Archives For Paul

Untitled9This weekend we began our summer sermon series, Songs of the Messiah, during which we’ll look at how Paul uses the Psalms of the Old Testament throughout his argument in his Letter to the Romans.

The texts this weekend were Psalm 98 and Romans 1.16-17, Paul’s thesis statement.

To get at the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in scripture, a word whose meaning can get lost religious-speak, I invited a friend to join me for the sermon, Brian Stolarz. I’ve written about Brian on the blog before.

imagesBrian is a defense lawyer who has written a book, One Big Setup, about his experiences getting Alfred Dewayne Brown off of Death Row in Texas.

I’ll add the text of the sermon when I have it but you can listen to the audio below or in the sidebar to the right.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

 

Untitled9This weekend we kick-off a new sermon series for the summer, Songs of the Messiah, which will track the way St. Paul uses the Psalms in his Letter to the Romans to unpack who Jesus is and what God accomplished through him for Israel and the world.

In the first 3 chapters of Romans Paul famously argues that the creation itself is both a revelation of God’s love and a revelation of human sin, such is the extent of our depravity. Only through the faith of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is the story of Sin unwound and retold, writes Paul (3.22-25).

Another way of putting Paul’s point: the devil was right.

“You shall be as gods,” said the serpent to Eve, and he was right. We shall be as gods.’ At least that’s how the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, saw it.

It’s Christian cliche to call the devil ‘the prince of lies,’ but for McCabe any proper understanding of the Jesus story hinges on the recognition that what the serpent promises Eve is true.

We will become as God.

The devil tells the truth.

Just as the devil tells the truth to Jesus in the wilderness. All authority on earth will be given to Jesus- is given to Jesus, as Christ as much says before ascends to the Father at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

The devil tells the truth.

It’s just a question of how that truth will should come to pass.

imagesSays McCabe:

‘But the question is ‘How?’ How will we become as gods? In the delusory way of claiming a separate, independent divinity for ourselves, or by receiving the only authentic divinity as a gift from God himself in Christ through his faithfulness?’ 

The story of sin and salvation, according to McCabe, is really just the story of the two ways we become as g(G)od: on our own terms or by Christ.

‘Sin is itself a strange and distorted caricature of the gift of God. Sin is to grab for yourself autonomy, to deny your creature-hood, to make yourself a god; but the gift of God is to receive divinity, to be taken beyond creature-hood. 

Strangely, it is by accepting our creature-hood, by obeying the law of the Lord (which is just the law of our created being, the law of our humanity), it is in obeying this law that we are miraculously carried beyond it into the friendship of God.’ 

So the devil told the truth about the what- our eventual divinity.

It was the ‘how’ he and we were- and so often are- wrong about.

‘When we acknowledge our existence, our selfhood, our meaning as a gift from God we find that this gift is even greater than that, that we are given more than good creature-hood.’

The devil told the truth as far as he could know it. He could not know the means by which that would become true, that in the Son and through the Spirit we would be taken up into the very life and love- the friendship- of the Triune God.

Or, as St Athanasius summarized it so well:

God became human; so that, we might become God.

 

Brian BlountThanks to logistical wizardy of Teer Hardy (Ryan to my Michael Scott) we’ve started to do a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

For this installment, we’ve got the President and Professor of New Testament at Union Seminary, Brian Blount.

Dr. Blount was my teacher when we were both at Princeton. His work has focused on the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation. His new book is Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection.

For this podcast we discuss resurrection, revelation, zombies and whether contemporary Christians should preach what Paul said or do what Paul did. 

Come back to check out future installments. We’ve got Stanley HauerwasBrian Zahnd and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to the interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

photo-1This weekend I concluded our sermon series on Generosity by pulling, at random, scripture passages having to do with money and taught on them.

One of the passages in the mix that I didn’t get to preach on was from 2 Corinthians 9.11-13

It’s a good one too so I thought it worth a look here:

11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.

I always think of the Corinthians as this married couple who fight about sex and clothes and drinking, but really every time they fight they’re fighting about money.

Money comes up again and again in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

But unless you read the Book of Acts you don’t necessarily know why is so focused on money. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us that Paul traveled throughout the Greek-Gentile world planting churches but also taking up a collection for the Christians back in Jerusalem.

And one of the reasons for the collection was that the Christians back in Jerusalem were suffering both a severe famine but also an intense persecution for their faith.

The other reason Paul was taking up a collection was an attempt to unify the Church- that from the very beginning of the faith one of the practices of being a Christian was to  give to others you’d never met, would never meet and with whom you had nothing in common except Christ.

So Paul, according to the Book of Acts, traveled from church to church, taking up this collection. Initially, we’re told, the Christians in Corinth, who were quite wealthy, were very enthusiastic about giving to the collection. But when it came time to kick-in what they had pledged…not so much.

I had a job going door-to-door when I was in college, and I always knew that when someone promised me they’d mail in a check rather than give it to me on their front porch that they weren’t going to give anything.

The Corinthians hadn’t given anything; meanwhile, the Christians in Macedonia, who were so poor Paul hadn’t even asked them to contribute to the collection, showed ‘rich generosity’ despite their poverty.

So that’s the context to all this talk of money in Corinthians.

To me, what’s really interesting in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is how seamlessly Paul will go from the every day, nuts and bolts of our giving our money to imagery of God’s glory.

It’s even more interesting, as I mentioned this weekend, when you remember that the original manuscripts of Paul’s letters didn’t have any of the chapter and verse divisions that your bibles today do.

And so in a famous passage like 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes with this passionate rhetoric about how ‘if Christ has not been raised then we are still in our sins’ and where Paul mocks Death with a capital D “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?’

And then the very next verse in chapter 16, verse 1 Paul tells the Corinthians to pass the offering plate.

Paul makes those kinds of moves, transitions that seem jarring to us, because for Paul our love of God and our love of neighbor is inseparable.

You see this in verse 12 where Paul uses the word ‘service’ to refer to giving to the collection.

The word there is λειτουργία, liturgy.

Worship.

The word ‘liturgy’ originally was a secular term. In Rome, it referred to the ‘service’ of wealthy Romans supplying for the needs of the poor in their community.

The first Christians took that word ‘liturgy’ and used it to refer both to their worship of God and their generosity to the poor.

You see by using the word liturgy to refer to both practices, the first Christians made sure we would know that our generosity to others is a way we worship God and that our worship of God is a way that we serve others.

Too often we focus on our giving as an act of charity; it’s something we do for the poor and the needy.

But when we focus on giving as an act of charity we split the Greatest Commandment into two.

We focus on our love of neighbor but forget that our giving is one of the necessary ways we love God- that’s why Paul says elsewhere that ‘God loves a cheerful giver.’ Because if our giving is an act of worship it has to be done out of joy not compulsion.

You see this in v. 13 of this passage where Paul writes that the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving isn’t for the hungry and hurting in Jerusalem, as important as that remains.

No, the ultimate reason for the Corinthians’ giving is to glorify God.

The primary purpose of our generosity, Paul says, is to witness to our faith, to give evidence of the reality of God’s grace in our lives by the way we handle our money.

Remember, the Christians back in Jerusalem hadn’t been supportive of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. They didn’t want Gentile Christians in the Church.

But Paul’s convinced that when the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem see the extravagant generosity of the Gentile Christians they’ll have to come to the conclusion that God’s grace must be real and alive in these people’s lives.

And Paul was right.

If you go back and read the complaints that pagan Romans wrote about the first Christians, their biggest complaint- their primary observation about Christians- was always about how exceedingly generous Christians were.

Not just to other Christians but to pagans as well.

The first Christians made the Romans look bad they were so generous to others.

And the way the first Christians made converts was through the example of their exceedingly generous lifestyle.

The way they gave their money away, the way they welcomed strangers, the way they cared for widows and lepers, the way they rescued infants left to die in the fields- their generous lifestyle- not their doctrine, not their music, not their facilities- is what convinced unbelievers that Christ must be raised from the dead.

And that’s important to know in a culture like ours where 77% of the population will not attend any church this year.

Generosity is the single best way to witness to the grace and glory of God.

And even though it’s true that Christians as a demographic are more generous than any other group in the country, it’s also true that over half of all Christians give nothing.

Just imagine if Christians had the same reputation in the 21st century that they had in the first century.

 

For the past four months, we’ve been working our way, chunk by chunk, through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Two weeks ago, on the way out of worship and having just heard a reading from Romans 8, a parishioner asked me:

That verse in Romans about all things working out for good for those who love God- I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. Does it really mean everything works out in life for Christians? Because that’s not exactly my experience.

I disarmed the question with a dash of humor and a few sprinkles of theology and sent the questioner on their way. Out of narthex sight, out of pastor’s mind.

I didn’t think about their question again; that is, not until today.

Like many of you, I purchase most of my books through Amazon. Frequently Amazon will provide me with a list of suggested books that I ‘might like,’ titles presumed by the Amazon Borg to live in the same habitat as my previous purchases.

Because many of the books I purchase are theological, the Amazon algorithms apparently have tagged me as a reader of ‘Christian Literature’ and ‘Christian Inspiration.’

Yes, you were right to anticipate a dry-heave gag reflex. It’s hard for me to say, for example, in the case of For Every Season whether my credulity is strained more by the descriptor ‘Christian’ or ‘Literature.’

fes_lgIn fact a quick perusal through the virtual shelves of ‘Christian Fiction’ suggest there is a surprising audience out there for Anabaptist (Amish? Mennonite?) Romance novels.

Book covers abound that feature chaste yet well-endowed disciples who manage to wear their biblically-mandated head covering in a come hither way.

It makes one wonder if there’s likewise a Christian subcategory to torture porn novels?

Fifty Shades of Amish Wool perhaps?

I mean, the Amish are good at tying knots.

(It’s my idea- don’t steal it)

You won’t be surprised to learn that what truly kills me is Amazon suggesting that I ‘might like these books in Christian Inspiration.’

Glancing at these suggested texts, whose titles even my cynical mind couldn’t satirize better, I thought of that parishioner again and her question about that verse.

Does everything in life work out for good for Christians? For those who love God? For those who just pray hard enough?

Because that’s certainly the explicit promise in nearly all these ‘inspirational’ books, and while it may be inspirational to hear that the Bible/Faith/Prayer contains the secret to grant our every market-generated wish, it’s not at all clear that it counts as ‘Christian.’

So many of these ‘inspirational’ books peddle exactly what atheists accuse religion for being underneath the hood. ‘God’ isn’t really a name bound to a very specific historical narrative; ‘God’ is really just the word we use to designate what we want to change in our lives.

It’s the baldest kind of hope fulfillment.

Does everything work out for good if you love God enough and pray? I-DECLARE-428x620

Joel Osteen answers in the affirmative and has taken that ‘yes’ all the way to the bank.

Truth be told, I’ve actually read JO’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now. And in all however many pages, Rev Osteen never gets around to mentioning these essential bits of Christian logic:

If we’re made in the image of God

And Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Then we’re made to bear the image of Jesus, the incarnate God.

Therefore:

Your ‘best’ life (and mine and anyone else’s) is a life that resembles Jesus.

So when Paul writes to the Romans that “all things work together for good,” Paul’s definition of ‘good’ doesn’t mean a large (or even modest) home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

‘Good’ in Paul’s equation

=

Like Jesus

That’s what Paul means when he goes on to write in Romans that those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

The trajectory of scripture, then, is about God fashioning us into Jesus’ image.

That’s what it means for ‘everything’ to ‘work out’ for ‘good.’

Eventually, Paul is saying, those who love God get to resemble Jesus.

We don’t (necessarily) get a nice home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.

Not only did Jesus lack all those things, Jesus was homeless, rejected, betrayed, suffered, and killed. And so was, we should point out, the man who wrote that verse about things working out for God’s people.

So whatever Paul means by things working out for good in our lives, it certainly doesn’t mean a life of empty parking spots, problem-less marriages and in-ground pools.

Therein lies the question in Paul’s memory verse about all things working together for good for those who love God.

If looking and living like Jesus is what Paul means by ‘good’ then just how good is your life?

 

Will the Jews be Saved?

Jason Micheli —  August 13, 2013 — 2 Comments

453703048Last weekend and this coming one, we’re thick in the middle of Paul’s core argument in his letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

 

All the ‘…faith in/of Jesus Christ’ and ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’ and ‘…nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ passages build to this rhetorical climax where Paul’s working out the vexing mystery:

How is it that Messiah has come yet the People called to await him do not recognize him?

Seldom do mainline Christians dare wade into this part of Paul. Only occasionally does the lectionary cycle of assigned readings stop for a visit in this central section of Romans.

And, you’ve got to admit, it’s for good reason.

With perhaps the obvious exception of the Passion narrative itself (where Pilate abdicates any blood on his own hands for Jesus’ death and imputes it to the crowd), Romans 9-11 has more blood on it than any passage in the New Testament.

Jewish blood.

For nearly 2 millennia, minus a few centuries, Christians have- erroneously and sinfully- misread Paul in Romans 9-11, answering ‘Yes’ to Paul’s rhetorical question ‘Has God rejected People?’ which gave license for God’s adopted People to rejected his Elect People.

Take it from personal experience, a single walk through the Holocaust Museum will- and should- give you pause before ever utter a single speculation about the Jews’ salvation.

As Western Christians, we simply do not have the right to weigh in.

Because Romans 9-11 is so fraught with tragic interpretations, as I’m wont to do I’ve turned once again to Karl Barth. If for no other contribution, Barth is a historically significant theologian for rejecting Christian supercessionism (the idea that Christianity/Church transcends and replaces Judaism/Synagogue. Barth’s rejection of such thinking emerged in no small part from his experience in Nazi German. It also charted a path forward for post-holocaust theology.

A few basics from Barth’s point of view:

A promise from God (ie, the covenant) can’t be revoked. God can’t be unfaithful to himself.

Israel’s infidelity (ie, lack of recognition of Jesus the Messiah) is proof positive that God is a God of grace- to say Jews will not be saved is literally to pull the entire foundation of scripture out from under our faith. It’s like the Prodigal’s Father saying ‘Nah, you should’ve come home earlier.’

For Barth, the above added up to the impossibility of any mission to the Jews. They have their own inscrutable vocation and election within God’s eternal plan.

From Barth:

‘Anti-semitism in all its forms means rejection of the grace of God, covenant grace.’

‘The existence of the People Israel is the factual reality that testifies to the truth of the God who is bound to humanity and of the humanity that is bound to God.’

‘Election means not that Israel has chosen God but God Israel.’

‘God has always had as his partner not a peer but a human in dire need of mercy. The covenant is grounded solely on God’s goodness and not on human worthiness. The inequality of the partners can, thus, not threaten the covenant.’

 

Screen-Shot-2013-07-25-at-7.39.20-AMThese images are making the rounds in the blogosphere- at least if you’re a theological nerd then you’ve probably seen them making the rounds.

Being a proud and reasonably competent alum of Princeton, of which Jonathan Edwards was Prez, I’ve always been inclined towards protectiveness when it comes to the Great Awakener. Edwards represents the zenith of Reformed, Calvinist theology. Like him or not, he is likely America’s greatest public intellectual.

The pastor in me has always taken dark glee in the fact that Reverend Edwards routinely received scorn from his congregants for ‘not visiting enough,’ being impatient, and for speaking rashly and ‘intemperately’ towards them.

A man after my own heart…almost.

Overall, I think he gets a bad rap. If you know Edwards at all, then, odds are, you know him from AP US History in high school. Chances are every bit as good that if high school is where you met Edwards, then his enormous corpus of thought, which focused primarily on theological aesthetics and the Trinity, was reduced to a single, solitary sermon: ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’

(I’m reduced to a cold, panic-riddled sweat at the thought that I might be known in perpetuity for just one of my sermons)

On the one hand, Jonathan Edwards is a perfect example of why some things should be left off limits to high school teachers.

On the other hand, though, a dozen years in ministry and even more of following Jesus and wading regularly into scripture convince me that my teenage, pre-Christian, straight from the lips of a high school teacher reaction to Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was- as most primal instincts are- the right one. The righteous one.

For this quote:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or
some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked:
his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing
else…(Edwards)

Has nothing to do with this one:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom 8)

Which- albeit in this singular instance- makes Edwards, the strictest sense of the term, the anti-Christ.

Au Contraire

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2013 — 1 Comment

Raised to Life PicWe continued our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans this weekend with 8.12-17. Paul structures his letter along a diatribe style; that is, Romans is a sustained argument with a hypothetical opponent or interlocutor. Because Romans takes this debate posture, I thought it would be good to mimic the text’s form by engaging in a diatribe of my own during the sermon. We did so by playing a little game called ‘Au Contraire.’

For the sermon time, the worshippers were seated at round tables. Each table had an assigned number and a printed assertion. We pulled numbered balls from a bingo tumbler. When a table’s number was called, the assertion was read and then Dennis Perry and myself had to agree or disagree with the statement- but not before being randomly assigned a pro or con position.

It was fun for us. The extemporaneous nature of it made it refreshing I think, and, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated how believers can turn to scripture and the Christian tradition to arrive at different conclusions to questions, a fact which should encourage charity towards those with whom you disagree.

Here’s the audio from the last 2 of our 4 weekend services. We ranged around the room a bit so the sound isn’t as strong as I’d like.

      1. Au Contraire- 9:45 Service

 

      2. Au Contraire- 11:15 Service

Here’s this weekend’s sermon from Romans 4.1-5 for our series, JustifiedYou can also download it in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’Or, you can listen to the sermon here: 

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

photo-4     Over Memorial Day Weekend I joined 1,000 people from around the world at for the Taize Gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Taize is a monastery in Burgundy, France. Every week the brothers of Taize welcome thousands of pilgrims to their monastery in France to participate in the rhythms of their communal life.

Once a year some of the more than 100 brothers take their ‘community’ somewhere else in the world for a pilgrimage gathering.

This year the brothers were invited by the Lakota Nation to welcome pilgrims to Pine Ridge.

Just as pilgrims do at the monastery in Taize, we spent our time at Pine Ridge worshipping 3 times a day, sharing simple meals, and sharing our faith stories in small groups. photo-3

On Saturday of the Pilgrimage Weekend, after morning prayer and breakfast, we were assigned small groups to reflect on the morning scripture lesson.

I was told our small groups were assigned according to the order in which we’d registered for the Pilgrimage, but I swear it was due to some some cruel, cosmic joke I can’t be sure.

The seven of us in my small group sat down in a circle in the dry, prairie grass.

     Directly across from me in the circle sat a white-haired, tie-dyed Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California.

     Next to the lady bishop sat a gay Episcopal priest from San Francisco.

     Next to him sat a Unitarian lay person from Boulder, Colorado.

     Next to him, a Catholic civil servant from Paris, France.

     Next to her, a women’s studies PhD candidate from Barcelona, Spain.

     Next to her, on my left, was a man who looked like a shorter, plumper, balder, older version of me- except he was dressed sloppy and had an unkempt beard.

     His green Velcro sneakers, red tube socks and Trotsky eyeglasses screamed ‘European Socialist.’

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

     I went second to last. As I’m want to do, I tried to charm them with self-effacing, sarcastic humor.

‘I’m a Methodist pastor from Virginia,’ I began, ‘and I just gotta say my congregation back home would be shocked to hear that I could be the most conservative person in any group.’

No one laughed, which, I suppose, just proves how liberal they all were.

‘You didn’t tell us your name,’ the Bishop said with a tone of voice that suggested what she really meant was: ‘I’d prefer not to make your acquaintance.’

     ‘Sorry, my name’s Jason’ I said, ‘Jason Micheli.’

And when I said ‘Micheli,’ the shorter, plumper, older, balder version of me shouted: ‘Micheli! Italiano!’

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

And then got up and embraced me like Gepetto rescuing Pinocchio from the Island of Lost Boys.

He rubbed his sweaty beard across my face as he man-kissed me on both my cheeks, and then he began ticking off the names of people he insisted I must be related to back in “Roma.”

Wiping his sweat from my face, I gestured for him to introduce himself.

He adjusted his glasses and said in a thick accent: ‘My name is Tomaso.’

Tomaso told us he was a scientist, a geologist, from Rome. And then he laughed nervously and said: ‘I am not a Christian. I am not a person of faith.’

Both times the accent landed heavy on the ‘not.’

5127ee0225791.preview-620Our bible study felt forced. Everyone in the group kept deferring to the bishop and, being Episcopalian, the bible was an unfamiliar to her.

The bishop said the types of knee-jerk things you’d expect an Episcopal Bishop from Berkley, California to say.

And- you’d be proud of me- initially, at least, I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with any snarky comments.

That is, until I remembered she wasn’t my Bishop- at which point I started to interrupt her with thoughtful, sober comments like:

‘Of course, you think that. You’re a tree-hugging, liberal, Baby Boomer Episcopalian from California.’

In truth, I wasn’t really interested in our bible study- because, really, I was dying to ask Tomaso, the paisano to my left, why he’d flown all the way from Italy, driven all the way from Denver, agreed to sleep in a horse pasture and go without running water and spend 4 days with Christians and celibate monks if he was NOT a person of faith.

When our bible study wrapped up, I grabbed Tomaso by the elbow and I said: ‘Tomaso, call it professional curiosity, but what are you doing here if you’re not a person of faith?’

And, a bit anticlimactically, he said: ‘Because my wife made me come.’

‘Well, that’s nothing new. Half the men in my church are there because their old ladies force them to come.’

Tomaso chuckled and grabbed his book- a science fiction novel- like he was about to leave, but I said: ‘Tell me- why don’t you consider yourself a person of faith?’

He smiled like a professor who’s not sure how to water down his material for a freshman class, and then he launched into what sounded like a well-rehearsed litany. His reasons against faith.

‘I am a scientist’ he began, ‘and there is no scientific explanation for a 7 day creation, for an incarnation, for a resurrection.’

    ‘Gosh, there isn’t? I guess it’s a good thing scripture doesn’t try to explain them scientifically then, huh?’

My sarcasm apparently didn’t translate because he just kept ticking off his reasons for not believing:

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

How the Gospels don’t always agree with one another.

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

How it’s superstitious to think bread and wine can become anyone’s body and blood.

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

How scripture is not the literal Word of God but instead bears all the messy fingerprints of people like you and me.

His list was surprisingly long and surprisingly unoriginal. And when he got to the end, he held out his hands like a magician, whose just disappeared his assistant, and he said:

‘See, mi amico, there’s nothing left for me to believe. There’s nothing left for me to be a person of faith.’ 

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‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ 

     There may be no other sentence in the Old Testament that has been more significant to followers of the New. And more misleading.

     God told Abraham that he and his wife, Sarah, would have millions of descendants- as many as the stars in the sky.

     Abraham believed God and that was enough for God to credit Abraham as ‘righteous.’

Ever since Martin Luther, the Founding Father of Protestantism, Father Abraham has served as Exhibit A for what we think it means for us to have faith:

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

At least that’s what we think Paul means in Romans 4.

But here’s the problem:

When we reduce Abraham to an example (for us) of someone who has faith in God and is rewarded accordingly- we lose the biblical plot of what God is doing IN and THROUGH Abraham.

And when we lose that plot, the seam Paul’s entire argument in the Book of Romans unravels.

Because the argument Paul is weaving from Romans 1 to Romans 16 is that what we discover in Jesus Christ is God making good on a promise first made to Abraham.

Because when you go back to the Book of Genesis, you notice:

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

It doesn’t Abraham accepted God as his personal savior. 

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

Abraham believed the promise: the promise that his children would be like the stars in the sky. 

But this promise, it isn’t about God providing Abraham with progeny.

The promise is that THROUGH Abraham God would create a new and distinct People in the world.

The promise is that the way God would pick the world back up from its Fall, the way God would heal the world’s sin, the way God would bring forth a New Creation would be by creating a New People.

The promise is that through Abraham God would create a People who would do what Adam failed to do, a People whose trust in God and trust in one another would provide an alternative to the ways of the world.

abramThe stars God promises to Abraham- they’re meant to be a light to the world.

That’s the unconditional commitment God promises and that’s what Abraham believes.

And God, scripture says, reckons that to Abraham as ‘righteousness.’

Now if, as I told you weeks ago, ‘God’s Righteousness’ is a specific biblical term that refers to God’s commitment to undo the injustice of the world and usher in a New Creation, then Abraham being ‘reckoned righteousness’ means Abraham was credited, acknowledged, signed up as a participant in God’s New Creation work.

Abraham didn’t believe everything he could possibly believe about God; in fact, plenty remained that Abraham still struggled to believe:

Abraham lacked faith that he and his wife’s old bodies could produce new life.

Abraham doubted the events in his life would pan out as God had predicted.

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

But despite his doubts, despite his questions, despite those parts of God’s Word he scratched his head at and crossed his fingers through- what Abraham always believed, what Abraham always had faith in, what it always meant for Abraham to be a person of faith, the person of faith, was his faith in this single promise:

    The promise that God so loved the world, God would not give up on what he had made.

     That just as God’s first creation began with God calling into the void ‘Let there be light,’ God’s New Creation would begin by God calling a People who would be a Light to the world.

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Sunday afternoon, a group of us there for the Pilgrimage weekend made another pilgrimage.

To Wounded Knee.

The place where the US Army, without provocation, slaughtered over 300 Indians, little more than a hundred years ago.

2/3 of the victims were children…with their mothers.

In 1973 Wounded Knee became the site of a standoff between Lakota Indians and the Federal Government. Resulting in more violence.

Wounded Knee remains a festering reminder of suffering and injustice that persists to this day.

So on Sunday afternoon, in reverent silence, we loaded on to 3 school buses.

And silently we rode the 30 minutes to Wounded Knee, riding past shacks and trailers and the kind of poverty that seems to fit a 3rd world nation better than this one.

When we arrived at Wounded Knee, the brothers put on their gleaming, white-as-light, monastic robes and then they led us all, silently, down the road and up the hill to the graveyard. photo-2

Some locals from the reservation were there, loitering, sitting on top of rusted, broken down cars and squinting at us with justifiable suspicion.

There’s a church there by the graveyard. It had ‘Fuck you white people’ spray-painted on the sanctuary doors.

An old woman was in the graveyard planting flowers by an old tombstone while a young woman tamped down the dirt of a freshly dug grave.

The mass grave, the hole where the victims bodies had been dumped, is at the center of the cemetery.

Brother Alois, the head of the monastery at Taize, motioned silently for us to make a circle around the mass grave.

I glanced around the circle at all the people, literally, from all over the world, from as many nations as there are stars in the sky.

Then Brother Alois held out his hands for us to take hold of one another’s hands.

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

Silently- because how else do you pray when some of the people you’re holding hands with share the same names as the bodies you’re standing on top of and still suffer the consequences of so many empty words?

As Brother John, another monk, had told us the previous morning, we were going to Wounded Knee:

‘as people of faith, to a place of broken promises, to be a silent, visible sign of a different promise, the promise that the God who made the world in love will, with us and through us, redeem it.’ 

Many of us kept the silence as we rode the way back from Wounded Knee. After we’d returned to our campsite, I ran into Tomaso. Both of us were coming out of adjoining Port O’ Johns and reaching for the hand sanitizer.

     ‘If it isn’t Doubting Tomaso’ I said.

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

     ‘I’m not sure. I just got back from Wounded Knee.’

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

‘To pray?’ and he laughed like it was a ridiculous notion. ‘No, I stayed here and read my book.’ And he held up his sci-fy novel.

     ‘Like I tell my wife: faith is the easy way out in this world.’

‘Easy? How can someone with a PhD be so stupid?

Jesus has done a lot of things in my life but made my life easier is definitely not one of them. Faith hasn’t been my way out of the world; faith has thrust me into the world: to places I’d rather not go, to pain and poverty I’d rather not have weigh on my conscience, to people towards whom I’d be happy not to feel any responsibility. 

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

Most of the time, to believe in God is to feel heartbroken over all the places you see God absent in the world. I just watched and prayed as a 20 year old Indian girl wept over a mass grave beneath her and a hopeless future in front of her. Faith isn’t an escape from the world’s problems; it’s a summons to wade waist deep into its problems.

I know you’re a geologist, Tomaso, but does that mean you have rocks in your head?’ 

     I thought to myself.

But instead I squirted some Pure El into my hands and I said- the only thing I said:

‘Easy way out? That’s and  interesting indictment coming from someone who spent the afternoon relaxing in his tent, reading a trashy novel.’

Doubting Tomaso laughed and said: ‘Like I said, there’s too many things I don’t believe ever to be a person of faith.’

‘Tomaso, you don’t seem to understand that, being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.’

‘Why do you care so much about me anyway?’ Tomaso asked, ‘Do you care about ‘my salvation’?’ he said with sarcastic air quotes.

     ‘That’s just it- it’s not about you and your salvation. Ever since Abraham, it’s never just been about you, you selfish coward. It’s about God calling- God needing- people to be light for the world’ I wanted to scream at him. 

But I didn’t.

And he finished wiping the Pure-El into his hands and said ‘Ciao.’

And then he walked back to his tent, and with the world just a little bit darker for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064This weekend we continue our series through Romans 3-4, Justified.

Romans 3.21-31 is the text, and, considering the role its played in Christian history, it’s quite possible this is the most important New Testament passage. It’s where Paul picks up his thesis statement from Romans 1.16-17 to display how God’s righteousness (God’s covenant justice, is how NT Wright puts it) is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. This ‘justifies’ us, Paul says, and we need respond only by faith(fulness) of our own.

Thence the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone- as opposed to ‘works.’

How this passage has been interpreted and continues to be so is problematic in precise ways I don’t have the energy to unpack. Suffice it to say that the whole faith vs works debate neither resembles Paul’s actual authorial aim nor does it fit easily, if at all, into the Gospel’s schema, which seems to have a lot to say about us being judged according to works.

Playing on an old computer recently, I came across this old sermon of mine on Matthew 25. It reflects on this discontinuity between our reading of Paul and the clear reading of Jesus’ teachings.

Matthew 25.31-46  (10/26/08) 

My Week of Living Biblically

So, someone should’ve told Matthew that he had it all wrong. Matthew apparently didn’t get the memo. Clearly he doesn’t know that you and I- we’re saved by grace. Not by our works. Not by our good deeds. Not by our charity.

And if it’s not Matthew’s fault, then someone should’ve set Jesus straight. Someone should’ve told Jesus that Paul says: our salvation is a gift. It’s not something we earn or deserve because we could never do enough to earn or deserve what God has to give.

Someone should’ve sat Jesus down and said: ‘Look, what’s the problem? Paul explains this very clearly. We’re made righteous not by anything we do but by what Christ has done for us. We’re justified not by our works but on the basis of Christ’s work on the Cross.’

Someone should’ve told Jesus: ‘That’s not the way it works. When you come back again in glory, you’re supposed to judge us based not on what we do but based on our faith in you.’

It’s our faith that saves us. Not our works. Not our good deeds. Not our charity. I mean…that’s what makes us Protestants. That’s what I was taught in seminary. That’s what I was tested on before the bishop ordained me.

Except, here’s the rub:

Almost nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say that you and I will be judged based on our beliefs, our faith. Instead, almost everywhere Jesus’ harsh words of judgment are reserved for those who do not show mercy or love to their neighbors.

     St. Paul says we’re saved by our faith.

     But today Jesus says when it comes to the Kingdom it’s all about what you’ve done for the least of these.

      Okay, which is it?

Faith or works? I mean…how do you reconcile that kind of incongruity? To be honest, I don’t know if I can answer that question. The bible study I help lead on Sunday nights has been confused over this very question for weeks now. I read today’s passage last Sunday evening. I read it over and over and over, and I thought myself into a tangle of theological knots.

And that’s when it hit me: maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is trying to understand this passage, trying to square this passage with that passage, trying to reconcile what Jesus says here with what Paul says there. Maybe my problem is trying to approach this scripture with my head when Jesus just wants me to live it.

Maybe my thinking is the problem. Maybe my problem is the way I constantly make my faith about what I believe so that, for me, the life of faith is about getting those beliefs just right. Maybe Jesus teaches what he teaches because he wants me to live it. A novel concept, I know.

     Sunday night a week ago I just asked myself: What would it look like for me to live out this passage in my life? In my day-to-day, ordinary life what would it look like for me to take Jesus’ words seriously?

So, last Sunday night, in the laboratory of my mind, I hatched a little experiment.

I decided that this week I would do what Jesus tells us to do. I decided that if I saw someone who was hungry, I would give them food. If I met someone who was thirsty, I’d give them water. Someone without clothes- I’d give them mine.

No excuses.

No assuming that someone else will do something.

I decided that if I encountered a stranger, I would treat them as if they were Jesus Christ.

That was my experiment- my commitment- this week. It just so happens that this week I also traveled to Kansas City for a young clergy fellowship in which I participate.

The first trial of my experiment came in the food-court at the Charlotte airport. I had a layover and was grabbing some lunch. I went to sit down and, scanning the dining room for a table, I noticed a man all alone, eating his burger and fries in an absent sort of way. He was maybe 70 years old.

Before I say any more, I should tell you, in case you don’t me very well, that I’m a shy person by nature. Typically, I’m reserved, introverted, quiet- I never do what I did.

I took my lunch and my luggage and I walked over to the man’s table, and I said: ‘I noticed you’re eating alone. Would you mind if I sat here and gave you some company?’

He kind of looked at me over the rim of his glasses and then looked around the dining room- probably to see if he was the butt of some practical joke but maybe to point out all the other people who were contentedly eating alone. After a moment, he motioned with his French fry filled fingers for me to sit down. ‘I’m Jason,’ I said. ‘Don,’ he replied.

He took a few bites more and then he asked me: ‘Do you always offer to sit down and eat with strangers?’ At first, I just said ‘No’ but he kept looking at me for more so I said: ‘Look, I was reading the bible last night, the part where Jesus says to welcome strangers, and I made a promise to myself that this week I would just do what Jesus teaches.’

Now, you can say that kind of thing here in church and it’s cool, it sounds reasonable. When you say that to strangers in an airport Burger King, it totally freaks people out.

When Don heard me say that he stiffened, sat up and scooted his chair back a bit. You could tell he was expecting me to hit him up with some kind of Jesus pyramid scheme, and he was ready to say ‘No thanks’ to whatever tract I was about to pull out of my pocket.

     ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I don’t have any agenda. I just want to eat with you.’

‘You’re kind of strange, aren’t you? Do you always go up to strangers talking about Jesus?’

‘No, not ever,’ I said, ‘I’m a minister.’

We talked for a while. He told me he’d never really gone to church, not since he was child. Faith had never been a part of his life.

‘My brother died,’ he said, ‘that’s where I’m going, to his funeral in Ohio.’

For a few minutes more, Don told me about his brother. When Don checked the time on his watch, I asked him. I said: ‘I don’t want to pressure you. You don’t have to say yes, but would it be okay if I prayed with you?’ And he said yes.

My second trial came later that evening. From the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel. The cabdriver’s ID sitting there on the dashboard said that his name was Omar. The cab was still driving slowly over the speed bumps in the arrivals loop of the airport, and I reached my hand over the seat and said: ‘Omar, I’m Jason.’

Eventually, he shook it, but for a while he just stared at my hand like I’d found something that had long been missing in the backseat of his car.

Having learned from my previous conversation with Don, I just decided to come out with it this time.

‘Omar,’ I said, ‘I’m a Christian and this week I’m working on following Jesus better, and I was just wondering if there was something going on in your life that I could be praying for.’

Again, I never talk like this. Even now I cringe when I hear myself say it. I know how lame it makes me sound.

‘Come again?’ Omar asked and turned the volume down on National Public Radio.

     So I went through it all over again. ‘I’m a Christian. I was reading the bible last night and I promised myself that this week I would try to follow Jesus better and I was just wondering if there’s something going on in your life that I could be praying for?’

Omar crinkled his eyebrows and stared at me through his rearview mirror. ‘What’s the catch?’ he asked me. ‘There’s no catch,’ I said.

For several miles he didn’t say anything. The silence was louder than the volume on NPR. But when we got out on the highway he said to me: ‘My wife’s pregnant. We’ve had two miscarriages before. You can pray for that.’

Third trial.

On Tuesday my clergy fellowship visited a hip, bohemian kind of church called Kansas City: Revolution. The church runs a Soup Kitchen in their basement, feeding hundreds of homeless and working poor twice a day. We ate lunch there that day.

After I got through the lunch line I saw that my clergy group- they were all sitting together at a table in one corner of the room. And I saw that opposite them was a table that was empty but for one homeless man. I sat down and ate with him…as much as I didn’t want to.

He was dressed in a patchwork sort of way with sweatpants over jeans over a jogging suit. The View was playing on the TV there in the room, but he was staring intensely at something over it. He was eating his rigatoni like he had a grudge against it, and his whole body seemed coiled in anger or anxiety. I’m sure he had some mental illness that explained all that, but that didn’t make the meal any less awkward for me.

     I laid off the Jesus talk. I just tried to make conversation with him. I asked him his name. I asked about him. I told him my name and about me. I poured him a cup of coffee and offered to get him more food.

Nothing. He didn’t say anything to me. Honestly, it was painful.

When he was finished eating, he got up hurriedly and said: ‘Thanks for the conversation.’

I never got his name.

      Let me be clear. I share this with you all not to impress you with how faithful I am, how saintly I am. I share it with you not to impress you but to confess to you: to confess how normally I don’t do those kinds of things, how too often I treat my faith, my beliefs, my worship- how I treat it all like I’m practicing for a game that I never actually play.

The apostle James, in his letter, points out how even demons believe in God. A faith without acts of mercy and love to others, James says, is not a faith that’s alive. A faith that never gets around to playing the game isn’t really faith.

Just look at Jesus’ parable. Those who are separated out and sent to Hell- they’re not condemned for any bad or wicked things they did. Jesus doesn’t say they kicked a beggar in the street or spit on a lonely stranger or cursed at a homeless person.

     They didn’t do anything bad. They just didn’t do anything.

 

 

Junk in the Trunk

Jason Micheli —  May 13, 2013 — 4 Comments

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064Here’s the sermon from this past weekend on Romans 3.9-20.

You can listen to it in the ‘Listen’ widget on the side of the blog.

And also here:

      1. Junk in the Trunk
 

As many of you know, I do a lot of my work at Starbucks.

I have my reasons.

For one thing, I get more accomplished without Dennis pestering me to show him how his computer works.

But to be honest, the main reason I go to Starbucks…is because I like to eavesdrop. 

It’s true. What ice cream and cheesecake were to the Golden Girls eavesdropping is to me.

At Starbucks I’m like a fly on the wall with a moleskin notebook under his wing.

I’ve been dropping eaves at coffee shops for as long as I’ve been a pastor and, until this week at least, I’ve never been caught.

This week I sat down at a little round table and started to sketch out a funeral sermon.

At the table to my left was a 20-something guy with ear phones in and an iPad out and a man-purse slung across his shoulder.

At the table to my right were two middle-aged women. They had a bible and a couple of Beth Moore books on the table between them. And a copy of the Mt Vernon Gazette.

The first thing I noticed though was their perfume. It was strong I could taste it in my coffee.

Now, in my defense I don’t think I could properly be accused of eavesdropping considering just how loud the two women were talking. Like they wanted to be heard.

Their ‘bible study’ or whatever it had been was apparently over because the woman by the window closed the bible and then commented out loud:

‘I really do need to get a new bible. This one’s worn out completely. 

I’ve just read it so much.’ 

 

Not to be outdone, the woman across from her, parried, saying just as loudly:

‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t spend time in the Word every day. 

I don’t know what people do without the Lord.’ 

“They do whatever they want” her friend by the window said.

And I said- to myself- ‘Geez, I’ve sat next to two Flannery O’Connor characters.’

I assumed that since they were actually reading the bible there was no way they attended this church, but just to make sure I gave them a double-take.

 

They had perfectly permed hair flecked with frosted highlights. And they had nails in which I could see the reflection of their large, costume jewelry.

 

“Baptists” I thought to myself.

 

They continued chatting over their lattes as the woman by the window flipped through the Mt Vernon Gazette. She stopped at a page and shook her head in disapproval.

Whether she actually said ‘Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ or I imagined it I can’t be sure.

 

The other woman looked down at the paper and said: ‘Oh, I heard about that. He was only 31.’ 

 

‘Did you hear it was an overdose?’ the woman by the window said like a kid on Christmas morning.

And that’s when I knew who they were gossiping about. I knew because I was sitting next to them writing that young man’s funeral sermon.

‘Did he know the Lord?’ the woman asked.

‘Probably not considering the lifestyle’ the woman by the window said without pause.

 

They went on gossiping from there.

They used words like ‘shameful.’

They did not, I noticed, use words like ‘sad’ or ‘tragic’ or ‘unfortunate.’

 

It wasn’t long before the circumference of their conversation spun its way to encompass things like ‘society and what’s wrong with it,’ how parents need to pray their kids into the straight and narrow, and how this is what happens when our culture turns its back on God.’

 

After a while they came to a lull in their conversation and the woman opposite the window, the one with the gaudy bedazzled cross on her neck, gazed down at the Mt Vernon Gazette and wondered out loud:

‘What do you say at a funeral like that?’ 

 

And without even looking at them, and with a volume that surprised me, I said:

‘The same damn thing that’ll be said at your funeral.’ 

     They didn’t even blush. But they did look at me awkwardly.

‘I hardly think so’ the woman by the window said, sizing me up and not looking very impressed with the sum of what she saw.

And so I laid my cards down: ‘Well, I probably won’t be preaching your funeral, but I will be preaching his.’ 

 

And then I pointed at her theatrically worn bible, the one resting on top of her copy of A Heart Like His by Beth Moore, and I said: ‘If you actually took that seriously you’d shut up right now.’

     “No one is righteous, not one.” 

Sounds a little harsh, right? I mean, no one?

Just try filling in the blank of Paul’s assertion. Think of the best person you can and stick them down inside Paul’s sentence and listen to how it sounds.

     No one is righteous, not one, not even Mother Theresa.

No one is righteous, not one, not even Gandhi.

No one is righteous, not one, not even your Mother. (Happy Mother’s Day)

When you hear today’s scripture text the first time through it sounds like this is Exhibit A for everything people hate about Christianity.

Here’s this God who made us and then made a measuring stick that was just a little bit higher than the best of us and a lot higher than most of us.

But to hear it that way is to miss who Paul is speaking to and where this falls in Paul’s letter.

In case you’re just tuning in, so far Paul has spent chapters 1 and 2 of his letter pointing out everything that’s wrong with the world. Everything that’s broken in God’s creation.

And in chapters 1 and 2, Paul makes his case by pointing his finger at “those people.”

“Them.”

Not the good, every Sunday people at church in Rome but those other people. ‘Society.’ You know, those people? The ‘lost’ people who don’t believe in God, who don’t attend worship, don’t raise their children right.

Those people.

They’re greedy, Paul says. Violent even. They’ve got no morals or values.

‘Just listen to the way they talk’ says Paul, ‘all cursing and slander.’

Those people.

They’re broken the institution of marriage and the family. They just hop from one bed to the next, one mate to another, like people are just a means to an end.

Those people.

They’ve got no commitment. No decency.

Paul spends chapters 1 and 2 pointing at ‘those people’ and ticking off their every sin and flaw.

And you can bet that with each and every indictment, you can imagine as the accusations build, the members at First Church Rome nodded right along with self-satisfied smiles on their faces.

     You can imagine them saying to themselves: ‘That’s right, that’s exactly how those people are. Thank God I’m not like those people.’ 

     And that’s Paul’s rhetorical trap because in chapter 3 he turns his aim at the good People of God, and he says: ‘No one is righteous, not one.’ 

Which is Paul’s way of saying: not even you.

And then Paul hits them, us, with this battering ram of accusations about how we sin every day with our minds and our lips and our hands and feet, by what we do and by what we leave undone.

And Paul lifts those accusations, one by one, word for word, straight out of scripture.

And that’s Paul’s point.

That’s Paul’s point when he says we’re not justified by the law, by scripture.

You see, the takeaway from today’s text isn’t that you’re a perpetual disappointment to God. If that’s what you leave with then you’ve missed what Paul’s doing here.

The takeaway is that belonging to a religious community doesn’t make you any closer to God than anyone else. Believing in the bible doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else because that same bible indicts you too.

     You may go to church every Sunday but the Book of Micah says God hates your praise if there’s a single poor person in the streets.

You may be a good mother and love your kids, but the Book of Mark says if you don’t love Jesus more then…

You may be a clergy person like me, you might’ve given your whole career to God, but the best the Book of Matthew has to say about that is that I’m like a white-washed tomb, a hypocrite with lies on the inside.

Don’t confuse your place in the pews with a place in God’s favor- that’s Paul’s point- because the only advantage this (the bible) gives us is that it tells the truth about us.

Who we really are.

    ‘No one is righteous. Not one.’ 

The woman by the window actually did shut up for a moment, clearly trying to figure out how this had become a 3 person conversation.

And then it hit her: ‘Have you been eavesdropping on us?’ 

‘Of course not,’ I lied.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business’  she scolded.

‘But that’s just it’ I said, ‘it is my business. I’m a preacher and so I couldn’t help but notice that I had two Pharisees sitting next to me.’ 

She narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice: ‘Listen, young man. I’ve been saved. I love the Lord, talk to him and read his Word every day.’ 

‘Apparently you’ve not retained very much’ I mumbled.

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ she asked with mustered outrage.

‘It means you’re no better than that guy over there’ and I pointed to a homeless guy who was nursing his coffee and muttering to himself.

‘In fact, you’re not good at all. And neither am I. None of us is in a position to judge anyone else, and someone with a worn out bible should already know that.’ 

I thought that I’d just played a trump card. The end.

‘Well, isn’t that exactly what you’re doing right now? she asked me. And suddenly I felt the tables turning.

‘Uh, what do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well, it sounds like you’ve been eavesdropping on us for the last 10 minutes and judging us the whole time.” 

I felt myself blush: ‘Not the WHOLE time.’ 

‘I bet you started judging us before you even heard what we were talking about.’

‘I did not’ I lied, ‘Don’t forget you’re talking to a pastor.’ 

And I thought that was the end of it, but then she turned her chairs towards me, like we are all together, and she asked:

     ‘So, what makes you do it? Why are you so quick to stick your nose in other people’s junk and judge them?’ 

I considered punting on her question, telling her I had work to do and leaving it at that.

But she’d caught me eavesdropping so I thought I should balance out my vice with a little virtue.

I told her the truth: ‘Probably because I have junk of my own that I don’t know what to do with.’ 

‘Me too’ she said, and suddenly she dropped her guard like we were fellow addicts at an AA Meeting.

She said: ‘I’m constantly carrying around things I’m not proud of, things I’m ashamed of, things I try to keep locked and hidden away, because I don’t know what to do with them.’  

 

And then her friend, the one opposite the window, sipped her coffee and then said: ‘Me three.’ 

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that if you’d been sitting there you too would’ve said..

Me four.

Because it’s true of all of us.

We condemn and we criticize and we label and we gossip and we judge.

We raise an eyebrow at other people’s mistakes, other people’s sins, other people’s problems- because we’re carrying around our own junk and we don’t know what to do with it.

 

But Paul shows us what to do with our junk.

Paul shows us what to do with the worst secrets about ourselves that we carry around with us.

     You can’t forget that when Paul directs his attack in chapter 3 at religious people, the first person Paul has in mind is Paul.

     You can’t forget that when Paul levels the accusation that ‘No one is righteous, not one’ Paul’s speaking in the first person before he’s speaking about any other person.

Paul cursed and condemned Christians. Paul’s encouraged executions and stood by smiling while Christians were stoned to death.

Paul’s the one whose throat was an open grave.

Paul’s the one who used his tongue to deceive and had venom on his lips.

Paul’s the one whose mouth was full of bitterness, whose feet were swift to shed blood.

Paul’s the one who knew not the way of peace…until he met the Resurrected Christ.

And after he meets the Risen Christ, Paul is free to own up to all of it.

All the junk he would otherwise want to hide and deny and push down and repress and keep locked and hidden away.

Paul shows us what we can do with our junk.

Paul shows us that if we’re more convinced of God’s grace than the sin we’re convinced we must keep secret from everyone, then we can open up this junk we carry around with us and we can say:

‘No one is righteous, no one, especially not me. 

     Look at what I’ve done. 

     This is who I was. 

     These are the words I spoke in anger that can never be taken back

     This is the relationship I pretended was fine until it unraveled away. 

     These are the kids I took for granted until they were grown and gone. 

     This is the person I see in the every mirror every day and have never learned to love. 

    This is the addiction I always insisted didn’t have the better of me. 

     This is the insecurity that masks itself as cynicism. 

     These are all the people I refused to forgive. 

     This is the person closest to me I cheated on…

     But God…God forgives…all of it.’ 

     Paul shows us that our worst junk can become a living, breathing example

of what God’s amazing grace can do.

Which is kind of a shame.

Because I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that most of you pretend you’re not so desperate as to need a grace that’s anywhere near amazing.

Most of you pretend you’re not actually carting this junk around and have no idea what to do with it.

For many of you, church is the last place where you’re really you, and Sunday morning is the time of the week you’re the least open about who you really are.

Church is where you grin and pretend like it’s all good and you’ve got your ______together.

Many of you have come to church for years so determined to not let anyone find out what’s in here (junk in the trunk) that you’ve never trusted Jesus Christ in here (your heart).

And that’s a shame.

Because Paul shows us- the things we’re most burdened by are the things the world most needs to hear.

Paul shows us that if we open this up and admit that no one is righteous, not even me…and here I’ll give you a ‘for instance’

Paul shows us that if we can say that then what someone else can hear is: ‘If God’s grace is for them…then it’s even for me…’    

 

     Yesterday afternoon nearly 500 gathered to celebrate that young man’s funeral.

We sang Amazing Grace.

We heard a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. It was different words but the same meaning. And I preached, the Gospel.

The same message I’d preach at any of your deaths.

After the funeral, I was walking past the receiving line, which started here at the altar and snaked its way to the other end of the building, and one of the deceased’s friends grabbed my elbow and said to me: ‘If what you said is true for him, then it’s true for me too…right?’ 

     And I said: ‘Yeah.’ 

    And he let go of my elbow and said, ‘Thanks for sharing that.’ 

 

 

     

What is a Christian?

Jason Micheli —  May 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

faith4This week and next we’re in chapter 3 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a pivotal section for Paul’s argument and a money chunk of the letter when it comes to notions of what does and does not constitute a legitimate follower of Christ. 

“I’m not that interested in Christianity. I am interested in worshipping the God that raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.”

Too often, people miss the painstaking connections Paul makes- the continuity- between the faith of Israel and the faith of Jesus.

Stanley Hauerwas, #3 on my man-crush list, doesn’t make that mistake. He has this concise, thoughtful and spot-on synopsis of ‘What is a Christian.’

It’s well-worth the few minute view. Consider it a preview for next week’s sermon.

Click here to see it.

 

1101480308_400This week we continue our sermon series through Romans by taking a look at Romans 3.9-20, a passage with an important place in Protestant history.

Paul’s insistence in 3.9 that ‘no one is righteous, not one,’ a phrase that hearkens back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sodom, has been the cornerstone of the Calvinist doctrine of ‘Total Depravity.’ It’s the ‘T’ in Tulip acrostic of Calvinist theology.

Total Depravity holds that because we’re all under the power of sin every act and aspect of our lives is compromised by sin.

Even are good deeds are ‘like filthy rags’ because ultimately they’re motivated not by a desire to serve God or neighbor but to justify our own selves.

I’ve never been able to swallow total depravity hook, line and sinker. It’s always struck me as a doctrinal answer in search of a theological problem- a problem I don’t necessarily agree Paul was primarily addressing.

The notion of total depravity made me remember this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr, a liberal theologian from the 20th century and one I’m not normally given to quoting in any positive way (save the title of this blog):

“Man loves himself inordinately. Since his determinate existence does not deserve the devotion lavished upon it, it is obviously necessary to practice some deception in order to justify such excessive devotion.  While such deception is constantly directed against competing wills,seeking to secure their acceptance and validation of the self’s too generous opinion of itself, its primary purpose is to deceive, not others, but the self. 

The self must at any rate deceive itself first.  Its deception of others is partly an effort to convince itself against itself. 

The fact that this necessity exists is an important indication of the vestige of truth which abides with the self in all its confusion and which it must placate before it can act. 

The dishonesty of man is thus an interesting refutation of the doctrine of man’s total depravity.”

Niebuhr’s point is that our self-deception itself presupposes that somewhere deep down within us we know that we’re not living out who we were created to be and that we disobey God.  Even if this is only on the subconscious level it undermines the notion that we’re completely depraved in the Calvinist sense. It also suggests, contra Calvinism, that non-Christians as creatures of God still live their lives imbued with the grace of the imago dei.

Our guilty conscience, then, might be the best sign we have for hope.

 

Christian-Wiman-200x200Peter, I like to imagine, was a preacher after my own heart- and not just because of the ample baggage he carried with him into the pulpit.

I’ve always loved- relied upon- the full-throated, ballsy way Peter begins his Pentecost sermon:

“You people of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth, you people used those outside the law to nail him and kill him. But raised him from the dead.” 

And when you stop to recall that Jesus’ tomb was only a stone’s throw away from Peter’s listeners, you realize it’s one hell of a way to begin a sermon.

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead. He’s not there anymore. 

And when you stop to consider that any one of Peter’s listeners at any moment could’ve gotten up from Peter’s preaching and simply walked over to Jesus’ still fresh tomb to see for themselves whether or not this preacher was a liar, you quickly realize that Peter’s preaching in no way allows for any vague, spiritualized notion of resurrection.

Similarly, I’ve always leaned on the way Paul defends the resurrection not by way of scripture or philosophy but by ticking off all the names of the people encountered by the Risen Christ. Over 500 of them. Including, last of all, Paul himself.

Paul won’t coddle any pablum that tries to water down this defiant declaration of resurrection to a limp existential feeling that ‘Christ is with us still.’

Of course that limp, reductive, hesitant, existential feeling (love is stronger-fingers crossed-than death) is precisely what many of us call ‘Easter.’

RELIGION_680X382Take, for example, this exchange cum confession from the conclusion of the article I posted last week from Texas Monthly about the poet Christian Wiman:

“When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, a deeper kind of truth. Finally, he finds the words: “I try to live toward it.”

Okay, so this isn’t as limp and lifeless a profession as, say, ‘Jesus is still alive in our hearts’ but it’s still nowhere in the neighborhood of Peter’s clear-eyed profession:

You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead.  

I bring this up because a reader of the blog asked if I would respond to Wiman’s appraisal of the resurrection.

‘Isn’t it just Bultmannian pablum?’ I think was the exact question.

And to bait me even further, the questioner compared me, in sarcastic tone and depth of substance, to Bishop Will Willimon.

Nice.

To return the flattery with a kindness of my own, I wanted very much to drag Christian Wiman through the rhetorical mud. I wanted to stuff Wiman with straw and then knock him over with heavy-handed prose.

But, truth be told, I can’t bring myself to do it.

As much I don’t want the Willimon comparison to slip away, I can’t write Wiman’s comments off as ‘pablum.’

And not just because I admire Wiman’s poetry.

I can’t because Wiman has cancer. Will always have cancer. Near certain death has intruded upon his life at several junctures. Tumors in his blood have welled up to push and stretch at his skin. Pain has at times crippled him.

Wiman, therefore, is someone who’s carried a burden I only know from a distance, which makes him someone who would know very well how empty are our culture’s spiritual cliches.

He’s also someone, I imagine, whose own likely shortened life has prompted him to wrestle earnestly with what Peter and Paul have to say about life after death.

And so I’ll have to save the snark for another day. Christian Wiman’s words may not be Christian enough for me.

They may not bear too close a resemblance to Peter’s words, but I’m wiling to grant that they are nevertheless words hewn on faith.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, Our Brother

Jason Micheli —  April 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

moltmannWe continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans this weekend. While Paul’s dominant theme in the letter is that of Christ as ‘the Righteous One,’ the messiah who offers the faithful obedience to Yahweh that had been Israel’s calling. Christ’s faithfulness in Israel’s stead points out a necessary complimentary theme for Paul. Because Israel had not given God the faithfulness God was due, and thus had not been ‘a light to the nations,’ judgment was now due Israel just as it was to the other nations.

Christ the ‘Righteous One’ is also the Christ the vicarious sufferer.

This resonates with a passage from Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place, which I recently finished reading.

steve-larkinFor those of you not familiar with him, Moltmann is not only Steve Larkin’s doppelganger Moltmann is one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century.

As a young man, Moltmann served in the Nazi army. He did so near the end of the war when both sides were nearing desperation and taking desperate measures. Only after the war did Moltmann learn of his country’s shameful crimes with which he had, unwittingly, abetted.

Paradoxically, Moltmann also credits this experience with his conversion to Christianity.  Having been taken captive, Moltmann was sent to POW camp run by Scottish Christians. In the camp, Moltmann was given a bible, which he began reading in the evenings ‘without much understanding,’ Moltmann confesses. That is, until he came across the psalms of lament, Psalm 39 in particular:

“I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself.

My life is as nothing before thee.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry.

Hold not thou thy peace at my tears,

for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.’

Reading those words was for Moltmann like ‘an echo from my own soul, and it called that soul back to God.’

And reading Mark’s Gospel in which Christ’s last words are ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Moltmann came to see the assailed, forsaken Christ as our ‘brother in suffering.’ Moltmann goes on (in a very Wesleyan way, I’d add):

“I have never decided for Christ once and for all, as is often demanded of us. I have decided again and again…’

As he concludes the chapters on his time in the prison camp, Moltmann makes the powerful observation that the Christian faith of their captors was the only thing that enabled his fellow prisoners to become ‘human again:’ by treating the German prisoners as ‘brothers in Christ,’ exposing them to the truth of their country’s sins without condemning them as less than human and by offering, in Christ’s name, forgiveness.

Likewise, Moltmann says, his captors- many of whom had been victims of Nazi terror- let it be known that ‘in Christ’ was the only ground upon which they could ever possibly forgive.

544900_608245191477_257197599_nThis week we continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s a tricky letter to expound because many assume that Paul’s primary message is justification by faith alone- how we’re made right in God’s eyes not by anything we do but only by faith.

As NT Wright says, thinking Paul’s main message is justification by faith alone is to confuse key for melody, for Paul’s main message isn’t how we’re justified but how God has raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all creation.

The trouble is many Christians not only think justification by faith is Paul’s primary message; they think justification by faith is the Gospel.

Scot McKnight cleverly calls these Christians ‘soterians’ after the theological jargon that emphasizes Jesus’ saving work.

Scot had this post recently, outlining how you know whether or not you have a soterian Gospel- vs Paul’s actual Gospel.

The soterian gospel is a rhetorical bundle of lines about the doctrine of salvation that came to the fore in the 20th Century. I had lunch recently with a missionary who told me he’s been struggling with the “soterian” gospel for years and is so glad I wrote The King Jesus Gospel because it put into words what he’s been thinking for more than three decades. He’s not the first to tell me this.

Critique of that rhetorical bundle can be found from a number of quarters, including the new Calvinists, theologians, pastors and leaders, and also from some evangelists I’ve met.

Perhaps the secret to the success of the soterian gospel is its teachability and its programmability. Whatever the reasons for its successes, we are not alone in being convinced it is not a fair representation of the NT gospel. I got a chuckle from this reflection by  Lee Wyatt:

What would you add? What do you think is the fundamental Question the soterian gospel asks? What do you think is the fundamental Question the gospel of Jesus and the apostles asks?

You might have a Soterian Gospel if:

-you think of humans primarily as sinners in need of redemption (which we, of course, are) rather than divine image-bearers in primarily in need of restoration to their primal dignity and vocation of God’s royal representatives in the world and creation’s wise overseers;

-you think Christ became human only because humans sinned and needed redemption;

-you think that the forgiveness of sins is the end/goal of God’s redemptive work;

-you think human destiny will be in a not-earth place (heaven) and in a not-earth kind of existence (immaterial, so-called “spiritual”)

-you think the earth is not a part of God’s eternal plan.

family-vacations-boston-marathonThis weekend we continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. As I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, Paul’s entire letter is an extended meditation on the key phrase in 1.17: ‘the righteousness of/from God.’

In the Greek, it translates to ‘dikaiosyne theou.’

Dikaiosyne theou is the fork in the Romans road.

Depending on which path the reader chooses, Dikaiosyne theou can lead you to two very different conclusions.

If you translate ‘the righteousness of/from God’ as a genitive objective, then you conclude, as Martin Luther did, that Paul means God’s righteousness gets transferred to us from God by our faith in Christ.

When you choose this fork in the Romans road, then it appears that Paul’s primary question is about our justification before God. The plot of Paul’s letter becomes our own individual savedness.

It’s about us. Our destiny. Our rescue from sin.

If you choose the other fork in the Romans road and translate ‘the righteousness of God’ as a Genitive subjective, then you must conclude that Paul’s writing not about us, primarily or individually.

He’s writing about God. ‘God’s own righteousness’ in this sense refers to God’s commitment to the covenant made with Abraham, in which God promised to rescue- not individuals but- the world from sin.

To choose the former option, NT Wright says, is a bit like the earth insisting that the sun revolves around it.

To choose the latter option is to acknowledge that we’re just a part of God’s creative and redemptive activity.

Like Israel before us, we’re participants in God’s saving work. Of course, this also necessarily entails our individual redemption from sin, but, like Israel before us, we’re not saved for our own sake. 544900_608245191477_257197599_n

God’s promise was made through the chosen people, Israel, but the promise was never limited to them. 

The promise was always: for the world.

Abraham being chosen by God was a blessing, to be sure, but it was always a blessing meant to bless the whole world, that through Abraham’s People God would undo what Adam did. Through Abraham’s People, God would deal with sin, set the world to rights, and restore his creation.

Ever since Martin Luther, Protestants have opted for the former reading of 1.17, reading into Paul a narrow focus on the eternal salvation of individual souls.

Ever since Luther chose that fork in the road, many Christians have believed Paul’s message was about the life to come rather than this life.

Christianity, we think, is about going to heaven when you die instead of joining God in bringing heaven to earth. luther

Unpacking ‘dikaiosyne theou’ isn’t simply an academic exercise.

It’s not just a parsing of theological jargon.

And it’s not nearly as abstract as it sounds.

Events like the Boston bombing bear that out.

How?

Because Paul intends ‘the righteousness of God’ as the answer to Habakkuk’s question: Why God? How long will you let this go on God? Where are you God? (1.17)

Events like the Boston bombing remind us that Habakkuk’s question is our question too.

And Paul’s answer to that question isn’t: ‘Don’t worry. You’re saved, things will be better when you get to heaven.’

Paul’s answer to the question is the righteousness of God.

Paul’s answer is that precisely what grieves us grieves God too, that what drives us to despair, drives God to determination, that what prompts us to ask pained questions is what compels God to cut a covenant.

Paul’s answer to Habbakuk’s our questions is that in Jesus Christ we see unveiled God’s commitment to his promise to restore creation from the sin that ails it.

Paul’s answer is not to point to where we’ll go when we die if we have faith.

Paul’s answer is to point to God’s promised coming, to God’s faithfulness to us, and, by our faithfulness, foreshadow his arrival; so that, we become- in some small way- the answer to such questions.

 

Get Over Yourself

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

r1-not-ashames* Title courtesy of Dennis Perry.

For the many of you who aren’t part of my church, this is a sermon from Julie Pfister, our Congregational Care Director, who leaves for Utah after this week. Prayers and best wishes to her. Take a few moments to read her sermon; it’s well worth it. 

Romans 1.1-7

Just so you know, I did not ask to preach today and I’m not here because I am special or different from any of you.  I was told that my story and my voice are important, because I’m a Christian

And that God uses broken people like me.

Although Bible study is my favorite part of the week, what I know about scripture could fit on the tip of a pin.

I guess if a Bible scholar is who they thought you should hear this weekend, they would not have asked me.

So, why did I agree to preach this weekend?  Believe me, I have asked myself that question a thousand times over the last few weeks.

Well, I just couldn’t help myself.

Scripture tells me that I am a servant of God – that I am His witness.

I have worshipped with many of you here over the years, but just in case you don’t know me, Im Julie Pfister.  I have been married for 27 years to my husband Steve and have raised three children here in Alexandria, just around the corner.  I have been blessed to work in the church as a teacher in the Day School…. with the babies.  And for the last year and a half, I have served as the Congregational Care Coordinator.

Many of you may know that I am moving in the not too distant future.

My husband must love me very much to have agreed to go to a no-stop light town in South Central Utah to take care of my ailing parents.   It will be a long awkward good-bye as our plans change often depending on the latest updates about my father’s health and treatment plan.  Although Utah is home for me, we have built a life here in this community.    I couldn’t leave Aldersgate for any other reason.

I begged Dennis and Jason:

please please please….just let me just go quietly into the good night.  Let me hitch up my covered wagon and leave at dawn and head west.”

I pleaded….”It’s going to be too difficult to leave and say good bye to everyone.   I will end up crying like a zillion times. “

Jason said he wanted you to hear my voice.

It’s not what I wanted.

Then, Dennis, in his infinite compassion and understanding, said

“Get over yourself.  

We are going to cry and pray for you at a great party.  Get ready!”  

So I said yes.

Get over yourself.”

At its very core, isn’t that what knowing Christ is all about? –

Getting over ourselves and becoming a new creation in Christ.

Casting all fears, burdens, doubts, insecurities, hopes and prayers on HIM.

“As God tells the prophet Isaiah, “You are MY witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.  Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. 

How could I say no, knowing that scripture tells me that I am to witness for Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, everything changed on the road to Damascus. Saul, as he is known before his conversion, encounters the Risen Lord in a flash of light. He is knocked from his horse and blinded.  Jesus asks him why he persecutes Him.  He is told where to find a man named Annanias through whom God would restore his sight.  Annanias tells him that God has chosen him to spread the good news of the Gospel to the Gentiles

He doesn’t shrug the whole thing off.

Sure, he was blind, and then he could see, but he doesn’t write it off and wonder “

What just happened here?”

That couldn’t have really been God?

There are plenty of people throughout scripture that tried to shrug off attention getters like that.

And we see it around us all the time – unwillingness to see the hand of God in our lives, even when His grace and mercy are as tangible as being knocked off a horse and blinded.

 

But there are also dozens of examples in scriptures of unsuspecting characters who accept God’s call, even when they were not seeking it.  God sought them.

Noah wasn’t looking for an excuse to build an ark.  Moses asked the LORD over and over to not make him go before Pharoah.  David wasn’t tending his sheep thinking….hum….I think I want to be King.

There are many who believe that if God had not chosen Paul to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, and if Paul had not obeyed, that there would have been no worldwide Christian faith.  Most importantly to remember it was not Paul by himself.  It was as he said repeatedly, “not I, but Christ in me.”

So Saul becomes Paul, a new creation in Christ and is horrified to think that his old name Saul of Tarsis would dishonor God and freak out those who would hear him preach about Christ.

Paul doesn’t ask for this to happen.  He isn’t praying for a testimony of the risen Christ.  He doesn’t choose this role.  He is busy persecuting those who are spreading the Good News of Christ.

But once God chooses him, He does not turn back.

Unlike Paul, I was already blind.

Blind from fear, mistrust, disillusionment.  Blind from bitterness that led to the realization that by striving every day to live a good life, to do the best I could, that my life was not going to be the perfect little picture I had painted for myself and my family.

For me, everything changed one morning.

It wasn’t a conversion in the sense that I did not know Christ as my Savior before that morning.  It was just that I was living on the fringes, powerless and afraid that my life would always fall short of being what and who God created me to be.

He just knocked me off my horse and told me that He would change my life.  That He is who He says He is.

It was a moment of pure grace and mercy that is at the heart of everything I have felt, and believed, and loved since.

It was an ordinary morning during a moment when I was sitting in a chair and was told to get up and change my life.   I did.

I have never looked back.  I have faltered and experienced doubt, frustration, fear, panic and all the other emotions that are in our range, but I have never, denied or diminished how God changed me and continues to work in me and through me.

 

So, what happens when everything changes for you?

You wake up in the morning and start the day as it is required and planned.

Get the kids off to school.  Get ready for work.  Start a load of laundry. Make a few calls.

What happens when all that just stops and GOD touches you in a way that brings you to your knees?

Do you just shrug it off?

How do you fit a new creation – a transformed life, into a life already in progress.

What happens when you pray and pray and pray that God will show his face?

And then HE does.

Once we claim Him.  He claims us.

Paul got over himself quickly, but it wasn’t without cost.

Can you imagine what courage it must have taken for him to seek out Peter and the other apostles to tell them that Christ had appeared to and spoken to him?

Returning to those whom he had persecuted-, even leading to the death of the beloved Apostle Stephen?

Asking to become one of them and to have their blessing to take the Gospel and bring it to the gentiles.

That kind of courage only comes with faith.  

The meat of today’s scripture is verses 5-6

“Through Him and for His namesake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.  And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ”  

It is about obedience through faith.

Not Paul’s obedience and faith – but ours.

Paul is following Jesus example of obedience through faith.

That’s why for Paul there is really no difference between faith and obedience because having faith means obeying God’s ways all the way to a cross.

Rebellion is much more fashionable than obedience these days.   

We think it brings freedom.

Freedom from rules.

Freedom from oppression.

Freedom from THE MAN.

rutledgeFleming Rutledge says:

“true freedom is not found in rebellion against God.  Rebellion against God leads to the death of the soul and the spirit.  Obedience to God may mean the death of the body, but it means life for the world.”  How do we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus?”

This church, these pews have been my trenches.

 

Many times when the church was quiet, I stormed through the doors, determined to not see anyone along the way, marching straight to the bottom of this gigantic cross.

That was the size of the cross I needed some times.

A giant cross to heal me and calm me from my fears.

To put me back together again.

In these pews and at the foot of that cross I fought for my family, for my children, for my friends, my sanity.

If I could have, I would have gone to the caves where David hid from Saul and cried to the LORD – How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?

This is where I prayed my family together against great odds.

This is where I prayed that God would find a remnant in my heart “to take root below and bear fruit above.”  That my family would be a “band of survivors.” And that the “zeal of the Lord almighty would accomplish this.”

The sign in front of the church asks – Does your faith fit your life?

Over the years, some people have gone so far as to tell me that I spend too much time here – –I venture to say that there are many of you out there that are even more of a church rat than I am.

I have been told that I should just get a bed and live here….

That I should “get a life.  That I need to balance – yadda yadda.

This is where I got my life back.

This is where Christ became my savior and I became His.

This is where I serve the One who gave my life and my family back to me.

This is where I found my balance.

How could I NOT be here and spend myself for His church and His people?

 

My prayer has been each morning that God will show me the means to increase my faith, to know and believe that He is who He says He is.

I must listen for the answer to that prayer and recognize opportunities that arise each day to that end.

For the great majority of us, obedience through faith is lived day to day in the humdrum details – being prepared for the daily decisions that show us to be Christians as we claim.

 

The power in obedience – aligning ourselves with the power of God in obedience to the Spirit:  this is the power that overcomes the world.  The power that helps us “get over ourselves

Paul calls himself a servant of Christ.

Paul was a willing servant and slave for Christ.

He was so overwhelmed at how he had been transformed, that he spent himself to express that.

A bond slave of Christ in debt to all.

Paul is the one who told us later in Romans that …

”the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to God’s will.  

I have been on the floor at the foot of that very cross, face down, my arms spread – in the shape of the cross….with a prayer in the deepest corners of my heart that I could not give words to.  I confessed to God that I had NO IDEA how to pray.

I used Paul’s word’s that told me that the

Holy Spirit would intercede and moan to the Father on my behalf.

I didn’t just know this, I learned this with my Aldersgate sisters as we have worked our way through a dozen Bible studies over the years.  Relying on each other to help us through many storms.

I, like John Wesley, had my heart strangely warmed at Aldersgate.

My time spent here with you is sacred to me.  Whether you knew it or not, you have been my scaffolding.  As I prepare to leave, a part of Aldersgate, goes with me.  It was here that I found God, or more precisely that God found me.  It was here that a loving, caring congregation accepted me into your midst.  I shall be forever grateful.  And I know that you will do the same for anyone that walks through these doors in search of a place and a people to find and worship God.

I’ll use the words of Fleming Rutledge again to close.  “

The purpose and meaning of worship with fellow believers is to be a people prepared for daily decisions that make our faith fit our life.

As we share the Lord’s Supper together, we rejoice to remember whose spirit it is that bears us up and links us together in the power of the obedience of faith – the faith that overcomes the world.

I offer this in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

imagesYesterday I wrote a post about Paul’s use of the phrase ek pisteos Iesou Christou in Romans and how that phrase has been appropriated, incorrectly in my view, for the doctrine of justification. You can read it here.

We’re justified not by our faith IN Christ but by the faith OF Christ, is Paul’s argument I argued.

As anticipated, I received a flood of panties-in-a-twist emails from evangelicals excoriating me for playing fast and loose with their core doctrine.

One of the responses, from a friend, essentially asked:

What difference does it make, IN or OF? Isn’t it just semantics?

I could answer that question a number of ways, many of them theological. After all, how one chooses to translate ek pisteos Iesou Christou does lead to different even divergent conclusions. It’s a little like a circuit. You can’t reverse the wires and expect to have the same result.

But that’s for another post or another day because right now the phrase ek pisteos Iesou Christou registers for me not on a theological level.

For me, the phrase ek pisteos Iesou Christou is personal.

Someone I care about very much is right now in a bad way.

You know the sort- where you’re overwhelmed, don’t know what to do, how to help and can’t find the remedy (or end) in sight.

The sort where you’re left with those persistent, security-blanket questions like:

‘Why God?

Where the hell are you God?

Are you napping on the job or what?’

The sort where your faith in Christ feels as porous as sand and your doubts and unbelief feel like the Nothingness that comes creeping over everything in The Never-Ending Story.

So that’s why I think how we translate Paul’s phrase ek pisteos Iesou Christou can make all the difference in the world.

I don’t insist you agree with me, but, for me, saying our standing, our justification, before God depends on our faith IN Christ is not good news. Not at all. Not today.

Because, let’s be honest, even on our best days our faith IN Christ is as fragile as a house of cards.

No, the good news has to be better than that. It has to be big enough to withstand the waves of doubt and despair that threaten to knock us down and undo us.

Whoever we are in God’s eyes, whatever righteousness we possess, however we’re justified and saved has to depend on a faith stronger than the one I can muster on most days. 

Especially the dark ones.

It has to depend on the faith OF Jesus Christ, the one who felt what we feel in Gethsemane but who nonetheless got up from the Garden and kept the faith when there’s no chance in hell we would have.

For me at least, that’s a better good news. r1-not-ashames

 

Thank You, Pastor

Jason Micheli —  March 6, 2013 — 7 Comments
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What he said.
James Rogers has this reflection in First Things. I think he overstates the difficulty pastors have in forming friendships within the congregation. At least, that hasn’t been my experience. But his thoughts here are good ones.

Pastors have hard lives.

Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.

The pastoral burden must be tremendous.

The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.”

And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?

Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.

Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).

This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another.

What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?

But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.

They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.

To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve.

But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.

Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.

There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help.

So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing.

As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.

And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly.

But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.

It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.

But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.

It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul.

All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.

Thank you, pastor.