March 2013


From my Easter Sunrise homily this morning based on the text of Luke 24:1-12…

It’s been a week of sleep deprivation. The difficult thing about when I struggle with insomnia or even being just a little deprived of sleep is that sometimes there is a bit of confusion as dreams begin to seemingly take residence in my periods of consciousness. The lines distinguishing reality from fantasy begin to blur. Have you ever had a dream so vivid and filled with such detail that it seemed as real if not more so than your most sober of moments? Or maybe it was so detailed and your emotions were stirred in it to such a degree that it bled over into your daily life and affected how you interacted with others through the day or week?

One morning last week Julianne woke up mad at me saying that I had been mean to her. I don’t recall having done anything to her the day or night before that would give her reason to think that so all I can imagine is that she had a dream where I had disciplined her or just did something not to her liking. (That is not too uncommon of an occurrence.)

I’ll have dreams all the time that are so bizarre yet so vivid that I wake up wondering if the events of my dream had actually occurred. So as the details of the dream come a couple of days later, I’ll tell the story and Carrie will give me that odd look: “Ummm…that didn’t happen, hunny!” Must have just been a dream.

Carrie will wake up in the middle of the night with a dream that someone is trying to break in or has broken in and she’ll ask me: “This sounds crazy, but can you check downstairs to make sure nobody is down there?” And me, being the loving husband I am will go and check it out…usually. Sometimes, it’s just too crazy: “Jeff, will you be a dear and make sure nobody is hiding under the kitchen sink?” “No, Carrie, that’s simply not possible! Get some sleep!

It appears as though that’s kind of what happened with a group of grieving and probably sleep deprived women who went to the tomb that morning and reported to the disciples what they had seen and heard. And how did they respond? They thought it was an “idle tale” or as another version puts it, “stupid, useless talk.

Here we sit, some 2,000 years after that morning and many are saying the same thing that the disciples said to the women that morning, “A dead person came back to life after being buried? That’s just plain crazy. People don’t come back from the dead. You must be short of sleep. Come back to reality. Get some rest. Eat a meal. Something. Enough of this stupid, useless talk.

So much of this is as surprising and unexpected as one could imagine, both in the world of the 1st century and in our own. If God already had to overcome the hurdle of the universal knowledge that “dead people don’t come back to life,” one would tend to think that surely God would do whatever possible to make it more credible, by supplying some socially acceptable witnesses. If God wanted the most credibility to suggest the resurrection had indeed happened, then the story would’ve looked quite differently. There wouldn’t have been women at the tomb, but the disciples, which wouldn’t have satisfied some given the social outcast status of some of them, but would’ve been a little more believable. Women, unjustly, weren’t seen as credible witnesses in the ancient world. Instead the disciples or would’ve been there or some group of capable men, waiting and eager to believe and ready to lead the church into its bright future.

Instead, God chose women. (Take note: the first apostles to bear the good news of the resurrection were women!) And what about the women? They weren’t expecting it either. It’s not as though they were saying, “Well let’s take these spices in case he’s still dead, but let’s see if maybe he’s alive again!” They saw death like the rest of the world: when you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no coming back. And they got the surprise of their lives when they were grief-stricken and probably sleep deprived from the grieving. This was came out of left field to these non-credible witnesses. Like the shepherds 30 some odd years prior…watching their flocks by night, most likely sleep deprived. And the greatest news the world had ever heard was proclaimed to a group of non-credible witnesses. And the shepherds, the women and we are the ones who are called to bear this good news, this surprising news that faces these odds: virgins don’t get pregnant; dead people don’t come back to life. This is “stupid, useless talk.”

Yet like Peter who ran to the tomb, some evidence is here before us, and we’re perplexed. Hmm…could it be true? How? I don’t understand! Well, would it be good news if we did expect it, if we were inclined to believe, or if we could fully understand? Perhaps it is precisely the good news that we and the world most need to hear because we couldn’t have dreamed it up this way for ourselves. Even the dreams of the sleep deprived wouldn’t come up with this. God is outside the box…or more aptly, outside the tomb.

Looking out from within (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

Looking out from within (credit: thenewself.wordpress.com)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

…So begins what is perhaps the most moving, disturbing, and haunting of statements ever uttered. Per Matthew’s telling: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Each year on Good Friday we commemorate the event which brings out the very worst and the very best of humanity. The very worst is obvious in the vitriol, the hatred, the mockery, the torture of One who told his right hand man to put away his sword yet who was tried and assailed as a terrorist. It’s too easy to distance ourselves from the crowd and it is our tendency to do so. That is part of why I think it is so easy to miss what is behind Jesus’ troublesome cry. And until we can see ourselves somewhere in the midst of this scene: either as the disciples who betrayed or scattered; or as the crowd or the soldiers who mock Jesus; or even as the One condemned by the crowds, we will miss something quite significant about what Jesus screamed.

I don’t think, as others do, that Jesus was making a theological statement about him being sin and God not being able to look at sin. That concept is frequently read into Jesus’ cry of dereliction (or forsaken-ness). The idea (from Paul in Galatians 3) that Jesus became a curse for us is seen as the backdrop for Jesus’ words rather than looking to another passage…the very one Jesus was quoting, which was a lament psalm (#22) in which the speaker is wondering where is God and why hasn’t God come to the rescue. The psalmist experiences the things Jesus experiences: being scorned, mocked, despised, ridiculed, stripped of clothes which are divided amongst the assailants. And I am among them.

…………….

As I read the psalm and I witness the worst of humanity in what is done to Jesus, my heart changes and aches, and I observe the Psalmist knows something about the character of God, that God has come to the rescue of those who cried out to and put their trust in the Lord. Surely, Jesus knows that character, too! And in that knowledge, Jesus cries what people cry when an injustice is being done: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

(credit: journeywithjesus.net)

So now I see the Psalm (and Jesus’ utterance of its beginning at the cross) as a cry of the righteous innocent calling upon the faithfulness and justice of God and asking why God hasn’t come to the rescue in this case. The garments of the innocent are shredded and divided among God’s enemies all the time. Faithful people are and have been oppressed countless times in history. Many people die alone, being rejected and despised, or worse, ignored by others. Maybe Jesus, in making such a loud cry in his greatest moment of desperation, is resonating and empathizing with the suffering of ones such as these through all of time and saying, “Where are you, God?” So they (or we) are not alone in feeling abandoned by everyone, including God. That’s good.

But wait…he breathes his last. Did God really not rescue him? But I know he was innocent! Surely he was God’s Son! Where were you, God? Where are you, God?

Writing about baptism, my experience of it and its relationship with our understanding of time, has been very enjoyable and has been a subject of discussion not only in the comments on those posts but also in the churches where I am serving. I’ve promised to write more about the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, and in the previous posts I wanted to give just a few introductory thoughts and lay a little groundwork to prepare the way for a more substantive explanation and defense of the practice. In the next few posts I want to delve into what is probably the most common critique of infant baptism, namely, its supposed absence in Scripture. Folks who oppose the practice of baptizing infants are quick to point out that there is never an explicit example of an infant being baptized in the Bible.

The validity of that critique could be challenged (more on that later), but even if the statement is true, I could simply say, “Psh. There are a whole bunch of things that all churches do that aren’t explicitly done in Scripture.” Nonetheless, given the central importance of the rite of baptism in the life of the Church (it is, after all, a one-time only event for every Christian), it is worth giving a biblical explanation for why we United Methodists recommend to administer the sacrament to a person “as soon as possible and practical,” which means that infants are appropriate candidates for receiving the sacrament.

Examining the etymology of the term “sacrament” reveals that the term means a “sacred oath” and is meant to draw our attention to God’s action in making a covenant of grace with us. When we use covenant terminology and envisage the sacramental expression of the salvation of God’s people through water, our minds may go to several different parts of Scripture. The chief one, though, is the Exodus story and proclamation that God brought God’s people “out of Egypt,” words that we find throughout the Scriptures that identify and tell the story of the deliverance of God’s child(ren) from the bondage of slavery. Similar to what I said in a previous post about the “when” of one’s salvation, if you asked any Israelite or Jew in the post-Exodus era, “When were you saved?” the response would be something like, “When God led Moses and our predecessors out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea.” The stress, again, is on God’s action and intent to save a people prior to any decision, experience or response on our part as individuals. In this post I want to point out three occasions of the “out of Egypt” phrase, one from each the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels.

First, let’s look at the opening line of the covenant established in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus. In treaties or agreements in the Ancient Near Eastern world between two people groups, if the more powerful party wanted to indicate their benevolent intent toward the other people group, it would be stressed in the opening line, or what we call the preamble. What are the introductory words to the Ten Commandments, which is at the very beginning of the covenant made at Sinai? “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” In this covenant and in the UMC baptismal covenant, one recognizes the action of God in the saving acts, not primarily the decision or response of the people (or person). In the Exodus story, the LORD acts as the people’s cries for help reach God’s ears (Exodus 3:7-8). And when we think of the initial cries that humans offer up in search of help or grace, these may come from any person, including infants. (We might also find some significance to Moses’ infancy narrative in that it was in and through water that he was named and drawn out, or rescued! See Exodus 2:1-10)

Credit: bible.ca

Credit: bible.ca

Next, let’s turn to the Prophets, where we see perhaps more than anywhere else the pathos, or emotive expression, of God’s compassion towards God’s people. Behind the sharp words offered from the fearless spokespersons we find God’s concern for justice and compassion as well as the Lord’s desire that the people turn from their faulty ways and recover their identity as God’s children and mission of being God’s light to the rest of the world. This is especially seen in Hosea chapter 11, which describes God at the point of weeping in compassion as God’s children drift further away from their identity and purpose. And that passage begins this way: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In this warm expression of divine compassion, God calls attention to when God showered love and grace on the people from the earliest stages of their life:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

God’s children are beckoned to remember the covenant made in faithful, parental love by their sovereign deliverer. The image of the people in this is that of an infant being brought into covenant relationship which God wrought through the waters of the Red Sea and continued in growing the people in grace.

And it is precisely the Hosea 11 passage that Matthew quotes in 2:15 in saying that the flight to Egypt and back to Nazareth by Joseph, Mary and Jesus “was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.” Matthew’s account of Jesus’ infancy is filled with details that are meant to remind the reader of the narrative of God’s people in Egypt: the prominence of a person named Joseph who has prophetic dreams, folks coming from far off to pay homage, and of course from Exodus, a paranoid tyrant who being afraid that his power may be in jeopardy orders a slaughter of all male infants. The point: it is in Jesus’ infancy when he embodies and fulfills the story of God’s people being called and delivered “out of Egypt,” which occurred through the waters and the covenant established by God with them.

More to come…

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 - photo credit: wikipedia

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 (photo credit: wikipedia.org)

If the parable of the younger son is a portrait of the beauty of a repentant heart and changed life, then the backstory (which turns out to be the main story) is the beauty of the father’s steadfast mercy and kindness…a father who is willing to shame himself by hiking up his robe to run outside the boundaries of his house and farm to go get his lost son. He’ll pursue the son to keep anyone from shaming the younger son or keeping the bread from him. Townspeople and older brothers (or the “bouncers of God’s grace” as I call them) would say, “Don’t you even dare come back here…you’ve disgraced your father’s name enough. No more of that!” The father doesn’t let that shaming happen but goes outside to beat the bouncers to his returning, repentant son. This son who while he was in the distant country remembered that at home, there is “bread and enough to spare,” even for those who see themselves as lowest on the totem pole.

"...bread and enough to spare..." (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

“…bread and enough to spare…” (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

Behold the kindness that is meant to bring us home. Or, as St. Paul says: “God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life.” (Romans 2:4 CEB)

There was a humorous attempt by United Methodist Memes a few days ago to advocate for the practice of infant baptism. Here’s the meme:

According to some comments I have seen, the attempted humor appears to have come across as condescending to some people in traditions who oppose the practice of baptizing infants. Some of the comments I saw advocated for what’s called “believer’s only baptism” and appealed to the fact that Jesus was baptized as an adult. (My initial reaction: According to Luke, Jesus was about 30 years old when he was baptized. If we’re going to be so strict about it, wouldn’t we all wait until we’re 30 years old to be baptized? Also…if Jesus’ baptism was a believer’s baptism as I saw one person put it, does that mean Jesus didn’t believe in God before then, or what exactly does that mean? I digress.)

Those comments got me thinking about my post from a couple of months ago when I confessed to being unknowingly baptized on two occasions. I promised in that post, which you can read here, that I would elaborate in a later post defending the doctrine and practice of infant baptism. I’m not going to spell it all out here, but I want to start in this post by laying a little groundwork. One of the aspects of the doctrine of baptism has to do with the question of timing, which came to the surface in the comments on the above meme. The question to be asked: when is the right time in one’s life when one is a proper candidate for baptism?

Let’s talk about timing. A question that gets asked from time to time, at least in the part of the world where I live, goes something like this: “When were you saved?” Or perhaps, less frequently, “When were you born again?” These are questions about the timing of something. In the past, I would typically respond to such a question by appealing to the moment in my life when I professed faith in Christ, which was when I was ten years old. But as I have learned more of the nature of salvation, I’ve come to think a little differently about the time I was saved. When Scottish theologian Tom Torrance was asked this question he said something like this: I was saved about 2000 years ago in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Maybe that wouldn’t satisfy the one asking the question, but I like that answer! It locates salvation not primarily in the experience of it, but in the work of God in Christ. So when we take this to the salvation moments/experiences within our lives, we’re transported to another time. When I was baptized, I was taken back to that divine moment when the kingdom of heaven was inaugurated and Jesus was raised from the dead. When I announced my trust in and alignment with Jesus, I was incorporated into Christ’s story, not vice versa. Strictly speaking, it’s not my inviting Christ into my life. It’s Christ inviting me into his life. As the sacraments are the graceful expressions of Christ’s uniting us to himself, the sacraments are not about us and our timing; they’re about God and God’s timing.

I’ll get around to talking more about age appropriateness in posts to follow, but first let’s get the story straight. Who is being brought into whose story?

When we settle on “it is we who are entering Christ’s story,” which I hope we can do, then perhaps we will begin to see things not primarily through a chronological lens of time (Greek: chronos), but through what the Greeks called kairos. Per the Liddel & Scott Greek-English lexicon, kairos conveys something like “due measure, right proportion, fitness (or) the right season, the right time for action, the critical moment…” In this sort of time, we’re not caught up on seconds, minutes, hours, or even years or millennia, but the focus is on the rightness or appropriateness of a certain action. The measures of time we are accustomed to using do not apply, at least not primarily.

Perhaps this idea sounds odd to some, but the point I wish to make is that salvation is a mystery of divine grace, which invokes and involves human faith and experience, but as it is the action of God, it is ultimately beyond our ability to fully comprehend, whether we are infants or adults. I hear some in other ecclesial traditions say that the sacraments (or “ordinances,” since some denominations avoid the term “sacraments”) are outward signs of inward faith or the decision to “receive Christ.” This notion appears to locate the validity of the actions in the consciousness of the one being brought into the waters of baptism or receiving the elements of Holy Communion. My community of faith (UMC) describes sacraments not as signs of faith, but as signs or means of grace. This means that the sacraments’ effectiveness is not dependent on human will or merit but instead on the will of God in Christ to convey grace through these sacred means.

And I would suggest the moment in one’s life when one is baptized, the Church is witness to the rightness of (kairos) God’s claiming of that one’s life in uniting the baptized with Christ in his death and resurrection. Said differently, in baptism, our chronos fades into God’s kairos, and we begin to be, as Charles Wesley penned, “lost in wonder, awe, and praise” as we join Christ’s story.

Stay tuned for more…

Mumford & Sons – ‘Roll Away Your Stone’:

Themes from this song have been in my head this week in preparation for preaching on “the parable of the prodigal son(s)” this Sunday. Be sure to catch these lyrics:

You told me that I would find a hole,
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.