Archives For Paul

Spitting in Sin’s Face

Jason Micheli —  February 15, 2016 — 6 Comments

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

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

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

Speaking of death-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————

But I digress.

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

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

Bowled over with gratitude. To God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I didn’t complain.

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

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

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

That’s right: a checkbook.

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

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

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

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

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

—————-

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

     Paul asks at the beginning of Romans 6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what gives?

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

Who’s wrong?

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

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

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

How can we go on sinning?

How can we not go on sinning?

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

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

—————

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

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

Often those to be baptized were carried in caskets.

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

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

And then, they would spit.

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

Here’s the thing-

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

You can only spit in the face of a person.

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not Paul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re free.

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t even live in Egypt anymore.’

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

You may call me a slut

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

With and in Christ.

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

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

Free.

 

 

 

 

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

12243486_10207332160440258_4824375795530545494_nI preached this weekend for the first time in almost a year – since I found out I had Mantle Cell. The warmth of the congregation was overwhelming, including a mortifying standing applause, which more than adequately masked over what was a so-so sermon. My text was Paul’s closing to his letter to the Philippians, 4.10-23. 

You can listen to it here below as well as in iTunes here. Better yet, download the free blog app here and you’ll get it automatically.

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

It’s been 10 months since I last preached here.

When it was announced that I’d be here preaching this weekend, a member of the 8:30 service emailed me to remind me to wear my robe so, actually, it feels like old times.

Whether it feels weird or like old times, Dennis wanted me here this weekend because he thought a guy with cancer could emotionally manipulate you into giving more money on commitment Sunday.

But I tried telling him- there’s no way even guy with a rare, incurable cancer could get more cash out of the 9:45 crowd. You should get a puppy. Or an orphan. I said.

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a most appropriate day for me to be here, given our scripture text today. After all, Paul writes to the Philippian Church after he’s been locked away under house arrest, not with cancer but with a charge of sedition.

And while he’s been away Paul has grown concerned that, after all his hard work, his congregation has fallen under the influence of a false teacher.

A teacher who may have had a warm, FM voice and a thick, white Kenny Rogers mane and the theological acuity of Joel Osteen but a preacher who’d led them astray nonetheless.

Paul fears.

So it’s fitting I’m here today because, when it comes to Philippians, Paul and I have some things in common.

Paul never came back to the Philippians. After he wrote this letter, it was curtains on Paul, but it looks like I will be back, sometime after Christmas. After 10 months and exactly 64 days of chemo and 2 dozen blood transfusions, my latest PET scan was all clear.

I was so excited that I posted a picture of my PET scan online before I realized the picture also showed the positronic outline of my man-parts.

IMG_1315

Naturally, I received a few complaints about the appropriateness of such a picture- that’s fair, I thought. What struck me as unfair, though, below the belt, was one message I got registering surprise that my man-parts were so ‘ample.’

By the way, if any of you see the bishop, tell him I’m still waiting for his apology.

I have one more bone marrow test coming up in December, and I’ll have to do a day of chemo every couple of months for the rest of my life. I’ll never be ‘cured’ and Mantle Cell doesn’t go into remission like other cancers so it’s not a Miracle, but it’s the best news we could have gotten, and it looks like I’ll be back after Christmas.

Today, though, is as good a day as any for me to come back. Paul and I have a lot in common.

Like Paul, I know what it is to be in need (of healing).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have little (little hope).

Like Paul, I know what it is to have plenty- plenty of worries and fear and regrets, plenty of pain and pain-in-the-ass insurance claims.

Like Paul, I know what it is to go hungry (for some good news), and like Paul in today’s text I’ve got so much to thank my church for.

The Philippians fed Paul.

The money they sent to Paul supplied him with food because the Romans didn’t provide any for their prisoners. You either had benefactors to keep you from going hungry, or you didn’t and you did.

Like Paul’s church in Philippi, you all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with  us. You’ve helped us my medical bills and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car. And Dennis Perry became not my colleague but my pastor. He was with us the night I learned I had cancer, he prayed with us the morning of my surgery, and he’s been there for me all during my treatment.

     You all have done more than I could ever repay, and, honestly, that’s been a tougher pill for me to swallow than the vaginal yeast infection pills my doctor forced me to take.

Because the truth is-

I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts. I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. Before, whenever someone would give me a gift, I would immediately think about what I now had to give them to even the scales between us, to balance out the relationship.

In other words, I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.

One thing cancer taught me: when you think of your relationships in that way, in terms of credits and debits, you probably think of God that way too.  And so you worry about the debt of sin you owe God and could never pay back, and you fear that, maybe, you deserve what’s happened to you. Or, you count up all the good you’ve given God and you think, maybe subconsciously, that God owes you, and you get angry that this has happened to you.

All my life, I’ve been crazy terrible at receiving generosity, and then I got cancer and (dammit) you responded by giving us so much. And I worried: How can I possibly repay you?

I physically can’t write that many thank you notes or cook that many meals. I don’t really want any of you barfing in my car. I even tried repaying one of you by driving you to your vasectomy appointment, but since he made me hold his hand during the procedure, I definitely don’t want to do that for anyone else.

So how could I ever give back everything you’ve given? Balance the scales?

I could spend another 10 years at Aldersgate and it wouldn’t do it. I could work so hard for you that you’d just need to look in my eyes and, in the words of the immortal Bryan Adams, you’d see that everything I do, I do it for you.

But, I’d owe you still.

I can’t ever repay everything you’ve done for us.

And what you’ve done for us isn’t even the most important thing you’ve done.

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Unlike Paul-

     This past year, I’ve not been able to say ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.’

When you have cancer, everyone- EVERY SINGLE PERSON-  tells you ‘to kick cancer’s ass.’ But it works the other way around. It kicks yours.

The last few months I’ve felt exhausted. Spiritually exhausted.

Like Bilbo Baggins, I felt ’thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.’

I didn’t lose my faith; I just didn’t feel my faith, and Paul’s ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’- it sounded to me like an empty cliche, like naive optimism, like hollow cheerleading for Team Happiness.

I may have a few things in common lately with Paul and the Philippians but not with the ‘I can endure all things through Christ…’ part.

Unless-

Unless, when Paul tells the Philippians ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he’s not talking about Christ in heaven, he’s talking about you: ‘I can endure all things through you who strengthens me’ 

After all, the Christ who declares at the beginning of the gospel ‘I am the Light of the World,’ looks at his disciples at the end of the gospel and says to them ‘You are the Light of the World.’

And when we profess ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’ we mean that Jesus isn’t a figure in the past nor is he a promise for the future but he’s here and now. There is no Christ ‘up there’ because he’s here. Now.

And Paul in another, earlier letter tells the church that they are the Body of the Christ and then, in this letter, Paul tells the church ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.

And when Jesus commissions his disciples after Easter, he doesn’t say I’ll be waiting for you at the end of the age. No, he says: ‘I will be with you always unto the end of the age.’

You see-

Just as God, in the incarnation, chooses not to be God apart from Jesus, God-with-us; Jesus, after the resurrection, chooses not to be Christ apart from us, his Church.

There is no Christ, in other words, who is not mediated by and through and in his Gathered People, the Church.

So maybe-

Maybe when Paul says ‘I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me’ he doesn’t mean ‘I can do all things because of my belief in Christ…’ Maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can endure all things through my faith in Christ…’  And maybe he doesn’t mean ‘I can do anything by the power of my personal prayer…’

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

About your prayer. About your faithfulness. About your compassion and care. You. The Body of Christ, who’s strengthened me. I can do all things through you.

If Paul means it that way, then it’s no longer a naive catchphrase; it’s a statement of faith, one I can affirm. And so can Ali. And so would Gabriel and Alexander.

     We can endure all things because you’ve been with us.

You’re with us.

More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.

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When you think about it, in scripture, ‘with’ just might be the most important word. In scripture, ‘with’ is much more important than ‘for.’ *

‘In the beginning,’ says scripture, ‘the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.and without him not one thing came into being.’

In other words, before anything else, there was a with. The with between God and the Word, the Father and the Son. With, says the bible, is the most fundamental thing about God. So at the very end of the bible, when it describes our final destiny, a voice from heaven declares: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God. God himself will be with them.’

According to the bible, ‘with’ is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purposes and the plot of God’s desire for us. God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be with. Us.

And, I know firsthand, being with isn’t doing things for. Being with is about presence. Being with is about participation. It’s about partnership.

Which is why, I think, when Paul finally gets around to thanking the Philippians, it’s not for the all the things they’ve done for him. Read it again- Paul never actually thanks them for the money they’ve sent him or the meals they’ve provided for him. No, he thanks them for sharing in his struggle, for being with him: ‘It was kind of you,’ he says, ‘to share in my distress.’

It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry. In my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer- our cancer- yours too.

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

The money and the ministry, they’re just the means by which the Philippians shared in Paul’s suffering. They’re the way they were with him.

And that’s all they are here. The money you give, the ministry you do- they’re just the means by which we share in the distress of people like me and, by extension, share in the distress of our community and the pain in our world.

It’s the crappiest small church cliche of all time, but what Paul and I are ultimately thankful for is that our two churches are like family. They’re with us. I offer it you in the name of that other family- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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* I owe this section on the importance of ‘with’ in scripture to Samuel Wells‘ new book, A Nazareth Manifesto.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

SONY DSCAnd you and me too…

This Sunday we continued our sermon series on Richard Stearns’ book Unfinished. My intern, Jimmy Owsley, preached the sermon on Acts 9.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

So our reading today is from Acts, the 5th book of the New Testament. Acts is the follow-up to the Gospel of Luke–it’s the Gospel-writer’s retelling of the story of the beginnings of the Christian church. Our reading, from Acts Chapter 9, is a piece of the author’s introduction to the Apostle Paul (known at the time of this story as Saul). The other part of the introduction happens in Chapters 7 and 8, where we see him oversee the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

At this time according to the author, Saul is said to be actively “trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women,” and imprisoning them for their beliefs.

Saul, a Pharisee, is threatened by this new religious movement within Judaism.

And he is trying to coerce Jesus’ followers in submission through violence.

Basically, Saul is a first-century terrorist.

As some of you know, this Saul, who later comes to be known as Paul, becomes the hero of the Book of Acts, taking the good news of Christ’s new kingdom to far reaches of the Roman Empire. He also becomes the writer of much of our New Testament, giving us theological lenses for understanding the life and work of Jesus. While I would disagree, some historians say Paul has had an even greater effect on the Christian church than Jesus himself.

As for these passages about Saul’s conversion, scholars more knowledgeable than me say that in them Luke is setting up a portrayal of Saul/Paul as the ideal Christian convert. And this isn’t just because Saul is a high-ranking Jewish religio-crat, whose textbook conversion could woo Jewish inquirers into a deeper Christian faith. Although that may be part of it.

Deeper than that though is the fact that Saul’s conversion exemplifies a particular theology of conversion which would come to be one of the central facets to the Christian faith. The story goes like this:

First of all, Saul is a sinner. “The chief of sinners,” as he would later describe himself. He’s done everything wrong. He’s on the wrong page, playing for the wrong team. He is an enthusiastic participant in a system of violence which stands directly and explicitly opposed to the way of Jesus Christ.

And so it is that while Saul is on his way to terrorize Jewish followers of Jesus in the city of Damascus, Jesus himself appears in a flash of light and speaks to him saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This personal face-to-face encounter with Jesus blinds Saul completely and shatters his will to continue what e was doing.

Then Saul acts in obedience to Jesus. He continues on his way to Damascus, where, instead of inflicting terror, he fasts and prays in visual darkness for 3 days. That is, until the scared and reluctant disciple Ananias shows up.

Now, Ananias has also seen Jesus recently, as we learned in the reading this morning. And he acts obediently, too, despite his qualms about Saul’s shady reputation. Jesus has told him:

“Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.”

Thus Saul the terrorist, the least likely to be a disciple of Christ, is a chosen instrument of God’s will.

The inflictor of suffering upon those who follow the way of Jesus will now live a life enduring suffering in Jesus’ name.

When Ananias arrives, he touches Saul and prays over him. Saul is changed in that interaction and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Ananias introduces Saul to the rest of the disciples at Damascus, among whom Saul lives and learns how to be a disciple. Community is central to Saul’s transformation.

From there, he departs eagerly to do the work the Kingdom of God. He begins utilizing his God-given skills of preaching and teaching for his new Kingdom, proclaiming the grace he received throughout the Empire.

So what does this have to do with us? If Luke is telling us that Saul/Paul is the model convert, what does that mean for you and me?

Well,

  1. Saul is a sinner through and through. Just as each of us is a sinner in need of repentance. Before his encounter with Jesus, he is working completely against the kingdom of God. In some way we all have done and continue to do this. Repentance is an ongoing process.
  2. Although Saul has misused his capabilities, Jesus recognizes in him both the wrongs that he has done and the gifts that God has given him. Jesus comes to Saul personally, just as he does with each of us here this morning.
  3. Jesus calls Saul his “chosen instrument,” a phrase that applies as much to Saul as it does to each of us is. It is in his the midst of his evil intentions that Christ comes to him, sheds light on his wrongdoings, and offers peace.
  4. Next, the personal encounter with Jesus demolishes Saul’s previous worldview and sense of purpose. It realigns his life, as it should ours.
  5. Saul acts in obedience to the One he has encountered, and becomes a disciple of Jesus through the community of faith in Damascus. In order to live as disciples, we must be discipled by someone. We are all called to be in active community with other disciples.
  6. Finally, his transformation doesn’t stop there. And this is the point of the book study Unfinished that we are going through as a church. Through his conversion and discipleship, Saul jumps into a new mission. Rich Stearns describes conversion as change of allegiance–Saul leaves his old allegiances behind and becomes a member of a new Kingdom. He has joined “a new army.”

If we follow this model of discipleship, you and I are called also to be part of a new Kingdom and a new army, whether we thought we were a part of an old one or not.

Our faith in Jesus doesn’t end with his forgiveness or our community, as necessary as those are.

The fulness of Saul’s faith comes when he begins to act on it–to live it out. Saul was given gifts of leadership, eloquence, and a brilliant mind. Maybe those gifts lie in you too–or maybe you are gifted at teaching, or have the mind of an engineer, or a keen sense for justice. Maybe you are gifted at what you do for a career, and maybe your gifts point elsewhere.

But as you and I discover the skills and capabilities we have been given, and as we continue to encounter Jesus in our daily life, we will learn more and more about how we can put those gifts to work for his kingdom.

Now, I have two caveats here:

  1. One is that you don’t have to take off and leave everything you know to fulfill God’s purpose in your life. Saul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him. And after that encounter he didn’t decide not to go to Damascus. Rather he did something different when he got there.
  2. The second is that we are called to act on our gifts not as an obligation or something we have to do. Although there will be suffering along the way, using our God-given gifts for the purposes of his kingdom is something that we get to do which gives us meaning and fulfilment.

Like Saul, each of us is a chosen instrument. You have a gift and a calling and a role to play in this story.

You have potential, I have potential, and terrorists like Saul have potential. And there might not be any terrorists here. At least I hope not, unless some of you were the ones who hacked Jason’s blog a week and a half ago. But no matter who we are or what we have done, we are all chosen instruments in the grand vision of God’s kingdom.

And I know that’ll make some of you feel all warm and fuzzy–like kids in my kindergarten class when Mrs. Yani told us we were each special in our own way. To which the cynics of us respond– “if everyone is special, is anyone REALLY special?”

The point is not that we as disciples of Christ are chosen by God above or before anyone else. In fact, some of us are the least likely disciples. The point is that we are each chosen by God for a unique, particular purpose in God’s grand mission of redeeming the world.

Saul encountered Jesus in a flash of light on the road to Damascus. This Sunday morning we encounter him in bread and wine and in one another. Let us each hear what he has to say and discern how he would use us for his mission in the world.

Which is the idea I want to leave you with today. It’s a particular understanding of salvation, which is that:

We are all saved for a purpose.

And as Rich Stearns says, that purpose lies Unfinished.

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpgThis weekend I concluded our Holy Spirit series with a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit as Paul outlines it in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is, without question, my least favorite scripture.

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

Much of the text you see below was left unspoken, allowing the slides on the screen behind me to carry the message.

     

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

My first thought whenever I read this list of ingredients for a genuine Holy Spirit-made Christian: ‘Crap. I’m screwed.’

It’s true.

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on the list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? That’s not me. I’m not that person.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was- for 20 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek.

But if this is what a genuine, Holy Spirit-filled Christian looks like, I’m screwed.

 

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

I love my kids.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true.

I tell myself I love God and that I even comprehend what that means.

I’m good at blogging about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last.

So, I’ve got ‘love’ down. 1 out of 9.

     But if this list is what the Spirit is supposed to yield in us, if this is the Holy Spirit harvest in someone who’s genuinely following Jesus, then I’m screwed.

The Holy Spirit’s work on me has been slower than beltway construction.

20 years and I’m 1 for 9.

I hate this list. I hate this scripture passage.

 

Paul, who wrote this scripture passage, had only been a Christian for about 10 years when he wrote it. Less than half the time I’ve been pretending to be a Christian.

 

Paul! A Pharisee who stood idly by while one of the apostles, Stephen, was tortured to death. I may be an SOB but I’ve never offered to hold the rocks for a lynch mob.

Paul did, but apparently the Holy Spirit’s work in him was just so awesome that in 10 years he scored 9 for 9 on this list.

I hate him too.

 

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe I’m Holy Spirit resistant, Pentecost flame retardant.

Maybe you read this list of what the Spirit’s supposed to yield in you, and you think ‘Sure, I’ve got those. That’s me.’

 

If so, I hate you too.

It’s not as if I don’t try.

I wake up every morning with every intention of being patient and kind and all the rest. But then, after I wake up, I’ve got to deal with- you know- actual people. And a lot of those are church people so it’s doubly hard and it’s in no time that my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all deteriorate faster than a Roger Goodell press conference.

This list- it isn’t me.

If this, 1-9, is what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled person looks like, I don’t measure up.

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Last Sunday night we took the boys to the Jack White concert at Merriweather Pavilion. And watching my kids dance and clap along to the blues filled me with joy, absolute joy. And knowing I had to preach on this text this coming Sunday I thought to myself ‘Alright, not bad, 2 out of 9, making progress.’

But then I remembered how we got in to the concert in the first place.

You see, I’d gotten the tickets back in May. When they arrived in the mail, I stuck them in the desk drawer with the bills and, like the bills, forgot all about them until Thursday when I couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

And so what did I do?

I called Ticketfly and I said to the customer service lady: ‘Yes, I ordered tickets for this Sunday’s Jack White concert back in May for my little boy’s birthday and I’d forgotten all about it but I just realized those tickets never came in the mail. They must’ve gotten lost. In the mail.’

So that night at the Jack White concert my Facebook status looked like this: #whitelieformysonshappiness.

But my list, my Holy Spirit inventory, looked like this: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

And that Monday I was at Safeway in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 10 Items or Less Line- 10 Items, or Less, Line.

I was in line behind this old blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 10 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm. I didn’t point out that calling hers an express purchase was like saying water-boarding is not torture.

No, I didn’t complain.

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

No, I did good. Jesusy good.

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

That’s right: a checkbook.

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

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

“Oh my God! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!”

I thought I’d said to myself.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And then on Tuesday some jerk pastor somewhere in the country left this comment about my last sermon on a clergy Facebook Page: ‘I hope you understand the Holy Spirit better than you [don’t] understand prayer…for your congregation’s sake.’

My thoughtful reply to this jerk pastor has since been removed by the webmaster, but suffice it to say:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And on Wednesday my son Gabriel had his first baseball game of the season. I’m managing his team this year. This is the first time I’ve ever managed a little league team before so I didn’t know what that really means is that I’m managing the little leaguers’ parents. Especially the dads.

So there we were, playing our first game. It’s the first inning. We give up 4 runs and one of the dads decides to come up to me and ask when I’m going to make ‘defensive adjustments’ because, he says, his son’s ‘exceptional skills are being wasted in right field.’

I was about halfway through my measured reply to him before I realized all the players on the field and all the parents on the sidelines were staring at me. Or listening to me is more like it.

#blesshisheart

 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control 

I hate this list.

 

On Thursday night, I led a prayer vigil in Aldersgate’s sanctuary for Hannah Graham, the missing UVA student who is/was a part of our Aldersgate community.

And during the service I led a long litany prayer emphasizing the goodness and sovereignty of God even as- in my head and in my heart- I was questioning those very things.

Questioning God’s goodness in a world like ours. Second-guessing God’s wisdom for making our world the way he made it.

And during the silent prayer time and the lighting of the candles I listened to the hundreds of people gathered there, crying and sniffling and pleading softly under their breath.

And I couldn’t utter a single prayer, silent or otherwise, because really what I wanted to say to God was ‘@#*& *&$ God! Where the #$%^ are you?!’

As Dennis offered the candle-lit benediction that night, I looked like this:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list, because then I’d have to confess how much I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage.

Because if this is what a real Spirit-filled Christian looks like, then all this picture does is remind me of what I’m not, what I’m lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete I am.

This passage is like a glossy, air-brushed, cover-shoot picture of the Christian that Paul in advertising thinks I should be instead of the blotchy, blemished, and thoroughly ordinary Christian that I am.

I hate this passage.

 I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage because, intentionally or not, the message it conveys is no different than the message we see and hear 3,000 times a day:

 You’re not good enough.

This passage- it’s like that Ciallis commercial. You know, the one where the husband and wife are relaxing in separate claw-footed bathtubs- outdoors- enjoying a breath-taking view and then the woman suggestively brushes the man on his hand.

Because, you know, scenes like that unfold all the time.

Translation: Your marriage isn’t passionate enough.

This passage- it’s like those Dos Equis commericals featuring the world’s most interesting man and the gorgeous women who want to be with him and the men who want to be him, which of course is awesome until you pop the top on a bottle and no fawning beauties or admiring men appear.

Translation: You’re not really all that interesting.

Just as you already suspected.

 

This fruit of the Spirit passage- it’s like those iPhone 6 commercials that all but say the iPhone 5 you bought 4 weeks ago makes you an outdated, antiquated, hopelessly uncool loser.

I hate this passage because all I hear in it is the same message I hear everywhere else: I’m not good enough.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     When it comes to lists, I score a lot better on that other list, the one Paul gives just before this list of fruit:

  • Fornication: Game of Thrones, binge-watching, 5/14
  • Moral Corruption: Ordained in the UMC, 6/07
  • Doing Whatever Feels Good: ask grandmother, ‘you’ll go blind…’
  • Idolatry: M-F, Weekly
  • Drug Use: 2nd Hand, Jack White Concert, 9/14
  • Casting Spells: Renaissance Faire, 10/13
  • Hate: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Fighting: Bishop’s Cabinet re: Guatemala Toilet Project
  • Obsession: Baseball
  • Losing Temper: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Oppositional: see: personality, Jason
  • Selfishness: ask: Ali, wife of Jason
  • Jealousy: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Conflict: Starbucks Barista who doesn’t know how to make an Americano, 9/26/14
  • Drunkenness: college, ’96-’00
  • Partying: see above (and graduate school ’00-’03… and last Saturday)

When it comes to this list, the life of the flesh list, I’m 16 for 16, 24/7, 365 days a year.

But I hate this fruit of the Spirit list.

20 years in and most days I’m just 1 for 9. It’s just another reminder of the same message we see and hear a thousand times a day. #youarenotgoodenough

Paul, here in Galatians, is like that Mom I’m friends with on Facebook. Every day- every day- she posts pictures of her kids’ perfect, healthy, nutritious, all-organic, bento-boxed school lunches.

     #perfectparent

Meanwhile I send my kids to school with leftover gambling money where they buy smiley fries and pancakes cooked in plastic bags.

     #baddad

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     #badchristian

#godsdisappointedinyou

 

If this list is an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, if it’s like a commercial for who you will be on Jesus, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

Because, trust me, I know way more Christians than you and, most days, even the best ones are lucky to go 2 for 3. It’s too good to be true.

Actually, it’s worse than too good to be true.

Because where it says ‘there is no law against such things’ in verse 23, in the Greek it actually says ‘there is no shortage of such things.’

As in, the Holy Spirit’s cultivating kindness and patience and faithfulness and joy all over the place- there’s no shortage of such things- so what’s the problem with you? 1/9 faux Christian?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s even worse than that because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular.

As in, it’s all one gift: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s all one gift.

You either have all of them or you have none of them. And if you think you have one of them, you actually have not one of them.

They all go together.

Require one another.

The fruit of the Spirit- it’s singular.

But maybe that’s not bad news after all.

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That Thursday night I led the long litany prayer affirming God’s goodness and wisdom even as the words stuck in my throat and rang false in my heart.

Sitting there in the pew, doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, my mind wandered to the one thing I could be certain of- my own kids and my love for them.

1. Love

After Dennis offered a candle-lit benediction, I stood in the sanctuary aisle and I noticed a man sitting in the middle of a pew behind me, an ordinarily gruff man just sitting there staring straight ahead as the people on either end of his pew leaned over and furiously whispered their prayers.

The man in the middle- he just sat there calmly.

He didn’t say excuse me. He didn’t try to scootch past them. He didn’t sigh like he was in a hurry. He just waited for them. For them. For as long as they needed.

2. Patience

And after the service as the crowd thinned out I watched as some of the youth, touched by Hannah’s disappearance in a way I can’t fathom, gathered around the altar rail together and got on their knees and prayed. Even as the guy in the collar *me* was having a hard time praying at all.

3. Faithfulness

And in the sanctuary aisle I saw our new youth director hug kids he barely knows and ask them as though he’d known them forever how they were doing.

4.Gentleness

And in the lobby I watched as a mom, whose own daughter is Hannah’s best friend, held back tears and anger as a nosy reporter peppered people with questions.

5. Self-Control

And after the reporter went her way, I stood next to the mom and listened as other parents, one by one, came up to her and asked her to relay a message to Hannah’s parents: ‘Tell them if there’s anything we can do for them…’

6. Kindness

7. Goodness

And eventually those offers of help turned to reminiscing of each other’s children and the friendships that bound them.

8. Joy

As I walked out to my car that night another mother, her car parked next to mine, spoke about ‘perspective’ and, as she fumbled for her keys, she mentioned to me that she felt like she should call her own daughter with whom she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.

9. Peace

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          “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

It’s singular.

It’s all one gift, there’s not one without the other.

It’s all one gift, and- Paul says- there’s no shortage of such things. The Spirit’s fruit is everywhere if you but look.

But where Paul wants you to look is not to the individual believer but to the Body.

 

You see if this list is a description of what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled believer looks like- if it’s like an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

 

Because, let’s face it, even the best of you score barely better than 1/9 me.

Some of you are not patient or gentle. Some of us are not consistently kind or self-controlled. I know I’m not always faithful and I know some of you struggle with loving the people in your lives.

Some of you have no peace and for good reason. Ditto when it comes to joy.

 

If this list is meant to be a commercial for who you will be on Jesus then like all commercials it’s too good to be true.

     But this list, this letter- it’s not written to you.

It’s not a promise meant for you.

     It’s written to us. It’s a promise for us.

And that makes it completely different than the message we hear 3,000 times a day.

Because the promise, the incredibly good but still believable news- the gospel- behind this list is that the Holy Spirit can take all you impatient but good people and all you joyful but out of control people and all you people with great faith and kindness but little peace and all of you who love God but have a hard time loving others- the promise is that the Holy Spirit can take 1 for 9 people like you and put you into a community that we call Church and somehow, by the grace of God, you all together- we- can look like Jesus.

This list, this letter, it’s not written to you. It’s meant for us.

And that means the proper reaction to this fruit of the Spirt list is not:

         “Crap, I’m screwed.’

It’s:

     “Crap [turn to the person sitting next to you] I need you.”

And you won’t ever hear a message like that on TV.

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

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

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

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

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

That was my first Sunday at Aldersgate.

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

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

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

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

He Who Must Not Be Named.

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

What goes around comes around.

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

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

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

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

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

And HeMustNotBeNamed tweeted:

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

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

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

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

 

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So… it has to be one of you.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Untitled19

 

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled16

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Maybe, even, it’s the best question.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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@HeMustNotBeNamed,

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Let me say this:

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

 

Who was already gone.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Blessings,

Jason

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

 

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

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@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘By faith.’

 

‘How do I have faith?’

 

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

 

Faith for him was really more like agreement.

 

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

 

Faith is something you live into, not agree to.

 

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

They make it sound painless, quick and rational.

 

It isn’t any of those things.

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

I tried again on June 7.

pastedGraphic_7.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Before the End.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Faith. Is. Trust.

 

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

 

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

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

 

So I tried again, on Friday the 4th.

pastedGraphic_9.pdf

 

@HeMustNotBeNamed

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And some don’t.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah.

Christou is in the Genitive Case.

 

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

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

dot, dot, dot

if and when you have faith in me…’

 

No, Jesus says ‘It is accomplished.’

Through his faithfulness- not ours.

 

Think about what Paul’s saying:

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

But none of it is necessary.

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

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

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

 

That’s it. That’s the good news.

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

 

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

 

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

 

It depends on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

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

 

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

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

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

Even you.

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

rainbow-cross_aprilThis past weekend my cranny of Methodism in Virginia, clergy and lay, gathered for our annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Doing Bureaucracy Better than the IRS.’

Actually, it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but you get the idea. The Spirit does blow where it will (John 3) but I’m pressed to think of any scripture where the Spirit blows as slowly or trepidatiously as United Methodism.

The most only anticipated item on this year’s agenda was Resolution 1, a move to petition the larger denomination to amend its official language about homosexuality at it’s global gathering in 2 years.

After the flurry of whereas’ the salient portion of the resolution read:

“Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”…from the Book of Discipline…”

As soon as the motion was opened up for debate, a counter-motion was offered to table, ignore, stick-our-head-in-the-sand, push-to-the-back-burner, pull the blankie-over-our-eyes-and-pretend-this-issue-is-not-under-our-bed suspend discussion indefinitely so that we could instead engage in a ‘conversation’ on homosexuality in our denomination.

Even though this conversation has already gone on for decades and the respective sides have long since calcified and even though the ‘let’s have a conversation instead’ motion strikes me as not unlike those clergyman who tried to persuade Martin Luther King to ‘wait’ (‘this “wait” has almost always meant never’ King replied from his cell), here’s my ‘conversation-starter:’

If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?

Brian-BlountIn his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.

Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.

For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.

Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’

 

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.’ 

pastedGraphic.pdf

‘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.’