Archives For Luther

Joke:

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

I didn’t hear it coming.

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

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

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

My first thought:

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

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

I was only being slightly tongue-in-cheek.

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

Recycling, reusing, reducing waste-

Those are good things to do.

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

Or (sorry) godly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words:

What we do with our paper or plastic-

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

Ergo-

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

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

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

     St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Tonight in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that. He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus. There’s nothing left of his humanity.

He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.

From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.

He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.

Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal. He doesn’t die with the ungodly beside him; he dies with the ungodly in him.

Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.

     Christ becomes our hatred for God.

He becomes all of our injustice.

He becomes Sin.

Upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way. He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it. He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad. He is every Caesar and every Judas. Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb. All our greed. All our violence. Every ungodly act and every ungodly person.

He becomes all of it.

He becomes Sin.

So that God can forsake it. For our sake.

They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!” last Sunday. They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.

A final, once for all, battle.

They’re just wrong about the Enemy.

The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.

The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.

They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.

A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.

Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”

The time of trial.

Not a generic word for any trial or hardship, it’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.

The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.

     But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.

Jesus becomes its wages.

That is, the battle is waged in him.

Upon him.

In this episode, I talk with Chad Bird about his two new books Night Driving and You’re God is Too Glorious, both of which debuted in the past year. A PhD in OT, Chad is an oil rig driver in Texas- the story behind that is in Night Driving.

Chad Bird has served as a pastor in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as assistant professor of Hebrew and exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and as a guest lecturer at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Novosibirsk, Siberia. He has contributed articles to the Lutheran Witness, Gottesdienst, Concordia Journal, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Modern Reformation, Concordia Pulpit Resources, Logia, Higher Things, and The Federalist. He is the author of The Infant Priest, Christ Alone, and Night Driving. In addition to hosting chadbird.com, he is a regular contributor to christholdfast.org and 1517legacy.com. He lives in Texas.

You can read more of Chad and find his books at www.chadbird.com.

Here’s a powerful video of Chad’s talk at the Here We Still Stand Conference: 

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.

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

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Okay, here’s the latest episode.

 

 

 

 

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once remarked that God in Jesus Christ gets so close to the muck and mire of our lives that “his skin smokes.” That is, the incarnation is more than the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers; it’s like the steaming pile of…you get the picture…that our life so often feels. Is that in any way beautiful?

Luther, more than any other theologian, focuses on the centrality of the crucified Christ for you? Is the naked and shamed Jesus nailed to a tree in any intelligible way beautiful?

In this episode, I talk with Dr. Mark Mattes about his new book, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. He reflects on how Luther’s reconceptualizing beauty can inform us in how we think about what constitutes a beautiful life, how we parent and love. Along the way, he pushes back on frequent podcast guest David Bentley Hart and also helps this United Methodist think through how to square Wesley’s notion of sanctification and perfection with Luther’s insistence that we always remain sinners who nonetheless already possess Christ’s perfect righteousness.

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.

 

 

 

 

Hammer Time

Jason Micheli —  February 14, 2018 — Leave a comment

     Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I mean-

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

She writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

It kills us.

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

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

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

Yet she had been searching for Law’s opposite.

Grace.

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

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

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

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

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

In other words-

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

Ash Wednesday is about freedom.

Freedom from the fear of your impurity.

And freedom from the fear of death.

(Death being the wage paid for your impurity)

Ash Wednesday is about grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s more than a few contradictions tonight.

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

Hang on-

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

The cross is absolutely irreligious.

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

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

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

We’re sinners.

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t worry about Jesus’ warning tonight.

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

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

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

We are all sinners.

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

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

We are- all of us- sinners.

——————————

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

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

Or the sprinkling of water.

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

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

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

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

You deserve to die.

And you have.

You have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

And that’s my final point:

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

You’re going to wash it off.

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

He makes himself our sin.

He makes us his purity.

In other words-

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

Indeed, it had to come from outside of you.

By way of your baptism.

As gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

This is Us

Jason Micheli —  February 12, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sorcery? Check

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

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

Anger.

Check.

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

So check and check and check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about that other list?

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

How are you doing with that list?

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

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

If so, congratulations. Gold star to you.

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

I just turned 40.

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

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

I love my kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of this is particularly comforting.

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

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

Note the passive voice.

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

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

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

And that’s my first point.

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

This is my first point:

This list is not the Law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except the Gardener.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s my second point:

    The fruit of the Spirit are for your neighbor.

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

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

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

     You are fit for heaven just as you are:

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

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

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

Therefore

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

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

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

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

Ergo-

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

Christ didn’t set you free for fruit.

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

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

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

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

For freedom Christ has set you free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith apart from your feelings.

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

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

The biggest obstacle to faith is your mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are.

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

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

No exceptions. No conditions. No qualifications.

No matter what your life looks like

No matter what you see when you look into the mirror

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

No matter how bare feel your basket to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being on a perpetual second date can get exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about faith.

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

 

 

 

Sacramental Scars

Jason Micheli —  February 5, 2018 — Leave a comment


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

I like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

As if to say, ‘Me first.’

So Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I still like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t confess his sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

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

Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet.

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

Jacob’s not a bible hero.

He’s a heel.

Still, I can’t help it. I like Jacob.

You might not.

You might not like Jacob.

You might not be like Jacob.

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

Congrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good for you. Gold star to you.

Go ahead and turn your brown nose up at Jacob.

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

Not everyone can relate to Jacob.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob.

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob.

Lucky you.

Lord knows I can.

I can.

But that’s not why I like Jacob.

No, I like Jacob-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the record, yes, I was flirting.

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

The other TV in the lab was playing Rachel Ray’s cooking show.

Every commercial break of Rachel’s show featured a spot selling Rachel Ray’s own line of boutique dog food, which if you’re counting at home is reason #93 to hate Rachel Ray.

“Do you think it strange that in between recipes for people food Rachel Ray is also selling dog food? I mean, are those transferable skills?” I asked my nurse.

She laughed as she hung my bag of pre-meds. She had short buzzed hair that she’d dyed turquoise that matched the gem stud in her nostril and complemented the purple cat-eye glasses on her nose.

Looking at the tattoo on my arm, she told me that her girlfriend was a tattoo artist.

“We’re thinking of getting married, my girlfriend and me,” she said, “You’re a priest, right? You probably think we’re sinners?”

She was asking, I noticed, not accusing.

“If you’re going to ask me these sorts of questions, I think you should return my copay.”

But she just sat on the wheeled stool next to me, waiting on me.

“Sinners? Yes.” I said.

And then added: “But no more than me.”

She looked confused, like what I’d said wasn’t as bad as she’d feared and not as good as she’d hoped.

“Look,” I said, “Christians have a simple formula:

‘People are sinners.

Christians are people.

Christians are sinners.’

“So yeah, no more than me.”

She nodded and flicked the tube to start the drip.

Another commercial from Skynet came on the television, this one for breast augmentation and eyebrow lifts and wrinkle removing along with a lie about defying time and aging.

“It’s kind of a waste of their ad budget to have their commercials played in here, don’t you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s kind of obvious and unavoidable here that nobody is getting out life alive but that’s exactly what they’re promising.”

She handed me a little plastic cup of pills (meds to minimize the tremors the chemo causes) and she said:

“Can I ask you, since you brought it up, if you died- or, when you die- do you know where you’ll go?”

“What are you?” I asked, “Some sort of undercover lesbian evangelist?”

She smiled just a little.

“No, I’ve just never been that religious and I don’t know how you know, you know, that you’ll go to heaven or be with God or whatever.”

I nodded yes.

“You’re really certain?” she asked me. She was studying me, the way she did at the end of infusions to make sure I was okay to drive home.

She was studying me. So I said it: “Yes.”

“How can you be so sure? How can you have that much faith?”

I shrugged my shoulders and I said: “I dunno.”

Seriously, I said: “I dunno.”

I mean, I’m no Hedy Collver but I am a duly ordained reverend.

A question like that about faith and heaven and eternal life should be my bible bread and butter but the best I could do was shrug my shoulders and fart out an “I dunno.”

I did better on her follow up. Another where question.

She smoothed out my crinkled chemo tube and she asked me: “Do you ever wonder where God is…considering…your situation?”

Now it was my turn to stare and study her.

“You see a lot of people lose their faith in a place like this. I guess it can be hard to believe there’s a God somewhere in the universe when there’s places like this in it too.”

“Your problem,” I said, “is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

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I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the ‘glory story.’

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way.

It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?”

The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us.

The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension not our ascension. And the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. Rather the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended.

The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles.

And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the glory story and all the unhelpful questions and cliches it begets.

We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God it starts with searching for him in our weakness.

If we hope to find wholeness from God it begins by seeking him out in our woundedness.

If we dream of finding healing from God we first must look for God not up in glory but down into the pit of our nightmare.

Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help and healing we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness and out into the shadows that surround us.

So I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him.

     Because it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ,

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- the healing grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ- can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s.

Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing- that’s not just the Jacob story that’s the Gospel.

That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by faith alone; we mean that you alone- by your lonesome- do not have the strength to save yourself.

You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint.

That’s why the bread is broken and why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar.

Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give.

“Your problem is in thinking that God is somewhere other than right here in a place like this.”

But I could tell from the squint behind her purple glasses that I hadn’t done much better than “I dunno.”

She didn’t follow me.

“Look,” I said, “since you’re the lesbian evangelist nurse, this might come in handy the next time you see someone on the ledge of faith. Tell them: ‘God didn’t give you cancer, but if God is to be found anywhere it’s in your experience of cancer.’”

And even as I said it, I realized I was saying it as much for me as for anyone.

That I was the one she might one day spot on the ledge of faith.

You see-

I don’t just like Jacob.

I don’t just think we need Jacob.

I need Jacob.

And I need the hope that comes with that new name God gives to him as the dark turns to dawn, the hope that if, in faith, I meet him on the field on which he chooses to reveal himself, my suffering and shame and weakness, then my scars too can become sacraments, not just wounds by places where the wounded hands of a Savior have graced me.

I need Jacob.

I need the promise that one day that “You have struggled with God and prevailed…” can be my name too.

That I can be called Israel.

 

 

Thanks to professors at UVA and Princeton, I first fell in love with Martin Luther and John Calvin by tracking back to them through the footnotes in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Even Barth admitted he would’ve made a good Lutheran. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this year past prompted me to reread a lot of Luther without Karl chaperoning. What I’ve (re)discovered in Luther is someone who is able to diagnose my dis-ease with evangelicalism.

One of the charms of Martin Luther (if you’re predisposed towards him) is how gun shy he was not when it came to polemic and bald assertion. More than any other church ‘father’ Luther wasn’t afraid to risk being wrong in arguing what was at stake in being right. In that same spirit, owing to Luther, here are three errors inherent in evangelicalism.

Proving that evangelicalism (or, really, pietism) is the water in which we all swim, these errors are just as often evident in the mainline church, especially in the UMC, as they are in your friendly neighborhood bible or baptist church.

Evangelicalism denies the complete reconciliation of humanity with God through the saving death of Christ upon the Cross, which amounts to a denial of Christ himself. Redemption, contrary to what you’ll hear from most evangelicals and- because they’re the majority- Methodists too, is complete.

The sins of the world, all of them, have been blotted out. Neither Christ nor Paul is a liar. It is finished; therefore, there is now no condemnation for sinners.

If Christ died for the sins of all people, then that’s the same as all people dying and making satisfaction for their sins. Nothing, therefore, is required of any of us save the faith which saves. Righteousness lies ready to be received it is not achieved.

Evangelicalism turns the Gospel into a conditional promise, contingent upon the disposition of the hearer. Whether it’s 3 biblical principles for an improved marriage, 5 tips to become a better you, 7 steps to tap into the fullness of the Spirit, or just inviting Jesus into your heart- all of which are derivative of the anxious bench altar call- evangelicalism is premised upon what you need to do to get to Christ rather than getting you to recognize that God in Christ has already gotten to you by coming down and dying for your sins and, by baptism, incorporated you into Christ fully.

The Gospel promise, shorn of any ifs ands or buts, is one in which we’re passive objects at best. In the Gospel, God carries the action of the verbs, for it is not Gospel if God is not the subject of the verbs.

Evangelicalism manipulates “faith” into a work by making it the mechanism by which we are the agents of our salvation. Evangelicalism, in other words, makes the same rhetorical blunder as the rich young ruler who asked “What must I do to be saved?” The answer to the rich young ruler is the same given to the jailor in Acts 16: “You are to do nothing except accept what God has done for you.”

Faith, according to the New Testament, is not a rational decision such that “making a decision for Christ” is what saves you; faith is the trusting recognition that Christ has saved you by his shed blood for sinners. Faith contributes nothing to salvation. Just as God created Adam’s world ex nihilo so God kills the Old Adam in us and makes of us a New Creation ex nihilo.

Faith does not contribute; faith clings to Christ who already contributed everything necessary for our salvation.

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And obviously we do spend too much.

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

And that gets to my second caution-

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

Or modern psychology for that matter.

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

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

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

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

No one disagrees.

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

But we do it anyway.

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

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

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

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

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

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

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

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

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

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

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

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

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

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

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

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

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

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

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

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

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

For who we are not

How we fall short

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

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

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

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

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

I didn’t think so.

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

And maybe-

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

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

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

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

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

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

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

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

You see-

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

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

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

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Glawspel

Jason Micheli —  November 13, 2017 — 3 Comments

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

Thou shall have no other gods but me.

Thou shall not make for yourself any idol.

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

Thou shall not commit murder.

Thou shall not commit adultery.

Thou shall not steal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know, it’s not funny.

It’s NOT.

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

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

That’s not their purpose.

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

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

To accuse us.

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

The primary function of the Law is theological.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s that going for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How could God love someone like me?”

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

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

Law and Gospel.

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

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

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

And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can only produce hypocrites.

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

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

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

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

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

Nor do you hear them rightly divided.

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

     Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting.

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

For you.

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

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

And the Gospel is not Glawspel.

The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached.

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

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

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

The Gospel simply repeats the question:

WDJD?

    What DID Jesus do?

———————-

     He did what you cannot do for yourself.

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

Because behind closed doors

When we think the mic is off

In the backstage dressing room of our minds

And in the secret thoughts of our hearts-

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

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

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

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

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

Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

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

Christianity is an exclusive religion.

It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.

And you in it.

On the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, Jason, Teer, and Johanna talk with the Beyonce of Anglicanism, Fleming Rutledge, about ongoing relevance of Protestantism’s primary message of grace and God’s agency, the bad theology behind “leaning into” our baptisms, and how the Feast of Pelagius is an every Sunday celebration in the mainline church.

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My friend and muse Stanley Hauerwas wrote an editorial in the Washington Post to observe this Reformation Day coinciding with the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Luther had hoped to provoke a debate with his theological brothers and monastic colleagues. He ignited a powder keg that became a revolution.

Assessing the religious landscape, where innumerable varieties of Protestant Christianity must compete against each other in an increasingly secular culture, Stanley, with a tone of self-loathing, asks why we holdouts from the Mother Church don’t simply return to the Catholic Church. After all, he contends, the issues which prompted Luther’s critique 500 years ago have since been resolved by first the Council of Trent and recently Vatican II.

Never mind that (on this All Saints eve) Protestants and Catholics still disagree over the definition and making of a saint or that Rome still practices indulgences, albeit in a far different form, whatever reconciliation Catholics and Protestants have reached on paper in conciliar gatherings it’s simply not the case that on the ground, in congregations, the issues which sparked the Reformation have been resolved. Stanley, as a trainer of preachers, should know this fact and perhaps bear some responsibility for it.

What do I mean?

During his time at Union Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously remarked that Protestantism in America had never gone through the Reformation; that is, the dominant ethos of American Christianity was pietism.

Stanley is wrong, I think, about the continuing relevance of the Reformation because Bonhoeffer continues to be correct.

Pietism continues to be the dominant key in which both Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism perform the Gospel, preaching the Law without distinction from the Gospel in ways that manifest as either moralism on the one hand or turn-and-burn brimstone, which forgets Christ has already closed the abyss between God and us, on the either.

Neither version of pietism reflects the Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel of justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.

Against Martin Luther, evangelical pietism in America, in its best forms, posits a continuous self and focuses not on how God works to condemn us as sinners and justify us for Jesus’ sake but instead on faith as a program for greater spiritual self-improvement. This emphasis on spiritual self-improvement is the root that all too often flowers into Christianity as behavior modification. Mainline Protestants, meanwhile, tend to be what Mark Mattes calls “secular evangelicals” who’ve undermined the evangelistic thrust of the Gospel by instead working “to use the Church at the national level to pressure governmental agencies to conform to its particular version of peace and justice.” 

Put simply, what most Protestants hear proclaimed week in and week is one of two flavors of pietism.

From Evangelicals it’s Become a Better You.

From Mainline Protestants it’s Build a Better World.

Mainline Protestants hate Joel Osteen, I suspect, because he’s but the inevitable product of a shared theology.

The assumption conveyed in congregations is that, yes, Christ died to cover your sins (if sin language is even used) but now we have a responsibility to play a part in salvation and the moral progress of self and society. This emphasis on our agency and ability to choose God and the good by our nature is called Pelagianism. Not only is it ripe for self-righteousness, it was condemned as a heresy 1500 years ago, a form of it, Semi-Pelagianism, is confused as our kerygma by many Christians.

This is a far cry from the Reformation’s reclamation of the announcement from the Apostle Paul that, apart from any of our religious doing (Law), God has shown us sinners grace in Jesus, given us Christ’s righteousness as our own, and gifted this to us through a faith predicated on his faithfulness alone.

Instead I think what many Protestants experience is what Craig Parton describes:

“My Christian life, truly began by grace, was now being “perfected” on the treadmill of the Law.

My pastors did not end their sermons by demanding I recite the rosary or visit Lourdes in order to unleash God’s power; instead, I was told to yield more, pray more, care about unbelievers more, read the Bible more, get involved with the church more, love my wife and kids more.

Not until…some 20 years later, did I understand that my Christian life had come to center around my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, my sermon application.

I had advanced beyond the need to hear the cross preached to me anymore. Of course, we all knew Jesus had died for our sins, and none of us would ever argue that we were trying to “merit” our salvation. But something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one. I was supposed to show that I had cleaned up my life and was at least grateful for all the gifts that had been bestowed…

The Gospel was critical for me at the beginning, critical now to share with others, and still critical to me into heaven, but it was of little other value. The ‘good’ in the good news was missing.”

Hauerwas is wrong, I think, because all over America, in red and blue churches alike, Mainline and Evangelical both, we’re exhausting people on the treadmill of the Law, exhausting them with expectations that, by their very nature, grate against the good news of the Gospel that they are justified by grace and reckoned righteous through Christ alone and always.

Phyllis Tickle famously said that every 500 years the Church goes through a Reformation. I wonder if the next great reformation for the Church in America will finally be to embody the message of the first.

 

     Here’s my sermon from Palm-Passion Sunday on Matthew 26.36-46, Jesus in the Garden in Gethsemane.

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

Throughout that holy week, these hundreds of thousands of pilgrims would gather at table and temple and they would remember.

They would remember how they’d once suffered bondage under another empire, and how God had heard their outrage and sent someone to save them.

They would remember how God had promised them: “I will be your God and you will be my People.” Always.

They would remember how with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God had delivered them from a Caesar called Pharaoh.

Passover was a political powder keg so every year Pontius Pilate would do his damnedest to keep Passover in the past tense.

Every year at the beginning of Passover week Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph, a shock-and-awe storm-trooping parade of horses and chariots and troops armed to the teeth and prisoners bound hand and foot and all of it led by imperial banners that dared as much as declared “Caesar is Lord.”

———————————

      So when Jesus, at the beginning of that same week, rides into Jerusalem from the opposite direction there could be no mistaking what to expect next.

Deliverance from enemies. Defeat of them. Freedom. Exodus from slavery.

How could there be any mistaking, any confusing, when Jesus chooses to ride into town- on a donkey, exactly the way the prophet Zechariah had foretold that Israel’s King would return to them, triumphant and victorious, before he crushes their enemies.

There could be no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they shout ‘Hosanna! Save us!’ and wave palm branches as they do every year for the festival of Sukkoth, another holy day when they recalled their exodus from Egypt and prayed for God to send them a Messiah.

The only reason to shout Hosanna during Passover instead of Sukkoth is if you believed that the Messiah for whom you have prayed has arrived.

There could no mistaking what to expect next.

That’s why they welcome him with the words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” the very words with which God’s People welcomed Solomon to the Temple.

The same words Israel sang upon Solomon’s enthronement. Solomon, David’s son. Solomon, the King.

There could be no mistake, no confusion, about what to expect next.

Not when he lights the match and tells his followers to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar (i.e., absolutely nothing).

Not when he cracks a whip and turns over the Temple’s tables as though he’s dedicating it anew just as David’s son had done.

Not when he takes bread and wine and with them makes himself the New Moses.

And not when he gets up from the Exodus table, and leads his followers to, of all places, the Mount of Olives.

The Mount of Olives was ground zero. The front line.

The Mount of Olives was the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised that God’s Messiah would initiate a victory of God’s People over the enemy that bound them.

From the parody of Pilate’s parade to the palm leaves, from the prophesied donkey to the shouts of hosanna, from Solomon’s welcome to the exodus table to the Mount of Olives every one in Jerusalem knew what to expect. There could be no mistaking all the signs.

They knew how God was going to use him.

He would be David to Rome’s Goliath.

He would face down a Pharaoh named Pilate, deliver the message that the Lord has heard the cries of his People and thus says he: “Let my People go.”

As though standing in the Red Sea bed, he would watch Pilate and Herod and all the rest swallowed up in and drowned by God’s righteousness. God’s justice.

They knew how God was going to use him.

———————————

     And when he invites Peter, James, and John, the same three who’d gone with him to the top of Mt. Horeb where they beheld him transfigured into glory, to go with him to the top of the Mount of Olives they probably expect a similar sight.

To see him transfigured again.

To see him charged with God’s glory.

To see him armed with it.

Armed for the final and decisive battle.

The battle that every sign and scripture from that holy week has led them to expect.

Except-

There on the top of the Mount of Olives Jesus doesn’t look at all as he had on top of that other mountain.

Then, his face had shone like the sun. Now, it’s twisted into agony.

Then, they’d seen him dazzling white with splendor. Now, he’s distraught with doubt and dread.

Then, on top of that other mountain, Moses and the prophet Elijah had appeared on either side of him. Now, on this mountaintop, he’s alone, utterly, already forsaken, alone except for what the prophet Isaiah called the ‘cup of wrath’ that’s before him.

Then, God’s voice had torn through the sky with certainty “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” Now, God doesn’t speak. At all.

So much so that Karl Barth says Jesus’ prayer in the Garden doesn’t even count as prayer because it’s not a dialogue with God. It’s a one way conversation. Because it’s not just that God doesn’t speak or answer back, God’s entirely absent from him, as dark and silent to him as the whale’s belly was to Jonah.

There, on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, and John with their half-drunk eyes- they see him transfigured again.

This would be Messiah who’d spoken bravely about carrying a cross transfigured to the point where he’s weak in the knees and terrified.

This would be Moses who’d stoically taken exodus bread and talked of his body being broken transfigured so that now he’s begging God to make it only a symbolic gesture.

This would be King who can probably still smell the hosanna palm leaves transfigured until he’s pleading for a Kingdom to come by any other means.

Peter and the sons of Zebedee, they see him transfigured a second time. From the Teacher who’d taught them to pray “Thy will be done…” to this slumped over shadow of his former self who knows the Father’s will not at all.

He’d boldly predicted his betrayal and crucifixion and now he’s telling them he’s “deeply grieved and agitated.”

Or, as the Greek inelegantly lays it out there, he tells them he’s “depressed and confused” such that what Jesus tells them in verse 38 is really “Remain here with me and stay awake, for I am so depressed I could die.”

And then he can only manage a few steps before he throws himself down on the ground, and the word Matthew uses there in verse 39, ekthembeistai, it means to shudder in horror, stricken and helpless.

He is, in every literal sense of the Greek, scared out of his mind. Or as the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus here, crying out frantically with great tears.

He is here exactly as Delacroix painted him: flat in the dirt, almost writhing, stretching out his arms, anguish in his eyes, his hands open in a desperate gesture of pleading.

God’s incarnate Son twisted into a golem of doubt and despair.

Transfigured.

As though he’s gone from God’s own righteousness in the flesh to God’s rejection of it.

———————————

      Peter, James, and John, the other disciples there on the Mount of Olives, any of the other pilgrims in Jerusalem that holy week- they’re not mistaken about what should come next. They weren’t wrong to shout “Hosanna!”

They’re all correct about what to expect next. The donkey, the palm leaves, the Passover- it all points to it, they’re right. They’re all right to expect a battle.

A final, once for all, battle.

They’re just wrong about the enemy.

The enemy isn’t Pilate or Herod but the One Paul calls The Enemy.

The Pharaoh to whom we’re all- the entire human race- enslaved isn’t Caesar but Sin. Not your little s sins but Sin with a capital S, whom the New Testament calls the Ruler of this World, the Power behind all the Pharaohs and Pilates and Putins.

They’re all correct about what to expect, but their enemies are all propped up by a bigger one.

A battle is what the Gospel wants you to see in Gethsemane. The Gospel wants you to see God initiating a final confrontation with Satan, the Enemy, the Powers, Sin, Death with a capital D- the New Testament uses all those terms interchangeably, take your pick. But a battle is what you’re supposed to see.

Jesus says so himself: “Keep praying,” he tells the three disciples in the garden, “not to enter peiramos.”

The time of trial.

That’s not a generic word for any trial or hardship. That’s the New Testament’s word for the final apocalyptic battle between God and the Power of Sin.

The Gospels want you to see in the dark of Gethsemane the beginning of the battle anticipated by all those hosannas and palm branches.

But it’s not a battle that Jesus wages.

Jesus becomes its wages.

That is, the battle is waged in him.

Upon him.

From here on out, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, the will of God and the will of Satan coincide in him.

That’s why they’re both- God and Satan- absent from him here in the garden.

Here in the garden he can longer hear God the Father in prayer.

And here in the garden he lacks what even in the wilderness he had- the comfort of a clear and identifiable adversary.

Here in the garden, they’re both absent from him because they’re both set upon him. Their wills have converged on him. They’ve intersected in him.

He can’t see or hear them now because he’s the acted upon object of them.

He is forsaken- by both God and Satan.

They’ve taken their leave of him to work their wills upon him.

Just as we confess that in Christ’s flesh is the perfect union, both fully divine and fully human; here in the garden we also confess that in him there is another union, a hideous union, of wills:

The will of Sin to reject God forever by crucifying Jesus.

The will of God to reject Sin forever by crucifying Jesus.

That’s the shuddering revulsion that overwhelms Jesus in Gethsemane.

     The cross isn’t a shock.

But this is: the realization breaking over him that the will of God will be done as the will of Satan is done.

In him, upon him,‘thy will be done’ will be done for both of them, God and Satan, on Earth as in Heaven and in Hell.

But that’s what Jesus freely assents to here in the garden.

He accepts that he will be the concrete and complete event of God’s rejection of Sin.

He agrees to be made vulnerable to the Power of Sin and God’s judgment of it.

     He consents to absorb the worse that we can do, as slaves to Sin.

     And he consents to absorb the worst that God can do- the worst that God will ever do.

As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “For our sake, God made him to be Sin who knew no sin.”

That’s what he accepts in getting up off the ground in Gethsemane.

And only he could accept it. Only he who was without sin- who was not enslaved by it- only he could freely choose, freely choose, to become it.

To be transfigured into Sin.

———————————

      Thursday morning one of Aldersgate’s college students texted me a photo from the Washington Post along with a link to an article.

It was a photo of a little child, maybe 2 or 3 years old.

A boy or a girl, I don’t know- I couldn’t tell from the thick curly hair and red cheeks and a drab olive blanket covered up any pink or blue hued clue the child’s clothes might’ve given me.

From the child’s bright black eyes it looked like the child might be smiling, but you couldn’t be sure because a respirator was masking the child’s face where a smile might go.

Gloved grown-up hands rested on the child’s shoulders.

It wasn’t until I read the whole story that I realized those bright black eyes were empty.

Dead.

“World Health Organization says Syria Chemical Attack Likely Involved Nerve Agent” ran the headline texted to me. And under the headline, under the hyperlink, the student texted me a question: “What do Christians say about this.”

And in the second line of text: a question mark.

Followed by an exclamation point.

What do Christians say?!

———————————

     What do Christians say?

Looking into the vacant eyes of a nerve-gassed toddler?

What do we say?

Something trite about God’s love?

Maybe because we’ve turned God’s love into a cliche, maybe because we’ve so sentimentalized what the Church conveys in proclaiming “God loves you” but many people assume that Christians are naive about the dark reality of sin in the world.

But we’re a People who hang a torture device on an altar wall- we’re not naive. We’re not naive about the cruelties of which we’re capable. Nor are we naive about the dreadful seriousness God deals with those cruelties.

What do Christians say? 

     I don’t know that we have anything more to say than what we hear God say in Gethsemane. 

     No.

No.

The dread, final, righteous, wrath-filled “No” God speaks to Sin.

And, yes.

Yes.

The nevertheless “Yes” God speaks to his enslaved sinful creatures.

The “Yes” God in Christ speaks to drinking the cup of wrath to its last drops.

That word ‘wrath’ gets confused in Church.

Sure, we’re all sinners in the hands of a wrathful God but scripture doesn’t mean it the way you hear it. God’s wrath doesn’t mean God is petulant and petty, raging at sinful creatures like you and me, reacting to our every infraction.

God, by definition, doesn’t react.

God’s wrath means that God never changes, that in Jesus Christ God has always been determined to reject the Power of Sin that binds his creatures as slaves.

So much so that God is dead set, literally over his dead body, dead set on killing it.

Killing Sin.

To set his people free from that Pharaoh. Once. For all.

——————————

     St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

Here in Gethsemane, Christ empties himself even of that.

     He empties himself completely, pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says when Jesus gets up off the ground in Gethsemane there’s nothing left of Jesus.

There’s nothing left of his humanity.

He’s an empty vessel; so that, when he drinks the cup the Father will not not move from him, when he drinks the cup of wrath, he fills himself completely with our sinfulness.

From Gethsemane to Golgotha, that’s all there is of him.

He drinks the cup until he’s filled and running over.

You see, Jesus isn’t just a stand-in for a sinner like you or me. He isn’t just a substitute for another. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus dies an innocent among thieves. He dies as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.

Jesus swallows all of it. Drinks all of it down and, in doing so, draws into himself the full force of humanity’s hatred for God.

He becomes our hatred for God.

He becomes our evil.

He becomes all of our injustice.

He becomes Sin.

     So that upon the Cross he does not epitomize or announce the Kingdom of God in any way.

     He is the concentrated reality of everything that stands against it.

He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.

He is every Caesar and every Judas.

Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror, and every chemical bomb.

All our greed. All our violence.

He is every ungodly act and every ungodly person.

He becomes all of it.

He becomes Sin.

So that God can forsake it.

Forsake it.

For our sake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most Common Heresies: #7

Jason Micheli —  August 19, 2016 — 2 Comments

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

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

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

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

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

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

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

Heresy #7: Antinomianism

What Is It?

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul famously asks his interlocutor, ‘if we’re saved by God’s grace and not by our deeds then should we keep on sinning so that God’s grace may abound even more?’

Antinomians are those who, not realizing Paul’s question is a rhetorical one and not bothering to read Paul further, answer: ‘Sure, why not?’

Displaying that logic does not always steer you true, antinomians hold that since the advent of Christ and the Gospel of grace, the Law, that is the moral conduct prescribed by God to his People in the Old Testament, is neither of use for Christians nor an obligation.

In other words:

If faith alone is necessary for salvation then the Law is unnecessary. 

Who Screwed Up First

While its roots go back to the ancient Church and its regrettable attitude towards Jews and their scripture, antinomianism is the crappy, white-elephant gift Protestantism has given the larger Church.

Antinomianism was the Jacob to the Protestant Reformation’s Esau, the inevitable and subsequent counter-charge to the Reformation’s critique of the Catholic Church’s ‘legalism’ and ‘works righteousness.’

You could blame Martin Luther who first projected onto the New Testament Pharisees, including Paul, the abuses of Luther’s own Medieval Catholicism. You could blame Martin Luther, for antinomianism is the predictable outcome to redefining the Gospel primarily in terms of justification by faith alone.

But the antinomianism reached its high point in the 17th century Puritan Colony of Massachusetts when Anne Hutchison, daughter of an Anglican priest, subscribed to the ‘free grace’ theology of John Cotton, a renegade Puritan preacher.

Hutchison found Cotton’s critique of Puritanism’s works righteousness persuading.

Hutchison then proved persuasive herself, recruiting others to the free grace movement.

Soon the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts (ie, Men) were persuaded to excommunicate and dispatch Hutchison. The regrettable theology of Hutchison was matched by the regrettable gender politics of the Church.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you divide- and thereby render schizophrenic- God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testaments by saying that ‘Jews try to earn salvation by doing the works of the Law while Christians receive salvation by grace through faith,’ then you might be an antinomian.

You might be antisemitic too.

So was Luther.

But at least Luther, on paper, understood that desiring to live out the ethic of the Law was the fruit of any true encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If you think Jesus does away the obligations of the Law rather than A) amping up the expectations of the Law and B) revealing in himself the Law’s all-along-aim then your ancestors might’ve hailed from the Bay State.

If you think you got right with God because you once came down during the altar call, invited Jesus into your heart and got born again during a moment of orchestrated, liturgized peer pressure and now it doesn’t matter if you cheat on your wife, give the poor only pennies and don’t bat an eye at the injustices of the world then you, my friend, are exactly why the Catholic Church got so bent out of shape about Luther nailing his Theses into the church door.

If you imagine that Christianity is really about love and that we should love others without the expectation or invitation for them to conform their lives to the Cross, then you’re an antinomian.

If you believe the Church should welcome everyone as they are and never critique their character or habits (thus leaving them as they are) then you’re a free grace- Bonhoeffer would say, cheap grace- heretic.

If inclusivity is a more urgent exhortation for you than calling others to conversion, repentance and a cross-bearing life then the one thing you’re NOT inclusive of is orthodoxy.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

The Nones

Americans

United Methodists

United Methodist Pastors

All other Mainline Protestants

Evangelicals

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

The Religious Right

Progressive Christians

Baby Boomers

Celebrities who opine about religion and ethics

Home Remedies

Read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, all of it- especially those chapters at the end no one ever quotes.

Read the Gospels and ask: Where does Jesus imply we just have to have faith?

Look at yourself in the mirror and consider: Do I want grace to be so amazing because the content of my character isn’t?

Become Mennonite.

Or get to know Jew. Start with Jesus if you haven’t met him yet.

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life and what, increasingly over the years, I’ve become convinced is one of the most important questions:

 

‘Can we pray to the saints?’

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It’s a good question, a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

Those, I think, are better ways of putting the question.

Of course there’s the standard Protestant tropes about how praying to anyone but Jesus Christ is…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

And there’s the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Baptist or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them. And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

At funerals, the Book of Worship guides officiants to draping a white pall over the casket while proclaiming:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism __________ put on Christ, so now is __________ in Christ and clothed with glory.

 Then facing the gathered, the pastor holds out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor lays her hands on the casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave __________ to us, now we give _________ back to you.

Receive __________ into the arms of your mercy.

Receive __________ into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in my congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne and Peg, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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It’s an important question because it’s one I think about every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine. For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

And since Reformation Day is upon us, I thought I’d offer you some DBH quotes on the ‘Protest’ that continues to sever Christ’s Church.

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The first cut is the deepest. Here, DBH lays the fault of contemporary atheism and the rise of the ‘Nones’ squarely at the feet of Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist god it unleashed.

1.

“In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.

Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict.

And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every Protestant school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism).

That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism.”

Here, DBH points out that in an attempt to be more biblical, respecting the 1st commandment and stripping the Medieval altars, the Reformation violated that most basic of implications of the 1st commandment: God is not a god within the universe.

2.

“The [Protestant] mysticism of bare and unadorned worship (which idolatrously mistakes God for some object within the universe that can be lost among other objects), and other tendencies to imagine the soul is purified by being extracted from the life of the senses or that God is glorified by the inanition of the world…

such thinking offends simply by being unbiblical, insufficiently chastened or inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation.

It’s unable to grasp that the trinitarian God is already full of fellowship, joy and glory, and requires no sacrifice of worldly love- the world adds nothing to God.”

And now for a definition:

Analogy of Being =

{The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God’s attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God’s reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the ancient Church Fathers to claim that their statements about God’s nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery. The rejection of the analogy of being has been one of the chief tenets of Protestant Christianity.}

 

Let the quotes resume…

3.

“The rejection of the analogy of being has the very effect so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of ‘being,’ but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

Apart from the analogy of being, the very concept of revelation is a contradiction.

Only insofar as creaturely being is analogous to divine being and proper to God’s nature, can God show himself as God, rather than in alienation to himself; there would be no revelation otherwise, only legislation.”

 

Because I love Karl Barth, I love this quote. DBH, like Barth before him, is not afraid to throw some elbows.

 

4.

“If rejection of the analogy of being were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Karl Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant..

All things in creation- all the words of being- speak of God because they shine within his eternal Word.

13TIMMETRODCbwThis past Saturday I spoke at the TIM Talks at Virginia Theological Seminary, a TED Talks homage sponsored by the Metro DC Synod of the Lutheran Church.

I haven’t been surrounded by that many reformed people since seminary. It turned out to be great day. Mike Gutzler and Kate Davidson, both young Lutheran pastors, organized and staged a provocative slate of speakers (myself excluded).

My contribution for ‘Ideas for 21st Century Ministry:’ The Priesthood of All Believers. I’ll post that presentation when it’s available.

Here are my three quick-ish takeaways from my experience:

  1. Theology Matters (to Lutherans):

Speaker after speaker, lay and cleric alike, on topics as diverse as glitter (seriously), elder care, chili-making and sexuality, repeatedly echoed the distinguishing feature of Luther’s theology:

Simul justus et peccator

‘at once justified and a sinner’

Each of us is simultaneously a woe-begotten sinner and justified by the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. Each of us has within us an enormous capacity for (self) destruction and an enormous capacity for love. Each of us is always, at the same time, both sinner and saint.

Not one of us is earning our way into God’s good favor. Not one of us is climbing the spiritual ladder. Not one of us is ‘improving’ in any way that’s meaningful from infinity’s perch.

We’re all accepted just as we are by the grace of God in Christ. Sheer gift.

And the only way to respond to a gift is…gratitude.

In its worst forms, Luther’s theology can lead to a ‘it doesn’t matter’ attitude towards the virtues, spiritual life and lived faith.

In its best forms, on display this Saturday, it leads to Christ-centered humility, radical hospitality and parable-like inclusivity.

This single event is hardly an objective survey, but I did also spend 3 years of seminary with Calvinists, which leads me to this conclusion:

Theology matters to Reformed Christians in a way that it does not to Methodists.

This could be explained by the fact that John Wesley never set out to deviate from Anglicanism in any meaningful way or to the fact that he wrote only occasional, ‘practical,’ works and never sat down to compose a thoroughgoing systematic theology. But then, Martin Luther wasn’t really a systematic theologian either.

Whatever the reasons, the TIM Talks on Saturday couldn’t have been more different than most United Methodist conferences and the like which I’ve attended.

For Lutherans, their core theological convictions really do guide and inform their worldview. Typically at United Methodist gatherings what’s emphasized is not our theological identity.

Instead what you’re likely to hear emphasized is our ‘connectional system,’ the administrative structure which yokes all individual congregations together to accomplish the ‘big C’ Church’s mission- an administrative structure, it should be noted, that is shared by all traditions save Baptists and Pentecostals.

You’ll also hear themes of social justice lauded as distinctively Wesleyan which is demonstrably not true. To think Methodists have the corner on living out our faith is silly.

In our worst times, United Methodist gatherings will praise the itinerancy, the system by which pastors are sent (not hired or called by) to local congregations. I don’t disagree with itinerancy, but the TIM Talks on Saturday reaffirm my fears that we Methodists have made our methods of administration more determinative for our identity than our founding, core convictions.

2. German is Cooler:

Every denomination has its birth stories, its insider jargon and lame, churchy humor.

Methodists make jokes about circuit-riders and 3-point charges and ‘moving day’ (see above: itinerancy). Sophisticated Methodists might lampoon our belief in perfection.

The problem: all those insider jokes are in everyday, pedestrian English.

I recall enough high school German to think all of the above would sound infinitely more sophisticated in Deutsch.

Saturday, surrounded by Lutherans, I was also surrounded by insider jokes- particularly in reference to Martin’s famed constipation-induced, Reformation-provoking epiphany.

But in German…it all sounds cooler.

Plus, there’s the whole teetotaling (thank you United Methodist Women…not) vs. bier-drinking tradition.

3. The Gay (non) Issue:

No speaker wants to go last in a long line of speakers, and no speaker wants to follow a dynamite, creative speaker.

That’s what happened to me, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

The speaker before me was Rev. Megan Rohrer, the first openly gay clergywoman in the Lutheran Church. She works in San Francisco with the homeless. Again and again in her 18 minutes talk it was clear: she’s just an ordinary Christian doing ordinary ministry as an ordinary pastor. She doesn’t want or seek anything but the recognition given to every other ordinary person. Megan-Rohrer

My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote that his experience in the ordination process gives him hope that the Church will be okay despite our differences.

My time on Saturday, especially listening to Megan and watching the reception to her, also gives me hope.

I had friends in seminary who were gay and whose call to ministry was clear but whose eventual ordination, at the time, was highly in doubt.

I have Methodist friends in seminary who are gay and whose call to ministry is clear but whose eventual ordination, at this time, is in doubt.

What I do not presently have are clergy colleagues who happen to be (openly) gay. I’ve long believed that any Church that baptizes gay Christians into should be prepared to ordain them for ministry.

In my own denomination, the debate over sexuality continues all the while beset by a ‘what will come of the church’ hand-wringing.

Gay clergy strikes the majority of Methodist-casters as an extraordinary impossibility. Indeed ours is a denomination where even a vote aimed at acknowledging our denominational divide on the issue failed for fear of appearing to placate the ‘pro-gay’ agenda.

By contrast, the TIM Talks on Saturday were my first experience of a clergy gathering with gay clergy in attendance and other clergy who saw them only as colleagues and a bishop who thought their sexuality not worth even commenting upon.

Though the quality of her presentation was worth noting.

I’m under no illusions about how painful, difficult and costly was the path the Lutheran Church chose, but I can say that what’s on the other side of that decision isn’t extraordinary at all.

It’s very, very ordinary.

And that is exactly how they would like it.