Archives For Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School

In case you missed church this Sunday, here’s the last installment of our ’12 sermon series: Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School. This one comes from friend, mentee and Duke student, Taylor Mertins…

The smell was unbearable. Though he had lost track of the days, Ham was still unaccustomed to the rocking of the boat and the smell of damp animals constantly bombarding his senses. As he made his way throughout the bowels of the ship, checking on his brothers and their families, feeding the animals, and plugging leaks, Ham’s tortured mind kept replaying the details of what brought him to this ship.

His father had always been a quiet man; he mostly kept to himself and lived a humble life. His daily routine was not often interrupted until the day he began gathering copious amounts of wood from the forest. Ham could not understand the change in his father’s ambitions, but he respected him enough to not question this new driving force. Over the months a ship began to form out of the collected wood and Ham, along with his brothers, helped their father by collecting two of every animal from the surrounding countryside. Ham’s unwavering faith sustained him through the trying months where a ship stood in an open field, miles from the nearest water source. When others would have doubted his father’s project, Ham remained steadfast. And then the rain began. As the days passed, and the rain continued, Ham began to understand why his father had dedicated all of his energy to the giant raft; a flood was coming.

Ducking underneath the wooden support beams Ham pondered whether or not the boat would ever again rest on solid land. Tormented by the incessant rocking, Ham went onto the deck of the ship in order to calm his system. Usually filled with noise and activity, when Ham arrived on the deck all was silent and most of his family had gathered on the side of the boat. Worried that someone had fallen overboard, Ham rushed to the edge of the boat with his eyes drawn to the water until his father, Noah, placed a hand on Ham’s shoulder and pointed to the mountaintops that pierced the edge of the horizon: their journey was coming to an end.

The months after the flood passed by without the interruption of any major catastrophic elements. Ham and his brothers were initially shocked to discover the absurd amount of devastation that had been underwater. But as time passed, they cleaned and prepared to create a new home. While Ham and his family settled back into normalcy, his father began to cultivate fields of grapes in the same manner that he built the ark – he kept to himself yet worked with profound dedication. Eventually the fields yielded their fruit and Noah began to produce an abundance of wine.

One morning Ham was distressed to discover his father missing from his usual presence in the fields and went off to find him. Upon entering his father’s tent, Ham took in the disheveled room and tried to make sense of what was before him: Noah was completely naked surrounded by a number of empty wine bottles. Ham looked upon the body of his father and felt sorry for him, for his trials and tribulations with the ark, for his drunkenness, for his nakedness, and for his shame. He left the tent in order to find his brothers Shem and Japheth and tell them what had happened.

After debating what needed to be done, Shem and Japheth found a cloak and laying it on their shoulders they walked into their father’s tent backwards to cover the nakedness of their father. Throughout the day Ham continually walked past Noah’s tent and waited patiently for his father to awake. When Noah finally awoke from his drunken stupor, news of his nakedness and drunken escapade from the night before had made its way throughout the family. Noah, usually a man of few words, angrily made his way through the camp until he stood before his sons: “Ham I have come to curse your son, my grandson, Canaan; lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers! My other son Shem, blessed by the Lord my God you shall be, let your nephew Canaan be your slave! Japheth, may God make space for you in the tents of your brother Shem, and let your nephew Canaan be your slave!”

… I have no idea what this passage means. I am starting my third year of seminary and I haven’t the faintest idea how this scripture made it into the canon. I have dreaded this moment over the last few months, knowing that I was invited to come in my home church, where I would stand before so many people I love and care about, people who made me into the Christian I am today, people who helped nurture my call to the ministry. I have been terrified about preaching this sermon because I simply have no idea what this scripture means.

Now don’t get me wrong, my last two years at Duke Divinity School have been amazing. I have garnered a significant theological education, unrivaled in the United States. My professors have taken me through amazing lectures on a myriad of subjects. I have learned how to appropriately pronounce words like eschatology, pericope, pneumatology, hermeneutics, dogmatic apologetics, latitudarianism, curvatis, kerygma, infralapsarianism, and sometimes I even know what those words mean. I have served churches in North Carolina and Michigan. I have participated in funerals and comforted grieving families. I have celebrated with parents as the brought their infant forward to be baptized into the body of Christ. I have committed myself to the call that God placed on my life so many years ago, but I still don’t know what to do with Noah’s hangover.

To begin, everyone here already knows the real story about Noah and the Ark, it’s the one your children watch on Veggie Tales, and the one your grandmother told you when you were growing up – Noah, a man of God, is the only righteous human being left; God commands him to build an ark and procure two of every animal in order to repopulate the earth after the flood; the flood comes and desolates the land, but Noah’s faith in God’s calling sustains him and his family; after the water recedes God creates a rainbow in the sky signifying the new covenant… However, this is not the end of the story.

Over the last few years I have come to appreciate the fact that the bible is full of mysterious, confusing, and seemingly un-preachable, stories. Over the last month Jason Micheli has taken this church through some of the more bizarre collections of the Word of God: You have heard about: Isaiah’s unwavering faith in the Lord to the point of remaining naked for three years; David collecting 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry Saul’s daughter; Paul literally preaching and boring a young man to death; and God jumping out in the middle of the night in an attempt to kill Moses.

Jason has skillfully and articulately brought these stories to life, he has connected them with the modern world and brought forth a message applicable for today. Moreover, he has done what every preacher is called to do: make the Word become flesh and dwell among us.

Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a particular story that reflects the scripture for the day. I’m sure if Jason were preaching this morning he would tell us about getting a call one morning at his last church to visit a family within the community. Upon arriving Jason would have discovered the father passed out naked in the living room after a night of binge drinking. Jason’s description of the room would be so vivid and adjectival that we, the congregation, could smell the burnt bacon emanating from the kitchen and feel the tapioca colored carpet under our feet. At that point he would take the time to describe with absurd detail the feeling of a bead of sweat developing on his temple and slowly running down to his collar. He would then tell us about the fight that happened between the drunken man and his son, and then give us a wonderful sermonic twist by emphasizing the grace of God and then end with a witty sentence that we would carry with us the rest of the day. Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a story about meeting a drunk, naked man asleep on the floor.

I do not know what to do with our story today.

Most of us have never even heard it; we are content with the Veggie-Tales version that ends with the wonderful rainbow in the sky. But, if we end the story with the Rainbow we are left to wrestle with one of the bible’s most troubling theological questions: If God destroyed the world with a flood in order to destroy sin, why is the world still so messed up today?

Genesis 9.18-29 is full of problems: theological, historical, and logical:

Noah, who “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Genesis 6.8) and who “did all that God commanded him” (6.22) was set apart from this rest of retched humanity in order to survive God’s destruction. After the flood God blesses Noah and commands him to be fruitful and multiply three times, insuring him and his family that God would never again “curse the ground because of humankind.” And how does Noah react? He builds a vineyard, gets drunk, and falls asleep naked in his tent. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would the one human, the only one God chose to save, ruin this blessed opportunity of life on drink and nudity? Why would he so defile the earth that God just saved? Why would he blatantly ignore the covenantal rainbow in the sky for a night of debauchery? It doesn’t make any sense.

But the passage isn’t over yet: Ham, the faithful son of Noah, the one who stood by his father through the ark’s construction and the great flood, Ham discovers his father’s naked body. Ham, like any good son, tells his brothers in order that they might cover up their father’s mistakes, his nakedness and drunken behavior. And how does Noah reward his faithful son? He curses his own kin! It doesn’t make any sense.

Click here to continue reading T’s sermon.

We’re winding down our sermon series, ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ This coming Sunday we’re tackling, perhaps unwisely, the troubling passage in Exodus 4.24. Look it up, enough said.

Here’s an old sermon on the little known story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. This was my second stab at the same passage. I guess Joseph’s moral fortitude all depends on how was good-looking Potiphar’s wife…

 

Genesis 39

  I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

My sermon title for you today is: In Between Doxologies.

The narrative of Genesis 39 is bookended by the doxology: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’

At its beginning and at its end, this story asserts that the Lord was with Joseph.

 

But a lot happens in between.

 

The same is true of the Christian life, for there is much sadness, sorrow and second-guessing sandwiched in between Sundays. In between Sunday’s lofty amen, praises and Gloria Patris, our faith has to touch down and make contact with the real world.

 

When I deliver the benediction week in and week out and send you forth from the worship gathering, you’re sent out into a world that appears altogether deprived of dream-coats, divine intrusions or dramatic change.

 

In between our Sunday doxologies, we make our lives on difficult terrain. In between our Sunday doxologies, most of us lack Joseph’s uncomplaining resolve, consistent virtue and unwavering faith.

For God’s Providence is hardly that apparent, and we are seldom that strong.

 

The Joseph story is not an easy template around which we can stencil our lives.

 

Too often, when we hit up against the uncertainties of the real world, echoes of stories like this one rattle around in our memory and we think: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.

 

A congregation as smart as this one knows well that the Joseph story begins with the hopeful hints of a dream and ends with the joy of a tear-stained reconciliation.

 

But much happens in between.

 

Joseph’s dream-coat’s been worn ragged by more than a few nightmares.

 

The dream-bearer’s brothers have sold him into slavery, and, as chapter 39 opens, Joseph falls into the charge of Potiphar, an otherwise unknown Egyptian officer. The nightmare abates briefly as Joseph, the slave, wins his Egyptian master’s trust.

 

Soon Joseph has the entire Egyptian estate prospering. For a little while, the dream-bearer finds favor and comfort living under the yoke of the Egyptian empire.

 

But it was not to last.

For reasons ambiguous, Potiphar’s wife preys on Joseph. She may think she is looking for love, but like all such instances of sexual abuse it is really about power.

 

Joseph possesses a power and a virtue that Potiphar’s wife can only intuit, and she grabs after it even as she grabs for his clothes.

 

Joseph resists without hesitation. His virtue is as ironclad as a chastity belt. Yet Potiphar’s wife proves herself a persistent predator. She wins their seductive stalemate by accusing him of rape, waving his loincloth in the air as the damning evidence.

 

Her accusations fall on easy ears, for Potiphar throws Joseph into prison where, we are once again assured: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’ 

 

No, Joseph’s story is no simple template for the life of faith.

He bears the dream with ease and grace through what we would consider an unqualified nightmare.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.

 

 

No matter the nightmares, Joseph never doubts- never resents- his divine dreams.

 

Through brotherly betrayal, enslavement and imprisonment; the dream-bearer never, he never once distresses. Taking everything in stride, he never utters a single complaining word about his enslavement.

 

After Potiphar’s wife makes her predatory accusations, Joseph is never given a fair hearing- because he never asks for one.

 

He never protests her charges. He never seeks retribution. He never utters an angry, disparaging word about this sly woman or her fool of a husband.

 

Through what we would, no doubt, consider a nightmare, Joseph bears the dream with steadfast ease. Joseph body-surfs the waves of tribulation and he never once relaxes his resolve.

 

He never once questions his predicament. He never once frets that the burden is too much to bear. He never once shakes his fist at the sky and pleads to know why the God who gave him dreams now has given him nightmares.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.

 

     I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

I first heard those words on a steamy summer morning at the state prison in New Jersey where I ministered.

 

Those words pierced me with their honesty…and their hard-felt, heart-felt accuracy. In the tiring humidity, Hector Castaneda looked at me with his reluctant eyes, and- with his spare response- revealed my pastoral wisdom to be that of a bathtub: shallow but deep enough to drown in.

 

Hector’s beige jumpsuit showed a year’s worth of wear. He was a bit older than me and a little taller. He was stocky with short, black hair, and he had the gardner’s hands of his previous profession.

 

His bulky, unfashionable, state-issued glasses slid down his sweaty nose. Hector and I sat in the chaplain’s classroom just off the prison auditorium. These grimy industrial fans blew stale warm air on us and drowned out our voices.

 

I was the theologically trained pastor, sitting in a squat plastic chair. Hector sat across from me; he had made an appointment. To tell me his story.

 

Hector told me of the father back in Guatemala he never knew. He told me about the multitude of jobs his mother always selflessly juggled. He half-smiled and told me of his two small children, the children that his wife had recently left with their grandmother without explanation and without a return address.

 

He confessed his crime, his only one. A common one. He was guilty, yes, but his guilt was grossly exaggerated by the strict, immigrants-only sentence he had received.

 

Hector told me about the guards, the police officers, and the judges who all looked very much like me. And the lawyer, who also looked a lot like me and who had stopped calling once the money ran out.

 

Hector looked at me with earnest eyes, waiting for a wise word from this theologically trained, spiritually sophisticated pastor- a teacher of the faith.

 

And what did I say?

 

What word did I offer?

 

I pointed him to a concise, little prison drama in Genesis 39.

 

I culled my pastoral insights and tried to acquaint Hector with Joseph, the dreamer who suffered many nightmares and found himself behind bars…with nary a complaint.

 

I held up patient, resilient Joseph, and I encouraged Hector to stencil his life around it. It’ll work out; just stay in the lines.

 

But Hector checkmated me with his incisive reply: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 

 

And of course Hector was right.

I should’ve realized that Joseph makes for a difficult trace when the faithful life succeeds only in getting your things stolen every night because you refused to fight back- because that was be the Christian thing to do.

 

I should’ve realized Joseph was a painful model of faith, when you got beat up weekly for breaking the jailhouse silence and reporting abuse through the proper channels- because that was the Christian thing to do.

 

I should’ve remember the prejudicial slurs that I’d heard firsthand coming from the mouths of Hector’s guards.

 

I should’ve recalled the angry letters from Hector’s elementary-aged kids, wondering why he was not yet home and how they needed his help on their homework.

 

No, Hector’s story had a few more details than Genesis 39.

 

Joseph was no simple stencil for the life of faith.

 

 

Friends, this is my tenth year of ministry. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that folks like Hector are all around us.

 

They may look different. They may surprise you. They may come to church every Sunday dressed gloriously and sing like angels.

 

But, like Hector, they feel pulled by the tension between faith and life.

 

God’s voice frequently sounds muted to them. God does not always overwhelm or intrude upon their lives. There are some who are so mired in the ups and downs of their everydays that falling in and out of faith is the only constant rhythm to their lives.

 

Yes, there are folks like Hector all around you, if you only look.

 

You may be like Hector yourself, thinking you can’t, thinking you’re not strong enough, thinking this Story isn’t your story.

 

Hectors are everywhere. The Josephs are rare indeed.

 

Joseph’s resolve is not necessarily our resolve.

Joseph’s virtue is not always our virtue.

Joseph’s faithfulness is not often our faithfulness.

 

More often than not, when we’re knee-deep in the gray water of life- the real world, what will come to us won’t be Joseph’s unwavering, uncomplaining unafraid resolve.

What will come to us will be something more like Hector’s exhausted confession: ‘I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.’ 

But here’s the thing-

 

It doesn’t have to be.

 

Joseph’s story doesn’t have to be our story. Or, better still, our story doesn’t need to resemble Joseph’s story…

Because you and I:

We have Jesus.

 

We have the One who modeled the life of faith and obedience perfectly.

For our sake.

For all time.

We have Jesus of Nazareth, the One in whom God has come to us and through whom God has become one of us- for us.

 

Neither Hector nor I nor you can reliably trump trial and tribulation, day in and day out.

 

But we need not despair, because for forty days Jesus Christ faced that which Israel never could, that which we cannot.

 

     We can’t; we’re not that strong. 

 

But we don’t have to be, for in Jesus Christ God does that which we cannot do ourselves.

In the garden, Christ prays in our place, because he dares to pray ‘Thy will be done’ even as he knows that prayer will lead him to the Cross.

 

We can’t. We’re not that strong.

 

But we don’t have to be.

 

Rather than despair over what you’re not, over who you’re not- you can instead rejoice that in Jesus Christ God becomes the accursed, the condemned, the Judge judged in your place.

 

So come to the Table and do not despair over the disparity between who you are and who God would have you be.

 

But rejoice- rejoice that Jesus Christ is the one true sacrifice for all those ways and all those days when you are not as strong, not as virtuous, not as resilient as Joseph.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that its not our faithfulness- its not our obedience- that God measures us by. It’s Jesus Christ’s.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that our weakness has been overwhelmed by his strength, his obedience counts for more than our disobedience, our every sin and our every shortcoming has been swallowed up by his perfect sacrifice.

 

Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine promise us:

that when you’re in between the doxologies in your life

when you’re sure you can’t

when you’re locked away in some dark place

and you’re convinced you’re not strong enough-

it’s not your strength God’s given you to lean on.

But Jesus Christ’s

     That’s our Story. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Free Falling

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

Check out Jason G and Andreas’ musical take on Eutychus in Acts 20; it’s set to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin.’ It’s part of our ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School’ sermon series.

Don’t worry we’ll return to ‘reverent’ music after Labor Day.

Free Falling

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

Check out Jason G and Andreas’ musical take on Eutychus in Acts 20; it’s set to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin.’ It’s part of our ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School’ sermon series.

Don’t worry we’ll return to ‘reverent’ music after Labor Day.

Boring God

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ Here’s one from Acts 20.7-12. Paul, apparently, was windy and/or boring.

Some years ago I served as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital. It was a regular 9-5 gig, excepting that once a week I covered the overnight shift.

One of the responsibilities of the overnight chaplain was to supervise the transfer of dead bodies from the hospital’s possession to whichever funeral home the dearly departed’s family had selected.

And so, if paged in the middle of night I’d call down to the morgue:

‘This is the chaplain’s office’ I’d say, when the attendant picked up.

And no matter the employee, the response was always the same:

‘Yeah, chaplain, we’ve got a live one. Need you to pick up.’

I’d trudge down into the bowels of the hospital, and, after gathering the necessary paperwork, the attendant and I would push a body bag, down a long tapioca-colored hallway, to a delivery door, where a funeral home employee would be waiting.

We’d push the body through the doors and then, like a UPS man dropping off your latest purchase from EBay, I’d ask the funeral home person to ‘sign here please’ and then the ‘package’ would be his.

The morgue itself with its walk-in fridge, stainless steel tools hanging along the walls, the tiled floor and rubber mats and the music blasting from a boom box- all together it reminded me of the restaurant kitchen where I’d once worked.

A mental association that turned my stomach.

Compared to the holy moments I spent with people during their deaths, the moments I spent with them afterwards, in the morgue, always struck me as disconcertingly casual.

For example, the first time I went to pick up a body- a farmer who’d died when his tractor rolled over on him- when I arrived at the morgue the attendant, a 40-something mustached man, was watching the Adam Sandler movie, Happy Gilmore, and eating pepperoni pizza.

‘Want some?’ he asked with his mouth full.

‘No thanks.’

Or there was the time when the attendant caught me wrinkling my nose at a decidedly postmortem smell and asked: ‘Wanna know what that smell is?’

‘Not really’ I thought.

That,’ he said, ‘is the smell of job security.’

Or, for instance, I’d always associated the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song, ‘Under the Bridge,’ with my first kiss. But now I associate it with the middle aged lawyer who aspirated while trying to eat a pastrami sandwich on the toilet.

The morgue attendant sang ‘sometimes I feel like my only friend’ as we pushed the former counsel for the defense through the double doors.

Some of the bodies I came to claim were people I’d been with as they died, people whose hands I’d held and whose eyes I closed to this world with my palm.

And so it always felt odd to me to see these same people again as they were zipped into what looked like garment bags by an attendant who oftentimes was snacking on a Spicy Hawaiin Hot Pocket and laughing to David Letterman’s latest Top Ten List.

Sometimes the attendants would want to chat it up about UVA Football.

At other times they’d offer me bits of professional trivia.

‘Did you know,’ an attendant said one night as he zipped up a body, ‘that an adult kidney can fit inside a 7-11 Big Gulp?’

‘No, I didn’t know that’ I said, as I briefly tried to imagine the scenario in which discovery was made.

It was gallows humor. I suppose anything else would’ve made it an impossible job.

As a pastor I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies. It’s never really bothered me. But in the morgue the bodies existed in a kind of limbo without anyone to give them context.

I could handle being around the bodies; what I couldn’t handle was their anonymity.

And I think for that reason I’d always ask the attendant for whatever they could tell me about the person.

So that’s how one winter night, I learned about George.

As George was zipped into a bag I asked the 20-something attendant: So, how did he die?

‘Heart attack’ he said, ‘in his sleep.’

‘I guess that’s the way to go’ I said.

‘Yep, they didn’t know he’d died until the service was over.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘He died in church, fell asleep and had a heart attack. The ushers didn’t

realize he was dead until the organ stopped playing.’

‘Can you imagine that?’ the attendant said. ‘Someone sleeping so hard

through church that he could die and no one would know?’

‘You must not be a United Methodist,’ I said.

‘The paperwork says he died at Mt Pisgah Church- do you know that church?’ he asked me.

But my mind wandered. I thought about…

Jake, who was a member of my church and who every Sunday would fall stone cold asleep about 3 sentences into my sermon and who, after I’d been preaching a while would start to argue with his ex-wife in his sleep.

And so when the morgue attendant asked me about Mt Pisgah Church, even though I’d never heard of it and did not know where it was, nonetheless I replied:

‘Yes, I know that church.’

‘I preach there all the time.’

Evidently, according to St Luke, preachers like me have been boring people to death since the very founding of the Church.

That might not come as a surprise to you, having to listen to Dennis every other week, but why on earth would St. Luke ever openly admit that?

Luke’s supposed to be an evangelist remember.

These stories are meant to convert people to the faith not confirm all their worst assumptions about the faith.

What kind of advertisement is this for the church? Come check out our church; our pastor’s a killer preacher? 

The story’s even worse than it appears at first glance.

This is the very first mention in the entire New Testament of a Christian- not a Jewish- Sabbath Service.

In other words, this is Kick-Off Sunday for the history of Christian worship and does St Luke have to report?

That Paul is full of hot air and drones on all day, because he’s on his way to Jerusalem and has to leave in the morning.

And so on Kick-Off Sunday Christian preaching claims its first victim.

It’s an odd story. Why would Luke tell it?

It gets even worse.

Paul’s victim is one of only two ‘young people’ mentioned in the New Testament. There just aren’t a lot of youth in the New Testament.

The first one mentioned is the rich, young ruler that Jesus sends away in tears because the young man doesn’t want to sell all his stuff and give the money to the poor.

The other young person mentioned in scripture is Eutychus, who’s killed by one of Jesus’ preachers.

Eutychus- his name in Greek means ‘Lucky,’ which is ironic since he’s not.

It’s a strange story.

And it’s a strange story for Luke of all people to tell.

Luke’s Book of Acts is filled with hyperbolic stories that cast the church in a flattering, almost heroic, light.

Peter’s sermon convert thousands.

Paul’s conversion is filled with dazzling light and high drama.

The apostles routinely evade evil by just a hair’s breadth.

This mention of a youth named Lucky whom Paul bores to death- it doesn’t jive with the rest of Luke’s book.

So why would Luke even jot it down?

After all, Luke was there when it happened.

Luke’s not simply recording something told to him. Here in chapter 20, Luke switches from 3rd person narration to 1st person plural. He says ‘we.’

He was there. So Luke knows what bad press this is for the church.

There’s every reason not to, so there must be a reason why he does include this story.

What are we to make of this story?

It’s not just an odd story for Luke to tell.

It’s odd the way Luke tells it too.

Luke goes overboard with details up front in the beginning of the story.

He tells you about the time and the bread and the lamps and the young man’s name and the exact floor on which the sanctuary was located.

Luke gives all these details in just a couple of verses but then he just, ho-hum, matter-of-factly mentions that Paul brings Lucky back to life. That’s it.

It’s an odd way to tell a resurrection story.

And it’s odd that we don’t hear from Eutychus at all.

He just goes home to nurse his sore back and bruises.

And everyone else- they get back to worship as though this kind of thing were an every day occurrence.

The attendant matched the toe tag on George’s foot with the name on the transfer papers.

‘So, have you ever put anyone to sleep?’ he asked absent-mindedly.

‘Me? No, I’ve never put anyone to sleep’ I lied.

‘Really?’ he squinted at me.

‘Look,’ I shot back, ‘it’s harder than it looks. It takes hours every day. They can’t all be home runs. Believe me, if I could stage car chases in the sanctuary or take half-naked women into the pulpit with me I would.’

He just laughed.

We were about to push George down the hallway to wait for the hearse, but the attendant looked at his watch and said: ‘We’ve got a few minutes. I’ve got a couple sandwiches if you want to grab a bite. Liverwurst.’

I realize some people might think it revolting to eat pureed liver in the approximate vicinity of several dozen corpses not to mention the many appendages and organs with no body to call home. You’re entitled to opinion.

But since I was a boy I’ve not been able to resist liverwurst.

He handed me a sandwich and I sat down at his desk. He got a paper towel and, as casually as if he were sitting at a picnic table, laid his liver sandwich on George’s chest.

‘So you don’t go to church?’ I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I did as a kid.’

‘Alright,’ I said, ‘you tell me. What could someone like me do to make worship less boring to someone like you?’

He wiped is mouth. ‘I don’t think there’s anything you could do.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘The problem’s not preachers. The problem’s every one else. They make Christianity seem so dull. Most Christians are as cold and stiff as old George here’ and he patted George’s midsection.

‘Even God must be bored by them.’

It’s not really fair to beat up on preachers for being boring.

It’s too obvious. One of the reasons I became a preacher was so I wouldn’t have to sit out there in the pews and suffer like you.

I don’t know how you do it. In an age of iPhones and iPads and Facebook and PowerPoint and Hulu and IMAX to just sit quietly for 20 minutes and listen? That’s a nearly impossible task.

And I know I can be boring, predictable, prosaic. I can see everything from up here-I’m well aware there’s some of you on whom I have an almost narcotic effect.

But, even still, I’m not sure that I’m the problem.

I mean, I’m only up here preaching for one hour a week.

That leaves 167 hours in the week when you’re the preacher.

167 hours in which you proclaim, in which you announce, in which you communicate to anyone around you and everyone in your lives whether or not this God is interesting enough, captivating enough, compelling enough to give not just an hour of your time but to give your lives to.

This past week I studied surveys, done by the Barna Group, of Christians in their teens and twenties. According to the research, a sizeable majority of young people find Christianity to be boring.

Know why? It’s not because of worship or sermons or songs.

No, a majority of young people think Christianity is boring because faith doesn’t appear to be a relevant, real-life, or every day thing for the adults in their lives.

In other words, the way to make young people more excited about the faith isn’t contemporary music or pyrotechnic sermons or flat screens in the sanctuary. The way to make young people more interested in the faith is for there to be more interesting Christians.

When you think about it, to make this God seem boring is quite a feat.

This God, who shed eternity and took on flesh as a poor Jewish carpenter.

This God, whose teaching is always upside down and unexpected and not as we would like it.

This God, who befriended all the wrong people and offended all the right people until it landed him on a cross.

This God, who swallowed up Death and then handed us the keys to his Kingdom and invited us to give our everything to it.

I mean- you can dismiss this God. You can argue with this God.

You can doubt, or disbelieve or run away from this God.

You can even hate this God if you want.

But for God’s sake don’t make this God seem boring.

And maybe that’s Luke’s point

in telling this story the way he does

so ho-hum, matter-of-fact

about this congregation where no one even blinks at a little thing like

someone being raised from death to life.

Because apparently they’re used to that kind of thing.

Maybe this is Luke’s way of saying that this is how Christianity should be.

Maybe Luke’s saying

that God- the Living God- should be such a part of our lives

not just in here

but out there and everywhere

such a part of our lives

that resurrection is an every day expectation,

Maybe Luke’s saying

that God should be such a part of our each and every day life

that we should just expect for this God

to wake people up

to shake people up

to knock people down

and raise them up to a new way of life.

A church with expectations like that

could survive even a boring preacher.

A preacher with that kind of church

would be lucky.

The Jawbone of an A%$

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2012 — 2 Comments

We’re doing a sermon series this August on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ As part of the series, I’m posting some old sermons on random, bizarre stories of the bible. Here’s one from Judges 15. Turns out, Samson’s not the savory character we make him out to be when teaching his story to children. 

Judges 15

“With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps (of bodies), with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.”

     This is the Word of the Lord?

 

Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will not stop until I have taken revenge on you.”

This is God’s Word?

 

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a closet Calvinist. So I know the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

 

That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.

 

In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.

 

And most of the time I believe that.

But today I wonder.

I wonder about scripture like:

Samson said: when I do evil to the Philistines, I will be without blame…

So he struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”

I wonder how this is (or ever was) God’s Word?

The Book of Judges could be the book of the bible people have in mind when they say dismissive things like: ‘The Old Testament- it’s so bloody and violent.” 

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that the tribe of Judah- the People of God- kill ten thousand Canaanites and then celebrate their victory by cutting off the thumbs and toes of the Canaanite leader.

 

The Judge Gideon is well-known for the 300 trumpets that give God’s People a surprising victory over the Midianites. Not as well known is that Gideon later slaughters a whole city of his own people out of rage.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Abimelech, Gideon’s son, executes all seventy of his brothers on the same altar stone.

 

It’s in the Book of Judges that Jephthah burns his daughter, his only child, alive to honor a victory God gave him over the Ammonites.

 

That’s all in the Book of Judges, God’s Word.

 

And it’s in the Book of Judges that Samson, the hero of children’s stories, first kills 30 after losing a wedding feast bet; then kills even more for the death of his wife and father-in-law; then kills 1,000 of the Philistines who try to capture him; and finally kills over 3,000 in a dying act of revenge.

 

I don’t know what they told you in Sunday School, but Samson is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener and Tony Soprano rolled into one.

 

Samson’s story is blood-soaked and sordid, it’s seedy and salacious. Samson’s sinful and selfish and, ultimately, a failure.

 

But that’s not how his story was supposed to go.

 

His birth announcement came by way of angelic annunciation. When the angel gives his mother the good news, the angels tells her that her son is to be set apart- just as God wants his People to be set apart from the idolatrous peoples around them.

 

So, her son is to drink no wine, to touch nothing unclean and to cut not a hair from his head. Her son is to deliver Israel from the Philistines who rule over them. That’s what it meant to be a judge.

 

After Samson grows, the Spirit of the Lord stirs in him; the Spirit of the Lord blesses him; the Spirt of the Lord gifts him with great strength.

 

But being blessed by God and fulfilling God’s will for your life are not the same thing.

 

Rather than being set apart, Samson sets his sights after a Philistine woman that catches his eye.

And when she’s given to another man, it sets off a spiral of vengeance that consumes him.

Samson sets fire to the city’s grain and crops and vineyards and olive groves. He ruins their whole economy, and they determine to ruin him. The Philistines retaliate by setting fire to the woman and her father.

 

For the two lives they take, Samson takes a great many more lives until, finally, blinded and shorn of his hair and bound in chains, Samson kills himself and takes 3,000 others with him.

 

‘So those Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.’

     That’s how Samson’s story ends.

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

How?

What are we supposed to do with this scripture? What are we meant to learn from this scripture? How are we to believe God can speak through this scripture?

 

     Perhaps, notes one biblical scholar, Samson’s story is meant to be a cautionary one. According to this biblical scholar, Samson illustrates “the challenges of God’s People remaining faithful in a hostile culture.”

Thus Samson is consecrated to not drink a drop of wine and instead he drinks himself into a violent rage.

Thus Samson is consecrated to never touch anything that is ritually unclean and instead he cannot keep his hands off of Philistine women.

Thus Samson is consecrated to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, but the Israelites prefer the Philistines and they betray Samson into the enemy’s hands.

So perhaps the Word God wants us to hear in this story is a word of caution about living in a culture that doesn’t share our values. Perhaps.

But then what lesson are we to draw from the fact that Samson all but annihilates that culture with his final act of revenge?

Or maybe, argues another biblical commentator, God gives us Samson’s story to function like an allegory.

According to this biblical commentator, Samson signifies all of Israel. And so Samson’s promiscuity with the Philistine woman from Timnah, and after her with a Philistine prostitute, and after her with Delia- Samson’s promiscuity symbolizes Israel’s religious infidelity.

And the way God’s Spirit comes to Samson again and again and again when he least deserves it is a metaphor for how God can’t help but be faithful to God’s People.

So it’s kind of like Amazing Grace but with a much higher body count.

In his commentary on the Book of Judges, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said we should see Samson as a Christ-figure.

There’s the fact that his birth is announced by an angel to an unlikely mother-to-be- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that from the day of his birth he’s set apart to bring deliverance to his people- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and anoints him for God’s purpose- just like Jesus.

And he’s betrayed by his own people- just like Jesus.

He’s bound and handed over to his enemies- just like Jesus.

He’s tortured- just like Jesus.

He dies with his arms outstretched- just like Jesus.

And with the jawbone of a donkey he slays a thousand men- just like…no, wait.

Far be it from me to critique John Wesley, but he doesn’t answer the question any better than the biblical scholars do.

How is this God’s Word for us?

 

     On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten children, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community’s display of forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.

Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring Amish family milk their cows.

He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane and turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel and threw him to the far side of the road.

The truck hit a fence post and sped away.

The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected- a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered and later confirmed to be the hit-and-run suspect.

Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken but nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman: “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter. “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”

When the driver read the newspaper headline, ‘A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,’ she did a surprising thing: she went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing and again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.

When a reporter asked a family member why they would forgive the woman who killed their son and left him dead in the ditch, the reporter was told: “Because when you forgive, you’re the one set free.”

 

When you forgive, you are the one who is set free.

That’s it.

Even though Samson can break any bonds they bind him with; even though he can pull down the pillars of a palace; even though he can shake off any shackles they snap on him- Samson’s never really free.

He’s never really free because he never stops being a prisoner to the wrong that was done to him. He never stops being captive to thinking he’s without blame. He never escapes the urge to ‘do to them as they did to me.’

He’s never really free because Samson was a Judge for twenty years, yet when he dies, even after his eye-for-an-eye ways have left him blind, he dies praying vengeance for a wrong that by then is twenty years old.

 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve solicited your religious questions to help shape our fall sermon series. And many of your questions have been just what I would expect.

There have been questions about heaven and hell, salvation and people of other religions, faith and science, and homosexuality.

But what’s surprised me is that more so than any other question, you all have asked me questions about forgiveness:

What exactly is forgiveness?

How do I forgive?

How do I know if I’ve really forgiven my ex-husband?

If I tell my mom I forgive her for her drinking do the words mean forgiveness has happened or is something else required?

Do I have to forgive the person who abused me?

My brother hasn’t apologized for what he’s done to our family. Is it possible to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize?

How can I forgive God for my child’s cancer?

Are there conditions for forgiveness?

Is it ever too late to forgive?

 

Maybe God gives us this scripture because Samson hits closer to home than we think.

Sure, Samson torches the tails of foxes, but plenty of you know what its like to set off land mines in your marriages.

Sure, Samson sets fire to vineyards and olive groves, but plenty of you know what its like to burn and smolder with anger.

Samson slays with a jawbone, but plenty of you know what its like to grab after any word you can find to hurt someone who hurt you.

You know what its like to be convinced you’re the one without blame.

You know what its like to say they did it to me first, they have it coming, they deserve what they get.

Sure, Samson pulls down the pillars of a palace, but he’s not the only one who’s nursed a resentment for twenty years.

He’s not the only one whose life got derailed, whose gifts from God got wasted, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled because of a wrong that went unforgiven.

Samson hits close to home.

So I want you to know-

Even though he can tear a lion in half with his bare hands; even though he can slay one thousand men with a jawbone, even though he can shrug off chains like they were melted wax- Samson’s actually incredibly weak.

Even though he had the strength to bring down the walls of a castle- Samson never had the strength to forgive.

Because with his dying breath, Samson prays for revenge.

But with his dying breath before he gives up his Spirit, Jesus Christ prays ‘Father, forgive them for they know not  what they do.’ 

     If you think Samson is stronger then you haven’t lived.

Because:

To bear the cost yourself of a wrong done to you takes strength.

To refuse to make someone pay for what they did to you takes strength.

To refrain from lashing out at someone when that’s all you want to do takes strength.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness hurts.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness can feel like agony.

It takes incredible strength because that sort of forgiveness will only add to your suffering.

To give up all the anger, to sacrifice every justification you’re entitled to, to absorb the pain done to you rather than pass it on, that is suffering.

But with Jesus Christ as my witness, it’s the only suffering that leads to Resurrection.

Because when you forgive, you’re the one who’s set free.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

100 Foreskins: A Love Song

Jason Micheli —  August 13, 2012 — 1 Comment

We’re week #2 in our sermon series, ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ What do you do liturgically with a story about 100 Foreskins as the price of a wedding? Write a love song of course. Here’s the video from worship. Lyrics below from Jason and Andreas, our resident comic bards.

Also, included below is a ‘serious’ song to complement the theme, written by Andreas.

Michal/Music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, words by Andreas Barrett and Jason Gottshall

 

Michal, King Saul

Has enticed me with his cunning call,

My Michal.

 

Michal, my dear,

I must walk the razor’s edge, I fear.

Let me be clear–

 

I love you, I love you, I love you

But I have got to say,

Though I will rise to circumcise

And no man will foil this mighty mohel, 

I feel for each one.

 

Michal, my love,

Help me now that push has come to shove—

Where are my gloves?

 

I need them, I need them, I need them

And have you seen my keys?

Hello, goodbyes to all those guys;

By expert craft, they’ll get the shaft—

You know what I mean.

 

I love you.

 

I want to, I want to, I want to

Or there is no reward.

To win your hand by Saul’s command,

I’ll commit these crimes one hundred times

So you’ll understand.

 

Michal, my sweet, 

You may find there is no meaner feat,

Let me repeat—

 

For our wedded bliss, we’ll have a bris

So you’ll understand,

My Michal.

Skin Deep (That’s What Love Is)  ♦  Words and music by Andreas Barrett

 

Love is patient, love is kind, but love can catch you from behind and cut you to the quick;

That’s what love is.

Love is humble, never cruel, but one exception to the rule can leave you reeling, feeling sick;

That’s what love is.

 

Grand designs can sometimes seem unfit,

But winning hands are joined by acts they may commit.

 

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

 

Love is longing, lovers bleed just to satisfy a need, a need that steals the soul;

That’s what love is.

Broken hearts are the refrain when fools will pay the same unending toll

To know what love is.

 

A house of cards can fall one hundred ways;

Ace to faces, truth erases what deceit conveys.

 

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

 

This August we’re doing a sermon series on Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School. This weekend’s story was Saul’s demand for 100 foreskins as the price for David to marry Michal. It’s in 1 Samuel 18 but, really, the sermon tracks the entire David and Michal relationship, from 1 Samuel 16 to 2 Samuel 6.

Next week: Paul preaches in Acts 20 and literally bores someone to death.

——————————————————————

100 Foreskins: A Marriage Sermon

A few weeks ago, my son Gabriel and I went to Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate. Our first leg was the 6:00 AM flight to Miami.

Because I was scared to death of oversleeping and missing our flight, I decided not to sleep at all. Instead I stayed up all night, watching every episode of the Walking Dead, manically packing and repacking my bags and eating three cans of Salt and Vinegar Pringles and two entire jars of kosher pickles.

Needless to say, by take-off I was red-eyed, exhausted and had inside me at least as much gas as the plane itself.

Because Gabriel insisted on the aisle seat, I got stuck with the middle. The window was already taken with a woman who was typing on her phone and had a People magazine on her lap.

She looked to be in her fifties. She had perfectly permed hair and she was wearing large costume jewelry- the kind that go with real estate balloons or cocktail glasses.

While everyone else on the plane was wearing sweats, jeans or yoga pants, she was wearing a pantsuit- as though the mannequin in the Talbots window had suddenly come to life and decided to catch a flight to Miami.

She looked, I thought, like a retired Stepford Wife, and so when she turned towards me, held out her moisturized hand and said: ‘My name’s Daphne’ I thought to myself ‘Of course it is.’

And when I asked if she was going on vacation to Florida and she said ‘No, I live in Miami’ I thought to myself ‘Of course you do.’

I’d planned- hoped- to sleep the entire flight.

However I hadn’t planned on how a 6 year old could complicate such plans. Where I was nearly catatonic with fatigue, by take-off Gabriel had already eaten two glazed donuts, a pack of Lifesavers, several pieces of bubblegum and was jacked up on an alchemy of Cherry Coke and airplane anticipation.

Sleep was the last thing on his mind therefore sleep was going to be the last thing I got on the flight- what, with Gabriel asking every 4 seconds:

Daddy, can you reach that?

Daddy, can you get my comic book?

Daddy, can I watch a movie on your iPad?

Daddy, when will we be there?

Daddy, do they have candy in Guatemala?

Daddy, if we crash on an island, like in Lost, do you have any skills to keep us alive?

‘No’ I shamefully admitted.

Realizing sleep was going to be an impossibility I decided to read instead, and I pulled out a book: Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.

I was re-reading it to prepare for this sermon.

But that was the last thing I’d ever say to a stranger on a plane because then they might think that I’m a pastor.

I’ve learned the hard way that being strapped to a chair with no where to go but the toilet is about the last place you want tell someone you’re a minister.

For example-

There was a different flight to Guatemala, years ago. An elderly Spanish woman was sitting next to me. She was terrified of flying and when she found out I was a man of the cloth, she death-gripped my arm and wept ‘Padre, Padre, Padre’ over and over and then insisted I pray the ‘Our Father’ for the duration of the flight.

Ever since then I try never, ever to tell someone on a plane what it is I do for a living. In fact, I just try to avoid conversation.

Ironically, I’ve found the best way to avoid conversation is by pulling out a bible and letting it lay open on my lap, turned suggestively to somewhere in the Book of Revelation.

Not even Christians want to start a conversation with that kind of person.

But this time I didn’t have my bible. In my bleary-eyed exhaustion I’d mistakenly packed it in my checked luggage. All I had in my carry-on was a theology book- definitely not an option- and a book on marriage.

I pulled the book out of my backpack as the Fasten Seatbelt sign dinged off, and I opened it on my lap.

As soon as I did so, I could feel Daphne’s mascara-heavy eyes no longer reading her article about Tom and Kate but instead bearing down on me with gossipy curiosity: Here’s this man with blood-shot eyes… and a child… and no mother in sight…reading a how-to on marriage…must be trouble on the home front…I could feel her thinking.

‘Are you getting married?’ she asked pointedly and cast an eyebrow Gabriel’s way as if to suggest ‘you’re doing it all backwards.’

When I replied ‘Oh no, I’m already married’ she let out a sigh and said ‘That’s good.’

A moment or two passed. I turned a few pages until I landed on a chapter entitled ‘The Secret of Marriage.’

Daphne’s curiosity was killing her. I could feel it.

‘Are you a counselor? she probed.

‘No’ I said and pretended to go back to reading while she sat there dying to know why I might reading this particular book.

‘Are you a psychologist?’

‘Nope’ I said and left her to stew.

I turned a few pages more. Daphne shifted restlessly in her seat, trying not to appear like she was reading over my shoulder.

When the suspense finally got the better of her, she just blurted it out:

‘Are you and your wife having trouble? Is that it?’

And maybe because her question struck me as a bit forward coming from someone who’d only known me since we’d reached cruising altitude.

Or maybe because I’d gone 24 hours with no sleep and my insides were constricting from cabin pressure and gas pains.

Or maybe because the delighted look I spotted behind her fake eyelashes reminded me of a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting ball of yarn.

Whatever the reason, I decided then and there to screw with her.

Gabriel was busy watching True Grit on my iPad and couldn’t out me.

So I gathered my breath as though I was about to unload a terrible burden and I said: ‘Yes, my wife and I are having trouble.’

‘The worst kind’ I said. My voice heavy with appropriate sorrow and resignation.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that’ she lied.

Then she turned in her seat to face me.

‘You poor thing.’ She patted my thigh and for a moment I thought she might pull out a cookie and a glass of milk from her matching Coach handbag.

‘Goodness, I didn’t even get your name’ she said.

‘David,’ I replied. ‘You can call me Dave.’

‘Nice to meet you, Dave.’

‘Nice to meet you too, Daphne.’

‘What kind of trouble are you and your wife having? Money problems? Lots of young couples have problems over money.’

‘No, nothing like that’ I sighed.

‘You can tell me.’

‘Gosh, I don’t know where to start’ and I threw up my hands like I was lost in my own despair.

‘Why not start at the beginning?’

‘The beginning? I…I guess I could do that’ I said, biting my lip with uncertainty.

She stuck People magazine into the seat pocket in front of her, a sign to let me know she was all ears to whatever heartache I needed her to assuage.

‘I guess it all started when I killed a man’ I said nonchalantly and watched as Daphne accidentally swallowed her chewing gum.

‘…took his head clean off, this huge guy.’

Daphne shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

‘I was in the military’ I explained.

‘Oh, where did you serve?’

‘In the Middle East,’ I said, ‘in the Philistine region.’

She nodded and pretended to know where that was.

‘Well, anyway my wife’s father, Sal, he took notice of me and offered me a job.’

‘What sort of work?’ she asked.

‘He’s in politics’

‘And is that how you and your wife met?’

‘No, I wish it was that simple. No, I hadn’t been working for him for very long when he had first episode. That’s what my wife calls it anyway, an episode. Personally, I think something just possessed him. At any rate he just came off his hinges one day and attacked me. Tried to kill me. It was crazy’

‘Goodness’ Daphne said, licking her lips over this unexpected morsel of melodrama. ‘And you and your wife started dating after that?’

‘No, actually I dated her sister for a while. We were even going to get married.’

‘What happened?’

‘She ran off and married another guy.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry’ Daphne said and I could see in her eyes that she was wondering what sort of Jerry Springer Show home I must be raising Gabriel in.

‘Don’t be sorry’ I said. ‘Michelle- that’s my wife- we started dating practically the next day. We fell in love in no time. We were wild for each other. I would’ve done anything for her. I mean you wouldn’t believe the crazy things I gave her just to prove how much I loved her.’

‘What kinds of crazy things?’ Daphne giggled.

‘Foreskins’ I said.

‘Hundreds of them.’

But she must’ve misheard me over the engine noise because she started to tell me how her husband bought her a mink last Christmas but that it’s never cold enough in Miami to wear it.

Just then the stewardess came by with the beverage cart. Daphne ordered a Diet Coke. I asked for a black coffee. Daphne took a sip and asked ‘So when did your troubles start?’

‘Honestly, they started right after we got married. I blame it on her father. He just had it in for me. It got so bad Michelle had to choose between us. She cut off contact with her Dad completely.’

‘That’s a lot of stress on a brand new marriage’ Daphne observed.

‘I know’ I sighed like a Tennessee Williams character.

‘But we got past it. Or I thought we had.’

‘You see right after that I got busy with my career and I spent less and less time at home. And I’m successful, I’m good at what I do. Michelle thinks I care more about my subjects- I mean my clients- than I do my own wife.’

‘There are an awful lot of husbands who can’t show their wives the same kindness they show everyone else’ Daphne said, and I stopped to wonder if maybe she was speaking first hand.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘I’m probably guilty of that too I suppose.’

‘I’m sure you’re not like that David.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t even told you told you the worst of it.’

‘So tell me.’ Daphne encouraged.

‘Well, I threw this party. Our boss was coming into town; he hadn’t been there in years and he’s not the sort of boss you want to get on the bad side of, if you know what I mean. So I threw this party of like biblical proportions. Anyway I was dancing. I’ve always loved music. I even write songs in my spare time.

I guess I just got caught up in the music. I wasn’t even drinking. Before I knew what had happened I was dancing completely naked.’

Daphne blushed. ‘That’s disgusting’ she said.

‘Well, uh, what do you mean disgusting? Anyway, Michelle didn’t like that.’

‘No, I imagine she wouldn’t’ Daphne said.

‘Yeah, we had a big fight, one of those arguments where you’re both twisting and turning the other’s words back on them. Michelle said everyone else’s praises had gone to my head, that I believed everything people said about me, that I had a Messiah complex. And I got angry, I guess because I knew it was true.’

‘That’s the thing about marriage,’ Daphne said and started to play with her wedding ring, ‘your spouse sees you for who you really are not who you like to think you are. Marriage exposes you and that kind of truth can hurt.’

‘I guess I feel like we’ve both changed’ I said. ‘Michelle and I, we’re not the same people we were when we first fell in love and got married.’

‘Well of course you’ve changed’ Daphne said, ‘what did you expect? Marriage changes us. Having kids changes us. A career changes us. Age changes us. You’ve got to learn to love the person your spouse is now not hold on to who you thought they were when you first got married.’

‘I don’t know’ I said. ‘I think it might be too late for Michelle and me.’

‘It’s never too late’ Daphne said.

‘I don’t know about that. I think it’s probably too late for Michelle and me. Too much history you could say.’

‘I’ve always said if you both just try to love your spouse like Jesus loves us then a marriage can get through anything’ Daphne said.

I was shocked to hear the word Jesus come out of her mouth.

‘You’re a Christian?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘Read my bible every day.’

Not all of it, I thought.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. What were you saying?’

‘Just that Jesus loves us not for who we are but for who his love can make us. Jesus didn’t look out for himself or make himself first; he gave himself up for us even when we didn’t deserve it. I think that’s the recipe for forgiveness in any kind of relationship.’

And I just sat there, staring at this strange woman.

‘Too preachy?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I was just thinking that’s actually really good advice.’

‘Well, Dave, you just put it to good use.’

We talked a bit more, about Tom Cruise and Kate What’s-Her-Name, about the weather this time of year in Miami, about my prolific career in politics.

Finally I put my chair back and closed my eyes for about 3.5 seconds before Gabriel asked me to take him to the bathroom.

Later, when we got off the plane, I saw Daphne pulling her suitcase behind her down the terminal.

She was talking to someone on her phone: ‘So I met this man named David. What till I tell you his story. You won’t believe it.’

This August I’m doing a sermon series on Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School. As part the series, I’m posting some old sermons on the theme. Here’s a story from Numbers 22 that’s often Exhibit A for those who critique the bible’s authority, missing the great preaching potential and incisive humor in the text. 

Balaam’s Ass

    

     A few weeks ago I was teaching a preaching workshop for a group of shiny, new pastors.

 

When I was young, I hated these workshops, hated them. Almost always I left thinking they were a waste of my time. And often I left convinced that I knew more than the workshop teacher.

 

Due to the cruel irony of God’s providence, a few weeks ago I found myself on the other end. I was the teacher young preachers had to endure for two, two-hour sessions, and if their feedback forms are any indication then they all left my workshop feeling pretty much like I always did.

 

I had thought I’d get things started by gauging their expectations. So I started with a question: ‘Why did you all sign up for my workshop?’

 

A man about my age sitting right in front of me replied: ‘All the other workshops were filled.’ 

‘Oh, really?’ And everyone else nodded solemnly.

 

There were about twenty in all in my workshop seated around a U-shaped string of folding tables.

 

There was an older, Korean man wearing glasses and a cardigan. He’d been the first to arrive and chose a seat in the back right corner, and from the instant my class began he crossed his arms and looked skeptically at me until it was time to leave.

There was a young, serious-looking African-American woman sitting at my left, who- like I always did during these workshops- was obviously working on something else.

 

There was a self-sure, overly animated guy at my right, who when it came time to introduce ourselves to the group didn’t say his name but told us all what a good, effective preacher he already was and how he didn’t expect to learn much from me.

 

Sitting by the AC unit in the window was a friend of mine.

 

Sitting by the door was a hip-looking young woman (which almost sounds like an oxymoron when it comes to ministry). She had an elaborate Mac station set up in front of her, evidently expecting more out of the workshop than I was going to deliver.

 

Next to her was a guy in his forties who looked a lot like my uncle Matt. He stared at me incredulously- with his eyebrows raised- through the entire workshop. He was, I could tell, a hyper-evangelical whose definition of a good sermon was not going to match mine.

 

I was trying to break the ice when the Korean man in the back corner raised his hand and asked: ‘What exactly qualifies you to teach a workshop on preaching?’

 

You know that dream where you go to school only to discover you’re naked? Well suddenly it was just like that except I was the teacher.

‘If my congregation knew I was doing this today they’d wonder the same thing’ I replied.

 

But no one laughed. I could tell they were all wondering the same thing.

 

And they had a point. I wasn’t an expert. I wasn’t famous. I wasn’t even older than most of the students in the room. That’s why I didn’t want to play the expert, to swoop in and dispense advice.

 

Rather than lecture at them, I thought it would be better if we worked together through a scripture text and brainstormed how we might preach a sermon on that passage.

 

The text I chose was Numbers 22, the story of Balaam’s Ass- a text I was pretty confident none of them would have preached on before.

 

I explained to them how I’d be preaching on this text in a few weeks and how I thought we could discuss what makes for effective preaching by brainstorming how we might preach a sermon on the Balaam story.

 

And again the old Korean man in the back corner said: ‘You mean…you want us to do your work for you?’ 

 

The first thing we did was walk through the text.

 

We talked about how after forty years in the wilderness Israel had grown so numerous they were now the ones nations feared, and now they were camped out on the border of the Promised Land.

 

The girl on her Mac found a map in the back of her bible and pointed out that Moab shares a border with Canaan, right on the eastern edge of the Promised Land. So King Balak of Moab, the class wagered, is worried what this influx of Israelites will do to his nation.

 

We talked about how King Balak wants to curse Israel because he can’t defeat them militarily. And by curse, we discovered, Balak means an exorcism. He wants to drive Yahweh from the Israelites so that Moab can then drive the Israelites from their land.

 

We talked about how Balaam is a prophet for hire, neither a Moabite nor an Israelite.

And then, we worked our way through King Balak’s attempts to hire Balaam. How first Balak sends his emissaries to entice Balaam. Balaam says ‘let me sleep on it’ and that night Yahweh speaks to Balaam and tells him not to curse those whom the Lord God has blessed.

 

But Balak is undeterred and sends his most prestigious ambassadors. This time Balaam again says ‘let me sleep on it’ but not before dropping the hint that for the right price he just might come and do Balak’s cursing for him.

 

And that night Yahweh comes and speaks to Balaam, but seeing that Balaam’s heart does not match his words, God allows Balaam to go.

 

But the Lord’s not happy about it, and he sends an angel to get Balaam’s attention. But only the donkey can see it. With his sights set on his pending payment, Balaam, the professional seer, is blind to the angel of God right in front of him.

 

So he strikes the donkey once. He strikes the donkey twice. He strikes the donkey three times until the Lord opens the donkey’s mouth and the donkey’s speech opens Balaam’s eyes. And Balaam confesses and later tells King Balak I can utter no word other than the words the Lord God has put on my mouth.

 

We walked through the text.

Then I turned to the chalkboard behind me, and I wrote in big block letters: DIRECTION? Then I asked the class what direction they might take a sermon based on this text.

 

The hipster girl volunteered that she might develop a sermon about how God works outside the Church, even outside Christianity.

 

“The people in my church struggle with thinking only Christians have a relationship with God.’ 

 

And then she pointed out how Balaam’s not a believer. He’s not a Jew.

He doesn’t even know who the Israelites are, and he practices the kind of sorcery God explicitly condemns. Yet apparently God is in the habit of talking to Balaam every night. They have a relationship that’s familiar and intimate.

 

‘God doesn’t obey the boundaries we put around people. I think I’d develop a sermon encouraging them to look for where God’s at work outside of Christianity.’

 

I jotted her thoughts down on the chalkboard, and when I turned back around my friend  had his hand up.

 

‘I think a lot of Christians today struggle with mixing their religious and their political beliefs. If I had this text, I might preach on how we manipulate God to suit our political opinions.’ 

 

And he pointed out how King Balak tries to hire a prophet to advance his own agenda. King Balak doesn’t doubt the power of God; he treats it as a commodity to be bought and sold and used as a political weapon.

 

I started writing his thoughts on the board, but he went on: ‘And then there’s the whole immigration issue.’ 

 

And he reminded everyone how the reason King Balak wants to curse Israel is because he doesn’t want all those immigrants over-running his nation. He’s worried about how they’ll devastate Moab’s food stores, stress Moab’s infrastructure, change Moab’s cultural traditions.

     ‘You could preach a sermon on how God’s on the side of the immigrants.’ 

 

‘Maybe you could,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I could get away with that at my church.’ 

And several others murmured their agreement.

The cocky guy to my right interrupted. He reminded us again of his terrific pulpit skills, and then informed us- as though it were a news flash- that United Methodists don’t show up on Sunday to hear political preaching.

 

‘The folks in my church want to be comforted’ he said.

 

Then he explained to us that he would construct a comforting message about God’s Providence. He pointed out how this whole story in Numbers 22 is about the danger that hangs over the Israelites- danger they’re not even aware of- yet God is at work, behind the scenes, to protect them and bless them.

 

‘That’d be my sermon title. Behind-the-Scenes.’ 

 

     ‘And my point would be that God’s at work in your life even when you can’t see him.’ 

 

     ‘That might preach’ I admitted reluctantly and wrote it down on the chalkboard.

 

Next, the evangelical announced that he’d probably connect the story of Balaam’s Ass with John 3.16.

 

‘Are you being serious?’ I asked.

 

‘People need to hear that God wants them to repent of their sins and give their hearts over to him so they can be saved.’ 

 

I asked him, gently, what that had to do with Numbers 22, and he pointed out that God uses a donkey to get Balaam to repent.

 

     ‘So, it’s like…God so loved the world that he gave Balaam a talking donkey…?’ I asked.

 

He nodded, not sure if I was making fun of him or not.

I pushed back that Balaam never gives his heart to God, he never converts.

 

     ‘Well, then maybe I’d connect it to St. Paul.’ 

 

And he explained that no matter how badly King Balak wants to curse Israel, he can’t because God has blessed them, that if God has blessed you then nothing…

 

  ‘Let me guess,’ I interrupted, ‘Romans 8? Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?’ 

 

And he nodded, surprised that someone like me could quote scripture, chapter and verse.

 

The Korean man in the corner said he thought this scripture called for a sermon on pride, on the theme of sight versus blindness- how the donkey can see God better than the seer.

 

‘We can have a strong faith, a personal relationship with God, and still be blind to what God is doing around us.’ 

 

I scribbled his point on the chalkboard. And a few other students took stabs at Numbers 22.

When everyone had had a turn at it, I took a step back and I looked at all the different thoughts collected on the chalkboard.

 

‘See anything you might use in your sermon?’ the Korean man asked with a trace of sarcasm.

 

‘I’m not sure’ I admitted.

 

That’s when the young African American woman on my left sighed and said: ‘How can you not see it? It’s right there in front of you?’ 

 

And she pointed sternly at all the different points on the board.

 

God uses Balaam to bless Israel even though he’s an outsider, even though he’s an unbeliever, even though he’s far from perfect.’ 

 

     ‘God uses a donkey to bless Israel even though that sounds impossible and not a little ridiculous.’ 

 

 

And then she looked at me like I must be the most pathetic ‘preacher’ in the world and said: ‘The people in my church don’t struggle with believing in God, they don’t struggle with believing God loves them, as much they struggle with believing that God can use them just as they are in their ordinary lives with all their doubts and imperfections- God can use them to be a blessing to the world.’ 

 

And then my friend from college spoke up that actually that’s what folks in his congregation struggled with too.

 

And the cocky guy on my right admitted that was probably what his congregation most needed to hear.

 

And the hip, young woman agreed and soon everyone in the class were nodding their heads.

 

The young African American woman gestured again at all the thoughts collected on the chalkboard.

 

‘This is a story about how God can use any one of us to bless the world, no matter who we are,’ she said, ‘that should be your sermon. You just need an illustration to bring it home.’ 

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Last week I was on the phone with a reporter from the Ft Hunt Patch.

 

 

He wanted to write a story about our mission work in Guatemala, and he was asking me about the number of stoves we’ve built there and the children’s lives they’ve saved, the sewing classes Joan Oeschlager has taught, the poor Mayan women we’ve helped into education and training programs, the nearly two hundred volunteers we’ve sent there in the past few years.

 

I answered his questions.

 

  ‘You must have some really extraordinary people in your congregation’ he said.

 

     And I thought about it: ‘No, not really.’ 

 

     He laughed and said ‘Excuse me?’ He thought I was joking.

 

‘I’ve got a congregation of average, ordinary, imperfect people, myself included. But those are the sorts of people God uses to change the world. That’s the Gospel.’  

 

 

It was nearly time for me to dismiss the workshop for their lunch break. I glanced up at the chalkboard, and I muttered, sort of off-the-cuff: ‘I’m surprised none of you brought up whether or not this story’s true- if Balaam’s donkey really was able to talk.’

 

And the old Korean man back in the corner looked at me and said: ‘Well, you seem kind of like a smart ass. If God can speak through you, then why not a donkey?’ 

 

     ‘True,’ I said, ‘But I don’t think I could get away with saying that from the pulpit.’ 

And my friend  said: ‘Maybe not but it would be a great way to end your sermon.’ 

 

 

 

 

As many at the 8:30 service let me know, the musical offering on Sunday was even better than the sermon. Here’s a reworked version of the Sinatra classic ‘My Way.’ Jason Gottshall sang as Old Blue Eyes and Andreas Barrett wrote the lyrics.

Scroll ahead to the 3:50 mark to get to the singing.

Here, without permission, are Andreas’ hilarious lyrics. Don’t tell him it’s the best song he’s ever written. He’ll cry.

And now, the time is here and I must face a fate uncertain.
My God, it’s more than clear before too long I may be hurtin’,
Some say I am a fool for heading down this barren highway,
But I will walk in faith and do it, Yah-weh.
 
Regrets, I’ll have a few and then some more, that’s my impression.
And Lord, I’m not amused by this sartorial regression.
If given any choice, I think I’d much prefer the shy way,
But I will walk the line and do it, Yah-weh. [note the Johnny Cash reference]
 
There will be days, I’m sure to find, when I’ll seek refuge for my behind,
But through it all, though I may fear, you’ve got my back, if not my rear.
I’ll heed the call, my All in All, and do it, Yah-weh.
 
Dear God on high, you are a hoot to cast me in my birthday suit.
But I believe in what you say and who you are, come what may.
The record shows I don’t need clothes to do it, Yah-weh!
I praise you, Yah-weh.