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Keep Christianity Weird

This sermon  on Luke 7:36-50 was preached August 11, 2019 in a sermon series about the different meals throughout the Gospel of Luke.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

That was once said by writer Flannery O’Connor.

I wonder, though, if the church today is odd enough.

The modern church has placed a lot of effort in being palatable. We are often more concerned about looking decent than acting faithfully. We are often too concerned with being at peace with the powers of the world, instead of proclaiming a greater power—a power of non-violence and compassion—a power of mutuality and respect—a power of unarmed truth and unconditional love—a power sourced from a perfect love that casts out fear.

Let’s be honest: Church ought to be weird. We worship a God who says the dead don’t stay dead. We follow a guy who loved his enemies and told eccentric stories. The church is a people who, at our best, chooses to be vulnerable with one another and build one another up for a hope that we have seen diminished on so many crosses throughout history. Always, though, that hope revives fiercer, more refined, and more diligent than ever.

And instead of wielding the grace and power of this incredible God, we find ourselves trying to fit in. We try not to stick out. We try not to cause a fuss. We pursue respectability instead of faithfulness.

* * *

This why today’s scripture reading strikes a deep chord in me. There is nothing palatable about what happens at Simon the Pharisee’s house. A woman enters into the courtyard while Jesus was eating with Simon and his friends. Tradition has long called the woman a prostitute. We don’t know if that’s true, though I suppose it’s a possibility.

Simon’s friends and Jesus were debating the hot topics of the day. Jesus would have been leaning on a cushion with his left arm sort of holding himself up. He would have been eating would with his right hand from a mat in the center of these cushions. In this leaning repose, Jesus were feet not hard to get to. This woman “known for her sin” enters the courtyard and washes Jesus feet. She pours an anointment over them. The language suggests that this was not a quick tussle of the feet, rather it was drawn out to almost to emphasize the offensiveness. She kisses his feet. Then she lets down her hair—something that a first century woman would never do in public.

Here is what sticks out to me: The Pharisees scratch their heads. They wonder what in the heavens is going on. This doesn’t make sense to them, and they are people who love to make sense of everything. “If this man was a prophet,” one said, “he would have known that she was a sinner.” For Jesus to be touched by a sinner was enough to make the whole dinner unpalatable.  Jesus’s has got the whole dinner party scratching their heads.

Does your faith ever make the people around scratch their head and wonder?

The faith Jesus gives us can be a real head-scratcher.

Moments like ours is a great time for Christian faith to make people scratch their heads. Someone needs to shift the paradigm. Someone needs to help us envision a new way forward.

What are we going to do to change the conversation?

* * *

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”

* * *

In 2016, after the shooting in Orlando, Florida, at the Pulse Nightclub, the national conversation was taking a sour turn. And they were some folks who wanted to show up at the funerals of the victims—many of the victims identified as a part of LGBTQ community—and protest their funerals. People wanted to tell the grieving families of these victims, as well as everyone else, that these folks were going to hell.

And, as you know, Jesus teaches us that wherever people are suffering—wherever people are hurting—wherever are being marginalized and excluded—that’s where we find the unconditional love of God. That is the place that we meet Jesus Christ today.

And so then, some people got together, and I think they did something like the woman did today in our scripture reading. They want to where Jesus was and did something that changed the conversation.

A group of folks dressed up as angels. They wore long, flowing white gowns. They attached PVC pipes to their arms, and they circled the church where these victims of fear and violence were having their funerals. They turned their backs towards the protestors, and opened their arms. The gowns from the wings hung down. Their wings were a barrier between the families and those speaking condemnation. The angels did not have to say a word. But they changed the conversation.

Keep Christianity weird.

* * *

This is why I really like the woman in today’s scripture reading. She keeps Christianity kind of weird. This “sinful woman” marches her way into the middle of this probably insufferable conversation. Everyone is rehashing the same old arguments. I am sure, for example, the Pharisees continued a debate about the fine details of Sabbath that had been going on for decades.

What this woman effectively does is change the conversation after her little stunt, no one is talking about the fine print of dietary laws anymore. Rather, they are talking forgiveness, grace, and the love of God.

Well done, Sister! How do we do that? How do we change the debate from the efficacy of thoughts and prayers after mass shootings like the ones in El Paso and Dayton to real, substantive change? How do we, as the church, change the conversation about asylum-seekers to be about the real needs of people?

Perhaps, then, we can do this is to show some unabashed, perhaps unpalatable, love of God. And, I’m sorry, but that type of faith isn’t necessary going to make you look good. You might just look a little crazy. And that’s okay.

* * *

Rev. Joseph Lowery was one the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and helped organize the march from Selma to Montgomery.

He was speaking at an event in Selma a couple of years ago. He shared a story about that helps him think about the “craziness” of the Gospel.

He went to his son-in-law, a physician, for a medical check-up. His son-in-law told him: “Pops, your cholesterol is a little high—cut out the peach cobblers and stuff like that. On the other hand, your good cholesterol is alright.”

Rev. Lowery said, “I am glad he reminded me there is a good cholesterol and there is bad cholesterol….Everybody in the [civil rights] movement was a little crazy, because like cholesterol, there is a good crazy and there is bad crazy.”

* * *

Rev. Lowery is on to something. The Gospel invite us to little good crazy because Christian faith is a little weird. Christian faith invites us to live in this good crazy, or perhaps what St. Paul once called the “foolishness of the cross.”

We don’t need to try make Christian faith more respectable. Rather we need to lean into our faith in all of the places of our world that are hungry for love and forgiveness.  Believing in the promise of the resurrection shouldn’t make us fit it in, but it also means that we are something to give to in moments of despair—like we have seen in Dayton, and El Paso, and along the border.

I’m not sure anything will make us look weirder than when we unconditionally love. We are blessed with a peace that surpasses human understanding, and yet we struggle to trust the peace of God because it might make us look like a fool.

Christian faith calls upon us not protect ourselves but to proclaim the love of Christ.

When we act out this faith, we are bound to change the conversation.

* * *

This week I ran across a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He preached the sermon as if he were the Apostle Paul writing a letter to American Christians. The sermon is challenging and prescient, and it is just as urgent and relevant as ever. He warns of scientific advance without moral inquiry and spiritual growth. He warns of the pitfalls of capitalism and argues that communism is no solution.

But one point seemed especially poignant. He warns that they are Christians “are afraid to be different” and that “their great concern is to be accepted socially.” Here is one of my favorite lines: “You have unconsciously come to believe that what is right is determined by Gallup Polls.” (As I said, as relevant as ever.)

“If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will,” he says, “it is your Christian duty to oppose it. You must never allow the transitory, evanescence demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demand of the Almighty God…You must be willing to challenge unjust mores, to champion unpopular causes, and to buck the status quo.”

However, it is the final exhortation of this letter that merits our attention today. Before the concluding remarks and farewell, King says that “in a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.”

Following the way of unarmed love makes us weird.

* * *

Now I am not suggesting to go and do crazy things, and then blame God. That has caused too much hardship for the world over the last 2000 years. But what I am suggesting is that you follow Jesus Christ. And you’ll know when you are following Jesus, because sooner than later you’ll be scratching your head. You’ll wonder, “Does he really mean this?” Blessed are the poor. Does he really mean the first shall be last? Does he really mean gives away everything and follow me? Does he really mean that guns are going to be beaten into shovels? Does he really mean to love your enemy? Does he really to welcome the stranger? Does he really mean turn the other cheek? Does he really mean that the meek inherit the earth?

Of course, he does.

Keep Christianity weird.

With

 

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian  Church in Middletown, Ohio on December 24, 2018 on Matthew 1:18-23.

How do we take grand notions about God’s faithfulness?
How do we convey the idea of a universal love at any cost?
How do we touch upon the fierce and everlasting passion of God?
And get ALL of THAT down to a SINGLE WORD?

What one word we can utter to make sense of it all?
What one word can we tell our children when they ask the meaning of Christmas?

Matthews offers us a word: Emmanuel.

A messenger of the Lord comes to Joseph–not Mary for some confounding reason.

The messenger says you will name the child Emmanuel which means God With Us.

That’s nice and all. It can be powerful and compelling… if you speak Greek.

Most of us don’t.

EMMANUEL translates into a whole sentence. Matthew is almost cheating a little bit.

The challenge remains: What one word encapsulates all of this?
What encapsulates our hopes and dreams of a world made new?
What one word satisfies our longing for God?
What one word brings shepherds out of their fields?
What one word causes Magi to traverse deserts following a guiding light?
What one word strikes fear in the heart of tyrants?

Please call out your suggestion. I’m all ears.

[Listen.]

The word I choose is “with”… as in God is WITH us. W-I-T-H. With.

Christmas is simply about being with.
I know…I know…
It is an odd word to summarize the whole Christmas story.

It might even seem boring at first.
It is not a verb that implies action,
nor is it a noun that describes a thing.

Rather, this one word is a preposition
that expresses relationship.

This is a part of speech that describes
how one thing is positioned to another thing.

How does God position God’s self with humanity?
How do we position ourselves in response?

The word is WITH. That’s all you need to remember tonight.
If nothing else, remember this: GOD is WITH.

* * *

A parent came up to me in stitches of laughter a few weeks ago. It was right after our Advent workshop. The children made nativity scenes on a Saturday afternoon. They were simple little boxes painted in gold glitter. Mary and Joseph were painted little figures. They were nondescript. The children assembled a baby Jesus-who some people thought looked like a fried egg. The Christian Education committee labored over making stars to go on top of the box. All of this rested on a purple piece of cloth.

One of the children went home that afternoon. He went into his bedroom and stretched a blanket across the room. One corner of the blanket was anchored on the bed, and he tied the other end to a chair. The boy placed a pillow under the blanket and placed a baby doll on the pillow. The parent came in the room and said, “What on earth are you doing?”

“I’m building a nativity scene!” he shouted.

Mary and Joseph were conspicuously missing, but then the boy started rolling out a sleeping bag. He said, “I’m sleeping right here tonight.” He chose to sleep right next to baby Jesus.

The boy understood what it meant to be “with.” He didn’t just want to marvel at a little box. He didn’t just want to stare at the little creation. He wanted to crawl in. He wanted no distance between the mystery and himself. He wanted to be “with.”

God is with us.

* * *

With changes everything. It would not be a stretch to say this tiny, little word–this preposition–is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas. With. The word may be even at the heart of the entire Christian faith. With is a gift from God. At Christmas, God gives it all up to be with you. God is with us.

At Christmas, God does not come into the world as a superhero. God doesn’t come and do a bunch of things for us using magical powers and then run off again. Instead, God comes as child as a vulnerable child–born into empire and peasantry. God stoops down right next to us in kindness and humility. You’d expect that God could just come into the scene. Make everything right. And then ride off into the distant sunset back to the confines of heaven.

But Jesus Christ, good old Emmanuel himself, shows us a better way. The word with is God’s word for love. “God comes to us […] not to fix the world but to love it,” as one theologian notes. “When God came into the world, as he did on Christmas day, the pain of the world did not disappear nor was it erased. But the pain of the world received a Holy Companion.” (Sam Wells)

Yes, this child grows into a person who does amazing, marvelous miracles. But that is not the reason we are drawn to Jesus Christ–that is not what drew the shepherds from the fields and magi from the East. It is not why Herod trembled.

Instead, Jesus is God’s “extraordinary capacity to be with us.” The works of the adult exude from this capacity. Jesus’s “extraordinary capacity to be with us” offers a deeper healing–a more wholesome way of being-than we can ever imagine without. That’s why still celebrate this birth on the darkest night of the year. This is why we still yearn for the God made flesh. That is why we praise God all these years later. It is all because God chose to be with.

* * *

Just the other day, I was praying someone from this congregation. I was so careful to offer a prayer that acknowledged the person’s fears and struggles. I wanted it to be the best prayer I ever offered. No matter how often I pray with others, sometimes I still get a little self-conscious. “This person needs the best prayer I have,” I thought to myself.
I wanted the person to feel heard and acknowledged. I carefully articulated an invitation to God to join us. And then I said, “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” Without missing a beat, the woman I was praying with started to pray aloud. She continued the prayer with just one sentence: “God, I know that you are with me. Amen.”

Why didn’t I just say that? “I know you are with us.” With changes everything.

* * *

Here is the invitation that God offers us at Christmas. I know that can be quite difficult. But if you give something to someone else this Christmas, simply be with one another in the name of Jesus Christ. It may be the hardest gift to give, and yet it remains the most valuable. When I look back at Christmases long ago, I rarely remember who gave me the toys, pocketknives, and socks, but I always remember who I was with.

I remember who I was with as we mulled the glogg over the stove-or drove across town to the only store that sold lutefisk. I remember how we were with one another when the news of a family tragedy broke as we were gathered. Or I remember my grandmother’s insistence that we hold hands and sing the Doxology around the dinner table.

The more I celebrate Christmas, the more consequential Christmas feels to me. We often think that it is the end of the story that saves us–the death and the resurrection. But I am starting to wonder, as many Christians have, whether it is actually God’s willingness to be with. More and more though, I see incarnation as salvation. The creator joins us with the resounding knowledge that we are not alone.

Being with changes everything. The things God saves from can’t simply be fixed. Ailments of alienation and isolation cannot simply be fixed; the antidote to that isolation demands that we learn withness. The enemies of love are fear and anxiety. Perfect love cast out fear-or, in my estimation, complete withness casts out fear. It is God being with that saves us.

* * *

The word with that contains the mighty power of God. It is a simple word that goes unnoticed. Tonight is more than a birthday; tonight is a recognition that God has always been with us. God has always been Emmanuel. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Jesus’s church would have hung up our hat a long time ago.

Not only does Matthew with wonderful word he also ends with this word. I will conclude by asking: “Who is with you tonight?” And I will answer will the last words of the Matthew’s gospel. They are in the voice of Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Do Christmas Wrong

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

There was a big church in New York City that planned their children’s Christmas pageants months ahead of time. The pageant was the highlight of the Christmas Eve service. One year they recruited Timmy to be the innkeeper.

Everyone loved Timmy. And for the perfectionists of the world—which Upper Manhattan has no shortage of—Timmy was probably an interesting casting choice for the innkeeper. Timmy had Downs Syndrome, and the role of innkeeper has one line.

Mary and Joseph came down the center aisle of the church. They, of course, where on their way to Bethlehem to register in the census. They needed a place to stay, and they found the innkeeper. At this moment, everyone in the congregation began to lean in. There were mouthing the line trying to be helpful. The choir director crossed her fingers. Wives elbowed their sleeping husbands.

“There’s no room in the inn,” Timmy said. Perfect!

Everyone took a deep sigh of relief. He nailed his line.

Then as Mary and Joseph began to saunter away looking dejected, Timmy blurted out: “But you can stay with me!” (1)

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

There was a young pastor in the Church of England. He was serving a church of about 30 members. When his first Christmas came around, he remembered something from his own childhood: The midnight communion service.

He went to the church council and said, “We need a midnight communion service. It will be the best thing we’ve ever done!” They looked at him a little cock-eyed and said, “Why?”

He shared that it was his most vivid memory of church as youth. They signed off on it, and he papered the surrounding neighborhood with 3000 posters, which read Christmas Eve Midnight Communion Service! The service would begin at 11:30 and they would break the bread at the stroke of midnight.

In Sam’s own words:

11 p.m. came. No one there.
11:15 … still no one there.
11:25 … still just me, the bread and the wine.
11:30 … I tried so hard, so hard, to stop a tear beginning to roll down my eyelashes.

Sam hid his face in his hands feeling deflated. Finally, there were rustling at the door. He looked at his watch. At 11:32 the door opened. A man and woman in their 40s—whom he had never seen before—walked into the church.

“Is it just us?” they asked.

“I’m afraid it is,” he replied, totally humiliated.

“Oh, good,” the woman said. “We waited to see if anyone else would come, and when we thought we’d be the only ones, we walked in.”

“What do you mean?” he said, gesturing them to sit down.

“Well,” she said, “It’s been a tough year. We haven’t been to church for over a year. We were frightened to come tonight, but when we saw we’d be the only ones, we got the courage to walk through the door. Our lives are a mixture of love and shame. We feel we’re in the dust. We want to begin again.”

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

Whenever I read the Christmas story, I am just reminded of how wrong everything is. There’s nothing right about the Christmas story. The messiah isn’t supposed come into the world nearly forgotten—hardly noticed. The savior isn’t supposed to be born in a manger. The Creator isn’t supposed to take the risk of birth.

The shepherds are supposed to be watching their flocks, not welcoming the Christ child. The magi were supposed to find the new royalty at King Herod’s palace, not among the peasants.  The story is all wrong!

Whenever the Christmas story is celebrated and everything goes as anticipated, I wonder if we miss the plot of God becoming flesh. Because that story—the incarnation story of God becoming human—is sloppy and messy and wrong!

We are startled when see Jesus Christ in the flesh of Timmy. We are startled when we meet a distraught couple at Midnight starving for connection.  Just when you think Jesus isn’t going to appear, there’s Jesus again—breaking into time and flesh to say, “I love you. I am with you.”

That leads us to the possibility that Christmas is told best through imperfection. The only way to tell this story is to have our expectations tussled. It is only when something goes wrong that we see this birth story told anew.

More than a nativity scene or imperial decree, Christmas is a divine plot twist.  More than shepherds and magi and innkeepers, incarnation flips over every expectation and yearning within us. The Christmas makes sense not when we re-tell it perfectly, but when we see a divine plot twist happen in our lives.

* * *

It happened to me several Christmases ago. Two neighboring Presbyterians churches hosted a joint Christmas Eve service. I arrived on time, and walked up to the communion table. It was decorated with ceramic nativity scene. The Advent wreath was perked up with some fresh greens—you could smell them. Then I looked at my colleague Allen and asked, “Where is the bread and wine?”

He said a word we don’t speak into the microphone on nights like this. The grocery store was already closed. They were people in the church parlor having a fellowship hour. We look at each other knowingly and sprinted to the parlor. People were munching on sugar cookies, nut bread, and croutons.

We started grabbing everything we could! I’m pretty sure I grabbed some croutons off someone’s paper cocktail plate. We grabbed a loaf of fruit bread to break at the table. After a preaching a dialogue sermon together, we approached a communion table full of croutons and who knows what else. This required swallowing a significant amount of pride.

Allen offered the invitation to the Lords’ Supper. I was furious and embarrassed.  We were doing this all wrong. We were blessing trays of croutons. We had somehow lost Jesus and ruined Christmas.

“How fitting it was,” Allen said, “that we all had a role in preparing this meal together. Just as we all contributed to this table, we are all welcome to this table.  The body of Christ is here.“

And there Jesus was again. Right there on that table. There Jesus was again—born in each person gathered around that table. There Jesus was again—found when everything was going completely WRONG.

There Jesus was again making it right again.

The only way to do Christmas is to do it all WRONG.

Do you ever feel like you are wrong? You are the wrong person to receive a gift from God. You break you everything you touch. You don’t feel worthy. You are numb to the connections of the world and feel desperately alone even when you feel surrounded by crowds of people.

Perhaps, you feel that you have done something unforgivable—unimaginable to anyone else. Perhaps, the question “what’s wrong with me?” echoes through head while you try to sleep.

Sorry to break the news to you on such a holy night: If you think you are the wrong person, you’re dead wrong.  Jesus Christ was born for you.

Listen to what the angels sang to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

God loves everything that is wrong, and wants to make it right again. God comes to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry. God comes to penetrate the darkness with light. God comes to drive out violence with peace. God comes to bring joy to the despairing. God brings tenderness to the hardened.  God loves you so much that heavens are broken open, and God takes the risk of birth to be with us. God doesn’t do this just for bragging rights; God comes for you. You are the reason God is born in Bethlehem, and risks hunger, poverty, and violence. You are worth it to God.

The implications of this are quite surprising. You are a character in the Christmas story. You are the you that the angels sing about.  Ponder that. Now, I know Anne, Bob, Stacy, or Bill don’t get roles in the Christmas pageants.

But Anne, Bob, Stacy, and Bill—you and me—we break through in the Christmas story in some imperfect way. Usually, it is when we drop the carefully crafted vessels that we use to try to tell the story.

When these vessels break—when those actors get out of characters and show their true selves—when no one shows up at midnight except exactly who needs to be there—when the pastors forget the bread and wine—then we see the power of the Christmas.

We see that God loves to come to the wrong. Christmas is not a story of God honoring perfection by showing up; it is a story of God coming among the imperfect and bringing a sense of completion and wholeness. Perhaps, that’s holiness.

On some level, our inclusion in this story is strange. It didn’t meet the expectation. You and I—in our imperfection and need—make this story wrong. Thank God for that!

There is no right way to do Christmas except to do it WRONG.

That’s the Christmas plot twist.

God comes to wrong and makes it right.

Endnotes:

1. I read this story in a blogpost by MArian Wright Edelman accesisble at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/making-room-at-the-inn_b_5a3d5364e4b0d86c803c716f

The Burden Is Not on Us

This sermon was preached on September 24, 2017.

Scrabble was cutthroat in my house growing up. On my eighteenth birthday, my mother gave me a t-shirt that said: SCRABBLE: It’s your word against mine.

There was one notable exception to this Isaacs family blood sport—my grandmother, the language arts teacher

There were three rules when you played with her:

  1. You could use the unabridged dictionary—take as much time as you like.
  2. You had to keep score—not her. It is good to work on arithmetic.
  3. And, third, the winner had clean up the game.

There was no way that my eight-year old self could go undefeated against this woman who loved language. The burden was never on me to win the game. I knew the moment that game was brought out from the closet that I was going to win.

Then something strange happened well into my late teenage years—I was probably wearing that t-shirt. It was the last handful of games that we played together. She was getting a little bit older. Her faculties were beginning to slip. Maybe, she wanted to assert herself. All of the sudden, she was playing risqué words to ensure that X—which is worth eight points—landed on a triple-letter square.

She was playing to win! What happened? And since one of the rules was that I had to keep score, I found myself giving back to her all of the points she had generously given to me over the years. It was the only way to keep the game competitive. And, then, I also realized the burden was not on me to win the game; I had been freed from that burden long ago.

When I think of grace, I can’t help but to think of all those Scrabble victories that I notched. I deserved none of them. The burden was never on me to win. It was always a gift—and probably, for her, an excuse not to clean up after the game.

And I am convinced there not a lot of places in life that reinforce the idea that the burden is not on us. Actually, we live in a world where the burden is always placed on us. You can do better. You don’t measure up. It’s your fault. What’s the matter with me? What didn’t do I do? Where do I go wrong? Burden. Burden. Burden.

And there aren’t a lot of places where we don’t expect to shoulder that burden ourselves. Shoe companies tell us: Just do it. Military recruiters say “an army of one.” People cut one another down in the workplace to compete for promotions. It is up to you.

And this fool-hearted individualism enters our religious lives. You don’t live up to the law. You have to got make yourself righteous. No one is going to do this for you. God is punishing me. God help those who help themselves. All of that is non-sense.

All of that is the burden being placed on you.

However, God takes the burden. The burden is not on us.

When God takes the burden, we experience grace.

When God take the burden. We experience endurance, hope, and peace.

In our scripture reading, Paul says that we are justified by faith, and we have obtained this access to grace through Jesus Christ. When God makes us righteous—or justifies us—God takes the burden.

Grace happens when God takes the burden, and then Jesus invites us to let go. Grace is when we stop trying to prove ourselves worthy and simply allow God to take the burden.

Here is how theologian Paul Tillich described this moment: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

Grace isn’t up to us. If we believe—like some of Paul’s audience in Rome—that living by the law make you righteous, then you’ll realize that you’ll never live up to that standard. Paul says this approach beings death, but Jesus Christ brings life.

The temptation is try to prove yourself. That is something we are taught to do quite well, but in God’s economy of grace it utterly unnecessary. We do it from the time we are small. We try to prove ourselves to older siblings. We try to prove ourselves to our parents. And then our teachers and our employer. We try to prove that we some merit. But we never have to prove our self to God.

God asks that we trust the burden is no longer ours. God asks that we have faith that God will bear the burden. God will handle sin, death, and separation, enmity, strife, and peril so that we are freed to serve God. None of that is left to us. You are free.

And you are free to serve God.

Consider what Martin Luther once said,

“This life… is not righteousness 
but growth in righteousness,
not health, but healing, not being, but becoming
We are not yet what we shall be,
but we are growing toward it,
the process is not yet finished,
but is going on,
this is not the end,

but it is the road.

All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.”

In all of this, it is God who is at work in us.

One of the fascinating about this passage from Romans 5 is that it is hard to find an explanation of how God justifies. Paul does not rely on theoretical discourse. Rather, we see is a list of verbs. Christ saves; Christ reconciles; Christ justifies.

We are not the subject of any of those verbs. God is the subject of each of those verbs. It is God who acts. We are acted upon because the burden is not on us. God takes the burden. God acts. God saves. God reconciles. God justifies.

It is only Jesus who is in the position to condemn. And, while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. The burden, again, is not on us. God takes the burden.

We hear this phrase “while we were still sinners.” In the letter to the Romans, sin is not about doing good or bad things. For Paul, sin is a cosmic power that has a grasp on humanity. This can lead to bad things being done, but the overall picture of sin is larger than that. This grasp on humanity is always trying to hand us the burden. The burden is always trying to be passed to us. Death tries to pass us the burden. Hardship and distress tries to place the burden on us. Persecution—burden. Famine—burden. Nakedness, peril, and sword—all according to Paul—try to pass the burden. And some Paul doesn’t mention: Anxiety—burden. Shame—burden. Addiction—burden. Test results—burden.

God takes it all for us. The burden is not on us. That is why the cross is such a powerful image—it is nakedness and sword and peril and persecution all wrapped up into one. Since God takes the burden for us, none of it can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Jesus takes the burden and leaves us with grace. Jesus flips the script.

* * *

There is a band that comes out Cincinnati named Over the Rhine—they named themselves after the neighborhood. Karin—the lead singer—tells a story of visiting her mom in a nursing home. Her mother had spent her whole adult life providing care for people as a nurse, and she had a debilitating stroke happened right after she retired. It seemed pretty unfair. It was strange visiting her mom in this type of place.

The nursing home is a place where she describes as the tragic meeting the comic

There is man in a corner named Bob. Bob loved to chant night and day. His favorite chant was “how now brown cow.” He had this deep, bellowing voice.  You couldn’t stop him, so you had to join him. Before you knew it, the whole place would be chanting “how now brown cow.”

Miss Cleve, she says, must have spent her whole life in a choir. She sat in her chair all day, and she just hummed and hummed while the craziness of the world continued to spin around her. And then she would just sing out, “Alleluia.”

Karin confesses that they had to heighten security of the medicine cart for her mother.

There was also Ms. Genieve. You couldn’t get in or out of this place without saying hi to Ms. Genieve.  But the problem is that you never knew what Ms. Genieve was going to say in response. It could be coherent, almost insightful, or it could be way out in left-field.

One day she walked in and said,  “Hi.” Genieve looked up through her thick glasses, and simply said, “Only God can save us now.”

Ms. Genieve spoke with absolute clarity about our need for God from a place vulnerability and dependence. She may have been speaking about Bob and Miss Cleve, or she may have been speaking about each one of us. Any false pretense that Bob and Miss Cleve can save themselves is gone. What we are often slow to realize is that we are in the same place; we are no closer to saving ourselves.

But the burden is not on us. It is God who justifies. Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us. We cannot bear our own burdens; God sent Jesus Christ to intercede on our behalf. God takes the burden.

You don’t have to carry those burdens yourself. Stop trying.

You are free. God frees you from your burdens.

God gives endurance and hope and peace. We call that grace.

Don’t prove yourself to God. You have nothing to prove.

Accept that you are accepted.

You are free when God bears the burden.

And, then, you might just pick up a burden for someone else.

You might sacrifice something out of love because you are free to serve and to love.

And you might—heaven forbid—throw a Scrabble game.

Because you are free.

You are free.

You are free.

Extricated by Hope

This sermon, on Ezekiel 37:1-14, was preached at the final worship service of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC, on October 25, 2015.

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.[i]

These words from W.H. Auden have been rattling in my head for the past few months.

God takes Ezekiel to a place of ruin. We don’t know much about this valley. Maybe it was a battlefield or maybe these people had died of famine. Ezekiel’s people were cut off from their land. They were living in exile. They no longer felt hope.

Life without hope is devastating.

* * *

About a month or two ago, an elder and I visited or called everyone in this congregation to share the decision to provide closure to this ministry. It was really hard.

Yes, it seemed like the sensible to do.
Yes, no one was surprised.
Yes, it was a possibility that we had openly discussed.

It was difficult, though, because you are a people of hope.

We may have been out of optimism, but we had an abundance of hope.

Optimism waxes and wanes; our hope is eternal.

* * *

Just ask Ezekiel, whose name means “God strengthens” or “God will strengthen.”

Matter of fact, if I could, I’d go back in time—there has been a lot of discussion time travel this week—and speak to Church Extension Committee of the Asheville Presbytery. I’d tell them, and “Name that Haw Creek/Beverly Hills congregation Ezekiel Presbyterian Church. Name them God will strengthen.”

It would have been a fitting name for this congregation.

Ezekiel needed strengthening. He had the impossible task of being both priest and prophet of Israel during the Babylonian exile. To strengthen him—oddly enough—God offers Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dry bones. Ezekiel had more in common with those dry bones than he’d care to admit.

God doesn’t identify these bones right away, but Ezekiel doesn’t need to be told. These are his people—the people he was called to serve and love.

God says, “Can these bones live?”

I imagine it was a rhetorical question with the implied answer of “no.”

Ezekiel answers the question anyway. Ezekiel knows that if God could give him strength—if God works with us and strengthens us—God can give life to these bones.

Ezekiel says, “Only you know, Lord.”

Imagine the whole church looking over that valley of dry bones. What question would God ask us today?

Will Willimon once suggested a new test for the church. How do we “push ourselves so deep into that valley that nothing can extricate us—except for a God who loves to raise the dead?” [ii]

* * *

This is first image of resurrection in the Bible. Ezekiel does not use this image to describe an afterlife, rather it is an image for the renewal of the people of Israel. [iii]

As the most recent pastor of this congregation, sometimes I feel like we have been led deeper and deeper into that valley waiting for God to ignite something. We tried to become more honest about the purpose and future of our ministry. I think we watched a lot of illusions slip away. We took risks. We tried new things. Our ministry became infused with hope.

And, yet, I wonder what God has in mind. As much as we would like to think that we are called to a sustainable ministry, perhaps we are really called into valleys of dry bones.

We have come to expect the Church to be expressed through congregational ministry. The Church has sometimes expected to be a dispensary of the pleasantries of God, instead of being an embodiment of a life-giving God in the world.

The loss of a congregation—no matter how heavy that may feel—perhaps frees us from certain illusions of the Church. This loss, at its best, affirms that we are the body of Christ in the world.

* * *

I have a friend who recently moved across the country. Right after unpacking his boxes, he visited some churches in the area. He wanted a place to be nurtured in faith; he wanted to be spiritually fed. On the first Sunday in his new town, he went to visit a church that he was excited about. He pulled into the parking lot, and it was completely empty.

He was surprised. He knew this was an active, vibrant congregation. He had done his research. He decided to try to go inside anyway. He got out of her car and went to the bright red doors of the building. There was a sign, which read in big, bold letters: “God has left the building.”

“Huh,” he thought, “I wonder what they mean by that?”

As he read the fine print of the sign, he learned that every fifth Sunday, this congregation cancels worship. They didn’t cancel Church—that’s impossible—only Jesus can do that! They place that sign on the door, and they go out and feed people. They go out to and do ministries of harm reduction for intravenous drug users. They’d pack a moving van of donated furniture for someone moving into permanent housing. They’d sit with veterans with PTSD. They’d paint classrooms for children.

My friend confided that he didn’t know how he felt about cancelling worship. Then he said, “However, there was no better reminder for me that we don’t go to church. We are the Church.”

* * *

How deep are we going to be pushed in that valley of dry bones? How far are we willing to go? If we are to go into that valley, we need to be assured of one thing: We worship a God who loves to raise the dead.

God told Ezekiel to say to the bones: “I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”

The presence of God confronts the despair of this valley.

There is a communion liturgy from Scotland. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of what God told Ezekiel to speak to his people. In the Communion liturgy, the pastor says:

Light looked down and saw darkness.
And the congregation says: “I will go there,” said Light.
Can we say that together? “I will go there,” said Light.

Peace looked down and saw war.
“I will go there,” said Peace.
“I will go there,” said Peace.

Love looked down and saw hatred.
“I will go there,” said Love.
“I will go there,” said Love.

We will go there? We will go as the Church to those places where we can only be extricated by a God who loves to raise the dead?

* * *

Ezekiel spoke to the bones as he had been instructed. God breathed into the bones. They came to life and stood on their feet.

This is an unsettling image. In some Jewish traditions, you were not allowed to read Ezekiel until you were thirty years old. This is PG-30 material. We are re-formed, recreated, and restored. What is it like to give up despair for hope?

Anne Lamott writes about what it is like to be stitched together. She reflects on all of the ways we are given hope, even when we feel tattered. She reflects on being stitched back together by God and the people we love. Even if sometimes it feels like they were the ones who pulled us apart.

She looks at the curtains in her house—curtains that have been stitched back together many times—and she says:

“Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags.”[iv]

In Ezekiel, it kind of seems that God is a quilter. God is quilting the bones back together. And instead of using stitches, God uses God’s breath. God breathes life.

Westminster is but a piece of God’s quilt of the Church. We are not discarded. We are bound together. We are quilted together with all of the people who helped form not just the church, but the churches Paul writes to in the epistles. We are quilted together with all of the congregations in our presbytery, city, and world. And we quilted with a church yet to be birthed.

Even when if we think we are becoming undone—even when we can be confused for a heap of dry bones—God breathes life into us. God holds us together in something larger and more intricate than we can imagine.

* * *

As a church stitched together by the Spirit of God, Westminster’s story today is not unique. People estimate that there are over 4000 church closures a year in the United States.

In 1994, theologian Walter Wink took an assessment of the church. He said that he could not imagine the gospel as ever being “more relevant, exciting, and urgently needed.”[v]

At the time, he cited declining numbers in churches, revelations of abuse in congregations, financial downfall, church closure, and “a growing sense of captivity to regnant culture,” as examples of the gospel’s relevance and urgent need. He said, “Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones could be describing us, not Israel in Babylonian captivity.” That was 21 years ago—coming up on a quarter of a century—and it doesn’t sound like much has changed.

What is God’s breath going to do to us on a day like today?

Here is Wink’s response:

God is at work in our malaise today. It may be that the parish-based church will continue to wither away, even as people experience unprecedented levels of spiritual hunger and restlessness. It may be that the denominational way of doing things will continue to decline […]. It may be that the new forms of the church’s faithfulness are already present among us, unrecognized. It may be that they are still waiting to be birthed. This will be one of the most turbulent and innovative periods of the church’s entire history. The very depression that wracks so many may be the pry bar that will separate them from dying forms. In any case, God is already bringing these dry bones to life.[vi]

God is already bringing these dry bones to life. Maybe God is prying us away from something familiar, in order to fill us with something new.

As a congregation, we have worked diligently to face the possibility of closure with grace and hope. We are working to leave behind a legacy to future church development and ministry through selling this property. Our Presbytery has recognized this as “a courageous, mission-minded, and faithful decision for building up the Body of Christ and will have ministry implications of telling the good news of the gospel for years to come.”

I have never wanted people to see this congregation as a canary in the coalmine. I refuse to accept that metaphor for Westminster. We did not suffocate for the lack of God’s breath. We did not suffocate for the lack of God’s spirit. Rather, we are filled with God’s Spirit. We embraced that paradox of Christian life: New life is found through death. Those who lose their lives for sake of the Gospel will save them. If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

As individuals, we may feel disoriented. We may be like my friend appearing in the parking lots of different churches—not knowing which door to approach. As we listen for God’s voice calling us to new congregations, I hope we carry with us the sign that he saw on that door: God has left building.

God is out in the world breathing on despair and calling it hope. God is out in the world wanting to show us something: a resurrection!

Will the Church go to those places where we can only be extricated by a God who love to raise the dead? Will God stretch your sinews and fire your synapses?

Yes. God is beckoning you to be Christ’s body in the world because you are a people of hope.

God is taking the rags and quilting with them.

God is taking the bones and breathing life into them.

Without God’s breath, we are just bones. And we are not just bones.

We are not ruined. We are changed.

——-
Endnotes:
[i] W.H. Auden, Age of Anxiety.

[ii] Bishop William H. Willimon’s Podcast, “Can These Bones Live?” Published June 6, 2011. Preached at First UMC, Bentonville, Arkansas. The exact quote was: “Maybe the test for the church ought to be that we ought to push ourselves so deep into that valley that nothing can extricate us except for a God who loves to raise the dead.”

[iii] This sermon draws heavily on the following article by Walter Wink: “These Bones Shall Live,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994.

[iv] Anne Lamott, Stitches, Riverhead, 2013. 83.

[v] Walter Wink, “These Bones Shall Live,” The Christian Century, April 6, 1994.

[vi] Ibid.

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