I was a nervous wreck, still a mostly impressionable 22-year-old young man, recently married in the summer of 2003 as I ventured from one side of North Lexington Avenue in Wilmore, Kentucky, to the other. In the opening chapel service of my orientation weekend at Asbury Seminary, Maxie Dunnam, the president of the seminary at the time, addressed the incoming graduate students and began with these words:

 If you don’t remember anything else during your time here in seminary, I want you to remember these two things for the rest of your life: number one – There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill; number two – There is something that you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

Well I’ve forgotten a few things I’m sure and with the help of notes and textbooks I’ve remembered other things, but those two statements have kept coming back over and over. As I look back, however, I have come to realize that he was only reiterating something that I had already known and been taught ever since I’d sensed the call to ministry that would take me to the pastorate. They were instilled in me by my loved ones, but especially my Papaw & Granny.

 

Five and a half years prior, right around my 17th birthday, about half the age I am now, I had broken the news to my family that I had sensed the call of God upon my life into ministry and that I intended to follow that call. I shared this over dinner (where I grew up, that’s the big meal in the middle of the day that others call ‘lunch’) that was our custom on every Sunday after church at Papaw & Granny’s house, just a few hundred feet from our church in Oscar, Kentucky.

 

Papaw's Letter

 

Later that week I received a hand-written letter from Papaw (left) in response to the news I shared. He vowed his unconditional support and from Granny as well as I pursued my calling. There were several things in that letter that were quite prophetic but one thing he said curiously yet subtly foreshadowed the second point of that inaugural message to my seminary career. Papaw wrote:

Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you in life – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.

Papaw’s life and teaching exemplified to the nth degree the value of a life of humility and acknowledging that life’s fulfillment is found in depending on the Lord to live into God’s purpose for our lives and to make it through the most difficult of times. There have been plenty of setbacks, several disappointments, and a multitude of temptations, many to which I have fallen prey. But every victory, lesson, and new beginning have been because of the help, saving help, of God’s Spirit. I’ve held onto that letter Papaw wrote. It was the last one he addressed to me. He died six months later.

Granny and Me

 

And then there’s Granny (right), who I’ve known my whole life to be filled with infectious joy that manifested itself in her seemingly incessant singing. That’s a trait that has found its way into my ministry as those who are burdened with the task of listening to my preaching can attest when all of a sudden I break into song. I shared this with her on my last visit to see her before she died earlier this year. In recent years, the smile became rarer and rarer, but one adorned her face that day. That’s how I’ll remember her!

 

But there was something she always wrote in my birthday card every year that stood out to me when I recall the first point of that opening chapel. She would sign every card written to me with this phrase:

There is a special place in my heart just for you.

With each child, and son- or daughter-in-law, with each grandchild, and expansion of the family with more weddings, and with every great-grandchild that arrived in our family, we saw Granny’s heart grow. And so, I believe, it is with God. With every new creation, with each bundle of joy, with every masterpiece, we see another chamber of the heart of God. In this small, yet significant, way Granny gave me a picture of the loving God who prepares a place for each of us.

 

In a few weeks when I am ordained as an elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church, I will kneel down and have hands laid upon me as a closing, of sorts, to the chapter upon which Papaw and Granny helped me embark and through which they prayed me. But it will be a new beginning as well as I start a new journey in ministry as lead pastor of Ellendale UMC in Bartlett, Tennesse, just outside of Memphis. The ordination will be enjoined with celebration not unlike how I began this journey at half my current age when eating a meal at Papaw and Granny’s table surrounded by loved ones who always encouraged one another in our love for God and our neighbors. At the service, there will be beautiful singing and I will long to hear the angelic voice of my Granny belting out louder than the rest of the congregation. There will be praying that I may humbly take up this yoke and I will long to see the face of my Papaw who quietly but dependably taught me about the importance of humility. But though I won’t get to hear her voice or see his face, I’ll experience the truth and beauty of all they embodied in the faithful community that seeks to follow the Lord of us all. After all, they’re now a part of that great cloud of witnesses who urges us on in our pursuit of the One who authored and perfected this faith that unites us in our acknowledgement that:

  1. There is a place in God’s heart that only you can fill;
  2. There is something you are called to do that you cannot do without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And that’s grace enough to carry us the rest of the way.

Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A homily on the Gospel lesson for the 5th Sunday in Lent, Year B – John 12:20-33

Gerard Sloyan, a 95 year old Catholic priest from New Jersey, made a statement on which I would like us to meditate today. Hear these words: “Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” Now let that thought settle in the back of your mind.

This message of Jesus is a message about atonement, but not in the way that atonement is often understood or presented. It is a message about “the System,” or the ways of the world that seek to draw us under its own power and to play by its rules. It is about evil and our search for the means by which evil is overcome. So how do we typically envision that?

Perhaps, when thinking of atonement as a victory over the powers of evil, we think of something like the heroic actions of the sailor man we know as Popeye, who in ransoming his true love, Olive Oil, from the grips of the evil, burly bully Bluto, opens his can of spinach which bulks up his muscles so he can knock him out and then rescue his dame from whatever entrapment Bluto had placed her. Sometimes that sort of caricature gets read into our understanding of the way in which Christ redeems us or rescues us from evil. Or, more often, we go to the pragmatic side of things and search for how we think we are to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” as our vows of faith in Christ put it.

To buck the system, in other words, we think we have to play by the rules of the system – which often abides in cycle of ‘violence.’ It’s clear based on the evil we see and experience in the world that we need an exorcism of the system, and it certainly looks as though the only potential for a successful exorcism is a violent one. The way to bring order out of the chaos of “the System” is through violently defeating “the other.”

The revolution of Jesus as the Son of Man, the Messiah, is coming to a head and the sign that the time is nearly there is when a group of Greeks, or outsiders, came to the disciples and wanted to see Jesus. This can be a sermon unto itself. When “the others,” the outcast, the ones who ain’t our kin, come and want to see Jesus or even just want a cup of coffee, how do we respond? Suspicion? Do our defense mechanisms come into play?

When the request makes its way to Jesus, he doesn’t say, “Well, bring them here.” Instead he goes into an odd diatribe of some agricultural reference of a grain of wheat being planted, dying, and bringing about a harvest; then speaks about the honor to be conferred upon those who serve him; and then expresses his inner turmoil about the fact that “this hour” had come and that it would glorify God. And after a mysterious encounter between earth and heaven, between a voice from the sky and Jesus in the flesh that sounded like thunder came from heaven, Jesus says these words: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Now before we get to what he says next let’s think about what this means.

This is a cry of revolution; a seeming appeal for a great exorcism of the evil ruler of the world. Time to overthrow the empire, time to buck the system! This is the point at which it would be oh, so inviting, for everyone to grab their swords and weapons of destruction to take out the enemy. This is what so many had been waiting for! Time to end the evil regime that has oppressed us for years, decades, centuries! Time to, as they say, “open a can” of spinach…or of something else that you’re likely familiar with…and wipe ‘em out!

Now here is the turning point. Jesus is going to buck the system, alright; he will perform the great exorcism, but after he says the time has come for it to happen, he uncovers the means by which it will be done; and that means is not by opening a can, or taking up a sword, but this – “I, when I am lifted up from the earth…” – to indicate, as John interprets for us, “the kind of death he was to die.” Now this is an exorcism that does more than turn heads; it is one that Jesus says will draw the whole word to itself, to a love so amazing, so divine; and this is done not through violence, but through the death of God’s own Son! How odd!

Why didn’t Jesus take up the sword? Why isn’t that the means by which to overcome evil? Walter Wink says something quite remarkable about Jesus’ point here: “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means.”

On the contrary, Jesus changes not merely one throne of tyranny for another, but changes the entire system. He bucks the system not by playing according to the rules of the system, but by exposing the system for what it is and where it can only lead by his own willingness to die at the hands of that very system. Jesus changes not only the end, but the means, by appealing to a tradition that sounds equally odd to our modern ears – “being lifted up.” Here is an allusion to the somewhat obscure passage in Numbers 21 when God, so it seemed, sent poisonous snakes into the camp of the Israelites because they complained about having a hard time in the wilderness. But when the Israelites confessed of their sins and asked Moses for a means by which to be saved from the poisonous snakes, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it upon a pole and that if a poisonous snake bit an Israelite, it could look at the bronze serpent and be healed. Now digging deeply into that passage would uncover some interesting and heavy questions about what in the world is going on there. But where this meets Jesus’ words, I think, is that a poison had infiltrated the system of the world and of God’s people. And the means by which to be healed of the poison is not to fight back with poison but to look upon the one who is lifted up, and see the poisonous system for what it is and where it leads.

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God - see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

A serpent lifted up on a pole, as the means of healing for the people of God – see Numbers 21 (photo credit: cathnews.com)

To use another metaphor, the world is caught up in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence that operates like a whirlpool. Think The Hunger Games and you’re really in a no-win situation where the world grimaces at you saying, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” all the while pleading for a blood bath to keep the system going the way it always has. The human tendency is to think that the way to stop the whirlpool is to react violently by spinning in the opposite direction, or by joining in so long as you’re the last one standing.

But Jesus’ action is something wholly different. His action, as theologian Mark Baker put it, was like that of a rock in a river that absorbs the energy of the whirlpool and stops it. Baker writes:

In a definitive way the cross broke the cycle of increasing alienation and violence because it absorbed the worst act of violence in the world—the killing of God incarnate. God did not respond to this by lashing out with a vengeful counter blow, but with forgiving love, thus responding to the root causes of a violent society. The ultimate act of hatred was answered with the ultimate act of forgiving love.

What does this look like, practically speaking, for us? Maybe something like this. I was in a covenant group with an elementary school teacher when I lived in Nicholasville. One day my friend came to our group on edge and broke down before us about a student in his class who was having difficulty at home and appeared to be caught up in a cycle of violence for generation upon generation in his family. My friend looked at the future of this boy and wept over what seemed an inevitability of the continuation of the cycle. But what we were able to encourage our friend to do was to, with the help of Christ, be like the rock, the catalyst that for this young man could be drawn in and see an alternative way to be human that doesn’t have to go with the flow nor attempt to fight against it alone. I believe the same could be said of the way things are in downtown Jackson and the world around us. The world needs some rocks, not to be thrown at it, but to stop the whirlpool.

Jesus’ way of bucking the system is this: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

“Faith in the cross is the world’s great exorcism. Anything else, whatever its flamboyance, is powerless.” – Fr. Gerard Sloyan

Let’s pray…

Oh Christ, who was lifted up and has drawn us unto yourself. Forgive us of the times when we have caved to the systems of the world and fought using its weapons rather than allowing them to be transformed into plows and pruning hooks. Help us to mind the good ground and patiently wait for the bearing of fruit that comes not through suspicion or drawing boundaries around which we demarcate “us” from “them,” but through the faithful following of your way of obedience, humility, and putting others before ourselves. Grant us the freedom that comes with learning the art of “letting go” rather than tightening our grips to the ways that ultimately lead to the destruction of others and ourselves. May we join your loving embrace of drawing the world to yourself. In your holy name, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, we pray. Amen.

Based on the Gospel lection for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Here’s the question I want you to ponder upon today (or to return to throughout the Lenten season): Is pretending always a bad thing? Think about that for a moment and let that kind of remain in the background as we consider Jesus’ words this day. Is pretending always a bad thing?

Have you ever found yourself really wishing you could use a proverbial Family Feud ‘X’ whenever you see someone say something or do something with disguised motives? Perhaps you have a really good “Nonsense Radar” or something of the kind. You know what I would really like to do? I would like to have an endless supply of batteries and carry around with me one of those buzzers from the board game ‘Taboo!’ so that whenever I encountered someone being fake or pretending, I could push the button and say, “Quit that pretentious nonsense!”

But what I think would happen if I could use the Family Feud ‘X’ or the buzzer from ‘Taboo!’ would be that I would discover the joke is on me as much as it is on everyone else. Jesus would go on to say in this beloved sermon delivered on a mountain that we will be judged by the same standard which we use to judge others. If I’m brutally honest with myself I think I’d discover that the buzzer would be used as much on me as anyone else.

What is it about hypocrisy that sets Jesus off so badly? The same thing that makes us sick to our stomach when we encounter it (particularly in others or whenever we are the victim of it) – just how ‘fake’ it all is. Hypocrisy is counted among the top reasons that some people say they will never take part in a church – too many hypocrites! Too much “play-acting” and pretending to do the right thing while not really seeking to be transformed on the inside through the process. And that is the real difference. I think we would all agree, in theory, that the goal of following Christ is to grow in such a way that what we do on the outside matches who we are on the inside and that both inside and out, we are focused on the God who sees as much what we do when no one is looking as what we do when everyone is looking.

Jesus brings up three practices of piety – fasting, praying, alms-giving – and doesn’t really exhort us to do these things. Rather, he assumes that we will do these things. I’m convicted of this reality – that we are caught up in a livelihood of consumerism, busy-ness, and hoarding up treasures to such a degree that it is a challenge to actually even do the things that Jesus assumes we will do – fast, pray, and give. But Jesus’ message is less on the action, as that is a given, and more on the manner in which the action is done. That is, what matters is the motive. And that brings me back to the question asked at the beginning – Is pretending always a bad thing? Now our initial reaction may be to think, “Of course all pretention is bad! All pretending is really fake!” But to be a little bit contrary, I’d like to suggest, “Not necessarily!” Please don’t mistake this as a defense of hypocrisy, but do hear me saying that I believe that not all pretending is hypocritical. C. S. Lewis has a chapter in his classic work Mere Christianity devoted to this very idea, entitled ‘Let’s Pretend.’ Lewis wrote, “Even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing.”

What matters, again, is the motive. Who is your audience? NOT IF, BUT WHEN you practice these disciplines – fasting, praying, giving – what end are you seeking? Theologian Douglas Hare says it this way: “The practitioner who pretends to be seeking to glorify God but in fact is intent only on seeking self-glory is a hypocrite.” What matters is motive!

But here is where the good form of pretending comes into play; when it, as Lewis put it, leads up to the real thing. He would go on and say, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.”

I think we would all agree that at times we find it difficult to obey the commandment of Jesus – “Love your neighbor” – particularly when our neighbor hasn’t been very lovable or we sense in them a great deal of false motives, or that hypocritical pretending that we find so repugnant. In those moments we have essentially three options – 1. We can acknowledge our own negative feelings toward them and ignore or display hurtful behavior toward them (if we take that course, the good thing is that the outer expressions and inner feelings match; that bad thing is that match will only lead to our own decay and destruction); 2. We can save face and pretend to love them by extending proverbial olive branches but be seething in anger and hatred on the inside and find other, more subversive ways to bring harm upon them by talking about them behind their backs or whatever (if we take that course, the bad thing is, to put it bluntly, we are being hypocrites – the outside doesn’t match the inside in any way whatsoever; nor is there a goal for them to ever match); or 3. We can admit in humble, private prayer, that we have a hard time loving that person but that we will open ourselves as a conduit through which God’s love will be poured out upon them through our very own actions. Let’s be honest…this is pretension. But, it is pretension of a different kind. It doesn’t secretly wish the demise of the one we find unlovable. It only wishes good upon them and transformation of ourselves. And herein we find the beauty of grace – that through good pretension we find ourselves transformed by this remarkable God who took on our flesh to transform it. If we take this course, we will discover that even if our inside and outside don’t match for the time being, one day they will, for we are allowing God’s grace to transform us.

In closing, it is what Lewis called our action of “dressing up as Christ.” He says about the Lord’s prayer, which begins with the phrase ‘Our Father’:

If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a [child] of God. You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it…

You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into reality…you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules…The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

That “part that is still tin” is part of why we use these ashes. They are a reminder of our mortality; that we all live on the edge of our own demise; that an old natural self with all its death and destruction tries to rear its ugly head. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; but that Life, real Life, as we shall come to see at the end of this journey has an even more final word. But until then, let’s pretend, in the good way – let us dress up as Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, the place of the cross.

At Jackson First UMC, we are in the midst of a four-week sermon series on a Wesleyan understanding of grace. The basic pattern we’ve followed is to go in the order of: 1. Prevenient grace (or “preventing grace” as John Wesley termed it); 2. Justifying grace; 3. Sanctifying grace; 4. Glorifying grace (or as we are calling it “Triumphant grace”). When Dan and I met to talk about what our plans were for this series, I must admit that I was tempted to ask if I could preach the sermons on prevenient and sanctifying grace. Our Wesleyan understanding of these modes of grace is part of what makes us distinct from other traditions within the whole Church, which is why I would have loved to unpack these for our congregation, but as the schedule began to unfold it seemed to fit better for me to preach on the other modes of grace: justification and glorification.

What has stood out to me from my very subjective, perhaps armchair theologian’s perspective is that many of us in the Wesleyan theological tradition have sought to distance ourselves from the Reformed tradition to such a degree that we miss out on the mode of grace that was so central to many movements of the Reformation, including the Wesleyan revival within the Church of England – justification. It is pretty well-documented that the Methodist movement exponentially grew because of several significant factors, but these two are among the top: 1. John Wesley’s ‘submitting to be more vile’ by preaching in the open air, outside the walls of the church buildings; 2. Wesley’s realization in the late 1730’s that salvation comes by faith. At the heart of this was his assertion that God justifies the “ungodly…the sinner” and not the one who first makes oneself pure via sanctification. Says Wesley, “Does then the Good Shepherd seek and save only those that are found already? No. He seeks and saves that which is lost. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy.”

cross sideview

Could it be that the common practical error put forth in modern Wesleyan circles is not that we put sanctification prior to justification but that we bypass the latter altogether? The subtle transition seems to move from prevenient grace directly to sanctification without ever highlighting our need to confess our sin and hear the beautiful declaration of the promise of our absolution. As I said in the sermon, which I’m humbled was picked up by A Wesleyan Accent, “The problem is that in narrative terms, this is like going straight from the beautiful message of Christmas directly to the empty tomb. But in the midst of that we have a bloody, torturous cross that bears an Innocent Redeemer who cries at the hour of his execution a piercing word – ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’.”

For more, check out the text of my sermon here. Or you can watch the 11:00am traditional worship service in which I preached it here.

There’s a story behind why I couldn’t stand up to preach today…in short, I had a case of vertigo this morning and wasn’t physically capable of standing to deliver my sermon this morning. So at the last minute my wife volunteered to do deliver it for me. She had heard me rehearsing it the night before and fortunately I had a manuscript of what I wanted to share. So she courageously stepped in and delivered this text that I had prepared for this first Sunday in Advent.

The primary Scripture was Isaiah 64:1-9, and I used the Common English Bible, which was crucial to illumine a couple of points that were made in the sermon. Here is the video of the service:

So today begins a new church year as we kick off the season of Advent this morning. I’ve come to cherish Advent more and more as the years go by. It’s not that it is my favorite because it means Christmas is so close, which was likely what I felt growing up, but because, as I see it, Advent is the season that probably gives us the most honest assessment about the way things are in the world. At its best the season of Advent and its relationship to Christmas mirrors that of Lent and its relationship to Easter. Advent, for some time, had seven weeks (not four), and was designed to be a season of repentance, fasting and preparation for the great mass, or worship celebration, for Christmas. But it was and is also a season that prepares us for the second coming of Christ, when all things will be summed up and the new heaven and new earth are joined together at last.

Now, if we can learn to fully appreciate a season of anticipation, of expectation, and waiting and not rush to December 24-25 as we are so prone to do, then we will be able really allow the sense of aching and hope to linger long enough for us to get genuinely thirsty for the coming of the Lord. For this reason, in recent years I have found myself drawn toward the words of the prophets who so frequently spoke as people in waiting, longing for God’s appearance, during the season of Advent. So this week’s sermon text comes from Isaiah; next week Dan’s message will relate to the prophet known as John the Baptist; and the following week we will return to Isaiah as we continue to prepare the way for Christ’s coming.

Simon and Garfunkel quipped that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence.” At the beginning of the song, they sang, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”Advent meets us in the darkness, in the silence. So do the prophets.

Polish born Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, who lost many family members because of the holocaust, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wrote what is in my mind the best summary work of the lives and writings of the prophets. Here are a few of his comments that I thought fit particularly well given the context and content of our passage from the prophet Isaiah from this morning:
• “This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible.”
• “Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…To us a single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploitation of the poor—is slight; to the prophets, a disaster…Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.”
• “The prophet’s ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others…The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.”
• “Instead of cursing the enemy, the prophets condemn their own nation.”
• “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind…He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”
• “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

There are many more that are worth quoting, but something Heschel challenges is the notion that has gotten in some of our minds that prophecy has to do with a distant, impersonal, implacable God who serves as judge and who uses these obscure persons to serve as a sort of mouthpiece, which renders the work of the prophet as a mere technical function. Heschel wrote, “The prophet is not a mouthpiece, but a person; not an instrument, but a partner, an associate of God,” and that what is behind the message of the prophets isn’t merely an emotionally detached discussion about justice, but is rather the pathos, or feeling, of God with regard to the events of the world and the behaviors of God’s people. Heschel continued, “It is more accurate to see the prophets as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice. Divine concern remembered in sympathy is the stuff of which prophecy is made.” Indeed, “God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement…The God of Israel is never impersonal.” If this is true…if God is so concerned with the plight of the people and passionate about the cause of justice and at the same time is all powerful, then the question that rises to the surface is what is behind the complain of Isaiah this morning, “If only…” or “Why haven’t you torn open the heavens and come down? All would be settled, mountains would quake, enemies would flee or at least tremble.”

It comes as a cry from a people who have experienced the redeeming power of a God who overtook oppressing enemies to make things right. So where is this God? Heschel said, “In a stricken hour comes the word of the prophet. There is tension between God and [humans]…In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.” So Isaiah reminds God of the former deliverance that the Lord procured for his people. “From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” That was the distinguishing mark of the God of Israel: patience and deliberative involvement in acting for those who wait on God. As far as the prophet could tell, there weren’t any other gods who were patient or longsuffering. And this has been evidenced in cultures throughout history as the greatness of a god was directly related to the greatness of the king and his army. When the people of a god were conquered, that god would disappear and usually the survivors wouldn’t hesitate to wreck the images of the gods in whom they had previously trusted.

So in a stricken hour, will we wait on the Lord? I don’t mean sitting down twiddling our thumbs. Nor did Isaiah. John Oswalt said it well when he wrote, “Biblically speak, ‘to wait’ is to manifest the kind of trust that is willing to commit itself to God over the long haul. It is to continue to believe and expect when all others have given up. It is to believe that it is better for something to happen in God’s time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time.” It is an active type of waiting that seeks to live rightly with relation to God and neighbor.

To get there we have to come to grips with something about ourselves that is really quite difficult, and this is the part no one really enjoys preaching or hearing about. But it’s something that is absolutely necessary and is evidenced in what Isaiah admits about the behaviors and attitudes of the people – sinning and doing wrong, being unclean – to such a degree that all our righteous deeds have become like filthy cloths, or as you heard it read this morning a menstrual rag.

I didn’t read this version to gross you out, but there is something in this statement that illumines our own brokenness as we approach the God of compassionate mercy and justice. You see ‘sin’ is like a contaminant that infects the whole body and it had become such a problem among the people of God that it infected even those things that we would typically deem as righteous acts. Even those had been contaminated to such a degree that the works weren’t signs of new life coming, but of the lack of conception (hence, “menstrual rag”), because all they do is self-serving and self-enhancing. They’d become a charade of the real thing.

Okay, I think I’m done with that analogy for the day. I suspect my email inbox will be filled with many messages from parents letting me know their children will be coming to ask me some questions that came up because of today’s Scripture.

Now let’s get really uncomfortable and see where this passage really addresses the darkness that remains in our world – Ferguson. What is the response of the people of God to the tragic death of Michael Brown and the events that have unfolded there and elsewhere since? Chances are when I simply mentioned the name of the town just now, there were several different internal reactions and emotions among the people in this congregation. Yet let us be honest that while our political ideologies and opinions on this and related problems are various within this church, we are nonetheless a rather affluent congregation comprised primarily of white people. We also ought to recognize that systemic injustice still exists despite our lofty dreams and naïve ideas that we have somehow arrived at a utopian society where all are equal. It is true that African-American men are more likely, by virtually every measure, to be arrested, sentenced, executed, or murdered than white men. And if that causes us to shrug our shoulders in apathy, then we are not in tune with the God of justice. If we think it’s no big deal, we are tone deaf to the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote from a prison cell that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we are numb to the reality of privilege and of the responsibility that comes along with it, then we are a far cry from our movement’s founder John Wesley, whose last letter was written to encourage William Wilberforce to persevere in his cause of championing the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. If we remain apathetic, or even worse hold onto prejudices and fear of others because of the color of their skin, then we will be like the people Isaiah and the prophets wept for because they did not call on the name of the God of justice.

If only…if only you would come, God, Emmanuel. The cry of Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas, it is really the final cry of the New Testament in the Revelation. “Maranatha! Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!” If only you would come; I mean fully and really come all this would be reconciled. No more death, no more need for protests or riots, no more destruction…just the fulfillment of all our hope – a place of eternal shalom!

But as we cry, “Maranatha!” let us at the very least be the people who actively wait. And that involves listening – for God, to our neighbors – for they have a story to tell and experiences to share that are often very different than our own. Are we willing to be clay in the potter’s hands in this season? Take us, mold us, use us.

To close this morning, I want to share with you a blessing, adapted from a Benedictine prayer. It’s not any normal blessing, though; it is one that carries with it a challenge to be a prophetic witness in a world that doesn’t often care much for the prophets. So here goes:
May the Spirit bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people and the earth so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.

In the name of the Father whose pathos, love and compassion burned hot for the people of God to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God; and of the Son, who didn’t consider his privilege as something to use for his own gain but emptied himself to become human and really the lowest of the sorts—a slave; and of the Holy Spirit, who with open arms embraces us and welcomes us into the holy mystery of being the children of God. Amen.

Is it worth listening to someone who has no experience in the subject matter about which they’re talking?

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon about the healthy upbringing of children and shared a few directions that John Wesley had to say about the education of children in a sermon he wrote in his later years. The question above entered my mind as I prepared the sermon and some have pressed me on the matter as well given that John Wesley never had children of his own. In addition, his well-documented failure of a love life add fuel to the desire to simply ignore much, if not all, of what he had to say about family life.

Given the facts of Wesley’s lack of (fruitful) experiences in these areas of life, it’s likely wise to at least take what he had to say with a grain…or a pillar…of salt, but somewhere amidst the bathwater there might be a baby worth redeeming. John Wesley, while admittedly having abysmal family experiences in his adulthood, was raised by a remarkable mother in Susannah Wesley, who also raised his younger brother Charles. By all appearances, Charles had a rather healthy marriage, rarely traveled away from home after getting married, and did have children of his own, unlike John. The reality, it seems to me, is that John’s “family” as an adult was the Methodist movement itself. He valued the nurture of Methodists at home and abroad more than anything. Why else would he continue to travel to see them even in into his upper 80s?  This is not to excuse the hot mess John contributed to his failed marriage at home, but to acknowledge the reality of where his heart, mind, and hands were fixed.

So while his advice on the education/raising of children is certainly not perfect nor does it come from years of proven success, perhaps there are some bits of wisdom from John that are quite valuable and can be implemented in the home and in the church as we find ways to share God’s grace with children.

Here are some of the best suggestions from John that I thought worth sharing:

  • “From the first dawn of [a child’s] reason continually inculcate, God is in this and every place. God made you, and me, and the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and everything. And everything is his; heaven, and earth, and all that is therein.”
  • “With regard to the management of your children, steadily keep the reins in your own hands.” (He said this in the context of telling parents to not let the grandparents of the children manage the children, which I think he probably overstated. That said, it is vital to take ownership in your child’s development and not leave the task for someone else to do.
  • “From their very infancy sow the seeds of justice in their hearts, and train them up in the exactest practice of it.”
  • “In the morning, in the evening, and all the day beside, press upon all your children, ‘to walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us;’ to mind that one point, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him’.”

Some of the other things John said in his sermons on the raising of children sound quite harsh or outdated to the modern ear and mind. To hear a couple of examples (and to hear what else I said on the matter of nurturing children), you can view one of the services at Jackson FUMC.

First Awakening service (sermon starts about 40 minutes in):

Traditional Worship service (sermon starts about 33 minutes in):

On the whole, it is worth considering that John Wesley’s aim was to spread the emphasis of sanctifying grace throughout his lifetime. I believe that when taken in this context, we have some valuable lessons to learn from the founder of our movement because these suggestions lend themselves to the following of the great commandments: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul, might” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And in the nurture of children, we adults (parents, teachers, mentors, all people in the church) have a role to play in this. As Wesley reminded us: “Let it be carefully remembered all this time, that God, not man, is the physician of souls…that ‘it is God who worketh in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ But it is generally God’s pleasure to work by his creatures; to help man by man. God honors [humans] to be, in this sense, ‘workers together with him’.”

Let us join in that great work!