Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Disappointing Christmas Homily

Good morning! And Merry Christmas!

Together, let us pray:

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

You know, they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve even heard it said that it’s the “hap-happiest season of all”!

But, can I take a poll real quick?

Please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a disappointing Christmas.

I mean a Christmas that didn’t live up to your expectations. You wanted it to be filled with love, happiness, and peace, and instead all you got was stress, anxiety, and loneliness.

Have you ever had a disappointing Christmas?

I have. Continue reading “A Disappointing Christmas Homily”

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

The Feast of St. James the Apostle: A Homily for Ministers

Readings: Psalm 34; Jeremiah 16:14-21; Mark 1:14-20

Like so many other feast days – scheduled, as they are, on the days of the namesakes’ deaths – the feast day of St. James the Apostle is a strong rebuke to our aspirations. To our aspirations as human beings, and especially to our aspirations as ministers of Christ’s Church.

Saint James the Greater *oil on canvas *92.1 x 74.9 cm *signed b.r.: Rembrandt f. 1661
Saint James the Greater, by Rembrandt

James & John: Fishermen No More?

You see, James started off as a mere fisherman. An admirable one, to be sure, because he and his brother John answered Jesus’ call in Mark 1. They left behind their father, their family, and – they grew to hope! – their family’s fishing profession.

James was off on a new adventure, hopeful and headstrong. So much so that, along with his brother John, he earned the nickname “Son of Thunder”! Coming from the Son of Man, that’s no small compliment!

But their headstrong passion proved to be a weakness as well. In Luke 9, after getting rejected in Samaria, the Sons of Thunder offer to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan village! This earns them a stern rebuke from Jesus.

And, even more famously, they approached Jesus with the following request in Mark 10:37:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

Princes? Or Fishermen?

Now, their request is, in effect: “O King Jesus, would you please make us princes?”

And, granted, this is Apocryphal, but I imagine Jesus putting his arms around them and saying the following:

“Princes? Princes?! Boys, if I had wanted princes, I would have called princes! But, I don’t need princes!

No, no, no. What I need are new fishermen! And that’s why I’ve called you!”

You see, James had been hoping for a new position. And instead he received his old professiontransformed!

James was no longer to be a mere fisherman, but a fisher of men.

And not even just a fisher of men like Jeremiah 16 spoke of – for there the fishermen and hunters are instruments of judgment and exile.

No! Instead, James was to go fishing with, go fishing for Jesus, to bring people back from exile.

Now, undoubtedly, this is a step up from fishing for literal fish.

Or is it?

Not necessarily. At least, not in the world’s eyes.

The Death of St. James the Apostle

Here’s Jesus’ actual answer to the “prince” request:

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

And they said to him, “We are able.”

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Now, granted, this isn’t one of the assigned lectionary passages for today, but I’d like us to look at the beginning of Acts 12:

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

Swept aside, in just one verse! I doubt that sort of an abrupt, violent end awaited most of the fishermen working for Zebedee’s family business.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it? Did James receive any sort of a promotion, after all?

Of course, we know the right answer. But do we live it out?

Are we thankful, are we satisfied with our roles as servants within Christ’s Church?

Are we willing to be “just” fishermen, even if it costs us our ambitions? Even if it costs us our lives?

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_James_the_Greater_-_Google_Art_ProjectBy God’s grace, I hope so.

By God’s grace, may we – with the Apostle James – be able to confess the final words of Psalm 34 with open eyes, and open hearts. Perhaps it will help to imagine the following words on the dying Apostle’s lips:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Amen.

The Prodigal Son, Part 2: Introduction to Romans

An apocryphal introduction to my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey! But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand. But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son.

Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away.

Actually, you know what, as it that weren’t bad enough, dad threw it all away…for Ethan!

He received much more love than I ever did. I used to get punished for much slighter infractions than throwing my entire life (along with our hard-earned savings) away! I never got a banquet when I broke Sabbath…I got a beating!”

At this point, Jude’s unpleasant thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the homestead on the horizon.

The first thing he noticed was the amount of trash bags on the front porch. Not much later, the smell hit him. Odors he’d only ever experienced in faraway marketplaces, and therefore that much more memorable.

Barely believing his eyes and his nose, Jude took a closer look at the trash.

Grilled pork chop remnants.

Crusty booze bottles.

Bacon pizza fragments.

Ashen cigarette butts.

The slimy shells of shellfish.

His blood pressure rising, Jude spit on the refuse-pile and stormed in the front door.

“Dad! Where are you!? He’s done it again! Brought his dirty Gentile friends into our home! Dad?!”

A very obviously hungover Ethan stumbled into the main room, nibbling on a piece of bacon. “Jude! You’re back…”

And Jude broke:

“Damn you, Ethan! You ethnoi, you Gentiles! How can you continually scorn our father’s, the Father’s, righteousness!?

First, you go and throw away your life and our life-savings to run away with swine?! Then, after the Father somehow took you in – adopted you like some bastard, orphaned children – you bring the swine back into this house?!

You think you’re so strong, so powerful, but you’re weak! You think you know who the Father is, what he’s like, but you’re wrong!

We’re strong! We’re the firstborn sons of God! Who in the hell do you Gentiles think you are?!

If you really loved God, you would follow the Law and keep the traditions…

How can the Father love you people? It’s embarrassing, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this house.”

By now, Ethan was boiling over as well:

“Damn you, Jude! You judaioi, you Jews!

How can you continually forget our father, the Father’s grace?!

Don’t you realize by now that all your stupid rituals, all your hard lessons learned, were a complete waste of time!? We Gentiles and God have moved on into the age of grace!

You Jews have forgotten the point of God’s grace, and so He’s practically forgotten you! We’re the firstborn, best-loved sons now. We’re the strong ones, and we outnumber you all at least three to one, so shut up and deal with it!

You’ve screwed up so often, you got kicked out of your land! And you didn’t learn any lessons then, because you got yourselves thrown out of Rome!

How could Nero have let you people back into this city? It’s shameful, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this Church, you…”

[KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK]

Someone at the door.

The Roman Christians – Jew and Gentile alike – froze in fear.

Ethan looked at the other Gentile leaders.

Was it a centurion? Had their gathering been reported? Would they be asked to bow the knee, to offer a sacrifice, to the new emperor, Nero? If they weren’t willing to do so, would this be the end?

Jude glanced at his wife, their children, and the other Jewish families.

Had they already outstayed their recent welcome back to the city? After exile, they’d spent four hard, hard years rebuilding their life in Rome. Would they again be driven from their homes? Where would they go?

The slaves in the room – and there were many – anxiously retraced their steps throughout the day.

Which one of their fellow slaves had discovered their secret? Had followed them to this meeting? Had told their master? Would they merely get whipped again? Or had their master’s patience run out?

Jude whispered to Ethan, “You’re in charge here, get the door.”

He trudged to the threshold and pulled it open.

A hooded figure stepped through, walked to the middle of the room, and pulled the hood back. Long brown hair flowed down.

The woman said “Christ is Risen!”

“…He is…risen…indeed,” they all stammered in reply.

She smiled: “He is risen indeed. For twenty-five years now, in fact! Greetings. My name is Phoebe of Cenchreae.”

Rummaging in her pack, she began to explain:

“I bring something for all of you from Paul, the apostle… It’s in here, somewhere. No, not this theology textbook. No, not this to-do list… Ah! Here it is, a letter.”

Morning Prayer Homily: Mark 8.11-21

A homily on Mark 8:11-21 (ESV):

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

In an interview, published in 1974, with famed thinker Bertrand Russell, Leo Rosten asked Russell the following:

“Let us suppose, sir, that after you have left this sorry vale, you actually found yourself in heaven, standing before the Throne. There, in all his glory, sat the Lord—not Lord Russell, sir: God.”

Russell winced.

“What would you think?”

“I would think I was dreaming.”

“But suppose you realized you were not? Suppose that there, before your very eyes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was God. What would you say?”

The pixie wrinkled his nose. “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’ “

In Numbers 14:11, YHWH says to Moses:

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”

As we return to consider our passage from Mark 8, keep in mind that in the region of Tyre, Jesus has just performed a long-distance exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30). He has just healed a deaf mute in the region of the Decapolis (7:31-37). He has just fed at least four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread in a desolate place (8:1-10).

And yet, in the region of Dalmanutha, the Pharisees have the audacity to demand a sign from heaven, to test Jesus in a manner not unlike the Adversary tested him in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).

Why does this demand exasperate Jesus? Surely, given his recent actions, he is not averse to the supernatural in-breaking of God’s kingdom as demonstrated in his miracles. Instead, he astutely recognizes the incompatibility of this sign-seeking pharisaical power-play with true trust, true faith.

As Catholic scholar Mary Healy rightfully observes:

“to insist on irrefutable evidence is really a demand for control, as if to say ‘Force us to believe, so that we will not have to trust you or change our hearts.’ But faith that is compelled is not faith at all” (The Gospel of Mark, 153).

I am here reminded of the twin-error of fundamentalism and liberalism when it comes to biblical and theological studies: the insistence that we will only believe what is scientifically verifiable according to the standards we have inherited from Enlightenment Rationalism. The former group thinks everything can be verified, the latter group, very little.

Sure, OK, but we’re not fundamentalists or liberals, at least not on our good days. But, following the example of the disciples in the second half of our passage, don’t we often pine for various other kinds of bread while we misunderstand and ignore the true bread of heaven among us?

Will we be satisfied by God’s faithful provision of Word and Sacrament to nourish our faith? Or will we long for the more extraordinary manifestations? (As if Word & Sacrament were ordinary!)

Now, can we, should we long for miracles, for healing?

Yes.

Can God, will God continue to work wonders, heal sickness, and reverse death in our midst?

Yes.

But we must be constantly vigilant, first, that we do not begin to value the healing more than the Healer, the wonders more than the One who works them.

And, second, that we do not, like the Pharisees (and even the disciples, for a time!), close our eyes, ears, and hearts to the miraculous things that God, in Christ, is already and always doing.

Whether we can discern it or not, God is making the world right again. He will not be thwarted in this mission.

Friends, God knows that we need some sort of sign, that we cannot keep the faith on our own, unaided. So he has given us sign-seekers His very self, His very Son!

He will not bow down to our demands for verification, but he will graciously meet our every need. He will give us enough to trust him along the road to cosmic redemption, even when that road passes through the deepest, darkest valley of doubt.

So, as we rightfully pray that God’s Kingdom would come, that His will might be done, let us pray to be satisfied in our King, in God’s Son.

Amen.

Morning Prayer Homily: Mark 1.29-45

A homily on Mark 1:29-45 (ESV):

And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him,“Everyone is looking for you.” And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go,show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Today’s Gospel lesson consists of at least three distinct episodes.

  1. In Mark 1:29-34, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law before a night-long, town-wide round of healings and exorcisms.
  2. Then, in Mark 1:35-39, Jesus absconds to a desolate place in the early morning hours to pray. When Peter and the others find him, he reaffirms the preaching focus of his ministry, before taking the disciples along with him as he proclaims the kingdom in Galilee, and demonstrates the kingdom by casting out demons.
  3. Finally, in Mark 1:40-45, a leper courageously and somewhat scandalously approaches Jesus, asking to be made clean. Jesus, moved with compassion, grants his request, makes him clean, charges him with silence, and – partially because the request for silence went unheeded – is forced to remain in desolate places to avoid the growing attention his ministry is receiving.

Now, what to make of these things? As ministers within the Church, as followers of Jesus, I think we naturally (and rightly) tend to place ourselves in the place of Christ’s disciples when we work our way through Gospel texts.

However, with today’s episodes, I’d like us to consider what we can learn about our vocations from Peter’s mother-in-law, from Jesus himself, and from the leper. These, I believe, demonstrate the importance of service, prayer, proclamation, and worship

First, as with several of Jesus’ miraculous healings, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised from her bed as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection. And although the use of the verb diakoneo to mean “to serve, to wait upon,” is perfectly within the term’s semantic range, we should not fail to notice that the woman provides an apt example of the Christian life: just as she was raised from her bed and began to serve Christ and the disciples, we are raised from our sickness of Sin and Death for a purpose, unto a life of service within Christ’s Church.

Secondly, after an eventful night of healings and casting out demons, Jesus demonstrates for us the sustaining importance of prayer, even and especially in the lives of ministry big shots, by retreating to a deserted place in the early morning hours to pray to the Father. This lifestyle of prayer is what sustains his healing ministry, and also, thirdly, it sustains his preaching ministry.

Jesus does not lose focus in the midst of growing crowds. He takes time to be alone, to pray – and he relentlessly proclaims the coming Kingdom of God to the people. May we strike the same balance as our Lord in our ministries today.

Service. Prayer. Proclamation. And finally, Worship.

Notice the leper, condemned to a life of painful illness and perhaps even more painful social exclusion. Taking the risk that Jesus might recoil in horror at his presence, like countless others would have, the leper boldly asks, notice, not primarily for physical healing, but for restoration to the worshiping community!

We must keep the biblical, and not the clinical, meaning of “clean” in mind here: acceptable and ready to worship the living God! Jesus reverses the normal contagion movement, transferring his cleanliness to the unclean man, restoring the leper to a life of worship. A beautiful exchange, one which Christ is still willing to make with us today! However, are we as eager as the leper to be healed in order to worship God? To serve God? To pray to God? To proclaim God’s Kingdom?

Let us not make healing a self-centered occurrence. Christ offers us healing and restoration for this fourfold purpose: service, prayer, proclamation, and worship.

Morning Prayer Homily: James 2.1-13

A homily on James 2.1-13 (ESV):

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The verse immediately preceding this morning’s lesson, James 1:27, says this:

religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

So, purity from the world on one hand, social justice for the oppressed on the other. And yet, in a world which is stained by rampant injustice, these are not two different pursuits, but different facets of the same agenda. Just as we must not allow the manifold sins of the world to stain our souls, we must take care to not allow the deathly and selfish perspectives of the world to stain our vision!

The world says that this [slaps Bible] is just a book. We disagree, and see much more.

The world says that this [slaps altar] is just a table. Just bread. Just wine. We disagree, and see much more.

This [gestures to room] is more than mere meditation. Our God is more than a divinized delusion.

We have wiped the world’s mud out of our eyes, to see more clearly.

Very good!

The world says that a poor, homeless, drug-addled woman is a broken human being. We agree.

The world says that a rich, well-dressed, influential man is a less-broken human being, or at least broken in a more comfortable way.

We agree. Or at least we’re constantly tempted to in the everyday moments of our lives! Sure, theoretically, in the midst of a homily perhaps, we’d give the right answer. But practically, brothers and sisters, we’re partial. Our vision is still stained.

We’ve been wooed by the world’s wisdom.

We allow the stratified contents and contours of the world around us to dictate the distinctions among us.

We make evil judgments – very subtle, to be sure, but just so, that much more evil judgments! – based on the way things are.

We are naïve newcomers to the law of liberty – to the law which gives freedom from the way things are, from the way things have been as long as we can remember, and freedom for the way things once were, in a garden unstained by Sin and Death. A freedom for the way things ought to be, and will be in a city illuminated by Christ himself.

Christ himself, the One of whom Isaiah spoke thus:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (Isaiah 11:1-5).

Friends, the rich are not inherently evil because of their possessions. We know this. They, we, have their own pains and problems, which we will need to address thoughtfully as a church providentially located in one of the world’s most affluent communities – and this is no easy task.

But it would be easy for us to allow the stratified realities around us to stain our vision, to keep us short-sighted, to keep us complacent that it would be just as unusual for the homeless and shabbily-clothed to join our community (really join us, not just visit), as it would be for the rich and well-dressed to have joined the earliest Christians, or many of our impoverished brothers and sisters around the world today.

Let us fight hard against this subtle temptation.

Let us consider how we should best love and welcome those the world calls, and treats, and sees as “the least.”

Let us disagree! And see much more!

Let us treat them as “the loved.”

Amen.

My Sermon: Our Help

Hey internet: I was recently given the chance to preach at my church, St. Peter’s Anglican, on the Second Sunday of Lent. The sermon audio is now online. If you’ve got 23 minutes to spare, give it a listen

First, here are the passages

  • Psalm 121
  • Genesis 12:1-4
  • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
  • John 3:1-17

Then, make sure to ignore my two seconds of speech from 16:35-16:37 in the audio, I departed from my notes — which ended at “Nicodemus then fades from the narrative,” (which he does in the passage at hand) — and said that Nicodemus apparently never gets it and never shows up again. As I was quickly reminded after the service, he does appear twice more in John’s Gospel. Oops! Next time I’ll stick to my notes and not make any extemporaneous comments about minor characters without thinking through the context first. 

Grace and Peace

~Josh

(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us

(TEXTS: Jonah 3:5-10; 4:1-11; Nahum 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

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A great green theologian of old claimed that anger is based on fear, that it leads to hatred, and results in suffering. And while I do not wish to disregard the wisdom of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would like to take a closer look at anger as discussed in Scripture, and to consider what makes certain instances of anger righteous or unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate.

This is a question that has been on my mind throughout my final year at Cedarville University. After hearing of a few rumblings at the end of my Junior year, I left for the summer and got myself married. When my feet finally touched the ground at the beginning of term, my university felt like a battlefield. I heard that Michael Pahl had been “reviewed” and then fired over the summer months. Others were being reviewed to see if they really did toe the doctrinal line, or if they were guilty of mind crimes against the thought police. And things didn’t get any better from there.

I saw the havoc that the Cedarville environment was wreaking on my mentors, friends, and their families. My leaders got rid of and harassed beloved members of my community, and then deceptively refused to own up to their nefarious actions.

I got angry. I spoke up. And I was convinced that my anger was righteous. Others were less convinced.

Some stayed poignantly and painfully silent throughout the chaos. Others repeatedly gave platitudes that everything was OK, that we were obligated to trust our leaders, that to question their actions was inherently disrespectful. And some from this latter group met my kind of anger with their own frustration and anger that I dared to criticize their beloved Cedarville.

I’d love to say that I met this opposition with nothing but grace and equanimity, but that wouldn’t be true. I frequently lashed out against these types of people – when they sent me long messages to accuse me of causing unnecessary dissentious strife, or when they parodied us student activists as complete morons with nothing better to do than cook up conspiracy theories.

My university’s behavior was sickening, but these people’s behavior was infuriating. I couldn’t comprehend how they could overlook the suffering I was witnessing and try to protect people who were clearly hiding the truth. So, at times, I lashed out in frustration. And I am convinced that my anger was unrighteous. But what’s the difference between these two types of anger?

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