Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

Been Running Lately

I’ve been running lately.

In my deployed setting I have both time and opportunity for fitness. In fact, fitness is part of my responsibility as a Soldier. But I realized early during the deployment that these months overseas are the best chance I will have to get into the best running shape of my adult life.

And so I run. A lot.

Back history:

In 2010 I was inducted into the Haverford High School Sports Hall of Fame. It was a thrill to see my coaches Jay Williams and Mike Ahlum again.

I was really fast in high school, but certainly did not maximize my potential. I ran a 4:23.1 1600m as a sophomore … but never got under 4:25 after that. My head got in the way – teenage angst and all. My 400m and 800m times improved throughout my high school career, and as the lead-off leg for the 4×800 I helped my team win states in 1993 and get a school record. To this day that state championship is one of my most cherished accomplishments.

Regrettably, I didn’t run in college. I didn’t even run local 5Ks. I just stopped. Again, teenage decisions. Sigh.

But many years later I got back into running when a member of my church encouraged me to sign up for the 2010 Army Ten Miler. “Pastor, registration opens in two days, and it usually fills up within a day. I know you talk about how you used to run a lot. Maybe this is your chance to get back into it.” Without much time to hem and haw, and with her encouragement, I registered.

Jessicah and I began running on April 6, 2010. In fact, April 6 is on my Google Calendar as our “Running Anniversary.” We sometimes trained together, but usually we ran separately so that one of us could be home with the (then quite little) kids while the other ran. I would eventually get into long runs on Mondays with my dear friend Christine, a pastor who also took Mondays as her day off. Jessicah ran several mornings each week at 4:45am with a great group of women in our neighborhood.

Couch to 5K got me to a 28:00 5K effort (9:01 pace) in Chestertown, MD, on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. I ran through the summer, endured a shin splint injury, but got to the starting line of the Army Ten Miler in October. What an inspiring race! So many people running for friends who were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many injured veterans themselves running on prosthetics. This was my longest run up to that point, and I ran it in 1:41:03 (10:07 pace).

I ran the Richmond Half Marathon just a few weeks later (“what’s an additional 3.1 miles,” I thought?). Christine, again, was a great encouragement, and she ran it with me (well, she was way ahead of me, but she drove us down and was very supportive). I ran 2:04:52 (9:32 pace).

Two days later I was running on the W&OD Trail in Arlington, VA and another runner asked, “Whatcha training for?” I was wearing a shirt with the words “IN TRAINING” emblazoned on the back that I had picked up at a discount table at the Richmond Marathon race expo. “Oh nothing. Just doing a seven mile recovery run after Saturday’s half.” “Seven mile recovery run after your first half? You should run a full! We have a great full in March downtown – the National Marathon. You should run it.”

I don’t know if my seven mile recovery run was particularly impressive, but his flattery seemed to have worked. I signed up for the marathon, and trained using a free plan I found online. Weekly long runs with Christine, some speed work on the W&OD trail, and lots of miles got me to the starting line. Jessicah trained all this time, too, and ran her first half marathon on the day I ran my first full. The weather was perfect that day, and I ran 3:52:12 (a 8:52 pace).

I ended up going Couch to Marathon in just under a year. It was great.

We then moved to Minnesota, and two years later to Indiana. Training got interrupted. In Minnesota I ran few half marathons, but got injured and did not start a full for which I had registered. I ran the TC One Miler, a one mile road sprint in 6:03.9. It was so much fun! I topped out my half marathon time at the Med City Half Marathon in Rochester, MN (1:41:55, a 7:47 pace). That same weekend we announced to our kids that we were moving to Indiana.

In Indiana I hit the ground running, and improved my marathon time by 26 minutes at the 2014 Carmel Marathon (3:27:24, 7:55 pace). Shortly after that effort, however, I found myself with new work and new priorities, and running took a back seat. Chris (a buddy from church) and I have run together on and off for years, pushing and encouraging each other. More often than not, though, I found myself putting on too many miles too quickly, resulting in injury or illness.

Fast forward to early this year. My National Guard unit gets put on Active Duty Orders. After nearly two years of very low mileage, I laced up my shoes on my second day at the mobilization station and began running. I logged 39.7 miles in February; 65.5 in March; 102.4 in April; 117.3 in May; and I should log approximately 150 in June. And while I’ve had some aches and pains, they were mostly early in the training and back in the states. Since arriving overseas I have felt great, despite the heat.

And yes, it’s hot here in the desert. It is anywhere from 83 to 91 degrees every morning, with winds out of the west that range from kinda/sorta refreshing, to full blast hairdryer in your face life-suckingly hot. Dehydration, dry mouth, a blazing sun that rises before 5:00am, and running routes that are mostly packed sand or gravel are all factors to contend with.

I’ve run every day since May 10th, my first day after returning from Emergency Family Leave. On some days I’ve run as short as 2 miles; others as long as 8-10. During this time I realized that my initial goals of simply building a base and getting into decent shape were too modest. It became clear to me that I had the chance to get into the best running shape of my life here. Best running shape of my adult life? Ramping up the goal gave me a new kind of motivation, and helped me think in a new way about the possibilities.

That realization prompted me to sign up with Matt Ebersole at Personal Best Training in Carmel, IN, for coaching as a look to hit new running goals. I now receive weekly training plans from him and shoot emails back and forth, all in an effort to get me in my best shape for the 2020 Carmel Marathon and a possible Boston Qualifier in 2020 (either at Carmel or later in the year at the Monumental). The BQ time for my age is 3:20, though I’d like to run even faster than that. I’m sure I have the talent to reach this goal – now its time to do the hard work to earn my spot on the starting line at Hopkinton.

But the goal of running Boston aside, running on deployment has given me a big non-Army goal and activity to look forward to each day. And, as I continue to grieve my dad’s death in April, and handle the stress that comes with being a deployed Army chaplain, the daily runs are truly a life-giving ritual of prayer, reflection, discipline, and camaraderie (I run with a group several days/week, and am so grateful for Allison and Ken as running partners, but also as colleagues and friends). Running, more than pretty much anything else, will get me through – and help me thrive – on this deployment.

I’ll never quite know what kind of runner I could have been, but I’m grateful for the runner I’m becoming now. Still, I realize that my current running routine is only a few months old. I have miles and miles to go before running shifts from being a much-needed deployment therapy and fitness goal to being an essential lifestyle.

In fact, the true test will be when I get home – will I keep running even as I get back to family and church and home responsibilities? I sure hope so, because I imagine that I will need the life-giving ritual of running when I get home just as much as I need it now while deployed.

It’s ok to be weary

It's ok to be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
it doesn't feel ok, of course, to be weary.
I know it doesn't feel ok,
and so does your co-worker, neighbor, and friend.
Your boss knows too, but probably won't let on.
Work needs to get done, of course.
You see, we all know it, about weariness,
but we hide it behind our caffeinated smiles
and perky social media profiles
and conjured-up can-do attitudes.

But it is ok. You have permission.
To be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
Because life ... is hard
especially when you're going it all alone
or your kids are suffering and you just can't make it better
or you have to be in many places at once
or you work in unbearable conditions (but you need the paycheck)
and you can't, just can't, hold it all together
And that kind of hard makes you weary
and maybe a little grouchy
and withdrawn
and distracted
and not who you want to be

It's ok to be weary
to bear the side effects of living, of working, of loving, of giving,
of outpouring, of stretching, of trying really hard.

It's ok to be weary
you're carrying a lot. A whole lot.
Of course you're weary
and cry in the rest room
or have those moments where you won't allow yourself to cry
because if you start crying you're not sure how it'll end
Of course you're weary
You nearly lose your shit before pulling it all together
so that you can keep on keeping on, weary or not,
because it's all you can do.

Weary is your option,
because stopping, quitting, giving up, caring less
is not an option.
It's ok to be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
You're making it, you're a survivor, you're stronger than you think,
one weary step at a time.

Listening is love

“Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” – James 1:19

Christians, and especially preachers, are known for speaking. We are called, after all, to proclaim God’s Word. Whether the preacher in the pulpit, the evangelist on the street corner, or the Facebooker with lots of faith to share, Christians are known for speaking.

Yet more often than we may care to admit, the best posture for a Christian is not that of speaking, but of listening.

Listening is an exercise in putting someone else’s words before your own; putting someone else’s needs before your own. It is prioritizing them over you. Their needs, their words, their pain, their joy, their desires, their ramblings take precedence over your own. Sit, listen, receive, and honor what your neighbor has to share.

“Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” – Philippians 2:4

Listening is humbling oneself in front of another and seeking their good. Listening is a posture that bears, honors, and holds in trust the very heart of another.

“Bear another’s burdens, for in so doing you fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2

This posture of listening is the posture of love.

“Love is patient, love is kind … it doesn’t seek its own way.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-5

Love doesn’t seek its own way or it’s own interests. Love seeks the interests and care of our neighbor.

Listening is such a love. And love is the heartbeat of Christian faith.

On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.

A peace that changes everything

Below is the sermon I preached on May 26, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, while overseas on deployment. The readings for this Sunday were Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5, and John 14:23-29, available by clicking here.

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

[singing]
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild. God and sinners reconcile.
Joyful all you nations rise, join the triumph of the skies …”

Peace on earth. It’s on our Christmas cards,
emblazoned on scented Christmas candles,
printed on large banners streaming across church entranceways
and lit up on household Christmas lawn decorations.

Peace on earth, the angels proclaimed.
“My peace I give to you,” our Savior promised.
Peace.

What does peace look like?

Last Sunday at the Morehouse College graduation in Atlanta, Georgia,
commencement speaker and tech investor Robert F. Smith
made a surprise announcement –
that he would pay off the student loan debt
of each of the graduates in the class.
396 students.
Millions of dollars of debt.
Paid!

If you’ve ever paid off a long-lasting debt, you know the relief.
If you’re currently paying off a long-term debt,
you can probably imagine the relief.

Mr Smith’s gift will radically transform the lives of these students.
It could change their career path,
being able to work for less pay in the short term
rather than go for a paycheck in a job that crushes their soul.
Graduates may more quickly settle down to buy a house,
not saddled with student debt.
 These young adults may now have the chance to live more generously,
able both to provide for themselves, give to church and charity,
and look after family without concern for that massive debt bill.

What a relief.
What a peace that has come upon these students.
It’s a peace that has changed their lives.
It’s a peace that allows them to live differently.

Peace. A peace that allows us to live differently.

Christ gives his followers such a peace.

“Peace I leave with you,” he says in John 14:27.
“My peace I give to you.
I give to you not as the world gives.
Don’t be troubled or afraid.”

This is a peace that allows his followers to live differently,
without trouble or fear,
without concern for how the world gives,
or the peace that the world promises
but which always. falls. short.
Always.
This peace is different.
The peace of Christ allows his followers to live differently.
We see that in each of today’s readings. Let’s take a tour

Today’s first reading comes to us from Acts 19.
A few chapters earlier in the Book of Acts – back in chapter 9 –
Paul experiences a conversion.
He once persecuted and attacked Christians;
but now he had received the peace of Christ
which allowed him to live differently.
He now proclaimed the freedom of the Gospel,
the promise of Christ.

So let’s go to the first reading, in the book Acts 16, starting at verse 9.
It begins with the Apostle Paul having visions of where to travel,
where to proclaim the Gospel.
These visions lead him to a Roman colony called Philippi.
On the Sabbath he goes outside the city gates to the riverbank,
where he thought there would be a place to pray.
Note here that
A) he didn’t really know if there was a place to pray or not,
and that,
B), he left the city gates.

In ancient urban design, city gates were barriers meant to keep
the good and proper and accepted in,
and to keep the bad, the improper, and the rejected out.
You were either in or you were out.
The wall was a visible reminder of that fact.

Remember that the rough-around-the-edges,
locust-eating, camel’s hair cloth wearing preacher John the Baptist
preached in the wilderness, far from Jerusalem’s city gates,
and baptized in the river,
not in a synagogue or the proper temple,
or the town square.
But God did something outside those city gates.

Remember that Jesus himself was executed on a cross
not in the center of town, but outside of the town, at the edge,
where such dirty and sundry things were done.
Outside.
But God did something outside those city gates.

And so here, again, we hear a cue – outside the city gates
and we realize that something of barrier-crossing, is happening,
that something to shake up the status quo, is about to take place,
because every time barriers are crossed by the Spirit of God –
with John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, or Paul of Tarsus –
something’s about to happen.

So Paul goes outside the city gates and meets some women by the river,
and he begins to talk with them.
Again, cue Jesus, who often spoke to women
and then was invariably questioned or even chastised
both by his disciples and by the Pharisees for doing so!
But Paul goes there, anyway, breaking cultural and religious norms
for the sake of the Gospel.

Among the women in the crowd gathered by the river was one named Lydia,
whom Scripture describes as a seller of purple,
and whom tradition has magnified into being a merchant of some means.

One scholar, Dr. Mary Turner of Pacific School of Theology,
suggests that the proper understanding of the original Greek
reveals that Lydia was less a wealthy merchant
than someone who actually made the purple fabric with her own hands,
a laborer, a craftsperson, an artisan herself, not a dealer.

And in those days, the making of fabric was not an esteemed job,
in part because it was an inelegant process.
Dye houses had a terrible odor
because the process of dying involved the use of animal urine –
thus, dye houses were placed outside the city gates,
because who wants to live or work near such a place?
Those who worked with the dye were marked, literally, by their profession;
their skin, their arms, were discolored,
and this condition stigmatized them as laborers doing menial work,
outside the city gates.

And yet, by the peace of Christ, Paul goes there.
He goes outside the city gates,
crossing barriers and breaking taboos for the sake of the Gospel
and the sake of those whom God so loves.

This is what the peace of Christ does – it calls Paul, and all of us, to live differently,
to go beyond the walls of human division,
to break down the barriers that would separate God’s people,
and to seek peace, community, and fellowship with others,
particularly those whom society would reject.

And not only does Paul go to Lydia and the women there,
but he receives her hospitality to stay in her house –
which is quite possibly that urine-stenched workshop I just described.
This gesture was more than mere kindness on her part,
but instead extending hospitality was a tenant of faith
and a sign of fellowship with God
in ancient Jewish and Christian communities.
Paul accepts this gift, and communes with Lydia and with God there,
outside the city gates, with the stench of urine wafting in the air.

The peace of Christ calls us to live, and to live differently.

The vision of the New Heaven and a New Earth
is certainly different than the vision of how we live now.
Turn to Revelation, in the back of your Bible, chapter 21,
starting at verse 22, and going into the next chapter.

John the Seer, the recipient of the vision that makes up this book,
describes a “new heaven and a new earth,” starting earlier in Chapter 21.
A New Jerusalem is coming down out of the heavens,
and a loud voice announces
that God’s dwelling place is with humanity.
Any separation that people once felt from God has been taken away.
Death will be no more, and God will wipe every tear away from our eyes.
The former things, the former ways of living, have passed away.
All things are made new.

In today’s reading we see that this city has no temple –
which was the cornerstone of Jerusalem,
the promised dwelling place of God.
But this New Jerusalem requires no such temple,
because the Lord God Almighty himself will be the temple,
and his glory will shine so bright that no sun or moon is needed.

And – here’s where we get to that part about living differently –
the nations will walk by this light.
The gates to the New Jerusalem will never be shut.
There will be no night, nothing vile, nothing deceitful.
That just sounds amazing,
and it stands in stark contrast to this world-that-God-so-loves
yet which is, in places, sadly broken and marred by sin.

The vision of the peace of Christ, the vision of God’s promised future,
is one of a life lived differently,
of a world, of the nations, living differently,
at peace with one another.

Life, lived differently, because of Christ.

Lastly, let’s turn to our call to worship, to Psalm 67.

As the nations stream into the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22,
I imagine them singing Psalm 67
in a grand parade of joy and celebration
streaming into the city’s open gates, led by the light of God’s glory.
For this is a song of praise that is filled with the hope
that all people would know the salvation of our God,
the blessings, the promise, the bounty, the goodness of God.

“Let God grant us grace and bless us;
let God make his face shine on us,
so that your way becomes known on earth,
so that your salvation becomes known among the nations …”

Jumping ahead a few verses,
“Let the people celebrate and shout with joy,
because you judge the nations fairly
and guide all nations on the earth.”

All the nations of the earth are there, guided by God,
pouring into the New Jerusalem,
living differently in the peace of Christ.

Oh, we who work in the warring profession,
trained to take up arms and defend neighbor and nation
against any that would harm us,
we – especially you have been there,
in the pressure of the battle –
we know, you know,
that this vision of Psalm 67 and of Revelation 21 and 22
is a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in this region
over the past 16+ years.

So, do we dare to believe the words of Scripture,
do we dare to trust in the promise of what will be,
that a life lived in the peace of Christ changes us and the world,
allowing us to live differently and create, by God’s grace,
a different kind of world?

Or, do we trust what our eyes have seen,
what our ears have heard,
what our hearts have felt,
and our souls have suffered
about the cost of war and humanity’s brokenness?

Do we read the roll call of battle buddies lost to war
and expect more of the same,
or do we dare believe that there is a scroll of life in that New Jerusalem
bearing the names of all of God’s beloved
and showing forth the promise of a different kind of formation,
a different way of living,
in the Kingdom of God?

Yes, and yes.

Dear friends in Christ, we live between these two worlds –
the world as it is, and the world as God promises it will be.
As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19,
we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
This is our highest loyalty. This is our ultimate destiny.

Yes, we resist the ways of the world,
yet we are called by our Lord to be as wise as snakes
and as innocent as doves for as long as we are in it (Matthew 10:16).
We engage in this craft of waging war
not for the sake of seeking what the world gives,
because that’s an empty promise,
but to minimize the worst of what the world has to offer,
and to make room for our neighbors and nation
to see the world at some semblance of peace
so that they might know the greater peace of Christ our Lord.

We who are given the peace of Christ,
whose names are written on the scroll of life in the New Jerusalem,
who are emboldened by the peace of Christ and by Paul’s example
to break the barriers of this world,
we have a call and a duty to know the promises of God,
of what is and what will be,
to not forget
what the peace of Christ means for us and for the world,
how this peace enables us to live differently,
and how this peace changes everything.
Yes, we have a duty and a call to hold onto this peace,
even as we, with great reticence,
are at times compelled to wage war.

This peace is nothing of our doing, but instead is a gift.
Note what Jesus says back in John 14 – my peace I give to you.
There are no conditions.
There are no five steps to earn this peace.
No boards to pass.
No test to take.
No top block to grab.

Nothing. This peace of Christ is a free gift,
given to you and to us
in a way that is entirely unlike how anything in this world works,
with all its conditions and strings attached
and distorted sense of merit.

No. Christ is different. His gift of peace is different.
And it changes everything.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding,
keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord,
the One whose life lived differently
makes possible a different way of life
for us and for this world that God so loves.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Let us pray:
Gracious God,
we give you thanks for this gift of peace.
Grant that we who have received this promise
would steward, would care for, would nurture this gift,
so that,
in how we live and work, speak and serve,
your Son’s peace would shine forth from our lives
and extend to those around us.
O God in heaven,
make us instruments of your peace,
and renew us again and again as
dutiful, honorable Soldiers called to defend, protect, and sacrifice
not for ourselves, but on behalf of our neighbor and nation.
Guide us always by your light,
write our names on the scroll of life,
and give us, at the last, the promise of your salvation.
In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.