Archives For Sermons

This weekend we’re concluding our recent sermon series, Revolution of the Heart, with Luke’s second story of resurrection: the encounter on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24).

looking_01As I do, I’ve been spending several hours a day studying the text as well as what other saints and sinners have had to say about it.

I still haven’t discovered the sermon for Sunday, but, as I do, I’ve come across several exegetical nuggets that, while they probably won’t find their way into the sermon, shed more light on the text.

For instance:

Luke 24 parallels Luke 2.

Whereas Mark’s frenetic pace, apocalyptic tone and disarming hero reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, with his carefully arranged plot and neatly calibrated scenes, Luke is the New Testament’s Charles Dickens.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are leaving Jerusalem after the Passover. They discover their little boy is not with them. They run back to Jerusalem frantic and fearful. Only on the third day do they find them where the precocious little twerp has the stones to reply: ‘It was necessary to be in my Father’s house.’

In Luke 24, another couple are leaving Jerusalem after yet another Passover pilgrimage. A man named Cleopas and a companion not named- most likely his wife. They’re despondent that Jesus is no longer with them. They meet a stranger who check mates their sorrow by showing how “it was necessary” that the Messiah should die and be raised.” It’s the third day. They recognize in the breaking of bread that this stranger is the Jesus who’d been lost.

Another nugget:

Luke 24 is where Jesus becomes the ‘Lord’ (again).

There are things you notice more easily if you read the Gospel straight through like you would a novel or short story.

From beginning to nearly the end, Luke constantly refers to Jesus as the Lord.

Pre-magnificat, Elizabeth welcomes Mary “the mother of my Lord.”

The many sick who ask Jesus for a little miracle working make their request by calling him ‘Lord.’

When the disciples go out in pairs Luke says it’s the ‘Lord’ who sends them.

Peter doesn’t simply deny Jesus, according to Luke he denies the ‘Lord.’

But in Luke when Christ’s Passion begins, his of the ‘Lordship’ ends.

Before Pilate, on trial for claiming to be King of the Jews, Luke makes no mention of him also being the ‘Lord.’

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus is just ‘Jesus.’ So too when he’s before Herod. Before the crowd, it’s even worse. ‘Jesus’ is now just ‘this man’ while the other prisoner’s name, ‘Barabbas,’ means ‘son of the Father.’

On the way to the Cross, Luke calls him Jesus. He’s jeered and mocked and spit upon for feigning to be the Christ, the Messiah. No one calls him Lord, not even Luke.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It’s ‘Jesus’ who’s taunted by the thief on the cross. It’s ‘Jesus’ who gives up his spirit to breath his last. It’s ‘Jesus’ whom Mary and the Beloved watch die. It’s ‘Jesus’ whose body is taken down and buried.

rembrandt_emmaus-maaltijd_grtBut then the 3rd day later, the 8th day of the week, which is the first day, when the women come to anoint his body and discover it gone, they’re not scared that Jesus’ body is missing. They’re upset the Lord’s body is missing.

Having been killed and raised, Jesus is Lord again.

And when run back from Emmaus, they’re not screaming excitedly about ‘Jesus.’ They announce ‘The Lord has risen indeed.’

Luke does in chapter 24 what he has Peter do in his first sermon in Acts: You crucified ‘Jesus’ but God through his resurrection God has made him ‘Lord.’

This little nugget probably makes for a better Easter sermon:

Resurrection = God’s enthroning Jesus as King and Lord of the Nations.

However, that Luke has the ‘Lord’ go dark during the Passion story begs the question:

Who it is that dies on the Cross?

God (in the flesh)?

Or Jesus (just the flesh)?

So much of our theology eludes the depiction of God making someone else suffer and die on the Cross by arguing that it’s God’s own self who dies on the Cross (thank you Trinitarian theology).

Luke though seems to suggest otherwise.

It’s Jesus who dies on the Cross.

It’s God who vindicates him.

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

539883_10150811981690380_1524963676_nHindsight is 20/20

The 17 year old staring back at me from my glossy prom picture can’t be me.

He just can’t.

He’s wearing a painfully pinstriped tux, made of material cut from somewhere between Dick Tracy and Johnny Cash’s Man in Black. Underneath, he’s wearing an off-white, collarless dress shirt with a black onyx button- sort of like an outsized cufflink or a bolo tie minus the string- where the bow tie would go on a more sensible person.

He can’t be me, I think whenever I see him. Please, let it not be me.

The hair is fuller. The face is thinner. The frame not yet filled out, the eyes affecting a very deliberate Richard Gere type squint (it was 1995). Were it not for the presence of my future wife there in the photo I might have plausible deniability but instead all I have is gratitude that she married me in spite of my crimes.

The prom photo stays hidden in a brown box along with other old photos, yearbooks and swim team ribbons. I pull it out once year or so in a bout of ill-advised nostalgia. And whenever I see it- the terrible tux, the excessively gelled hair, the long Luke Perry sideburns (it was 1995)- I think to myself:  What was I thinking? It can’t be me. He looks familiar but he can’t be me, I say. I pray, my memory chastened by embarrassment.

That’s pretty much how I feel when it comes to my old sermons.

In the same guest room closet, in a different brown box, I keep all my old sermons. After having preached more or less regularly for 12 years the box is nearly full. It contains a little over 500 of my attempts at preaching. In it, there are sermons preached in small, dying churches and large, growing congregations.

There’s a folder full of sermons preached in a hot, sticky prison chapel where the air was every bit as thick as the inmates’ restlessness. There’s another folder of sermons from weddings and baccalaureates. There’s a fat folder of funeral sermons, among them are many sermons where the dearly departed enjoyed their full biblical allotment of years, a few others where suicide gave the sermon a different hue and more sermons than I’d like from funerals where the casket was not more than 3 feet long.

In that brown box are 530 Sundays worth of sermons. That’s approximately 10,600 minutes logged in the pulpit and 1,060,000 words written in a black moleskin or typed on a laptop, all in an ongoing and often elusive effort to explicate the biblical text.

And if I have any wisdom gleaned, any perspective, it’s of the ‘lessons learned’ currency: embarrassment that that voice in the sermon is mine; dismay that anyone’s been willing to listen to me; wonder that through me (in spite of me) some of have heard  God speak.

The homiletical equivalent of my prom picture is a sermon I preached long ago on the story of Balaam’s Ass, in which I thought it would be clever to assume the perspective of the ass.

Though it was not my intention, I made an ass of myself.

Whenever I look at that prom picture I blush with embarrassment. I can hardly bear to look at it even though I know my meticulously cultivated look in 1995 was more than acceptable.

That’s how I feel about my preaching whenever I read through some of my old sermons. I’m sure my preaching was adequate in the moment, but with the passing of time even my best homiletical musterings look as awkward as a tuxedoed 17 year old. The cadence and rhythm feel familiar. The sentence structure looks like mine. The irony is all me. But did I really say that? I find myself asking. Did I really make a metaphor of the incarnation or the resurrection? Did I really dilute the Gospel so badly?  What was I thinking? That can’t be me, I say.

I pray.

Kurt Vonnegutt quips about the fear that comes once you realize the world is run by the people with whom you went to high school.

Eventually one realizes the Church’s pulpits also are filled by the people with whom you went to high school.

And maybe for those in the pews that’s grounds for fear. But for preachers, I think, it’s a kind of grace. When it comes to preaching, none of us is perfect. We never were and we never will be.

Nor do we have to be. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts only need to be acceptable. God does the rest.

If its possible for the living God to inhabit my words on any given Sunday and speak through them, then I suppose its possible for God to take my embarrassment and spin it into wisdom. Or at least perspective.

 

Fair-Weather Jesus Fans

Jason Micheli —  June 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

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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.

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeHere is the manuscript of this weekend’s sermon for our Lenten Series, Counterfeit Gods. Unfortunately the text itself doesn’t convey the sermon and the video recording didn’t work out. You can listen to the sermon here, in the ‘Listen’ widget on this page or download it in the iTunes library

The sermon began with a flash-mob style rendition of ‘All You Need is Love’ sung by the Men of Note. In the middle of the sermon, I retold the story of Jacob and Leah using glasses and a whole lot of water. 

Choir:

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.

Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.

It’s easy.

 

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.

It’s easy.

 

All you need is love.

All you need is love.

All you need is love, love.

Love is all you need.

 

Nothing you can know that isn’t known.

Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.

It’s easy.

 

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Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but you all know that’s a lie right?

 

It’s a nice sentiment for a pop song or a rom-com, but as biblical truth it’s what theologians call ‘complete crap.’

 

Far be it from me to be cynical, but that song is a lie. It’s not true.

 

Love, whether we’re talking about your love for your spouse or your love for your children or their love for you, is NOT all you need.

 

We live in a culture that tells us love is what gives our lives meaning and value. We live in a culture that tells us you’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you; consequently, some of us will let any body love us.

 

We live in a culture that tells us if we just find the perfect person- or have the perfect child- then everything else that’s empty in our lives will be filled.

 

Love is all we need to live happily ever after.

 

Those are all lies.

You can call me cranky if you like, but you know I’m right.

 

Anyone who’s ever been married or had children knows love isn’t all you need.

On your wedding day you say with a twinkle in your eye: ‘Of all the people in the world, I choose you.’

 

But after the day you say ‘I do’ there are other days when you just want to pull your hair out and scream: ‘Of all the people in the world, I chose you?!’

 

     So, no. Love is not all you need to live happily ever after.

     It wasn’t enough to keep the Beatles together.

     It wasn’t enough to rescue some of your relationships.

     And it wasn’t enough to keep Jacob’s life from unraveling and damaging everyone in it.

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Speaking of Jacob, just as an aside, you need to appreciate the degree of difficulty I’m dealing with today. A few of you may have noticed that I have a certain affinity for those silly, salacious, crude and even offensive parts of the Bible. So you should know that today’s scripture passage contains the Hebrew equivalent of the F-word, as when Jacob says to Laban: ‘I want to ___________ your daughter.’

In Hebrew, Rachel is described as having a ‘hot body’ while her older sister, Leah, whose name means ‘cow’ in Hebrew, is said to have ‘nice eyes,’ which is a Jewish colloquialism for ‘she has a nice personality.’

And then, to top it off, Jacob, the hero for whom the People of Israel are named, gets completely wasted and has sex with the wrong sister.

Can you even begin to appreciate how difficult it is for me not run wild with this story and offend you all in the process? It was all I could do not to title my sermon ‘Beer Goggles.’

 

As tempting as the silly parts of this story might be for me on other days, today I want to take the story straight up. I want to be serious.

 

Because once you push aside the preposterous Jerry Springer parts of the story, this story is more common and more relevant for this community than you could possibly guess.

 

By my conservative estimate, I’ve done about 1500 hours of counseling with couples during my ministry: couples jumping into marriage, couples struggling through their marriage, couples jumping into parenthood in order to fix what’s broken in their marriage, couples getting out of their marriage- after a long time or not long at all.

 

Confidentiality means I can’t tell you who those couples are. I can’t point to them or tell you if you’re sitting next to one of them, though some of you are.

 

     But that doesn’t matter because I can tell you: whenever those couples come to my office, there’s a better than even chance their names are Jacob and Leah.

 

So, I think it’s important you know their story.

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[Pull out two glasses. ‘Leah’ is half empty and ‘Jacob’ is full] 

 

Jacob and Leah’s story- it has everything to do with the stories they brought with them to their marriage. It almost always does.

 

The story starts with Jacob.

 

Jacob has an older brother.

Jacob’s Dad always preferred his brother to him. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

When you get past all the drama and bad decisions in Jacob’s life, that’s what it boils down to.

 

His Dad always insisted ‘I love you both the same.’

But even when you’re a child, you know better. You notice. You notice if your parent’s really listening, really paying attention to you, really enjoying you.

 

So Jacob grows up in his brother’s shadow, and the anger and hurt Jacob feels because of his Father gets expressed as resentment towards his brother. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

And Jacob’s Mom, she deals with it the way all abusive families cope. She tries to compensate for what her husband won’t do. She turns a blind eye. She pretends the problem doesn’t exist. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

But that never works.

 

Eventually it comes to a head. It always comes to a head.

 

So when Jacob is older, he hurts his brother- in a way that can’t be taken back. And, if he’s honest, he does it to spite his Father.

 

In just one self-destructive moment: his brother hates him, his relationship with his Father is ruined forever, and his Mother is forced to take sides. She doesn’t choose his. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

Jacob’s never had his Father’s love. He’s lost his Mother and brother’s love. He has no sense of God’s love. He has no one in his life. He has no direction to his life. He has no meaning for his life.

 

He leaves home, completely empty inside. [EMPTY his glass]

 

The next part of Jacob’s story starts at a well.

 

But it just as easily could’ve taken place at a college or a club. In an office or at a party. Or over the computer.

 

He meets a woman. [Leah’s CUP]

He takes one look at her and he convinces himself:

 

She can fix what’s broken in my life.

She can give me what I’m missing.

She can fill the emptiness inside me, he says.

 

And he calls that love.

 

He’s like an addict, using the idea of this person to escape the pain in his own life, which makes him vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but Jacob’s not looking for a soulmate. He’s looking for a salve. Or a savior.

Jacob marries this woman, hoping she can fill what’s missing in him.

His need keeps him from seeing who she really is. He doesn’t see that she has an emptiness insider her too. [hold up her glass] and that she can’t possibly fill what’s empty in his life. 

[pour her water into his so that he’s only half-filled].

So after they get married, he finds that emptiness is still there inside him.

And that brings conflict. It’s not long before he’s shouting at her:

‘You’re not the person I thought you were.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

‘You’re not the person I married.’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

‘Why can’t you be more like this….’ [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Eventually he stops speaking to her much at all. [Pour out some water from his glass, letting it drip everywhere]

Until finally Jacob’s married with children and discovers he’s even emptier on the inside than he was before and he’s long way from happily ever after. [EMPTY his glass]

 

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

Then there’s Leah’s story. [FILL her glass]

 

On the one hand, she’s the causality of Jacob’s need, but on the other hand, she does to him exactly what he did to her.

 

Leah grew up in the shadow of her little sister.

 

Her sister was a knockout, always the center of attention. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

Compared to her, Leah was unlovely. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

Or at least that’s how Leah saw herself; such that, she didn’t believe anyone would ever love her because she didn’t believe she was worth loving. [Pour out some water from her glass, letting it drip everywhere]

 

 

And one day she meets a man, whose heart has an emptiness every bit as big as her own.

 

She meets him at a well, but they could’ve met anywhere.

 

Even though she knows he doesn’t really know her, doesn’t really see her for who she is, she marries him.

 

She marries him because she thinks he’s the only one who will ever marry her.

 

So she pins her hopes for happiness on this man, only to find one day that her emptiness is still there.

 

And that he can’t fill what’s missing in her life. [pour his empty glass into hers]

 

It’s not long before the marriage starts to suffer and strain from the emptiness both of them bring to it. [empty her glass completely]

 

So what’s Leah do?

 

She thinks children are the solution.

 

She thinks kids will fix her marriage and win her husband’s love.

 

So she has a little boy. She names him Reuben, and she says to herself: ‘Surely, my husband will love now.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But no, it doesn’t work that way. Never does. Though you’d be surprised how many think it will.

 

She tries again. She has another little boy. She names him Simeon. And this time she says to herself, ‘Surely my husband will pay attention to me now, will listen to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

But with each child she’s pushed further into unhappiness.

 

She has another boy. She names him Levi. And she says to herself: ‘With three kids, now my husband will become attached to me.’ [POUR water into a shot glass]

 

     But kids can never fix what was broken before they were born.

 

Three kids later, Leah finds herself still empty on the inside.

 

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

 

It’s not in the story today, but I can tell you how the rest of it goes because I’ve heard it too many times.

 

Leah turns to her children to bring her the happiness her husband hasn’t, to fill what’s missing in her life, to give her life meaning and purpose.

 

But no child is big enough to fill what’s missing in their parent’s life. [EMPTY the shot glasses into Leah’s glass, should only fill her 1/4 of the way]

And no kid should have to bear such a burden. They’ll only get crushed underneath your expectations. Because if you look to your children for validation, to fill an emptiness inside you, you’ll need them to be perfect.

 

And when they’re not-because no child is- there will be conflict. [EMPTY Leah’s glass completely]

 

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

 

And a long way from happily ever after.

 

pastedGraphic_5.pdf

Love is NOT all you need.

 

Psychologists call this a lack of differentiation, a lack of the ability to be a complete, fulfilled individual within the context of a relationship.

 

But Christians- Christians call this idolatry: Looking to others to give you what only God can give. Let’s not beat around the bush. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been married or whether your kids are young or grown.

     For most of you, this is the primary way you break the first commandment.

     Scripture says God is love; it doesn’t say love is God.

     You can’t replace God with your spouse.

     And you can’t replace God with your child.

     No spouse should have to love you that much and no kid can.

Until you realize that, you’ll always be frustrated with your kids and you’ll never stop complaining that you thought you were marrying Rachel only to discover you’re living with Leah.

 

For some of you, your marriage or your children play too big a role in your life precisely because God plays too small a role.

 

I mean, we forget that the first vows a bride and groom make aren’t to each other but to God.

 

If we make too much of our marriage and our children, we make too little of God. And when we put too much pressure on our marriage and children, we depend too little on God.

 

I’m not saying you should love your spouse or your kids less. I’m saying you should love God more. Because the bitter irony is that when we make too little of God in our relationships, we cut ourselves off from the source of Love.

 

Trust me, this is just on-the-job knowledge: focusing too much on your marriage or your relationship or your children is the best way to undermine them.

 

     I mean, some of you need Jesus Christ to come in to your hearts not so you can go to heaven when you die but so your relationships here and now will stop being a living hell.

Because you can only be generous with what you’ve got in the bank to give. If your only source of meaning and love and purpose and happiness and validation and affirmation and worth is another person, then you can never really love them.

 

The only way to say ‘I do’ and keep on saying ‘I do’ day after day is to first be able to say: ‘I’m a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.’

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can let you down, and sure it upsets you but it doesn’t undo you. Because you know God will never let you down.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can speak the ugliest truths about you, and you don’t have to run away. Because that (the cross) has already spoken the deepest, darkest truth about who you really are and from that God said: ‘I forgive you because you have no idea what you’re doing.’

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- You can have patience with the flaws and sins in someone else. Because you know God has been gracious to you.

When God has the proper, primary place in your life- Your spouse can take you for granted, and yes it will disappoint you, but it won’t demolish your self-image. Because you know to God you are infinitely precious and worth dying for.

     [Pull out another glass and baptismal pitcher.]

 

There’s another story.

Jesus was on his way to Galilee, and along the way he stopped in Samaria.

At a well.

Jacob’s Well.

Jesus meets a woman there. She’s carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s the emptiness insider her that Jesus notices. The emptiness has carried her from man to man to man to man to man…

And Jesus says to her: [Pour water into glass, let it fill up and then overflow out on to the floor until pitcher is empty.]

I am Living Water.

What I can give you is a spring of water that never stops gushing, never stops flowing, never dries up.

    I can fill you, Jesus says.

With love. With meaning. With purpose. With value and healing and worth and validation.

I can fill you, Jesus says.

So that you can give love, not need it.

And she left that day, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her.

She learned that day what the Beatles never did.

     The only way to live happily ever after is to first be happy with who you are in Jesus Christ.

 

imagesIn case you missed it, Teer Hardy preached his maiden sermon this weekend and did a great job. How could he not, listening to me every week?

There’s audio of it here and in the iTunes store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Christmas Eve Sermon

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

20121222-173929A lot of you have asked about a podcast from the Christmas Eve service. If you weren’t there, the format followed something more like the arc of a play with ‘the sermon’ being drawn out over the course of the service in vignettes using actors. For that reason, it’s been tricky to get a good recording.

Here’s a video from one of the 5 services.

Here’s audio of just my portion of the sermon. It’s also in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Below is the full script of the sermon and actors’ lines.

Merry Christmas. Only 1 day left of the season.

———————————————————————-

Believe

Opening 

You want to know a dirty, little secret?

There’s a whole lot of every Sunday church people who think its enough just to believe in God.

There’s a whole lot of religious folks who think they’ve done their job if they just believe that God exists.

But there’s a difference.

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God.

There’s a difference between believing in God in here (the mind) and believing the promises of God in here (the heart).

There’s a difference between believing in God and believing God, believing God can be at work in your life, alive in you, fill what is missing in you and turn your world upside down.

And you want to know another secret?

That difference- that difference is the secret of the Christmas Story.

Act 1: Zechariah

[Zechariah kneeling, holding a bible, praying silently with incense] 

Everyone thinks the Christmas story begins with Mary and the angel Gabriel.

Not so.

The Christmas story begins months earlier with Jesus’ uncle.

A man named Zechariah, who’s a priest.

For generations Zechariah and his people have suffered at the hand of Caesar and his Empire. Rome.

And for generations they’ve prayed for God to send them someone to save them, to send them an Emmanuel, a Messiah.

Every day of his life Zechariah has prayed this prayer. He’s an old man now.

His prayer’s expiration date has long since passed and Zechariah has given up all hope that God will ever answer.

But one day, when Zechariah is in the Temple offering the same stale prayer he’s always prayed, God sends a message:

Gabriel: Zechariah…Zechariah….

  (Zechariah, falls back, completely startled and visibly shaken.)

  don’t be afraid. 

  Your prayers have been heard. 

  Your wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son. 

  Name him John. 

  He’s going to bring you great joy and happiness, but that’s not all. 

      Your son will also be the Lord’s messenger. He will be the one to    prepare the people and make them ready for the One you’ve been      praying for for so many years, the Messiah.

Zechariah: (confused) But this is too much to believe! 

      Look how old I am! My wife, Elizabeth, too! 

      It’s much too late for those prayers to come true. 

Zechariah’s an every Sunday religious person.

Zechariah believed in God; he just didn’t believe God.

He’d given up believing God would ever answer his prayer, would ever work in his life.

And because he didn’t believe, the angel renders him mute.

(Zechariah, rendered mute, feels his mouth and tries to talk to no avail.)

He’s pushed to the sidelines. Because he didn’t believe God, Zechariah has to watch what God’s doing in the world from the outside looking in.

You want to know a secret? [Zechariah begins to take off costume]

Once you get past the incense and bible-timey, Raiders of the Lost Ark costume, Zechariah’s no different than you.

He’s just an old man who’s rubbed the same prayer raw.

Until he finally tossed it in the trash. [Chucks his bible off to the side]

Now I don’t know all of you. I only know the every Sunday folks.

Even still, I know enough of you to know there are Zechariah’s all over this room.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a woman with cancer, convinced God’s not with her. Convinced God can’t beat it.

Sometimes-

Zechariah is a mom, who’s exhausted from praying the same prayer for her teenager and no longer believes that anything can be done for her.

A lot of times-

Zechariah is a husband and a wife, whose relationship has frayed past the point of repair and if anyone, angel or otherwise, told them anything different, then they’d react the very same way as Zechariah: ‘That’s too much to believe.’

There are Zechariah’s all over this room.

But hear the good news: Emmanuel does come. You’ve got to believe.

Act 2: Magi

The magi- the wise men- were Gentiles.

Meaning: they weren’t Jews.

Meaning: they didn’t know anything about God or God’s promise of a Messiah.

They were astronomers. Not priests or prophets.

They were men of science. Not faith.

They were men of cold, hard empirical facts, trial and error, objective observation.

They were the kinds of people that if you can’t see it with your own eyes, if you can’t hold it in your hands for yourself, if you can’t explain it rationally and back it up with evidence then it simply isn’t true.

It’s a fantasy we might still tell our children but we’ve outgrown it.

[Magi’s cell phone begins to ring underneath his costume…Magi picks up and begins to argue with his mom]

Jason: 

Um, excuse me. 

Magi: [to Jason]

Just a sec. 

Jason: 

I’m kind of in the middle of something here.  was just about to make my big point about how the magi were basically like all of us. 

[To Magi] 

What else do you guys have under there? [Magi pull out other gadgets] 

Magi: 

It’s not what you think…See, I’ve this Star-Finder App on my iPhone. That way, not only can I track the star I can research it on Wikipedia. I can learn about this obscure Jewish prophecy and Google maps can lead us right there to this King.

I bet you don’t know that the magi’s star charts- their reason and research, the latest technology- only gets them as far as Jerusalem.

It doesn’t get them to Bethlehem.

The wise men get lost. They miss Bethlehem by about 9 miles.

The wise men have to ask for directions, which implies they had some wise women with them too.

[female magi enter]

The wise men had to ask for directions.

Who do they have to ask?

Scribes. People who studied scripture. People of faith.

They’re the ones who point the magi in the right direction.

The magi believed in facts, in data, in human wisdom.

And maybe they believed in god the way you believe in gravity.

But that kind of belief only got them so far.

For them to find their way to Bethlehem, to make their way to the manger, they had to believe God.

To believe God’s promise about a little, no account town 9 miles beyond Jerusalem.

For them to make their way to the manger- they had to believe- believe God was doing things in this world they couldn’t see or prove, Google or Tweet, deduce or demonstrate.

They had to believe.

And so do you.

If you want to get close enough to the manger…

close enough to offer this God your best gift

close enough to see him at work in the world with your own two eyes

close enough to hold his presence within you

close enough for him to change your life in a way that resists all explanation

…if you want to get close to the manger, then you’ve got to take a leap of faith.

And believe.

Act 3: Mary

If you’re like me-

When you picture Mary, you picture like the Mona Lisa but dressed in pink and blue. You picture a 30-something woman who looks like Al Pacino’s Sicilian wife from Godfather Part II. Before she explodes.

If you’re like me, you picture this angel who’s glorious and not threatening at all even though he’s constantly having to say ‘don’t be afraid.’

And you picture Mary bowing down stoically ready to serve the Lord at a moment’s notice.

You picture something like this…[Overly dramatic and stoic]

Gabriel:

Mary! The Lord is with you! You are touched by his grace! Among all the women in the world you have been blessed.

Mary: (like she was expecting this)

Gabriel : 

You have found favor with God. Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary: 

How can this be? 

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Mary: (Bowing stoically) 

You want to know a secret?

That’s not who Mary was. And that’s not how it went down.

Not at all.

[Mary removes her costume, revealing more ordinary and contemporary clothing]

According to tradition, Joseph was an older man, marrying Mary as a favor to her family because they couldn’t afford to provide for her.

According to Jewish Law, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any you-know-what before her wedding day would be considered adultery.

And now the angel Gabriel has just told Mary she’s expecting.

Not by Joseph.

By the Holy Spirit.

Just curious: if someone told you they were pregnant by the Holy Spirit, how likely would you be to believe them?

I didn’t think so.

That’s the dark side of the story we never picture when we picture Mary.

The angel’s news is news almost no one will believe.

And Mary’s got to know that the second Gabriel’s finished talking.

I’ll tell you what else a good Jewish girl, like Mary, would’ve known.

Mary would’ve known that if she was accused of adultery then, according to the Jewish Law, she would be brought before a priest.

She would be shamed publicly.

And then-under oath- she’d be forced to drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written accusation against her.

If the drink made her sick, which was very likely, then she was guilty.

And if she was guilty, then she’d be stoned.

Mary would’ve known that the second the angel started talking.

She would’ve known that Joseph would be humiliated.

And she certainly would’ve known that her child would be regarded as illegitimate and banned as an outcast.

No matter what we picture when we picture Mary, that was the reality she knew.

And yet-

And yet when she hears Gabriel’s news: [Understated, Gabriel more empathetic, Mary more troubled]

Gabriel : 

Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. 

Listen, you are going to have a Son. His name will mean: ‘God will save us.’ He will be the answer to your people’s prayers.

Mary:

How can this be…I’m not…I mean, I’ve never….how is this possible?

Gabriel: 

The Holy Spirit will come upon you and overshadow you. That’s why this holy child is not just your son but is the Son of God. Remember Mary, the impossible is possible with God.

Jason: And Mary replies…

Mary: 

‘May it be with me according to your word.’ 

Jason: In other words, Mary says…

Mary: 

‘Here I am God. I trust you.’ 

Don’t take it from me. Take it from Mary.

There is a big, life-changing, ante-up, make-or-break difference between just believing in God and believing God. 

Believing that, no matter how things look now, no matter what obstacles stand in your way, no matter what it seems life has dealt you, nothing is impossible.

Nothing is impossible. 

Nothing is impossible.

With God.

Act 4: Joseph

[Jason interrupts music]

Wait …what is that?

[Musician replies]

[To crowd]

Do you all know that song?

Actually, come to think of it, do you all know any songs about Joseph?

I didn’t think so. I don’t either. I mean, there are no ‘Ave Josephs.’

I’ll let you in on a secret:

The Church has treated Joseph like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child.

It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint, not the annunciation to Joseph.

You don’t see many Renaissance paintings of Joseph snoring on his sofa as the angel Gabriel whispers into his ear:

[Joseph laying down to sleep]

Gabriel: [whispering]

‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, all this is happening to fulfill what the Lord promised: ‘The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.’ 

But when we ignore Joseph, we miss something important.

Because everything about Christmas- it all hinges on the angel’s three words.

Gabriel: [whispers]

  ‘Joseph, son of David.’

If Emmanuel is to be born the son of David then Joseph’s got to be the father.

Our salvation hinges on what Joseph decides to do about Mary.

If Joseph believes the angel then Mary will have a home and a family and her child will be born the son of David.

But if Joseph wakes up from his dream, rubs his eyes and files for divorce, then Mary is an outcast forever- either stoned by the priests or disowned by her family, leaving her and her illegitimate child to beg.

Or worse.

Whether or not he’s the biological father doesn’t matter. According to Jewish Law, Mary’s child becomes Joseph’s child just by Joseph claiming him as such.

So everything about tonight hangs on Joseph.

You think you struggle with believing the virgin birth?

Joseph wakes up one morning to find his fiancee pregnant, his trust betrayed, his future and his reputation ruined, the life he thought he had gone forever.

And then he’s asked to believe.

The unbelievable.

Everything we celebrate tonight- it all hinges on a very big IF- if Joseph believes.

Even though we treat him like an extra in someone else’s story, of all the people in the Christmas story, Joseph is just like you and me.

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush telling him beyond a shadow of a doubt what he should do.

Joseph doesn’t get an Annunciation like Mary does. The angel Gabriel doesn’t stand in front of Joseph’s own two eyes and say: ‘Hail Joseph.’

Joseph just has a dream. [Gabriel whispers silently into Joseph’s sleeping ear]

Which would’ve felt like… what exactly? A hunch? A gut feeling?

Joseph doesn’t get a Burning Bush.

And neither do we.

When we’re faced with circumstances beyond our control

When we’re tempted to choose the easy way out

When we worry about it might cost us or what pain will come our way or what others might think

We have to wrestle with what God wants us to do

And then we have to believe

Believe that if we make the hard choice and do the right thing

Then God will be with us.

Because that’s what Emmanuel means.

God is WITH us.

Act 5: Angels and Shepherds

[Luke’s Nativity is read. Shepherds and Gabriel take spots during reading.]

Has anyone seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

He finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

I’ll tell you a secret, something most church folks don’t know.

Before Luke ever wrote his Gospel.

Before Jesus ever preached ‘the’ Gospel.

Rome already had a Gospel of their own. You know what it was?

All over the Empire, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women just like you- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Glory in the highest. Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

Peace by any means necessary.

To anyone who wasn’t stuck under Rome’s boot, the advent of Caesar Augustus was considered gospel: “Good news of great joy.”

You see, it’s no accident when the angel Gabriel appears to the shepherds, he plagiarizes Rome’s Gospel.

He takes it and he literally turns it upside down:

Gabriel: 

  “Do not be afraid. I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

Glory to God in the highest.

Gloria in excelsis Deo…We hear those words as a pretty song.

But to the shepherds, to Mary or Joseph, to Zechariah., to anyone else living in Israel- for a generation those words had instead always sounded more like this…

(Liz plays the Darth Vader music). 

The angel Gabriel takes Rome’s Gospel and he twists it and then he turns it to point not at a throne but at a manger.

And of all the people in Judea, Gabriel delivers this news to shepherds.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

[Shepherds remove their shepherding costumes]

Shepherds were at the absolute rock bottom of society.

Not only that, their work made them ritually unclean, which made them invisible to the rest of society.

We’d call them unskilled workers.

Gabriel:

“I’m bringing you GOOD NEWS of great joy for all the people. For you, a SAVIOR has been born. Glory to God in the highest and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

That’s not just a birth announcement written in the sky.

It’s a defiant declaration. It’s a declaration that dares us to believe.

Not just to believe in God. Anyone can do that.

No, the angels dare us to believe that things in our world are not as they seem.

That Caesar and Herod and Rome and anyone like them in our day or in our lives- they’re not in charge.

That pain does not have the last word.

That poverty does not exclude you from the grace of God.

That Power goes by another name. Because Christ is King.

The angels dare you to believe.

That as small or insignificant or unlikely you might see yourself, just like shepherds, you can play a part in his Kingdom.

 Act 6: Simeon

The Christmas story doesn’t end with ‘Silent Night.’

After Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph take their baby to Jerusalem, to the Temple.

To offer a sacrifice to God. Two pigeons, a peasant’s offering.

[Mary and Joseph and baby enter] 

And there in the Temple they dedicate their baby to God.

But the story doesn’t end there either.

An old man sees them there in the Temple.

[Simeon rushes up to them]

Scripture says he was a man who’d been praying his entire life for a Savior.

Scripture says God had promised him that he would not die without seeing the Savior for himself.

But God never gave him any details: no who, what, when, where or how.

So he’s has just been waiting and praying his whole life.

And somehow he doesn’t need an angel or the heavenly host or any clues about a babe wrapped in bands of cloth to point him in the right direction.

Somehow when he sees this tiny scrap of a child- somehow he believes:

Simeon:

‘God, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment, but now I have peace for I see salvation with my own two eyes.’ 

His name’s Simeon.

I’ll let you in on one last secret.

The Christmas Story doesn’t end there either.

It can’t…because here are all of you.

And I know enough of you to know there are Simeons- young and old, religious and not so much- all over this room.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been waiting and wondering if what’s missing in your life will ever come.

Maybe like Simeon, you’ve been longing for the hole you feel in your life to be filled.

Maybe you’re like Simeon and peace is the one thing in your life, the one thing in your family, the one thing in your marriage that you still don’t have.

If you’re like Simeon, if you’re like Simeon at all, then I dare you.

I double-dare you.

To believe like Simeon.

Believe that the meaning you’ve been waiting for, the significance you’ve been longing for, the peace you’ve been praying for your whole life-

It’s there in Mary’s arms.

Merry Christmas.

And may the peace of Christ be yours now and forever.

20121124-123103.jpgThis week for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I’ll be doing a sort of Midrash in the Moment. Randomly selecting your questions and answering them in the time allowed. It’ll be a little off the cuff and a little different than a normal worship service. Hopefully it’ll be fun and edifying too and if not…Dennis gets back soon.

Anyway, every Christmas season and I mean EVERY CHRISTMAS SEASON people ask me about the Virgin Birth and/or tell me they bite their tongue during that part of the Creed.

So I expect to get Virgin Birth questions this Sunday.

Here’s a great, hilarious and insightful spin on how some of our beliefs and scriptures can sound loony to a skeptic. It’s from Mr Deity which all of you should know….This is worth 3.5 mins of your time.

For the denser among us….the guy in the goatee, Mr Deity, is Yahweh. ‘Jesse’ is Jesus and Larry the neurotic OCD character is the Holy Spirit.

Chalk this one down as Worst Sermon Ever. 

I’ve already mentioned here before how my Advent and Christmas sermons are generally panned. The Advent ones for being too obscure. The Christmas ones for resisting sentimentality. P1290750-1

Here’s one I wrote based on the Book of Ruth. In case you don’t know, Ruth’s story finds its way into Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel. I tried to imagine the Holy Family telling her story to the little Jesus.

It’s my favorite of the sermons I’ve written….but still everyone else votes ‘Worst Sermon Ever.’

——————————————————————————————————-

‘Your father and I read this story at our wedding,’ the young mother told her little boy. And when the boy asked why, his father told him that it was tradition. ‘It’s a love story,’ he said.

The lights from the menorah on the window sill made the boy’s dark room glow. The light of the candles danced off the colored Hanukah decorations. The smells of holiday food lingered in the house. Mary and Joseph were curled up with their little boy.

He’d taken the old, black family bible from its shelf in his room, and it now rested on his lap just as he sat on his mother’s lap. The bible was the kind with the thick, special paper in the front, the kind with gilt lines to fill in important dates: marriages, births, baptisms and, beneath those, lots of lines to sketch the family tree.

Mary had filled in the family tree before she was even properly married, before she started to show. At the time she’d been confused by a great many things, but she absolutely knew that one day it would be important for her boy to know: where he came from, who is ancestors were, and what kind of person they made him.

And so, every night before his parents’ kiss and lullaby, they would read him a story from the bible, a story about one of those names his mother had written on the front, cream-colored page of Joseph’s family bible.

He would point with his little boy finger at one of the names on the family tree. ‘Tell me a story about that one’ he would say. He was just a boy. He liked the adventure stories the best- the stories with action and danger, stories where God spoke like thunder or moved like fire and wind, stories like those of Abraham and Jacob and, of course, David- the boy who would be king.

But on this night the boy pointed to a different name, one he hadn’t pointed to before. ‘Tell me a story about that one.’ And his mother smiled and looked over at her husband. ‘We read this story at our wedding,’ she said. ‘It’s a love story.’ The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

A long, long time ago, in the days when judges ruled… famine struck the whole land that God had promised his people. The stomachs of God’s people were grumbling and empty. Even in Bethlehem where you were born people went hungry.

There was a man on your father’s side of the family named Elimelech. Elimelech had a family and, like everyone else in the land, his family was starving.

‘What did he do?’ the little boy asked, ‘did God provide bread from heaven like in the story of Moses?’

And his mother said, no, not like that. Elimelech had to look out for his family so one night he and his wife and their two sons packed only what they could carry. In the cover of darkness, they snuck across the border and crossed through the muddy river into a new country, Moab.

Elimelech’s wife was a woman named Naomi. ‘Naomi means ‘sweetness,’ said the boy’s father, ‘but Naomi was anything but sweet.’

The little boy asked why that was and his father told him that no sooner did Elimelech’s family arrive in Moab than Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. A widow’s life is hard his mother explained. Don’t ever forget that.

At first things went well for Naomi. Her sons married two girls from Moab, Orpah and Ruth. They weren’t Jewish girls so their marriages would’ve been forbidden back in Bethlehem, but they were happy.  Naomi’s boys were married happily for ten years. They had food and money and work. After ten years both of Naomi’s boys died. Just like that, no one knows why.

And poor Naomi, she always worried in the back of her mind that they died because God was punishing her for something, perhaps for letting her boys marry unbelievers.

‘But God doesn’t do things like that, does he?’ the boy asked. No, his mother said, God doesn’t do that and she kissed the top of his head.

But Naomi felt she was being punished. She was left with two daughters-in-law, in a country where she didn’t belong, in a man’s world with no man, no husband, no sons.

‘What does she do?’ the boy asked. Naomi decided to return home, to go back to Bethlehem. ‘All by her self?’ he asked. An uncertain future seemed better to her than what she could expect if she stayed in Moab. So she packed up her things- again just what she needed- along with a photo of her husband and boys, and after her sons were buried, numb with grief, she just started walking… towards home.

‘Is that the story?’ the boy wanted to know.

No, his mother said and looked at the lights in the window. You see, her sons’ wives followed behind her. At first Naomi simply thought they wanted to say goodbye, to wave to her as she disappeared over the horizon. When they got to the outskirts of town, though, Naomi realized they weren’t just seeing her off. Orpah and Ruth, she realized, intended to stay with her, to go with Naomi all the long way back to Israel, back to Bethlehem.

‘Well, did they?’ the boy wanted to know. Not exactly, his mother replied. First Naomi turned around and yelled at them. She yelled at Ruth and Orpah. She told them to turn around, to turn back, to go home to their own families.

They didn’t belong with her. In her country they’d just be foreigners. They wouldn’t be welcome. I’m very grateful for you, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah; I pray that God would give you happiness and husbands. But go.

Ruth and Orpah, they just stood there- stubborn. Naomi yelled at them again, but she was really yelling at God. When Naomi was done cursing, she fell down weeping, crying in the middle of the road with traffic going by.

That was when Orpah decided to do as her mother-in-law asked. She gave her dead husband’s mother a long embrace and picked up her bags and walked back into town.

But Ruth, your great….grandmother, she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t leave Naomi to fend for herself. She just planted her feet in the dirt and put her hands on her hips and told Naomi that wherever Naomi went Ruth would be going too, wherever Naomi lived Ruth would be living there too, and the place Naomi died would be where Ruth would die.

Ruth, your great…grandma, she was willing to leave behind her home, family, country, even her religion just to care for someone else.

And God never told Ruth to risk all this. She never had a special word of calling like Abraham, never a vision like Moses, no dream like Jacob.

‘God really speaks to people in their dreams?’ the boy asked. Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

Ruth and Naomi walked the long walk to Bethlehem in silence. Naomi didn’t speak a word until she introduced herself to the people they met in Bethlehem, but she didn’t say that her name was Naomi. Call me ‘Mara’ she told people.

‘Why would she change her name?’ the little boy asked. Mara means bitterness; Naomi was convinced that her life was already over. Remember, a widow’s life is hard. God’s Kingdom should belong to them. Don’t ever forget that. ‘I won’t,’ the boy promised.

Ruth and Naomi found a place to live in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy, not even nice, but Ruth tried to make the best of it. Naomi though just sat in the dark corner of the apartment and stared blankly through her tears and through the window. Ruth had promised to take care of Naomi and she wasn’t about to quit.

They still had no food so, after they settled, Ruth went out to the fields to scavenge what the harvesters left behind. She didn’t know it at the time, but the fields belonged to a rich man named Boaz. Boaz was family to Naomi.

Every day Ruth left to scavenge for food and every day she came home to Naomi’s bitter quiet. But one day, everything started to change.

One day, the same as any other, Ruth was working the fields, looking for leftovers.

On that day, Boaz came out to look over his property and check on his workers. He said hello and thanked them. Then he saw someone he didn’t recognize bent over at the edge of the field, a woman. He pointed to Ruth out in the distance and he asked his foreman: ‘Who is she?’

And his foreman told him all about Ruth and how much Ruth loved her bitter mother-in-law and how Ruth had risked everything to care for her.

Boaz listened to the foreman’s story, and later that day he walked out to the edge of the field. He said hello to Ruth. Then he did a strange thing.

‘What?’ the boy asked. He urged Ruth to scavenge only in his fields. He promised her that his men would never bother her and that they would even leave extra grain behind for her. Ruth stood in the sun and listened to Boaz tell her all of this.

Now, for the first time since her husband had died, it was Ruth’s turn to cry. She fell down at Boaz’s feet and wept and she told him that she was just a foreigner, that she deserved rejection not kindness.

Boaz just smiled gently and he said softly: ‘May God reward the love you’ve shown Naomi.’

When Ruth returned home that day, she told Naomi everything that happened with Boaz.

For the first time, Naomi pulled her wistful eyes away from the window and she said, almost like she’d been holding her breath for a great long while: ‘Bless you!’

When she said it, Ruth didn’t know whether Naomi was talking to her or to God.

‘Is that it?’ the boy wondered aloud, thinking it not nearly as exciting a story as David and Goliath.

No, his mother said. Nothing else happened to Ruth or Naomi for a while. Then one morning Naomi burst into Ruth’s bedroom and she told her that that day Boaz would be winnowing barley with his workers. Its long work, Naomi explained.

The whole town will be there to help. It’s like a festival. There’ll be food and music and dancing and wine, lots of wine, she said with knowing eyes.

Ruth still looked puzzled so Naomi grabbed her by the shoulders and told Ruth to take off the black clothes she’d been wearing since her husband died. Go take a long shower, Naomi told her. And when you’re done anoint your whole body with perfume and then put on a nice dress. You need to look beautiful in every way.

And when Ruth asked why, Naomi told her what she was to do.

That night, after the day’s work and the evening’s party, Boaz wouldn’t be going home. Instead he’d be sleeping in his barn. You’re to go to him, Naomi told Ruth. Go to him and lie down next to him.

‘What did Ruth say?” asked the boy. ‘Probably something like: let it be with me according to your word,’ his mother answered. Whatever Ruth said, she did everything Naomi told her. When she snuck into the barn that night, the band was still playing outside and Boaz was already fast asleep in the hay.

Before Ruth lay down in the straw next to Boaz, she tried to take off his shoes for him. She woke him up. I imagine he was surprised, said the boy’s mother.

When Boaz startled awake, he asked Ruth what she was doing there. And Ruth blushed and panicked. Naomi had told her what to do, but not what to say.

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

Ruth told him that if he really wanted to care for her, if he really prayed that God would reward her kindness to Naomi, if he really wanted to help her care for Naomi, then he would marry her.

‘She asked him to marry her?’ the boy asked surprised.

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you. That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Christmas is a season for questions:

Why a virgin birth?

Why does Jesus come in the first place? Why can’t God just forgive us?

Is Jesus really human or did he just seem human? Is Jesus really divine or did he just seem divine?

What if there’d been no Fall- if we hadn’t sinned? Would Jesus still have come?

I’ve already received a ton of good questions from you all, more than I can respond to by email.

P1290750-1It’ll be Jason unfiltered, which could lead to a lot of ‘ummmms’ and inadvertent off color vocabulary but it may just be fun and edifying too.

 

 

You can now download sermons free from the iTunes store as well receive future ones as automatic downloads. Just search ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes Store.

Sermons are ultimately oral events and something is lost on the page alone.

If reading my lucid, probing prose isn’t enough, you can now listen to my sermons delivered in my sexier than Barry White voice at Spreaker.

You can listen there, on FB or download to your computer/phone where you can make sure my voice survives the zombie apocalypse (See: Eli, Book of)

I’m working to add the sermon audio to a Tamed Cynic podcast in the iTunes store. So stayed tuned.

Click here to listen to Sunday’s sermon.

Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

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A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.

Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Job. Two notes so this makes sense. I’ve always thought the beautiful poetry of the Book of Job hides the scandal of Job’s emotions and masks the piety of his friends. For that reason, in this sermon, I rewrote the friends’ dialogue to make it sound more contemporary. Additionally, I asked two actors to reenact the dialogues during the course of the sermon. Thanks to Bailey and Elliott!

—————————————————–

Many months ago, around supper time, I was in the Emergency Room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother, who wasn’t much older than me, as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end and have just come up for air.

She was smoothing her boy’s cow lick with her hand.

Every so often she would shush him, as though if she could just calm him down she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had gone to see the Nats lose to the Braves.

I still had my hat on and popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like pastor or a priest.

So when the mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get a hold of her husband and left me with her boy and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest.

She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: ‘It’s going to be alright.’

‘What?’ I said, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 11 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ER’s and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in this congregation who’ve been told- by other people in this congregation- that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know people here who’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that their spouse’s or their child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because some Christian tried to console them with talk of ‘God’s will.’

Most of us- we don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say.

Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage.

For days Job is mute with disbelief.

But when Job finally does speak, his friends aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.

 

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born! My life would’ve been better if I’d died in my mother’s womb. Why did God give knees for me to rest on or a mother to nurse me if God was just going to do this to me now?”

 

Anger is almost always what follows grief’s numbed silence.

Yet, ironically, anger is probably the most taboo emotion among Christians.

Because anger doesn’t just claim that this situation is painful, anger claims that this situation isn’t right- that what has happened should not have happened.

That kind of anger can be frightening because it calls our assumptions about God into question.

So when we’re confronted by that kind of raw, righteous anger very often our reflex is to make it stop. To silence it.

That’s how Eliphaz reacts to Job.

Eliphaz:

I’ve been praying for what to say to you, and the Lord finally put the right words on my heart.

Have you forgotten everything you used to tell others?

You were the one to encourage people in grief. You’re the one who talked about comfort and hope. But now it’s your turn, now you’re the victim, and…what?

That’s not you. Where’s your faith?

I know you think you’re a good person and you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but remember what scripture says: ‘we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.’

I understand how you feel, but this isn’t like you: to be angry at God. Have you listened in on God’s calls and come away with his plans? What do you know that we don’t?

You know what scripture says: “God’s ways are not our ways.”

God works in mysterious ways. We can’t understand why God took them from you; we can only take comfort in knowing your kids are with him right now in heaven.

Remember what Jesus says: ‘I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.’ Maybe…maybe it was just their time to go home to HIM.

Don’t throw away your faith now when it could really help you.

If I were you- I’d put that anger into prayer instead. Throw yourself at God’s mercy. Look to him for help and he’ll answer all your prayers. I know it.“

Job:  “If my sorrow were put on a scale, it would outweigh the sands of the ocean. And now you have turned against me too.

My anguish frightens you. But show me how my feelings, MY feelings, can be wrong? Can’t I tell right from wrong? If I’d sinned, if I’d done something to deserve this, wouldn’t I know it?

God has broken my heart and now I can’t even speak honestly with my friend.

You’d rather argue away my despair. I’ve heard enough of your ‘consolations.’

 

Eliphaz is genuinely concerned for Job, but at the heart of what he says is fear. He’s afraid not just of what’s happened to Job; he’s afraid of Job.

Part of what’s troubling about Eliphaz is how it’s not clear at all who he’s trying to comfort: Job or himself.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation, knows the temptation to put a lid on it.

Because Eliphaz is so uncomfortable with what Job says, he presumes to speak for Job. He puts words in Job’s mouth and tells himself he’s just helping Job find his true voice.

Eliphaz reminds Job of who Job used to be, the beliefs Job used to have, so that Eliphaz doesn’t have to deal with who Job is right now.

The words he puts in Job’s mouth are cliches. Platitudes.

Whatever your intentions, when you speak in one-size-fits-all platitudes, when you say:

God has a plan.

God’s ways are not our ways.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

With God all things are possible.

God must’ve needed him or her in heaven.

It’s going to be alright.

When you speak like that to someone who’s suffering, what you’re really doing is signaling to them what’s out of bounds:

what they can say and what they cannot say

what feelings they can express and what they absolutely must not express.

You censor their grief, and you make it worse.

And so when there’s nothing else to say, do not resort to one-size-fits-all platitudes. Because just like one-size-fits-all clothes, they never fit.

Bildad, Job’s second friend, is less concerned about finding words that fit Job’s situation and more concerned with fitting Job into his belief system.

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!

Bildad:

“Be sensible. Stop. Stop ranting and stop filling our ears with this nonsense.

Should the laws of creation- the laws of God- all be changed for your sake?

God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. The bible said it; I believe it, and that’s that. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you don’t deserve the pain you’re in, but can you really be sure that your kids didn’t do anything to deserve what they got?

Look, I know it’s terrible now. But if you just give it over to the Lord, commit yourself to HIM, you will get over this. God never gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, you should use this as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you something. It’s like the bible says: ‘we should rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’

See this as a chance to grow closer to God. That’s what will get you through this- not shaking your fist at the sky.”

Job:

How kind you are to me! How considerate of my pain! What would I do without a friend like you? And the good advice you’ve given me?

Who made you so tactful? And inspired you with such compassionate words?

I know: God’s workings are mysterious. But don’t make my suffering worse with your beliefs.

Tell me, who’s done this to me if not God? Why do you have to hurt me now too with your answers?

You honestly think I’ll get over this? I’ll get past this?

You want to know what really makes me shudder? That you don’t understand me at all and aren’t willing to try.

You can say whatever you want to excuse God, but I will never agree with you.

 

It’s easy to write Bildad off as insensitive.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad is the only person to believe that there’s a reason behind our suffering.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad’s the only person to assume that God causes our suffering to teach us a lesson or to punish us.

And Bildad is hardly the only person who would back that up with scripture, chapter and verse.

But hear me: to think God causes suffering to punish you for your sin does in a very profound way nullify the cross.

Because in Jesus Christ we see that the way God punishes sin is to suffer it in our place.

It’s true that you can learn and grow from suffering but that is not the same thing as saying God makes you suffer to teach you a lesson.

When St Paul writes that “suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” that’s Paul reflecting on his own experience.

That’s different than taking Paul’s words and imposing them on someone else’s experience.

For Bildad there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he knows about God and how Job describes his experience.

So Bildad feels the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend- to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying ‘God must be teaching you a lesson’ how about saying ‘You have something to teach me. Tell me what you’re going through. I want to learn what you’re feeling. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me.’

Zophar, Job’s final friend, has a certainty that masks a possibility too frightening to consider.

 

Job:

“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!

Zophar:

“I’ve heard enough.

How can you be so blind? You say you’re innocent. You don’t deserve this, but how can you understand God or fathom HIS wisdom?

We’re finite and HE’s infinite. We can’t see things the way God can see them.

I know how you feel now. But you’ve got to believe God has a plan, a plan for every one of us.

I know it can be hard to see now, but everything happens for a reason. God’s behind everything. Nothing’s accidental. Nothing’s random.

If I were you, I’d open my heart to God and trust that one day you’ll understand why God’s done this.”

Job:

“It seems you know everything. It must make you feel better for there to be an answer for everything.

But I’m not an idiot. Who doesn’t know such things?

Even a child knows that the whole world is in God’s hands.

But your comfort is hollow. Would you say anything to get God off the hook? Is your piety more important than your friend?

Don’t think God won’t judge you for your empty lies.

If God has a reason for what’s happened to me then I deserve to know it. God may kill me for my words but at least I’m speaking the truth.”

 

I’d bet 3/4 of you at some time or another have said something like: ‘God has a plan for____________.’

And even if you’re never uttered that at the wrong time, you believe it. You think it’s true- that God has a plan for each of us.

Notice, both Job and Zophar think its true.

Both of them believe Job’s suffering is a part of God’s larger plan. Zophar just assumes that means Job deserves what’s happened to him and Job knows that he doesn’t.

But both of them assume a world of tight causality, a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will.

And maybe Job and Zophar (and you and me)- maybe we assume that because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question ‘Why?’ has no answer.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us with out warning, for no reason and from which no good will ever come.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, (as though we were characters on Lost) but the logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster.

Pay attention. Write this down.

God doesn’t have a plan for your life.

You’re not just an actor in a life that’s already been scripted.

God does not will suffering in your life because it fits into his cosmic blueprints for you.

No.

Because God’s Plan, what God Wills, is for you in freedom to choose to love God and with your life give him glory- which you could never do if every moment of your life was predetermined and micromanaged.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say God has a plan.

Try saying ‘there’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.’

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: ‘What?’

She blushed and apologized. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say’ she said.

But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said: ‘When his mother comes back in here, don’t. say. anything.’

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse, and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial- at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain sometimes we push people away from God.

And I’ve stood at enough gravesides and bedsides to know: that the only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, is suffering without God.

And for that reason, here’s my last piece of advice: when there’s nothing to say, say nothing.

 

 

 

 

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.