Archives For Preaching

In this installment of our lectionary podcast, we talk about Lazarus’ death breath and whether Jesus needed Mentos before he rose from the dead and breathed onto his disciples. We also ponder essential questions like ‘Would Jesus have netted himself better disciples had he used Tinder?’ We also talk about the bible and how to preach it.

Our guest again is Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church and author of Water to Wine. This week’s lections include: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

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

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

Here’s my Lenten sermon on John 4.

After nearly 15 years of ministry, God finally saw fit to give me a snow day last week. I was as stoked as my fifth grader this week that the Almighty looked down upon my sweatshop-labor-lot and threw me a bone.

And gave me a snow day.

Like many of you, I’m certain, I spent the snow day in my boxers binge-watching Netflix, working my through my Netflix queue. In case you don’t know, queue is the word you use for line if you spend most of your time in drawstring pants eating ice cream and hot pockets.

I spent the day working my way through my Netflix queue until I got to a show I’d saved a month ago but then had forgotten was in my line up. I mean, my queue.

You all probably watched the show weeks ago when it premiered on Netflix, Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.

I know our organist, Liz Miller, watched it 3 times in 1 night, and Dennis who just started another of his sabbaticals is probably watching it right now.

I’m probably the last person to have watched Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. But just in case Karli hasn’t seen it… here’s the premise. Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special begins with Christmas.

It turns out- St. Nick’s little indentured servants made too many toys this year. Supply outpaced demand. Santa’s stuck with more inventory than nice or naughty kids.

So, to get rid of this overage emergency, like Leia to Obi Wan, Santa turns to his only hope.

That’s right, Michael Bolton.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve already guessed what comes next in the story. You can anticipate what comes next. Because this is Michael Bolton we’re talking about! The man who combines the skullet hairstyle of Kenny G with a voice that’s practically an audible erogenous zone.

In the story, as soon as Santa calls upon the Soul Provider to provide the North Pole with emergency help, you know how the story will unfold.

Sure, the character Mike Bolton in Office Space calls Michael Bolton a “no talent ass clown” but we know that’s not true.

Michael Bolton’s 1,000 thread-count bedroom voice has scored 9 #1 Billboard hits. His 1991 album Time, Love, and Tenderness won a Grammy as did his cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

I know firsthand from my experience as a teenage lifeguard in the 1990’s- nothing got my friend’s moms to flirt with shirtless me faster than Michael Bolton’s single “Love is a Wonderful Thing” in rotation over the PA system.

Michael Bolton is like strawberries and champagne, raw oysters and bitter chocolate. He’s like lace and rose petals on silk sheets. He’s an aphrodisiac.

Michael Bolton can arouse the female species the way block grants and entitlement cuts get Paul Ryan horny.

But I digress.

My point is-

In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, as soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know what to expect.

You know Santa is going to call upon Michael Bolton to host a Valentine’s Day Special on TV that will inspire couples all over the world to make sweet love and conceive 100,000 new babies; thereby, solving Santa’s elf- induced extra inventory problem.

I mean, how cliched is that? You’ve seen that story arc a million times before, right?!

As soon as Santa calls upon Michael Bolton you know how the story will unfold because Michael Bolton’s bedroom baritone is so cliched it’s a storytelling convention.

It’s a trope.

A type. An archetype.

Admit it. We see story types like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special all the time.

So we know what comes next.

It’s like how in every romantic comedy, unless he’s in a coma, Bill Pullman will get dumped by his fiance for a stranger she meets on the Empire State Building. And maybe, that’s only in Sleepless in Seattle but you know it feels like every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.

Just like you know in every romantic comedy, at some point, a heartbroken girl will be comforted by her emotionally intelligent gay friend. It’s a storytelling convention. It’s never a dumb gay friend.

It’s never a gay friend who always says the absolute wrong thing. It’s always a sensitive, empathetic gay friend. Every time.

It’s like how in every disaster movie there are politicians who ignore and even deny the dire warnings coming from the consensus of the scientific community- not that that would ever happen in real life, it’s a type, a cliche.

A storytelling convention.

Like, how in every outdoorsy adventure movie you know it’s going to be the sidekick of color who gets eaten by the bear first.

It’s a storytelling convention.

Like opposites attract, like beauty on the inside.

Like, obviously, the gawky middle school friend you didn’t appreciate will grow up to be smoking hot (see: 13 Going on 30).

Like Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special.

They’re all rely upon cliches. Tropes. Archetypes.

Without scenery or spoken word these storytelling conventions advance the plot. They hint and foreshadow what’s to come.

Next.

The first time farm-boy Wesley says to Buttercup “As you wish” you know how it’s going to end. And because you know how it will end, you know Wesley the farm boy is not dead. You know he’s really the Dread Pirate Roberts.

And even when he’s mostly dead you know he’s not gonna die because you know that’s not how true love

stories

go.

And when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well, all the stories of scripture, all the Old Testament reruns, they all lead you to expect…a wedding.

—————————

Just as surely as you know how its going to go as soon as Billy Crystal ride shares his way back to NY with Meg Ryan, all the storytelling conventions of scripture tell you what to expect when John tells you that Jesus meets a woman at a well.

Abraham’s son, Isaac, he went to a foreign land and there at a well he met a woman who was filling her jar.

And guess what Isaac said to her? “May I have some water from your jar?” And Rebekah said to him, “Yes, and I’ll draw water for you camels too.”

And just like that, before you know it, they’re getting married.

Their son, Jacob, he went east to a foreign land, and in the middle of a field surrounded by sheep he comes to a large, stone well. And there approaching the well, Jacob sees a shepherdess, coming to water her sheep, Rachel.

And this time Jacob doesn’t ask the woman for water, he goes directly to her father and asks to marry her. And before you know, well after laboring for her father for 7 years, they’re getting married.

When Moses fled Pharaoh of Egypt, he goes to a foreign land and sits down by a well. And there, says the Book of Exodus, a priest of Midian comes to the well with his 7 daughters and their flock of sheep.

A group of shepherds gather at the well too and they start to harass the priest’s daughters. Moses steps in to defend them and quicker than ‘You had me at hello” Moses is getting married to one of the priest’s daughters, Zipporah.

Ditto King Saul. Ditto the lovers in the Song of Songs. And on and on.

It’s a type scene, a cliche, a contrivance, a storytelling convention.

Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the rest- they all meet their prospective wives at wells in a foreign land.

Meeting at a well in a foreign land- in scripture it’s like match.com or the Central Perk. You’ve seen this story before.

A man comes to a foreign land and there he finds a maiden at a well. He asks her for a drink. She obliges and more so, and then, faster than Faye Dunaway falls for Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor, the maiden runs back to get her people to witness and bless their union.

That’s how the story always goes.

———————-

So when John tells you that Jesus goes to a foreign country, Samaria, and meets a woman at a well and asks her for a drink-

You might as well cue up the jazz flute baby-making music because all the scenes of scripture have prepared you for what to expect.

Meeting a woman at a well- it’s as reliable a clue as when Jim first talks to Pam at the front desk of Dunder Mifflin. You know they’re going to get married!

And, by the way, don’t forget the first miracle, sign, Jesus performs in John’s Gospel in chapter 2 is in Cana where Jesus is a wedding guest. And how, right before this passage, in John 3, Jesus refers to himself, cryptically so, as the bridegroom. And now here in chapter 4 he’s in a foreign land, at a well, asking a woman for a drink of water.

So, if this scene is as cliched as Michael Bolton’s sex appeal, if a man meeting a maiden at a well is as contrived a storytelling convention as the sensitive gay friend, if what John wants to cue up is a wedding, then why doesn’t Jesus follow the script?

I mean, it’s not hard. It’s like swiping right on Tinder.

In scripture all you have to do is ask a girl at a well for a drink of water and someone’s practically already shouting mazel tov.

If that’s what John has cued up for us, then why does Jesus go from asking for a drink of water to talking about Living Water?

And why does this woman, who according to the convention is supposed to be a maiden, instead seem to have more baggage than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman?

The answer? Is in the numbers.

———————-

The thing about storytelling conventions- every song uses more than one.

In every comic book movie, it’s not just that the superhero gets orphaned in front of his eyes as a kid, it’s that you know you’re going to find out later the bad guy had something to do with his parents’ murder.

The thing about storytelling conventions- every story uses more than one. In Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, the story doesn’t just turn on Michael Bolton’s siren call sex appeal. That would be too simple of a story. The story would just be Michael Bolton helping Santa fill the world with more babies with his bedroom voice. That would be ridiculous.

No, even Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special requires another storytelling convention to advance the story; in this case, a villain, the owner of a no questions asked money back guarantee mattress company, who vows to kill Michael Bolton after he’s deluged with calls from customers wanting their money back because Michael Bolton has inspired them to reach such bed-destroying heights of ecstasy they want their money back.

The thing about storytelling conventions every story uses more than one. Even the Gospel of John.

Here in John 4, it’s not just the well scene and it’s the numbers.

You need both conventions, the well and the numbers, to mine the meaning of this story.

———————-

Numbers in scripture always convey meaning.

Jesus dies at the 6th hour.

12 disciples. 12 tribes of Israel.

Joshua marched around Jericho 7 times on the 7th day.

The menorah has 7 candlesticks.

And God completed creation and rested on the 7th day.

In scripture, numbers always convey meaning. It’s a storytelling convention. And in scripture, the number 7 always connotes completeness. Perfection. Fulfillment.

And if the number 7 conveys completeness, the number 6 is 7’s ugly opposite, a blemish. The number 6 is painful reminder of coming up short, of imperfection, of incompleteness.

So when John tells you this woman has had 5 husbands and she’s shacked up with 1 more (6) and now she’s meeting a 7th suitor at a well, he’s not simply telling you she has baggage. He’s giving you a clue that the tension in this story is between incompleteness and completeness.

The numbers are the other storytelling convention and the most important number to know in this story isn’t even explicit in the story.

John just expects you, the audience, to know it.

The number 3.

3- that’s the number of husbands a woman was allowed under the Jewish Law.

3- that’s it. Not 5. Not 6-ish.

3.

And it’s true Samaritans weren’t Jews, but- you can tell just from her conversation with Jesus- the Pentateuch was their scripture. The shared the same bible. They followed the Torah too.

She’s only allowed under the Law 3 husbands.

So what’s up with John telling us that she’s had 5, 6-ish, husbands?

——————————

This is where this hackneyed courtship scene from scripture becomes like a Jane Austen movie where everything turns on language and word play and misunderstanding.

The word husband in Hebrew, ba’al, means literally lord. It’s the same word Hebrew uses for a pagan deity. She’s had 5 ba’lim and now a sort of 6th.

 

She’s had 5 gods, 5 idols, and now a sort of 6th.

So often preachers want to make this story about Jesus crossing boundaries, gender and ethnic, to show hospitality to this unclean outsider, or they want to make it about Jesus showing grace to this woman with a profligate past.

The problems with preaching this passage that way-

On the one hand, Jesus is in Samaria not the other way around. If anyone here is crossing ethnic and gender boundaries to show hospitality to an outsider, it’s her.

On the other hand, this passage might be about grace and no doubt she’s a sinner but the ba’lim they’re talking about aren’t husbands. They’re idols.

It’s right there in scripture, in 2 Kings 17, where it describes the Assyrian invasion of Israel and how the Assyrians brought with them to Samaria from 5 different Assyrian cities their 5 different gods, 5 different idols, 5 ba’lim, husbands.

Her baggage is different than Princess Vivian in Pretty Woman. She hasn’t broken the 6th commandment. She’s broken the first.

She’s not an adulteress. She’s an idolatress.

So who’s this 6-ish husband?

This is where John 4 is like a western or a war movie. You have to know the geography to follow the story.

John expects you to know that near Sychar Herod the Great had turned the capital city of Samaria into a Roman city and named it after Caesar and filled the city with thousands of Roman colonists, settlers with whom the Samaritans did not intermarry as they had with the Assyrians.

Hence Jesus’ line “…and the one you have now is not your husband.” He’s not looking into her heart. What Jesus knows about her is what every Jew knew about her. People.

You see, it’s another storytelling convention.

This woman- she’s a stand in. A symbol.

She represents all of her people.

It’s a different kind of wedding scene because they’re not talking about her checkered past. They’re talking about her people’s worshiping 5 false gods and now they’re under the thumb of Caesar who required his subjects to worship him as a god, as a ba’al.

That’s why she calls him a prophet.

Prophets don’t look into sinners’ hearts for their secrets.

Prophets call out people’s idolatry.

That’s why their conversation so quickly turns to worship. If they’re talking about husbands husbands then it sounds like she’s changing the subject. But if they’re talking about husbands, ba’lim, as in gods, then worship is the next logical topic.

Because the Samaritans believed the presence of the true God was found atop Mt. Gerizim and the Jews believed the presence of the true God was found in the Temple in Jerusalem.

They’re talking about God.

The presence of God. Where God is to be found in spirit and truth.

Not the 5 false gods who can’t nourish, can’t quench but can give only stale water as though out of a cracked cistern, not Caesar who presumed to be a god and humiliated his subjects and forced them to tote water like slaves, but the true and living God who can give light and life like an ever flowing stream, like Living Water.

And that’s why this seventh suitor, this Mr. Perfect who embodies Michael Bolton’s first chart topping hit “How am I Supposed to Live Without You,” this would-be husband who promises to complete her like Rene does for Jerry Maguire.

He turns to her at the well.

Jesus turns to her at the well and he says to her the very same thing God said to Moses at the Burning Bush. Exactly what God said when he first revealed his name to his People. What God first said when he vowed to be their ba’al.

“I am” Jesus says to her. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.

He’s all that is.

Ego eimi.

“I am.”

And then she drops her bucket, the symbol of how her previous 5 husbands have left her parched and wanting- because they’re not real. She drops her bucket, the symbol of her 6th husband’s subjugation and abuse.

She drops her bucket.

And then she continues the storytelling convention by running off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union.

———————-

Except-

No one fetches the chuppah. No one shouts mazel tov. No one kills the fatted calf and kicks on the Michael Bolton music.

John continues the storytelling convention of the wedding at the well. She runs off to fetch her people to witness and bless a union just like all the women of scripture before her have done. Come and see, she says.

But then, there’s no wedding, no marriage, no exchange of vows.

It’s like John chooses right here to use another storytelling convention.

A cliffhanger. A season-ending ambiguity.

To Be Continued…

Because, remember, it’s a convention.

She’s just a stand-in, a symbol. She represents her people. All people.

Including, you.

The union is supposed to be with you.

You’re the one- because of you he can’t keep his mind on nothing else. He’d trade everything- power and divinity, his life- for the good he finds in you.

Sure, you’re bad. Sure, you’re a sinner. But his love for you is such…he can’t see it.

I doubt he’d ever turn his back on his best friend, but to him- you can deny him, betray him, run away from him; you can mock him, spit upon him, hang him out to dry on a cross- you can do no wrong.

He’d give up everything for you. Empty himself. Put on flesh. Take the form of a slave. Sleep out in the rain. He’d give you everything he’s got, even his life.

He’d come back from the grave just to hold onto your precious love.

And sure, I’m just cheesily quoting “When a Man Loves a Woman” right now, but the point couldn’t be more serious.

Of all the other suitors in the world, of all the idols vying for your love and affection, he’s the seventh. He’s the light to your darkness, the shepherd to little lamb you.

He’s your Mr. Darcy. The Alvy to your Annie Hall. The Tracy to your Hepburn.

Only he can complete you.

John stops the storytelling convention right here.

There’s no chuppah, no DJ, no mazel to.

There’s no exchange of vows.

Because John’s waiting for you to say “I do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covert Christians

Jason Micheli —  March 9, 2017 — 3 Comments

I take an attribute of strong preaching to be the ability to take a cliche or convention and upend it. Here, my Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra, takes John 3 and counterintuitively makes Nicodemus the hero of the story. In a world of 3.16 eyeblack and politically compromised evangelicals, this is a fresh word from this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel:

A Sermon Preached at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

New York, New York

Sunday, May 28, 2006

by Robert Dykstra

John 3:1-10, John 19:38-42

I thought her invitation a bit presumptuous, a bit out of place, though it was benign enough as invitations go. It was an altar call, really, and I havenít anything much against altar calls, though I donít ever remember issuing one myself as a preacher, perhaps for fear of a lack of any response. But this particular altar call seemed a bit unusual, a little presumptuous, a little out of place.

The place was Miller Chapel on the Princeton Seminary campus, back in my days as a student there. Her invitation came at one of the seminaryís brief weekday morning worship services. The preacher on that particular day was a guest minister from outside the seminary community, a distinguished and eloquent African-American woman  ñ I canít even remember her name now. But what I do remember is that at the end of her lively and powerful sermon ñ the way of African American sermons and far more compelling than our usual white-boy-student-sermon fare ñ this preacher issued an altar call to those of us in the congregation. She asked those who wished to commit their lives to Christ to come forward into the chancel for a prayer.

Well, I found this invitation a little odd, a little out of place, a little presumptuous of her. No one can enroll as a student or be hired on as a faculty member at Princeton Seminary without claiming to be a Christian, though I canít fully guarantee that Jesus himself would claim us all as such. You have to say youíre a Christian to get admitted to Princeton Seminary, so whatís up with this preacher issuing an altar call at a place like this, in a place like Miller Chapel?

I thought to myself, No one is going to go forward to commit their lives to Jesus at Princeton Seminary.

I was dead wrong, of course. Of the perhaps hundred or so students and faculty in the chapel that day, a huge throng of worshipers made their way to the front of the sanctuary. In fact, when the procession ended, I looked around and noticed that there were maybe only four or five of us still seated in our pews. The preacher herself looked out on us pathetic holdouts and noticed it, too. So she said straight to our faces, ìYou folks still sitting out there might as well come on up here, too.î

Now it was I, of course, who was feeling a little presumptuous, or, at least, a little conspicuous. Who did I think I was to imagine that I didnít need to commit my life to Jesus, especially when everyone else in that room seemed to think that they themselves did? No matter that, as far as I knew, Iíd been committed to Jesus as long as I could remember. I recall as a boy still in my booster seat asking my parents how God could be everywhere if we couldnít see God ñ asking questions like that and loving how they would reply: God was inside us, they might say; or God is Spirit, they might say.

I remember as a sixth-grader on the cusp of adolescence attending a Presbyterian summer church camp ñ my first time away from home alone for a whole week, a time full of excitement ñ loving every minute, falling in love perhaps for the first time not only with another camper, but fully, knowingly, with Jesus, feeling him in my heart, openly committing my life to him, praying to him, singing songs to him.

As a high school boy I was allowed to become the church organist of our little congregation, and I took this responsibility very seriously, practicing hymns from the same green hymn book you use here at Fifth Avenue, sometimes late into the night all alone in the darkened sanctuary, a room tiny by this sanctuaryís standard but that seemed voluminous to me at that age ñ alone in the dark, the little light on the organ the only one burning. And I felt warm and secure and so at home in the quiet darkness of Godís house. And I still feel that way today, perhaps most at home of any place I could be in a sanctuary like this, especially if all alone in it, especially at night with one light burning.

So in chapel as a seminary student that day, I felt Iíd been committed to Jesus for a long time. But I knew what I had to do, so at the preacherís bidding to us holdouts still in the pews, I slunk up out of my seat, feeling a bit chastised, and made my way with the other four or so of my less-than-devout comrades to pray with everyone else there in the chancel. But I knew by then that I was a little more reluctant to be born again this time after having been born so many times before.

*******

Thereís a part of me that admires the courage of a preacherís altar call to seminarians. Thereís something exactly right about that invitation. But I think itís also true that, as Iíve grown older, Iíve grown even more uneasy than I was as a student in chapel that day with the kind of public declarations of Christian faith that have grown increasingly familiar and have become not a little divisive in our churches and in our nation today. I get nervous about all those Christians who borrow the ìborn againî language from this very passage in John 3 ñ the chapter of the Bible that contains its most comforting verse, ìFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…î ñ but Christians who wear that ìborn againî language as a badge of honor, who use this language to fashion a kind of litmus test or entrance exam into Christian faith, into true discipleship, use it therefore as an instrument of exclusion rather than of grace. Thereís part of me that wishes I had resisted the preacherís second invitation that day to the four of us still remaining in our pews, wishes I had stayed put and prayed by myself there where I was sitting. That would have been more the Christian I now want to be.

I think Iím a born-again Christian going increasingly undercover, becoming increasingly private, increasingly stealthy about my faith. Iím becoming more like Nicodemus, a man who knows that thereís great power and great risk in meeting Jesus, a man who does not take lightly such an encounter with him, who knows thereís a lot at stake. I think Iím someone who now prefers to talk with Jesus in the dark of night, in the middle of the night, as when a boy in that empty church sanctuary with just one lamp burning.

*******

Nicodemusí story, of course, moves in just the opposite direction. His moves from meeting Jesus first in the dark ñ Nick at Night ñ to, by the end of Jesusí life, embracing Jesusí body in broad daylight. You see, Nicodemus shows up several times in Johnís gospel, each time appearing more bold, more public, more decisive about following Jesus, about being seen as his disciple, as if Jesusí lesson that first night about his needing to be born again, born from above, really took hold in his life, really sank in. If my story begins with a public love for Jesus in the daylight to increasingly private encounters with him at night, Nicodemusí story moves from a shadowy encounter with Jesus at night to a powerful declaration of his love for him in the light of day. It is Nicodemus, after all, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin, the elite Jewish ruling council just 70 members strong, the council that proved finally to be Jesusí undoing, his death ñ this Nicodemus is the man who, with the help of his friend Joseph of Arimathea and at great personal risk, embalms Jesusí body after his death, and he offers this painful and tender declaration of love, this intimate final gift to his friend, no longer under cover of darkness.

*******

The nationís most famous undertaker, Thomas Lynch, lives in Milford, Michigan, a small town just north of Detroit, where he buries his friends and neighbors for a living. He also writes amazing books, the reason heís now our nationís most famous undertaker. In his book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch tells of preparing the body of his dead friend, Milo Hornsby:

Last Monday morning Milo Hornsby died. Mrs. Hornsby called at 2 a.m. to say that Milo had expired and would I take care of it, as if his condition were like any other that could be renewed or somehow improved upon. At 2 a.m., yanked from my REM sleep, I am thinking, put a quarter into Milo and call me in the morning. But Milo is dead. In a moment, in a twinkling, Milo has slipped irretrievably out of our reach, beyond Mrs. Hornsby and the children, beyond the women at the laundromat he owned, beyond his comrades at the Legion Hall, the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, his pastor at First Baptist, beyond the mailman, zoning board, town council, Chamber of Commerce; beyond us all, and any treachery or any kindness we had in mind for him.

Milo is dead….

[In the hospital where he died,] Milo is downstairs, between SHIPPING & RECEIVING and LAUNDRY ROOM, in a stainless-steel drawer, wrapped in white plastic top to toe….

I sign for him and get him out of there….

Back at the funeral home, upstairs in the embalming room, behind a door marked PRIVATE, Milo Hornsby is floating on a porcelain table under florescent lights. Unwrapped, outstretched, Milo is beginning to look a little more like himself ñ eyes wide open, mouth agape, returning to our gravity. I shave him, close his eyes, his mouth. We call this setting the features. These are the features ñ eyes and mouth ñ that will never look the way they would have looked in life when they were always opening, closing, focusing, signaling, telling us something. In death, what they tell us is that they will not be doing anything anymore. The last detail to be managed is Miloís hands ñ one folded over the other, over the umbilicus, in an attitude of ease, of repose, of retirement.

They will not be doing anything anymore, either.

I wash his hands before positioning them [Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, 9-11].

*******

Thatís what Nicodemus will end up doing, though in the light of day, for Jesus. Setting his features. Washing his hands.

Maybe thatís the direction of faith that Jesus prefers, from darkness to light, from stealthy discipleship to public declarations of born-again faith. Maybe thatís what Jesus wants, itís probably what this story in John chapter three is trying to suggest.

But the more that contemporary American Christians insist that everyone become born again and insist too that we all sign on to a prescribed and unyielding roster of accompanying social and political doctrines; the more, so to speak, that weíre pressured to come up to the front of the chapel: the more I want to seek out Jesus in private, at night, undercover, like the early Nicodemus.

The more they press us to become daylight Christians, bumper-sticker Christians, card-carrying, banner-waving Christians, the more I appreciate those stealthy Christians whom I have known and increasingly want to emulate along the way: Christians who are not always so sure of their status before God, seekers who find their encounters with Jesus to be a risky business, who go about their faith without ostentation and perhaps also without complete assurance, in secret, in darkness, undercover, uncertain. The more that born-again Christians fill the airwaves with their certitudes and self-assurance, the more I want to be that Christian with just one lamp burning in the middle of the night.

ìThe wind blows where it chooses,î Jesus tells Nicodemus there in the darkness, ìand you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.î The wind blows where it chooses. God blows where God chooses. We do not control God any more than the wind.

Your being born, my being born, though we can be reasonably sure that we were once born, was not in your or my control, is not something we can take much credit for having done. We had very little to say about our being born the first time, and we would do well to have very little to say now about our being born again, born from above.

It happened once, yes, your birth; it happens sometimes, yes, being born again. But itís not something to spend much time talking about, not if you want to retain any friends. Itís not something in which to take pride or boast. You didnít have that much to do with it. No, better instead just to get on with the business of living, of loving, of serving, of worshiping, of picking up your friends at 2 a.m. and doing for them what needs to be done, however painful or dismal the task. Quiet Christians, steady Christians, stealthy Christians, modest, unassuming, grateful, lunar Christians. Have you known any Christians like that in your life?

*******

A few years ago, as a promising young theology professor at Notre Dame in her early forties, Catherine LaCugna was told by her doctors ìthat there was nothing more that they could do for her and that cancer would kill her within a few months.î At receiving this terrible news, her friend Kathleen Norris writes, LaCugna ìdid not run away to nurse her wounds but continued teaching. She told only a few close friends that she was near death, and she went on living the life she had chosen. She was able to teach until a few days before she died.î

Reflecting on her friendís life and death, Norris says:

I can scarcely imagine what it meant to her students when they found out what she had done, when they considered that they and the dry, underappreciated work of systematic theology that they had been engaged in together meant so much to her. Now, whenever I recite the prayer that ends the churchís liturgical day, ìMay the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death,î it is her death that I think of. A perfect death, fully acknowledged and fully realized, offered for others. (Kathleen Norris, ìPerfection,î Christian Century, February 18, 1998: 180).

I think of Norrisí words and of LaCugnaís death from time to time, for they capture the kind of Christian I want to be ñ quiet, steady, faithful, courageous, but, oh, so aware that time is short, the stakes high, the questions we pose to Jesus in the dead of night so very important, with so much hanging in the balance.

Darkness. Risk. Courage. Faithfulness. A stealth Christian. Thatís the kind that, more and more, Iíd like to be.

*******

Remember Thomas Lynch taking care of his friend, Milo Hornsby? Lynch says:

When my wife moved out some years ago, the children stayed here, as did the dirty laundry. It was big news in a small town. There was the gossip and the goodwill that places like this are famous for. And while there was plenty of talk, no one knew exactly what to say to me. They felt helpless, I suppose. So they brought casseroles and beef stews, took the kids out to the movies or canoeing, brought their younger sisters around to visit me. What Milo did was send his laundry van around twice a week for two months, until I found a housekeeper. Milo would pick up five loads in the morning and return them by lunchtime, fresh and folded. I never asked him to do this. I hardly knew him. I had never been in his home or his laundromat. His wife had never known my wife. His children were too old to play with my children.

After my housekeeper was installed, I went to thank Milo and pay the bill. The invoices detailed the number of loads, the washers and the dryers, detergent, bleaches, fabric softeners. I think the total came to sixty dollars. When I asked Milo what the charges were for pick-up and delivery, for stacking and folding and sorting by size, for saving my life and the lives of my children, for keeping us in clean clothes and towels and bed linen, ìNever mind thatî is what Milo said. ìOne hand washes the other,î [is what Milo said].

I place Miloís right hand over his left hand, then try the other way. Then back again. Then I decide that it doesnít matter. One hand washes the other either way [Lynch, 11].

*******

One hand washes the other. Thereís Nicodemus at the end of Johnís gospel washing the hand that once washed his, embalming Jesus.

Nicodemus is not filling the airwaves with endless chatter about his having been born again, though he may well have been thus born. Heís just risking his life, his status, his reputation in this last, quiet, heroic act of love for his friend.

Heís not talking about his birth. Heís living his life. Heís giving his life to the one who so loved the world, to the one who gave his life for him.

Will you?

Crackers and Grape Juice kicked off our new lectionary podcast, Strangely Warmed, by road tripping to Durham to talk about to Stanley Hauerwas. Even though Stanley doesn’t know what a podcast is, he welcomed us to his 3rd floor office for a candid sitdown.

Not only did Dr. Hauerwas give us books from his vast collection, he even offered us some his classic Hauerewas humor.

Lent, Year A, kicks off with Matthew 4.1-11 and Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7. We opened with Matthew 4 and then we talked about the fall accounted in Genesis.

How do I know this podcast is worth your time?

Because Stanley points out how Eve is wrong in Genesis, God never said they couldn’t touch the fruit. God only told them not to eat it.

Adding to God’s law is our very first sin, Stan observes. A nimble preacher should be able to leap from there to the Romans 5 lection extolling the sufficiency of Christ for our salvation.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,a knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Matthew 4.1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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

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

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Drumroll…

The team at Crackers and Grape Juice are launching a new offshoot podcast called Strangely Warmed. Henceforth, it will drop every Monday and it will focus on conversation around the coming Sunday’s lectionary readings. Obviously a lectionary podcast has preachers in mind but we aim to keep the stained glass language to a minimum so that JC loving lay people can enjoy it too.

To kick off Strangely Warmed we talked Ash Wednesday with my paramour, Fleming Rutledge. After starting out taking about ‘prophetic preaching’ we talked about Matthew 6 and Psalm 51 and Ash Wednesday as the day when Christians, on behalf of humanity, put themselves first before the judgement of God.

Up next, we have Time Magazine’s America’s Best Theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflecting on the lections for Lent and Brian Zahnd teed up for Eastertide, and all of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

You can subscribe to Strangely Warmed in iTunes.

You can find it on our website here.

Okay, as this little theo-venture gains traction and grows in listeners so do the bills.

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With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.

In Episode 65, our latest installment of Fridays with Fleming, I talk with Fleming Rutledge about the message of Advent and preaching the word of Truth in a post-truth culture.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

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All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
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Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

img_2451The Home-Brewed Christianity #LectioCast was kind enough to invite me as a guest for the next two weeks to talk about my new book, Cancer is Funny, and discuss the Advent lectionary readings.

Hosted by Dr. JR Daniel Kirk, #LectioCast aims to get preachers’ jumpstarted on their prepcrastination by honing in on issues and themes in the scripture passages assigned for the upcoming Sunday and to do so in a way that is sharp, practical, and seasoned with a bit of snark.

Daniel accuses me of skirting wrath in the lectionary readings for Advent 2, but I think it’s just a good honest dose of Barth.

You can listen to the podcast here. If you’re getting this by email, click over the blog to listen.

And here’s a sermon I preached for A Sermon Every Sunday on these very readings:

 

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

adcfd2d05c188b8c49c4a8f5f709e357Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher.  They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.

Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.

Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.

I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?

Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?

I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?

And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?

With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?

Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?

—————

Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.

With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.

And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.

And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.

Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.

We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.

And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”

The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.

No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae– which means, the Day of Wrath.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s over the top.

It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.

Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.

You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?

Bam.

We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork. 

And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     What? 

No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

     You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.

For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.

—————

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial.

So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.

As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.

It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

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

I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners.

I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.

We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.

We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

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

Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

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

John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

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

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

You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

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

But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.

No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.

I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

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

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.

They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear:

Sin is about where your love lies.

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

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

Because God doesn’t change.

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

God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you.

Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies.

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

Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay.

Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor.

Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.

No.

When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him.

God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

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

You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love.

You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.

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

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

And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers.

Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them.

And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.

You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

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

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

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

maxresdefaultFor Episode 53 we have another installment of Fridays with Fleming (Rutledge). I invited my friend and new member of the Cracker and Grape Juice Posse, Taylor Mertins, and Fleming’s #2 Fan, Kenneth Tanner, to be a part of our conversation.

We recorded this several weeks ago, talking with Fleming Rutledge about a variety of subjects including preaching preparation, Black Lives Matter, difficult sermons, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with next week with Becca Stevens, Brian McLaren, and Father James Martin.

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this June in L.A.. There’s only 15 tix left so if you’d like to be a part of it, check it out here.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

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

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

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

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

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.

 

 


14721514_10207107287831567_5379723068154767442_nFor my church’s 60th Anniversary this weekend, Stanley Hauerwas preached on the lectionary Gospel text from Luke 18, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I also got to baptize my good friend Taylor Mertins’ son.

You can listen to the audio of Stanley’s sermon below as well as read my introduction of him. Given my adoration of his work, perhaps I should point out that he is a warm and generous man and spending a few days with him will no doubt be a highlight of my work.

When I was a student at Princeton, I had a number of different jobs to pay for my schooling, including working as a waiter at the weekly faculty lunch. At one of those lunches near the beginning of my second semester, around the time I was considering dropping out of seminary, Professor Max Stackhouse got worked up into a red-faced, PO’d lather ranting to his colleagues about this reckless and profane Methodist theologian named Stanley Hauerwas.

Even though I’d gone to UVA for undergraduate and had been taught by many of Stanley Hauerwas’ students, classmates, and colleagues, at the time I wasn’t aware of a Stanley Hauerwas. But I figured anyone who could arouse such animus at a normally tight-sphinctered faculty lunch was worth reading. So as soon as I washed the dishes, I headed over to the library and checked out a book called A Community of Character along with a set of audio cassettes of lectures he’d delivered entitled Discipleship as Craft. Without exaggeration, they changed my life.

If Dennis Perry is the one who made me a Christian, then Stanley Hauerwas is the person who has sustained me as a Christian.

I’ve read everything he’s ever written several times over- and he’s written alot of freaking books. I’ve given many of you several of his books. He’s often in my earbuds when I exercise. His book on suffering helped get me through my near death experience with cancer. I know his work so well to know that when I interviewed him for my podcast, I knew I wasn’t successful in getting him off his familiar talking points.

I also know his work well enough to know that he would judge an introduction of him in a service of worship to be inappropriate. Because more so than any theologian of the last 50 years, Stanley Hauerwas has reminded the Church that what we do here on Sunday morning is about God.

Not us. Certainly not him.

Nonetheless, here’s what you need to know about the person whom Time Magazine called America’s Best Theologian:

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the awareness that if Jesus is Lord then Christianity can never be reduced to the private or the personal, In other words, he’s responsible for most of the things I’ve preached that have caused you to write to anonymous complaints to the bishop over the years. Today’s your chance to take it up with him.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the knowledge that Christianity is like baseball (and by baseball I mean National League baseball): That is, you can’t just do Christianity. You must be coached, apprenticed, by those with wisdom, whom we call the saints.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering theology as a servant of the Church (as opposed to just another university discipline). And on that account alone he’s been fruitful, for I cannot imagine my vocation apart from his work and even though this is his first time preaching at Aldersgate it’s not the first time you’ve heard him. You’ve been hearing me speak Hauerwas- or speak Christian like Hauerwas- for a dozen years now.

He is the perfect person to preach Aldersgate’s 60th Anniversary for as we look forward to the next 60 years, without a doubt, the clergy and congregants who come after us- whether they know it or not- will in large measure be shaped by his work.

Having said all of that, Stanley would be the first person to say that it’s time to get on with the Word of God. So listen for it, the Word of God, found in…

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteSome of you have expressed chagrin that I’ve not been blogging as much of late. Partly that’s due to work demands but mostly it’s because the podcast has taken up the free time I’d normally give to the blog.

I don’t regret that or apologize for it, however, because the podcast has allowed me to develop some surprising and life-giving relationships, most notably with Fleming Rutledge. I’m not full of shit at all when I say that I thank God the podcast brought her into my life, and I know from her that she’s equally grateful to have a new usefulness and audience at this season in her vocation.

So here’s our latest Friday’s with Fleming. We recorded it several weeks ago and it was the first time we’d gotten to connect since July. While you’re at it, you can check out Teer’s post, reflecting on our conversation with Fleming.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

PLEASE HELP US REACH MORE PEOPLE: 

GO TO OUR PAGE IN ITUNES AND GIVE US A REVIEW AND RATING

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

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

fred-schmidt-h-copyWhy preachers ought not to be prophetic.

Why Election Day Communion services are a bad idea.

Fred Schmidt dishes on this and more in part one of our conversation.

Fred is the author of the Dave Test, Conversations with Scripture, and What God Wants for Your Life. He blogs at Patheos,  and is the professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Teer and I had a great time talking with Fred and I think it shows in our conversation.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, William Cavanaugh, Bishop Andy Doyle, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

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

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

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

Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.

As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son,  and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.

Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.

If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.

He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.

Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.

Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.

And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.

That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.

They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.

I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.

“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.

If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.

Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.

If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.

And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’

And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’

And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’

Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.

A promise that would come true for him.

With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.

——————————

The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘

That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’

God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.

Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.

I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.

I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.

I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.

I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.

I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.

I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.

I want Josh.

I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.

I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

  • I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
  • I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
  • I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.

I can’t answer the why question.

And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.

I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.

Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.

So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.

No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.

The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.

And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.

“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.” 

When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.

That’s the heart of God.

And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.

That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.

And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.

I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’

The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.

The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.

The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.

They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.

“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”

And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.

Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.

Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’

And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.

‘Josh’ he says.

And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.

That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.

This kid who’s:

kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.

This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.

And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy. 

No, you’ve got to become just like him. 

It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.

And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.

——————————

I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.

I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’

No, he talks about kids:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 

‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 

And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.

And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.

Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’

But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.

Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.

And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.

And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.

Fools Rush In

Jason Micheli —  September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

liturgica-e-sacra-canzoni-da-chiesta-gesuThough I wont be preaching on it, the lectionary Gospel for this Sunday is Luke 14.25-33.

Going through my closet recently I found a box of all my sermons from my first year of preaching while I was a student at Princeton. As you’ll see, rookie Jason wasn’t all that good but maybe I was clear.

There is a scene in the black and white film, The Gospel of Saint Matthew, in which a wild-eyed, long-haired, dark-skinned Jesus shouts at a crowd these very words from Luke’s lectionary text for this Sunday: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” 

The visual effect of the scene is to render Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher who seems so reasonable when Joel Osteen is presenting him, as someone whose intensity we would associate with Islamic fundamentalists. When you hear preachers and politicians talk out both sides of their greasy mouths about “family values” this election year, I’ll be very surprised if you ever hear them mention this bit of scripture from Luke’s Gospel, corroborated by Matthew in his own. This is the sort of scripture that, rather than bringing comfort to the disturbed, gives heartburn to all of us who have domesticated discipleship, reducing it to Jesus-flavored strategies to help us better endure our domestic families.

Of course, you expect a preacher like me to explain what Jesus meant here as clearly as Jesus would have been able to explain it if he’d had the benefit of a Princeton education. Meaning, you want me to tell you ‘Don’t worry. What’s going on here isn’t as radical and offensive as it sounds.’

Almost.

But not quite.

Remember, we killed Jesus not so he could save us from the wrath of his Father. We killed him because of the teachings he taught, the company he kept, and the stories he told.

This morning is another stop along the way as Jesus journeys inexorably to Jerusalem. To his cross, and maybe to ours as well. While on the road, Jesus has stirred up stories, roused rumors of a Messiah, and managed to attract quite a crowd.

The people gathered in Luke 14 are people who have come to him. Unlike the 12 disciples, these are not people Jesus has called. Unlike other Gospel scenes, this crowd surrounding Jesus is not a hostile one. For whatever reason, it is an eager one.

Perhaps they’re curious to see if this strange rabbi will put on a show at his next stop. Perhaps they want a front row seat for his next miracle. Everyone loves a parade. For this excited crowd it’s Jerusalem or Bust as Jesus fulfills all the hopes and dreams of the People Israel.

The bottom line is this: they don’t have a clue as to why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They have no clue what lies in store for Jesus, and they certainly have no idea what discipleship, following Jesus, will entail.

They’re like enthusiastic children, waiting for their religious recess from the troubles of the world. So, before taking another step in Jerusalem’s direction, Jesus needs to sober them up. He needs to give them words that taste like strong, black coffee. A reality check. He needs to pause and advise them to read the fine print attached to our baptisms: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

The word ‘hate’ here that Jesus deploys is an example of scripture’s wonderful texture. It doesn’t convey what you hear in it so don’t get your panties in a wad. It’s a Hebrew idiom, meaning to de-prioritize. Think: “God loved Jacob but hated Esau.” Unless God’s an incredible jerk, “hate” here doesn’t mean how we hear it today. What Jesus is saying then isn’t as harsh as it first sounds but that hardly means it gets any easier to swallow because what Jesus is saying is that belong to the community of Christ’s Kingdom affects the way we belong to others, especially those to whom we most belong.

What Jesus is saying is that, in our vast and tangled network of loyalties, if we are to be disciples than our loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom must be paramount, even if such loyalties conflict with our bonds to family, friends, work, lifestyle, tradition, or nation.

Are you sure you want to follow me? There will be hard choices and constant challenges and conflicts of interest- even crosses- for each of you. Think about what you’re doing before you stay with me. 

Jesus is not telling us to abandon our families; he didn’t abandon his own. He is candidly telling us something I suspect is even more difficult for us: to make this unremarkable, inefficient, and often uninspiring community called Church your surrogate family. And to make it your primary one too.

All this scary Jesus-talk reminds me of the baptismal liturgy in the hymnal. The covenant of baptism cues me to ask the candidates or the parents questions like ‘Will you renounce evil and repent of your sin? Will you accept the power God gives you to resist evil? Do you promise to put your whole trust in Christ’s lordship?

During such a service, we tend to just through the motions and recite the words. After all, it’s a big day and a pretty ceremony, but really what we’re doing is the same thing Jesus commands in Luke 14. We’re asking the soon-to-be-baptized to read the fine print. There’s a kind of cruelty about baptizing babies against their will.

Before you go further in the faith are you sure you know what you’re getting into?Are you sure you want to give your child to a family even more dysfunctional than the family you gave them? Do you know what this means? You’re not joining an organization. You’re giving away your children to a new family. You have to be Christ now for others now. That may roll off your tongue like honey but, remember, Jesus got himself killed for being Christ. 

I believe this same sort of reality check is why we go through the Great Thanksgiving before we share the sacrament. Every Lord’s Supper, before we spill any crumbs on the floor, we have to say things like “Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ so that we may be for the world the Body of Christ…and make us one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back.”

If we’re going to be regulars at Christ’s Table, we need to know what we’re getting ourselves into. If we’re going to take a seat at his table, then it makes sense to prepare ourselves for a long, raucous, unpredictable meal.

Annie Dillard, in her book Holy the Firm, asks Christians if “we have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blindly invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are like children, playing on the floor with chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill on a Sunday morning.”

We’re like kids playing with dynamite. We’re playing with potential poison that we call repentance and conversion. Maybe Annie Dillard’s right. Maybe if we stopped and really dwelt on what we’d get ourselves into if we took it seriously, then we’d need to be strapped down in these pews against our wills every Sunday morning.

This is TNT.

None of you knows what God might call you to do. You never know when God might, after years of vacant-minded churchgoing, finally decide to wake your butt up and draw you into something with which you’re uncomfortable, to somewhere from which you can’t go back.

And that should feel as threatening as a loaded gun pointed at you.

And Jesus said:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost…”

Building towers, making war.

Consider the cost, Jesus warns, because, if you do this discipleship thing right, it just may be a cross.

I’ll leave you with this bomb from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Discipleship without costs is always Christianity without the Living Christ. There may be trust in God, but if there’s no cost there is no following Christ and, thus, it’s only your own way of choosing.”

Boom.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

4131253271_64251f8068For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.

This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.

If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here in the iTunes store.

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Here it is:

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteFleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling.  I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…

Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.

Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

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

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

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

Sounds good and obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

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

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

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

– The Crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

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

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

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

Paul fears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philippians fed Paul.

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

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

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

Because the truth is-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, I’d owe you still.

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

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

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Unlike Paul-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless-

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

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

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

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

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

You see-

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

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

So maybe-

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

Maybe, instead, Paul’s talking about you.

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

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

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

You’re with us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, for being with me.

Thank you for sharing in my distress. Paul says.

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

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

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

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