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

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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.

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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

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“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”

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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.

“Things are not alright” – Daily Office Reflection

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Lent IV

(Psalm 69; Jeremiah 22:13- 23; Romans 8:12-27; John 6:41-51)

Romans 8:12-27

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

 

In reading this text alongside the Psalm appointed for today, I am remembering the importance of honest and raw prayer. I see such a great example in this Psalm of simply naming what we see, how we feel, and asking God to answer and save.

Sometimes I wonder if what keeps us from getting to this place is that we avoid being where we really are. “No, the waters aren’t up to my neck…I’m doing fine! Just going through a tough season. I’m just so busy right now, you know?” “God is still in control, right? God knows. And any way, it could be worse.”

There can be some amazing freedom in naming the fact that things are bad, broken, and feel hopeless. This passage always reminds me of a song called “The Resistance” by Aaron Niequist. The words are pulled straight from this passage:

all creation waits / bated breath in pain
for redemption’s day
all creation cries / floods and charcoal skies
things are not alright

with brokenness and broken fists we
beat upon the breast of falleness
we hear the call of kingdom come as
one more train we chase to only miss
but we will never give up on it

We are quick to quote Paul’s words above, ” I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” but have not done the important work of naming the suffering and, well…actually hurting in the midst of it. Paul was good at naming his own suffering: rejection, loneliness, despair, beatings, shipwrecks, thorns in his side…I could go on. But he then was able to reframe it with hope.

We miss out on the beauty and power of hope by downplaying or ignoring our pain. And we can miss the greatness of our God and our opportunity to depend fully on God today for our strength, our hope…even our words/meaning in prayer.

So…what is bad around you and in you? What needs to be set right? What do you look at and think, “God, save me! I am drowning!” And then, pray and groan about it, totally unfiltered. Don’t worry about the right words. Don’t worry about being theologically correct. Trust that, as you come to God as a child, God wants to hear from the kids.

 

Sunday Sermon: Lent IV- John 9:1-41

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I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at Breath of God Lutheran Church in our neighborhood. While I forgot to record it, I am posting my manuscript here. The name of the sermon was “Blind Witness News”. A big thanks to Mark Parker for the invite and grateful to have such an engaged church in our neighborhood.

“Blind Witness News ”
Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably spent more time in the last six months absorbing news content than I have in the last 6 years. The political climate in which we live, regardless of your political persuasion, is unprecedented and unpredictable. And with newsworthy happenings in the world come the inevitable spin and questions. It is so easy to get sucked in to the news reports and the arguing and the punditry and the analysis.

As such, perhaps this what has caused me to think of today’s Gospel reading in much the same way: as a news story. Could you imagine if it were recounted by a popular 24 hour news network today? Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to imagine. We have a significant event happening and a lot of people questioning and disagreeing about it. So today, I do want us to follow this story a bit like we would a news story, and try to offer some self-reflection along the way.

The word “blind” is used by John 17 times in his Gospel. 15 of those times are in this passage. This should bring to our mind not simply the topic of this passage, but a theme of sight. John wants us to see something here (pun intended).  We will come back to the disciples question in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the rest of the narrative, as if it were picked up by the news.

Imagine what the local news coverage would have been like for this story. “Breaking: we have some odd reports of a man, apparently born blind, who has been healed with mud, and you won’t guess what it’s made out of. Tonight at 11.” Or further still: “It is unclear as to the true identity of this man who was allegedly healed by a traveling Rabbi. We have someone who claims it was him who was healed, others claim it was just someone who looked like him: you be the judge.”

There are a lot of fun details in this story, and we can’t address everything, but I just had to pull out this amazing question by the neighbors as they begin by questioning the blind man after he received his sight. They ask him, in v. 12 “Where is he?” and he said “I don’t know.” Come on now…that is funny! This man has literally never seen anything in his life, he is sent by Jesus to go wash in a pool, where he then receives his sight and begins to be questioned, and one of the questions is, “Where is this man whom you’ve never seen?”

Next, the story gets picked up from the local news by the big news channel. Let’s call them PNN (Pharisee News Network). Their headline would look something like this: “So-called Prophet Breaks Sabbath by Performing Alleged Miracle…Sinner performing signs?” On their show, they would invite the blind man and his parents on, along with some expert analysts (pharisees, of course), to talk about this situation.

At the end of their newscast, the blind man turns the tables, even asking the pharisees if they want to follow Jesus because of all their questions. And like good pundits, they stick to the talking points and seek to discredit the man in order show they are the ones who are right, saying “You were born entirely in sins, and how are you trying to teach us?” And they cut the interview off and send him away, feeling satisfied that they got another news story, and maybe boosted their ratings.

Notice, that Jesus is not invited into the Pharisee’s discussion. Instead, Jesus goes to find the man after he hears about how he has been treated. He hears his confession of faith and says to him: you are the one who really sees. You get it, while those who think they have insight into the ways of this world are showing that they are blind. This is the work of Jesus which elicits an important question, not just for the pharisees, but for all of us: “surely we are not blind, are we?” We see things the way they are, don’t we Jesus?

It is here where I want to finally come back to the beginning of the story. When Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has been born blind, the disciples’ first impulse is to ask a question which I would paraphrase like this: “Whose fault is it?” This man is suffering, is it his own fault or the fault of someone else? Or, put even more succinctly: who can we blame for this?

I feel this question on a regular basis when I encounter human suffering, illness, and injustice in our world. My first impulse is to ask: “Whose fault is it?” so I can quickly post something calling them out on Facebook or something (I am only speaking for myself…I’m sure you don’t do this!) Or, it allows me to make a judgment call. “Well, they obviously brought this on themselves.” This helps me deal with the suffering as I see it. It helps me explain it away. It helps me keep things at a distance.

But, Jesus invites us into another way of seeing, altogether. To simply see a blind man as a problem to be analyzed, diagnosed, reported, or blamed is the way of the world. It is the way of the 24 hour news media. It is the way of blindness. Furthermore, to dismiss the work of God in the world when it doesn’t look like we think it should is the way of the religious elite, it is the way of power…basically, it is not the way of Jesus. And it is damaging.

Let me just say, that people have been horribly stigmatized by those who claim Christianity. I work part-time with HopeSprings, an organization which seeks to awaken, equip, and engage the church to bring hope and healing to those with HIV. We are having some focused conversations with other health and faith-based organizations right now to better address how faith informs our engagement with the people most at risk for HIV. This includes people in the LGBTQ community, particularly black gay men, transgender individuals, and IV drug users. Some of the people we have the opportunity to serve amaze me, because they still love Jesus after being treated as subhuman by those who claim to follow him. Many struggle to even think of darkening the door of a church again, though their faith is incredibly important to them. So many have been over-analyzed and scrutinized because of these factors, but people often fail to see God at work in their lives (and oftentimes, God is working in them to work through them to bless others…like us!) Certainly these would be like those whom we would categorize as “blind” today and seek to blame them or others for whatever may ail them. I wonder who else may be treated like they are “blind” today. And I further wonder whether we aren’t, in fact, the blind ones.

When Jesus sees this man, born blind, he sees it as an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break into the world. He sees it as a chance for him to get to work. To literally get his hands dirty, making mud out of spit and dirt. The work which began in Jesus continues on in his body, the Church, by the power of the Spirit. He is the light of the world, and now, so are we.

So, as we move forward today, back into our neighborhood this week, we are invited by Jesus to see what he sees. When we see our immigrant neighbors, will we simply analyze our assumptions concerning their lives, or will we wonder where God might be at work and inviting us to join? When we hear or read of another carjacking, mugging, or break-in, will we seek to blame police, victims, or perpetrators…or will we wonder “How might the light of Christ shine in this situation?” Where is God inviting you to see the world around you differently, as pregnant with possibility?

Jesus’ words in response to his disciples are an apt challenge for us today: We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. So, as long as you are in the world, shine in the world by working in the world, perhaps in the most unlikely places, in order to bring glory to God. May we move forth as people who see. May we look for opportunities for God’s kingdom to come in the situations and people we encounter. May we get our hand dirty in the work of loving and healing others. And may we have our own eyes opened to the reality of Christ.
Amen.

“He withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” – Daily Office Reflection

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Lent IV

(Psalm 89; Jeremiah 16:10-21; Romans 7:1-12; John 6:1-15)

So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

In this part of John’s Gospel, Jesus had a pretty good moment. He performed a miracle, feeding tons of people. And he taught his disciples something about God’s provision. And people are starting to see him for who he is…or at least, part of who he is. They say, “This is the prophet we’ve been waiting for!” which was a part of their hope for the coming Messiah. A Messiah that they were ready to take and make king.

I had to stop here and think about how I would feel were I in Jesus’ shoes. I would probably be thinking something like, “They like me, they really like me!” I would be basking in the glow of the success of feeding all of these people. I would be feeling pretty good abut myself. Oh, and they want to make me king? Well…I guess that is what I’m here to be. It feels good to be wanted. Father, who would’ve guessed that the people would embrace me like this. What a blessing!

But Jesus’ response is not my response (thanks be to God!). When he realized that he was getting super popular, when he realized that some other were trying to co-opt God’s plan (though they likely didn’t think of it that way…they probably had some good desires for freedom and God’s kingdom to come) Jesus make the decision to get away by himself. At first, this seems so counterintuitive. Was Jesus against being popular? Was he that weird guy at a party that just leaves awkwardly to go be by himself? Is he really just an introvert at heart?

I think something more important is going on here. Perhaps Jesus saw this as a temptation. After all, he had been tempted with popularity before by the Enemy in the desert when he was tempted to throw himself off the Temple for all to see God’s angels come to save him. If Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, as a real human with real feelings, is it too difficult to imagine that Jesus was feeling the pull of popularity, the allure of acclaim, and knew he needed to change things quickly?

I have been challenged with this temptation of popularity recently. I want to be liked. I want to be noticed. I want to be appreciated. (and these are not bad desires in and of themselves, necessarily). But, they often can be desires which push me to act in certain ways. I will take this role because people really want me to do so. I’ll post this on social media in hopes that it gets a lot of likes/retweets/shares.

For Jesus, and for us, the way we can fight against the real pull of popularity is to intentionally choose solitude. It is to say, in effect, I am not what people think of me. I am not my successes (or my failures). I am simply loved by the God who always sees me. The regular practice of solitude–shutting out the noise of the world–allows us to tune into the Voice that speaks perfect love and acceptance to us.

Some of the most profound things have been revealed to me when I take the time to be alone with God, and away from the voices all around me. Do you practice solitude? If so, what has that been like for you?

“Does not meet expectations…” -Daily Office Reflection

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March 21st, 2017: Week 3 of Lent

(Psalm 78; Jeremiah 7:21-34; Romans 4:13-25; John 7:37-52)

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.

John 7:37-52

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”‘ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law-they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’

We carry certain expectations with us about people. Some might actually call these expectations prejudice–and they would be right. We all do it. We bring our own ideas of who someone should or should not be, how they should or should not act, and, more generally, how the world works.

In this passage, the Pharisees have a strong prejudice against Jesus. Well, they actually have several! But, the one that comes the fore in their view of who the Messiah is supposed to be. “No prophet is to arise from Galilee,” they say. Nathan says something similar when he first hears of Jesus from Philip: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip (John 1:46). Later on, people will say use more coded language about Peter and John, calling them unlearned, ordinary men.

But here’s the thing: what they are experiencing does meet their expectations. In fact, they both exceed and disrupt them. Jesus is obviously a prophet. He is healing and growing in favor with the people. He is speaking profound truth about God. But it is upsetting the stats quo, threatening the political, social, and religious influence of the Pharisees, temple police, and others. So the response? Disparage the leader and his followers as ignorant, backwoods, and even accursed. Because this doesn’t fit our framework (the framework we happen to benefit from, by the way!)

In your life today, are there places where you would be quick to say, “God couldn’t have anything to do with that or them!” or “Can something good ever come from (insert backwoods/disparaged place here)?” Or could we even disparage entire groups of people for “going along with it” like the Pharisees did–calling them accursed and ignorant. Do you derive power or significance from being able to hold yourself over and against others; obviously knowing better than them? Could it be that God’s work around you actually makes you very uncomfortable by breaking apart your own categories and ways of thinking about God?

God’s invitation for us today is to “Come and see,” when our expectations are not being met or followed. The question is not “Is God at work here?” but rather “How is God at work here?” And the answer may have more to with God’s work in our own prejudiced hearts than anything else. Will we respond? Or will we hold fast to our “principles”, rules, or guidelines and miss the movement of God right in front of us, disparaging people along the way?