Archives For Preaching

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.

13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_n

maxresdefaultStanley 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.

In my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I increasingly hear ‘the need to be prophetic’ as we near our General Conference, in which our delegates from the larger Church will debate our 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 simply 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 on MSNBC. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

I remember leaving seminary thinking, for some reason, that my every sermon needed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. What I’ve learned over the years is that brute prophetic rhetoric only shuts down your listeners’ openness. If actual transformation is the desired end then a certain charity in your preaching is required and faith- trust- that the only thing keeping preaching from being a waste of everyone’s time is that when the Risen Christ so chooses our words become the living word of God.

It’s our call only to proclaim the Gospel; it’s up to God what our listeners hear and how (if) they apply it to their lives.

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

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

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

Sounds good and obvious, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

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

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

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

– The Crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Philippians 4.10-23

11/22/2015

So….this feels…weird.

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. Missed me, huh?

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

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

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

Paul fears.

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

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

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

IMG_1315

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philippians fed Paul.

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

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

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

Because the truth is-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, I’d owe you still.

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

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

12039337_10207483077297320_6129263937925447291_n

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.

Hickman_line_catheter_with_2_lumens

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.

 

Five Plus Two

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:

At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.

Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.

Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.

Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.

One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.

The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.

He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.

Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.

‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.

‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.

To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.

‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.

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It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.

All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.

In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.

And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.

Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.

But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.

Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.

The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.

And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.

How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.

The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.

For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.

Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.

When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.

Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.

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Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.

After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.

Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’

I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.

He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.

‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.

‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.

And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.

I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.

‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’

He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.

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John in his Gospel tends to include details.

At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.

John likes details.

When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’

And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.

John likes details.

So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.

The fact is-

You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.

Because:

It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.

It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.

It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.

It doesn’t matter.

Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.

That boy is us. He’s you and me.

Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.

Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.

Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.

And whatever you have to offer is enough.

Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.

 

I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.

And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’

I just smiled and nodded, and I said:

‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’

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That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’

 

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

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

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

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

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

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

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

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

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

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

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

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

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

Including the sacrifice of war.

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

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

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

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

But what does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the Prince of Peace.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

It is, I think, a theological one.

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

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

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

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

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

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

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

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

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

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

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

You see,

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

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

For us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s in the family DNA.

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

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

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

For us.

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

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

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

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All things will be made new again.

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

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

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

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

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

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

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517A bit ago I reposted an article asking folks what they want in a sermon. I thought this was a very thoughtful response I received from a friend in my congregation. I offer to you here, with his permission, in no self-aggrandizing way:

What do I want in a sermon?

What I want is clearly not what everyone wants, and the fact that we at church have you pastors at the same time for so long is a terrific asset for the congregation.  It allows different styles to be present in the same location.

So, what do I want?

I want someone who literally struggles with the cynic inside my head.

I see tremendous hypocrisy, which includes myself, throughout our society and community – and throughout our faith.  So, I want someone who is able to identify those same things and point them out in a constructive way that reflects our faith.

I want to be challenged intellectually.

But I don’t want to be challenged to the point where I feel utterly stupid and shamed for my lack of wits.  I was unchurched after I left home in 1988 and moved back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s houses when things were going very badly at my Mom’s home with her second husband.  I started looking for churches again when I was stationed in Germany, after I spoke with a Jewish Rabbi, in 2004.  I attended some traditional and nontraditional services.  Some felt hokey and some felt familiar, “nice,” but maybe boring.

I don’t go to church to hear that I should love everyone.

I know that I should love everyone.

I want to hear how I should love someone who I otherwise would pass by.  I want to hear that Jesus is more likely to be the grumpy half-crazy homeless guy that I’d see on the way to work downtown than anyone else that’s in my daily life.

I want to be challenged, and sometimes that means offended.

I want that.

That’s tempered with not wanting a shock-jock turned preacher – or a preacher that is so full of himself or herself that any semblance of approachability and humility have transmogrified into this puritanical, holier-than-thou, give all your money to the church, “holy man” who is the knoweth and the beginningeth and endeth of all things Jesus.

I don’t want a fire breathing, Bible-thumping preacher man, who tells me that the only folks who get saved are those that are baptized in this church or that one.

I want a sermon to help bridge the gaps.

Between the Christian factions – or to at least help us understand what makes a Methodist sermon different than a Catholic or Non-Denominational one.  That desire goes back to learning bits and pieces about our faith – but through current happenings.  It doesn’t have to be about ISIS, but it can.  It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it can.

When we bought our home, we bought it to be closer to our church and to a particular school.  We want to stay and we want to be part of this community.  I want to be continually challenged.  If I’m not, I tend to wander and stray.

At the risk of your reaching critical mass (get it, “mass”…) of mental acuity and sheer mathematical arithmetical genius, I had only found a small handful of clergy that I could relate to (I guess that’s not just until I found Aldersgate, as it is still the case.

I could tell you a story through these three clergy – one Rabbi, one Catholic, and one Evangelical Preacher… I found bits to identify with each and something to take away.  It’s raised questions that I’ve asked and questions that I haven’t.

I still ended up in the Methodist tradition that I was baptized into back in the Chicago area.  Maybe because of tradition, but maybe also because I’ve found someone like you all.  We are happy here and what we are getting is exactly what we want.

Hopefully that’s helpful.

Thanks for asking.

– JF

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517David Lose, author of Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World, asks the question in this post. 

He begins with truth-telling:

‘for the better part of the last five years I’ve been losing confidence in preaching. This isn’t a commentary on the preaching I’ve been hearing, I should be clear, as I’ve been quite fortunate to worship in several congregations with engaging preachers. Rather, it’s preaching in general in which I’ve lost confidence, my own preaching included.’

Lose goes on to note how the form and shape of most preaching appears increasingly out of touch:

In a culture that is increasingly participatory, our preaching is still primarily a monologue. In a culture passionate about discovering meaning and crafting identity, our preaching too often draws conclusions for our hearers rather than inviting them into the questions themselves.

Second, as I look around our congregations, I see any number of people largely disconnected from the preaching, appreciating a touching story, perhaps, but rarely drawing from the sermon something they will continue to think about during the rest of the week.

His concerns are sound ones, I think, making his questions good ones to pose to you:

Is preaching still a worthwhile exercise or is it antiquated?

What do you want from a sermon?

I’d be interested in hearing your feedback.

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Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…

Matthew 2.1-12

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

I read.

I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.

In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.

Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.

For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”

The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.

I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.

Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.

You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.

Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.

Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.

     A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.

‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.

That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.

And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.” 

But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.

The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.

The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.

“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.

     Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.

 And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.

That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.

The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.

I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.

Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.

Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. 

Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

     Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.

What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.

Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.

Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.

And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.

Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.

Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.

If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:

  • The mercy of God in the flesh
  • The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
  • The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly

     If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…

In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.

If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.

Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:

  • How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
  • How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
  • How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.

And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.

So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.

Amen.

 

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”