Archives For Romans

Our sermon series through Romans landed us in the famous, much-loved passage 8.31-39 this weekend. 

The audio is here below as well as on the sidebar of the blog. You can download it in iTunes as well under ‘Tamed Cynic:

      1. Mark Driscoll in the Hands of an Angry Pastor

 

Raised-to-Life-Pic-300x300-1     Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.

They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.

Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.

Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.

No one.

No one is against us.

No one will condemn us.

No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.

Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.

The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.

For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’ mark-driscoll

I thought that would get your attention.

Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.

Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.

If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.

But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.

He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.

The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.

     Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.

And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.

That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’

And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’

Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’

Except it isn’t.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.

It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.

     Technically speaking, I bet Mark Driscoll’s sermon ‘worked.’

I bet it scared the hell out of people.

     But what did it scare them into I wonder?

Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the  response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.

He’s wrong.

But you know that already.

 I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.

You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.

All you need are a handful of memory verses.

Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: …Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’ 

Which means: God is like Jesus.

And God doesn’t change.

Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.

So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.

You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’ 

No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’ 

You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’ 

In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.

It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’ 

God has not had it up to anywhere with you.

You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.

That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.

So that,

     ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’

     ‘We have peace with God…’

Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’ 

That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.

His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’ 

For all.

So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation– there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.

You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways.

But it all boils down to the same simple message:

     God. Is. For. Us.

     Not against us.

 

But you know that.

Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.

You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.

You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.

God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. God’s against you. 

You would NEVER say that to someone else.

Ever.

But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:

 There are plenty of you

who say things like that

to yourselves

all the time.

Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.

Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.

You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.

And yet…

When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.

You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.

Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.

Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.

Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.

Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.

     God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. 

I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.

And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.

 

So here’s my question: why?

I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.

So why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?

If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?

Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?

Maybe.

Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?

Sure we have.

Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel

equation: God is for us?

Is it because we think we’re the exception?

Maybe for some of us.

But I wonder.

I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.

I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?

I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?

I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?

I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.

I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.

And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.

As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.

What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.

The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.

The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.

The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.

We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.

And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.

So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.

And so I called my Mom.

‘We need to talk’ I said.

‘You really think so?’

It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.

 

And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.

 

I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.

Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.

Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.

This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.

 In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.

 It’s about living eternity now.

 

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.

The answers might be obvious and certain.

But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.

I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.

Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.

If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.

And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing should separate us.

From one another.

 

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

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

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

A man after my own heart…almost.

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

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

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

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

For this quote:

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

Has nothing to do with this one:

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

(Rom 8)

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

Au Contraire

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2013 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

      1. Au Contraire- 9:45 Service

 

      2. Au Contraire- 11:15 Service

illegalscrossingfence-1I don’t like to wade too specifically into political issues, preferring to keep things theological and let you sort out the connections for yourself. Immigration, however, is different in that it’s a thoroughly biblical concern.

How God’s People think of, treat, care for strangers and aliens is much more a part of our core story than issues, say, of sexuality.

It seems to me that much of the (nativist) rhetoric from opponents of immigration reform strikes a protectionist tone: This is ‘our’ country. This country belongs to us. This is our home. We must protect it from strangers and aliens.

That may be an adequate perspective for Americans.

But it’s not for bible believers.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred…”
And Abram went.
(Genesis 12.1, 4)

In the story the Bible tells it’s Abraham who sends the human story in a new direction—from a steady drifting away from God, to a return toward God.

Christians too easily forget: before Yahweh called him, Abram was a pagan. An idolator. A worshipper of the gods of Babylon.

The gods of Babylon would never call someone away from their kin and country.

The pagan gods were, in fact, the personification of country and kin, or to be more precise, the divinization of kin and country.

Stars-Space-Wallpapers-But Yahweh calls Abraham to leave country and kin and Abraham does and somehow this is the beginning of the means by which God will renew his creation.

As St Paul makes clear in his letter to the Romans, Abraham is the the pattern for every believer. Indeed there’s a sense in which Paul’s understanding means that Jesus isn’t just the Second Adam (Rom 5) but that Abraham is the Second Adam and Jesus the Third.

If Abraham is the prototype for the humanity God’s desired from the very first creation, then how does the pattern of Abraham’s life inform how believers are to reflect on the subject of immigration?

We are all products of our national culture. Our self is formed in large part by the identity our country forms in us. As a result we feel an emotional- almost religious- connection to our country. This is ‘our’ home

This is neither avoidable nor bad.

What it is, however, is inadequate for those who claim Abraham as their true founding father.

For as Abraham, the pattern of genuine, God-desired humanity, shows to be the People of Yahweh always involves the call away from kin and country.

To be a people of faith, a people like Abraham, is to be a pilgrim people.

A diaspora people.

A people not unlike the Magi after they encountered the Christ Child: no longer at ease in their former home.

God’s call for Abraham to leave his country is a call for Abraham to accept being an alien wherever he goes. Yahweh, unlike the conventional pagan gods, isn’t defined by national or ethnic distinctions.

Yahweh’s call profoundly subordinates what previously would have been Abraham’s most precious values: his national and family identity.

Once he’s called by God, Abraham can be at home anywhere even while being a stranger everywhere.

He belongs no where because he belongs to God.

This is why throughout the Old Testament Yahweh is insistent that Abraham’s children care for and welcome aliens, because God’s call makes all of us aliens in this world.

If, as Paul writes, the faith of Abraham is the faith Christ perfects and invites us, through the Spirit, to live, then, like Abraham, we’re called to subordinate/qualify all our loyalties to the living God.

Without faith in this living God, without finding our true ‘home’ in this God, then, as the Abraham story makes clear, those most precious of loyalties, nation and family, quickly become gods. Idols.

Contemporary children of Abraham can welcome anyone because we ourselves are aliens everywhere for our ultimate citizenship resides in another Kingdom. It must be so because, as Abraham’s heirs, we’re called to be different from people who think in terms of ‘my country.’

Instead we’re called be a People through whom God is working to bless all the families of the earth.

Fair-Weather Jesus Fans

Jason Micheli —  June 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

Justified_2010_Intertitle_8064

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It pushes the Jews out of their own story.

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

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

     It’s all a matter of hindsight.

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

     The Fall necessitates grace.

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

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

It’s a matter of hindsight.

      Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.

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

Questions like:

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

Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?

What does Easter accomplish?

How we are different/similar to Christ?

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

Let me break it down.

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

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

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

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

Back to the imago dei.

What is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his truthfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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

      1. The Stars are the Light of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And finally in the circle, there was me.

We began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shouted ‘Ciao!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation.

How faith is just a psychological crutch.

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

How the Church has been responsible much evil and injustice.

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

How St Paul endorses slavery and sexism.

How Revelation is about Rome not the Rapture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham did not lift a finger to be saved. 

Abraham did nothing to earn or deserve it. 

Abraham simply believed in God. 

Abraham was saved by faith alone. 

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

But here’s the problem:

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

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

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

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

It doesn’t say Abraham believed IN God.  

It says Abraham believed God

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

It says Abraham believed God

That is, Abraham accepted something God said. 

Abraham believed a single thing God said. 

A very specific thing God said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abraham questioned God’s justice and mercy.

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

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

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

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

To Wounded Knee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Brother Alois bowed his head and so did we.

And then we prayed. Silently.

For a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mi amico, how are you?’

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

‘How was that?’

     ‘Did you not go?’

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

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

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

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

Easy way out? Are you a complete idiot?

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

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

     I thought to myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Vitamix Jesus

Jason Micheli —  May 20, 2013 — 6 Comments

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

You can listen to the sermon here

      1. Vitamix Jesus
 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

More.

 

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

A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark.

And it’s true.

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

There are advertisements everywhere.

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

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

Uh huh, a product demonstration.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix.

Have you seen one? Do you own one?

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

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

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

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

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

No, I was thinking…

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

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

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

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

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

Aheh.

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

‘Even better’ she purred.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

     There’s nothing else you have to do. 

 

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

 

3 thousand times a day.

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

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

The ‘plan of salvation’ makes for great advertising.

It’s simple.

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

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

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

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

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

You’re here and God’s over there.

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

    Second- 

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

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

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

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

     And Third- 

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

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

     None of the cost is passed on to you.

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

 

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

images

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

The problem is your sin, your separation from God.

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

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

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

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

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

 

     But some of you have. I know.

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

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

Something more than the salesman promised you.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth is always in the fine print.

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

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

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

The fine print in the case of today’s text- it comes down to just two words: Pistis and Christou.

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

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

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

And the word ‘Christou.’

Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah. Christou is in the Genitive Case.

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

The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’

When you read the fine print in Romans 3, you realize Paul is saying something different than what you were sold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Dig in to the fine print and you see that, for Paul, the good news of our justification is not a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.

     That’s not good news; it’s a marketing lure. willjesus

It suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.

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

     dot, dot, dot

     if and when you have faith in me…’

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

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

     Think about what Paul’s saying:

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

     But none of it is necessary.

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

None of it is necessary for you being justified.

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

That’s it. That’s the good news.

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

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

     But on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.

 

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

There’s no problem to get your attention.

There’s no bad news to spark your worrying.

There’s no scary threat to provoke your fear.

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

It’s already been repaired. By Christ.

Your justification. Already taken care of.

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

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

     There’s no way that’ll sell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     No one would ever buy into that.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 25.31-46  (10/26/08) 

My Week of Living Biblically

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

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

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

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

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

Except, here’s the rub:

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

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

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

      Okay, which is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No excuses.

No assuming that someone else will do something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never got his name.

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

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

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

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

 

 

12EVANGELICALsub-articleLargeThis past Sunday our scripture text was Romans 3.9-20, a passage that begins with Paul reiterating the Torah’s insistence that ‘no is righteous, not one.’

Like much of what Paul writes, that phrase is meant to be a breadcrumb trailing the reader back to a story in the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Genesis 18, the story of Abraham negotiating with God over the imminent destruction of Sodom.

In my children’s story, I retold the narrative of Abraham going back and forth with God, pleading with God to spare Sodom if only 50 righteous people could be found in it…only 45 righteous people could be found…and so forth until…zero, nada.

I left out of my children’s story the actual destruction of Sodom, even I have boundaries. I don’t mind telling kids violent stories as long as its not God doing the wielding.

I also left out, to one person’s mind who was leaving worship perturbed with me, the reason for Sodom’s destruction: homosexuality.

To conflate the issue of homosexuality with the destruction of Sodom is not only a gross adventure in misreading the text, it’s simply anachronistic. It’s true a sordid little confrontation happens in Sodom in the next chapter of Genesis, an encounter from which we now unfortunately derive the word ‘sodomy,’ but that’s actually quite irrelevant as God had already determined Sodom should be destroyed.

And why was Sodom on God’s s$%^ list?

The Book of Ezekiel provides the answer, making it all the more infuriating that people read homosexuality into the passage:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”  

–  Ezekiel 16:49

Christians can (and do) debate homosexuality but the biblical passages that discuss homosexuality are few and, narratively, incidental.

By contrast, how God’s People relate to ‘the stranger in your land’ is a core confession of scripture.

God explicitly commands we extend compassion and care to the alien. What’s more this isn’t but one command among many but it’s rooted firmly in remembering our core identity. We love the alien in our land because once we were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Much like bread, wine, lamb and bitter herbs, our loving relationship with the immigrant recalls the Exodus story- the story of the Old Testament and the guiding metaphor in the New.

This year we kicked-off a new youth group experience for 4th and 5th graders I developed called Tribe Time, in which every session is playfully grounded in the Book of Leviticus.

While most adults shy away from it, Leviticus’ combination of gross, random imagery and moral stipulations makes it good fodder for training in the virtues.

You can check out the sessions outline for Tribe Time here: Tribe Time Sessions Outline

My point is that we have 80 kids in Tribe Time who all know that God commands us to welcome, love and respect the immigrants in our land because once we were in their shoes. And yet most church-going adults in America do not sense that immigration is in any way a theological or biblical concern.

One hears many warnings that welcoming immigrants will be the undoing of the American way of life. One does not hear many any warnings that failing to love the immigrant will be the undoing of our Christian way of life.

That this is so is but another indication, I think, that most of us are more truly formed not by the story of Israel/Christ but by the story called America.

Here’s a good, fair-minded piece from the NY TImes about how immigration is being rethought in many evangelical circles.

IMMIGRATION reform is not a liberal idea. It is good, old-fashioned conservative policy — at least that’s what its supporters want the Republican faithful to believe.

The Republican Party has “historically been pro-immigration,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said after the 2012 election. The conservative National Immigration Forum declaresthat America needs reform that “celebrates freedom and values hard work.”

Some of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new immigration bill have come from traditional evangelicals, who insist that reform “respects the God-given dignity of every person.” Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.

“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”

“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity — and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”

The Christian right may be too optimistic about any change in the political sympathies of Latinos. Increasing numbers tell pollsters they favor same-sex marriage, for example. But the real surprise is that evangelicals may be wrong about the unyielding conservatism of their own movement.

Evangelicals’ growing support for immigration reform suggests an important shift in how conservative Protestants — who policed the boundaries of our national identity for almost four centuries — think about what it means to be American. It may also point to the beginnings of real change in how evangelicals understand the problem of justice in a fallen world, and the challenge that Latino and other minority Christians pose to the assumptions of the culture wars.

From the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s to today’s Tea Party tirades about immigrants’ taking American jobs, each wave of nativist hysteria has had its own enthusiasms. But all have feared that newcomers would subvert democracy and sabotage citizens’ claim to the American dream. Racism often inflamed this anxiety (Benjamin Franklin worried about the influx of Germans settling in Pennsylvania and doubted that they could ever “acquire our Complexion”).

Yet the more basic fear — underlying warnings that Irish Catholics corrupted elections by voting in blocs or, more recently, that undocumented Mexicans and their “anchor babies” sponge off the welfare state — has always been this: These foreigners don’t respect our values and if we let them in, they will destroy us.

For much of American history, most white Protestants shared in the belief that immigrants were vectors of anti-democratic viruses like Catholicism, anarchism and Bolshevism. Although by the 1950s liberal mainline Protestants had come around to the idea of relaxing immigration restrictions, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals opposed the liberalizing reform act of 1965, fearing “infiltration by influences subversive of the American way of life.”

Today, the culture wars and the constant skirmishes over the size and scope of the welfare state have convinced conservatives that the country’s direst enemies are not “subversive” foreigners, but homegrown liberals.

International experience has connected more American evangelicals to Christians living in immigrant-sending countries, and they now view them as ideological allies. Organizations ranging from Focus on the Family to Anglican splinter churches have been building relationships in the global south for decades. They have come to see Latin Americans and Africans as defenders of traditional gender roles and Christian civilization.

“We have a very positive ‘immigration problem’ in this country, in that the Latino community coming in, both legally and illegally, generally possesses a value system that is compatible with America’s value system,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told me.

It’s true that Latino Americans tend to be religious (according to Gallup, 54 percent are Catholic and 28 percent are Protestant). However, even those at the forefront of collaboration with white evangelicals stress that important differences remain. Jesse Miranda is a Pentecostal who founded a national organization for Latino Protestants, Alianza de Ministerios Evangélicos Nacionales (AMEN), in 1992. “We used the term ‘evangélico’ when I founded AMEN, and said we won’t use the word ‘evangelical’ so the media won’t identify us with our white brethren,” he said.

Most Latino evangelicals are recent converts to Protestantism with no stake in the battles between fundamentalists and modernists that divided white Protestants a hundred years ago, or in the more recent campaigns of the Christian right. They care more about education for their children than quarreling over the theory of evolution.

This difference is not just political, but theological, and has consequences for the fate of illegal immigrants. For a Christian, the question of whether an undocumented immigrant is a criminal or a victim trapped in an unjust system depends on how one thinks about sin and human responsibility.

A century ago, preachers of the “Social Gospel” argued that sin was not only a matter of personal depravity: it was also a social problem. Our society, built by flawed human beings, is full of institutionalized sin, of greed and cruelty cemented in the structures that govern our lives.

The theologian Walter Rauschenbusch lamented in 1913 that “as long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness.” He urged Christians “to see through the fictions of capitalism.”

Conservative evangelicals decried Social Gospelers as liberals who replaced soul-winning with social work — or worse, socialism. They stressed personal responsibility and argued that genuine social change could come only through converting one sinner at a time to Christ.

Latino Protestants may share the core doctrines of white evangelicals, but not the fusion of Christianity and libertarianism that has come to pervade the right, perhaps in part because they have intimate experience with the inequalities ingrained in American institutions.

They have left their forefathers’ faith, but they tend to retain the common Catholic conviction that being “pro-life” requires combating social injustice and reining in capitalism when necessary. In 2011 the polling organization Latino Decisions found that although Latinos are committed to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and hard work, most don’t believe the free market can solve all problems. “Minority citizens prefer a more energetic government, by large and statistically significant margins,” wrote the organization’s researchers Gary Segura and Shaun Bowler. In 2012, 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama.

Americans’ opinions on immigration have always been connected to their broader ideas about the role of government authority. The platform of 19th-century nativists contained more than racist invective. It also proposed strong states’ rights, a smaller standing army and tight limits on government expenses — all to preserve the American ideal of the independent yeoman free to defend his homestead from crowned tyrants and foreign invaders.

White evangelical leaders are loudly rejecting the xenophobia of their ancestors, though most still cherish that old libertarian creed. It

Junk in the Trunk

Jason Micheli —  May 13, 2013 — 4 Comments

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

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

And also here:

      1. Junk in the Trunk
 

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

I have my reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve just read it so much.’ 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“Baptists” I thought to myself.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

They went on gossiping from there.

They used words like ‘shameful.’

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

     “No one is righteous, not one.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Them.”

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

Those people.

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

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

Those people.

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

Those people.

They’ve got no commitment. No decency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s Paul’s point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who we really are.

    ‘No one is righteous. Not one.’ 

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

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

‘Of course not,’ I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Uh, what do you mean?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Me four.

Because it’s true of all of us.

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

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

 

But Paul shows us what to do with our junk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul shows us what we can do with our junk.

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

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

     Look at what I’ve done. 

     This is who I was. 

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

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

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

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

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

     This is the insecurity that masks itself as cynicism. 

     These are all the people I refused to forgive. 

     This is the person closest to me I cheated on…

     But God…God forgives…all of it.’ 

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

of what God’s amazing grace can do.

Which is kind of a shame.

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s a shame.

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

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

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

 

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

We sang Amazing Grace.

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

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

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

     And I said: ‘Yeah.’ 

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

 

 

     

What is a Christian?

Jason Micheli —  May 12, 2013 — 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jesus, Our Brother

Jason Micheli —  April 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My life is as nothing before thee.

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

Hold not thou thy peace at my tears,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myers Karl Barth painting 1 In 1.1 §6.4 of the Dogmatics, Barth lines up nicely with our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

As I’ve posted about previously, Protestant thought sometimes so prioritizes ‘faith’ that Christianity becomes a religion solely about a human disposition rather than about the Word of God, Christ, to whom our faith is directed.

In fact, this is an issue behind disputes between present-day interpreters of Paul like NT Wright, on the one hand, and John Piper on the other. In question:

How does faith as the disposition of my heart relate the Christ event (‘the Righteousness of God’ Rom 1.17) as as the means of salvation?

Whereas Protestantism since Luther has tended to assume Paul’s primary theme in Romans is our faith- as in, our faith in Christ- NT Wright has insisted that, read within the context of 2nd Temple Judaism, Paul’s chief subject is the faith of Jesus Christ, or Jesus, the faithful one.

In Church Dogmatics 1.6.4, Karl Barth hashes out the relationship of faith to the word of God. And when “word of God” means, Christ the word of God. So for Barth it’s a question of the relationship between Christ as the object of our faith and our own faithful response to that Word.

Just as he does in his reflecting of the meaning of “word” and our “experience,” when it comes to ‘faith’ Barth wants to insist that what is true about how God is at work in the world is never true in and of itself, but only as a ongoing act of God.

Barth begins with one of his terrific small-print excursions, this one on faith, pistis, as firstly the faithfulness of God (Rom 3) and then through Christ’s work, the human response, our faith.

When talking about faith as the our response to the gospel, Barth draws us to a reality that faith is not ‘natural’ or inherent in us automatically.

It is not, despite what liberal theology holds, a dimension of our createdness.

True faith is defined and determined by its object, God, not by an inherent human disposition.

For the Christian, faith is not merely a one-time experience.

It must be exercised anew continuously.

From faith to faith as Paul says in Rom 1.17.

Faith is real, Barth says, because God, who is real. God has disclosed to us his Word, Jesus Christ, and we have seen and heard him. And faith is real for it is lived and experienced anew by the Spirit’s work.

Now that he’s established the knowability of God’s word, Barth is ready ready to move on to the project of his Dogmatics itself.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might have a Soterian Gospel if:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dikaiosyne theou is the fork in the Romans road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promise was always: for the world.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not just a parsing of theological jargon.

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

Events like the Boston bombing bear that out.

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Get Over Yourself

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

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

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

Romans 1.1-7

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

And that God uses broken people like me.

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

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

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

Well, I just couldn’t help myself.

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

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

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

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

I begged Dennis and Jason:

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

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

Jason said he wanted you to hear my voice.

It’s not what I wanted.

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

“Get over yourself.  

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

So I said yes.

Get over yourself.”

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

Getting over ourselves and becoming a new creation in Christ.

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t shrug the whole thing off.

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

What just happened here?”

That couldn’t have really been God?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike Paul, I was already blind.

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

For me, everything changed one morning.

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, what happens when everything changes for you?

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

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

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

Do you just shrug it off?

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

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

And then HE does.

Once we claim Him.  He claims us.

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

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

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

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

That kind of courage only comes with faith.  

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

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

It is about obedience through faith.

Not Paul’s obedience and faith – but ours.

Paul is following Jesus example of obedience through faith.

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

Rebellion is much more fashionable than obedience these days.   

We think it brings freedom.

Freedom from rules.

Freedom from oppression.

Freedom from THE MAN.

rutledgeFleming Rutledge says:

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

This church, these pews have been my trenches.

 

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

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

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

To put me back together again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where I got my life back.

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

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

This is where I found my balance.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Paul calls himself a servant of Christ.

Paul was a willing servant and slave for Christ.

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

A bond slave of Christ in debt to all.

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

”the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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