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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The Terror and the Beauty, Mark 9:2-9

This sermon was delivered on Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018. Enjoy!

–The Nerdcore Theologian

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them,and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One[a] had risen from the dead.

 

CatLionMirror.jpgTransfigurations are big business today.

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want one, including me. That’s how advertising works: want a change? We can sell you a change! We can make you into a new you, for the low low price of…whatever, you get the idea. But  Sometimes the change is not just in looks but in our whole image — including our name.

Issur Danielovitch Densky didn’t like the image his name projected, so he changed it to Kirk Douglas. In the same way, Frances Gum transfigured herself and her image into Judy Garland. Archibald Leach became Cary Grant. And would you have paid money to see Marion Morrison in the movies? Maybe, but Marion didn’t take that chance, he became John Wayne.

Remember that in Holy Scriptures many people got new names to go with a new life and a new image. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Saul became Paul. Simon became Peter, “The Rock.”

What I mean to say is that Transfigurations are not the exception. They are the rule.

We are all being altered in the appearance of our face, our countenance. We are all changing. To live is to be continually transfigured. So who are you becoming? (Source: https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-bobby-scobey-stories-change-transfiguration-72630)

Are you being changed into someone that reflects the glory of God? Or are you changing to become someone different, something fearful, someone unwilling to embrace change in the world? Is your heart more loving, or is it hardening, becoming more like a stone?

Jesus went on the mountain with his disciples to show them something miraculous. It was beautiful, but also terrifying–as is the nature of change. Change can scare us. But we must not be afraid. We must be bold enough to embrace the changes that God is making to us, and walk forward to carry out the mission God has for all of us.

3761.jpgThe Terror of it All

I’m quite fond of the story of the transfiguration for many reasons. One of them, is that it’s the topic of my first public sermon.

As such, it’s a topic that I have probably preached on the most, and each year I look forward to reliving the scripture. At the same time, there is fear in my heart regarding it: have I said before all that can be said about it? Is there anything left? Invariably, I do find new things to say about it, but still, fear is there.

It’s such a strange event after all. Jesus, taking three disciples up a mountain, and suddenly revealing himself in all of his godly glory to a chosen few, dancing with the two other biggest prophets in Jewish history. The voice of God the Father booming above them, commanding them to listen. Just describing the event in its stark detail is strange. It feels like encountering something from another world–which it is! And because of that, there’s the fear in the eyes of the disciples.

Peter of course is the one to speak up, and so it’s Peter we are meant to identify with.

It’s easy to identify with Peter, as he frequently inserts himself in the narrative. Mark has no problem with doing that with Peter, either: Peter is the exact person he’s modeled the narrative of Jesus and his disciples around. Peter constantly means well, but makes the wrong choice. He recognizes Jesus as the son of God, but fails to realize the grand purpose of the resurrection. He’ll be called the rock upon which the church will be built, and that rock, though well meaning, is flawed.

He sets the tone for the future of the church, and Mark uses that as a commentary. Peter witnesses this amazing event, this life-changing mystery, and he’s spellbound by it. The first idea he can come up with is an old one, one that given precedent by the Torah–let’s build some monuments. The word differs between translations–the CEB says “shrines”, but others will say “churches” or “dwelling places”–but the meaning remains the same: Let’s do what our ancestors did when something like this happened!  It makes sense, after all. This is history in the making! Why not make a monument?

But Jesus tells him no. This is a moment of change. And change requires us to respond differently.

Let’s not be afraid to do something new. Let’s not be afraid to move forward. WE can’t live on the mountain. We have to take this experience with us. We need to become a living monument to the transformational power of God. We can be overwhelmed, yes, but we can’t stay in a state of terror, petrified by God’s glory. We must move forward.

I like the quotation by Henry Drummond, the Scottish theologian when he said,

“God does not make the mountains in order to be inhabited. God does not make the mountaintops for us to live on the mountaintops. It is not God’s desire that we live on the mountaintops. We only ascend to the heights to catch a broader vision of the earthly surroundings below. But we don’t live there. We don’t tarry there. The streams begin in the uplands, but these streams descend quickly to gladden the valleys below.” The streams start in the mountaintops, but they come down to gladden the valleys below.

https://thedisciplers.com/illustrations-about-transfiguration/

things-to-do-in-napa-other-than-wine

I moved to this valley, Napa valley, to start something new. Where are you being led to start anew?

The Beauty of Moving Forward

The fear the disciples felt was real. God’s glory can be overwhelming. But the other half of the coin is the beauty of this moment, and the beauty we carry with us.

Think of the prophets that Jesus meets on the mountain. Moses was transformed when he saw God, so much so that his face shone like a star when he came down from the mountain, so bright that people had to shield their eyes. When Elijah encountered God in the small still silence on the mountain, it forever changed his ministry, and propelled him onward to choose a disciple, Elisha, to carry on his legacy. He didn’t stay on the mountain, he came down to keep going forward. The beauty changed him, and he used that beauty to change the world.

So we see these examples of people who didn’t fall back on the old way of doing things when faced with a life changing event. We see people who, when given the opportunity, embrace change.

In our church right now, we are faced with a mountaintop decision. Going forward, things are going to have to change. WE can’t rely on the old way of doing things in order to thrive. We’ve made strides in the past, but we can’t be complacent.

We’ve been praying over our pews, so that they would be filled. Now is the time to move forward and actively seek it in the world. We’ve been praying for our hearts to be kindled by deeper discipleship. Well guess what? Lent starts this week. What better time to make the change, embrace the glory of God, and move forward with that desire for a deeper relationship. We’ve been praying for ways to make an impact in our community. We can’t simply build up what we have–we must seek out new opportunities outside these church walls.

I could come up with ideas, but my time here is temporary. Such is the nature of the United Methodist itineracy, for good or for ill. We pastors are charged with caring over the ministry of word, service to the church, the sacraments of worship, and the order of church business so that we might make more disciples. It’s up to you all, then, to carry the torch. You are here to be transformed. You are here to take up a new name, and go into the world to share it.

So this day is the turning point. Change is upon you. You can be terrified by it, or awed by it, but don’t be petrified by it. Move. And God will move with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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God Shed His Grace: A meditation for Independence Day, 2018

I have a troubled relationship with patriotic “hymns.” More often than not, they are hymns to a mythic, imagined country, a history glossed over by a mirror shine of nostalgia and blind, unthinking devotion. That we would sing them on Sunday mornings in a worship service is something that has always made me uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. I am an American, a citizen of these United States. I love this country, and I take my citizenship here very seriously. I try to stay up on current events. I  vote. I do what I can to be a part of this great experiment. But that being said, I make no secret my discomfort with rabid devotion and unthinking, uncritical patriotism. This is probably because I grew up in the 90’s, and saw how my country changed after 9/11/2001.

I’ve said this many times before, but I’ll share it again. I learned the news in my 9th grade geography class. I walked in, and for an hour, we watched the news as it unfolded. When I saw the towers fall, the first words that fell out of my shocked, numbed lips were “I hate war.” Because in my young mind, I was terrified that I would be drafted. The draft never happened, thank God, but still that day signaled a shift in the country that I love.

I witnessed the birth of two different kinds of patriotism.

Later that day, I saw a gas station sign that said “Nuke The Middle East.” It didn’t take even a day for the rage and hate machine to get started. Living in East Texas, that isn’t so surprising. Far away from the centers of power, war was a distant, favorable thought for many, one that proved our national character as one of strength and power. Harassment of the (admittedly few) students of Middle-Eastern descent began in force in the school. All over, things were rapidly changing. Color coded terrorist threat-level meters became commonplace images on the news. Vicious attacks on our Muslim neighbors increased dramatically, and though beforehand they had lived lives of quiet obscurity, now their faith had been so publicly warped by extremists, they felt the backlash simply for being from a different place and worshipping a different way. A new wave of nationalism had arisen.

But I heard stories of a different kind of patriotism, mostly from the news. Nothing I saw first hand mind you, but it did filter down. I heard stories of how New York was quiet for a week after the attack, and how everyone was reminded that they were neighbors. I saw protests emerge, defending neighbors and denouncing needless war. I saw new kinds of activism, community engagement that resembled what I had imagined to be the utopian vision of America that was promised to me in my history books. Not the guts-and -glory nationalism of “nuke ’em all, let God sort ’em out” attitudes. Not “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” This kind of patriotism was but a seed for me, though. it took many years for this version of love for the nation to emerge.

So I look back on it now, and I think of how this patriotism has grown in my heart. It looks like a sapling, not a mighty tree. It is fragile, but it grows. Though it has weathered some harsh conditions in the past two years, it still reaches for the sun. It’s beginning to flower, as I fumble awkwardly for words to express my own political opinions. But it does beckon me to think about the patriotic hymns of my youth. Specifically, America the Beautiful.

Of all the patriotic songs I know, I think it’s my favorite. Not the first verse, mind you, but the second one. Admittedly, it still bears a glossy sheen of problematic nostalgia, but it has grown on me.

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
And while I still grimace at the unmentioned fact that those explorers beat a thoroughfare through inhabited indigenous lands that to this day no longer belong to the people who first lived here, the second half is unique in all of our hymnody to our country.
It bears humility.
That Christian virtue most at odds with national pride, humility is a rare trait for even the most devout churchgoer in America when it comes to our country. This song asks God to mend our flaws. In essence, it’s a tacit confession, asking for forgiveness and healing. It begs God to reform us, to give us some self-control, to not give into the excesses of nationalism but to be willing to listen to criticism, and grow stronger from it.
The United States is my home. I know none other. I’m strong enough in my love for it to criticize it, because I know we can be better.
We can rise above grotesque nationalism. We can discard our gut distrust and hatred of immigrants and refugees. We are a many colored quilt, of different homes, different nationalities, different faiths, different circumstances. We can come together to embrace each other as neighbors. In humility, I believe America will find its way. Not in bravado. Not in power. Not in defense. But in honest, clear-thinking love of our neighbors.
May God give us this grace.
–Grant, the Nerdcore Theologian
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