“Can We Pray That?”- Daily Office Reflections

Standard

(Psalm 42, 52: Deuteronomy 11:13-19; 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2; Luke 17:1-10)

Psalm 52

1      You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness *

against the godly all day long?

2      You plot ruin;

your tongue is like a sharpened razor, *

O worker of deception.

3      You love evil more than good *

and lying more than speaking the truth.

4      You love all words that hurt, *

O you deceitful tongue.

5      Oh, that God would demolish you utterly, *

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

6      The righteous shall see and tremble, *

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

7      “This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, *

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

8      But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; *

I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

9      I will give you thanks for what you have done *

and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence

of the godly.

 

As I was praying this during morning prayer this morning, the words seemed to fly off the page and stirred up a lot in me. I thought, “Can I really be praying this right now?”

The psalm seems to be addressed more directly to this tyrant.

I have to be honest: there are many of these descriptors that connect to how I feel about our current president. I don’t intend this to be a politically divisive post; I’m just trying to talk about where I am this morning and where God is meeting me (which can only be where we really are!)

Over the last months, I have felt much of what the psalmist names here. I see a boastful, arrogant leader who pays fast and loose with the truth and uses his words to hurt others. He trusts in wealth and trickle-down economics at the expense of the poor. This is putting it mildly, in my opinion.

But as the psalm goes on, this is a prayer for this tyrant to be taken down, or more directly, taken out. By God. It’s a prayer that God would demolish this leader so that the righteous would see what happens when leaders operate this way.

My first thought was, “Can we pray for this?” This seems extreme. Many commentators thing that this psalm was penned by David in response to the lies, scheming, and murder committed by Doeg the Edomite in 1 Samuel 21-22. He murdered 85 priests based on lies he spread to King Saul.

David had witnessed the evil which can come about when leaders (Doeg is said to be a lead shepherd in Israel) play politics and spread lies. It ends up in destruction.

I’m still not sure how I feel about praying these words, but I do understand the feeling. Perhaps God meets us where we are, even in our outrage and anger against those who perpetuate injustice. Perhaps, we can continue to call out to him and plead for those who lie, steal, kill, and destroy to be taken away.

And we can also commit ourselves to being people of mercy, knowing we need it as well. We can, more positively, proclaim the goodness of our God. We can be a voice for what is true and good in the midst of so many half-truths, full-blown lies, and boasts of what is evil.

“You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear” – Daily Office Reflection

Standard

Easter VI (Psalm 85, 86; Ezek. 1:28–3:3; Heb. 4:14–5:6; Luke 9:28-36)

28 Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.

Ezekiel 2

1 He said to me: O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2 And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. 3 He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” 5 Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. 6 And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 7 You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.
8 But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you. 9 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. 10 He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

Ezekiel 3

1 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

So, the book of Ezekiel is pretty weird. A lot of imagery. Eating scrolls. Wheels in the sky. Dead bones. All the more reason, I think, for the LORD to make sure Ezekiel knows what his task his as a prophet: to speak what he sees and hears to the people to whom God has sent him.

As I was reading this today I was thinking about many in my life who have served prophetic roles; they spoke truth to me in a time where I most needed it. It was not always pleasant and I did not always listen. But the words do their work in their own way and in their own time. And I am grateful for those who were faithful to speak what they saw and heard to me.

I often am so concerned about how people will receive and respond to my own challenges and invitations. There are many times in writing sermons or rehearsing conversations endlessly in my head (anyone else do this?) where I would try to craft the words in such a way that I would imagine the greatest possible response from others. When you craft things in words, you can become pretty good at persuasion and even mild (or not-so-mild) manipulation of emotions. I’ve learned how to convince people.

But this passage causes me to pause in two ways. First, it reminds me of my primary responsibility: to speak what I have heard and seen, whether people listen or they don’t. This is hard, because it is lonely sometimes. When people don’t respond or don’t validate your words, it can cause doubt to creep in, “Did I really hear that right? Am I wrong? Is this even what I’m supposed to be doing?”

Secondly, Ezekiel eats the scroll. Weird, I know. But I wonder if it signifies the internalization of the message he was charged with speaking. Sometimes I am quick to hear something and simply regurgitate it: sort of spiritual bulimia. I think the challenge may be to allow the messages we feel and the impassioned words we hear from God to take up residence in us for awhile; to digest them. I wonder if many prophets are burned out because they binge and purge the words of God, not taking the time to be nourished by the words that are not just for others but are really for us, too.

So, for my prophetic-voiced friends: keep speaking! But keep feasting, too. And take a nap every now and then post-dinner before sharing the treasures you’ve found. It’s really good for you, and will be good for us as well.

Ask God and Ask in Faith – Daily Office Reflection

Standard

Easter V

(Psalm 80; Deuteronomy 8:1-10; James 1:1-15; Luke 9:18-27)

James 1:1-15

1James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

Greetings.

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

Have you ever just felt totally stuck? There have been times where I have felt paralyzed by a situation or just completely at a loss when it came to a decision I needed to make. Some of you may be like in that you walk out every conceivable consequence or possibility which may result from a decision or conversation. It’s exhausting, right? So much time and effort is put into trying to figure out what might possibly happen. And then, there’s that point where you eventually realize you actually can’t control outcomes. How frustrating is that?

James, as he is writing this letter, is considering the lives of many who would have heard it. They were driven from their homes, likely by some sort of persecution–by things they couldn’t control. After urging them to choose joy (in light of what such trials produce, not simply the trials themselves), he says, if any of you don’t know what to do–if any of you need insight into the world around you–it is time to do one thing: ask God for wisdom.

If I’m honest, this step all-too-often a last resort, not a first impulse. It isn’t until I’m broken down, confused, and lost that I turn to God and ask for help and insight. Now, the remaining part of this passage which talks about asking without doubting can get us tripped up. Sometimes, people take this to mean that we need to be certain about what we are asking. For example, people will say things like: “You really need to believe God will provide for you or heal you or [fill in the blank]. You can’t doubt, or it won’t work.” I think that’s missing the point, and it is pretty dangerous. If God only worked when I was absolutely certain about something, he wouldn’t ever work!

Instead, our trust (the opposite of doubt, by the way) is in the One from whom we are asking. We believe that our God is trustworthy and the wisdom he shares with us is good and worth heeding. It would be like saying this: ask for advice, and then believe that the advice is worth following, even if it seems a little strange, difficult, or confusing. You can trust the Giver of the gift of wisdom, which means you can trust the value of gift when it comes.

What if we just took a small step toward God today of simply asking for wisdom? Is there something you can hold up today and say: “I don’t know what to do here, God, will you show me?” This is asking and asking in faith; faith being a deep trust in the One who loves us and is excited to give freely of wisdom to us.

A Prayer for Guidance

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would
have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see
light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

“That they may be one, as we are one” – Daily Office Reflection

Standard

Easter II

(Psalm 119:1-24; Daniel 2:17-30; 1 John 2:12-17; John 17:20-26)

John 17:20-26

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

A friend of mine recently made a print of this icon depicted above with the phrase “As we are one” underneath it. The original was created by Russian iconographer Andrei Rublyov in the 15th century. It is meant to depict the Trinity, as he interpreted the visiting of the angels to Abraham and Sarah as a theophany, or revealing of God in the three persons of the Trinity. Now, the print sits on my prayer altar in my home study, a reminder of the invitation and prayer of Jesus for people like me: that we would be one with other followers of Jesus and that this oneness would be same sort of unity as experienced in the Trinitarian life of God. No small prayer, to be sure.

Since beginning my studies at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute, my desire to see and embody more expressed unity in the Church has grown. I have had the privilege of learning alongside sisters and brothers from a variety of streams and traditions. I have been challenged, encouraged, sharpened, and blessed by this experience. In short, I think I have had a deeper encounter with this Trinitarian life of unity for which Jesus is praying.

As much as we catch glimpses of unity and deepened relationships with other Christians, we often see much expressed disunity. We have become professionals at fragmenting the Church and building walls around our respective denominations and tribes. If we are to take Jesus’s prayer seriously, this lack of unity is missionally irresponsible. Jesus connects our expressed unity to whether others will believe that Jesus was sent by God to love the world.

Where is the disconnect? Why is it that many who are the most passionate about people hearing and believing in the good news of Jesus can also be the most fractious and divisive? Why is church unity often pitted against evangelism rather than being seen as integral to it? How can we preach a message of reconciliation while living so unreconciled to other followers of Jesus, even where we disagree theologically. Hank Hannegraff’s (The Bible Answer Man) recent conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy and the negative responses of many to him and to this Tradition are very demonstrative of this hostility. (No link to the story, but feel free to google it)

Where can we join God in the movement of love toward others? The mission of God to love and redeem the world is rooted in God’s own life of unity. God is interested in bringing all that is not God into communion with God. This is God’s mission. What might it look like for us to participate in this life of unity, which is available to us as those who are in Christ.

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 28:11-15-“Fake News and the Power of the Resurrection”

Standard

I had the joy of being with the Gallery Church Downtown and Riverside Baptist this past weekend to preach. They have been going through the Gospel of Matthew for over two years! This is the second to the last sermon in the series, and I loved talking about the good news of Resurrection the Sunday following Easter.

You can listen to the sermon in its entirety here, but I am posting a most of my manuscript here and the litany/response we did at the end.

——-

Today, we proclaim the good news: because of the resurrection of Jesus, nothing can or will stop the restoration of all things.

Stories are powerful. This is not a new idea for us. We grow up learning some of the most important lessons of life through stories: kids books, fairy tales, passing down family traditions and accounts of days gone by: we are people of stories who are moved by stories. And last week, we retold the central narrative for our shared faith: the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Yet, in more recent days, we have seen what happens when people have different stories to tell from one another: stories that clash. I’m not just talking about people telling the same story with different details or perspectives, but stories that conflict with one another. I think we see this as more evident than ever in the news cycle, in our social media feeds, in our families, and in the government structures both here and around the world. As soon as a news story breaks, the spin begins. And the spin exists because people know the power of stories and information to influence others to do everything from vote a certain way to buy a certain product. News has become commodified and when it is commodified, it can be leveraged for special interests-to coerce people into action (or inaction).

This is, at best, biased news and, at worst, propaganda. Which leads us to the infamous “fake news”. Fake news is at work in our text today, as we will see. But “fake news” is a phrase which was deemed by Politifact as the Lie of the Year for 2016. Now, contrary to what some (including our president) seem to think, fake news is not simply biased reporting, or even news we disagree with. It is outright falsehoods: made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word. It’s a poplar lie that is popular because people want to believe it and share it.

We will talk about this a little bit more later on, but the point is not simply decrying the reality of fake news (though I could get on a rant about it, for sure!). This phenomenon of fake news, which many think is indicative of our post-truth world, speaks to the prevailing counter-stories we often live in. We are not moved by facts which do not, at some level, also move us emotionally and at the level of our desires. I believe this shows us that there are stories which are not simply untrue, they run counter to the core narrative of the resurrection of Jesus. And we Christians believe them and live from them all the time.

These counter-stories go something like:

“This life as it is, is all there is—and it’s up to us to make it better.” This is the classic modernist story of humanism, or the enlightenment. It is the air we breathe. And it comes out in how we tend to talk about the world around us. We hear it in the political discourse all the time: “We are regressing as a society.” or, on the other side of the political spectrum: “We are returning to the glorious good old days.” This is was never more present than in the two competing slogans of the presidential campaign: “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger together” (or the Democrat’s response to Trump”s “MAGA” was “We are already great. and we are great because we are good”. These slogans, and the parties/candidates which they represent, both share a pretty central assumption: greatness can be accomplished and realized in our lifetime, and it is up to us to make it happen. This is, oddly, what all of American politics have in common, regardless of party affiliation. The story they tell is: We accomplish greatness through the collective power of our own efforts.

If I’m getting your pulse rate up a little bit right now or you are wondering where the heck this guy is going with politics, you are kind of proving my point about the power that these stories have! But there is the other side to this narrative which gets us in further trouble: what if something stands in the way of our greatness, of our desire to be significant? How do we hold on to the power we have? How do we get it from others? This is where fake news comes into play: preying on our fears, manipulating our emotions, and feeding on the powerful motivators of guilt, shame, and greed.

Not only are we drawn to the stories which reinforce our biases, we are moved to anger by the stories which work against our deeply held beliefs. And this is not necessarily immoral. We hear about stories of abuse of power and we feel outrage. We read some of the things being done in our government or around the world, and we cry out for justice.

But there is a subtle turn that takes place: we think we should respond in kind, we are made to be afraid, so we respond with more fear. Guilt with more guilt. Shame with more shame. But this is not the way of the kingdom: this is not consistent with the story of the Resurrection. This is the way of the powers and principalities. This is the way of anti-kingdom. And this is what we see this at work in our text today. (yes, this was all just an introduction!)

Many have said, regarding this text, that as soon as the mission of witness to Jesus begins, a counter-mission begins as well. There is the mission of the women to go tell (and of Jesus to go ahead of them to Galilee) and the mission of the soldiers and religious leaders to discount and explain away the missing body of Jesus. The guards go to report to the chief priests. This is important, because they were the very ones who convinced Pilate that the tomb needed guards in the first place. (notice…the people in power seemed to take Jesus at his word that he would rise again in the three days, more than his own followers!)

So the guards give an account of what happened: not fake news yet, they just tell what has happened—but it is not good news for the religious leaders. So, the chief priests, after hearing the news do what anyone else would do, they hold a committee meeting! And who is on the committee, all the people who stand to lose power and influence, should the real message get out there. It’s here that they devise a plan. More scheming to preserve their power, and they know that the best way to do this is to spread a false story.

Now, this is not a very credible story. For one, Roman guards don’t sleep. They had a vested interest in protecting the tomb, and they are the best of the best. Even the attempt to undermine the news is feeble at best: “While we were sleeping, the disciples came and took the body.” Have you ever heard of someone’s testimony of something that happened while they were sleeping stand up in court? Of course not. Nor does this bode well for the soldiers: sleeping on the job.

But the leaders assuage the fears of the soldiers. They tell them to just spread the story and we will take care of the governor for you (i.e bribes, political power). The counter-mission against the resurrection is often includes the means of money, grabbing power, bribery, lying, manipulation, and appeasing those in power. Good thing this doesn’t happen today anymore! 🙂

This causes me pause. This is a lot of trouble to go through to spread a fake news story. I’ve often wondered that about fake news today: what motivates someone to craft fake news and spread it, beyond it just being a cruel joke? Most often, the motivation was money. And money was surely the motivation for the soldiers, but why the religious leaders? What did they have to benefit? I believe they were afraid. I think that the entire charade of Jesus trial and execution were rooted in fear. And now, the fact that Jesus could, in fact, be raised from the dead, was dangerous to the religious/political establishment. Why?

Resurrection was seen as vindication. It basically would have shown that all the accusations of the people in power in the Temple were lies. It would have stood the whole system on its head. And it would show that Jesus was rightfully the King of the Jews. A king which the religious establishment missed (and dismissed) and that Rome couldn’t ultimately destroy. Now, interestingly enough, Jesus was not the only one to talk like this about resurrection being vindicating. Other revolutionaries, like the Maccabees who tried to take Jerusalem back by military might almost 200 years prior, used similar language to talk about their coming hope in 2 Macabbees 7. Though this is a book not included in the protestant canon of Scriptures, it is historically supported and it captures well the hope the people of the first century had. In 2 Maccabbees, seven sons and their mother were all martyred by the reigning imperial king because they wouldn’t disobey God’s law. And they would exclaim to the king each time, right before their execution, that God would be merciful to them, raising them back to life to show the error of the king’s ways and that God was on their side. Resurrection vindicates the martyred. (My mind is drawn to the incredible example of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, who have the power to forgive those who murdered their family members…their hope for resurrection and the example of Jesus forgiving his enemies fuels their faith)

If you’ll allow me, let me give a bit of an excursus on resurrection, as we sometimes tend to conflate resurrection with heaven/life-after-death. St. Paul thought that the resurrection of Jesus was so central to faith (and to what new thing was breaking into the world) that if it were not true, then our faith would be futile, we would still be in our sins, and we would be pitied as people without hope. You can read this in 1 Corinthians 15 (which is one of my new favorite chapters in Scripture) where Paul makes a direct connection between our own coming resurrection and the resurrection of Jesus, which is a first-fruits of that resurrection. What this means is that, because Jesus is alive (though he was murdered), we will also rise as he has. We will rise with real, physical, immortal bodies to enjoy the fully redeemed and restored creation with our God.

This is what N.T. Wright often calls life after life after death. This is why Paul quotes Isaiah, saying “death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” The answer, nowhere. Death is done. Life is ours, in Jesus. And it is a forever embodied life which we get to enjoy in resurrected bodies. Not as angels in the clouds, not as disembodied spirits floating somewhere, but as fully restored human beings, enjoying a fully restored heaven and earth, in fully restored relationships with each other and our King. And Jesus’ resurrection shows us that this is not an empty hope. It has already begun, because he is risen!

We have the more fascinating and beautiful story in the resurrection, but we are so prone to forget it. And we are prone to believe the other stories around us. We often need to take the time to admit where we really are, because many of us give mental assent to the fact that there was someone named Jesus who was crucified and died and resurrected, but we are not believing the powerful story of resurrection. We aren’t living from it. We still fall victim to fake news and to counter-narratives in our own lives.

This is true for me way too often. I don’t know about you, but I have real, deep fears. I fear that things won’t get better in the world, when I continue to hear of the increasing violence in our world, whether it is bombings overseas or shootings two blocks from my house.

I also fear that I will be insignificant. I fear that I will never have anything to offer the world. I fear that you all will not find my preaching fascinating or moving.

My wife Kara and I have recently stepped out into a very scary time of life. As many of you know, I was one of the first people to be a part of this new church work in Baltimore, in helping to start the Gallery Church. I’ve journeyed with the Prince family, with Albert and Lauren, for almost a decade. With the Medina family for 7+ years. With many of you for a long time. And I stepped out into something new, feeling a pull and a release. But sometimes, to be honest, I think I was a complete idiot. I struggle with this often: just ask Kara how much of a mess I can be sometimes! I’ve stepped from known to unknown. There has, in a sense, been a sort of death; a loss.

In stepping out in this new season of life, I feel like the Lord has something to tell us and show us, but I’m afraid I will miss it. I’m deeply afraid that I will spend my whole life trying to find something, but will miss it. I’m afraid that things wont be restored or redeemed.

This is not simply fake news: it’s bad news. It’s bad news in desperate need of THE good news.

I need the power of the resurrection, which reminds me that nothing can or will stop the world from being restored. And this restoration, this new creation world, includes you and me.

Notice something interesting: Matthew seems to just sort of simply, calmly, and causally include this story in-between the account of the resurrection and the commission to go make disciples of the the Risen Jesus. He doesn’t combat it with a bunch of apologetic arguments. He doesn’t seem to be wringing his hands, saying, “So I really hope people don’t get deceived here.” He just tells the story: some people are claiming the disciples stole Jesus body: here is how that rumor came about. It almost seems as though Matthew wants this passage to be a bit of a footnote for us. Matthew doesn’t want to give too much space to fake news, because there is a much more powerful and important story to tell which was first given to us, not by powerful leaders and soldier, but by a few scared women: Jesus is alive.

What might it look like if we were to fully embrace the truth and power of the resurrection? What could it look like if you shifted from fear to enduring hope?

As soon as you will be on your way to simply tell what you’ve seen (as the women were), there will be people conspiring to produce fake news about Jesus. It’s not because they hate you. It’s not even really about you that much. It’s about what stories can do for us.

So as you move into the last passage in Matthew about the great commission, may you become emboldened and encouraged that you have the privilege to witness to the powerful reality of the resurrection. It is a powerful announcement which proclaims, in the words of Samwise Gamgee, all that is sad is coming untrue!

Samewise Gamgee: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

How will we respond?

I believe we are at a moment in history where it is absolutely essential for us to recover the beautifully dangerous, subversive, and powerful truth of the Resurrection of Jesus. We have the chance to retell this story by participating in it again and again. And we get better at telling something by practicing it.

Today, I want to lead us in what the poet Wendell Berry encourages us to do: to not simply believe resurrection but to “practice resurrection”.

In a world of fake news, fake claims, and post-truth, we proclaim…

Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise—with all things restored and finally made right. (refrain)

In our lives where we live in fear, isolation, disillusionment, and shame, we proclaim…

In our bodies which face weakness, decay, isolation, sickness, frailty, and death, we proclaim…

In our minds where we fight against the lies of the Accuser and of our own making, where we no longer wrestle with doubts afresh but acquiesce to their presence, we proclaim…

In our hearts, where we want the things which bring us and other harm, and where we struggle to allow ourselves to feel, for fear of more pain, we proclaim…

In our church which is holy yet tainted by sin, beautiful yet tragic, powerful, yet confused by violence, we proclaim…

In all creation, which groans under the pain of exploitation, pollution, human greed, and neglect, awaiting our revealing as daughters and sons, we proclaim…

Though we are taught to be individuals first, to seek our own welfare, our own interests, and our own desires, no matter the cost to others, we proclaim…

Though we face tragedy, loss, injustice, betrayal, derision, abandonment, death and sorrow, we proclaim…

And when we feel like our work does not make a difference, that our words fall on deaf ears, that our efforts are in vain, we take hope as we proclaim…Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!

Alleluia!

Welcome to Eastertide: a most dangerous of the church seasons for all that is fake and passing away—for death has been swallowed by victory and we celebrate the continued and ultimate in-breaking reality of the new creation into this world, and proclaim that nothing can stop the restoration of all things to our King!

Jesus is risen, and so shall we rise, with all things restored and finally made right!

Benediction: 1 Corinthians 15:54b-58

Skipping Saturday

Standard

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming…”

If you attended a Good Friday gathering last night, or have as many friends who observe this tradition as I do, it’s very likely you heard this phrase or saw it posted somewhere. I was first introduced to it by Tony Campolo, as he recounts a sermon his pastor once gave. It’s a good story and a powerful tool for hope when hope seems lost.

But today, on Holy Saturday, this gives me pause. We go from Friday to Sunday, but what about Saturday? Are we too quick to jump from loss to victory? Are we skipping Saturday? I wonder how those who experienced the first Holy Saturday would have experienced it.

It’s Friday, and you reckon with the fact that you have denied your mentor, rabbi, and dear friend three times, just like he said you would, to people you don’t even know. He’s gone. You couldn’t bear to stay as he breathed his last. And now it’s Saturday as you awake for Sabbath. How can you even rest with such guilt and shame? You can’t even look the other disciples in the eye. you don’t feel much like a “rock” today and you are uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

It’s Friday and you have watched your beloved son die a traitor’s death. As the spear pierces his side, a sword pierces your own heart. You hardly slept and now it’s Saturday. Whereas you could sing before about the blessing of his birth and the hope for his work to come, any words now catch in your throat; held back by sudden sobs and more tears than you knew were possible to cry. John has been so good to you, but you see he is hurting and confused as well. You sit in knowing silence together, wondering how God will fulfill the promises made to you. You open up your heart in search of treasured memories, each one bringing pangs of loss and doubt. What now?

Saturday is a day where our grief, disillusionment, and loss still hang in the air and cloud our view. It’s understandable why we would want to skip it. It’s uncomfortable and inefficient. Let’s get to Sunday already! After all, we know how this story ends up, don’t we?

Though it was a sabbath, Holy Saturday has work to do in us. It allows us to actually feel loss, to sit in the silence of uncertainty and pain, to entrust ourselves to God with all the doubts, anger, and resentment we may be feeling.

Bonhoeffer referred to this as the “great gap”. He puts it this way:

Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.
They should remain open.
Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection,
the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who also was and is his God.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from “Circular Letters in the Church Struggle”

May we leave the gaps open, our wounds open and felt. May we fully engage our suffering and loss today. May we feel the weight of how the world is not right. May we grieve. May we not skip Saturday. This will allow our celebration on Resurrection Sunday to meet us in our place of deepest need and allow for immeasurable joy and hope.

But, for now, we wait; trusting that God is working in ways we do not see and cannot fully understand, much like Christ’s descent to the dead/to hell (another topic for another post, to be sure!)

Finally, I love how John Harrell’s poem, “We Simply Wait” ends:

This Holy Saturday we watch and wait.
What comes will surely be his surprise-
He’s working on it right now-
And we must wait for it,
There is nothing else to do.
On Holy Saturday we realize, as at no other time,
We simply have to wait.
And then it happens!

Sunday Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13 “Getting in the Way of Love”

Standard

I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at St. Hilda’s Episcopal Church and New Hope Community Church. They are ministry partners in Catonsville, and I was honored to be invited to preach in both of their services. The podcast should be available in the coming days here, but in the meantime, here is my manuscript for the sermon, which I titled “Getting in the Way of Love”. As you think of it, pray for these two congregations, and my friends, Jason Poling and Joe Miller as they serve there.

“Getting in the Way of Love”
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Love. Never has a word been used more to mean less in recent memory. And never has a word brought more confusion rather than clarity to discussions around faith. When we say we are called to love others, when we say God is love, we feel and see the limits of our language. As Bishop Tom Wright once said, “The English word “love” is trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down and teach it how to delegate.” Where there is confusion or a lack of clarity about what love is and what it can look like, we tend to fall victim to different ways of living. We can follow the ways of power, coercion, apathy, or justification of wrong-doing. It can bring about fear and anxiety. It does subtle work in our midst, moving us off the way of following Jesus.

So, the question arises: what do we mean when we say “love”, and more importantly, how do we align with this “most excellent way”? As a community of people who are meant to be defined as loving, there often seem to be things which get in the way of the proper expression of love: disunity in local congregations and the wider Church, theological squabbles and disagreements, issues of conscience, cultural arguments, and even the abuse or misuse of spiritual and positional authority by leaders in the church. No longer is it “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Nevertheless, I (and others) would argue that the very essence of Christianity is love, not knowledge, gifts, or power.

Today, my concern is to get us to identify the things that often get in the way of love and to invite us to get ourselves into the way of love. The good news for us today is that we have access to this way of love and, together, we can participate and grow in this eternal and powerful way of love right now, right where we are. And Paul’s words here bring us great hope in the midst of this great challenge we see both around us and within us.

The key words which frame our understanding of this passage are how Paul ends chapter 12, “But I will show you a more excellent way.” Paul has been covering a lot of ground in this letter, and I understand that you have been on quite a journey together through it. Discussions about divisions and idols and sexuality…certainly not simple topics to grapple with then or now. I believe this chapter serves as a pause and a bridge, perhaps even a climax of an argument situated between two related discussions in the letter: playing your part in the body by utilizing the gifts given by the Spirit in Ch 12 and proper order of worship in Ch 14.

While we are often used to hearing this passage read in wedding ceremonies, I imagine that Paul would find that a little confusing. As a matter of fact, if Paul wanted to use this passage to talk specifically about marital love, he likely would have put this part of his letter in Ch 7. It is there where he gets “super romantic” about marriage and basically tells people, eh, yeah I guess you should get married if you can’t contain yourselves…but it’s not really ideal. So…sure…go ahead. Or be like me and don’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul is very much interested in the way of love—but he is most concerned with how it plays out in the life of the church. I believe this is the primary context. What we get is not a sentimental picture of love to be embroidered and hung on a wall, but rather a beautiful account of a rigorous, self-giving, long-suffering, rejoicing way of being. This most excellent way of love.

Rather than begin with that happens we don’t have love (in the beginning of this chapter), let me first call attention to how Paul describes love. Starting in v. 4, he describes it both positively and negatively. Love is patient and kind. These connote both its passive and active qualities: it puts up with a lot (endures) and it also moves toward others with generosity, without thought of repayment. Love then jumps into action: rejoicing in the truth, bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. (which doesn’t mean that is just sits idly by with “all things”, the phrase speaks more to the capacity of love to bear, hope, and endure regardless of amount or scope of adversity). This is robust and hopeful language. This helps us better define this agape love as Paul sees it: the identification of ourselves with God’s interests in others. A genuine and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

This contrasts with the more negative descriptions Paul uses to describe what love is not. And Paul is less than subtle here, saying that love is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful. Love does not insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing. Since you all have been sitting in this letter for awhile now, these words should sound incredibly familiar: they are basically everything that Paul accuses the Corinthian church of being.

  • The jealousy which was feeding the quarrels surrounding factionalism (I’m of Paul, I’m of Apollos.
  • The proud and boastful statement of one part of a body saying to another “I don’t need you!”
  • The approval and rejoicing over sins that aren’t even tolerated amongst the pagans

Paul is laying out love both positively and negatively: here is what love is and here is what it is not and begging the question: which sounds more like you?

So, after describing this love, I want us to begin to see what can get in the way of this love. This is where we can relate back to the gifts which Paul was describing in the beginning of this passage. He says that, if you speak in tongues but don’t have love, you are a clanging cymbal or a sounding gong. This, for sure, makes us think of something loud and annoying, but Paul may be hinting at something else. In Psalm 150, there are injunctions for praising:

1 Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in his mighty firmament![a]

2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;

praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;

praise him with lute and harp!

4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;

praise him with strings and pipe!

5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;

praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Imagine, if in the worship band, there was only a drummer hitting his crash cymbal the whole time while the voices try to jump in. It’s not just annoying…it is comically incomplete and not really helpful. Similarly, when it comes to prophesying, knowledge, or sacrifice, if it does not connect to the needs of others and come from a place of deep love for the interests of others, it is worthless. No, everyone needs to use their gifts in proper proportions and a proper times. And this is love.

The Amish and Old Order Mennonites have a word for a guiding ethic in their communities. It is the German word Gelassenheit (Ge-las-sen-heit). As with many words, they can be hard to translate directly and have a lot of uses and connotations, but one Mennonite describes it this way: a “yielding of self-will and autonomy to the community, believing that true redemption and love is created through the selflessness of yielding my rights to the wisdom of the gathered.” The concept plays itself out in a variety of practices (surrendering of property, submission to the church community in decision-making, rejection of taking pride in one’s own individual work, etc.) But this concept is embodied most clearly and beautifully in the practice of singing, often called Sacred Harp singing. This is a style of a cappella singing in four part harmony. In order for the chords to be complete, everyone must show up and sing their part in the right way at the right time. If they don’t, the worship of God is incomplete and deficient and their communal life is literally and figuratively off key and discordant. This is a picture of a community of love, a community which yields and submits to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To put it most plainly: the gifts you are able to use, those that have been given you by God, are not ultimately for you, they are for others; for building up and equipping the church. When gifts are not used for their intended purposes, when they are used as ends in and of themselves, they can actually work against the way of love. I don’t think I need to prove this point to you. Rarely does a week go by without us hearing of continues schism in the church, of misuse of spiritual authority, of the fall of incredibly gifted and talented leaders in the church, or of hearing the stories of our brothers and sister who have been yet again abused and wounded by those in the church—often done in the name of “holding to the Truth”, or “defending the gospel” or “keeping the faith”. We have lost sight of our prime directive of deep, sacrificial, gritty, and resilient love.

Now, when it comes to a passage like this, and in numerous other places in Scripture, there is an attractive impulse that is often at work in us that I want to name: it is easy for us to hear that we are doing the wrong thing, agree that it is the wrong thing, and then try harder to to the right thing. Paul could have just said to the Corinthians, listen…your speaking in tongues is getting out of hand, or you are way to concerned with prophesying, or you are obsessed with the miraculous…so (in the words of the famous Bob Newhart psychologist sketch) I have two words for you: “Stop it!”. Stop all the tongues nonsense. Stop the signs stuff…you’re abusing it. Stop prophesying…no, Paul doesn’t say this. He actually admonishes the Corinthians to pursue these gifts.

Instead, or perhaps in addition to this command, he invites the Corinthians, and us, to pursue the most excellent way of using these gifts. This is not about simply doing different works or even believing different words. The Words are good (prophecy). The Works are good (giving all we have, giving up our bodies). But these amount to nothing without the way of love, which requires us to also be aware of our desires, our Wants.

Some people say love is a verb, meaning that love means nothing without action (this should make us think of 1 John 3:18, right….Dear children let us not simply love in word but in deed and in truth). Yes, and amen: love must lead to action, or it is not love. But what Paul is telling us is that not every “right” action is necessarily love. In fact, we can say the right thing, and we can do the right thing, and be wrong…if we are not acting from a place of love, a disposition of grace and truth toward others. I have had to face this reality in my own life in preparing to preach today. I could be the best studier of Scripture and the best preacher (of which I’m certainly not), I could give a great sermon, but what is my underlying motivation? Is it to serve you all today? Is it to encourage or admonish you and build you up in the faith? Or could it be to further my own ego, to help me feel adequate, or to simply please other people? I’m trusting that the very act of wrestling with these thoughts and questions is itself loving, and I am entrusting myself to the Lord, knowing that he knows my heart better than I do and that God’s Spirit is at work in my deepest place of need and struggle.

This, then, leads us to the core part of the way of love: We can know how to love because we are known by love. And this is how Paul understands his identity as an apostle of Christ. And he is not subtle here: the words he uses to define love are the same words he uses to describe his own ministry as an apostle: bearing suffering in hope, enduring for the sake of those whom he loves. This is why he can say, in 11:1 “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Paul was, quite literally, showing them a more excellent way in his own life. We see this love at work in Paul, who points us most ultimately to see it in Jesus. Jesus, who emptied himself of all privilege and power to become like us, to lay his life down for us, to submit himself to the will of the Father on our behalf. Jesus knew how to act in love. Take notice of the times where it was appropriate to use the power and influence gifted to him through the Holy Spirit and when it was not. Stones into bread or feeding five thousand. Similar power, only one was done in love, while the other was a temptation to sin. Healing some and not others, waiting to heal others. Knowing when to stay an extra day in one place and when to leave, even while he was popular. Knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. Jesus knew he was sowing into what would endure until the end: love.

Are we giving our time and attention to what will last forever? Knowledge will fade away. Even faith and hope are transitory, as one day what we trust and hope for will arrive. Love is what endures. Love will define our life together. Our calling is to witness to and embody that reality now as the body of Christ.

To get in (or rather into) the way of love is to walk the way together. This is Paul’s climactic point: the way of walking together as a church is to walk in unity, and the way of unity is the way of self-sacrificial love. So, I invite you to consider as St. Hilda’s/New Hope Church, what might it look like for you to walk in this way together? Where can we pause and ask, “Why am I doing this? Is it for love and in love, or does it get in the way of love?” What desires are at work in you? What work do those desires seek to do for you? Allow me to share one possibility for you to consider this week: fear often operates within us at a very deep level. We have heard the verse “There is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear.” I think we can suspect that if fear is at work in us, it is likely doing work in place of love. A question to consider as you seek to evaluate your motives this week: what am I afraid might happen if I don’t _______ ? And what does God want me know about him or me in light of that fear.

Love invites us to consider the words we speak, the works we do, and the “wants” we have, calibrating and considering them together so that we may be about the way of loving. This is the difficult, beautiful call of following Jesus. And, if we are to take Paul seriously, it is the only work which lasts and endures.

Love is not just all we need, it is our beginning, it is our means, it is our end, and in the end, it will be all we have. May God give us the strength, courage, and opportunity to join him in this way of loving the world as God loves us.