An Amputation

I’m struggling with my beliefs on the church.

Don’t get me wrong of course. I’m still very faithful to my God. That has never been in question, to be honest. My general systematic framework of belief is still there.

But that ecclesiology bit… always needed some work.

Part of that is my anthropology, a concept I’ve been thinking about a great deal–so much so that I’m centering my dissertation around the question, or so my current thinking is going. What I believe about humanity has severely fluctuated over time. I used to reject the concept of total depravity of humanity. I desperately wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of people, and their capacity to do good in the world.

That belief is shaken. The reason for that lies in the church.

I’m going to lay some things out there for you, dear reader, that I have been sitting on for a while, partly because it’s not general knowledge, and it’s fairly sensitive. I’m going to start talking about how I got to be in the place where I am now. No longer a pastor. No longer in any sort of traditional ministry. And, for the time being, no longer a part of any church organization.

Believe me when I say that this is not a place I thought I would ever have thought that I would have been in the past. I was a die-hard for the United Methodist church. I mean, dyed in the wool, born and bred in the Methodist mold. Born in a Methodist hospital, raised in a Methodist household. It wasn’t for lack of nurture that I came to my faith tradition. Oh, I dabbled in other denominations–I was, as many of you know, Presbyterian in college–but my home remained with Wesley and those peculiar people of his.

I had known for years that I was called to ministry in some capacity. I doubled down to the point that I believed that I was called to United Methodist ordination as an elder. I went to a United Methodist school of theology. I did the courses, got the Master’s degree. I went through everything, firm in my belief that I was called to the office of elder.

Reality tends towards a praxis of rude awakening.

I was assigned as an associate pastor to a congregation that wanted an associate, but had a senior pastor who desperately did not want one at all. I had no clear direction, and what drive I had either was thwarted by my shattered preconceptions of what a senior pastor would and should be, and the loneliness of being sent to somewhere that was so far from my peers. I had hoped to be an associate somewhere in Houston, and craved the mentoring of a caring senior pastor, but got neither. Disappointed, but not defeated, I did my best in that appointment. I made my share of mistakes, but I’m proud of what I attempted to do there. Sadly, my attempts were not met with the results I expected.

A year and a half into my first appointment, I was given the ultimatum: mess up again, and you are out.

I was given very little confidence by my superiors. I was told that “many are called, few are chosen.” I was even told by a superior that I straight up was not actually called to be a pastor.

That hurt. A lot. A deep scar that I still carry.

I was moved to a different location. 2 churches who needed a senior pastor. Never mind that I had been given little instruction in how to manage churches as a senior pastor, mind you. Forget that I still very much craved a good mentor, and a metropolitan locale. The church told me I was to go elsewhere, and so I did, good little believer in the system that I was.

I floundered. I struggled. My health was in decline, my depression and anxiety worsened. I was surrounded by very few people of my own age or mentality. I felt isolated, spiritually, mentally, and physically.

The wound was deepening. The separation was widening.

For three years, I struggled. With some good mentoring by a few kind, caring pastors that I grew to be friends with, I believed I improved as a pastor. I honed my edge. I got better as a pastor. I got better at interpersonal relations, got more outgoing, did more things in the community. I thought I was making progress.

I was told it wasn’t enough.

Perhaps not outright, but to my ears, I was told that -I- wasn’t enough.

My superiors were resolute. They saw neither the gifts nor the graces for ordained ministry in the office of the elder. They saw me struggling in my context. They saw my mistakes as irreconcilable. Funny that, being church people, they saw me as not worth saving in this vocation, despite my insistence on my calling, despite my progress. My sins were too great. My failures too catastrophic. My fruits an unworthy offering. With a kind eye, they denied me the goal I had been seeking for ten years. They gave me a choice: give up, or be denied by the board of ministry officially.

I was too tired. I was too broken. My spirit was too wounded.

I gave up, and was amputated from my dream. A dream I had worked for ten years to achieve. A dream that, in part because of the hand that fate had dealt me, and in part because I had mismanaged the hand sufficiently, I could no longer see to fruition.

It’s been a rough few months, but I’m learning to cope with the grief of it all. Yes, it is grief. I’ve done reading on moving on. I’ve prayed quite a bit. But going back to school has hammered home the fact that, to be honest, I have no church home. My church rejected my call to ministry.

I do harbor resentment to the church, resentment that will probably take years to deal with in my conversations with God. I’m in a better place, both physically and emotionally. The California air and culture agree with me better than Texas did, but that doesn’t quite make it home. I’m not sure if I have a home, outside of my family. The United Methodist church has certainly not felt like home to me since my departure from ministry. That the church I was looking forward to joining as an elder, and changing from the inside, is on the brink of schism brings me no joy. Profound sadness has permeated my thoughts on the church, and its ongoing troubles only exacerbate that sadness.

My home denomination may not exist much longer, but whatever happens to it, it will happen with me as an outsider. Even if I found a United Methodist church to join with, it won’t ever truly feel like home, not after the rejection I’ve felt and experienced.

I feel that my ecclesiology has been amputated, and I was the one who had to cut the final strands. But amputation can be a good thing. It can salvage a limb that had gone gangrenous, or cancerous. It can even leave opportunity for replacement that, while maybe not ever organic, can still function similarly, with some determination and adjustments. It won’t ever be the same though. It can’t remain the same.

I can’t remain the same, and I can’t mourn forever.

I guess I’m grieving still, for the foreseeable future. I’m going to have to work on my beliefs on the church, and it may not be as strong as it once was.

But it will be healthier.

Here’s to health.

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The Choice is Yours, Mark 16: 1-8

The following sermon was delivered Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018. Enjoy!

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[b]

 

maxresdefault-4.jpgLife is a series of patterns. Look really closely, and you can see them.

Nations follow a pattern. Nations are born, either through discovery, or through revolution against an existing power. They find footing, perhaps after a rocky start. They have an ascendant period of growth and building. They have a golden age, a climax  of power, prestige and prominence. And then, there is inevitable decline, followed by collapse into irrelevance, revolution, or even complete destruction.

Likewise, lives have a pattern. We are born into this world helpless, in need of parental protection and guidance. We grow into childhood, idyllic in its own way, but not without its trials and difficulties. We emerge into teenage years with days of storm and conflict as we learn who we are going to become. We become adults, and hopefully find a career or a niche in which we are productive and fruitful in this world. As we age, we can no longer work, and so we retire, and then rest on what we have earned in life, or rely on our loved ones to take care of us. We do this, all the way down to the end, to death.

Patterns are important to recognize. In fact, that’s what separates us from animals, our ability to recognize and create patterns.

It served us well in our tribal ages–being able to see patterns in the wild helped us to tell whether or not there was a predator lurking in the trees, or whether or not a certain plant was edible or poisonous. It has aided us well even today. We are hardwired to not only see patterns, but to adhere to patterns. Which makes this passage, this gospel, hard to understand.

This gospel does not fit the patterns. Not the ones we understand, at least.

It doesn’t sound like an ending. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and those parts tend to adhere to certain patterns, ideas, or methods. Specifically endings. Endings wrap everything up. Endings are meant to satisfy something in us that wants closure. And Mark gives us an ending, but it’s an ending that breaks with the patterns that we are trained to understand, to recognize.

He does this for a good reason though, a reason that has to do with choice. A choice on our part, that is. Mark wants us to make a choice at the end of this gospel, but seeing the choice clearly takes a keener eye and an opened mind, one that not even the disciples or his followers could discern fully. Ultimately, the choice is yours to make–with God’s help of course.

gospel-storyline.001Subverting Expectations

Mark, along with the other gospels, use certain patterns in the way they tell a story.

Most often than not, it goes a bit like this. Jesus shows up in town. A problem is presented to him. Complications are added to the problem. Jesus says something profound or important. Jesus acts and the problem is reversed. The people depart, in awe of Jesus, and either react positively or negatively. That’s the pattern. It goes up, then back down, and usually the way down in some way mirrors or even reverses the way up. Therefore, a lot of the time, the most important part is in the middle, the peak.

Take for example a story early in Mark.

Jesus is teaching in a house. The house is packed, but some friends have a paralyzed man who needs healing.

They escalate the situation, climb to the roof, and lower the man.

Jesus, moved by the actions of the friends, says to the man: your sins are forgiven.

Scribes are upset, tell him only God can forgive. Jesus responds by healing the man, along with forgiveness.

The people are amazed, and depart in wonder, for they’d never seen anything like that before.

Do you see how that works? That pattern is repeated over and over in the stories of Jesus. It’s actually quite fascinating to see how much it works as a framing structure. That said, it sets up some expectations about how people respond. Either with wonder and acceptance, or wonder and fear. Sometimes both at the same time.

Therefore it’s interesting to see how this passage both adheres to Mark’s previous pattern of escalation and de-escalation, and subverts our expectations at the same time.

Let’s break down Mark 16 then, for posterity’s sake:

Mary, Mary, and Salome, go to the garden where Jesus was buried.

They begin to worry about how they are going to roll away the stone.

They then get worried because the stone has already been rolled away.

Furthermore, Jesus’s body is nowhere to be seen.

A Young Man is present, tells them that Jesus has been raised. He is waiting for them to arrive in Galilee.

Overcome with terror, they flee the tomb.

They say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid.

Now, as you can see, it has the same rise and fall of the previous story. It even shapes our expectations because of it. We expect to see this result in a similar way that occurred before: amazement, wonder, and hope. Instead, we see the opposite: amazement, fear, and uncertainty. Why is this? Why would Mark subvert our expectations like this? He does this because he wanted to make this story a turning point for us, his audience. Even thousands of years later, it poses to us a strong choice.

Will You Stay, Or Will You Go?

Mark ends his gospel with a resurrection, but not with closure. He ends it with a question, a question for you to ask yourself that was best said in the song by the Clash (who, albeit talking about a different situation entirely, still seems to apply today):

Should I stay or should I go?
If I go there will be trouble
If I stay there will be double
So you’ve gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go?

1104723You may laugh all you want, but the truth isn’t far off.

Mark’s whole gospel, as I have said before and will keep repeating, is all about getting you to REPENT. That’s why he doesn’t bother with the nativity of Jesus. He starts at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, where he says to the people that he has come to proclaim the kingdom of God, and that we need to repent, change our hearts and minds, and prepare. That message remains consistent throughout the gospel, and as lean as it is, it truly hammers that point home. Jesus is here to teach you about the Kingdom, and for you to accept the Kingdom, you have to repent.

 

That message remains even in the very ending of this gospel. There is no happy ending in Mark, because he is depending on YOU to supply the happy ending. You are given plenty of examples of how to do so throughout the gospel. Mark, therefore, wants you to ace the exam, so to speak. You’ve been given the right answer, if you’ve been paying attention. In his estimation, though, you’ve been given an example of what you COULD do, as exhibited by the women. You could run away in terror, confusion and fear in the face of the resurrection. Or you could meet Jesus in Galilee.

RESURRECTION_SSC__42526.1394731775.1000.1200_7cbd94de-5e5c-4d08-b612-35221c87c4dc_large.jpegMeeting in Galilee, Back From the Dead

That’s the right answer, of course. Meet Jesus in Galilee, so to speak.

Galilee was where it all started. Galilee was where the gospels began. It’s Jesus’s hometown, so to speak. It’s where the disciples came from. It’s where his legend  spread.

So Galilee means a lot of things. Galilee could mean “do ministry where you are.” It could also mean the opposite: Go and find where Jesus wants you to be. For me, though, it means to be ready to start from square one, only this time, do it better. Because that’s the meaning of Easter, really.

I mean, Jesus died, and beat death. That’s huge. That’s incredible. And that means that everything is changed.

You can go home, but you aren’t the same person you used to be. You can go somewhere else, but you won’t be the same when you get back. Whatever you do, you will be changed. More than that, you will be resurrected, like Christ. You will have a fresh start, and a fresh direction. You have an opportunity to start over again, and meet Jesus where he wants you to be, with the understanding you didn’t have before.

His disciples eventually did meet him in Galilee, this much we know from the other gospels. They did learn the meaning of resurrection, so much so that they started a whole new movement, far bigger than it was when Jesus was alive (for the first time.) It exploded. When they went to Galilee, they ball got rolling, and it grew into an avalanche. It outgrew their wildest expectations, and kept growing, 2000 years later.

Meeting in Galilee resulted in the church. 2000 years later, Jesus is still waiting for us, wherever Galilee might be.

But in the end, of course, the choice is yours. You could run into the night screaming, in fear of death, or the uncertainty of God. You could ignore it, make excuses, and try to poke holes into a testament that doesn’t care one bit if it makes any logical sense, because logical sense wasn’t what Jesus was here to make. Jesus was here to make disciples. Jesus is here to make you a disciple. But to become a disciple, you have to repent. You have to change your heart and your mind. You have to become something entirely new. You have to be resurrected.

So will you stay or will you go? Will follow Jesus to your own personal Galilee? Will you call him savior, or will you call him a myth, a legend, a fairy tale, a falsehood? Will you live as if he is your King, or will you simply call him King, and spend every day acting as if he isn’t? Will you repent, and change your heart and mind? The choice is yours, and it always will be. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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When God Died, John 18-19

This sermon was delivered on Good Friday of 2018, March 30th.

–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian

4431-crown of thorns_edited.630w.tn.jpgOn Good Friday, God died.

Out loud, that’s kind of strange to say I’ll admit. I mean, the definition of a God is that they are immortal, that they don’t die. But on a Friday 2000 years ago, the man who was God died on a cross. More than that, he died for us.

Jesus was fully God, and fully human–this much we believe. Humanity was cruel to this God. We spat on him. We cursed him. We betrayed him, tried him, and killed him. He allowed us to do this to him too. At any point, Jesus could have stopped this from happening. He could have called an army of angels to his side to end the persecution. He could have caused an earthquake, a storm, anything to occur to disrupt the proceedings. He could have walked off the cross himself and walked away. But he didn’t. He chose this end. This much we have heard from John. It’s a lot to take in. That’s why we have a whole day to do it with, a whole worship service devoted to meditating on Jesus’s death and passion.

So what should it mean to us that God died for us?

Well, this is God we’re talking about. Jesus, as well as the angels, repeatedly told us that for God, all things are possible. With God, a sinner can inherit the Kingdom of God. With God, a virgin can bear a child. With God, a storm can be stopped with a word, a man can walk on water, the sick can be healed and the lost can be found. Therefore, with God, the impossible–a God dying–is possible too. Sad as that is, it is not outside of possibility for a being of infinite power, as well as infinite love.

good-friday-jesusAnd that’s really the kicker, isn’t it? It’s because of the depth of Jesus’ love for us that he was willing to do it for us. God died because he loved us, and that love was so overwhelming that God submitted to the unthinkable.

This day is a somber one. It’s one of reflection and prayer. It’s a day of confession and repentance. It’s even a day when we can be sad, and even mournful, for a dead messiah. We need to feel these things. We need to feel sorrow for what happened to Jesus, and regret for how humanity treated him.

More than anything though, this needed to happen.

Death is an inevitability. It is the equal balance of life, one that is inescapable for us mortals.

There is a passage that I found from Dr. Alan Watts, a scientist and philosopher, that explains nothingness and death in a fascinating way, which I’ll share with you now.

Overcoming-Fear-by-Embracing-Nothingness-1-768x504.jpgIf you are aware of a state which you call is, or reality, or life

This implies another state called isn’t

Or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death

There it is, you can’t know one without the other

And so as to make life poignant, it’s always going to come to an end

That is exactly, don’t you see, what makes it lively

Liveliness is change, it’s motion

So you see, you’re always at the place, where you always are

And you think WOOWIY! little further on we’ll get there!

I hope we don’t go further down

So that we loose what we already have

But that is built into every creatures situation

No matter how high, no matter how low

So in this sense all places are the same place

And the only time you ever notice any difference is in the moment of transition

When you go up a bit, you gain

When you go down a bit, you feel disappointed, gloomy, lost

You can go all the way down to death

Somehow there seems to be a difficulty getting all the way up

Death seems so final

Nothingness seems so very, very irrevocable and permanent

But then if it is, what about the nothingness that was before you started?

On the contrary, it takes nothing to have something

Cause you wouldn’t know something was without nothing

You wouldn’t be able to see anything unless there was nothing behind your eyes

The most real state is the state of nothingness.

 

–Alan Watts

 

If the most real state is the state of nothingness, then God needed to experience that. God needed to die so that God could overcome death for us.

On Sunday, we’ll see this in its fullness. But for now, we wait. We dwell on nothingness, emptiness, in hopes that it will one day become something-ness again.

God is God. That will never change. But in the meantime, we must contemplate God’s death, and our own role in it. To get to the beginning, we must experience the end. That way, we can fully appreciate it. Until then, we wait. In the name of the loving Father, the crucified Son, and the ever present Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

 

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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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