Archives For Lent

Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Temple Tantrum

Jason Micheli —  March 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

Mt. Olivet UMC – Lent 3: John 2

I want to thank you all for taking the time out of your Oscar Party preparations to be here this morning. I mean, Teer Hardy didn’t get a hipster haircut or start wearing beard oil until he became a pastor here at Mt. Olivet so I assume that means you’re a sophisticated, culturally savvy bunch of cinephiles.

For an erudite community of aesthetes like yourselves, coming to church on the dawn of Oscar night is akin to worshipping the Sunday after Christmas, a day when only the old, lonely guy from Home Alone attends church. Oscar Sunday is like the Sunday of Thanksgiving or Memorial Day.

Just for being here this morning, you deserve a gilded statue all your own.

I had a special Oscar-themed outfit I was going to wear for you this morning, but my wife thought it showed a little too much nipple for a guest preaching gig. Plus, I’ve not shaved my chest in days.

Show of hands, how many of you are planning to watch the Oscars tonight?

Show of hands, how many of you have seen the Vegas favorite Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? How many of you have seen the Darkest Hour? The Post? Dunkirk? How many of you have seen the critical darling the PT Anderson flick The Phantom Thread?

How many of you are lying?

Every Oscar season I think of an article I read in Slate Magazine 10 years ago.

Back in 2008, when Netflix was not yet a streamed-movie service, reporter John Swansburg investigated which mail-order Netflix movies languished the longest on customers’ coffee tables and television consoles.

Swansburg discovered that it was Hotel Rwanda.

Even though at the time Hotel Rwanda was the 10th most popular rental among Netflix’s 8.4 million customers, only a fraction of people ever got around to watching it.

In fact, Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix, confessed to having had a copy of Hotel Rwanda on his nightstand for 2 years without having watched it, which is about how long we left it on our nightstand before sending it back, unwatched.

Other Oscar-bait films that people requested by mail but never got around to watching included No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Pan’s Labyrinth (made by this year’s Best Director favorite, Guillermo del Toro) and Last King of Scotland about dictator Idi Amin.

It goes without saying that Schindler’s List and the English Patient were also perennial dust collectors.

Turns out many of Netflix’s most popularly requested movies never left their red pre-paid postage sleeves. Their most requested films are also some of their least watched films.

As Swansburg notes, you add a movie like Hotel Rwanda to your Netflix queue because you don’t want to be thought a bad person who turns a blind eye to unspeakable tragedy.”

Truthfully, most of us don’t want to watch a movie about genocide, we’re too tired for aThere Will be Blood, and we’re already too depressed for a No Country for Old Men but neither do we want to appear as the sort of people not interested in watching those worthwhile films.

We don’t want to watch movies like Hotel Rwanda, but we do not want to be perceived as people who do not watch movies like Hotel Rwanda.

Unlike political pollsters who have difficulty prognosticating how prejudiced we’ll prove to be behind the voting booth curtain, Netflix knows the truth about us.

     We’re not who we pretend to be.

We’re not as sophisticated or concerned or altruistic or woke as we feign.

     Our queue reveals more about us than our feed.

Netflix knows that, when it comes to social justice, we’d rather hashtag than roll up our sleeves.

Netflix knows we’re more likely to stick a sentiment on our bumper than we are to know an honest-to-goodness human-style poor person by name.

Netflix knows that even though we have 12 Years a Slave sitting in our queue, we’re just as likely as anyone to cross the street when we see a black man in a hoodie walking our way.

Netflix knows that no matter what we tweet or pin or like, Vegas-odds are we spend more on our gym memberships- we spend more on Netflix– than we do on church or charity.

Netflix knows we’re all going to add The Florida Project to our queues when it becomes available because we all want to be perceived (and to perceive ourselves) as the sort of person who watches a film like The Florida Project.

But, odds are, we won’t.

Watch it.

Because, after a day of dealing with your boss and yelling at your kids about homework, who really wants to watch a movie about child homelessness?

For example, I’ve had The Hurt Locker in my Netflix queue for years, but I’ve never watched it; meanwhile, I’ve seen Sahara, the Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz straight-to-video action movie about Confederate gold and Civil War Ironclads in Africa at least 60 times.

And I love it.

Netflix– it’s just one example of what we do across our lives.

We pretend and we perform and we prevaricate.

We crop out our true selves and filter it through a social media sheen.

We virtue signal from behind the masks we wear.

We project a false self out onto the world.

Which makes it ironic that the one theological conviction our culture has conditioned you into believing is that God loves you just the way you are.

You don’t even love you just the way you are. You wish you were a Hotel Rwanda, Phantom Thread kind of person.

You don’t even love you just the way you are, yet our culture has conditioned you into thinking that God is just like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which- again- is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you Baby Boomers love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you.

Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you. Look, I know guest preachers, like Oscar hosts, are supposed to charm and delight. I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. But today in John’s Gospel- Jesus doesn’t just cleanse the Temple, whipping the money-changers and turning over their tables.

Notice- in the midst of his Temple tantrum, Jesus refers to himself as the Temple: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by contrast, this statement is put on the lips of Jesus’ accusers at his trial. What’s more, his accusers edit the statement, claiming Jesus said: “I will destroy this Temple and in three days I will build another…”

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the accusers make Jesus the agent of destruction but today, in John’s Gospel, Jesus makes us the agents of destruction.

Which makes Jesus the Temple. And if Jesus is the Temple then it makes sense today to point out the basic presupposition behind the Temple.

It’s this:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between your sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. You have to be rendered acceptable. You have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple.

And that’s the thread that stitches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death and understood himself as the Temple.

You have to go back to Jesus’ Bible, to the Book of Leviticus, which begins with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even.

We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice.

—————————

     But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Or, at least, knowingly.

Not one.

By contrast, the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which frames Jesus just as Jesus frames himself here in John 2- as the Temple, describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin.

All. One sacrifice. Offered once. For all.

    Ephapax is the word: “once for all.”

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.  For just the way you are and all the ways you aren’t who you pretend to be.

———————-

     Not only is Jesus the true Temple. Not only is he the sacrifice to end all sacrifices for sin. He’s our Great High Priest.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too. And there this Great High Priest offers a gift. Not a calf or a goat or grain. But a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

A gift that can’t be reciprocated, it can only redound to others. He offers a gift exceeding our every debt. Such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again. His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross.

To make atonement.

Once for all so that all of us can be free and unafraid before the holy love of God just the way we are.

——————————-

     Ironically, Atonement, the high-brow, arthouse film starring Keira Knightley and based on the award-winning novel by Ian McEwan, has sat idle and unwatched in my Netflix queue since 2007.

I put it in my queue after it cleaned up at the Oscars.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched all 7 seasons of Californication 3 separate times, and just last night I wasted 2 hours of my life watching 3,000 Miles to Graceland starring Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and Courtney Cox,

(And I loved it).

     And last night too, I was short with my kids.

And I only half-listened to my wife as she told me about her day.

And I didn’t call a friend who I know is hurting and then I told myself I’d forgotten, but I hadn’t.

And after dinner I tossed the recycling into the trashcan because it was too chilly to take it outside. 

     Martin Luther said the cross frees us to cut out our BS and call a thing what it is.

So here goes: Despite how sexy I am, I’m not anyone’s idea of a leading man. I’m no hero. I’m certainly no saint.

But I don’t have to be. There’s no role I have to play. There’s no mask I need to wear. There’s no character I need to project out onto the world other than the broken, butt-headed but baptized person I am.

     Because Jesus Christ has taken on the role of our Great High Priest…

Because God judges me not according to my sins

But according to Christ’s perfect sacrifice…

I’m free.

Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, the Apostle Paul says, sets us free from performing the obligations of the Law.

And that frees us from the obligation to perform.

It frees us from the obligation to pretend. It frees us from the burden of projecting a false more faithful self. The cross frees me to be me. The cross frees me to play no other role than me because, honestly, if anyone were to play me it would probably be Steve Buschemi. Or that creep Willem Defoe.

     The cross frees me to be me, unafraid and unashamed

Because my life is not the good news- and that’s good news.

You’re free to be you, just the way you are, like Adam before the apple: naked and unashamed.

Because you are not what you do.

And you are not what you have done.

You are what Christ, our Great High Priest, has done in the Temple that is his Body by his blood sprinkled on the mercy seat of a cross.

     Because his sacrifice is perfect, once-for-all:

There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.

And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more.

     That’s called the Gospel.

     And you don’t have to wait in any queue for it.

     You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to deserve it.

You certainly don’t need a fake ID to purchase it.

It’s yours. By faith. And it’s free.

Just the way you are because of the way he was all the way unto a cross.

Ironically, this free gift alone has the power to transform you into more than just the way you are.

 

 

We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained glass word at a time.

In this episode we consider ‘Kenosis‘ i.e. how God poured himself into human form in the incarnation, and/or how Jesus emptied himself of divinity (like omniscience and omnipotence). It’s the perfect word for Lent!
But mostly we talk about what human qualities Jesus experienced, the good and the bad. And Jason swears that, if Scarlet Johanssen gave him directions, he would follow them.

If you’re receiving this by email and the player doesn’t come up on your screen, you can find the episode at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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

Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in.

Click here to become a patron of the podcasts

A Hole in Heaven

Jason Micheli —  February 19, 2018 — 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

What would Brian Boitano do in my situation?

Avoid the Winter Olympics ever since.

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

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

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

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

Kim Hyon-hui was 26 at the time.

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

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

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

But she didn’t die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The headline could’ve read:

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

     The headline emblazoned above today’s scripture text reads:

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

‘Can I baptize you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     By plunging himself into John’s baptism-

Jesus enters down into the depths of our unrighteousness.

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

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

Right before God.

Justified.

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

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

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

Probably not? Probably not!?

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

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

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

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

Our baptism is a work God does.

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

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

Once.

For all.

For everything.

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

“Probably not?”

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

But your baptism is not John’s baptism.

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

Probably not– NO.

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

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

In your baptism, you enter into Christ.

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

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

Buried with him in his death.

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

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

His perfect record.

His perfect righteousness has become your permanent record.

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

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

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

In Christ.

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

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

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

     “Can his sins be pardoned?”

     Surely not. 

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

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

And bled.

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

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

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

If this is blasphemy so be it:

Right now, GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

     Don’t let the sprinkling fool you.

     What we do with water is not sentimental.

     It’s outrage-ous.

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

Your sins are forgiven if

Your sins are forgiven provided that…

Your sins are forgiven as long as…

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

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

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

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

Because the grace of God in Jesus Christ-

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

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

———————-

Can his sins be pardoned? 

Has he been baptized?

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Last week my friend and podcast partner, Taylor Mertins, cribbing from a podcast we did with Fleming Rutledge last Ash Wednesday, argued that the trend of ‘Ashes-to-Go’ must go. I concur with much of what Taylor wrote and I applaud Fleming’s larger point that we who claim the Protestant mantle have become overly fixated on the sacramental-seeming to the detriment of the actual kerygma.

I also see the other side of the argument.

Ashes are not sacraments. Indeed to argue ‘What’s next, drive by eucharist?’ is to underscore Fleming’s point that we don’t know what we’re doing with the ashes in or out of the church.

Of all the things we do as Church, ashes express that which is most existentially and universally felt: you’re going to die (and you’re probably a sinner too). Despite what Fleming says, I’m not sure that requires a scripture text or interpreter for someone to know in their bowels it’s true. I may be self-justifying as I’ve both given and received ashes, not outside in a parking lot, but in a hospital ward shorn of any exegesis or expositor. Because I can see the validity to the counter point, I invited my colleague, Michelle Matthews, to write an apologia for ashes-to-go.

Here you go:

Two years ago I bit my theologically-trained tongue and publically mixed olive oil and ashes for the first time at the back table of our local Peets’ Coffee. That morning, I slapped on my collar and a nametag that read “Ask Me for Ashes”, pitched a quaint storefront chalkboard sign that read “Ashes-to-Go with a Cup of Joe,” and waited, somewhat nervously, for a stranger to approach, someone whose coffee I could buy, whose prayers I could share, whose ashes I could impose.

I could say that doing Ashes-to-Go was merely a practical decision on my part. That if my church had a building, I would have had an Ash Wednesday service. That as a new church planter, without yet a space or a discernible and consistent gathered community, taking ashes to the coffee shop was circumstantial and therefore deemed acceptable for me and those like me.

I could say this, I could explain it away, but to do so would support the common and characteristically condescending assumption that us church planter types get to play at church, do “Ash Wednesday light,” with ashes in one hand and a macchiato in the other, while the rest of the clerical lot in the real world get church right, bearing the burden for us all of liturgical preservation, corporate worship, and communal teaching on a day such as Ash Wednesday.

To say it was a merely practical or circumstantial church-planting decision would also be to undermine the courageous willingness by clergy at churches of all types and sizes to, like the Apostle Paul, try something possibly theologically questionable for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

I could say it was simply a decision of convenience, but it wasn’t. It isn’t.

Taking ashes to the streets, the metro, the coffee shop – the work of carefully adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the public square – is a prayerful, purposeful, and pivotal decision within the Church in post-Christendom.

When I say prayerful, I don’t mean the kind of prayer that critics of Ashes-to-Go obsess is missing from its representations. I’m not talking about the kind of prayer that is artfully crafted and nestled appropriately within a liturgy, of which a worshipping community consciously and responsively takes part before the imposition of ashes.

No, when I say prayerful, I’m talking about the kind of prayer that is paying attention. The kind of eyes-wide-open prayer where we vulnerably lend ourselves to seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, where we open ourselves up to conversations, questions, stares, and even concerns of unaffiliated people, who by the grace of God and our presence, now have a fresh curiosity about what the Church uniquely has to offer the world in Jesus.

For the mom in the coffee shop, inclining her body to receive the ashes while tearfully whispering her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Lord in your mercy.

For the jaded and self-professed “ex-catholic” man who, after reluctantly receiving ashes, insists on knowing what kind of church accepts “lady priests”. Lord in your mercy.

For the 19 year old barista watching skeptically from a distance until on his break he pulls up a chair to ask all the questions swirling in his head about God. Lord in your mercy. 

For the Hindu man at the neighboring table quietly googling Ash Wednesday and then asking permission to receive ashes because of its “coherence with the virtues of Hindu faith.” Lord in your mercy.

For the woman exceedingly grateful for a complimentary coffee who later returns with her entire book club for communal prayer and ashes. Lord in your mercy.

The decision to take ashes to the street corner or the coffee shop is wholly prayerful and wholly Lenten, as my friend, United Methodist church planter Brian Johnson, believes. “If Lent is calling people to repentance, including people who aren’t otherwise listening for God, beckoning people to turn and encounter Jesus,” Brian says, “then Ashes-to-Go is our best shot of doing this all year.” 

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, but it’s also purposeful.

When I say purposeful, I don’t mean to chalk it up as another strategy for church growth, another attempt at making the church relevant in the Innovation Age. When I say purposeful, I mean that adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the world is a decisive culture-setting, identity-driving work within a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, where we have spread ourselves so theologically thin, attempting to be the church for all people, that we no longer know who we are.

Who we are is embodied in our worship, vivified in our prayers, hymns, creeds, and history. As who we are becomes more and more obscure to us, it feels safe and righteous, within the panic of losing who we are, to hoard, preserve, and protect our liturgies and sacred habits from the world’s dilution. In so doing, though, we create further barriers between the church and a growing populous who will stay away from the church, not because the church is antiquated or irrelevant, hypocritical or judgmental, but because they have no opinion of the Church at all as we have not adapted our shared language and practice to adequately introduce the world to who we are and why church is worth contemplating anyways.

My friend Matt Benton, pastor of Spirit & Life Church, sees this lack of identity, this lack of discernable culture, even within our United Methodist church plants. “In many ways, our church planting culture has been borrowed from the non-denominational world,” Matt says, “but it hasn’t served us well.”

Ashes-to-Go becomes a means to ecclesial distinction. It is culture-setting, identity-driving. It pulls back the veil and approachably shares with the community who we are. “It says, ‘We do Lent. We do Advent. We do ashes. We do palms. We embody a faith with more than a 50 year (or even 200 year) history,’” says Matt.

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, purposeful, and, dare I say, pivotal for the Church in post-Christendom. When I say pivotal, I mean the word in its etymological richness. The United Methodist Church’s willingness to carefully adapt and translate our private, sacred liturgies for the public square, our ability to communicate who we are and why it matters to our communities, is the hinge pin, the pivot point, I believe, on which the Church currently spins.

As Brian and Matt reminded me:

Adapting, translating, and trying something theologically questionable

for the sake of the mission

is what Methodists do.

Our ordination does not afford us the luxury of being pretentious about our liturgy. For John Wesley the mission was always greater than the details of what was deemed liturgically and theologically proper.

Taking ashes to the streets and coffee shop is to dust off our fear of evangelism and proclaim who we are and why it matters amidst the backdrop of the Church’s growing invisibility. For my friend Kate Floyd, the offering of ashes and prayers from an Arlington metro station is to proclaim that “none of us have it together, that it’s okay to be broken, and that God in Jesus Christ meets us where we are in our life and in our mess with radical grace” – a message Kate believes people do not hear enough from the church.

There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, space created to turn Christians away from our navel-gazing, to reorient us to our shared mortality, brokenness, and need for God’s healing, to remind us that forgiveness begins with repentance and that we cannot save ourselves. There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, but the necessary pivot lies in us realizing that as beautiful as Ash Wednesday is, it is an intensely internal and unintelligible thing to a world where the church is rapidly becoming inconsequential.

In many mainline congregations this Holy Week, the dominant motif with which scripture describes the meaning of the death of Jesus, substitution, will be judiciously avoided. Substitutionary atonement, it’s often said with no small amount of enlightened self-congratulation, is a medieval caricature, depicting an angry, wrath-filled God who kills Jesus- in our place- to vindicate and avenge his sin-besmirched honor.

To the extent this critique of scripture’s substitution motif is valid, it is valid only because we have narrowed the cast of characters in scripture’s salvation drama.

With the antagonist removed from the stage, humanity becomes the object of God’s wrath and, truth be told as unintelligible as it is, God the Father becomes the antagonist from whom God the Son saves us.

Such is what happens when we excise the Devil from the story.

Like Fred and Vilma, the Enlightenment tempts us to want to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

Call it what you will:

The Devil

Sin and Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says in the Gospels

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist and nowhere more so than upon the cross.

Not only is Sin, as in the Power of Sin- Satan, the New Testament’s narrative glue, it is the necessary antagonist to any coherent understanding of substitutionary atonement.

If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.

It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross. According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place.

The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

God’s wrath isn’t directed at us or character flaw within us called ‘sin.’ God’s wrath, out of love for us, is directed at that which holds us in bondage, the Power of Sin.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan, and the battlefield runs through every human heart.

Without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because when we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama, when we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us), what happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

In this week’s installment of Strangely Warmed we talk about the Lent 5 lections with Eric Hall, Professor of Theology at Carroll College and the author of the Home-brewed Christianity Guide to God.

In this episode we talk about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, Psalm 130’s cry of despair and rage, and Jesus groaning in anger and disturbed in the spirit before the grave of Lazarus.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

Why would we not go to Duke just to talk with Stanley Hauerwas? Even though Stanley doesn’t know what a podcast is, he welcomed us to his 3rd floor office for a candid sitdown.

Not only did Dr. Hauerwas give us books from his vast collection, he even offered us some his classic Hauerwas humor. In this conversation, Stanley reflects on the Gospel lection for the third Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ quenching conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.

The texts for Lent 3 are:

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Stanley Hauerwas will be back for the next few week’s of Lent, Eric Hall will join us to close out Lent, Tony Jones will dish with us on Holy Week, and we have Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Jazz vocalist Darden Purcell and Eric Sabo’s trio provided our music for the first weekend of Lent. Because they were there and because I’ve always been a fan of So I Married an Axe Murderer I decided to write my sermon on Psalm 51 as a beat poem with the band underneath me.

‘It works.’ It works, indeed,

It’s more buttoned-down

Than ‘Christos Anesti!’

But such were the first

Easter words pronounced

Over the new heart

Of-

Louis Washkansky.

Louis-

A Lithuanian Jew

Was born in 1922.

Louis fought Mussolini.

Having seen El Duce

Strung up by his heels,

(like a fascist pig at the butcher)

Louis Washkansky

Settled down in Cape Town

And opened a grocery.

Until-

54 years

Pricks to the finger,

And shots to the guts,

Up and down sugar.

Then-

Pain down arms, elephant on chest,

1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests

Rendered him habeus corpus

For an experimental test.

Louis Washkansky

The first person after 50

Dogs before him to

Another’s heart receive

(Man’s best friend, indeed).

After 9 hours under,

60 attending,

Louis Washkansky

Of the green grocery

Opened his numb eyes

-delivered-

With the heart of a

Girl, 20-something girl

Beating inside his

Bruised and cracked chest.

His heart’s former owner-

She had been struck by a driver

Who’d had one too many.

It’s always 5…somewhere.

The girl with the heart

Was on her way

To buy tea.

And cake.

Yeah.

From her local grocery.

By fate or by lots,

Her heart became another’s to bear:

Louis Washkansky’s.

When-

Louis Washkansky

First fluttered his eyes,

His chest beating fresh

And faithfully as

The checkout on aisle

Number 5,

“It works”

Said-

The doctor, a preacher’s kid

From Cape Town,

Like God b’fore the new hewn

Grave: ‘It works.’

In Afrikaans,

Said: ‘It works.’

The girl’s grief-blind Father,

The doctor’s trial and error,

Had given the the grocer

Exactly what each of us

Would gladly broker:

A new- a different- heart.

If we had the hearts

Sufficient to tell

The truth to each other:

My need is as great as that grocer’s.

My desire to back trace my steps

Just as desperate

As his donor.

What the doctor concluded

of Louis Washkansky.

What You first declared

About Adam and Eve

Is what my heart longs to hear

You pronounce over me:

‘It works.’

My heart, it works.

But for that to happen

I too first require

Some kind of surgery.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

What harm could it be?

I’ll just repeat:

mercy.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

That’s what I most need.

Without one, the best I

Can do is plead for

Your, on your mercy.

Which is, perhaps, the

Ultimate, stinging

Irony

In a life that hides

Behind them

Trades in them

Thrives on them.

What I’m so stingy to bequeath

Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.

Mercy.

I’m not talking about the one an’ done

Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom

Sort of mercy.

Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.

Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.

Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.

I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down

By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds

Cut oceans in two

Crack water from rock.

Hesed.

Steadfast.

The

No matter what.

You do despite what I do

Mercy.

Have that kinda on me.

But even this plea of mine

Points out my problematic plot line

It’s alway all about

Me, me, me.

You upstairs

The man down the street

She across the bed

I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:

The one thing I ask of you

The one thing I want?

I do not do.

The one thing I ask of you

Is the last I’ll offer you.

When it comes to mercy,

It’s better to receive

Than it is to believe

You must give

It.

When it comes to mercy?

I am reticent.

I am hesitant.

I am no better than Maleficent.

Grace is less amazing

When it’s another’s song.

Trust me-

‘Tis better to be found

Than to get up and to find.

But You already see my blindness

Know my mind, know,

Know that what I solicit

I so seldom show.

I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.

Shazamm!

Over my sin-stained self.

Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor

Costlier even than

Easy installments of $19.94.

More chi-chi than gold

Or frankincense and myrrh.

Like Nathan to David,

Like Nicholson to Cruise,

The truth about me

I can’t handle it.

Because I’ve exercised so much equity

With my iniquity

My sin is in me,

Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-

To the fibers and sub-flooring

Of my soul and my Being.

If I were a suit you took the cleaners

You’d get charged extra

And told not to expect me

For at last 3 business

Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean

As she wondered to the woman

With pins in her teeth

Exactly what you’d done in me.

Mercy is what  I need.

My sin is ever before me .

Like grace’s doppleganger

In, with and under

Just say the words, no reply

I am not worthy

Of your mercy.

My sin is ever before me

Every pair of eyes

The most unflattering of mirrors

Revealing not the extra 2-inches

Or the male-pattern baldness

But the mystery that we’re

The only members of your handiwork

Who know not how

To be creatures.

Behind my every offense-

If I take measure,

That’s what I should confess:

Thinking the world here for my pleasure

Not me made for my Creator.

Failure to be human:

I’m guilty as charged.

And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you

To the back of the line.

Because against You

You Alone

Have I sinned.

To you I gave the finger.

And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’

To you I sent the all CAPS email with the

!!!

I unfriended You.

For your Tea Party bat crazy,

Your Moveon.org rant.

And hung up when You picked up.

To You I told the

Little white lie

and the outright one.

To You  I raised my voice for no good reason.

And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’

To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

up here

It was Your eyes I forgot were

To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol

Neither patient nor kind

Keeping track of Your trespass

Just as I expect You to forgive mine.

Every sin I’ve committed

Every person I’ve harmed

Count them together

It adds up to one:

You.

Against You alone have I sinned.

Your ledger longer than any other’s.

You’ve seen my worst, every inward part

So You know better than me

How sorely I need

A new and clean heart.

A clean heart!

I’m so far removed

From my mother’s womb

I cannot imagine

What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs

For my ears and my tongue and my mind.

Louis Washkansky knew.

For a time- well, if not clean-

At least more innocent than mine.

The grocer from Cape Town survived

With the unlucky girl’s inside

Him for 18 short days.

But 18 days!

For 400 hours

Louis Washkansky

The grocer who’d seen horrors

The battles and blood

Trenches and marches

Of war.

The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.

For 18 days-

Louis Washkansky

Found respite inside

an innocent’s heart.

Do the memories recede?

Does the mind forget?

What the heart never learned?

For 18 days

A war-jaded vet

Quickened with her pulse-

Her naiveté-

That still more days lay

Ahead of her.

Had she had her first kiss?

Been spurned by a friend?

Acquired the scars

Which always become

our kids’ first  lessons?

With her’s beating inside him

I wonder-

Louis Washkansky-

Did he love his wife, finally

With a love she’d always fancied?

Did he hear what she left unsaid?

Did he show his children

Her love and attention?

Did he sashay around

And leave the toilet seat down?

Did he listen and feel

And, for once, find the right words

To: Honey?

What are you thinkin’?

With her inside him

Was it freeing?

To finally, truthfully, be singing:

‘I’m every woman.’

Or was it just enough for the grocer

To hear

What we’d mortgage heaven to broker

What we’d plead for You to impart:

‘It works’

A new, a clean, heart.

Louis Washkansky

His new heart, her old one

Beat for only 17 days longer

His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid

Could not give

What only You can offer.

But still-

I’ve got to wonder

Can even You impart

Such an illogical grace

As a new, clean heart?

I mean-

How can what is Yours only

Be mine?

Without it being less than You?

How can the infinite

Lodge

In this small space I’ve carved for it?

Given what impossible surgery

A new, a clean heart would require

The metaphysical

To say nothing of the biological

Might it be sufficient to desire

Not what in me You must do

A new heart to own

But just You.

You alone.

If so, then the point

Is not a doctor

To bind us

To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days

But to break our spirit

So that, broken, our

Lips may proclaim Your

Praise.

IMG_05932This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.

At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

And establish peace.

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

 ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. My text was Matthew 28.16-20. You can listen to it below or download it in iTunes here.

Thanks to artists’ renderings and Mel Gibson, we all know what Jesus looks like.

Obviously there’s slight variations but, basically, we all know what Jesus looks like. We all know he’s white (just kidding…please don’t write a letter to the bishop) and we all know Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Loggins from his pre-‘Danger Zone,’ ‘This is It’ yacht rock period.

So we know what Jesus looks like, but we don’t know what Jesus sounds like.

When Jesus says ‘…go therefore and make disciples…’ we don’t know what he sounds like. There’s no recordings, not even an 8 track. It’s like the opposite of radio; we have the images we’ve got to supply the voice.

And for each of us it’s somewhat different sounding For a lot of you, Jesus sounds like a gentle, soft-spoken, inspiring teacher someone like the dog whisperer, say, or Donald Trump.

Scripture does say the Father and the Son are one, the same, so no doubt some of you think Jesus sounds just like God, who, we all know, sounds just like Morgan Freeman.

Because this is DC, I know a lot of people in politics and to them Jesus sounds…just like them. It’s amazing. It might be the only thing in town on which there’s bipartisan consensus. Whether they want to make America Great Again or they’re Feeling the Bern, they all hear Jesus in their own voice.

Not me though.

On my good days, Jesus sounds to me just like Gandalf- not Dumbledore, that would be childish. On my good days, Jesus sounds exactly like Gandalf.

     But on my not-so-good days, on my bad days, you know who Jesus sounds like to me? That’s right, Sally Struthers, which I think qualifies me as a feminist.

Not the Sally Struthers of Five Easy Pieces or The Getaway. Not Gloria from All in the Family. Not even Sally Struthers the voice of Pebbles Flintstone on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show.

No, on my bad days and my not-so-good days, Jesus sounds to me exactly like Sally Struthers of those once ubiquitous Christian Children’s Fund commercials.

You know, the ones where she shoves a Starvin’ Marvin kid with flies in his eyes in front of the camera and, with tears and earnestness in her eyes, stares through the television screen at lazy, fat, self-centered you, who can’t even spare the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life.

On my bad and my not-so-good days, when I hear Jesus say something like ‘…go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them everything I’ve taught you…’ 

Jesus sounds to me like Christian Children’s Fund Sally Struthers, her/his whiney voice guilting me that if I just gave more money, sacrificed more time, exerted more effort, mustered-up some more mindfulness then I could do what I’m supposed to do (the things that Jesus did) and I could be who I’m supposed to be (just like Jesus).

Maybe it’s just me. When you’re a pastor you spend a lot of time thinking about what you should be doing as a Christian.

It doesn’t mean you’re a better Christian (and if you’re a United Methodist, probably the opposite is the case), it just means the rhythms of the job and people’s perceptions of you make you feel like you should be saying Jesusy stuff and doing Jesusy things 24/7.

I mean, you never read about Jesus sitting in his boxers, eating a family-sized bag of potato chips, drinking a beer, and binge watching an entire season of Californication. Not that I’ve done that; it’s just a ‘for instance.’

My point is Jesus never does anything like that. Time’s too precious. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all that.

Last Sunday I taught our confirmation class, and at the beginning of class I asked the students to throw out at me all the attributes of their all-time favorite teachers. Kind. Nice. Generous. Challenging. Engaging. Fun.

And when I asked which of those attributes Jesus possessed as a teacher, guess which one they left off the list? Fun.

Jesus wasn’t, isn’t, fun they all concurred.

Who can blame them for thinking that way?

Sure, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners but even that’s to prove a point about who is in and who is out when it comes to the Father’s love. Jesus never just Wang-Chungs on any night.

Yeah, Jesus slips away a lot for quiet time but whenever he does it’s to pray to God. How annoying is that? Jesus never just chillaxes.

It seems like he’s always speaking truth to power and showing compassion to the poor, and, as disciples- as we tell our confirmands, we’re supposed to be just like Jesus and do the things Jesus that did.

And, as a pastor, you’re never not auditing your shortfalls on both counts. It comes with the job.

And so, even though we know Jesus looks like Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall, on a lot of my crappy days our Lord and Savior sounds to me like ‘Save the Kids’ Sally Struthers, her Christian Children’s Fund commercials making my faith feel like a guilty monkey on my back.

For example, for Christmas we bought the boys a Playstation 4. I insist on using the whole title, Playstation, because I’ve already learned that when you say ‘I’m going to go play with my PS’ too quickly, it can sound dirty and lead to unproductive potty humor.

Anyways, we bought the boys a PS4 for Christmas. If you have an actual human style life and you’re not a gaming nerd and you don’t know, the PS4 costs approximately $8,000.

Plus tax.

This is true: for the same amount of money we spent on the PS4, we could have provided clean water to an entire, impoverished village in Africa.

I know that stat because I’m a pastor and because Jesus/Sally reminded me in her guilt-tripping voice as I swiped my debit card at purchase.

Sure the PS4 was expensive but we had to buy it. I mean, their Nintendo Wii was at least 2 years old. What else were we supposed to do? We had no choice.

Still, though, I couldn’t shake the sense of shaming buyer’s remorse that ‘PS4’ is seldom the answer to the question ‘WWJD?’

So when my boys unwrapped the PS4 and opened it up and invited me to play with them, what did I say?

‘Well, I’d love to boys but unfortunately I’ve got more important things to do. I’m going to go pray and then read the Bible and then maybe I’ll go find some sinners to eat with.’

It’s true.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from creeping down to the basement after everyone had gone to bed and playing the Last of Us, a violent, sex-filled, apocalyptic, zombie-killing game for like 9 hours on end.

I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I just peed in a cup. Even my dog, lying next to me on the sofa, looked at me like I was pathetic.

And looking back at her, I saw in her eyes Sally Struthers’ pained expression and in my head I heard Jesus…reminding me that this was not something he would do and so- he didn’t need to point out- it wasn’t something I needed to waste my time with.

After all, the Last of Us costs about $50.00 and, according to that other Christian Children’s Fund guy, the bald guy with the Wilfred Brimley beard, a cup of coffee only costs $0.39. I don’t know where he buys his coffee but apparently somewhere a cup of coffee only costs $0.39.

Do the math: that PS4 game costs the same amount as 128 cups of coffee and, according to that aforementioned bearded guy, that’s 128 starving children for whom I could provide food, water and medicine.

Jesus saves and so could I, but instead I spent a fortnight trying to advance to the next level of a video game that makes Games of Thrones seem like the 23rd Psalm.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m back to being an on-the-clock Christian, but math like that runs through my head all the time and it’s usually followed by Sally Struthers doing Jesus voice over in my head.

I mean-

According to World Vision, 3/4 of the world’s population- 75% of everybody- live on less than $10/day. That’s $70/week.

Just to put that into perspective, because I’m a professional Christian and that’s the kind of math I do: I’ve rented the 2010 John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine 3 times from the iTunes store.

I’ve rented it on 3 separate occasions.

At $2.99/rental that equals roughly $9.00, plus what I paid to see Hot Tub Time Machine at the theater on opening night ($24) and figure in the ankle-grabbing concession cost ($50) and, according to the Sally Struthers- narrated abacus in my brain, that comes out to a grand total of $83.00.

More than what 75% of everybody in the world has to survive off of for a week- that’s the amount of money I’ve spent on a terrible, infantile movie with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine.

Even a hot tub is a luxury item. And I’m supposed to be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did!

It’s no wonder Jesus sounds like Sally Struthers to me and not just when it comes to poverty and money.

Not too long ago, I was at Starbucks, sitting at the bar and doing some research on today’s scripture text, when a friend from church- a friend about my age, though not as young-looking as me- sat down next to me.

I don’t want to violate his privacy so let’s just say his name rhymes with Ryan Polarz. 

And he said to me: ‘Hey, I just listened to your Ash Wednesday sermon from a few weeks ago, the one where you mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It really got me thinking.’

And I replied: ‘Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.’

Now, take a guess where our conversation went from there.

Did I ask him if that sermon edified his faith or helped nurture his relationship with the Lord? Nope.

Did I inquire about the state of his soul or ask ‘If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ No. None of it.

No, we spent about 25 caffeinated minutes Googling 1990 era swimsuit supermodels and reminiscing about our adolescent infatuations. Nearly a half of an hour.

About as long as Jesus was scourged for my sins, instead of teaching anyone everything Jesus taught his disciples. I Googled the women I’d once oogled as a newly pubescent boy.

And even then, in the back of my head, I heard Sally Struthers from the sermon on the mountain saying: ‘If you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.’

     I mean, is this the kind of uncertain, self-incriminating agony we want to confirm our kids into?

I could go on all day just telling you about my day yesterday or the day before that so it’s not surprising that on a whole lot of days the Jesus in my head sounds a whole lot like ‘Call this # now’ Sally Strutters.

And… it’s why, I think, those first disciples, when they met the Risen Jesus up on that mountain, they doubted.

They doubted.

According to Matthew, when the women go to the womb at dawn on Easter morning, they’re eventually encountered by the Risen Christ, who tells them to go find the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee, to the mountain.

And they do, says Matthew. And just before today’s text, Matthew says that when they see the Risen Christ, they worship him.

Just like that.

In a moment, they break the first- and, really, the only- commandment. Immediately on that mountain they toss aside everything it meant to be a Jew: to worship no gods but God.

As soon as they encounter the Risen Christ, they do what they’d never before. Not when he’d walked on water. Not when he’d multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Not when he’d declared himself the Son of Man.

Only now, vindicated by resurrection and having triumphed over the Powers of Sin and Death, do they worship him as God-in-the-flesh.

But- Matthew reports in the same breathe, the very same sentence- some of the disciples doubted.

     While they’re on their knees worshipping him, some of them doubted.

     What did they doubt?

Did they doubt, as Thomas does in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was really resurrected?

Maybe. But the Risen Christ is right there in front of them, and you don’t kneel down and worship something you’re not really sure is even there. And you certainly don’t worship him if you think he might be someone else entirely.

Speaking of worship- did they doubt whether or not they should be worshipping him?

I doubt it.

If ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is the lynchpin of your self-identity, then you don’t turn your back on that and worship with fingers crossed behind your back.

No, I think their doubt has everything to do with that mountain they’re on.

Notice, Jesus didn’t need to specify on which mountain they were to meet him. They knew which mountain. They knew that ‘the mountain’ in Matthew’s Gospel only refers to one mountain, to the place where Jesus gave the sermon on the mountain.

     In fact, a better translation of v.16 reads: ‘Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had laid down the rules for them.’

Rules.

Rules like ‘Blessed will be the peacemakers.’

Rules like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’

Rules like ‘Do not hide your faith in the dark’ and ‘Worry not about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a 2×4 in your own.’

Commands.

Commands that not one of those disciples had proved capable of emulating like Jesus when Jesus was alive and, now, he’s alive again.

And as they worship him on that mountain, I’m willing to bet that what they doubt is themselves. I’m willing to bet what they doubt is their ability to embody those commands like Jesus embodied them. I bet they doubt they can do it. Be just like him.

And if they’re doubting it as they’re worshipping him, I’m willing to bet it gets even worse a verse and a half later when Jesus tells them it’s their turn now. To make disciples of every last person, teaching them every last thing he commanded them on that mountain, every last command they couldn’t keep like he did. I’m willing to bet the house- also not very Jesusy- they doubt that they can be just like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did.

Still though, those same disciples (plus others just like them)- they changed the world.

Despite their doubts about themselves, despite their serious and abundant shortcomings that the Gospels don’t even bother to gloss past, they changed everything.

Sometimes in all our pious jargon and churchy lore we forget something. We forget a simple fact of history:

Jesus did not change the world. 

     When Jesus died, he had a grand total of 0 disciples.

And just after Easter, he had only a handful.

Jesus did not change the world.

The disciples did. Those disciples did.

They took Jesus’ Kingdom movement and in less than 300 years they literally converted the heart of an Empire.

Those disciples and others just like them, who were just as bad as us at being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus did, changed the world. How? How did they do it?

The Holy Spirit is the easy, obvious confirmation class answer, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just think it skirts the question.

I wonder-

I wonder if something else is a part of the answer too.  I wonder if, after the mantle was passed to them, those disciples discovered something that we- or me, at least-so frequently miss.

Here it is, and this is everything so wake up now:

     Discipleship does not mean we try to be just like Jesus.

     Discipleship does not mean we try to do everything Jesus did the way Jesus did it.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a byproduct of ordination but, as important a distinction as this, I forget it all the time.

To be a disciple is to live your life- your life- as Jesus might live it if he were you. 

Do you see the distinction?

     To be a disciple is NOT for you to be just like Jesus.

To be a disciple is to tease out what you would be like if Jesus were you.

If yours was the life Jesus had been given to live, not as a first century Jewish carpenter but you, your life. With your humdrum job or your jerk boss or your remaining years and failing health. What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your kids or your aging parents or your shame and regrets or your addiction or your student loans and mortgage bills.

What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your pain-in-the-butt in-laws or your spouse. Who would you be if he were you? If he was a single Dad or a stay-at-home Mom or an enlisted soldier? What if Jesus had cancer? What if he had enlisted? What if he were gay? What if his parents didn’t understand him? How would you be different if he were you?

Discipleship is the word we give to how we answer that question. And obviously it’s necessarily different for each one of us.

I think that’s something we miss when we confirm our kids into the faith.

We make them, make you, mistakenly think that discipleship is mainly about prayer and bible reading and preaching and serving the poor- because that’s the kind of stuff Jesus did in his life.

And then you make the mistake and think that someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis or even me is somehow more of a disciple than you.

And so it’s only natural that Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples would be left to those kind of ‘real’ disciples.

But if discipleship is about who you would be if he lived your life, then discipleship is not even about what you do. It’s about how you do what you already do.

It’s about how you do what you already do.

Let me say it this way:

     No apprentice must become the exact, carbon copy of their Master. God only needed one Savior.

You don’t have to live his life.

Jesus already lived his life, and God gave you yours.

There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you. There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you.

No other.  All God wants is for you to live your life the way Jesus might have lived it if it was your flesh he put on. If it was your shoes he was standing in.

I mean-

Sure, Jesus of Nazareth never wasted time playing inane games on the PS4, but if Jesus of Anesbury Ct had 2 sons who wanted to spend time with their Dad?

Yeah.

He probably still wouldn’t play a soft-porn, vigilante zombie game in the beer-drenched darkness of a basement, but Star Wars Battlefront with his boys? You bet.

Sure Jesus of Galilee wasn’t married (no matter what Dan Brown claims) but if Jesus of Alexandria was married to his high school sweetheart, a woman who perfected even him.

And if his wife had had a crush on John Cusack ever since he played Lloyd Dobler held Peter Gabriel aloft over his head, then maybe even Jesus would spend $70 to take his wife to opening night of Hot Tub Time Machine.

Yes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s doesn’t seem to have an off-color sense of humor, but if Jesus, Mark and Sue’s son, was sitting at Starbucks one day and if a friend wanted to become more of one by being silly and hashing over the silly infatuations of youth, then (don’t call the bishop) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even Jesus might Google ’90’s swimsuit covergirls.

You see-

If discipleship isn’t about you being just like Jesus

If discipleship is about figuring out who you would be if he were living your life, then the good news is that the only way to fail at being a disciple is to decide not to try.

That’s the only way to fail.

You see-

It’s not on you to be just like Jesus and to change the world.

Jesus already lived his life.

You only need to figure out who you might be if he were you, in your shoes, in your little part of the world.

If we all, each of us, just did that-

Not only would it get rid of that Sally Struthers voice (let’s face it) we all have in our heads. It just might change the world.

The only way to fail is not to try.

     If you’ve never confessed Jesus Christ as your savior, if you’ve never invited him into your heart, if you’ve never come forward for an altar call, if you’ve never held your hand up during up a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve been confirmed but never really converted…

However you want to put it- if you’ve always held Jesus at arm’s length, if you’ve always only been a maybe, kinda, sorta, almost Christian…DON’T BE.

There’s no reason to be because the only way to fail at being a disciple is not to try.

Give yourself to him. Give your life to him.

And then live.

Live as if yours was the life he was given to live.

 

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2016 — Leave a comment

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales

I’m blogging during Lent over at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. 

Here’s a snippet from the latest post.

I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked. On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

To read the rest, click over to Scot’s site:

Amazing Dis-Grace (by Jason Micheli)

lightstock_2350_small_user_2741517-2Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:

‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’

Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:

‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’

Declares God, in Psalm 50.

Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:

‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!

…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

 

For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’

Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.

For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.

What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross? 

Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’

9780374298470Marilynne Robinson, in her essay Metaphysics, writes:

‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.

Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.

I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’

Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.

God Became Sub-Human

Jason Micheli —  February 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’ve long been a fan of Athanasius’ catch-phrase ‘God became human so that we might become God.’ I’ve relished the precision with it captures the plot of the scripture story; however, reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, I’m now convicted the summation is too cute by half because, of course, God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God. 

Athanasius’ quote, if unexamined, bypasses the peculiarly godawful mode of death by which we are incorporated mysteriously into God’s own life. To say, as Athanasius does, that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhite

As Rutledge points out, the common way of interrogating the atonement ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question to ask, Rutledge counters, is:

‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

The merit of any atonement theology must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

Often critics of substitutionary atonement will cite the four evangelists’ own reticence in describing crucifixion as evidence that the cross is not as significant as claimed. Fleming Rutledge cites the evangelists’ same spare narration of the crucifixion to argue the very opposite point: little is said in the gospels about the cross because little needed to be said in the ancient world. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, and the very opposite of what we take it to be: irreligious.

Consider the way Paul consistently modulates his rhetoric to emphasize the shameful manner of Jesus’ death: ‘…even death on a cross’ or ‘…and him crucified.’ The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure; they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him.

They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

-Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this law stipulation in Galatians 3.10-14, a passage which, tellingly, the lectionary can find no room for in its 3 year calendar. Only this particular method of death does the torah identify as being godforsaken. On this insight, Rutledge quotes Jurgen Moltmann:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient to ask why Jesus died.

To take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law, a manner that signaled the ultimate shame before God and marked one out under God as accursed.

Rather than asking ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder:

‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

And just as important a question to ponder, what does such a death say about the gravity of our condition?

images

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

12717854_788080527962884_3405228416105050791_n
     This past weekend was my official return to Aldersgate after a year on medical leave. Returning meant more to my family and me than we could have anticipated, and we’re grateful for the warm welcome the congregation showed us.

     Kevin Spacey, as Keyser Soze, says the greatest trick the devil played was convincing us he doesn’t exist. I think the greatest trick Sin plays on us is convincing us that it still has power over us. Here’s my sermon from the first Sunday in Lent, in which I attempted to underscore our liberation from Sin by first laughing at the power of Death and then spitting on Sin. The text, as if there could be another, was Paul’s baptismal passage in Romans 6.1-11.

     ‘Whoever has died with Christ [through baptism] is free from sin.‘      

Speaking of death-

A year ago this week, I woke up from abdominal surgery to a doctor telling me I had something called Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive cancer with long odds for a happy ending.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but I thought I was going to die.

When you’re convinced you’re going to die, you think about it. You can’t help dwelling on what it will be like, the moment you pass through the veil between living and everlasting. When you think you’re going to die, you fixate on it, obsess over it, daydream and nightmare about it.

And you daydream not only about your death but about your funeral too.

I daydreamed a lot about my funeral. I visualized the whole service, starting with the bouquets. I know its popular nowadays to request that, in lieu of flowers, money be sent to this or that charity.

Not me. In the funeral in my mind, this room is wearing more fauna than Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, like each and every one of you took out a line of credit at FTD.

I mean- charity is about other people. I’ve lived my whole life as if it’s all about me; at least in death it really is. And so in my daydream you all send so many flowers the sanctuary looks like American Pharaoh exploded all over it.

And back in the narthex, for one last prank on the 8:30 service, Hedy sets up a toilet and, next to it, a roll of appropriately mournful black toilet paper. So in my daydream there’s flowers up here and a toilet back there and in here the pews are packed.

Its standing room only in the lobby. It’s so crowded that Sasha and Malia have to sit on their Dad’s lap, and everyone nods in approval when Pope Francis gets up to offer his seat to Cindy Crawford.

In the funeral in my mind, when it comes time for the processional, Dennis, his voice cracked and ragged from raging Job-like at the heavens, invites everyone to stand. And in that moment my boys stop playing on their iPads and they carry in my casket.

As they bear my casket forward towards the altar, on the organ Liz plays the music from Star Wars Episode IV, the score from the scene when Han and Luke (but not Chewy, for some ethnocentric reason) receive their medals.

Once I’m brought forward in front of the altar table, He Who Must Not Be Named kneels before my casket and quietly confesses his many sins against me and begs me not to haunt him like Jacob to Ebenezer.

Then, he’s followed by a long line of women in veils and stilettos who all look like the woman in the ‘November Rain’ video.

They come forward, each, to lay a rose on my casket, and each of them behind their veil wear an expression that seems to say: ‘You were a man among boys, Jason.’

In the funeral in my mind, as Dennis begins with his lines about the resurrection and the life, the bishop slinks into the sanctuary embarrassed to be running late and second-guessing his decision to show solidarity with me by wearing a bandana and booty shorts.

But as he squeezes into a spot in the back corner, Stephen Hawking assures the bishop in his Speak-N-Spell voice that the booty shorts look quite nice with his clergy collar.

After the opening hymn, Andreas plays my favorite Old Testament song, ‘Female Bears are Eating My Friends.’ As he strums somberly with his eyes closed members of the Journeys Band notice that for the occasion of my funeral Andreas has bought a brand new pair of dutch boy clogs. Plus, he’s wearing his very best Cosby sweater.

When Andreas finishes, Dennis gets up to preach. And because he’s nervous to preach in front of the Dali Lama, Dennis has actually taken notes for the sermon instead of just shooting from the hip.

But then Dennis is overcome with emotion so he hands his notes to Hedy and Hedy stands up in the pulpit and, first, she reads the gospel scripture, the centurion at Christ’s cross: ‘Truly, this was God’s Son.’

And then she looks down at Dennis’ notes and reads what Dennis has prepared: ‘While these words normally refer to Jesus, I think we can all agree that in Jason’s case…’

After the sermon, which in my daydream, does a thorough job of quoting my own sermons, the choir comes to the front, wearing brand-new robes that have my likeness on the back in sequins.

The choir is led by a special guest vocalist who, in my daydream, is always a heavyset black woman (I’m not sure if that’s racist or not) and together they tribute me by singing the Gladys Knight single ‘You’re the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.’

Despite the heavyset black woman leading them, the choir veers off key because Ernest Johnson’s eyes are filled with angry, manstrating tears and he can’t see his music to conduct it. So the choir’s singing their heart out even if they’re singing off key and, while they sing, Scarlett Johansson leans over to Dennis to ask why Terri Phillips is wearing a Cinderella costume.

‘It’s what Jason would’ve wanted,’ Dennis whispers to Scarlett and Penelope Cruz just as the choir belts out the final Gladys Knight line: ‘I guess you were the best thing that ever happened to me.’

After the applause dies down, Ali chokes back her tears and anguish, and she steps up to the lectern to eugugolate me. She starts by pointing out how she knew me longer than anyone, from the time she saw me in my speedo at swim practice, which is to say it was love at first sight.

‘So I just want to say,’ Ali concludes and dabs her eye in my daydream, ‘Jason was mostly an okay guy.’

With that, she steps down and afterwards, in the funeral in my mind, there’s no closing hymn or benediction, no ‘Amazing Grace’ or Lord’s Prayer, because at some point during the prayer of commendation the roof is rent asunder as at the Transfiguration.

As God the Father declares ‘This is my Beloved Jason in whom I am well pleased’ Jesus and the Holy Spirit descend from the clouds, along with the ghosts of Mother Theresa, Dumbledore, Gandalf and Leonard Nimoy, and together, like the prophet Elijah, they carry me up into the heavens.

And so, then, there’s nothing else to do but go to Wesley Hall where the stage is lined with kegs of 90 Minute IPA, where my boys are back to playing on their tablets, and where the food is piled high around a giant ice sculpture. Of me.

——————

But I digress.

My point is- For a long time, I thought I was going to die.

When I realized I wasn’t going to die, when I got my bone marrow results back a few weeks ago, and I realized the inevitable wasn’t yet, I was so freaking grateful.

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

I felt so thankful that I promised a vow to God. I swore an oath to God. For the gift of my life, I would offer the gift of my faithfulness. It’s true. I stared at myself in the mirror at my oncologist’s mens room right after I received my results.

I splashed water on my face to make sure I wasn’t daydreaming. I stared at myself in the mirror and I swore, from here on out, I would be a perfect Christian.

No more snark or sarcasm. No more dark cynicism. No more cussing or anger. No more can’t be bothered apathy or little white lies.

 God had rescued me from death so I promised to the mens room mirror: ‘I will never sin again.’

And I meant it. I was doing a pretty job with it until I walked out of the bathroom and over to the elevator. The elevator at my doctor’s office, no matter the time of day, it’s like the DMV was outsourced to supervise the Final Solution. It’s a constipated, huddling mass of people frantic with their self-importance.

So I waited and waited, as the elevator would come and close, come and close, each time too crowded for me. But I was a good Christian. I kept my vow. I was patient. I did not think any dark thoughts in my heart. I did not sin.

So I was doing pretty good, and my turn was next. I was right there at the front of the line.

But as soon as the elevator doors opened, this old guy with wispy white hair and an oxygen mask, out of nowhere, wedged a walker in between me and the elevator doors and, like he was Patrick Ewing, he threw a varicosed elbow at me and pushed me out of the way to wait longer for another elevator.

Patrick Ewing looked at me as the elevator doors closed between us. And he smirked!

And if anyone had been able to read my mind in that moment I would’ve been whistled for a flagrant foul.

On my way home from the doctor, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I was standing at the counter about to pay. Next to me, in front of the other register, a homeless man poured coins out of an empty Cheetos bag and, coming up short, he looked over at me and asked if I had any money.

Without thinking about it, without meaning to, just reflexively (which says a lot about me), I said: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

My words were still hanging thick in the air when I looked down at my wallet in my hand, which had a wad of wrinkled 5’s and 10’s sticking out of it like a bouquet of dirty green flowers.

Not only had I lied, not only had I refused charity, Jesus says whatever you do to the poor you’ve done it to him so 20 minutes after my I’ll-never-sin-again-oath to God, I’d managed to lie to and stiff Jesus. Not to mention swearing false oaths is one of the 10 Commandments so that was a sin too.

And leaving Starbucks, I accidentally cut a guy off in traffic. It was an accident, not a sin.

But then when he rolled his window down to offer his opinion of me (at the traffic light), and when he offered his opinion of my mother (at the next light), and when he described everything he thought I deserved to do to myself (at the light after that), did I turn the rhetorical cheek? Did I forgive his trespass against me? Did I forgive him 70 x 7 times? Did I offer to walk a mile in his jerk shoes?

No, I said goodbye to him with a sarcastic smile and a one-fingered wave.

When I got home, I watched a clip of Joel Osteen, America’s favorite preacher, that one of you was kind enough to share with me on Facebook. I listened as Joel Osteen talked about how he doesn’t like to preach about the cross or other ‘depressing things.’ He prefers to keep it positive and uplifting.

Jesus says if you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery. By that same moral logic, if you’ve thought about killing someone, knocking in their toilet lid teeth, punching them in their vacant, Botox eyes, pulling out their mousse-hardened hair and turning their syrupy smile upside down- if you’ve thought about it, you’ve committed murder, Jesus implies. Guilty.

After I broke that commandment, I made the mistake of going to the Soviet Safeway just down Ft. Hunt.

I was in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 15 Items or Less Line.

I was in line behind this blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 15 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I kept my vow. I was Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Syrian Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

‘Oh my Lord! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!’ I didn’t say to myself.

If the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, and so the opposite of all that produce must be sin, right?

God rescued me from death, and still my new life of sinless perfection was shorter lived than Lincoln Chaffee’s presidential campaign.

—————-

     ‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?’ 

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

I know our teachers all lied to us and told us there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there is and this is one. The answer is not only obvious it’s ubiquitous. How can we go on sinning? Uh, very easily, Paul. I can do it without even trying.

‘How can we go on sinning?’! The better question is how can we not go on sinning? It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

‘How can we who died to sin [in baptism] go on living in it?‘ It’s a rhetorical question. Paul obviously thinks its not only possible but expected for those who’ve been buried in baptism to live free of sin.

According to Paul here, roughly 93% of my waking life should be impossible. I’ve been baptized. I’ve died to sin- Paul means that literally not figuratively- so my sinful life should be impossible. Your sinful life should be impossible.

Maybe you’re different, to me it’s Christ’s life that feels impossible.

But if Christ died to sin and we with him then why? Why do we so often and so easily sin?

So what gives?

What’s the disconnect between what Paul assumes to be true and what we assume to be obvious?

Who’s wrong?

Are we wrong? Is sin really easier to shake than everything in our lived experience leads us to suppose?

Or is Paul wrong? Have we not really died with Christ, died to sin, so that we can live free of it?

But if Paul’s wrong, then that means the Gospel’s wrong too. Christ, good dude though he was, did not set his people free by overcoming the pharaoh of Sin. And we who have been plunged under with him in baptism have not died with him so we have no share in him.

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

The assumption are not compatible. So who’s wrong? Paul? Or you and me? What’s the disconnect?

     It’s almost as though when we talk about Sin, Paul and you and me, we’re talking about two different things.

—————

     In the ancient Church, baptism would be performed almost exclusively on Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus is as dead as you will one day be, when, as the Church says, Jesus is our Passover, passing over from Death to Life.

The baptismal ritual wasn’t a sentimental one with babies and lacey heirlooms. Instead it was imagined and staged like a funeral. In the middle of the Easter vigil, after the Exodus story was read, the worshippers would move outside to the baptistry.

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

When they reached the flowing water, before they stripped naked to shed symbolically their old self and before they were plunged into the water just as the sea drown the chains of Pharaoh’s army, those to be baptized would face West, the direction where the light of the sun sets and the darkness rises.

They would face West and they would renounce Sin.  They would declare their independence from it.

And then, they would spit.

They would spit in Sin’s face. They would spit on Sin. They would draw up all the disgust and anger, all the self-loathing and pain, they could muster in their mouths and then they would spit in Sin’s face.

Here’s the thing-

You can’t spit in the face of a behavior.

You can only spit in the face of a person.

And really, it only has righteous power if you spit in the face of a person who thinks they control you. In the face of a Master.

—————

     When it comes to Sin, Paul and you and me, we don’t mean the same thing.

We think of sin as behavior. We think of sin as something we commit, like lying or cheating on your husband or lusting in your heart to do grave bodily harm to Joel Osteen.

We think of sin as behavior, but Paul thinks of Sin as a Power.

You can think of it as Darkness with a capital D. You can call it Satan if you like. If you’re a nerd, you can compare it to Sauron’s ring of power.

But to understand Paul you have to understand that he understands Sin not as our behavior but as a Power outside of us, as a Pharaoh, as a Master, whose will it is to have dominion over us, to bind us.

Our little ‘s’ sins are just signs and symptoms of our enslavement to the power of Sin with a capital S.

So for Paul, sin isn’t about our behavior. Sin is about our status, which Master do we believe we belong to?

For Paul, sin isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It isn’t about who we are on the inside or behind closed doors. Sin is about where we are.

Do we believe we’ve made an exodus in Jesus Christ? Or not? Do we believe we’ve passed over from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God?

We think of sin as things we do that disobey God’s will and provoke God’s anger.

But not Paul.

Paul doesn’t think of sin as disobeying God’s will for you.

Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

     Paul thinks of sin as obeying Sin’s will for you.

That’s how Paul can ask a rhetorical question like ‘How can we who died to sin go on living in it?’

It’s ridiculous to him that we would go on living under sin because we’ve been set free from the Power of Sin.

Sin’s let God’s People go. That Master no longer has any dominion over us or claim to us. That’s not who we belong to anymore. And Paul’s not being metaphoric.

     Paul believes emphatically that when we are joined in baptism by faith to Christ’s death something objective happens.

    We are moved, transferred, from the Kingdom of Sin to the Kingdom of God, and it’s a 1-way, once for all, no going back, nothing you do can undo it, kind of journey.

As we say with bread and wine, Christ has set us free from slavery to Sin.

That’s why Paul’s question is rhetorical, and rightly so. Why would you live your life as though the Power of Sin had any claim on you? That’s like obeying a Master who no longer owns you, submitting to a Ruler who’s already been deposed, fearing an Enemy that’s already been defeated.

Why would you want your life to be a prison when you’ve passed over with Christ from Egypt to freedom?

Paul doesn’t mean that baptism is a magical inoculation that makes it impossible for us to sin. He means to it’s impossible for us to see ourselves as slaves to it, to our sins.  We’ve been set free. That doesn’t mean we’re free of sins. It means we’re free from Sin. We’re free to choose a different story for ourselves. We’re free to turn from our sin, and we’re free to turn away the sins of the world. We’re not powerless against the sins in our lives nor are we excused to be passive about the sins in the world.

We’re free.

—————

     Okay, but that just leaves a big, fat question on the table: How?

How do you do it? If we’re free from Sin, how do we live free of sins?

Chances are, you didn’t hock many loogies at your baptism, and even though you can’t be rebaptized, it’s never too late to take a page from the wisdom of the past and spit in Sin’s face. Renounce it.

Look in the mirror even and pretend its Sin with a capital S staring back at you and spit in its face. Announce your rebellion.

Maybe you were abused. Stare that sin down and spit in its face and announce to it: ‘I don’t belong to you.’

And how about that anger you can’t keep from spilling out onto the people you love- look it in the eyes and spit in its face and tell it what my kids tell me: ‘You’re not the boss of me.’

The prejudice you try to justify, the spending that fills a hole no one can see, the resentment and regret that’s crippled your marriage, the callousness that’s grown up over your wounds- give it all the dead-eye stare.

Spit in its face and say to it: ‘You have no claim on me.You’re not my Master.

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

Spit in its face. Stare down your shame, and declare your disobedience. Say to your shame and self-loathing:

You may call me a slut

You may call me an addict, a freak, a loser, a disappointment

You may tell me I’m a failure, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m old, I’m whatever

But just as God declares of Jesus at his baptism so God declares of me because I’m in him and he’s in me and so I’m a beloved child of God and with God’s only Son I’ve passed over from captivity.

The only chains on me are the ones I put on myself.

Stare Sin down. Spit in its face. Laugh at it.

And say to it: Why would I obey you? I’ve been set free.

—————

      This time last year I thought I was going to die.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought the good news was that I wasn’t going to die. And I’m not saying I’m not happy about it…but in this place, the good news is that with water and promises by people like you I’ve already died.

With and in Christ.

So I don’t need to make any promises, take any vows, or swear any oaths to become a completely different person.

No, I only need to learn how to become who I already am.

Free.

 

 

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.

Psalm 51

Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?

And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?

—————

     We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’

Fine. Whatever.

But-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.

And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.

Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.

I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?

Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’

And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.

When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.

—————

     King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.

     Your sins do not offend God.

     There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.

Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.

No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.

I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.

Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

     Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

     Sin is about where your love lies.

     Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like David or a jackass like me or a comfortably numb suburbanite, doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.

God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.

So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

God’s love for you is unconditional because God is unchanging.

Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?

You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip.

Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.

And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.

Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.

Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.

Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.

Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.

Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)