Archives For Sin

Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

———————

     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

————————

The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

————————-

During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here in Alexandria this week the local gym made news by canceling the membership of Richard Spencer, leader of the Alt-Right (racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic) movement. Identified by a Georgetown Professor, the gym cancelled his membership after a confrontation provoked by the professor.

Maybe it’s because we’re about to kick-off a summer long series in Romans, but reading the article in the Washington Post recently, my first thought was “That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.” I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, but if she’s a Christian rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever views he wishes to hold. As a Christian, I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe; I’m required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus and what Richard Spencer believes contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.

So I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public. By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity. He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s nationalist, which is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot. He is exactly what that professor called him: “a Nazi, a cowardly Nazi.”

I can think of no one who fits the definition better:

Richard Spencer is ungodly.

And St. Paul says it’s exactly someone like him for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).

Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon nice people like you or me. Christ died for the ungodly so that they might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church where the Word of the Cross might work mightily upon him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.

“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” complete with capital letters, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, I believe someone like Richard Spencer calls attention to the ways both progressive and evangelical Christians minimize, and thus miss, what the New Testament generally and what St. Paul particularly mean by ‘Sin’ and ‘Salvation.’

Liberals tend either to eschew all talk of sin and focus on (our building) the Kingdom or imitating Jesus or they preach against (systemic) sin with which their listeners already concur. Conservatives meanwhile tend to reduce sin to the vices of individuals and salvation to that individual going to heaven. Neither is big enough.

If you think of sin as something we do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.

For the Apostle Paul, sin isn’t primarily something we do. We’re not free to choose to do the sins we do.

Sin is an alien Power- synonymous with Death and Satan- we are all under (Romans 3.9) from whom not one of us is able through our own agency to liberate ourselves. Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation, and only the power of the Gospel proclamation of this work of God, which is itself the working of God, can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.

Salvation for Paul isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die; salvation is cosmic because all of creation- that pretty passage we read at funerals- is in captivity to the Power of Sin. Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God; salvation is God’s invasion of earth in the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.

Sin isn’t just something we do; it’s a Power to which we’re all captive such that it makes no Christian sense to distinguish between good people and evil people. We’re all captive such that good and evil runs through each of our hearts.

Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as offensive as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer.

We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly.

To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views. It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might hear the only Word with the Power to free him and create in him a new humanity.

Likely inviting him my church would be as bad for business as the gym here judged it would be bad for their business. Maybe ‘bad for business’ though is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.

You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

 

Jazz vocalist Darden Purcell and Eric Sabo’s trio provided our music for the first weekend of Lent. Because they were there and because I’ve always been a fan of So I Married an Axe Murderer I decided to write my sermon on Psalm 51 as a beat poem with the band underneath me.

‘It works.’ It works, indeed,

It’s more buttoned-down

Than ‘Christos Anesti!’

But such were the first

Easter words pronounced

Over the new heart

Of-

Louis Washkansky.

Louis-

A Lithuanian Jew

Was born in 1922.

Louis fought Mussolini.

Having seen El Duce

Strung up by his heels,

(like a fascist pig at the butcher)

Louis Washkansky

Settled down in Cape Town

And opened a grocery.

Until-

54 years

Pricks to the finger,

And shots to the guts,

Up and down sugar.

Then-

Pain down arms, elephant on chest,

1, 2, 3 cardiac arrests

Rendered him habeus corpus

For an experimental test.

Louis Washkansky

The first person after 50

Dogs before him to

Another’s heart receive

(Man’s best friend, indeed).

After 9 hours under,

60 attending,

Louis Washkansky

Of the green grocery

Opened his numb eyes

-delivered-

With the heart of a

Girl, 20-something girl

Beating inside his

Bruised and cracked chest.

His heart’s former owner-

She had been struck by a driver

Who’d had one too many.

It’s always 5…somewhere.

The girl with the heart

Was on her way

To buy tea.

And cake.

Yeah.

From her local grocery.

By fate or by lots,

Her heart became another’s to bear:

Louis Washkansky’s.

When-

Louis Washkansky

First fluttered his eyes,

His chest beating fresh

And faithfully as

The checkout on aisle

Number 5,

“It works”

Said-

The doctor, a preacher’s kid

From Cape Town,

Like God b’fore the new hewn

Grave: ‘It works.’

In Afrikaans,

Said: ‘It works.’

The girl’s grief-blind Father,

The doctor’s trial and error,

Had given the the grocer

Exactly what each of us

Would gladly broker:

A new- a different- heart.

If we had the hearts

Sufficient to tell

The truth to each other:

My need is as great as that grocer’s.

My desire to back trace my steps

Just as desperate

As his donor.

What the doctor concluded

of Louis Washkansky.

What You first declared

About Adam and Eve

Is what my heart longs to hear

You pronounce over me:

‘It works.’

My heart, it works.

But for that to happen

I too first require

Some kind of surgery.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

What harm could it be?

I’ll just repeat:

mercy.

A new, a different, a clean

Heart-

That’s what I most need.

Without one, the best I

Can do is plead for

Your, on your mercy.

Which is, perhaps, the

Ultimate, stinging

Irony

In a life that hides

Behind them

Trades in them

Thrives on them.

What I’m so stingy to bequeath

Is the one thing I’m starving to receive.

Mercy.

I’m not talking about the one an’ done

Caught red-handed, get out of jail free-dom

Sort of mercy.

Not the snake-oily, Holy Ghost, Fatherweejus mercy.

Not the hair-sprayed preacher’s mercy.

Not the jury of your peers’ mercy.

I’m talking about the mercy that’s weighted down

By hard and heavy consonants that break bonds

Cut oceans in two

Crack water from rock.

Hesed.

Steadfast.

The

No matter what.

You do despite what I do

Mercy.

Have that kinda on me.

But even this plea of mine

Points out my problematic plot line

It’s alway all about

Me, me, me.

You upstairs

The man down the street

She across the bed

I’m like a dyslexic St Paul:

The one thing I ask of you

The one thing I want?

I do not do.

The one thing I ask of you

Is the last I’ll offer you.

When it comes to mercy,

It’s better to receive

Than it is to believe

You must give

It.

When it comes to mercy?

I am reticent.

I am hesitant.

I am no better than Maleficent.

Grace is less amazing

When it’s another’s song.

Trust me-

‘Tis better to be found

Than to get up and to find.

But You already see my blindness

Know my mind, know,

Know that what I solicit

I so seldom show.

I need a Billy Mays magic miracle.

Shazamm!

Over my sin-stained self.

Not 3 Hail Marys, nor alms for the poor

Costlier even than

Easy installments of $19.94.

More chi-chi than gold

Or frankincense and myrrh.

Like Nathan to David,

Like Nicholson to Cruise,

The truth about me

I can’t handle it.

Because I’ve exercised so much equity

With my iniquity

My sin is in me,

Ground down deep-like wine and dirt and blood-

To the fibers and sub-flooring

Of my soul and my Being.

If I were a suit you took the cleaners

You’d get charged extra

And told not to expect me

For at last 3 business

Days- you’d hear her disgust in Korean

As she wondered to the woman

With pins in her teeth

Exactly what you’d done in me.

Mercy is what  I need.

My sin is ever before me .

Like grace’s doppleganger

In, with and under

Just say the words, no reply

I am not worthy

Of your mercy.

My sin is ever before me

Every pair of eyes

The most unflattering of mirrors

Revealing not the extra 2-inches

Or the male-pattern baldness

But the mystery that we’re

The only members of your handiwork

Who know not how

To be creatures.

Behind my every offense-

If I take measure,

That’s what I should confess:

Thinking the world here for my pleasure

Not me made for my Creator.

Failure to be human:

I’m guilty as charged.

And it’s crime that moves all the rest of you

To the back of the line.

Because against You

You Alone

Have I sinned.

To you I gave the finger.

And uttered ‘Sorry doesn’t cut it.’

To you I sent the all CAPS email with the

!!!

I unfriended You.

For your Tea Party bat crazy,

Your Moveon.org rant.

And hung up when You picked up.

To You I told the

Little white lie

and the outright one.

To You  I raised my voice for no good reason.

And said ‘Yes Dear, I’m listening.’

To You, I said ‘Sorry, I don’t have any cash.’

up here

It was Your eyes I forgot were

To You I was a noisy gong, a clanging symbol

Neither patient nor kind

Keeping track of Your trespass

Just as I expect You to forgive mine.

Every sin I’ve committed

Every person I’ve harmed

Count them together

It adds up to one:

You.

Against You alone have I sinned.

Your ledger longer than any other’s.

You’ve seen my worst, every inward part

So You know better than me

How sorely I need

A new and clean heart.

A clean heart!

I’m so far removed

From my mother’s womb

I cannot imagine

What possessing said heart would mean for my other organs

For my ears and my tongue and my mind.

Louis Washkansky knew.

For a time- well, if not clean-

At least more innocent than mine.

The grocer from Cape Town survived

With the unlucky girl’s inside

Him for 18 short days.

But 18 days!

For 400 hours

Louis Washkansky

The grocer who’d seen horrors

The battles and blood

Trenches and marches

Of war.

The camps, the mass graves, the ovens.

For 18 days-

Louis Washkansky

Found respite inside

an innocent’s heart.

Do the memories recede?

Does the mind forget?

What the heart never learned?

For 18 days

A war-jaded vet

Quickened with her pulse-

Her naiveté-

That still more days lay

Ahead of her.

Had she had her first kiss?

Been spurned by a friend?

Acquired the scars

Which always become

our kids’ first  lessons?

With her’s beating inside him

I wonder-

Louis Washkansky-

Did he love his wife, finally

With a love she’d always fancied?

Did he hear what she left unsaid?

Did he show his children

Her love and attention?

Did he sashay around

And leave the toilet seat down?

Did he listen and feel

And, for once, find the right words

To: Honey?

What are you thinkin’?

With her inside him

Was it freeing?

To finally, truthfully, be singing:

‘I’m every woman.’

Or was it just enough for the grocer

To hear

What we’d mortgage heaven to broker

What we’d plead for You to impart:

‘It works’

A new, a clean, heart.

Louis Washkansky

His new heart, her old one

Beat for only 17 days longer

His/her doctor, the Cape Town preacher’s kid

Could not give

What only You can offer.

But still-

I’ve got to wonder

Can even You impart

Such an illogical grace

As a new, clean heart?

I mean-

How can what is Yours only

Be mine?

Without it being less than You?

How can the infinite

Lodge

In this small space I’ve carved for it?

Given what impossible surgery

A new, a clean heart would require

The metaphysical

To say nothing of the biological

Might it be sufficient to desire

Not what in me You must do

A new heart to own

But just You.

You alone.

If so, then the point

Is not a doctor

To bind us

To extend us 18 or 15 or a few more days

But to break our spirit

So that, broken, our

Lips may proclaim Your

Praise.

          Here’s my Ash Wednesday sermon. The texts were Psalm 51 and Luke 15.11-24.

Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.

Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.

After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.” 

It’s our fault.

Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS,  derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.

And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.

So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.

If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.

I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.

Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.

Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.

Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.

But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.

I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.

God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.

——————————

     Just take the parable.

The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.

 “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” 

     Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:

Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?

Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.

Alters how he sees his father.

Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.

Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.  

His father hasn’t changed.

His sin has changed how he sees his father.

Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.

The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.

You see-

     Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.

‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.

Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.

But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.

Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.

It’s worship of an Accuser.

Which can never be motived by love or joy.

     Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.

That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.

To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.

——————————

     Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.

The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.

The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.

     God is like a father whose love without condition.

Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.

God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.

Therefore-

If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.

Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.

No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.

Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.

Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.

Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.

Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.

But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.

God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.

God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.

And then we justify ourselves for having done it.

Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.

——————————

     Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.

“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.” 

Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.

I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.

I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.

After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.

And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.

As judging, damning. You.

I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.

I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.

Listen up-

You see God the way you do because of your sin.

Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.

God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.

Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.

God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.

Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.

God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.

Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.

     God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.

If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.

God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.

After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:

God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.

Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.

It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.

Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.

It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.

——————————-

     Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.

Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.

Not at all.

God never changes his mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.

If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.

It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.

It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.

You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.

You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.

Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.

Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.

God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.

That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.

Which means-

    These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.

     These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.

Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.

See-

The God you thought was an angry judge.

An auditor.

An accuser.

He’s just a Dad on a porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


img26064

The problem with many theories of the atonement, which imply that God ‘can’t’ love us- sinners that we are- until someone dies for the infinite offense, is that they neglect to notice how the gulf between Creator and creature is already so inconceivably severe that…

God can’t love us anyway.

Not if ‘love’ is to have any meaningful definition.
As Herbert McCabe argues:

One of the primary characteristics of any definition of love is equality between the lovers.

Love entails a recognition between two of the other’s existence as as valid as one’s own existence. To put the point more clearly, says McCabe, just consider how ‘fostered inequality’ registers with us as the opposite and enemy of love.

If equality is an essential attribute of a loving relationship, then it becomes evident that ‘whatever relationship there may be between God and his creature it cannot be one of love.’

The relationship is instead as unequal as it can possibly be.

We might think of God as caring benevolently for his creatures or as the Source of all value in them or as a Master rewarding/punishing them, but we can’t, McCabe argues, ‘think of God has giving himself in love to a creature.’

The gulf between Creator and creature is such that to say God loves me is on par with saying that I love yeast creature that made my beer possible.

Those hackneyed Christian songs might speak of the singer being in love with God, but it’s even more ridiculous to suppose the singer could sing about God being ‘in love’ with us.

McCabe, the philosophically trained might notice, takes with complete seriousness Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian God. Nietzsche didn’t argue that God was evil, wicked Boss in the sky; Nietzsche resisted because the relationship between God and us could never be anything other than Boss to slave.

That is, to Nietzsche the relationship between God and creatures could never be a relationship of love (between equals).

Nietzsche, in other words, did not disbelieve God; he rebelled against God. God in his estimation was not worthy of worship, for why would I care if the yeast creature in my beer worshipped me?

McCabe takes Nietzsche’s critique with seriousness and in turn laments how many have reacted to Nietzsche:

‘with a deplorable and idolatrous tendency to diminish God. In order that God may stand in relationship with his creatures, God is made one of them, a member of the universe, subject to change and even disappointment and suffering. Even the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is interpreted in these terms.’

God CAN’T love us, McCabe (a Dominican priest, no less) argues.

And this is where Herbert pivots to scripture:

“The most important thing Jesus said (and he does not only say it in John’s Gospel but shows it and implies it in a thousand ways) is something about himself: the Father loves him.”

Italics all McCabe all the way.

To sing ‘Jesus loves me for the bible tells me so’ is to miss the point in McCabe’s mind. We should be singing: ‘God loves Jesus…for the bible tells me so.’

For Jesus to claim the Father loves him is itself to announce equality with God, that sort of equality implied by and required for love.

Jesus, the Incarnate Logos, is the (only) One who makes it possible for God the Creator to love his creatures. And we Him.

It’s not just Sin that separates us- of course Sin doesn’t help.

God, McCabe, says, loves Jesus and loves him from before all time as his co-equal Son, ‘owing his existence indeed to God though not created but, as I suggest, loved into existence.’ 

Regardless of what went down in the Garden, the Son would’ve still come down to be Mary’s son because:

‘it is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love that we call the Holy Spirit.

And this means, of course, that we are taken up into equality, the equality demanded by and involved in love.’

Nietzsche was right.

God could not love creatures. God still cannot.

What did Nietzsche miss, according to McCabe?

We’re no longer just creatures. Because the Son became a creature, we creatures now share in the Son.

God can’t love us, but God loved the Son.

And in the Son, through the Spirit, the Father loves us.

We who were once creatures have been made children of God.

img26064At-One-Ment

It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

Makes him sound like a super-hero, I know, which is unfortunate since that’s the last thing the Church Fathers were after. Their formula was just the best way to insure that latter day Jesus-followers like us didn’t forget that Jesus the Son is true God and true Man, without division or confusion between his two natures.

He is fully both God and Man.

And, in a latent sense, he has always been both.

Eternally.

In other words, the Son who is the 2nd Person of the Trinity was always going to be the eternal Son who became incarnate and thus the son of somebody like Mary.

According to Maximus the Confessor– indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith, someone who could even out smoke, out drink and punch out Karl Barth:

the Chalcedonian formula necessitates that we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things that are separated.

Whether- and this is key- by nature or by sin.

We all know Sin separated us from God. That’s an every Sunday, altar call kind of presumption- so much so, in fact, that we neglect to remember or notice that less nefarious but even more fundamental fact separates us from the infinite.

Our finitude. Our createdness. Our materiality.

That the son of Mary is the eternal-eventually-to-become-incarnate Son of the God we call Trinity shows, says Maximus, that the Logos is the One through whom all things physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, earthly and heavenly, created and uncreated would be united and made one.

Union, says Maximus, was God’s first and most fundamental aim.

At-onement of a different sort.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is the God-Man, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him. By him.

We are the ones with whom, through him, God wants to share God’s life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

We’re the extravagance the superabundant love of Father, Son and Spirit gratuitously seek to share with one another.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the reason for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship. 

With us.

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

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

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

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

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

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

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

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

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

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

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

     It’s over the top.

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

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

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

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

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

Bam.

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

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

     What? 

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are not great sinners.

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

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

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

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

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

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

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

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

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

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

Sin is about where your love lies.

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

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

Because God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

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

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

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

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4The smell of chicken thighs browning in a cast iron skillet with olive oil and garlic, onions and peppers sautéing next to them, reminds me every time of my grandmother. Every old guy who walks out of church on Sunday morning smelling of Old Spice recalls my grandpa. My handwriting, down to the same black felt tip pen, is his. The small of my wife’s back feels to my hand as much me as my eyes when I rub them. I can’t imagine the world other than seeing it as I’ve learned to see it from her. And if we’ve done even a partial job of parenting, then one day our boys will say the same about us.

My point:

We are who we’ve loved.

From this incontrovertible axiom follows an equally incontestable assertion:

Hell for some would be Hell for all.

If who I am is constituted by the memories given to me by those I’ve loved, then what would it mean for me to be in heaven were they in hell? Heaven would be a torment to me, or if their memory blotted out from me, to spare me the pain of their damnable suffering, then the part of they constituted would likewise be erased. To believe in an eternal hell for some is likewise to believe that the host of heaven have been, in decisive ways, hollowed out, as much shadows of their former selves as CS Lewis famously sketched the souls in Hell.

My teacher David Bentley Hart puts it better than me:

“[There is] an incoherence deeply fixed at the heart of almost all Christian traditions: that is, the idea that the omnipotent God of love, who creates the world from nothing, either imposes or tolerates the eternal torment of the damned.

It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate, or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell.

All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.

Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us?

We are those others.

To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss?

Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one.

But not a person—not the person who was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

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

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

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

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

officer-involved-shooting1“The assumption that a black man suspected of a robbery is dangerous enough to be shot is the heart of the issue. The inability of the black community to trust that police offers will not see them as immediate threats and act accordingly is the heart of the injustice involved.”

 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism. Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officers who kill blacks while black Americans identify with the seemingly innocent victims.

Whenever a story like Philander Castile’s or Alton Sterling’s, hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                   “represent a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of the many police shootings and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

As McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about crime when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.

Prayer for Omar Mateen

Jason Micheli —  June 23, 2016 — 8 Comments

2016AC-logo-color-with-UMC-flameI’m recovering from 3 plus days spent at my little nook of Methodism’s Annual Conference. Given that nearly a quarter of every dollar a United Methodist gives goes out the door of his or her congregation to the larger Church, there’s many structural and strategic critiques I could offer about how we spent our time (and I’ve already seen many of my younger clergy colleagues doing so on social media).

I won’t belabor the organizational beef. I do want to address what I took to be both a grave theological error and a personal one too. During the proceedings we debated- debated- a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the Orlando tragedy. We actually debated it. Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder. We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families and, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies.

What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator. We didn’t prayer for the shooter. And that wouldn’t be odd in any other context except for a Christian one, for we are the people who believe the cross erases any meaningful distinction between victim and victimizer.

I noticed the lack in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too afraid to step up to microphone 10 to say anything about it. For that, I am ashamed. It’s little recompense but I offer this prayer here that I should’ve offered there:

Slaughtered Yet Risen Lord-

You forgive us from the cross with which we push you out of the world, invoking to the Father that we do not know what we are doing. Perhaps we know ourselves better than you know us, for surely we knew what we were doing.

We confess.

And, we presume, Omar Mateen knew what he was doing too by murdering out of hate (and it seems self-hate too) by wounding just as many, and, in so doing, wreaking violence on his family and any who cared for him. We presume he knew what he was doing, and so not one of us has any natural inclination to forgive him or, even, to pray for him.

We confess.

Actually, Lord Jesus, we’d rather pray for you to punish him. We’d prefer the assurance of his eternal torment, and we don’t know how to square that desire with the news that you’ve already suffered hell for us, once for all, and that you died- accursed- not for people like us but the wicked. Like Omar Mateen. We desperately do not want him to be counted among that ‘all’ for whom you died.

We confess.

We don’t want to pray for him, Lord. Maybe it’s because we don’t think he deserves it, or maybe it’s because we suspect it will prove hard to hate someone for whom we pray. We don’t want to pray for him, but you queerly command us to love enemies and trespassers and to pray for them. So we do- not because it’s a strategy to make the world more peaceful and not because we believe that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. We do so, reluctantly, only because you commanded us, and as dumb and offensive as praying for him strikes us, you’re still the only one whose character God has vindicated by resurrection. And if you can raise the crucified from the dead, then perhaps you can raise up a People whose hates are not more precious to them than their faith.

We hope.

So against our better judgment but towards our Easter hope, we pray for Omar Mateen and any and all who, in the mysterious complexity of life, loved him. We’re told he killed in the name of righteousness; help us not shirk your command to pray for enemies in the name of righteousness. Give us grace, Lord Jesus, that in the fullness of time we may see in him, and him in us, thieves welcomed by you undeservedly into paradise.

Help us to pray for Omar Mateen and those like him. Help us to believe the Gospel that its through such practices and the communities constituted by them that you have chosen to redeem this sinful and violent world. Amen.

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4If it’s true, as the many earnest and somber admonishments I’ve received in response to my recent infernal posts testify, that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question- and forget that it’s God we’re talking about- is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

The panting sanctimony in my Inbox suggests that eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christian clergy, which, I confess, makes me suspect the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures. Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell led to the rise of voluntarism, a theological strain that insists there is nothing more determinative than God’s absolute, spontaneous exercise of his will. God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, voluntarists would speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.

Captivity.

Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers- indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

  • Galatians 5

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.

  • Thomas Aquinas

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true, as I’m told by clergy in all CAPS in my Inbox, that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

Guyton-bookMorgan has been hounding my ass for weeks for a review of his new book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity and I still have not done it. I’ve reviewed other books for other websites. I’ve written blog posts several times a week and composed sermons. But I haven’t been able to write a review of Morgan’s book. Since he sent me a galley of it this fall, his book became for me like the girlfriend you don’t know how to break up with because you don’t want to hurt her.

And by that, I don’t mean that his book sucks. It doesn’t.

I think it’s because I care for Morgan too much (and I respect him too much) to do a shitty job of it. I’ve had book reviewers block. And we have a history together that is more substantial than the rather spare amount of time we’ve spent together.

So it’s about time to do a quick review for you of Morgan’s book.

A handful of years ago I was asked by Beth Downs, the Ms McGonagall of the United Methodist Church, to lead a class on preaching to a group of ordination candidates. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in the classroom anymore than I do in the pulpit but I said yes. My first session, attempting to be too clever by half, before opening with prayer I opened with a scripture reading. An auspicious one: Numbers 22. For all these earnest preachers of the word, who elbowing each other out of the way to impress members of the Board of Ministry, I offered a reading where an ass- a donkey- is able proclaim a word from the Lord.

I was met with confused, silent, stares. Except one- a nasally sort of chuckle. I looked over towards it: ‘Morgan?’ I asked ‘Is that you?’

I first Morgan Guyton when we were first years- not freshman- at the University of Virginia during a gathering of the First Year Fellowship, which was a college extension of Young Life’s para-church ministry. I’d only become a Christian maybe 18 months before coming to college and, having found the local Methodist churches ‘sleepy’ at best, I’d decided to check out First Year Fellowship. Initially, it seemed awesome. It was on campus. Everyone was my age,  looked like me, thought like me. It was led by a few charismatic older students armed with acetate overhead sheets, acoustic guitars, and Jesus in my pants praise songs.

In hindsight I can say that First Year Fellowship was a tribe of evangelical students of a particular Calvinistic strain but I did not have such categories at the time. I only knew after a few gatherings that I did not belong. The performance of my worship was not demonstrative enough. My certainty was short on such things as substitutionary atonement. My questions about unbelievers, my gay friends, and prayer were not welcomed. My pushback was push-backed. The Christianese slang and idioms felt ill-fitting on me. Having come to the faith in a United Methodist New Church Start, Woodlake UMC, a seeker sensitive church,  I was not prepared for Christians who took their beliefs seriously enough to stigmatize other Christians.

The usually unspoken exclusion I felt at First Year Fellowship eventually kick started a long running commentary in my head that I was not a good enough Christian which inexorably led to unproductive and even shaming attempts on my part to justify myself before God rather than rest in Christ’s justification of me.

What I know now was that I was a victim of a form of toxic Christianity. And it was, toxic. It made me feel physically ill. It made me ashamed, physically and emotionally, of who I thought I was as a Christian.

I met Morgan at that First Year Fellowship- at a fall retreat, actually, in which we all went skinny dipping, and Morgan sports a bear suit underneath his clothes so you can imagine that left an impression- and my first impression of Morgan was how I thought he’s so completely different from me but the two of us are completely different from this group. The thing we have in common is that we have nothing in common with this gathering of Christians. Neither of us belonged.

I count it is a source of pride that, though Morgan and I agree on very little or, rather, we disagree on much, he and I were the only two disqualified by the Young Life Organization from being leaders of First Year Fellowship. Given my experience, I’m not sure why I applied- whether it was masochism or infiltration. I was blackballed because I would not concede to my interviewer that his deformed and useless hand had been ordained by God for a higher purpose.

I’m not sure why Morgan was rejected, but I suspect it’s because, as a Christian, he can be hard to take. During First Year Fellowship gatherings, Morgan would frequently raise his hand and stand to share what Jesus had compelled him to do or say, or whom he was called to love, this week, or what he was wrestling with in the Spirit at present. Honestly, listening to Morgan in those moments was exhausting.

In other words, Morgan was the kind of guy that made you realize why people wanted to kill Jesus.

There’s only so much urgency of faith that sinners and almost Christians can tolerate before they respond with a cross.

If Morgan wears his heart for God on his sleeve, then there’s a piece of it on every page of his book, which is better understood by the title he originally gave to it Mercy Not Sacrifice, for Morgan’s refrain is the prophets’ own reminder that God does not desire the practices and gestures by which we try to ameliorate our situation vis a vis God rather God wants a beautiful, poured out life from us. In How Jesus Saves Us, Morgan uses his own story, revealing some of his own saddness, insecurities, and shame along the way, to expose the ways in which our piety and practices mask the very sorts of ideologies from which Jesus has already saved us.

I’ve no doubt that Morgan’s book will be life-giving because his oddness in a way all those years ago helped to save me from the self-loathing that self-justification inevitably begets. He was part of God’s antidote for me of the toxic Christianity which had infected my newly chosen faith.

If prophets are not welcome in their hometowns, it’s understandable that we’d be uncomfortable at times with them in our pulpits. I’m not sure I possess the truthfulness, spiritual energy, or courage of my conviction to ever want to be a part of Morgan’s congregation (and I mean that as the highest compliment), but I’m grateful that Morgan is a leader in my Church with a capital C and that though this book his voice will afflict many with the right kind of nightmares.

Buy the book here.

hell-5-views-3-638I often wonder if Christians are so beholden to belief in an eternal hell because they simultaneously assume that belief in the biblical account of creation requires images of brontosauruses reclining with Adam in the peaceable garden of eden. I wonder, that is, if believing in a fiery fate is part and parcel with affirming scripture’s aging of the earth. Certainly I think Christians can only insist that the story ends this awful way for some of us- or, to listen to them, a great many of us- because they mistakenly read its beginning in a particular way.

Belief in an eternal hell relies upon a literal, which is to say static, reading of Genesis. Only such a reading, where the  term ‘creation’ is circumscribed to the first six days, can make belief in a Last Day that begets eternal torment coherent.

To preach fire and brimstone of the ultimate variety one must first conjugate the Triune God’s deliberation (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) into the past tense.

When Christians erroneously suppose that the doctrine of creation refers to our beginnings, in the past, they not only get into misbegotten debates pitting science vs. scripture, they fail to realize that belief in an eternal hell is morally contradictory to belief in creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing.

Christians do not posit creation from nothing as a claim about the origins of the universe. Nor do we mean it merely as a metaphysical one- that ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ Of course it includes both of those claims but creation from nothing is hardly reducible to either of them; instead, creation from nothing, as Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa saw clearly, does not refer to God’s primordial act but to an eschatological one which witnesses to God’s ultimate, as in teleological, relation to creation.

For Christians, the doctrine of creation from nothing is not a belief about what God did, billions or thousands of years ago. It’s a confession that necessarily includes what God has done, is doing, and will do unto fruition.

Creation from nothing isn’t so much a statement about what God did or what God does but its a statement about who God is. To say that God creates ex nihilo is to assert that God did not need creation. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, already and eternally so, sufficient unto himself, a perfect community of fullness and love, without deficit or need and with no potentiality. Creation from nothing confesses our belief that the world is not ‘nature’ but creation; that is, it is sheer gift because the Giver is without any lack. Creation is not necessary to God. It is not the terrain on which God needs to realize any part of an incomplete identity.

Creation from nothing then is shorthand for the Christian assertion that the Creator is categorically Other from his creation, that the Transcendent is absolutely distinct from the temporal. Simultaneously, however, creation from nothing requires that though- really, because– Creator and creation are ontologically distinct they are morally inseparable.

Precisely because God did not need to create, because creation is sheer gift, God ‘needs’ for creation to reveal his goodness.

Morally speaking, God is now bound to creation’s end because its beginning was not bound to him. In other words, for creation to be gift and the Giver to be good, then God ‘must’ bring to fruition his purpose in creation, “Let us make humankind in our image,” for all causes are reducible to and reflect their First Cause. If creation proves ultimately to be less than good (with an eternal torment for some of creation), then the Creator is no longer in any logical sense the Good.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart argues:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth.”

God’s creative purpose does not refer to Adam and Eve’s first day on the third. It was not fulfilled prior to the Fall nor would it have been without it. If, before their mistrust in the Garden, Adam and Eve already bore the fullness of God’s image then God is but a god, and it’s no longer intelligible what we mean by saying Christ is the image of the invisible God for the chasm between Adam and Jesus is only slightly less than infinite. What Christians mean by the imago dei is not immediate. It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification. Perfection.

God’s “Let us…” does not refer to the events of day 3 of creation but names the plot of the entire salvation story. Making us- that is, humanity, all of us- into the image of Father, Son, and Spirit is what God is bringing to pass in calling Israel, in taking flesh in Christ, in sending the Spirit, and, through the Spirit, sending the Church to announce the Gospel. As Gregory saw it, we can only truly say that God ‘created’ when all of creation finally has reached its consummation in the union of all things with the First Good.

Belief in an eternal hell is absurd then exactly because what Christians mean by belief in the imago dei is not immediate but ultimate.

It is, in fact, inseparable from what we call sanctification.

Perfection.

Creation from nothing for the purpose that humanity would bear gratuitously the image of the good God is what God began in Genesis, what God is doing now through the Spirit, and what God has promised to bring to completion in Christ. Eternal hell does not comport with this telos, this End, towards which God has created us.

Indeed belief in eternal hell, where some portion or multitude of humanity is forever lost and forsaken, contradicts belief in creation from nothing, for if God’s promised aim is that, in the fullness of time all of humanity will bear his image, the promise can never be consummated apart without all of humanity included in it.

 

 

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows,  so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 3

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales
During Lent I’m writing a series of review essays of Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site. Here’s a snippet from the latest post on Rutledge’s work on justice and divine wrath.

I’ve changed my mind about God’s wrath. 

Or, rather, my friend, Brian Stolarz has changed my mind. 

When reflecting upon the category of divine wrath, thanks to Brian, I no longer think of myself. My mind goes instead to Alfred Dewayne Brown, Brian’s client (both pictured above).

Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas. Dewayne had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case; in fact, the evidence which could’ve proved his alibi was hidden by prosecutors and only discovered fortuitously by Brian, years later. Dewayne was released by the state this summer. Brian has forthcoming book about the experience.

Meanwhile, Dewayne has a civil rights case pending to seek restitution for the injustice done to him. 

To seek rectification, biblically speaking. 

I spent about a half hour alone with Dewayne this fall as we waited for his presentation, with Brian, to a group of law students. I’ve worked in a prison as a chaplain and interacted with prisoners in solitary and on death row. Like my friend, Brian, I have a good BS radar. Dewayne was unlike the prisoners I’ve met. My immediate reaction from spending time with him was how difficult it was for me to fathom any one fathoming him committing the crime of which he was accused. My second reaction was to feel overwhelmed by Dewayne’s expressions of forgiveness over the wrongs done to him by crooked cops and lawyers, a prejudiced system, and an indifferent society. ‘I’ve forgiven all that,’ Dewayne told me in the same sort of classroom where lawyers who had turned a blind eye to his innocence were once trained into a supposedly blind justice system.

Here’s the crux of the matter, and I use that word very literally:

Dewayne is allowed to express forgiveness about the crimes done to him. 

But, as a Christian, I am not so permitted. Neither are you. 

If we told Dewayne, for example, that he should forgive and forget, then he would be justified in kicking in our sanctimonious teeth.

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, The Question of Justice, we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross. 

The cross is more properly about God working justice. 

You can read the rest of the essay at the Jesus Creed here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/03/a-wrath-less-god-has-victims-by-jason-micheli/#disqus_thread

Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. My text was Matthew 28.16-20. You can listen to it below or download it in iTunes here.

Thanks to artists’ renderings and Mel Gibson, we all know what Jesus looks like.

Obviously there’s slight variations but, basically, we all know what Jesus looks like. We all know he’s white (just kidding…please don’t write a letter to the bishop) and we all know Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Loggins from his pre-‘Danger Zone,’ ‘This is It’ yacht rock period.

So we know what Jesus looks like, but we don’t know what Jesus sounds like.

When Jesus says ‘…go therefore and make disciples…’ we don’t know what he sounds like. There’s no recordings, not even an 8 track. It’s like the opposite of radio; we have the images we’ve got to supply the voice.

And for each of us it’s somewhat different sounding For a lot of you, Jesus sounds like a gentle, soft-spoken, inspiring teacher someone like the dog whisperer, say, or Donald Trump.

Scripture does say the Father and the Son are one, the same, so no doubt some of you think Jesus sounds just like God, who, we all know, sounds just like Morgan Freeman.

Because this is DC, I know a lot of people in politics and to them Jesus sounds…just like them. It’s amazing. It might be the only thing in town on which there’s bipartisan consensus. Whether they want to make America Great Again or they’re Feeling the Bern, they all hear Jesus in their own voice.

Not me though.

On my good days, Jesus sounds to me just like Gandalf- not Dumbledore, that would be childish. On my good days, Jesus sounds exactly like Gandalf.

     But on my not-so-good days, on my bad days, you know who Jesus sounds like to me? That’s right, Sally Struthers, which I think qualifies me as a feminist.

Not the Sally Struthers of Five Easy Pieces or The Getaway. Not Gloria from All in the Family. Not even Sally Struthers the voice of Pebbles Flintstone on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show.

No, on my bad days and my not-so-good days, Jesus sounds to me exactly like Sally Struthers of those once ubiquitous Christian Children’s Fund commercials.

You know, the ones where she shoves a Starvin’ Marvin kid with flies in his eyes in front of the camera and, with tears and earnestness in her eyes, stares through the television screen at lazy, fat, self-centered you, who can’t even spare the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life.

On my bad and my not-so-good days, when I hear Jesus say something like ‘…go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them everything I’ve taught you…’ 

Jesus sounds to me like Christian Children’s Fund Sally Struthers, her/his whiney voice guilting me that if I just gave more money, sacrificed more time, exerted more effort, mustered-up some more mindfulness then I could do what I’m supposed to do (the things that Jesus did) and I could be who I’m supposed to be (just like Jesus).

Maybe it’s just me. When you’re a pastor you spend a lot of time thinking about what you should be doing as a Christian.

It doesn’t mean you’re a better Christian (and if you’re a United Methodist, probably the opposite is the case), it just means the rhythms of the job and people’s perceptions of you make you feel like you should be saying Jesusy stuff and doing Jesusy things 24/7.

I mean, you never read about Jesus sitting in his boxers, eating a family-sized bag of potato chips, drinking a beer, and binge watching an entire season of Californication. Not that I’ve done that; it’s just a ‘for instance.’

My point is Jesus never does anything like that. Time’s too precious. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all that.

Last Sunday I taught our confirmation class, and at the beginning of class I asked the students to throw out at me all the attributes of their all-time favorite teachers. Kind. Nice. Generous. Challenging. Engaging. Fun.

And when I asked which of those attributes Jesus possessed as a teacher, guess which one they left off the list? Fun.

Jesus wasn’t, isn’t, fun they all concurred.

Who can blame them for thinking that way?

Sure, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners but even that’s to prove a point about who is in and who is out when it comes to the Father’s love. Jesus never just Wang-Chungs on any night.

Yeah, Jesus slips away a lot for quiet time but whenever he does it’s to pray to God. How annoying is that? Jesus never just chillaxes.

It seems like he’s always speaking truth to power and showing compassion to the poor, and, as disciples- as we tell our confirmands, we’re supposed to be just like Jesus and do the things Jesus that did.

And, as a pastor, you’re never not auditing your shortfalls on both counts. It comes with the job.

And so, even though we know Jesus looks like Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall, on a lot of my crappy days our Lord and Savior sounds to me like ‘Save the Kids’ Sally Struthers, her Christian Children’s Fund commercials making my faith feel like a guilty monkey on my back.

For example, for Christmas we bought the boys a Playstation 4. I insist on using the whole title, Playstation, because I’ve already learned that when you say ‘I’m going to go play with my PS’ too quickly, it can sound dirty and lead to unproductive potty humor.

Anyways, we bought the boys a PS4 for Christmas. If you have an actual human style life and you’re not a gaming nerd and you don’t know, the PS4 costs approximately $8,000.

Plus tax.

This is true: for the same amount of money we spent on the PS4, we could have provided clean water to an entire, impoverished village in Africa.

I know that stat because I’m a pastor and because Jesus/Sally reminded me in her guilt-tripping voice as I swiped my debit card at purchase.

Sure the PS4 was expensive but we had to buy it. I mean, their Nintendo Wii was at least 2 years old. What else were we supposed to do? We had no choice.

Still, though, I couldn’t shake the sense of shaming buyer’s remorse that ‘PS4’ is seldom the answer to the question ‘WWJD?’

So when my boys unwrapped the PS4 and opened it up and invited me to play with them, what did I say?

‘Well, I’d love to boys but unfortunately I’ve got more important things to do. I’m going to go pray and then read the Bible and then maybe I’ll go find some sinners to eat with.’

It’s true.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from creeping down to the basement after everyone had gone to bed and playing the Last of Us, a violent, sex-filled, apocalyptic, zombie-killing game for like 9 hours on end.

I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I just peed in a cup. Even my dog, lying next to me on the sofa, looked at me like I was pathetic.

And looking back at her, I saw in her eyes Sally Struthers’ pained expression and in my head I heard Jesus…reminding me that this was not something he would do and so- he didn’t need to point out- it wasn’t something I needed to waste my time with.

After all, the Last of Us costs about $50.00 and, according to that other Christian Children’s Fund guy, the bald guy with the Wilfred Brimley beard, a cup of coffee only costs $0.39. I don’t know where he buys his coffee but apparently somewhere a cup of coffee only costs $0.39.

Do the math: that PS4 game costs the same amount as 128 cups of coffee and, according to that aforementioned bearded guy, that’s 128 starving children for whom I could provide food, water and medicine.

Jesus saves and so could I, but instead I spent a fortnight trying to advance to the next level of a video game that makes Games of Thrones seem like the 23rd Psalm.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m back to being an on-the-clock Christian, but math like that runs through my head all the time and it’s usually followed by Sally Struthers doing Jesus voice over in my head.

I mean-

According to World Vision, 3/4 of the world’s population- 75% of everybody- live on less than $10/day. That’s $70/week.

Just to put that into perspective, because I’m a professional Christian and that’s the kind of math I do: I’ve rented the 2010 John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine 3 times from the iTunes store.

I’ve rented it on 3 separate occasions.

At $2.99/rental that equals roughly $9.00, plus what I paid to see Hot Tub Time Machine at the theater on opening night ($24) and figure in the ankle-grabbing concession cost ($50) and, according to the Sally Struthers- narrated abacus in my brain, that comes out to a grand total of $83.00.

More than what 75% of everybody in the world has to survive off of for a week- that’s the amount of money I’ve spent on a terrible, infantile movie with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine.

Even a hot tub is a luxury item. And I’m supposed to be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did!

It’s no wonder Jesus sounds like Sally Struthers to me and not just when it comes to poverty and money.

Not too long ago, I was at Starbucks, sitting at the bar and doing some research on today’s scripture text, when a friend from church- a friend about my age, though not as young-looking as me- sat down next to me.

I don’t want to violate his privacy so let’s just say his name rhymes with Ryan Polarz. 

And he said to me: ‘Hey, I just listened to your Ash Wednesday sermon from a few weeks ago, the one where you mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It really got me thinking.’

And I replied: ‘Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.’

Now, take a guess where our conversation went from there.

Did I ask him if that sermon edified his faith or helped nurture his relationship with the Lord? Nope.

Did I inquire about the state of his soul or ask ‘If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ No. None of it.

No, we spent about 25 caffeinated minutes Googling 1990 era swimsuit supermodels and reminiscing about our adolescent infatuations. Nearly a half of an hour.

About as long as Jesus was scourged for my sins, instead of teaching anyone everything Jesus taught his disciples. I Googled the women I’d once oogled as a newly pubescent boy.

And even then, in the back of my head, I heard Sally Struthers from the sermon on the mountain saying: ‘If you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.’

     I mean, is this the kind of uncertain, self-incriminating agony we want to confirm our kids into?

I could go on all day just telling you about my day yesterday or the day before that so it’s not surprising that on a whole lot of days the Jesus in my head sounds a whole lot like ‘Call this # now’ Sally Strutters.

And… it’s why, I think, those first disciples, when they met the Risen Jesus up on that mountain, they doubted.

They doubted.

According to Matthew, when the women go to the womb at dawn on Easter morning, they’re eventually encountered by the Risen Christ, who tells them to go find the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee, to the mountain.

And they do, says Matthew. And just before today’s text, Matthew says that when they see the Risen Christ, they worship him.

Just like that.

In a moment, they break the first- and, really, the only- commandment. Immediately on that mountain they toss aside everything it meant to be a Jew: to worship no gods but God.

As soon as they encounter the Risen Christ, they do what they’d never before. Not when he’d walked on water. Not when he’d multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Not when he’d declared himself the Son of Man.

Only now, vindicated by resurrection and having triumphed over the Powers of Sin and Death, do they worship him as God-in-the-flesh.

But- Matthew reports in the same breathe, the very same sentence- some of the disciples doubted.

     While they’re on their knees worshipping him, some of them doubted.

     What did they doubt?

Did they doubt, as Thomas does in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was really resurrected?

Maybe. But the Risen Christ is right there in front of them, and you don’t kneel down and worship something you’re not really sure is even there. And you certainly don’t worship him if you think he might be someone else entirely.

Speaking of worship- did they doubt whether or not they should be worshipping him?

I doubt it.

If ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is the lynchpin of your self-identity, then you don’t turn your back on that and worship with fingers crossed behind your back.

No, I think their doubt has everything to do with that mountain they’re on.

Notice, Jesus didn’t need to specify on which mountain they were to meet him. They knew which mountain. They knew that ‘the mountain’ in Matthew’s Gospel only refers to one mountain, to the place where Jesus gave the sermon on the mountain.

     In fact, a better translation of v.16 reads: ‘Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had laid down the rules for them.’

Rules.

Rules like ‘Blessed will be the peacemakers.’

Rules like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’

Rules like ‘Do not hide your faith in the dark’ and ‘Worry not about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a 2×4 in your own.’

Commands.

Commands that not one of those disciples had proved capable of emulating like Jesus when Jesus was alive and, now, he’s alive again.

And as they worship him on that mountain, I’m willing to bet that what they doubt is themselves. I’m willing to bet what they doubt is their ability to embody those commands like Jesus embodied them. I bet they doubt they can do it. Be just like him.

And if they’re doubting it as they’re worshipping him, I’m willing to bet it gets even worse a verse and a half later when Jesus tells them it’s their turn now. To make disciples of every last person, teaching them every last thing he commanded them on that mountain, every last command they couldn’t keep like he did. I’m willing to bet the house- also not very Jesusy- they doubt that they can be just like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did.

Still though, those same disciples (plus others just like them)- they changed the world.

Despite their doubts about themselves, despite their serious and abundant shortcomings that the Gospels don’t even bother to gloss past, they changed everything.

Sometimes in all our pious jargon and churchy lore we forget something. We forget a simple fact of history:

Jesus did not change the world. 

     When Jesus died, he had a grand total of 0 disciples.

And just after Easter, he had only a handful.

Jesus did not change the world.

The disciples did. Those disciples did.

They took Jesus’ Kingdom movement and in less than 300 years they literally converted the heart of an Empire.

Those disciples and others just like them, who were just as bad as us at being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus did, changed the world. How? How did they do it?

The Holy Spirit is the easy, obvious confirmation class answer, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just think it skirts the question.

I wonder-

I wonder if something else is a part of the answer too.  I wonder if, after the mantle was passed to them, those disciples discovered something that we- or me, at least-so frequently miss.

Here it is, and this is everything so wake up now:

     Discipleship does not mean we try to be just like Jesus.

     Discipleship does not mean we try to do everything Jesus did the way Jesus did it.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a byproduct of ordination but, as important a distinction as this, I forget it all the time.

To be a disciple is to live your life- your life- as Jesus might live it if he were you. 

Do you see the distinction?

     To be a disciple is NOT for you to be just like Jesus.

To be a disciple is to tease out what you would be like if Jesus were you.

If yours was the life Jesus had been given to live, not as a first century Jewish carpenter but you, your life. With your humdrum job or your jerk boss or your remaining years and failing health. What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your kids or your aging parents or your shame and regrets or your addiction or your student loans and mortgage bills.

What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your pain-in-the-butt in-laws or your spouse. Who would you be if he were you? If he was a single Dad or a stay-at-home Mom or an enlisted soldier? What if Jesus had cancer? What if he had enlisted? What if he were gay? What if his parents didn’t understand him? How would you be different if he were you?

Discipleship is the word we give to how we answer that question. And obviously it’s necessarily different for each one of us.

I think that’s something we miss when we confirm our kids into the faith.

We make them, make you, mistakenly think that discipleship is mainly about prayer and bible reading and preaching and serving the poor- because that’s the kind of stuff Jesus did in his life.

And then you make the mistake and think that someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis or even me is somehow more of a disciple than you.

And so it’s only natural that Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples would be left to those kind of ‘real’ disciples.

But if discipleship is about who you would be if he lived your life, then discipleship is not even about what you do. It’s about how you do what you already do.

It’s about how you do what you already do.

Let me say it this way:

     No apprentice must become the exact, carbon copy of their Master. God only needed one Savior.

You don’t have to live his life.

Jesus already lived his life, and God gave you yours.

There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you. There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you.

No other.  All God wants is for you to live your life the way Jesus might have lived it if it was your flesh he put on. If it was your shoes he was standing in.

I mean-

Sure, Jesus of Nazareth never wasted time playing inane games on the PS4, but if Jesus of Anesbury Ct had 2 sons who wanted to spend time with their Dad?

Yeah.

He probably still wouldn’t play a soft-porn, vigilante zombie game in the beer-drenched darkness of a basement, but Star Wars Battlefront with his boys? You bet.

Sure Jesus of Galilee wasn’t married (no matter what Dan Brown claims) but if Jesus of Alexandria was married to his high school sweetheart, a woman who perfected even him.

And if his wife had had a crush on John Cusack ever since he played Lloyd Dobler held Peter Gabriel aloft over his head, then maybe even Jesus would spend $70 to take his wife to opening night of Hot Tub Time Machine.

Yes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s doesn’t seem to have an off-color sense of humor, but if Jesus, Mark and Sue’s son, was sitting at Starbucks one day and if a friend wanted to become more of one by being silly and hashing over the silly infatuations of youth, then (don’t call the bishop) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even Jesus might Google ’90’s swimsuit covergirls.

You see-

If discipleship isn’t about you being just like Jesus

If discipleship is about figuring out who you would be if he were living your life, then the good news is that the only way to fail at being a disciple is to decide not to try.

That’s the only way to fail.

You see-

It’s not on you to be just like Jesus and to change the world.

Jesus already lived his life.

You only need to figure out who you might be if he were you, in your shoes, in your little part of the world.

If we all, each of us, just did that-

Not only would it get rid of that Sally Struthers voice (let’s face it) we all have in our heads. It just might change the world.

The only way to fail is not to try.

     If you’ve never confessed Jesus Christ as your savior, if you’ve never invited him into your heart, if you’ve never come forward for an altar call, if you’ve never held your hand up during up a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve been confirmed but never really converted…

However you want to put it- if you’ve always held Jesus at arm’s length, if you’ve always only been a maybe, kinda, sorta, almost Christian…DON’T BE.

There’s no reason to be because the only way to fail at being a disciple is not to try.

Give yourself to him. Give your life to him.

And then live.

Live as if yours was the life he was given to live.

 

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska