Archives For Preaching Romans

9781501824753Bishop Will Willimon, author of Fear of the Other, was our guest preacher the Sunday after Trumpocalypse. His text was Romans 5. Not only is the book dedicated to Donald Trump (…without whose xenophobia ‘I wouldn’t have been asked to write this book.’) it’s an incredibly timely book for those who are repulsed by Trump and how we’re to love the ungodly which surely includes even Donald Trump.

“We’ve got to love the ungodly…even an ungodly liar like Donald Trump.”

Listen to it.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

rp_lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2-1024x682.jpgLast Sunday two friends from my congregation capped off our summer sermon series by tag-team preaching on Romans 15.18-24.
Here is the initial reflection from Marco Santangelo.
Presently, Marco is the Director of the George Washington Presidential Library; however, Marco is also a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary as well.
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The alarm went off at 3:15 in the morning.
I was disoriented.
Not just because of the time.
Or the fact I had only gone to bed 3 1/2 hours earlier.
It was not my bed, I wasn’t home. I had never been here before and it took some time to recall my location and what I was doing.

I dressed, quickly, stumbled out the door, & walked through a long, dark corridor,  down two flights of stairs, and into the main sanctuary.

Where 52 men -robed in white- were already singing psalms to God.

 I was late.
It was my first experience on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani: a monastery in Central KY known for being the home to a famous Christian writer, Thomas Merton.
The monastery was located 30 minutes from Asbury Seminary, where I was a student.
I wanted to learn about how best to synchronize my Words about Jesus,  with my daily Actions. I was a Leader on campus and wanted that Leadership to be Christ-Centered.
The Apostle Paul makes it seem so easy. . .
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My professor recommended a 5 day monastic retreat, as a good place to start.
After the 3:15 morning worship service I was escorted to a coffee station where I fueled up before beginning my first day of work at 4am. The monks have a motto: “Pray & Work,” whether they are assigned at the Mill, the Farm, or in their Cheese Factory, they have created an environment where words and deeds exemplify Christ; and they are known for their Christ-Centered Leadership.
They assigned me to the cheese factory. Apparently, I look like the cheese-making type. I was okay with that and I worked hard. There were several other retreatants, like myself, working alongside the monks. But we couldn’t get their same rhythms.
And as hard as we worked, they worked even harder, but in a joyful, peaceful manner, singing psalms and hymns.
It was evident that Christ’s presence was among us.
I felt something sacred in the middle of a cheese factory. And nobody explained a single word, they all lead by example.
At the end of the week I realized that my words and my actions didn’t exemplify Christ in the same way as the monks. I was unaware of my role in the Body of Christ;  How was I to reach out to the Asbury community, as I hoped?

I had compartmentalized so many aspects of Me and I did not know how to combine my spiritual life with my work life; or, with my social life, academic life or dating life (at that time).

Whereas the monks had only one life, a Spiritual One centered on Christ, and everything else wrapped around it…. I heard their silent example at full volume.

 

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On the last day of the retreat,  it just-started to make sense.  I asked one of the monks, “how can I  take this spiritual exercise back home and make Jesus the center of my Words & Actions?
He said,
“First of all, I’ll be honest, this is a monastery. It’s not easy to replicate this outside of a Christ centered environment. So, don’t treat it like something you conquer. It’s part of your daily spiritual growth.

You may want to start by Stop speaking so much, open your heart and your ears.

Turn off the outside chatter and the inside chatter. Think of your favorite scripture. Recite it to yourself once in a while throughout your day.”
That’s a good place to start.
Wow, A practical, powerful answer; More than I ever received at Seminary.  I was looking for a way to make a spiritual difference in my community, and he told me to start with my own heart.
As I stand before you, today, I wish I could tell you how I have done this successfully, but I haven’t.  I wish I could tell you how I practice this regularly, but I don’t.  But I can say that the more we think about God and His Word throughout our day, the more our faith is expressed through our Words and Actions, and the more we understand our role in the Body of Christ.
And that will affect our community.
But to be frank, between those Seminary days and today I often say to myself, “Oh, I express my faith, ‘Leading by Example.’”  And ‘Leading by Example’ is a fantastic beginning but it’s not everything. If faith is expressed by example, alone, then it might be unclear that we are followers of Jesus. We could be following anyone. We don’t live in a Monastery, and our compassionate behavior can be interpreted in a number of philanthropic ways, including making tax-deductible gifts, to off-set taxes, when it really comes straight from the heart.
This morning’s scripture reading from Romans not only has meaning for our individual lives, but also draws a parallel to what we are building here at this satellite church. In the scripture reading from Romans, Paul summarizes his methods of evangelism. He is aware of his role as a leader-of-a-young Christian movement, and the fruitfulness of his work is solely dependent upon God. So, he leads by both word and action:
“I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by my words and actions.”  Then he continues, “it has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
Paul knows his role, and his goal is to preach the gospel where it has not been heard…. What is our role to this community with the establishment of this church? There are many living in the area who are unchurched or who have little experience of Church in their lives.
This Church Is an Instrument of Christ’s love and we, too, must act by Word and Deed to reach others for the Gospel.
And, it starts with our own hearts.

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.’

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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.

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‘@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.

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@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.

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@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

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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.

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.

 

white-crucifixion-1938-1Here’s the Sunday sermon from this weekend on Romans 10 (but really Romans 9-11). I say Sunday sermon because Saturday’s sermon was…ahem…a disaster and required massive rethinking. Apologies to all the kind, patient people in the Saturday congregation.

For the sermon, to illustrate the damage we do to scripture when we summarize the biblical story in a way that replaces Israel with the Church I tore the pages out of two different bibles. You can follow the notes to see where that happened.

I should add that I’m indebted to the work of Kendall Soulen for charting new possibilities in how theology can be done in a way that’s faithful to Christ and allows God to keep faith with his People Israel. Check out his book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology.

Here’s the audio. It can also be played on the widget to the right of the blog or you can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

      1. The 614th Commandment

     

“I ask you, then, has God rejected his People?”

That’s Paul’s first question immediately following today’s long, thick passage: Has God rejected the Jews?’

     (Because they reject God in Christ?)

You shouldn’t answer too hastily.

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A couple of years ago, Ali and I were traveling in Southern France, and one hot, sunny day we toured a museum in Nice devoted to Mark Chagall, the Jewish artist who was born in Russia and fled to France before the outbreak of World War II.

The museum is a series of large, round rooms with Chagall’s boldly colored art displayed against spartan white walls.

Because of the diversity of tourists, there was no single ‘tour guide’ per se.

Instead everyone was given a hand-held radio each set to a specific language with numbered buttons that corresponded to the numbers next to each section of paintings.

Holding the radio next to my ear, I worked my way through the museum in no particular order. After a while, because my feet were sore, I sat down on a long leather bench in the middle of a gallery floor next to an old man.

He had a yarmulke barretted to his white, wiry hair and, faintly, I could hear that his radio was set to Hebrew.

Like the old man sitting at my left, I stared up at the painting on the front of today’s bulletin, Chagall’s White Crucifixion.

I pressed the button on my radio, button #14, and I listened as the GPS-sounding voice explained how Mark Chagall, who’d studied Torah before he’d studied art, saw in Jesus of Nazareth the ultimate symbol for the suffering of all the Jewish people.

When the GPS-sounding voice went on to mention how earlier versions of the painting depicted soldiers in black with swastikas on their arms burning down a synagogue- when the GPS-sounding voice said that, I heard the old man next to me start to cry.

     His palsied hand was holding the radio up to his left ear.

     Just underneath the cuff of his white sleeve I could see the numbers tattooed on the inside of his left wrist.

     Like a tag on an animal. Or a barcode on a piece of supermarket meat.

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Paul’s whole letter to the Romans has been building to the question.

From: I am not ashamed of the gospel” to: “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”

All of it.

All of Paul’s memory verse rhetoric and every bit of his dense, theological argument- for 11 relentless chapters, it’s all been driving to this question:

“Has God rejected his People?’

The Jews.

      Just take another look at Chagall’s painting and you know: it’s a question we should not ask or answer carelessly.

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fackenheimOn November 9, 1938- Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass- a 22 year old boy named Emile Fackenheim managed to escape as Nazi storm troopers ransacked and burned Jewish homes and businesses and synagogues and then took 30,000 men to concentration camps.

Emile Fackenheim went on to become the most important Jewish theologian of the 20th century.

He wrote a book of post-holocaust philosophy called To Mend the World.

In that book, to all those who worship the God of Abraham, Fackenheim issues what he calls the 614th Commandment.

The rabbis always believed the Hebrew Scriptures- the Old Testament- contained 613 Commandments.

But because of the enormity of the Holocaust, Fackenheim says that those who worship the God of Israel should add one more commandment to the list, a 614th Commandment.

Commandment #614 goes like this: Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories. 

For Jews, Fackenheim says, the 614th Commandment means they should not despair.

They should not despair that this is God’s world and they are God’s Chosen People.

     And for Christians, the 614th Commandment means we should rethink how we answer that question of Paul’s.

      For us, the 614th Commandment means that we who live after the Holocaust must learn to tell a story of the Bible different than the one that led to the Holocaust.

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For nearly 2 millennia, the Christian Church’s answer to Paul’s question was an unflinching and uncritical and unbiblical: ‘Yes.’

‘Yes, God has rejected his People.’

But behind that ‘Yes,’ what made that ‘Yes’ possible, is a very particular way of summarizing and interpreting the Bible as a whole.

Behind that ‘Yes’ is a very selective way of mapping the plot of the biblical story.

It’s a way that’s probably familiar to all of you.

It breaks all 66 books of the bible into 4 main acts.

It goes like this:

[HERE, TEAR OUT FROM THE BIBLE THE CREATION STORIES, THE FALL ACCOUNT AND THEN THE REST OF SCRIPTURE]

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     Act 1 

In the beginning God created humanity, Adam and Eve, to share eternal life with God- a goal humanity could attain by relying upon God’s grace and obeying God’s commands.

That’s Genesis chapter 1 and a sliver of chapter 2. That’s it and that’s Act 1.

But what happens next?

     Act II

The bible’s storyline hits a catastrophic snag.

Adam and Eve don’t trust God’s one and only command.

Adam blames Eve. They both hide from God.

They sully the image of God in which they were created.

They forfeit the goal of eternal life and they bring upon themselves and their children sin and death to such a degree it’s beyond any human power to heal.

That’s what Christians call- but Jews never have- the Fall.

That’s Genesis chapter 3. That’s just one page; that’s Act II.

     Act III

This is the longest act in the biblical story.

It’s the central drama: the rescue of humanity from Sin.

The undoing of what was done in what Christians call, but Jews never have, the Fall.

But before God redeems all people, God first calls a particular people to point forward to the salvation that comes in Christ.

So God chooses Abraham and Abraham’s children and God promises to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.”

And so, according to Act III, what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel land and lineage; so that, they will be the place and people from which Christ will come.

And what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel law; so that, they will be prepared for the new spiritual law that will come with Christ.

And what we find in the Old Testament is God giving Israel prophets; so that, they will foreshadow the arrival and atonement of Christ.

And what we find in the New Testament is testimony that redemption from sin has been fully and finally enacted in Jesus Christ and that redemption is now available to us through the Holy Spirit.

So now, according to Act III, all the prophecies and prefigurements of the Old Testament are fulfilled.

Grace replaces the Law.

Baptism replaces circumcision.

Eucharist replaces Passover.

Church replaces Synagogue.

And, because they do not confess faith in Jesus the Messiah, God breaks his promise to Abraham and Christians replace Jews as God’s People.

Finally, comes Act IV.

Act IV is the time we’re in now, awaiting the second coming of Christ when will God will fulfill his purpose and bring humanity to eternal life.

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That’s the standard way of telling the basics of the biblical story.

It’s the story the Apostles’ Creed tells: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” SKIP OVER THE ENTIRE STORY OF ISRAEL  TO SAY … ”I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.”

And then we go on to say how we believe in our forgiveness of sins and our life everlasting…

It’s the standard way of telling the story. It’s the bible tract way of telling the story. It’s the 4 Spiritual Laws way of telling the story. It’s the only way of telling the story that’s make possible something like the Gideon Bible.

And the tragic irony is:

It should not take a holocaust to point out the problems with that way of telling the story.

[HERE, START TEARING PARTS OF THE BIBLE, A SECTION AT A TIME, TO ILLUSTRATE HOW THE STANDARD SYNOPSIS OF THE BIBLE EVISCERATES THE NARRATIVE] 

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The first problem, the beginning problem, is that it makes the entire biblical story exclusively about our sin and redemption from it.

Everything hinges on Genesis chapter 3, on just the second page of your bible.

Everything in scripture is a reaction to Adam and Eve’s sin, a reaction to what Christians call, but Jews never have, the Fall.

But there’s a whole lot of other stuff in the Old Testament that God seems to care about besides just foreshadowing Christ- 1340 pages in my bible.

     The prophet Micah didn’t just predict where Christ would be born; he told us what God requires of us: ‘to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.’

God didn’t give the law to Moses just to prepare us for Christ; God gave the law so we would do things we would never do unless God told us like ‘care for the immigrants in our land because once we were immigrants in Egypt.’ 

The prophet Isaiah didn’t just foresee the suffering servant’s wounds by which we are healed; Isaiah foresaw that Day when ‘no more shall an infant live but a few days,’ a Day not when God will whisk our souls off to heaven but a Day when God will come down and make this Earth new again.

The first problem with the way we summarize the bible story is that there’s a whole lot of stuff God cares about other than just our redemption from sin.

The second problem in the standard way we summarize the story is that once Christ comes Israel has no other role to play in God’s work in the world.

God’s People, Israel- they’re like a boat that takes you across to your destination and once you arrive the boat’s no longer necessary.

And since you’re not going back, the boat’s obsolete.

You can leave it behind. Leave Israel behind.

And really you can leave Israel’s bible behind too.

Which leads then to the third problem.

When you leave the Old Testament behind, you make Jesus’ preaching in the New unintelligible.

Because once you’ve forgotten about all that other stuff in the Old Testament that God cares about, then everything Jesus says about poverty, deliverance, forgiveness, healing, debt, salvation, and Kingdom- it all starts to sound spiritual and other-worldly and the exact opposite of what Jesus actually meant.

When we leave the Old Testament behind, we’re just left with a Jesus who died so we can go to heaven when we die instead of a Jesus whom God raised from the dead as the first sign that God was bringing Christ’s Kingdom of Heaven down to earth.

When we do away with Jesus’ Bible we make everything Jesus said unintelligible.

And that leads the fourth and final problem with the way we summarize the bible story.

When we suggest that God has replaced Israel with the Church, what we’re really saying is that God has broken his unconditional, no-strings-attached promise to Israel: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.’

And if God will break that promise to them, what about all the promises that God in Christ makes to us?

What about when Christ promises to us that God’s love is like a Father who never stops waiting for his wayward child to come home from the far country?

If God will break his first promise to Israel, then how do we know the Prodigal’s Father won’t just say to his child: ‘Nah, you should’ve come home earlier.’

Just follow the logic: if that first promise is conditional, then all the others are up for grabs too.

If God will break that first promise, then Paul has no basis on which to promise that ‘there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ 

If God will go back on that first promise to Israel

Then we have no reason to look forward to Revelation’s promise that one day God will come down and make his creation new again and dwell with us so that there will no more mourning, no more tears, no more pain.

     If God breaks God’s promises, we’re really not left with much

[Hold Up Bible Cover with Nothing Left In It]

Abraham_stars

There’s got to be a better way to understand the story.

And there is.

It’s the way that Jesus would’ve understood the story.

It’s the way that Paul would’ve learned the story.

Because we should never forget that Jesus and Paul were Jews, and because they were Jews, Jesus and Paul never would have referred to Adam and Eve’s sin the garden as ‘the Fall.’

And so as Jews, Jesus and Paul never would have seen Genesis 3 as the hinge around which all of scripture revolves.

As Jews, as people of the People of Israel, when it comes to the hinge of the story, when it comes to the core of scripture, Jesus and Paul would have pointed not to Genesis 3, not to Adam’s sin and our redemption from it.

As Jews, Jesus and Paul would’ve pointed to Genesis 12, to God’s unconditional promise to bless Abraham and Abraham’s children: ‘I will be your God and you will be my People.’

     For Jews, that’s the hinge of the biblical story.

And as Jews, Jesus and Paul would’ve known that that’s only part of the promise God makes to Abraham.

Jesus and Paul also would’ve known that God promises that through Abraham and Abraham’s children, through them, somehow, God would find a way to bless all the nations of the world.

Gentile nations.

Jesus and Paul would’ve known that from the very beginning of scripture God’s promise, God’s desire, was to have two different families, two different people, Jews and Gentiles, blessing one another and blessing the God of Israel.

Maybe that’s why when Jesus comes back from grave, he tells his disciples to make disciples not of all Jews but of all the nations.

Gentile nations.

     And maybe that’s why when Paul writes here in Romans chapters 9-11, when Paul speaks of God, he uses only active verbs.

     As though to remind you that God’s in charge. God’s behind all this.

     And when Paul speaks of Israel and their lack of belief in Jesus Christ, all the verbs are in the passive voice.

    As though, Israel, the Jews, are not in control at all.

    As though God’s People haven’t done anything to reject belief in Jesus Christ.

    As though instead God has done everything- everything, even make them not believe- in order to welcome other people into God’s People through Jesus Christ.

    As though instead God has done everything- even make them not believe- in order to welcome other people-like you into God’s People.

     Through Jesus Christ.

      M4_68 Aluminium NOWA dated 1939 FrontNot long ago, knowing this section of scripture was looming on the preaching schedule, I decided to tour the Holocaust Museum, for the first time since I was a student.

At the start of the tour, I was handed an identification card.

Every ID Card has the name and biography of a Jewish child who experienced the Shoah.

The ID Cards are meant to personalize the events described in the exhibits, to boil down the unimaginable scale of tragedy and make you feel invested in just one life out of millions.

The ID Card in my hand felt like a millstone around my neck. On it was the name of a 10 year old boy, גַּבְרִיאֵל, Hebrew for ‘strong man of God.’

My son’s name.

They handed me the ID Card and I looked at the name and I immediately flipped to the end of the bio.

He didn’t make it.

The place that day was crowded with tourists and field trips.

The whole way through I trailed behind a group of Hebrew School kids. At one point, in the middle of the tour, I stood next to the school kids as we looked at black and white photographs in an exhibit.

You could just make out our reflections, Gentile and Jew, staring back at us in the display glass case.

     Behind our reflections was a picture of two soldiers- Gentile soldiers- posing proudly in front of a cattle car filled with Jews.

     The exhibit noted how the inscription on the soldiers’ belt buckles- the inscription on all German soldiers’ belt buckles- read: ‘Gott mit uns.’ 

     Which is German for ‘Emmanuel.’

     Which is Hebrew for ‘God with us.’

     I stood there in front of the glass next 3 Hebrew School 5th graders.

Two girls and one boy.

Maybe it was because of the angle of the lights or maybe it was because of where we were standing or maybe it was because of the thickness of the glass but, looking in, I could see our reflections on the display case glass.

Gentile and Jew.

And as though written across all four of our chests I could also see the written translation for the those belt buckles: God with us.

As though it were tattooed on all of us.

And I thought to myself, that’s exactly right.

 

     

white-crucifixion-1938This weekend I (attempted to) unpack Paul’s dense prose in Romans 9-11, the historically fraught section where Paul ponders why the Jewish Messiah has come yet Jews do not recognize him.

Here are two quick videos that are well worth your time. Kendall Soulen, a Methodist who teaches at Wesley Seminary. takes the new ground toward Israel that Karl Barth opened up and he charts a way forward (a non-supersessionist way) for Christians to think about their brothers and sisters of God.

Folks who endured my sermon this weekend will no doubt wish I’d just played these videos…

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.’

 

The f dash dash dash wordYou’ve seen the movie:

Mother: All right. Now, are you ready to tell me where you heard that word?

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master. But, I chickened out and said the first name that came to mind.

Ralphie: Schwartz!

A question I get if not often then at least as many times as TNT plays A Christmas Story:

‘Pastor, must your language be so vulgar?’

While I’m not Ralphie’s Dad, when it comes to vulgarity I’m at least a Bob Ross: I dabble every day and often in it but to no lasting consequence. PBS Remix-Happy Painter

Sometimes, it’s a function of going off-script and allowing my inner monologue to take the reins.

Other times, it’s intentional. Me being me in an effort to peel away the pretense of propriety that plies to piety.

This past weekend for the Au Contraire sermon at 9:45 (which you can listen to on the sidebar on the blog here) I mentioned how I choose to say whatever is on my mind, no matter who it might offend, because I think it’s important to resist the veneer of religiousity that Christians often adopt to avoid authenticity.

Warts and all, I want people to see in me a normal, run-of-the-mill person trying to follow Jesus in this f*^&%$- up world.

228958_10150729303960096_564145095_20288493_4614542_nStanley Hauerwas is not only my theological muse he’s also known for being the Andrew Dice Clay of the tight-sphinctered world of academic theology. On his own coarse tongue, Hauerwas observes:

“I work hard at fighting the way that when people start talking religious, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, ‘language goes on a holiday’ – it just doesn’t do any work. People say, ‘Oh yes, now we’re talking about God. Let’s get pious.’

“That shunts God off into a specialized realm that we know doesn’t matter about a God damn thing. I work very hard to make theological speech work as common discourse.”

In other words, off-color words shouldn’t be taboo if they insure that the rest of our words might be not just truthful but genuine.

Here’s the rest of the interview with Hauerwas. It’s worth the read:

This could be titled the theology of cursing – or how it’s okay to swear and still be Christian.

A thoroughly charming, totally maddening, outrageously tough-talking Texan sashayed into town recently with trouble in mind.

Stanley Hauerwas, an esteemed professor of theological ethics at Duke University Divinity School, carries with him some fancy scholastic six-shooters with which he plugs holes in ideologies of the left, right and centre.

That’s why both evangelicals and mainline Christians phoned up to make sure I’d interview him about his lectures at the Vancouver School of Theology. This laid-back, loud-laughing theologian has written 10 books. In ethics circles, within Christianity and beyond, he’s big time.

But he also peppers his erudite arguments with an abundance of profanity. While I didn’t want to trivialize him, the $% cents *& cents swearing was a hard target to resist.

Since I come from a family background in which profanity was not exactly unknown, and since I work in a newsroom of hard-bitten types where we engage in frequent outbreaks of cursing, and since I’m the father of children I hope will not become overly foul-mouthed, I had to ask him right off:

How, professor, do you justify swearing so %$**& much?

“I don’t mind addressing that. I get a lot of grief about it,” Hauerwas said, sprawled out in a panelled boardroom-with-a-view at VST.

“I was raised a bricklayer. My father was a bricklayer. I was taken out to the job when I was eight and started laboring. And if you live around bricklayers a long time, you know they don’t exactly say, ‘Pass me a brick.’ “

He laughed a luxurious, liberated cackle.

Cursing simply became part of his speech. “It’s also a class matter. I come from the lower classes. And I’ve found myself in university in fundamentally upper-middle-class culture. I hate the constant ignoring of what it means to come from the lower classes.”

He doesn’t want to be phoney – swearing to make a point. But he has never found reason to cut it out.

“I also work hard at fighting the way that when people start talking religious, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, ‘language goes on a holiday’ – it just doesn’t do any work. People say, ‘Oh yes, now we’re talking about God. Let’s get pious.’

“That shunts God off into a specialized realm that we know doesn’t matter about a God damn thing. I work very hard to make theological speech work as common discourse.”

He gazed out the window at an eagle perched high on a tree poking out of the forest around VST. After being raised a Mennonite, teaching theology at Catholic Notre Dame University and now finding himself working among United Methodists (who are kind of like a U.S. version of the United Church of Canada), Hauerwas has come to the conclusion, he says, that Methodists have one major conviction: God is nice.

“I mean, God is dying of niceness. It is just awful. One of the reasons I don’t think much about whether I curse is I’m just not interested in being nice.”

He goes on to say he avoids developing too much of a thesis about cursing. He doesn’t want the pressure of being known as (he cackles) The Nasty-Mouthed Theologian.

“I don’t want to be put in the situation of having to say ‘f—’ when I don’t want to say it.”

Ahem. Well, he’s got a point. Enough of profanity.

Let’s get on to more orthodox matters of theology and ethics. Then again, the words orthodox and Hauerwas don’t fit too neatly.

Hauerwas is known in philosophical realms as a post-liberal, although he rejects the label, referring to himself only as a Christian.

When he rides into town, liberals dig in. He’s anything but a blue-suit establishment conservative, however, as shown by the howling, un-uptight style. More important, he is a vehement pacifist, easy-going about homosexuality and tough on what he considers evangelicals’ deification of the family.

There probably isn’t anybody he fails to tick off. As VST ethics professor Terry Anderson said, getting into a Hauerwas mood: “He’s a real s— disturber.” And one gets the distinct impression the drawling American enjoys his role.

Here are a few shots, peppered with bursts of laughter, from this foremost ethicist:

* Liberals (and left-wingers) are inconsistent and their compassion is faulty. They don’t realize liberalism is merely capitalist individualism in action. Ironically, liberals support laissez-faire individualism in their personal lives – teaching that abortion and euthanasia are individual choices. But they don’t think individualism should be supreme in the marketplace, which they say should follow communitarian values.

* Neo-conservatives make the opposite mistake. They hail every-person-for-himself individualism in economics. But in their personal lives they oppose free choice, whether the topic is abortion, sex or, for that matter, swearing. Christian neo-conservatives say the Bible’s communal teaching should be enforced around the home – and the family unit is ultimate (which Hauerwas says would have been a surprise to Jesus, a bachelor).

* Christians should actively seek converts for their faith. But so should Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. Secular-atheist teachers, as well, should make sure every student walks out of their class “thinking Christianity is just bull—-.”

* People of each faith, each world view, should start their own schools. How can public schools teach common ethics when conservative parents don’t want the Wizard of Oz used in school because it portrays a witch, and liberal parents don’t want Shakespeare’s Macbeth read because it’s too patriarchal? You can only teach values when people agree on them. Tolerance is over-rated.

He cackles again.

But seriously.

There is a crucial difference between post-liberals such as Hauerwas and so-called revisionist theologians, such as noted American David Tracy. Revisionists defend Christian convictions according to publicly acceptable criteria of truth – making their case with philosophy, history, ethics, even science.

Post-liberals take a leap of faith. They focus on the internal logic of Christian faith, not worrying about justifying it to outsiders. As a result, post-liberals have been criticized for not adequately explaining why Christian beliefs are really true.

The head of the University of B.C.’s Centre for Applied Ethics, Michael McDonald, who responded to one of Hauerwas’s lectures, said the Duke professor is in danger of promoting sectarianism – shutting down understanding among different peoples. And Hauerwas admits he’s been called a tribalist.

McDonald has sympathy for Hauerwas’s challenge of contemporary relativism – the notion that the truth of one person is just as right as that of anyone else. But if everyone withdraws into different camps, McDonald says, we’ll fail to recognize how important it is, in an increasingly pluralistic world, to get along.

“Isn’t compassion and tolerance important for sharing the world together?” McDonald asks. A good question.

But Hauerwas has heard such sentiment before. And he‘s determined to ride his own trail. Christians ought to be different, he says. They ought to be a little more reviled – shocking society by praying for enemies, identifying with the poor and committing themselves to the radical demands of Jesus.

What’s wrong with being viewed as strange, he says? It’s beats being so @#$*% pleasant all the time.

Fair-Weather Jesus Fans

Jason Micheli —  June 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064

World famous preacher Teer Hardy filled in this weekend while Dennis and I were away at a clergy conference. He continued our Justified series by preaching on Romans 5. You can listen to the sermon here

This past week the Miami Heat & San Antonio Spurs wrapped up the 2012-2013 NBA season.  Whether you are a Heat fan, a Spurs fan, or could care less about the NBA because college basketball is 100 superior and the game played in the NBA allows player basically run up and down the court without dribbling the ball, it was hard to hide from the 24/7 coverage ESPN provided us with.  One story in particular stood out from the rest.

On Tuesday night the Heat and Spurs battled in what some have described as one of the all-time greatest NBA playoff games, some would not agree with that statement because college basketball’s superiority over the NBA, but others are saying that it was in fact one of the greatest basketball games (and come backs) ever played.

With less than a minute left in regulation the Miami Heat were down 5 points and many fans began to stream out of the American Airlines arena, disappointed that LeBron James and his teammates had been unable to play the game of basketball at a NBA championship caliber level for 4 quarters in a row.

Little did these fair-weather fans know, that the Heat would tie up the game with less than a minute to go, send game six into overtime and win by a 3 point margin, 103-100.  The fans that left the game early, those folks who did not want to stick around for the final few seconds of the game were not allowed to re-enter the arena.  They were not invested in the team and were, as some sports commentators have argued, “fair-weather fans”.

Those fans that left early had done little more than put on the appearance of being a Miami Heat fan and showed up to the American Airlines area.

That was it.

They claimed the name of the Miami Heat, a team that until LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the roster had been at the bottom of the NBA, and showed up.

They left the arena, left the game, and were left outside in the dark.

Our scripture reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we are focused on this week has Paul moving from the first section of his letter to a section, chapters 5-8, that focus on the powerful love of God that is found in Jesus Christ.  Chapter five opens with a discussion on the fruits of justification: peace, grace, hope, and love, and Paul declares that we are now at peace with God, through Jesus Christ.  The peace Paul is referring to is not an “inner tranquility” (Witherington, pg. 133) or a healthy harmony that now exists for Christians.  The word Paul uses here is similar to the Greek word dikaiothentes.  The peace Paul is referring to is a “restored or fixed relationship” (Witherington, pg. 133) between humanity and God.  Paul is talking about a peace that results in reconciliation.  “Reconciliation describes what God did in salvation.  It indicates a thorough change in relationship.” (Hoyt, pg. 257)

This new peace, our reconciled relationship, also offers us renewed hope for the future.  Our renewed hope stands in stark contrast to that fact that “ all have sinned and fall(en) short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).    This hope for the future is grounded in the love God has shown to us through the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ, which was made available by Christ’s death for sinners.  It is easy enough for us to imagine Christ willing to die for someone who is righteous and “good” but it can be harder to imagine why Christ would want to, let alone actually dying for a sinner.

What Paul is saying is that Christ’s death for the sinner, for us,  was not just a good idea or an arbitrary noble cause.  Christ’s death for the sinner was an invitation then, and is an invitation to us now, those who gather on Sunday mornings in church, to embody the example of life that Christ gave to us.  Christ’s death is about living, and not only about dying.

Christ came to Israel while Israel was weak, and comes to us in the midst of our own weakness.  Jesus is not waiting for you to get “right”, but instead is willing to meet us just as we are.

Paul’s writing here is nothing new.  Jesus speaks of the same invitation to the kingdom and to salvation for sinners after he tells the chief priests and elders that prostitutes, women who were considered to be the lowest of the low, would make into the kingdom of heaven before anyone who believed themselves to be righteous.

Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast sets up for us the picture of one, who will enter into God’s kingdom, and two, what it will take to enter into the kingdom:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Here, what we learn is that it is not simply enough to show up for the party.

That its not enough to show up for the wedding or to go to the game.

We received our wedding garments, our Miami Heat jersey, at our baptism.

What we learn in this parable is that this is all about God’s kingdom, a kingdom that as Paul tells in verse 11 that we are now reconciled with, and that we can be confident in that reconciliation because of Christ’s life, and not only his death.  And that is what grace and peace are all about.  It’s about building God’s kingdom in here and now, grace is about the kingdom that no one wants.

The salvation offered to us through the Holy Spirit and the life of Christ is a arrabon, a down payment of what is to come through God’s reconciled kingdom.

Paul is often quoted as speaking of salvation in the future tense, as in salvation is something that will come.  But here, in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul is saying the salvation is available to everyone, especially sinners or those on the outside, because of the way in which Christ lived, not exclusive to way in which Christ died.

The grace that has been made available to us in the present is more than a gift.

However, the wedding garment that we all we given because of our baptism calls us, and requires us, to put it on, not merely hold onto it for a rainy day.  Our wedding garment is an invitation to take the peace of God that we have experienced and share it with the grittiness of the world.  We are called, because of our baptism and the grace offered to us, into the resurrection and into the life of Jesus.

This life calls for us to be different, to be a people who shine into the world so that the world might know that God’s new kingdom is available in the present.

Just like Paul is speaking in this part of his letter to the Romans of salvation and be being available in the present, God’s kingdom is too available here and now.

I assume Teer will post the rest of his sermon HERE so click over to read it.

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064     This week we’re continuing our Justified sermon series through the Book of Romans.

Romans is ground zero for the historic Christian doctrines of the fall, original sin and atonement.

Owing in large measure to St Augustine and John Milton (Paradise Lost), it’s become so commonplace to read Genesis as describing a Fall it often surprises Christians to learn that others, namely the Jews, read it any other way.

Not to mention, the traditional categories of Creation and Fall, which focus on Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of the other 47 chapters in Genesis, ignores the central plot of Genesis: the promise of God to renew the world through the people of Abraham.

Reducing Genesis to Creation and Fall, to chapters 1, 2 and 3, misses that the calling of Abraham is intended by God to be creation redux.

New Creation, which climaxes in Revelation 21-22, begins in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram.

     Distilling the narrative down to Genesis 1,2, and 3 to a story of Creation and Fall lops off entirely the story of Abraham and what God was trying to do in and through Abraham.

     It creates a problem (original sin) to which Jesus is the solution completely independent of Abraham or Israel.

     It pushes the Jews out of their own story.

Just ask yourself: how many Christmas songs can you name that reference in any way the promise to Abraham? I can’t name any. They’re all about Jesus coming to heal the ‘curse’ of original sin.

So how did we end up with a reading of Genesis according to the Creation/Fall theme?

     It’s all a matter of hindsight.

While Jews read Genesis 1 as an allegory of our disobedience and an attempt to describe the less than perfect state of the world, St Augustine, reading Paul, saw in Genesis an allegory for the total and complete alienation of creation from God. The Fall in Eden describes how Sin corrupts the goodness of creation, every creature best intentions and renders us incapable of venturing to God on our own. Look again at Paul’s words in Romans. Because of what happens in the Garden, all of creation is effected, ‘groaning’ for redemption.

     The Fall necessitates grace.

But if Christians did not inherit this way of reading Genesis from the Jews, then how did it arise?

Why does Paul see creation this way, as enslaved and suffering under the power of Sin? Why was Augustine’s notion of the Fall able to take root and survive in the Christian memory?

It’s a matter of hindsight.

      Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.

It’s not that Paul or Augustine read Genesis in isolation and discovered an insight never before uncovered. It’s that after Easter and Ascension, having turned out to be the sort of Messiah no one expected, Jesus provoked the first community into asking all sorts of questions that then begged still more questions.

Questions like:

Why did Jesus need to come if not to liberate Israel from Rome?

Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?

What does Easter accomplish?

How we are different/similar to Christ?

It was by reflecting on and discovering who Jesus was and is that the first Christians discovered anew who it is we are. The Fall and its attendant understanding of our own sinful nature are beliefs only possible in light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.

Let me break it down.

Take this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, one of the earliest documents in the New Testament:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

     This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter. The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

Back to the imago dei.

What is it?

According to the early Church, it’s Jesus. Christ is the image of God.

For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human.

Look at it another way. If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind after our likeness’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.

     In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom

In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear

In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself

In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world

In his truthfulness

And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him

The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.

     Rather than a priori doctrines, Fall and sin and Sin are discovered by hindsight.

We read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas:

we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.

Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus.

The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ.

Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus.

As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.

 

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064While I’ve argued here before that mainline Christians have overemphasized the importance of ordained clergy at the expense of the priesthood of all believers, a church’s role in nurturing God’s call to ministry is nonetheless an important signifier of congregational health.

For instance, if a church fails to make the faith compelling to others then you can safely wager that no one from that church will find ministry a compelling or worthwhile vocation. A church where some of its own consider the life of a pastor an interesting option is at the very least a church where following Jesus is an interesting option.

Pastors should strive to avoid making Jesus so bland and boring that no one would ever consider becoming a pastor. 

This weekend Taylor Mertins continued our sermon series, Justified, by preaching on Romans 4.13-17. Taylor recently graduated from Duke Divinity and will be taking his first appointment at the end of the month. I’ve known Taylor since he was a youth. I’ve watched him grow and mature. Having been one of my youth, he’s since become a friend and I’m excited that he’s soon to be a colleague. 

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Mid-way through my time in seminary a group of us were regularly gathering for intentional faith formation. Our group was made of 20-something Christians both in and outside of Duke Divinity School. As we met on a weekly basis we learned more about one another’s faith, and what had led each of us to Durham, and our present relationship with God. On one particular evening we were discussing the differences between adhering to the law, or the righteousness of faith, when one of my roommates told the story of why it had taken him so long to return to the church.

My roommate had grown up in the deep south in a town where attending the high school football games on Friday nights were second only to attending the Baptist churches on Sunday morning. He had grown up in the church and eventually chose to be baptized out of fear, rather than an intimate relationship with the triune God. He left church every Sunday unsure of what he had done wrong in the eyes of God, but certainly felt that he had committed some horrible atrocity. At some point during high school, his youth group went on a retreat to a local college campus where a conservative evangelical Christian organization was holding a “Faith Weekend.” The hundreds of young Christians gathered in the large auditorium to hear Christian music, sermons, broke into small groups, and generally worshipped with one another until one evening, during the height of a sermon about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, the fire alarm went off. Immediately, all of the counselors and chaperones quickly filed all of the students out of the arena through the exit doors to the parking lot. In the sea of chaos my roommate remembered being incredibly frightened and even began praying that everyone would safely make it out of the building. When his eyes finally adjusted to the dimly lit parking lot, he was surprised to discover lifeboats scattered throughout the area with little ladders leading up into the boats. “Quick!” Someone shouted, “Everyone into the boats as quickly as you can, run!” As my roommate was swinging his legs over the starboard side of a life boat the fire alarm stopped ringing and a man began speaking through a megaphone: “Take a good look around you, there are not enough spaces in all of the life boats for everyone… Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

Those are the kind of scare tactics that move people away from the church.

In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul addresses the differences between adherence to the Law and the righteousness of faith. Paul’s use of the Old Testament figure of Abraham is of fundamental importance for the message he intended to share with the Roman church: Though the reasons behind his attention to the relationship between Jews and Christians in the first century are helpful for understanding Paul’s frame-of-reference, the point still remains pertinent today. God’s promises to God’s people are revealed and realized through faith.

Paul begs us to remember Abraham, the father of Israel, because God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world and this inheritance was not realized through adherence to the law, but through the righteousness of faith. The promise of God was coming to Abraham regardless of his ability to maintain the ordinances declared by God. God would never love Abraham any more or any less than he did the day the covenant was made. For this same reason, God’s promises are realized through faith not only to the adherents of the law, those among us to do everything right, but also to those who share in the same faith as Abraham.

Abraham, formerly known as Abram, called out of his homeland to travel to the land that God would send him, promised to be made a great nation, entered into the holy covenant with God marked by circumcision, the husband of Sarah and the father of Isaac. The man who carried his young son to the land of Moriah where he prepared to sacrifice him only to be stopped by an angel of the Lord, and thus Abraham continued to demonstrate his faith. Abraham the father of the great nation that eventually made its way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Abraham. God’s promises are realized to those who share in the same faith as Abraham. We, the Christian Church, share in this same faith and have been grafted into a relationship with the triune God.

On March 12th 1988, when I was 19 days old, my family gathered right over there by the baptismal font and participated as Ken Wetzel baptized me in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In addition to the water spilled onto my forehead, and the presence of the Holy Spirit there was one fundamentally important aspect of that sacrament that this church participated in: Reverend Wetzel looked out to you, this congregation more than 25 years ago, and asked this question: Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this person now before you in your care? The response of this congregation that morning is why I am standing before you today:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness, that he may grow in his service to others. We will pray for him, they he may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

The commitment this church made to God that morning regarding my life as a Christian was one that formed and shaped me into the man I am today. Among the many things that this church committed to, it was the first part of the response, “With God’s Help,” that has made the biggest impact on my life. From my infancy, Aldersgate UMC has been the type of community that recognizes how what we do can only be accomplished with God’s help; that has made all the difference. Instead of being raised in a church where I was taught to fear God, like my roommate from seminary was, I was constantly reminded of how to remain committed to the gospel through hope, faith, and love.

The true beginning of my call to ministry did not begin with my confirmation around that altar, or even when I was a Boy Scout with troop 996, but when I was 13 years old I noticed a call for help in one of our Sunday bulletins for someone to run the soundboard. (It gave me goose bumps to see a similar message in the bulletins from last week). I spent every Sunday for a month standing in the back of the church with men like Bud Walker and Paul Corrum who taught me how to keep the correct sound levels. And until I graduated from High School I ran the sound system for many of our Sunday services, weddings, and funerals. Though I was considerably younger than anyone in the back of the church, men such as Paul Tuoig, Bob Foley, Les Norton, and Sam Schrage made it a point to come stand with me every week and treated me with respect, like an adult, and they treated me like a fellow Christian. There have been countless individuals from this church who have made it their responsibility to demonstrate the goodness of God through their actions on mission trips, meetings, and worship. With God’s Help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.

After enrolling in college I was invited to act as a ministerial intern for our church every summer until I entered seminary. I was encouraged to lead mission trips all over the world, visit congregants who could no longer attend church, create bible study curricula, and preach regularly. I still can’t believe that Jason and Dennis were foolish enough to let me preach for the first time when I was 19 years old. A plethora of people have expressed their gratitude for my sermons, and leadership on mission trips, but even more important have been those of you who disliked what I said and did, and loved me enough to tell me why. Without you I could not have grown. With God’s Help we will surround him with a community of love and forgiveness that he may grow in his service to others.

I have been living in Durham, North Carolina for the last three years working on my Masters of Divinity and I have been continually invited to preach from this pulpit. Even if I was invited on specific weekends when Jason and Dennis wanted to go on vacation I nevertheless appreciated the invitation and felt privileged to proclaim the good news within my home church. I have now been approved by the Virginia Conference to serve as a Provisional Elder and have been appointed to St. John’s UMC in Staunton VA. I am incredibly humbled by the fact that, to my knowledge, I am the first person to have grown up through Aldersgate and then pursue a call to ordained ministry. With God’s help, we will pray for him, that he may be a true disciple, who walks in the way that leads to life.

I was incredibly blessed to have grown up through Aldersgate. It was this Christian community that showed me the importance of faith predicated on God’s help. Faith was never taught to me in such a way that I would respond to God out of fear but instead by love. This church nurtured me in such a way that the question: Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior felt uncomfortable and dissonant. It puts too much power and control on our side of the equation. Accepting Jesus sounds a lot more like following the Law than it does embodying the righteousness of faith. If the church is to be thought of from this legal point of view, from simply accepting Jesus, if it is regarded as a condition capable of human attainment, then the church will remain deprived of its dynamic power and continually insecure. This is why I fear that so many young people are no longer coming to church; perhaps they feel completely isolated regarding their relationship with God after accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Maybe they believe they carry the burden of their relationship with God completely on their own. Convincing someone to accept Jesus is an important element of Christian discipleship but the difference between accepting Jesus, and confessing Jesus Christ as Lord are two different things. Aldersgate never let my relationship with God stop at acceptance, but pushed me to learn so much more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that the new faith community that this church is preparing to help establish will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ teaching that faith is faith only when it is an advance, understandable only because if come from God alone. Faith is creative, faith is living, faith is fulfilling, only when we find ourselves wrapped up in God’s love. Faith is real only when it is found With God’s help.

As I look forward to my future in the ministry, I am thankful for Aldersgate, the opportunities it has provided me, and the people that have demonstrated God’s love to me. I would not be standing here if it were not for that baptismal commitment you made to God twenty-five years ago. I never could have discovered faith in God on my own; it was this church that shared the faith of Abraham with me regarding God’s promises to God’s people. I learned the language and grammar of Christianity through sermons, classes, and even vacation bible school. I participated in God’s kingdom on earth by visiting those who were in need, through proclaiming the good news, and even dressing up for living Bethlehem. Paul’s words to the church in Rome have now come alive for me, because this church committed to raising me in the faith, to share the faith of Abraham with everyone, and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. This church taught me that the truly creative act by which we all become the children of Abraham does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.

It’s when I open up to the fourth chapter of Romans that I am reminded of what this church does every day, every week, every month, every year; you open up the strange new world of the Bible. We get to stand on the rocky ground and feel the warmth of the burning bush on our cheek with Moses. We get to feel the water flow between our toes as we wait on the banks of the Jabbok witnessing Jacob wrestle with the angel from God. We get to gather together in the marketplaces and the shores of the lakes watching Jesus perform miracles, feed the multitudes, and teach about the kingdom of God. This church invites us into the strange new world of the Bible.

Just as you made a commitment to God regarding my faith 25 years ago, you also have committed to nurture those sitting to your right and left in faith. To show them Christ’s love in everything you do, to embody the kingdom of God so that we all might share in the faith of Abraham.

With God’s Help we are called to proclaim the good news, to gather together regularly in order to share the story of God’s interaction with God’s people, to read scripture and learn our own story. With God’s help we are commissioned to live according to the example of Christ, to lift up our own crosses and bear them in the world, to serve those in need, to love the unlovable and transform the world by first transforming ourselves.

I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. To God Be the Glory.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

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

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

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

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

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

But here’s the problem:

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

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

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Vitamix Jesus

Jason Micheli —  May 20, 2013 — 6 Comments

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064Here is this weekend’s sermon from Romans 3.21-31 for our series, Justified. As a visual, I had boulders form a wall with a chasm between ‘us’ and God to demo how the ‘plan of salvation’ is often illustrated. 

You can listen to the sermon here

      1. Vitamix Jesus
 

Or you can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’ 

 

A couple of years ago my wife and I made the decision to get rid of our cable; so that, now we get zero channels on our television. You can imagine how popular that decision was with our children (not).

Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our cable receiver in its box and shipped it back to Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision.

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the Verizon cable bill.

 

For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want.

More.

 

Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband- me- is a complete sucker for informercials.

A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark.

And it’s true.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words ‘set it and forget it’ fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens and a side of ribs at one time.

 

If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine.

 

If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never ‘that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.’

No, my first thought was always ‘that looks like something I need.’

 

So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition.

There are advertisements everywhere.

A few months ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish.

At that point, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section?

Uh huh, a product demonstration.

The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s.

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which then reminded me of the dress worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith. 

Whether the woman doing the demo did in fact look like Angelina Jolie or just had the same effect on me- my memory cannot be trusted.

 

‘Hey, let’s stick around and watch this’ I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment.

 

In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix.

Have you seen one? Do you own one?

If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is like the Bentley of blenders.

Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick:

‘The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems.

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.’

And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: ‘Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.’

No, I was thinking…

‘This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.’

I looked down at my side, Gabriel was transfixed too.

The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: ‘Who enjoys pesto?’

And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘I do. I am Italian after all.’

And she smiled at me- only at at me- and said: ‘I’ve always had a thing for Italians.’

Aheh.

‘Can you cook?’ she asked me. And I nodded my head. Like Fonzi, too cool for words.

‘Even better’ she purred.

 

And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew she only cared about me.

 

‘Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.’

 

And we all of us, we nodded like Stepford Husbands.

‘But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem on par with AIDS or world hunger) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?’

 

And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience.

 

Hypnotized, I said: ‘No, they won’t do’ even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem.

 

She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or… and and then she said in her come-hither voice:

 

‘I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.’

 

I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon.

 

I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave.

 

And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because as my wife pointed out I already had a blender and a food processor and who could convince me to buy this ridiculous thing and what am I, an idiot?

 

Sure, I’m an easy mark, but how could I not be?

Take it from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Commercials and product pitches- they’re more powerful and persuasive than any preacher.

Just think, you’re exposed to 3 thousand advertisements a day. A day. And every last single one of them operates on the same, simple, seductive formula:

 

They identify a problem– maybe a problem you didn’t even know you had until they told you that you had the problem- a pesto problem say.

 

And then they make you a promise: this product can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems).

 

And best of all, it’s easy. All you have to do is make a decision, say ‘yes’ to this product.

 

     There’s nothing else you have to do. 

 

3 thousand times a day we’re told we have a problem and we’re offered a solution and we’re promised there’s nothing more we need to do.

 

3 thousand times a day.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us that many Christians pitch Jesus according to this same marketing formula.

‘Faith in Jesus’ gets treated like a product in a sales pitch. In some churches, this sales pitch is called ‘the plan of salvation.’

The ‘plan of salvation’ makes for great advertising.

It’s simple.

It’s cheap. It hardly costs the customers anything.

And like any good infomercial, it’s lends itself to a visual demonstration.

     First, it identifies a problem: You’re separated from God. 

The emptiness in your life, the sense of something missing, the guilt and shame you feel underneath- it’s because you’re separated from God.

It’s called sin and because of sin there’s a great chasm between you and God.

You’re here and God’s over there.

And there’s nothing you can do, no good deed, no matter how hard you try, there’s nothing you can do to get from where you are to where God is.

    Second- 

     The plan of salvation sales pitch offers you a solution to the problem: Jesus Christ died on the cross so that you might no longer be separated from God. 

If you have faith in Jesus Christ, then your problem? Gone. Shazam.

Your sin? Dealt with. You will be right with God.

You will be “justified” by your faith in Jesus Christ.

     And Third- 

     The plan of salvation- like all sales pitches- ends with a promise too good to be true. 

It’s free. It doesn’t cost anything. There aren’t 3 Easy Payments of $19.95.

     None of the cost is passed on to you.

Better yet, if you choose this product while there’s still time, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing else you have to do, there’s no further obligation required.

 

It says it right here on the packaging: “You are justified not by your works but by your faith in Christ

images

For most of you, even if it wasn’t hawked to you in an infomercial kind of way, this is the product you were sold.

The problem is your sin, your separation from God.

If you have faith, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, if you have faith…

Then you’re justified, you’re made right with God.

And there’s nothing else you need to do because you’re justified by your faith not by your works.

For most of you, even it didn’t come packaged in a slick sales pitch, this is the product you were sold.

And maybe you’ve never given it a second thought.

 

     But some of you have. I know.

Some of you were sold this ‘faith in Christ product’ and then one day you took out the instructions.

You took out the instructions, and what did you read there?

Something more than the salesman promised you.

You read Jesus saying that you should be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, and you read Jesus laying down a whole lot of ‘woes’ if you’re not working to be perfect.

 

You read Jesus saying I am the vine and you are the branches and if you do not bear fruit with your faith, then you will be pruned away.

 

You read Jesus warning that ‘when I come back, I will separate the sheep from the goats according to whether or not you gave water to the thirsty or clothing to the naked or food to the hungry.’

Because if you didn’t, Jesus Christ will treat it like you didn’t do it for him.

We’ve all been sold this ‘faith in Christ no more work necessary’ product.

But when you actually open up the instructions to this product, you read Jesus’ brother warning that ‘faith without works is… no good.’

Or you read Paul- Paul!- saying that one day we will be judged by our character, by our work, by our deeds, by the fruit the Holy Spirit has harvested from our faith.

     The promise that was sold to us doesn’t match how the instructions say this product is meant to work in our lives. 

But to discover that, you’ve got to dig into the fine print.

The truth is always in the fine print.

The fine print is always where you realize what the actual cost is going to be.

     And when it comes to fine print, there is no better example than today’s passage from Romans 3.

If you open your pew bibles, you’ll see that today’s text actually comes with fine print- footnotes that imply something far scarier than the fine print in your credit card bill.

The fine print in the case of today’s text- it comes down to just 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 something closer to ‘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 the fine print in Romans 3, you realize Paul is saying something different than what you were sold.

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

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

Now, I know you’re probably thinking ‘Jason just likes to be a smarty pants and this doesn’t make any difference.’

To the smarty-pants charge: guilty, I say.

But to the other charge: I say it makes all the difference because Paul wants you to see something that is both better news and far more demanding than the ‘faith in Christ’ product that was hawked to 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.

     Dig in to the fine print and you see that, for Paul, the good news of our justification is not 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; it’s a marketing lure. willjesus

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…’

This is why the fine print’s such a big deal!

Because it’s such better news than the sales pitch.

     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.

     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 does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.

     But on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

 

When you think about it, there’s a reason Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print. It makes for terrible marketing.

There’s no problem to get your attention.

There’s no bad news to spark your worrying.

There’s no scary threat to provoke your fear.

     Paul’s fine print message could never be an informercial because there’s no visual to demonstrate. The chasm that once separated you from God- it’s gone.

It’s already been repaired. By Christ.

Your justification. Already taken care of.

Paul’s message doesn’t follow the sales pitch formula.

     There’s no problem; there’s just good news.

     There’s no way that’ll sell.

But there’s another reason why Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print.

Because when you realize that it’s the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that has set you right with God, his faithful life of sacrifice and selfless love, his faithful life of compassion and forgiveness and generosity and boundary-breaking, enemy-embracing love- then you realize…

You can’t just respond to that with “faith,” with “belief,” with “a feeling inside you.”

You can only respond by attempting a life like his- a life that once led to a cross.

You see it’s not there is anything you are required to do. Rather there is now  so much you are summoned to do.

     When you realize and trust it’s the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you, his faithful life all the way to the cross, you realize…

     That what’s been given to you for free- it could end up costing you EVERYTHING.

     And that’s terrible advertising. That’s an awful sales pitch.

     No one would ever buy into that.

     No wonder it’s easier to count ‘decisions for Christ’ than to count people carrying bearing crosses for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

scot-mcknight-jesus-creedWe continue our Romans sermon series, Justified, this weekend by taking a dip in Romans 3.21-31, the magna carta for the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone: that because of Christ’s death in your place, you’re made right with God by nothing other than faith.

Indeed for many in Reformed and Evangelical circles, Justification is synonymous with the ‘Gospel.’

The problem with conflating Justification with the Gospel is that the Gospels themselves do not so identify Justification as the Gospel.

According to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (in fact, Peter and Paul as well), the Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus the crucified Messiah has been raised and ascended to be Lord over creation.

Conflating Justification with Gospel leads to this provocative question: Did Jesus preach the Gospel?

Listen to Scot McKnight tackle this question, taking many a evangelical to task:

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 25.31-46  (10/26/08) 

My Week of Living Biblically

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

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

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

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

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

Except, here’s the rub:

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

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

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

      Okay, which is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No excuses.

No assuming that someone else will do something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never got his name.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Junk in the Trunk

Jason Micheli —  May 13, 2013 — 4 Comments

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

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

And also here:

      1. Junk in the Trunk
 

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

I have my reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve just read it so much.’ 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“Baptists” I thought to myself.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

They went on gossiping from there.

They used words like ‘shameful.’

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

     “No one is righteous, not one.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Them.”

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

Those people.

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

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

Those people.

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

Those people.

They’ve got no commitment. No decency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s Paul’s point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who we really are.

    ‘No one is righteous. Not one.’ 

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

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

‘Of course not,’ I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Uh, what do you mean?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Me four.

Because it’s true of all of us.

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

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

 

But Paul shows us what to do with our junk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul shows us what we can do with our junk.

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

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

     Look at what I’ve done. 

     This is who I was. 

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

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

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

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

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

     This is the insecurity that masks itself as cynicism. 

     These are all the people I refused to forgive. 

     This is the person closest to me I cheated on…

     But God…God forgives…all of it.’ 

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

of what God’s amazing grace can do.

Which is kind of a shame.

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a shame.

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

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

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

 

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

We sang Amazing Grace.

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

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

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

     And I said: ‘Yeah.’ 

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

 

 

     

What is a Christian?

Jason Micheli —  May 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see it.