.

Having shared it on Facebook, I immediately wondered what exactly would be wrong with a community of porn stars following Jesus.

Why is it, for example, that a Daily Beast article with the title ‘I Coordinate Drone Attacks and I Believe in God’ or ‘I’m a Corporate Lawyer and I Believe in God’ or, to be above board, ‘I’m a Pastor in an Affluent Denomination and I Believe in God’ wouldn’t register the same tone of surprise, if any, as a ‘I’m a Porn Star and I Believe in God?’

Because any honest read of the Gospels would lead you to bet that Jesus would have a thing or two to say about those other vocations too.

And there’s no question in mind as to who Jesus would be hanging out with if he had to choose.

This is hardly a defense of pornography, quite the opposite. It is, however, an honest pondering about why the word ‘purity’ carries only connotations of sex.

Why do sexual sins triumph over other ones? And why do we assume those sins disqualify from discipleship while others do not?

What prompted me to reconsider the Daily Beast story this week was my reading of Mark’s Gospel, the story of the leper in 1.40-45.

The purity regulations about leprosy are found in Leviticus 13.2-14.57 and revolved around 2 basic considerations: Leprosy is a communicable disease and a priest must preside over any ritual cleansing

The verb (katharizein) translated ‘to cleanse’ actually means ‘to declare clean.’ Jesus, as he does with ritually proscribed food, announces the man clean.

‘To declare clean’ shows how the point isn’t Jesus’ miracle-working per se but his claiming authority that belongs to the guild of priests, who would consign the leper to the margins where ‘sinners’ belong.

Jesus defies Torah by usurping the priestly prerogative.

Mark makes a point of emphasizing- remember every last detail in Mark is important and intentional- that Jesus touched the leper first before he healed him.

Where Jesus should’ve become contagious from leprosy, the leper becomes contagious with Jesus.

The exchange here between the leper and Jesus symbolically illustrates how the order of power has been overturned: Jesus is attacking and infecting the status quo.

Many translations give the impression in Vs. 43-45 that Jesus instructed the man to follow the priestly ritual: “go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

But if that’s the case then the above is just, only, a miracle story. To read it that way, misses the tone of the story: the leper himself recognizes that approaching Jesus, a nonpriest, for healing violates the social order: “…if you dare…”

And why would Jesus then be angry and indignant?

The emotions attributed to Jesus only make sense if the leper has already gone to the priests for healing, and the priests for some reason rejected his petition.

Having been healed, the leper’s task is not to publicize a miracle but to help confront an unjust system: Note how in V44 the object changes from ‘priest’ to ‘them’

It’s about more than what 1 priest did or failed to do. It’s about the whole system.

Jesus’ anger is against the whole purity system that make people victims twice over, first by stigmatizing them and then by barring their religious participation if demands, which are not exerted on others, are not met.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’ reaction to a condescending story like ‘I’m a Porn Star…’ wouldn’t be surprise but anger.

And I also wonder if after Jesus declared those porn stars ‘clean’ we religious folk wouldn’t be a little PO’d with Jesus.

Angry enough to kill him.

 

 

Borg, Bras and Clergy Collars

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

In my sermon this weekend I tried to approach the question of Resurrection by putting the onus on the person who disbelieves the Church’s historic claim.

‘Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?’

It’s a damn good, table-turning question I think.

And it wasn’t originally my question. I thought giving credit where credit is due would not only be appropriate but illuminating.

Back in 2007, I went to the National Cathedral to listen to a panel discussion that the Cathedral was hosting.

The theme of the event was “The Church in the 21st Century” and for the event the Cathedral had gathered well-known speakers and scholars like Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, and, someone dear to my own heart, Marcus Borg.

Actually, I think Marcus Borg is a unimaginative, knee-jerk, liberal fundamentalist hack. Bless his heart.

Like Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, Marcus Borg has made a career out of regurgitating old Aryan arguments and outdated, hackneyed scholarship to make the claim that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the “real” Jesus of history.

The Gospels, Borg argues, are not stories grounded in real history; they are instead myths and metaphors which convey deeper spiritual truths and universal existential principles.

dc-Marcus-Borg-speaking-to-a-group-300x160In other words, the “real” Jesus never really said: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7, get rid of all your stuff and give it to the poor, a rich man’s getting into heaven is about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

According to Borg, the “real” Jesus never really said those things and thus the “real” Jesus never really expected us to do them. Not surprisingly, Marcus Borg is wildly popular in denominations like the United Methodist Church.

At the National Cathedral, Marcus Borg was the rock star of the panel, and by the time I arrived there was already a horde of Episcopal priests gathered up front staring at Borg so ecstatically I thought they might start to swoon or throw their bras and clergy collars at him.

Not wanting to be mistaken for one of Borg’s fanboys, I sat in the back with the civilians, scooting into a pew next to a tiny, old man who was wearing a knit suit.

Because the theme was ‘the Church in the 21st Century” and because we were surrounded by Episcopalians, it didn’t take long for the panel to steer the discussion toward which Christian beliefs were outdated and needed to be rethought and reinterpreted for the modern world.

And it didn’t take long for that discussion to get around to the resurrection.

With an air of enlightened self-importance, Marcus Borg droned on about how what matters is not that God raised Jesus from the dead; what matters is that the disciples experienced resurrection in their hearts.

For that matter, Borg continued doling out his koan-like nonsense, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was never actually crucified. It’s doesn’t matter if Jesus never said or taught any of the words attributed to him by the Gospels. It doesn’t matter if someone named ‘Jesus’ from Nazareth was never born- virgin or not, we can suppose.

It doesn’t matter because what matters is that it’s experienced as true in us.

It struck me then that it’s appropriate Borg deems the Gospels myth since his entire theology revolves around another myth: Narcissus.

The panel continued on that nonsensical line for a while.

Finally, during the Q/A the old man next to me got up and shuffled up to the microphone. He was small and had white hair and must’ve been in his 80’s I guessed.

Softly into the microphone, he said:

‘Tell me, Dr Borg, was the tomb empty? Or not?’

 

With what sounded like a rehearsed reply, Marcus Borg said:

‘If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I’d bet there was no tomb. And if there was a tomb then it was not empty.’

 The old man’s mouth dropped.

 And Marcus Borg added: ‘Of course there was no physical, literal resurrection. That’s impossible.’

The old man shuffled back to my pew and sat down.

And then he leaned over and with genuine anger in his voice, he asked me:

“Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t believe the Resurrection have to come up with a better explanation for everything?”

But that wasn’t all.

While the man whispered in my ear, Borg had resumed his condescension:

‘We all know dead bodies DON’T come back to life. The Resurrection violates everything we know about nature.’

And the old man muttered underneath his breath:

‘But that’s exactly the damn point.’

 

Not Every Heresy Is

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2013 — 3 Comments

706

Have you heard of…

Agnoeticism?

I hadn’t either- and that’s both a good and bad thing.

I’ve been receiving votes for #1 in the Top Ten Heresies.
Vote yourself if you haven’t already.
I believe strongly that, in a faith whose center is the Word made flesh, our words about God matter. I believe too that to love God with our mind requires that our beliefs lead us, correctly, to the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
As many of the heresies I’ve tracked demonstrate, getting our theology muddled can lead us to places and perspectives that contradict the very foundations of our faith: the goodness of God’s creation, in the case of Gnosticism, or the reality of the incarnation, in the case of Docetism.
As any Jew can tell you, Christian heresy (Maricionism, in this case) can lead the Church sinfully astray.
Having said that, before rolling out heresy #1, I thought it appropriate to pause with a postscript of sorts.  Not every heresy so labeled by the ancient Church is a matter on which hang the ‘law and the prophets.’

Salvation, after all, isn’t the reward for those who’ve mastered the correct beliefs.

Salvation is the destination for those who believe in (worship and follow) Jesus.

For that matter, a Christian is not someone who believes the right way.

A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus.

Very often, what seemed urgent and obvious to the ancient Church, today no longer appears to possess either urgency or biblical support.
The ancient and medieval Church labeled some beliefs heresy not so much because those beliefs represented sloppy heterodox teaching but because the Church had a priori imposed its theology on to scripture.
A tendency, we should all remember, is always with us.
For example, take this from the New Theological Movement:
…St. Gregory the Great expressly condemn(ed) the opinion that Our Savior, in his humanity, did not know all created truths including the day and the hour of the final judgment.
This opinion, considered a heresy by the holy Pontiff (and by all the great theologians since him), is called Agnoeticism, meaning “not knowing”.
Fr. Hardon summarizes the Agnoetes as follows, “A sect of Monophysites who held that Christ was subject to positive ignorance. The leading exponent of its error was Deacon Themistios of Alexandria.
He was condemned by the Church, which declared that Christ’s humanity cannot be ignorant of anything of the past or of the future.
First, how can we claim that the Lord knew the day and hour of the judgment, when he himself expressly stated that he did not?
We assert that the Lord says that the “Son does not know” in the sense that he does not make this truth to be known. That is, he does not reveal it.
This is the interpretation adopted also by the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.” (CCC 474)…
Yet, an even better answer is given by St. Gregory, who maintains that Jesus knew the day and the hour in his humanity, but not from his humanity.
Thus, in his human intellect, the Savior (who was ignorant of nothing) must be said to have known when he would return to judge the world by fire. However, this knowledge was not gained through sense experience, but only from the divine infusion of light upon his human soul.
Hence, it is known in his soul, but not from his senses.
Therefore, when the Lord tells us that the Son does not know, he only means to indicate that the time of the judgment cannot be known by any through natural powers (not even by the angels). However, it is truly known to him through supernatural revelation (just as, we may suppose, it is also known to the angels by divine relation).

zealot_reza_aslanStarting after Labor Day, we’re doing a sermon series that will address some of the questions and claims of Reza Aslan’s meteoric (thanks to Fox News’ embarrassing prejudiced interview) book, Zealot.

You can read some of my reactions to the book, here and here.

Here’s a clever send-up of the interview. It’s funny, though, I don’t know if anything can quite match how ridiculous was the actual interview itself.

 

 

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’- Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.