Archives For Romans

Here’s my sermon from this weekend.

The text was Luke 10.27-35. I got several anonymous complaints (from both conservatives and progressives) in the offering plate so maybe I was tracking with Jesus.

In front of a crowd of 70 (Or 140, who’s to say how big the crowd really was?) this lawyer tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him:

“Who is my neighbor?” he presses. 

     It’s the kind of bible question they could’ve debated for weeks.

Read one part of Leviticus and God’s policy is Israel First; your neighbor is just your fellow Jew.

Read another part of Leviticus and your neighbor includes the illegal immigrants and refugees in your land.

Turn to another bible text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Your neighbors might really only be the people who believe like you believe.

Read the right psalms and ‘neighbor’ definitely does not include your enemies. It’s naive, sing those psalms, to suppose your enemies are anything other than dangerous.

So, they could’ve sat around and debated on Facebook all week.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

About a man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left for dead, naked, in a ditch on the side of the road.

A priest and a Levite respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

Like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2 verbs:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else.

14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

Not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan, don’t you?

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote?

An anecdote like…

On Friday morning…

I drove to Starbucks to work on the sermon. As I got of my car, standing in front of Starbucks, I saw this guy in the cold.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the cold, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

I admit, I’m not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out? 

     I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool. 

     You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic. 

     Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’ 

     I thought to myself.

But mostly, I was irritated.

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

‘I don’t have any cash on me.’

I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the cold and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured otherwise you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven.

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for this worn-out parable right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you would go.

Feeling not inspired. But guilty.

Guilty knowing that none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

     If 14 verbs x Every Needy Person We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all. It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford. 

     The good news- and the bad- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said: ‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was as if he’d smacked me across the face.

We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered ‘round to hear about their Kingdom work.

Every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew.

And so when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.

When Jesus says ‘So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,’ NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’

When Jesus says ‘There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch so he crossed to other side and passed on by’    EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘What’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’

Ditto the Levite.

No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  No one would’ve been outraged.

As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.

The priest had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.

Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then (according to the Mishna) the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as contrary to everything we know of God.

But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.

As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then- no matter how many hospitals we name after this story- the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.

If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.

     Helping someone in need is not the takeaway.

     A little context-

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. Looted it.

And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just strangers. They weren’t just opponents on the other side of the Jewish aisle.

They were Other.

They were despised.

They were considered deplorable.

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. And the disciples’ antipathy towards them is such that they beg Jesus to call down an all-consuming holocaust upon the village.

In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’

‘The one who showed mercy’ is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.

The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need.

It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.

You don’t need Jesus for a lesson so inoffensively vanilla.

     No, Jesus is saying that even the most deplorable people- they care for those in need.

Therefore, they are our neighbors.

Upon whom our salvation depends.

I spent last week in California promoting my book, which if you’d like to pull out your smartphones now and order it on Amazon I won’t stop you.

On inauguration day I was being interviewed about my book, or at least I was supposed to be interviewed about my book. But once the interviewers found out I was a pastor outside DC, they just wanted to ask me about people like you all.

They wanted to know what you thought, how you felt, here in DC, about Donald Trump.

And because this was California it’s not an exaggeration to say that most everyone seated there in the audience was somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky. Seriously, you know you’re in LA when I’m the most conservative person in the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how I should respond when, after climbing on top of their progressive soapbox, the interviewers asked me “What do you think, Jason, we should be most afraid of about Donald Trump and his supporters?”

I thought about how to answer.

I wasn’t trying to be profound or offensive.

Turns out I managed to be both.

I said:

“I think with Donald Trump and his supporters, I think…Christians at least, I think we should be afraid of the temptation to self-righteousness. I think we should fear the temptation to see those who have politics other than ours as Other.”

Let’s just say they didn’t exactly line up to buy my book after that answer.

Neither was Jesus’ audience very enthused about his answer to the lawyer’s question.

As bored as we’ve become with this story, the irony is that we haven’t even cast ourselves correctly in it.

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. I wish. How flattering is that?

Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the man in the ditch and to see a deplorable Samaritan as the potential bearer of our salvation.

Jesus isn’t saying that we’re saved by loving our neighbors and that loving our neighbors means helping those in need.

No, Jesus is saying with this story what Paul says with his letter:

   That to be justified before God is to know that the line between good and evil runs                                                      not between Us and Them but through every human heart.

   That our propensity to see others as Other isn’t our idealogical purity. It’s our bondage to Sin. 

“All people, both the religious and the secular…Paul says

All people….both the right and the left- Paul could’ve said- both Republicans and Democrats, both progressives and conservatives, black and white and blue, gay or straight, all people are under the power of Sin.

“There is no distinction [among people], Paul says, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None is righteous, not one.”

“Therefore, you have no excuse…In judging others, you condemn yourself…you are storing up God’s wrath for yourself.”

Paul says.

“No one is righteous, not one.”

So,

     if you want to be justified instead of judged…If you want to inherit eternal life instead of its eternal opposite…

     Then you better imagine yourself as the desperate one in the ditch… and imagine your salvation coming from the most deplorable person your prejudice and your politics can conjure. 

Don’t forget-

We killed Jesus for telling stories like this one.

Maybe now you can feel why.

Especially now.

Into our partisan tribalism and talking-past points, our red and blue hues and social media shaming, our presumption and our pretense at being prophetic-

Into all of our self-righteousness and defensiveness-

Jesus tells a story where a feminist or an immigrant or a Muslim is forced to imagine their salvation coming to them in someone wearing a cap that reads Make America Great Again.

Jesus tells a story where that Tea Party person is near dead in the ditch and his rescue comes from a Black Lives Matter lesbian.

Where the confederate clad redneck comes to the rescue of the waxed- mustached hipster.

Where the believer is rescued by the unrepentant atheist.

A story where we’re the helpless, desperate one and our salvation comes to us from the last type of person we’d ever choose.

When Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we encounter.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

And more counter-cultural.

He’s telling us to see that even the deplorables in our worldview, even those whose hashtags are the opposite of ours, even they help those in need.

Therefore-

They are our neighbors.

Not only our neighbors.

They are our threshold to heaven.

Jesus says.

Go and do likewise?

It’s no wonder- I suppose- why we’re still so polarized.

After all, we only ever responded to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Wanting nothing to do with him.

Or, wanting to do away with him.

 

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

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

Listen to it.

 

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517When I was about to begin serving as a pastor for the first time over a dozen years ago, I decided to ask one of my seminary professors, Dr Jim Stewart, for advice on what to do when starting out in a congregation- something for which seminary doesn’t actually prepare you.

Dr. Stewart looked top heavy with his mop of curly white hair on top of his short, heavyset body. He wore thick brown glasses, which when removed revealed that Dr Stewart was a dead ringer for the actor Charles Durning who played Doc Hopper in the Muppet Movie.

After class one day, I walked up to Dr Stewart as he was stuffing papers into his leather satchel and I asked him for advice on beginning in my first congregation.

He answered so quickly I almost thought he was responding to someone else’s question:

“Don’t change ANYTHING for the first 6 months. Earn their trust. Don’t do or say anything provocative. Don’t ruffle feathers. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t rock the boat. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.”

He slid more papers into his satchel as I processed what sounded to me like an insult in the form of advice. Dr Stewart looked up and smiled and said:

‘Don’t worry, that’s a comment about you. I give the same advice to every new pastor.’

I can’t speak for the other denominations whose clergy Dr Stewart has advised, but I can say that his words are frustrated by the fact that United Methodist bishops appoint their pastors to churches during the last week of June/first week of July.

So, in the United Methodist Church new clergy are making just their first or second impressions over Independence Day weekend, a time when most folks are not in church and others come to church with a diversity of expectations.

I packed Dr Stewart’s advice along with my books and my belongings and I took it with me to my new church.

On Day 1, my secretary first walked me through the church directory. Second, she gave me the skinny on church gossip, and third she informed me that, as the new pastor in town, I was scheduled to preach the sermon at the annual, ecumenical Independence Day Service.

‘But Independence Day isn’t even a Christian holiday.’

My secretary just stared at me, saying nothing, as though she were a soothsayer foreseeing the self-destructive implosion that would be this new pastor’s Independence Day sermon.

Like all things 4th of July, the ecumenical service was held outdoors, in a city park. I arrived early. Lee Greenwood’s ‘Proud to be an American’ was booming through the speakers as I parked my car.

When I got to the pavilion area, I spotted a large, wooden cross in the center of the stage- the kind of cross you’d see on the side of the highway.

Only this cross had a large, car dealership-sized American flag draped over it.

And I swear, in that instant, Dr Stewart appeared to me like Yoda to Luke Skywalker. And starting at old glory covering up the old rugged cross, I heard Dr Stewart’s advice ring in the air:

‘Don’t ruffle feathers. Be as inoffensive and ordinary as possible.’

I walked up to a guy who looked like the master of ceremonies- a Pentecostal preacher, it turned out. I introduced myself and then I said:

‘Say, maybe we should take the flag off the cross before people show up for the service and get upset.’

The Pentecostal preacher just stared at me- the same soothsaying way my secretary had- and then he said: ‘Why would anyone get upset? This is the Independence Day Service after all.’

And I was about to respond at least as colorfully as the stars and stripes, but then I saw Dr Stewart appear in an angelic haze, like Obi Wan to young Luke, and I heard Dr Stewart say:

‘Don’t upset anyone.’

So I said nothing.

Cross-Wooden-with-Draped-American-FlagA couple hundred people gathered for the ecumenical Independence Day Service, which began with a greeting by a Brethren pastor.

Before we realized what was happening, the Brethren pastor had slid from words of welcome into a ‘Fatherwejust’ prayer. His prayer was a confession, a lament, of all the ways America has absconded from the Christian values of its founding.

His lament was exhaustive and exhausting, and all the while I gripped my bible and sighed, trying to conjure the image of Dr Stewart.

After the fatherwejust prayer, we sang ‘America’ and the ‘Battle Hymn,’ which in hindsight were the high points of the service. And after the ‘glory, glory, hallelujahs’ the local Episcopal priest got up and offered another prayer- this one thanking God that we live in a nation where we’re free to pursue what sounded to me like positions from the Democratic Party platform.

Again, I sighed and death-gripped my bible, waiting for some mention of Jesus to make its way into the prayer. But it never did.

Next, the Master of Ceremonies, the Pentecostal preacher, stood in front of the flag-draped-cross and read the Declaration of Independence, and when he finished, he said:

‘I’d like to invite the new Methodist pastor, Rev James MacChelly, to come up and preach for us.’

I’d come that day armed with a few pages of a sermon on serving your neighbor, a harmless, vanilla homily I could’ve easily delivered at a Kiwanis meeting as at a worship service.

But walking up to the flag-draped-cross, I decided a different message was needed. I decided to change gears and improvise. I decided I should trust the Holy Spirit not to let me crash and burn.

And I’ve preached from a manuscript ever since.

First, I read not from the Golden Rule as I’d planned, but from the Apostle Paul- not today’s text but one just like it, where Paul writes:

God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and exalted him to sit at the right hand of the Father and given him the name that is above every name; so that, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

When I finished reading the scripture, a few people said ‘Amen,’ which I erroneously took as a promising sign.

And then I began:

I know a lot of you are expecting me to speak about America or politics or patriotism. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But I’m a preacher. The bishop laid hands on me to proclaim not America but the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

I looked out in the crowd and saw Dr Stewart sitting on a lawn chair near the 3rd row. He was shaking his head and mouthing the words: ‘Don’t rock the boat.’

But I ignored him.

     The bishop laid hands on me to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     The Gospel isn’t Jesus is going to be Lord one day; the Gospel isn’t Jesus will be Lord after he returns to Earth to rapture us off to the great bye and bye. 

     The Gospel is that Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is Lord. The Gospel isn’t that Jesus rules in heaven; the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rules the nations of the world fromheaven. 

     You see, I said, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that something fundamental as changed in the world, something to which we’re invited to believe and around which we’re called to reorient our lives and for which, if necessary, we’re expected to sacrifice our lives. 

     To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord is to profess that at Easter God permanently replaced the way of Caesar, the way of the world with the way of Jesus, a way that blesses the poor, that comforts those who mourn, a way where righteousness is to hunger and thirst after justice and where the Kingdom belongs to those who wage…peace. 

Dr Stewart sat in his lawn chair, giving me a sad, ‘it’s-not-too-late-to-turn-back’ look. But it was too late.

I was commissioned to preach the Gospel, I said.

     And the Gospel- the Gospel of Paul and Peter and James and John and Luke and Mark and Matthew- is that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     And in their day the Gospel announcement had a counter-cultural correlative: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. 

     I could tell from the crinkled brows in the crowd that they could yet tell if or how I was subverting their expectations.

So I decided to make it plain.

     And in our day, the Gospel has a counter-cultural correlative to it too. 

     Jesus is Lord, and ‘We the people’ are not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Democratic Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and the Republican Party is not. 

     Jesus is Lord, and America- though it’s deserving of our pride and our commitment and our gratitude- is not Lord. 

     As wonderful as this nation is, we are not God’s Beloved because Jesus Christ is God’s Beloved and his Body is spread through the world. 

The crinkled brows in the crowd had turned to crossed arms and angry faces, and a few people got up and left.

Dr Stewart was now sitting in his lawnchair mouthing the words ‘I told you so.’

I’d lost them, all of them, and I knew if any of them in the crowd were members of my new congregation they wouldn’t be for much longer. I knew I had to steer this wreck of a sermon off the road as quickly as possible.

So I said:

Independence Day Weekend is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians we carry 2 passports. We have dual citizenship: 2nd to the US of A and 1st to the Kingdom of God. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that as baptized Christians, our politics are not determined by Caesar or Rome or Washington. As baptized Christians, our politics- our way being in the world- are conformed to the one whom God raised from the dead. 

     Independence Day is as good a time as any to remember that you can be a proud American. You can be thankful for your country. You can serve your country. 

     But if you’re baptized, then you’ve pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and your ultimate citizenship is to his Kingdom, and even as we celebrate the 13 Colonies’ independence we shouldn’t forget that our primary calling as baptized Christians is to colonize the Earth with the way of Jesus Christ. 

     That’s what we pray when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come…’ 

I thought that sounded like a good place to end the sermon so I said: ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

And the gathered crowd responded with ‘harummphhhhhhhhhhhhh…….’

I looked up in the crowd and saw that Dr Stewart was no longer there, which wasn’t all that surprising because neither were several dozen other people.

Though its harder to decipher, in Romans 6 Paul makes the same point as that passage I read a dozen years ago.

Paul builds on his argument by showing you how Jesus is the 2nd Moses, how Christ has delivered us from the domain of Sin and Death so that we might walk in newness of life.

And that word ‘walk’ is key. It’s ‘halakah.’

It comes from the Exodus, when God- through Moses- rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and delivered them to a  new life by parting the Red Sea so that they could walk across it on dry land.

 Paul’s point is that through our baptism we leave the old world and we are liberated into God’s new creation; so that, as baptized Christians, we live eternity in the here and now.

That’s what Jesus means by ‘eternal life.’

For Paul, the resurrection inaugurates a new reality in the world; so that, baptism is for us what the Red Sea was for the Israelites: a doorway into a new Kingdom, a new and different and distinct People in the world.

That’s what Paul means when he says elsewhere that all the old national and political and ethnic distinctions do not matter because the baptized are now united in Christ.

     For Paul, baptism isn’t so much the outward symbol of a believer’s faith. Baptism unites into Christ so that what is true of him is now true of us, and what’s true of him is that he has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God where he is the Lord over the nations of the Earth.

 

You see, for Paul, baptism is our naturalization ceremony in which allegiance and loyalty is transferred from the kingdoms and nations of this world to the Kingdom of God.

After the service ended, the pastors formed a receiving line to shake hands with folks as they left. I was at the far end of the line. Not wanting any guilt by association, the other pastors had left ample buffer space between them and me.

Most people just walked by me and glared at me like I was a wife beater.

A few people joked: ‘I wouldn’t unpack my new office just yet if I were you Rev. MacChellee.’

 Finally a man in his 50’s or 60’s came up to me.

He had a high and tight haircut and was wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and a Marine Corps tattoo on his forearm.

And he said: ‘Preacher, I just want to thank you.’

‘Thank me? For what exactly?’

     ‘I never have understood how Paul got himself executed, but listening to you preach I finally understand why people would want to kill him.’

‘Look, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I admit it. It wasn’t a good sermon for a new guy to preach.’

     ‘No, I’m dead serious. I always thought being a Christian was about believing in Jesus so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime we’re supposed to be kind to our neighbors.

‘But that doesn’t make Christians much different than the Rotary Club or any other American.’

‘As stupid as your sermon was, it helped me see that being a Christian is a whole lot more complicated than I thought, but maybe a lot more interesting too.’

     12 years ago, Independence Day Weekend- that was the wrong sermon to preach. I know that now.

It ruffled feathers.  It sounded offensive. It upset nearly everyone.

They didn’t know me. They didn’t know if I was serving up flip opinions or speaking out of a sincere faith. I hadn’t earned their trust.

It was the wrong sermon to preach.

For them.

     But I’ve been here 8 years.

You do know me. You’ve learned how to listen to me. You know that even when I sound flip my faith is sincere.

I’ve been here 8 years and I think I’ve earned at least a little of your trust.

So trust me when I tell you that I’m grateful to live in a nation where I am free to irritate you every other Sunday.

But hear me when I tell you:

as baptized Christians, we are a People who carry 2 passports, who have dual citizenship but only 1 allegiance.

 

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take pride in our American identity; I am saying that our primary identity should come from the Lordship of Christ.

(And in too many cases, it doesn’t.)

I’m not saying our independence isn’t something to celebrate; I am saying that our dependence on God, which we’ve been liberated into by the resurrection of Christ, should be a greater cause for celebration.

(And very often, it isn’t.)

I’m not saying that the flag shouldn’t be a powerful symbol for us; I am saying that the Cross and the Bread and the Cup and the Water should be more powerful symbols.

(And, let’s be honest, most of the time they’re not.)

Because as baptized Christians, we belong to a different Kingdom, a Kingdom that can’t be advanced by force or political parties or legislation or constitutional amendments- we belong to a Kingdom that can only be advanced the way it was advanced by Jesus Christ.

Through witness. And faithfulness. And service. And sacrificial love.

9781501824753Several years ago the church I serve opened the doors of its youth wing to welcome the members of a local mosque. Their own facility was undergoing construction and they needed a place to offer their Friday Jummah prayers. Even though many of the Muslims who came to pray in our building were the same people who drove cabs in our neighborhood, owned the service stations that inspect our cars, cared for our aging parents in the nursing homes, and cleaned our locker rooms at the gym, many from the community greeted the worshippers with fear.

As the Other.

The members of my church council voted unanimously to show hospitality to our Muslim neighbors; the gesture was not so unanimous in the larger congregation. Many church members and families left over the decision. Few of them spoke with us before leaving. I can say confidently that we are a stronger congregation for having shown such hospitality to our neighbors not only because it taught us, as a congregation, how to experience conflict and work through it together, something our United Methodist itinerant system too often prevents, but also because it reminded us as Christians that, no matter what the church vitality books tell us, not all congregational conflict is bad. By many measures conflict should be an expected consequence of working with Jesus in a world that still seeks to operate as though Christ were not Lord.

I believe our church is stronger too because, with hindsight, we know it was the right, faithful step to take. We’re stronger as a church because we showed courage, which, as Will Willimon writes, “…is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear- fearing, revering, and honoring something more than safety.” In my sermon the Sunday after we decided to welcome our neighbors-who-were-taken-to-be-Other, I said:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us. Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one. We do this because this is the labor Christ has commanded us.

Admitting how the concerns around global terrorism were real and the policies with which to address it best were vague, we attempted to stress that the command of Jesus was stark and clear. We’re to welcome the Other, and, as Christians, we take our marching orders not from our Party’s talking points or Fox News but from the Risen Lord who warned us that one day we’ll judged on just this count.

Will Willimon, in his new book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, expresses the same sentiment but frames it better than me: “Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others.” In a political culture marked by pervasive and often nasty fear, Christians instead should be afraid that we’re ignoring God, who took flesh, got uncomfortably particular in Jesus of Nazareth, and commanded us very specifically to love our enemies and welcome the stranger.

Says Willimon:

Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others. Our problem, in regard to fear, is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

If we are not sure that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I am certain that we cannot worship God who is Jesus Christ without also being under compulsion to encounter and embrace [the Other].

Willimon begins Fear of the Other with a characteristic theme; namely, the peculiarity of our baptismal identify in Christ and the distinctiveness of Christian discipleship. Like Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon reminds his readers that the American We in “We must build walls along our borders” and “We must keep Muslims out of our country” is not a ‘we’ that can include the followers of Jesus Christ.

Keeping the linguistic metaphor, Willimon observes the simple and obvious fact that Christian speech will not allow us to say certain things about strangers, aliens, or enemies. In a climate of fear Christians have no recourse but to remember that the only One whom we’re called to fear, the Lord, commanded us repeatedly “Do not fear.” Accordingly, in the very first paragraph of Fear of the Other, Willimon aims his little book at those presently stoking our fears to their own advantage and to our own tribal satisfaction. Almost as a dedication, Willimon writes:

Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book…Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.

From that TNT of an opening salvo, Willimon approaches Fear of the Other from a Barthian angle, arguing that as residents of the Far Country, the would-be-judged were it not for the Judge judged in our place, we are the Other to God. And by concealing himself in the flesh of a carpenter from Nazareth, God comes to us as the Other. Our posture of welcome and hospitality towards the Other is rooted in the Gospel awareness that apart from Jesus Christ we are all enemies of God.

As Willimon puts it: “Any Christian move toward the Other is based upon Jesus Christ’s move toward us: ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies.’”

That the prejudice towards Other love is incontestable in both testaments leads me to wonder if the fear and xenophobia so rampant today, where majorities of evangelical Christians support Ted Cruz and Donald Trump whose policies defy the very commands of God to Moses on Sinai, is due to a lack of Gospel proclamation in our churches. Are we in the fearful, ugly state we’re in now because we long ago traded the kerygma for an individualized therapeutic gospel for survival in Christendom?

Willimon hints at a connection:

An important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I am the one who by my lifestyle and choices make myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

Something must account for the disconnect between what scripture compels of Christians and how how so many of us Christians feel compelled to act in the public square. Unlike so many of the hot-button political issues that divide us, on this issue scripture is univocal. We can honest about the practical challenges our enemies and the Other pose to our society, but “Christians ought to admit that in debates about the Other Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ.” 

In what I take to be the most delightful passage in the book, Willimon skillfully exegetes the word for stranger in scripture, xenoishowing how the New Testament reports Jesus warns us that we will be judged according to how well we welcome and care for xenoi, how Judas, according to Matthew, was buried in a field reserved for xenoi, and how Paul in Ephesians proclaims that what has been accomplished through cross and resurrection is that xenoi are no longer xenoi but family in the household of God.

Only when we recognize ourselves as a Judas at the Table of our Lord can we welcome the xenoi amount us. And that’s a recognition we cannot accomplish by our own lights. Only the Risen Lord’s own work of revelation can so transform us that we see ourselves as a fellow betrayer of Christ. That the welcome we’re commanded to extended is likened to someone such as Judas is echoed by Paul in Romans, the point with which Willimon concludes Fear of the Other.

In Romans 11; Paul uses the phrase para phusin to describe God’s radically offensive act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s extravagantly unnatural hospitality.

Christians have been adopted so unnaturally we must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and the Other. Because we are saved by such a strange grace, the welcome of strangers is a necessary posture for Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of welcome towards the Other is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

Willimon’s a hard, needful word in an election season where many Christians seem more captivated by their Party’s story of America than by the Gospel story. Fear of the Other thus strikes the very Barthian chord that not only are Christians required to forgive and love our enemies, we’re expected, by our faithfulness to this Gospel, to create enemies who are worth forgiving and often those enemies will not be the Other outside of the church but those of us inside it.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

lightstock_486_small_user_2741517-2Here’s my final sermon for this summer’s series through Romans. My texts were Romans 12.2, 13.7-11 as well as Mark 10.17-30. I’ll post the audio when it becomes available.

“Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

This is St. Paul starting to turn towards the finish line in his Letter to the Romans. After long eleven chapters, this is Paul reaching his conclusion.

This is Paul culminating  his dense argument on righteousness and justice and the faithfulness of God with a few sleeves-rolled-up, go-now-and-do ‘therefores.’

Paul has already answered the question that animated his argument from the get-go: Has God abandoned his People?

No, Paul has determined, leaving no room for ambiguity.

No.

No, God has not- God would not, not ever- abandon his promises to his People; so, do not be conformed to this world.

So live now as if the answer is no, as if God will never, could never abandon you.

Live as if God will always be with you. Live as if God never cease being for you.

Do not be conformed to this world.

In other words: live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Everything in Paul’s letter has been building to this point.

From ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for the ungodly’ to ‘nothing- nor height, nor depth- nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

From ‘for I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it is the power of God for salvation’ to ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ to ‘there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus.’

Everything. Every memory verse has been building to this point: Do not be conformed. To the world. This world.

Of course, that just begs the question: What’s that look like? To be not conformed?

What’s it mean exactly to live in the likeness of the Kingdom?

So Paul begins to spell out in Romans 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

     Sounds simple enough, right?

     That is, until you remember- as I’m sure Paul wants you to remember- that when Jesus gave the same advice it came with a very big asterisk:

‘Go, sell everything that you own and give the money to the poor.

Then come and follow me.’

     Jesus said to the rich, young man in the Gospels, who had insisted he’d been keeping all the commandments his whole life.

     Sell everything you own. Give it to the poor. Then follow me.

     (If you want to make it to heaven.)

     Is that the kind of commitment Paul has in mind when he says we should not be conformed to this world?

     Now that we’ve heard his argument, now that we know God does not abandon his People, does Paul expect us to be able to do what the rich, young man could not do?

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A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.

Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’

Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.

The story Paul echoes in Romans 13, the story about Jesus and the rich man- that’s the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.

I did so because in Matthew’s Gospel the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes the rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.

To all of those seniors setting off for college where they would continue to be conformed to the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about the rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.

And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in a previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.

I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America.

All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.

I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling.

All in all, it seemed like it went okay.

Then I made the mistake of walking into the fellowship hall for the reception. All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.

At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.

     ‘Do you always preach like that?’ 

The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.

‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.

‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.

‘No, and we never will.’ 

     ‘I guess I don’t understand.’ 

‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. You call yourself inspirational speaker?’  

And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’ 

He stormed off with his family in tow.

Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.

He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’

‘He didn’t?’ I asked.

And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’ 

And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.

I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’ 

I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.

I almost escaped the fellowship hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.

He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’ 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

     ‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’ 

And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’ 

I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.

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I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.

‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’ 

She blushed but didn’t smile.

‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.

‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’ 

She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’ 

‘You must be Baptist,’ I said.

She nodded but she didn’t laugh.

And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.

‘Lady, whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’ 

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     ‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’ 

      That’s the question the rich, young man asks. It’s basically the same question as the one provoked by Paul’s ‘Do not be conformed to this world’ conclusion: What’s it mean to live in the likeness of the Kingdom.

Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.

And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.

       ‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

Then the Gospel says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’ 

This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love all the time but this rich, young man is the only person in the Gospels Jesus loved as an individual.

     ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 

And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’ 

He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.

They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.

And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’ 

 

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I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘

I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: ‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’ 

‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.

And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’ 

‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus must’ve thought he could make more of his life than what the world tells us to settle for.’

He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’  

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When it comes to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we get so jacked up worrying that Jesus might expect us to do what that rich young man could not.

     We get so preoccupied rationalizing ourselves free of the story that we completely miss- don’t even notice- how, in the story, Jesus is the one who loves.

     Jesus is the one who loves God.

     Jesus is the one who loves his neighbor, literally, as much as he loves himself.

 

So then-

What it means to love God

What it means to love your neighbor as yourself

What it means to live as if God could never, would never abandon us

     What it means to be conformed not to this world is to be like Jesus.

And what it means to be like Jesus is to love your neighbor the way Jesus loved his.

Did you catch that?

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

     And that means to love our neighbors requires that we not let the world conform our neighbors to itself.

To love our neighbors requires that we not let the world convince them that happiness can be bought, that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or that possessions do anything for us other than weigh us down like a fully-loaded camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

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To love our neighbors, the way Jesus loved them, requires that we not let the world seduce our neighbors into thinking that they are not their brothers’ keeper, that poverty is a problem that should cost us nothing, that those who live by the sword will live by the sword, that salvation is an individual enterprise.

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them enough to tell them that Jesus thinks they’re capable of more than just a successful or happy life. That Jesus thinks their life can be significant, that Jesus even believes they’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.

What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

To love them with active verbs like GO, SELL, REPENT. CONFESS. COME, FOLLOW. FEED. SERVE. GIVE. FORGIVE. MAKE PEACE. SHOW MERCY. MAKE DISCIPLES.

     What it means to love our neighbors is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

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To teach them to love their enemies.

To tell them they’re meant to be like light to the world.

To exhort them to turn the other cheek and forgive 70 x 7.

To point to the one ditch, to the one in need, to the one in shame and remind them that God desires mercy not sacrifice.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to make sure they know that God’s plan is to change the world, to remake the world, and he chooses people like you to be that change.

     What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his. 

     And that doesn’t sound like good news because no one wants a neighbor who’s up in their business like Jesus is up in ours.

But given the news this week from Ferguson and Palestine and Iraq and fill in the blank…maybe that’s exactly the type of neighbor the world needs.

 

What it means to love your neighbor is to love them the way Jesus loved his.

When you really stop to think about what Jesus and Paul would have us do, it begins to sound a lot easier to just sell all our stuff and give it away to the poor.

I mean to love our neighbors the way Jesus loved his sounds…impossible.

     But I suppose nothing’s impossible with God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

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

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

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

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

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus teaches us two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Untitled9This weekend we began our summer sermon series, Songs of the Messiah, during which we’ll look at how Paul uses the Psalms of the Old Testament throughout his argument in his Letter to the Romans.

The texts this weekend were Psalm 98 and Romans 1.16-17, Paul’s thesis statement.

To get at the meaning of ‘righteousness’ in scripture, a word whose meaning can get lost religious-speak, I invited a friend to join me for the sermon, Brian Stolarz. I’ve written about Brian on the blog before.

imagesBrian is a defense lawyer who has written a book, One Big Setup, about his experiences getting Alfred Dewayne Brown off of Death Row in Texas.

I’ll add the text of the sermon when I have it but you can listen to the audio below or in the sidebar to the right.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

 

Untitled9This weekend we kick-off a new sermon series for the summer, Songs of the Messiah, which will track the way St. Paul uses the Psalms in his Letter to the Romans to unpack who Jesus is and what God accomplished through him for Israel and the world.

In the first 3 chapters of Romans Paul famously argues that the creation itself is both a revelation of God’s love and a revelation of human sin, such is the extent of our depravity. Only through the faith of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is the story of Sin unwound and retold, writes Paul (3.22-25).

Another way of putting Paul’s point: the devil was right.

“You shall be as gods,” said the serpent to Eve, and he was right. We shall be as gods.’ At least that’s how the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, saw it.

It’s Christian cliche to call the devil ‘the prince of lies,’ but for McCabe any proper understanding of the Jesus story hinges on the recognition that what the serpent promises Eve is true.

We will become as God.

The devil tells the truth.

Just as the devil tells the truth to Jesus in the wilderness. All authority on earth will be given to Jesus- is given to Jesus, as Christ as much says before ascends to the Father at the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

The devil tells the truth.

It’s just a question of how that truth will should come to pass.

imagesSays McCabe:

‘But the question is ‘How?’ How will we become as gods? In the delusory way of claiming a separate, independent divinity for ourselves, or by receiving the only authentic divinity as a gift from God himself in Christ through his faithfulness?’ 

The story of sin and salvation, according to McCabe, is really just the story of the two ways we become as g(G)od: on our own terms or by Christ.

‘Sin is itself a strange and distorted caricature of the gift of God. Sin is to grab for yourself autonomy, to deny your creature-hood, to make yourself a god; but the gift of God is to receive divinity, to be taken beyond creature-hood. 

Strangely, it is by accepting our creature-hood, by obeying the law of the Lord (which is just the law of our created being, the law of our humanity), it is in obeying this law that we are miraculously carried beyond it into the friendship of God.’ 

So the devil told the truth about the what- our eventual divinity.

It was the ‘how’ he and we were- and so often are- wrong about.

‘When we acknowledge our existence, our selfhood, our meaning as a gift from God we find that this gift is even greater than that, that we are given more than good creature-hood.’

The devil told the truth as far as he could know it. He could not know the means by which that would become true, that in the Son and through the Spirit we would be taken up into the very life and love- the friendship- of the Triune God.

Or, as St Athanasius summarized it so well:

God became human; so that, we might become God.

 

barth_in_pop_art_5This weekend I’ll continue the Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways Jesus Saves Us, with a brief homily on anger.

Wrath.

In the tradition, each of the capital vices is thought to have a correlative virtue: humility to sin’s pride.

But what about anger? Wrath?

And how is it that a word that counts as a deadly sin (wrath) when applied to humanity can simultaneously count as a divine attribute when applied to God?

Is our wrath part of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God?

Or is God, in God’s wrath, less human than us?

Wrath is perhaps the easiest of the deadly sins to put into the context of the atonement- how Jesus saves us- for the most pervasive understanding of the Cross in the modern West is that of penal substitution, the idea that on the Cross Jesus suffers the full wrath of God otherwise directed against sinners like us.

While the language of substitution is certainly biblical, I’ve commented here before that I think the suggestion that Jesus suffers the Father’s wrath raises a number of moral and theological problems:

How is one Person of the Trinity directed against another Person?

How is it that the God who in the Son spoke of peace and putting away the sword and dies without resorting to violence uses violence to redeem?

And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?

How is God, who is not a Being in the Universe, affected by my or your sin?

How is it that God, who is immutable and impassible, has God’s disposition towards us changed by the Cross?

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002Above all, though, the death of Fred Phelps has me wondering if Christians make an idol out of God’s wrath, defending its scriptural warrant and theo-logic in order to justify our own prejudices.

In this suspicion I have an ally in Karl Barth, who famously reworked penal substitution in his Church Dogmatics. Elsewhere, Barth recognized how dangerous a doctrine like ‘God’s Wrath’ could be in the hands of sinners.

We are exhorted in the Epistle to the Romans to a particular line of conduct, not in order that we may adopt the point of view of God, but that we might bear it in mind, consider it from all sides, and then live within its gravity.

To judge involves the capacity to assign guilt and to envelop an action in wrath. God has this capacity and exercises it continuously. But, as the capacity of God, it is invisibly one with His forgiveness and with the manifestation of His righteousness.

Our action in judging possesses, however, nothing of this double-sidedness. We do not possess the divine freedom of rejecting AND electing.

When we permit ourselves to judge others, we are caught up in condemnation: the result is that we merely succeed in erecting the wrath of God as an idol. . . .

When God rejects and hardens there is hope and promise. . . .

How different it is when men, putting themselves in God’s place, put stumblingblocks in the way of other men. They seek only to harden, and not to liberate; only to bind, and not to loose; only to kill, and not to make alive. . . . Here once again the supreme right is the supreme wrong, if we suppose that right is OUR right.

Epistle to the Romans, 516 

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.