One Last Time, John 13:1-35

This sermon was delivered on Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018. Kicking off the triduum with a sermon on finality. Seems fitting.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

13 Before the Festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.

Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”

“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”

Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”

10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”

12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. 18 I’m not speaking about all of you. I know those whom I’ve chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, The one who eats my bread has turned against me.[a]

19 “I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I Am. 20 I assure you that whoever receives someone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

21 After he said these things, Jesus was deeply disturbed and testified, “I assure you, one of you will betray me.”

22 His disciples looked at each other, confused about which of them he was talking about. 23 One of the disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was at Jesus’ side.24 Simon Peter nodded at him to get him to ask Jesus who he was talking about.25 Leaning back toward Jesus, this disciple asked, “Lord, who is it?”

26 Jesus answered, “It’s the one to whom I will give this piece of bread once I have dipped into the bowl.” Then he dipped the piece of bread and gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son. 27 After Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 28 No one sitting at the table understood why Jesus said this to him. 29 Some thought that, since Judas kept the money bag, Jesus told him, “Go, buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30 So when Judas took the bread, he left immediately. And it was night.

31 When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Human One[b] has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One[c] in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33 Little children, I’m with you for a little while longer. You will look for me—but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now—‘Where I’m going, you can’t come.’

34 “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. 35 This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

 

communion.jpgThere’s something very powerful about he Last Supper. Particularly the part about it being “the Last.”

There’s finality to it. This is the ending of a how things were, a preamble to the passion to come. Which makes Jesus’s mandate–where we get the word Maundy from, a corruption of the Latin word Mandatum–all the more powerful.

His final mandate for us was to love one another, like He loved us. A simple request, but a hard one. After all, how much did Jesus really love us? I ask this in all honesty. The man loved everyone he met. He loved the lepers. He loved women with spotted history. He loved tax collectors. He loved a rich man who could not give up his possessions. He even loved the Pharisees and priests, his enemies, enough to hold them accountable for their hypocrisy. He loved so deeply that he would undergo betrayal, trials, and ultimately, death.

This dinner was Jesus’s chance to tell them what he wanted them to learn, and how to live, one last time.

That’s difficult to appreciate, I think. People don’t like endings, because endings mean change. We resist endings because I think we don’t know how to process the change well. It happens in all stripes of life. We cling to a job we have because it’s what we know, so if a new opportunity comes, we struggle with accepting it. A new person comes into our life, and growing pains occur fitting them into our routines. Someone moves away, and a hole appears in your heart where they used to be.

That makes this Last Supper all that much more important. There’s a reason we continue to practice Communion, more than just because Jesus said to “Do This.” There’s real, mysterious power in the act of sharing the bread and the wine.

The truth of this night is that, when we partake of the bread and the wine, Jesus is truly, really here among us.

It’s impossible to explain of course. We can’t see him, obviously. But we do feel him. It’s why the song “Surely the Presence” is so powerful for me. God’s glory is fully, really present with us, and it’s at its peak when we share in communion.

John’s version of the Last Supper is especially poignant, given how different it is from our imagining.

LaurieLisonbeeJohn dwells on irregular events. He puts a lot of emphasis on the foot-washing, and how that was emblematic of Jesus’s love. In fact, Jesus’s love was given it’s greatest demonstration in life by wearing a slave’s towel and washing his students’ feet. He took on that role to show them the greatest method of showing love is service.

His disciples objected. This was humiliating for Jesus! He was shaming himself, and in a shame/honor based culture, this was almost painful for them to watch. But he wanted to make a statement: that culture is wrong. Don’t think about what other people think of you. Don’t let other people control you. Do what is right, what is loving, what is caring. Do the right thing when everyone stands against you.

There’s a lot of mockery out there about people who care. People call them “bleeding hearts,” as if that’s a bad thing. But Jesus’s heart bled for us all. He didn’t care if people were ashamed, or thought his behavior was disgusting. He didn’t care that the whole world was against him, because he was willing to bleed for them. Die for them. Be a slave to them. Serve them, despite their protest. He was doing what’s right. He was doing the loving thing. And that is what we ought to do.

Don’t be ashamed by what the world thinks. Don’t let anyone dictate your life.

images-13Allow the presence of Jesus here, now, influence you. He’s the one you ought to listen to. And he tells you to love as he loved us. So put on a towel, so to speak. Listen to the cries of those in need. Show them love. Be willing to be shamed and humiliated for the work of Jesus. Love, without restrictions. Love, and remember you are loved. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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In the Name of the Lord, Mark 11:1-11

This sermon was delivered on March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday. I really had fun writing this one, as I posed it to myself a challenge, synthesizing multiple feast days together. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

 

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task,saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![a] 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

Often, I get to come to the pulpit with multiple choices to preach about on a Sunday. The usual choices come often from the lectionary, but today some additional choices are available.

palm-sundayToday is of course, as you have observed, Palm Sunday. The scripture reflects as much. However, given the context and practices of the local church, today could be Passion Sunday, a preview into the events of Good Friday. Third, however, is an outlier, one that doesn’t happen often at all in congruence with the Sunday before Easter–the feast of the Annunciation.

annun_angelico.jpgWhat is the Feast of the Annunciation, you ask? Today is March 25th. What happens exactly 9 months from now? You guessed it: Christmas! Therefore, today is the day that the church also traditionally observes the moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce that she will give birth to a son, the moment of the Immaculate Conception. Mary (it is observed) conceived Jesus on this day.

So how rare is it then that such a confluence should happen. April 1 is rarely Easter. Therefore, rarely does Palm/Passion Sunday arrive on the same day we witness to Jesus’ conception.

What does it all mean though? Is it all a grand coincidence? Possibly. But the Spirit uses coincidence all the time to bring about a greater understanding of things, and today, I believe the Spirit is moving us to come to a greater understanding of the triumphal-yet-ironic day of Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem.

I think most of all, however, on what the crowds yell as he enters the city. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” It is perhaps the most powerful part of this passage in Mark, more than the curious nature of his entry on a donkey. It is a prophetic song of praise–which takes on new meaning when you look at it in each of the 3 choices we are offered to celebrate the  day. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, at his birth, at his peak, and in his death.

The Name of the Newborn King

Rarely do we have a chance to look back at the Nativity during the season around Easter, but Mary’s annunciation affords us no better chance than to do just that.

Annunciation.jpgOf course, the closer you look at the Annunciation, the more appropriate it looks to use it to approach Palm Sunday. Gabriel came to Mary completely by surprise, but was welcomed and accepted. Gabriel praises Mary, as she is the most favored lady of God, a blessing to the world in and of herself. Further than that, Gabriel praises who she will give birth to.

Luke 1:32-33 says: “He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Even more, Gabriel gives him his name: Jesus, translated from Hebrew meaning “He will Save” or “He will Deliver.”

Now, of course Gabriel knew the mighty things Jesus would do–he was charged with giving the news directly from God. But Mary was blessed to be the first one on earth who would bear the good news on her own. She alone was the first who would be able to say with the fullest confidence: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Why is Jesus’s strange birth something to reflect on during the events of Holy Week, though? Specifically Palm Sunday

Because this is, in many ways, was the first time the world at large got to celebrate him, to worship him as he is fit to be worshiped. This parade was a holy affair, as well as a party. We don’t usually party around this time of year–for good reasons, considering Lent is a time of fasting, not partying. But There is always an exception to every rule.

The Feast of the Annunciation is just that: a Feast Day. It’s one of the few times during Lent that the faithful are “allowed” to break their fast. In modern vernacular, it’s a cheat day. You can let go a little. You can celebrate a bit. Color, sight, sound, and life revive us on this day, this last day before the biggest week in all of Christian faith and worship.

It’s also just good to remember the beginning of things as we come to the end of things. It bookends Jesus’s life nicely, reminding us of the joy of a new, exciting thing breaking into the world. Jesus was coming into the world for the first time, and this moment was the first sign of that news. Good news was given to the world for the first time. That’s something worth remembering. That’s worth responding to with a hearty hosanna. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

The Name of the Ascendant King

Which brings us to today, Palm Sunday.

As I said, this is a feast day, and a good one to observe. It’s one last deep breath before the dive into the passion this week. It’s almost as curious as the Annunciation, even.

Entry_Unknown_German_master_OsnabruckAltarpiece_1370sIt doesn’t start with a young woman being told that she’s going to give birth, but it is started with an announcement: We’re taking your donkey because our teacher needs it, and you can’t stop us! Does anyone else find it hilarious that, to fulfill the scriptures, Jesus needed a donkey to ride into town, and to do that his disciples committed Grand Theft Donkey?

In any case, Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem is a grand affair. People lined the road as he trotted up the path, starting from a certain place: the Mount of Olives. Why is that place so important? There was a prophecy that foretold of just such a savior coming from the Mount of Olives to free Jerusalem from its captors.

The prophet Zechariah gives us this account (and a quick trigger warning, this passage does include rape. Remember, the bible isn’t all that family friendly):

Zechariah 14:2-4: I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem for the battle, the city will be captured, the houses will be plundered, and the women will be raped. Half of the city will go forth into exile, but what is left of the people won’t be eliminated form the city. The Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day he will stand upon the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem.

Later on, in Zechariah 9:9-10, another prophecy recounts this: Rejoice greatly, o daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The people knew these prophecies well. They expected them, especially at the Passover, their highest festival. They also wanted it desperately. Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, two historians and theologians, tell of a second parade that happened that day. That one was on the other side of town, resplendent in Roman glory. It was the entrance of Pilate into the city, and he was accompanied by a troop of Roman soldiers. Their parade was a symbol of imperial might.

But Jesus’s parade…that was one of humility. It was a people’s parade. It was one with banners made of peasant’s clothing, with palms wafting in the breeze. It was the parade the people wanted, not the one the oppressors demanded. And Jesus? He fit the bill, coming in on a donkey from the Mount of Olives.

So they shouted, and sang “Hosannas” to him. They partied. They feasted. Finally, the one the prophets foretold has come! Or so they thought.

It’s even more peculiar how the passage ends. Jesus arrives at the temple, gives it a good scope…and then leaves. As unexpectedly as he came in, he disappeared. It was as if it was a dream for Jerusalem. Their messiah appeared, like the shimmer of a mirage…and then is gone. The rest of the week, he begins his campaign against the temple, and the priests. And soon, the crowd forgets their  parade. All hosannas faded. The blessings they put upon the one who came in the name of the lord were all but forgotten.

The Name of the Crucified King

In the days ahead, we will have a king. But he will not look like one.

Jesus_in_Golgotha_by_Theophanes_the_Cretan.jpgNobody will throw him a grand parade. Oh, they’ll line the streets, but instead of laying palms the ground before him, they will be shouting curses and spitting on a man with a crown made of thorns. No longer will they be saying “Hosanna” or “Blessed be his name.” Now it’s “heretic,” “traitor,” and “false priest,” that issues forth from their lips, and their hardened hearts. Gloria’s were sung for him at his birth. Hosannas at his entry. But no songs were sung at his crucifixion.

This week, we meditate on Jesus and his passion.

As we celebrate today, we take a pause to acknowledge the mountain we must climb to get to Calvary. May we always remember that his name is blessed. May we remember that he saves us, delivers us, and forgives us. May we remember that before we can get to resurrection, we must appreciate how deeply Jesus loves us. May we remember that the name of the crucified king is blessed. His name is Jesus. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.

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We Are What He Made Us, Ephesians 2:1-10

This sermon was delivered on March 11, 2018. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.

4-5 However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.[a] This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

 

images-12.jpegYou were dead once.

Yeah, that’s a weird thing to say out loud, especially to a large group of people such as yourselves. You were dead.  So was I.

I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who were by all medical measurements “dead” before. People whose hearts stopped for several minutes, only to be revived by CPR or a defibrillator. These people tend to tell wild stories of their experience of death. Some are beautiful, some are terrifying. All of them are revealing. To be able to say that you were technically “dead” is a badge of honor for many. To say they were revived, that’s a modern miracle.

But according to the writer of Ephesians, we were all dead. Every single one of us. Not just the ones who underwent a harrowing physical death. Everyone.

You may not feel like you were dead. You might actually feel like you were alive, more than just alive even. You technically, according to science, were alive. Your heart beat, oxygen flowed in your veins, your brains pulsed with chemical electricity. You had a pulse, a temperature, and everything in your body worked. But even being technically alive, you have been dead. Your spirit lied as stiff and as lifeless as a husk, like the old skin of a cicada stuck to a tree. That is, until you were given something. Until you were given grace.

gifts-3.jpgThe Gift Unlike Any Other

It is a privilege to be able to preach grace to you today.

It is a privilege to be able to testify with a Spirit that is alive. It is a joy to be able to acknowledge that you, and I, and all of us, at one point were dead, but given a gift. The gift? Was grace. That gift was resurrection of the Spirit. That gift was unlike any other gift that could be given, because it can only be given by God.

That gift, that grace, was given for one reason: God loves us. God has always loved us. And God cannot bear it to see his creation dead. God’s grief for a lost child is immeasurable–and how many people live today without accepting, without acknowledging that the life they bear today is because of God! How must it grieve God to see people deny the loving gift of life he gave to us all!

But grace is the key that unlocks the mystery of life, and grace is given to everyone, because even though we might revel in our dead-life, God shares it with us in small ways, ever nudging us towards the way God wants us to be. It moves us so that we become the people God created us to be.

When by grace God gives you credit for that work of Jesus, you become alive again.  Only grace can do that.

That’s why Paul did not say, “It is by your resume you were saved.”  Paul did not say, “It is by your bank account you were saved.”  Paul did not say, “It is by your being a good little moral person you were saved.”  Paul did not say, “It is by your nice investment portfolio you were saved.”  No, he said it is by grace you were saved, and this has nothing to do with you at all.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  You were dead.  All you could do was receive what God had to give to you.  It’s not about doing, but only about receiving.

(Source: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle)

find_your_purpose_1200x627.jpgA Gift with a Purpose

So being saved by grace is one thing, but there’s more to it than just simply being made alive in the Spirit. You are given life for one purpose–to do good.

This is perhaps where things might get a little sticky. We’re very comfortable saying that by grace we are saved, but there is an expectation attached to that salvation. What good is salvation without sharing it with others? It’s not necessarily a catch, but it is an expectation.

Put it this way. Say you’ve never been fishing. You want to go fishing, but you have no way of actually doing it. You don’t even have a rod. Seeing this, an old wise fisherman comes along and gives you his rod. He sits there a while, telling you the basics. He even gives you some bait to get started. The expectation there is that you get to fishing, right? You’re not going to just go home after this man has taken his time to share his wisdom, his rod, and even some bait, are you? No, you’re going to put it to use.

Most gifts are given for a purpose, aren’t they?

You give a gift, expecting some measure of thankfulness. You give a gift because you love or care for someone. And perhaps most of all, you give a gift because you want that person to enjoy what you gave them, and use it for its best purposes. The best example? Think of a wedding shower. Wedding gifts are usually gifts of usefulness. Plates, towels, cookware, household keeping products of every stripe, and when in doubt, gift cards! You give these gifts in the hopes that the happy couple uses them to make a house into a home.

Just as you give a gift to someone so that they can be happy and use it, God gives you the gift of grace as well, so that you can –shock of all shocks– be happy and use it!

Grace is not meant to be hoarded, nor is it something to lord over people. It’s meant to be shared. You were dead. Now, you’ve been given life! So go out there, and rejoice in the new life you have! Rejoice, and give joy to others!

Become Who You Were Born To Be

All of this comes down to purpose though.

All preaching, all reading scriptures, everything we do as faithful Christians is to fulfill our purpose. We are made alive by the Spirit, alive in Christ, all so that we can be the restored Creation God designed us to be.

See, God designed us with grace in mind. God wanted us to be fully alive. We allowed ourselves to be consumed by sin. In doing that, we became dead, in the ways that mattered. Our spirits lie dead when we embrace sin. But when we see the Grace God has for us? We are resurrected. More than that, we are remade.

We were made to be something entirely new. We aren’t who we used to be. We’re made to be something more like God is. We’re now remade with Grace. And that grace wants to be given to others.

It wants to be shared through compassion, kindness, generosity, and love. It wants to be shared through a phone call to an old friend. It wants to be shared over the table with a neighbor, or even a new acquaintance. That grace wants to be given new form through good works, through forgiveness, through reconciliation. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we go to church, why we take part in religion at all.

graceful.jpgSo now is your invitation. Become who God made you to be. Become a new creation, revived by the spirit. Live a grace-filled life. You used to be dead, but now life is given to you. You are alive now, here, and that life is a gift ready to be shared, used for good works. God delights in us using our gifts. So get out there. Live the good life. Become who God made you to be. Amen, and amen.

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On Wisdom, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

This sermon was delivered on March 4, 2018, the third week of Lent. A special word of thanks to Dr. John Holbert for his inspiration on this particular sermon. I love talking about Lady Wisdom, so I hope you enjoy.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent.[a] 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.24 But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

 

The_Thinker,_Rodin.jpg“God works in hilarious ways, His blunders to perform.”

My old preaching professor, Dr. John Holbert, once reworked the famous phrase into that on the day of my graduation from seminary. It intrigued me at the time, and often I will dwell on this statement.

The original phrase–” God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform”–is often one that we rest on when we can’t explain something. When something works for good, or for ill, we put that on God’s plan. But quite frankly, I find the reworking from my professor to be more apt. God works in hilarious ways, his blunders to perform. In hindsight, we often can see that God takes us in a roundabout way to get us where we need to go, like someone who goes 50 miles out of the way just to take “the scenic route.” Of course, once you do that, you see on the news that there was a massive pile-up on the shortest route on which you could have wound up injured or worse. Seemingly a blunder, but actually a wonder.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, displays a dizzying intellect and writing skill. It’s a shame then that he says that even the wisest piece of wisdom we have is foolishness to God.

Thus he sets up the crucial question that confront us today: What is true wisdom? We can have all sorts of theories, but according to Paul, true wisdom was revealed in nothing but the Cross of Christ. I want to unpack that, in hopes that we can come to a better understanding of God’s wisdom, and that we might appreciate the hilarious ways of God.

The Wisdom of the World

To truly appraise how hilarious God’s ways are, though, we need to look at the ways in which the world thinks it is wise.

Now, of course, it’s easy for a preacher to say “The World.” Paul says it all the time. But to be frank and honest, WE are the world. Our lives are in the world. We cannot separate from the world, not completely, nor should we. But we can counter the narratives that the world present to us. We can offer an alternative. But to do that we must see the world’s narratives for what they are.

600px-David_-_The_Death_of_SocratesSo what does the world think about wisdom? That’s a complicated question, with a lot of history. The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that true wisdom was understanding how much you didn’t actually know–which is actually a good starting place for us. Appreciating ignorance is a good step towards humility, a Christ-like attribute, and a significant part of the wisdom of the cross. It’s a shame philosophy and what we think about wisdom didn’t take him at his word.

Conventional wisdom, however, tends to overshadow the great thinkers.

Conventional wisdom dictates a lot of things. It dictates business, personal relationships, government, and a whole host of things. Because of this, we must be critical, and always ask “Why?”

George_Carlin_a_l.jpgIt can be said that “Our is a world of intelligence, wisdom, guts, and courage.  Might makes right and nice guys finish last.  It’s like some of the rapid-fire lines from George Carlin’s classic “Modern Man” routine:

“I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial! I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers.

Or as even some popular preachers tell us, “Nobody plans to fail but some fail to plan.  Tough times never last but tough people do.  High achievers spot rich opportunities swiftly, make big decisions quickly and move into action immediately.  Follow these principles and you can make your dreams come true.” (http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-3b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle)”

Well… again, that’s conventional wisdom. That’s what the world has agreed upon as the correct method of living, right? But the truth is, when it comes to plans, there’s a general pattern to it all: Make the plan, execute the plan, the plan goes off the rails, come up with a new plan. If you don’t snooze occasionally, you’ll run out of gas. You can’t live on power naps. Your car will explode if you keep the pedal to the metal. Acting swiftly can also lead you into more trouble than you are prepared for it you don’t count the costs.

The hard living life pays off for a lucky few, those George Carlin “Modern Men,” but not for everybody.

For instance, let’s talk about hard work. Hard work pays off, right? Nose the grindstone, honest elbow grease, keeps the world running, or so they say. But do harder workers truly earn everything they are owed? Does a farm owner actually work harder than the farm hand? Does a CEO actually deserve more for their hard work than a janitor does? Because I can guarantee you, a good janitor will come home sweaty and tired, nose to the grindstone, full of elbow grease, but for their earnings, it’s not nearly as much as a man who may sign a few papers, lead some meetings, and direct the flow of investment. I’m not saying a CEO doesn’t work hard, because Lord knows not everyone is cut out for it, but is what they do worth billions more than an honest, hard worker? I’m not so sure. But that certainly seems to be the wisdom of the world.

Look at it from another direction. How hard is it to break through a barrier that this world has put up? How hard is it to get elected to be in governmental office? Well that depends on the office, for one. If you’re running for a local office in east Texas, there better be an R next to your name, for one. But more than that, you need resources! Money for signs, advertising spots, and office space. You need volunteers to help fundraise and campaign for you. Then, you have to factor in your chances of winning against an incumbent–something that gets harder to do the longer they’ve been in power. And that’s just on the local level. If you go higher, to say state house, or governor, or US Congress, or Senate, even the President, it takes exponentially more money, volunteers, and time. Oh, and when you get further than maybe the local level, you have to worry about intra-party politics, as well as your opponent’s politics. The promise of America was always government of the people, by the people, for the people, but in practice, only those with access to time, money, and manpower can actually get to govern directly.

So that’s two aspects of life that the World’s Wisdom dictates. Hard work doesn’t actually always pay off. Governance isn’t actually all that easy to gain access to. Circumstances of place, status, race, gender, and ethnicity all play a role, believe it or not. In the end, the powerful remain powerful, and the weak remain weak. So goes the wisdom of the world. The Weak are Meat, and the Strong Eat.

The Wisdom of the Cross

God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross, is everything conventional turned on its head. In Christ, everything we know is completely contradicted. The culmination of this is the Cross.

crucifixion.jpgThe cross is a piece of wood upon which a criminal is forcibly nailed and hung until they are dead. A cross is a shameful punishment reserved for seditious, treasonous thugs, so that everyone will see and fear what will happen to them if they dare go against the Roman government, or the status quo. Jesus was executed. A criminal. The crime? Threatening the way things are. Threatening the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the government he threatened. No no. He threatened religion. He threatened commerce. He threatened the very way we do things. He threatened everyone. He threatened them by introducing love, mercy, humility, and truth to a world that thrives on hate, ruthlessness, pride, and deception. He threatened the modern mentality 2000 years ago, and continues to threaten it because to be completely honest, we haven’t changed much. We may have a different vocabulary with different toys, but the attitude is the same.

He threatens our wisdom with stories.

He threatens our wisdom by telling a story about a father who forgives a son who has wasted his entire inheritance. He threatens our propriety by telling a story about a man beaten on the side of the road, passed over by the leaders of the community, but cared for by an enemy. He tells the stories of fools, like a man who searches for 1 lost sheep, a woman who searches for 1 lost coin, and an investor who spends all his money to buy an entire field just for the chance of a hidden treasure.

More than stories, though, he threatens our wisdom with his actions.

He touches a leper, an offense that is reviled in religious circles, but so that the man can become clean himself. He forgives sins, and when they got mad at that, to prove the point, he makes a man to walk again. He revealed his full glory, his immanent divinity, to three disciples, only to tell them not to tell anyone! He fed the masses, and then turned around and told them that unless they eat of his flesh, and drink of his blood, they would have no part of him. He told them that unless they took up a cross and followed him, they would be no followers of his. He confused even his closest friends up until the very end.

And then? He died a humiliating death upon a cross.

All to prove that God’s wisdom is wiser than we can ever imagine. Death on a cross, ultimate shame, will wind up shaming those who committed it. And shame us by showing us that our wisdom can’t even overcome death, whereas his wisdom provides everlasting life. He confounds the wisest among us, and when we’ve given up on trying to figure him out, he proves to us the greatest wisdom one can have is to give yourself in living sacrifice. To live a holy life. To love unconditionally.

Jesus became wisdom, so that we might be wise. Jesus  proved that even God’s seeming blunders, God’s hilarious ways, God’s ridiculous schemes, will one day seem as clear as day, and we will wonder why we ever questioned it.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure them out. This shouldn’t give us excuse to be ignorant–rather, quite the opposite! It should spur us onto deeper learning, more vigorous study of scriptures, more passionate mission, more zealous giving, more devoted discipleship. Jesus wants us to dig deeper, and be ever the more wiser for searching for him. In this, we will have our wisdom. In Him, we will understand in time what God already knew. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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Prophet, or Profit? Mark 8:31-38

This sermon was delivered on February 25, 2018, the second week of Lent. It’s a personal favorite of mine, so I hope you enjoy it.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One[b] will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

 

 

What will it profit you to gain the whole world, but forfeit your whole life?

These words have haunted me this week. They’ve haunted me for the past few weeks, honestly. I think frequently about the state of the church, the history of the church, and most importantly, the future of the church. Where are we headed? And is where we are headed look anything like the future Jesus had in mind for us, the Kingdom of Heaven?

Quite frankly, I dwell often on language because language defines thought. As such, this passage haunts me particularly, because of that one word, that one, simply little homonym for which I have named my sermon. Profit, with an F.

We don’t see that word often at all in scripture. Prophet with a “ph”? Everywhere. But not with an F.  It sticks out like a sore thumb, and for good reasons.

I have some bad news for everyone today: Scripture does not think highly of profit with an F. In fact, it is quite vocally against it. Just a brief look at a word search for “profit” in the bible is very telling.

How-To-Get-Rich-in-MLM1 Timothy 6:17-19: As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Proverbs 11:4: Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.

Ezekiel 22:12-14: “In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me,” declares the Lord GOD. 

That’s just 3 of them. There are hundreds of them. More often than not, as well, translators equate “profit” with “dishonest gain.” And what is dishonest gain, but cheating other people out of their money through devious or cunning means? Surely there are those who make money honestly, of course, but more often than not, humanity seeks to gain the most wealth through the least effort, and often the least effort is through dishonesty.

Proverbs even calls out this dynamic: the best and most righteous gains, monetary or otherwise, are earned through hard work, not idleness, talk, or cheating. But these odes to honest profit are vastly outweighed by talk of dishonest gain.

On the other hand, Jesus here calls us to not seek self gain, but self-denial.

Jesus came as a prophet (ph) out of a long line of prophets. He spoke more like and Old Testament preacher, like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or Amos. He was the direct successor of John the Baptist, who called people to pay fair wages, not cheat each other, to share resources. It shouldn’t surprise anyone then that he wants us to follow the words of a Prophet (ph) rather than follow Profit (f).

This passage confronts us with an important question: do you have your mind set on God’s things, or on human things? Are you interested in earthly gain, or heavenly glory? Is what we have here and now more important than what we will experience in the hereafter? Is there any risk in your religion? Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?

An Honest Look at the History of the Profits of the Church

bible-and-money.jpgNow, a subject I love almost as much as I love language is history. As I said earlier, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the church, and its history. The thing with history, though, is that with a subtle shift of perspective, the whole thing can look completely different.

358985794.jpgThink for a moment on one of the most famous pieces of art ever made, Michelangelo’s David. The perspective from which most people see it portrays a young man, cocksure, ready to take on a giant with only the swagger that a young teen could ever muster. But if you don’t look up at the statue, but rather stare into David’s eyes at eye level, head on… his look has a different quality to it. Sure, there’s ferocity in the gaze, some would even call it a sneer, but there’s also an intangible sense of dread, or even doubt, that perhaps he’s taken on too much. It’s a masterful piece of work, to evoke that kind of emotion out of stone, but it illustrates the idea well: from a different perspective, what we take as the authorized version of things can sometimes appear differently.

So, allow me to take you through the history of the church, and along with it, the central question: Do you want a profit with an F, or a prophet with a PH?

In its earliest iteration, the church was a small but powerful–and growing entity. It attracted rich and poor alike, gentile and Jew–up until a point, of course, when the gentiles outnumbered the Jewish population of the church. They operated, largely, as the book of acts describes: small house congregations, care for the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the widow and the orphan alike. Christianity was also a non-governmentally recognized religion–which by itself means little, but one of the key aspects of Christian faith is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, meaning that Caesar, the Emperor is not. There was a high risk that you would undertake being a Christian. You might actually die because of your faith.

After around the turn of the 2nd century, controversies arose, and internal conflict became public debates about philosophy. The focus of Christianity, and the church, became a thinking-person’s exercise, and moved away from public action and into the academies. Faith became a philosophy. Still, it was relatively small, and on the ground level, not much had changed. The goal had not shifted–sharing the gospel remained central. Risk still existed.

Then, in 313, something remarkable happened: the Emperor of Rome, Constantine, declared that this small sect of Christianity was no longer just some rogue cult, but an officially recognized religion. Loving Jesus became legal. That shift is critical, because it began the church’s slow turn away from the PH Prophet angle, and toward something different. The church became an institution, and could live in the open. More people with more money began flooding the church. It then became the only church of Rome. And thus, the face of Christianity was altered. The goal was now state Power, for a good deal of the leadership. People were no longer killed for being Christian. Quite the opposite, actually. Over time, if you weren’t Christian, you were killed. Quite a shift in priorities. The F started overtaking the PH.

Fast forward about 1200 years.

Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli and his cohort, began a Reformation. Now there was no monolithic church, but several smaller denominations. The key thing to remember at this point though was that these denominations were still allied with the State, and so each State–like France, Germany, England, etc.–had their own religious affiliation. Wars broke out over variances in doctrine. Now, it was Christian killing Christian. At this point, the F and the PH were nowhere in sight.  However, you could reasonably be killed because of your faith. The twist here is that your killer could also be a Christian. Christianity was a tool of the state completely.

When the early American colonists began our iteration of Christianity, they did so with these religious wars fresh in their minds.

The religious separatists, the Puritans, wanted a place to live their faith out free of persecution from the state religious authorities–what a noble pursuit! From there, the founding fathers remembered that noble thought and enshrined it in the first amendment–that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  The state will have no official religion, nor will it infringe on your practice of religion, or lack thereof. But already, there was a growing change in the way we performed religion, one that would not be felt until the 20th century. This is what I like to call the “religious industrial complex.”

Religion ceased to be like a state institution, or a bureaucracy, or even a wing of the military. Instead, it resembled something much looser, and much more American in flavor: Business. The denominations ceased to be like warring nations, and much more like competitive businesses in a marketplace. Each religion was given the space to either sink or swim on its own, without state help–which in turn, led to some interesting evolutions.

Soon, we began to see the rise of denominational bodies adopting decentralized structures, not too unlike that of a franchise. Advertising became the primary means of evangelism for a great many denominations as well. All the way up into today, the church has positioned itself is much more like a business than anything else, because why not? If business is successful, why not emulate the practices of business so that the church can be successful as well?

And that, brothers and sisters is where it all breaks down.

Through each iteration, the church loses just a bit more of the plot, the purpose, the reason Jesus himself came down, and saving action he took on the cross. See, there was a reason I wanted to spend so much on the history of the church from this angle–to show you how easy it is to lose sight of the word of God. The church kept changing with the times, sometimes for the better, but often times, for the worst. Each iteration may have had good ideals–be it the desire to not die, the desire to spread salvation to everyone on the continent, or to be successful in their mission. But the definition of success is different for each iteration. Success for a university looks different than success for a nation. Success for a nation looks different than success for a business. And each iteration gains something that isn’t what Christ told us to gain. Each version seeks a profit, often through unholy means. But Christ told us of this very danger–what profit is it to gain the world, but lose yourself? Your very soul?

A Call to Repentance

Brothers and sisters, this is not an easy word to deliver, but it is one that it is on my heart to ask you as an individual–do you care more about profit with an F, or THE prophet, the one with a PH?

Dimes-1170x780.jpgIt is my belief that the church has lost the plot. We have forgotten what it means to take up our cross and follow Christ. We’ve gotten too caught up in the struggle for power, for prestige, for success, and yes, for profit, to remember that none of that matters when compared to what Christ accomplished on the cross. We’ve been caught up in talk of competition, or fear of irrelevance, or the loss of our public place in the world. All of it shrinks before the reality of death, and the power of the resurrection. All of it means less than nothing when compared to the reality of the Messiah, and the good news he bears for your soul.

Jesus gave up everything so that we may have salvation. He calls us to give up everything for the glory of that salvation. Success for the church should not look like worldly success. We need to stop thinking like humans, and start thinking like God does. That means we need to think sacrificially. That means we need to think benevolently. We need to be loving. We need to be truthful. We need to be peaceable in the face of violence, and not be afraid of death, of risking everything. We must, or we will go to the throne one day, and Christ himself will ask us once again–what did it profit you to gain the whole world and to lose your soul?

So do you care more about Profit, with an F? Or do you care about the Prophet, with a PH? May you find your answer, and may it be wise. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

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Alive in the Spirit, 1 Peter 3:13-22

This sermon was delivered February 18, 2018, the first Sunday of Lent. It was also delivered only 4 days after the Parkland High School Massacre.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? 14 But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. 15 Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 16 Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. 17 It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. 21 Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.

 

The school system in a large city had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city’s hospitals.

tutoring-3.jpgOne day a teacher who was assigned to the program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child’s name and room number and talked briefly with the child’s regular class teacher. “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now,” the regular teacher said, “and I’d be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn’t fall too far behind.”

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, “I’ve been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs.” When she left she felt she hadn’t accomplished much.

But the next day, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. “No, no,” said the nurse. “You don’t know what I mean. We’ve been worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
(source: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/h/hope.htm)

lent_6316c.jpgBrothers and sisters, welcome to Lent.

There are no flowers on the altar. There are no alleluias in the music. The season is often cold, damp, and grey. The world seems dead, and we are fasting in repentance and humility. For all appearances, we might imagine that things were grim, like the boy in the hospital.

And yet…we are alive. And because we are alive, we have hope.

This Lent, I’m going to focus on a lot of different idea, different scriptures from different places, because there is a wide diversity of emotions, concepts, and conflicts that emerge in times of repentance and reflection.

Today, I want to focus on hope. Specifically, hope in hopeless situations. Using the example of Christ, we have hope that springs eternal, because even as he was put to death, death could not constrain him. The Spirit gave him life, and so we through him and the Spirit, we are alive as well.

newsEngin.21372775_20180215-gsl-Shooting-_014.jpgA World of Persecution and Darkness

We are given hope, despite the world seeming to be a place of darkness.

Especially after this week, the world seems very bleak. The murder of 17 children in a public school should be evidence enough of that. Words can’t express the pain or heartache that has been given witness by the families and classmates of those who lost loved ones this week.

But that isn’t the only darkness that exists. You know, one thing that has stuck with me is a word that a mentor of mine, Pastor Billy Watson, once gave me: Sin and evil are the most provable parts of Christian belief, because you only need to look outside your window to see it. Our world has been broken by sin, sin that we humans brought on ourselves in the beginning. Hatred, Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Apathy, and worst of all Pride, have corrupted this world, and we only have ourselves to blame.

What’s worse than that is when good folks are persecuted because of the good things they do.

I might have used his story before, but it illustrates the point well. In 2014, Arnold Abbot, a 90 year old Florida man, alongside two pastors and a host of volunteers, began feeding the homeless from their neighborhood. That is, until, they were arrested. A city ordnance was enacted to ban public sharing of food in  Fort Lauderdale, and Abbot along with the clergy were arrested for 60 days, and fined $500 each. For feeding the homeless. It boggles the mind how these ordnances came to pass. The only reason I have is the one Abbot himself gave: “Man’s inhumanity to man.” (source: https://www.local10.com/news/local/fort-lauderdale/police-charge-90-year-old-man-2-pastors-with-feeding-homeless-)

Now I know what you’re thinking: obviously it’s Florida that’s the problem. All joking aside, it really isn’t. There are ordnances in many more major cities like that, that instead of helping the poor, criminalize both the poor, and those who would help them.

It goes beyond the homelessness problem, too. I know many a pastor arrested because they simply joined a protest they believed in, and wanted to help out, whether it be for women’s rights, against corruption in the government, or whatever honest, good causes they believed in. They suffered because of their righteousness.

Sadly, that is what happens to good in this world. Evil naturally wants to eliminate it, because darkness cannot stand the light. The forces of wickedness will always oppose light, in every way it can, both subtly, and overtly. It will even use the tools of good, such as law and order, to enact evil. That is how evil attempts to win: to make it look like defeat is inevitable, and there is no hope.

pink-and-purple-dawn-brian-wright.jpgHope Springs Eternal From the Spirit

But of course, there is always hope, because the Spirit is always with us.

Christ was the most righteous of us all. Christ did everything so that we might see the light, understand it, and share it with the world. He healed on the Sabbath–doing good, despite those who would use the law against him so that the light would not shine.

Christ shared the light with the fishermen, the sick, the lame, the possessed and the dispossessed alike. He shared his hope with the disabled, and gave healing to the desperate. He offered forgiveness even to the most sinful among us, to the chagrin of the righteous. He turned over the tables in the temple to send a message about the corruption of his religion, an act of civil disobedience if I ever saw one. And for these good deeds, he was persecuted. More than that, he was executed.

First, he was killed by the court of public opinion. Those in power turned the people that clamored for him, supported him, and shouted hosannas to him, against him. They made him into a villain worse than an accused murderer. And then they had him hanged to death on a cross, an ignoble and shameful means of death.

And yet, despite all of that, he persevered. Three days later, he was raised from the dead, and offered to us all new life in the spirit.

Not even the worst that the evil of the world could do would keep him down. And so for us, we have that same Spirit. Nothing can keep God out. Those who do evil in the world, and seem to have extinguished all hope, can never extinguish the fire of the Spirit. Which is why you must bear the light, even in the darkness of Lent.

Resurrection is coming. Flowers will bloom. Day will dawn. The clouds will disappear. And we, through the waters of baptism will be made clean, not just from dirt and grime, but clean in the Spirit. We will be given new life. We are not doomed. They wouldn’t teach verbs and nouns to a dying boy, and Jesus would not die for a hopeless creation. We are alive in the Spirit, on fire with hope. It’s on you, now, to share that hope everywhere. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Humility: A sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2018

This sermon was delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Though we are in a very different season of the church right now (the middle of summer is quite a ways off from when this was given), it’s still beneficial to think on the subject of repentance, because it’s never the wrong time to admit fault, and be transformed by grace. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation.[a] Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!

We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love,telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, 10 as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.

(2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10)

 

Ash-Wednesday-400x400Today is a most peculiar holiday.

As the world around us celebrates St. Valentine’s day, giving gifts and celebrating romantic love, you have chosen to come to church to embrace a ritual, an observance that St. Valentine would very much have approved of, much more than giving chocolate or flowers. Today, we celebrate Ash Wednesday, and undergo a season of prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving.

The practice of wearing ashes is a very old one, older than the church itself. Wearing ashes is a traditional Jewish practice, one used as a way of signifying to the rest of the world that you are in a state of repentance, fasting and sacrifice. We carry on the tradition, not out of blind obligation or because we always do it, but because this practice is important. The reasoning for it is in 2 Corinthians.

Ambassadors of Christ

Scripture can often feel like it is sending mixed signals when we come to the topic of public displays of faith.

The psalms tell us that God does not desire a sacrifice of a goat or a bull, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Joel tells us to rend not our garments, to not tear up our clothes in public as a show of faith, but be heartbroken instead. Jesus even makes a point of the showy religion of the Pharisees, and tells us instead to pray in secret, to give without thinking about it or saying anything, and to fast without telling anyone.

So to have ashes on our heads seems to fly in the face of those scriptures. Jesus says to fast in secret, but we put something on our heads to show the world that we’re fasting. Why do we do it then?

gettyimages-134366858-c2455e22f5d36ca774dc265f179327a33d22dd1b-s900-c85We do it because, as Paul says, we are ambassadors of Christ.

With ash on our faces, we have an opportunity to share our faith with the world in a way that is not self-aggrandizing, self-important, or self-centered in any way. Ashes represent the dust of the earth, the dust that we are all destined to return to when we die. Ashes remind us of our mortality, that we have a limited time in this life to repent and turn towards God. Our life is finite–God is infinite. Living in the glory of God gives us salvation, a way to live after death, and be resurrected. In the meantime, though, we are reminded of our limitations, and in the face of the fully glory of God, we are compelled to honor him.

Lent is a season of praise, believe it or not. It’s praise through action. In giving up something important to us, in refraining from luxury, in giving of our gifts both monetary and otherwise, we praise God. We give him the sacrifice of thanksgiving that God truly desires, and truly deserves.

1200px-Crossofashes.jpgSo as an ambassador of Christ, we are a witness to the world on Ash Wednesday.

We witness to the world that we are not holier than them, but that we are in need of holiness. We do not lord our fasting over anyone, but instead confess that we have been given much, and that we have been ungrateful, and need to reflect upon the blessings God has given to us.

Our witness will not go unnoticed. If someone sees the ashes on your head, that means that you have been marked for accountability, by all of us. We must bear each other up, every burden and every sin. We all bear the weight of our own crosses, as we walk towards Easter and the resurrection. As we wander in our wilderness in Lent, we walk not alone, but together. When we bear Christ on our heads, it is not a show of self-importance, but a cry for help. God, we need you, and we need you now. All of us. I need God. You need God. It’s a mark of humility. It’s a mark of thankfulness. It’s a mark of repentance.

Repentant, and Humble

And that’s the kicker. Lent is a time of repentance. And we are called to humility.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about you. None of this is. That’s the whole point. Faith, religion, devotion–this is not about us. It’s about God. It’s about becoming more like God, and centering our lives around God. Lent is a preparation for God’s full glory revealed in the resurrection. We must remove ourselves from the center of our world, because our lives are temporary. God is eternal.

So this day, remember that we are to live as ambassadors for Christ. We must be devoted to the Gospel. Today, this day, repent, and believe in the Gospel. Amen.

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