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The Bookkeepers Will Always Be With You . . . But They Don’t Have to Be

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.

Luke 15:1-3, 25-30

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we find it hard to believe you will erase for us what we will not erase for others. So, we find ourselves taking up our bookkeeping again and again. It may have been what the Older Brother did. But, it is not what the First Born of all Creation does for us. Remind us this day, again, that grace makes life both lighter and more purposeful. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

It was Jesus, after all, who said, 

“You will always have the poor among you.

Maybe Jesus was looking back to the words in Deuteronomy,

“there will never cease to be those in need on the earth.” 

Jesus words came as he perceived the disciples judged the woman who anointed Jesus head with expensive perfume. Matthew reveals the disciples were thinking the price of the perfume would have fed quite a few poor folks. Jesus does not dispute the command in Deuteronomy that may or may not have prompted the disciples to judge. But if you are inclined, it could well be that Jesus reply to the disciples,

But you will not always have me.

has the same sense in his response to Martha when she complained about Mary not helping in the kitchen. There is a better way than keeping books on others who do not live up to your expectations, your rules. Not only will the poor always be with us, it appears there will always be another group.

If there is another group that will always be with us, it will be those of us that refuse to put the books away. You know, the sort that always keeps your score for you? And, if I were a gambling person, I would wager many of us bookkeepers are of the first born variety, like the Older Son in Jesus crazy story. Think about it.

We first born types are the experimental bunch. Those of us that presented our parents with their first experience of parenthood did not have a clue they did not know what they were doing. But they were the parents. Parents make rules and level punishment for breaking those rules. We learn the rules early and often. Even though we may glimpse grace from the rigidness of those rules on occasion, we tend to internalize that the world is made up of rules. We go to school and this is reinforced. We learn about stops signs and speed limit signs and our suspicions that the way to order our lives is by rules is confirmed. We may talk back, break curfew and run a stop sign, but when it all came down to it, our parents were more Moses and we were more Israel. Only after our siblings were born did we learn how easy it was to change those laws. Just be born second, or third, or . . .. One of the hardest things for we first born types to do is let go and realize that just because it was a rule for us, did not mean that our parents did not learn from their first experimentation. The repeated and reinforced vision that the world is about keeping rules leaves and left us with a legalism that is hard to shake. Having become parents ourselves, we learn to look back with some measure of sympathy. We cannot slight them for their lack of experience before having us. However, we tend to look with a critical eye at our younger siblings to see if they keep the rules as well as we think we did.

It often shows up in the playful complaint – “We never got to do what [insert the name of your sibling] is getting to do at that age.” I know, I have heard it too. After the first experiment in parenthood, Dads and Moms make adjustments. If too many rules are hard for children, think about the parents keeping up with them. It is not uncommon to reduce the number of rules for those born after. 

Think about what happened with Israel. After the 10 commandments it seems a good idea to some to develop a code of about 613 rules to live by. Their story is like ours would be. If we have trouble with ten, who thinks we could sustain 613. Tensions always existed between those who kept the law and those who didn’t. Even worse, a group was raised up within their people group that reminded the people of the most important command. By the time we get to Jesus, he knew we needed it simple, to the point. Love God and love others, though his idea of loving others included our enemies. He may have pointed to a simpler code but he set a higher expectation.

Simpler – two commands – and an increased scope only proved that we could not keep the rules. We still don’t too well.

We older siblings have it written like sharpies marked into the books of our experience that those who followed us should reward us for paving a smoother way! If you are like me and your youngest sibling was born enough years removed to be nearly raised as a first-born only child, you secretly wonder who kidnapped your parents. Someone gave them a legalism laxative! See, you will always have those sibling bookkeepers with you!

Sibling rivalry rears its head when the Older Son discovered the party going on. After all to read his response to the invitation to come to the party, is like hearing the airing of grievances. It sounds like a typical first born. Can’t you hear it? “After all he did to this family.” Remember, when the Younger Son requested his inheritance it benefited the Older Son. How soon he forgets. He received his inheritance at the same time the Younger Son asked for his. It does not take much imagination to think the Older Son stewed at the prospect he would be left to take care of all that was left to him without the aid of his younger brother. If that was not enough, it was a double whammy when the Older Son learns the Younger Son returned having partied all his inheritance away and is now the featured guest at a party thrown by his father. Maddening I tell you!

Whether or not you are the first born, surely you empathize with the Older Son. He never left. He remained faithful. He did the work. What’s more it is clear that the Older Son thinks the book he has kept on his brother in contrast to his own book should give him the right to criticize. He likely thinks he should have been consulted since the fatted calf would have been his. 

Some things never die. And that is my first point.

The only figure in the story that does not die is the Older Son. Look at it again. When the Younger Son asked for his inheritance it was to wish his father dead. Dispossessing  himself of all he had the Father gave everything to his sons.The death of the Father gets the story rolling. Yes it is a type, a sign, of death. The Younger Son realized that he was no longer worthy to be a son so that his very standing as son was gone. He reckoned himself dead. The fatted calf, innocent, became the festive feast. Only the Older Son did not experience any type of death, figurative or otherwise. 

Our book keeping dies hard. Even though in Christ our need for these books die with his death, we find ourselves from time to time keeping book on everyone else in order to justify our own books. Or, put another way. We like it when there are others who live up to God’s standard less than we do. It makes us feel better about ourselves. Smug. And, it seems the Older Son is full of smug. Surely you can hear the Pharisees level the charge against Jesus. It comes with that tone we all have heard. It is the sound of coming guilt, of impending shame. You are not as good as we are. If some things never die in us, in the way we look at others, it should not be a surprise to find this smug attitude present in and among Christians and even in churches as we look at others. Sometimes it does not need to be said. It is often felt. 

Tommie texted me the message on a church sign. We do often wince at some of the messages that get displayed. The sign read,

We come to church to hug necks, not wring them.

Many people feel like they have been wrung out after having run the gauntlet of comments that sound more like the people in church have been keeping book on you. It takes many forms. Rather than, “It does my heart good to see you,” we re-introduce ourselves. We draw attention to absence by asking, “Where have you been?” Little do we know just what has been going on. But, it is enough to give pause to coming back after feeling wrung rather than hugged.

Some things need to die. And that is my second point.

Our book keeping, that is what needs to die. Our failure to put away our books after having been crucified with Christ, dead, and buried and raised to walk in a brand new life only serves to illustrate how difficult for our egos to let go. We so need to have control. We fool ourselves into thinking we are free only to suffer the greatest rule enforcer – our ego. Somewhere we got the idea that keeping the rules sets us in better standing than all others. Just ask us. And here is where it gets dicey. It is in an honest assessment of our book keeping that we realize just how lousy at it we are. Now we won’t tell you. We don’t want anyone to know. So, we keep a second set of books – one set for us and one set for those around us. Give us the chance to point out how you are not keeping a good book and you can be sure we will. The Older Son.

If there is an attitude that will surely undermine the Gospel, the Good News message, carried in the bodies of those of us trusting Jesus it will be the mixed signal that in fact we are trusting our books more than Jesus. This story, this parable of grace is taking aim at those of us who think Jesus too pious to hang out with those whose books are all in the red. It is for us who think ourselves better for the books we have kept on ourselves appear better than those people.

Who cannot feel that?

Given the reality of grace, we hurt ourselves. And that is my final point.

The Father learns that his Older Son refuses to enter the party. Just like he did with his Younger Son, the Father goes out to the Older Son. It is there he makes the appeal. The Older Son is affirmed in his faithfulness. He is applauded for his work. He is reminded that all the Father has is his. We are not given what the Older Son decides after the Father makes an appeal. But it is clear that the grace extended to the Younger Son has also been gifted to the Older Son. Yet, the Older Son refuses to die. That is, the very measure he has used to give himself solace in comparisons to his Younger Brother fuels his anger and he is left in our vision standing outside the party. He only hurt himself.

But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

Grace is received. And, grace is an ethic by which we who have been made alive in Christ live. If grace does not compel a response then it is not grace that has grasped us. Standing outside, refusing to eat with sinners and prostitutes, determined not to go to the party is a sure sign that bookkeepers will always be with us. 

But . . . They need not be.

Governor Stitt Aims for Oklahoma’s First Top Ten Win . . . In Firearm Deaths

Our new Governor laid out his goal to make Oklahoma a top ten State. Who would have thought that before education, justice reform and healthcare that Oklahoma would pass legislation with the promise of the Governor’s signature that will surely propel Oklahoma into the top ten of states with the highest rate of firearm deaths?!

According to the CDC, Oklahoma is currently at number thirteen for States with the highest rate of firearm deaths. If the statistics from other states that have passed permitless carry legislation inform what we may expect in Oklhaoma, Governor Stitt will get his dream of making Oklahoma a top ten state sooner than later.

What defies common sense, and surely the common good, is that permitless carry was not one of Governor Stitt’s platform planks. There is no outcry from any majority for this legislation. More than 80% oppose this. The Oklahoma Legislature has run House and Senate Bills so fast that Law Enforcement has not had time to weigh in. And, it looks like it is too late.

Many people have hoped that Governor Stitt would undo eight years of Mary Fallin. Who knew that he would undo one of the best acts she undertook when she vetoed this legislation just last year? The Governor is not up for re-election. Even The Oklahoman’s Editors noted what a waste of time this is. Who cares that Representative Echols checked with the NRA. What about Oklahomans?

There is hope. Maybe Governor Stitt will be called upon by religious leaders who follow a King who said to Peter, “Put away your sword.” Gathering for a prayer service to the God of Jesus Christ at the outset of his term might need to be followed with a commitment to the Prince of Peace.

Today I was invited to speak to this issue as a representative of Oklahoma Faith Leaders. Who knows if this will make the news. I offer it here in hopes that maybe, just maybe the Governor will keep his eye on his top ten list that would make us proud, not more bloody.

My oldest grandson, Cohen, will turn sixteen in seven years. His Dad, Craig, is a Driver’s License Examiner. There is no chance that Cohen will be allowed to get behind the wheel of an automobile without training, license and insurance. Not only would his Dad not allow it, neither would the State of Oklahoma. Putting a teenager behind the wheel of a potentially deadly weapon without training has made little sense to anyone. Requiring training and a license helps protect the common good from those untrained, unprepared. Why would we offer a 21-yr old to carry a gun, an intentionally lethal weapon, without a permit or training? Even an 18-year old on the grounds they serve in the military.

Craig supervises the DPS station in Chickasha, he is recognized as one of the best. He insists that teenagers pass written and driving tests before sending them on to a Tag Agency to obtain their much coveted license. Craig also has made sure that those who drive semi rigs over the roadways maintain their CDL’s. None of us would have any confidence should a would-be driver take to the highway with a heavy load behind an 18-wheeler. No. The State requires training, licensure and driving logs for professional drivers. We would not dare let loose untrained drivers to carry goods across the Country, risking the lives of others. It’s not that we dare not do it, we don’t do it.

My congregation represents a cross-section of opinions. Some of our folks possess conceal carry permits. Others frequent or work gun shows. We, even me, are not opposed to guns. We, not me, are not looking to confiscate guns. But, it is clear permitless carry is not legislation intended for the common good. What sort of common good is it that our State would make intentionally lethal products available to untrained young people, the most frequent demographic subject to gun violence. 

There is a likelihood that my presence today will startle friends, even church members. It could be some will object. They will wonder why couldn’t I just leave politics to the Legislature. I wonder what it is that makes our current, liberal, gun laws require the Legislature, with the promise of the Governor’s signature, to pass high risk legislation to satisfy a minority on the promise of more money for re-election. Who’s common is that good for?

My church members should not expect any less from their pastor than to suggest the way of peace does not include greater access to deadly weapons, particularly without training and regulation. To ask the pastor to stay out of politics at this point is to request he ignore Jesus’ message of peace.

Cohen, Max, Fox and Marlee need not worry that others their age will drive a car without training and permits. But, they need not grow up in an Oklahoma where they will wonder if their peers are carrying an intentionally deadly product without training and permit.

Until?

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we are often lulled into smugness. Here we sit this morning while others are elsewhere. Quickly we allow this seed to grow into a spiritual superiority that blinds us from Jesus, from you. Too often we read the prophets and sit in judgement on a people we barely understand . . . that is until we are reminded with Isaiah that they are us. Spare us the consequences of our hard hearts by revisiting us with your grace, lest our cities, our lives, lay in ruins. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Isaiah 6:1-13; Luke 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-11

Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied;

Until . . . That leaves a stump when felled.”

“Just wait until your Father gets home.” What that meant was Mom had spent plenty of time telling us,

Keep listening but not obeying,

Keep observing my anger but not connecting your danger

Sure, that is an adaption of Isaiah 6:9, but it gets better. How long should Mom’s keep repeating the line, “Just wait until your Father gets home?”

Until your summer dreams lay in ruins,

your hoped for trips to the community pool is empty,

until your access to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons is unplugged.

The more immediate translation was, if you think grounding is something, wait until the tender portion of your backside meets Mr. Leather. Now before you judge my parents for their use of corporeal punishment, remember it is not the best practice to judge the 60’s, even the 70’s, based on the 2000’s. I mean, when we played Little League, we did not have drafts, we signed up and played with our local team win or lose. And, when, like us, we did not win every game, we learned to be good losers. Learning to be good losers is much easier than learning to be good winners.

There was no such thing as participation trophies. Uniforms? Really? T-Shirts and jeans. We rarely spotted baseball pants until we played in Jr. High. And, no one ever used the term, Snowflake to talk about others in either direction of the social divides. 

Judging people from decades ago by the standards of the present should also be applied when reading the Scriptures. We often read what is described and treat it like it is prescribed. My recollections are in no way meant to say to teams and parents today that you should do it like we did it. It is to say parents today should take great care to judge parents from bygone days by their contemporary standards. And, that goes for the Bible.

It has become a favorite pastime in many places to castigate Israel for her regular illustrations of infidelity. We use that small tribal people as our “go to” for an example of “how not do do it” when following God. It is a move that suggests that we are a more advanced people, after all, we have Jesus.

If there is one thing we find here in Isaiah 6, is that people are people and the sooner we realize that together we comprise one big cluster of unfaithfulness to the Creator, the more quickly we will be enamored of God’s grace. Yes, that sounds awful pessimistic. But, hey, I am talking about Christ’s Church. You object. This morning, the Houston Chronicle published an investigative piece on the Southern Baptist Convention and its unwillingness to create a clergy abuse registry. The paper let it be known the article was on its way. The President of our Convention, whom I know, JD Greear, tweeted this on Friday,

I recently learned of this coming story. It is certain to be disturbing & painful, but I plan to read it immediately on Sunday. In fact, we all should read it & pray for the victims & survivors. In order for the SBC to move forward, we need to know the truth & demonstrate Jesus.

It has been easy for those in the SBC to point to the scandals in the Catholic Church among priests, and the recently revealed abuse of Nuns.  It has been like swinging at low hanging fruit to ridicule the United Methodist Church for their upcoming General Conference on a Way Forward on the issue of human sexuality and the church. For decades we have pointed out the decline in the UCC, the DoC, the PCUSA, and every other denomination. I have heard our leaders criticize these groups. Maybe it was to make us feel better about ourselves. The news that came out this morning is but one illustration that the pot should never call the kettle black.

Some of us have pushed for a registry in the SBC for more than a decade. We have not hid behind Jesus. Instead, we have hid behind an ecclesiology, a way of understand church, that privileges the institution over the person. And, we have done it all the while claiming faithfulness to orthodoxy, that is right believing about the Bible. But, here we are faced with the Bible. Sure, I am frustrated. I have grown up in SBC churches, I have pastored SBC churches now for more than 30 years. The things I know about us makes me sad and mad all at the same time.  But, the truth is, I know myself. That is exactly what Isaiah noted when he recognized that when God is not made in my image, it is fearful.

Did you catch that? Isaiah did not respond to a vision of God that was of his own making. He did not react to a God that liked who he liked and did not like who he did not like. Isaiah did not project onto his favorite political party the role of righteousness. Nope. When he entered the Temple of the Lord, he saw something different. He had a vision of how things really are, not how we wanted them to be. And, his response was, to acknowledge that his lips, his speech, his words were words of death. 

Woe is me.

Isaiah was not expressing self-pity. His was not some rendition of gloom, despair and agony on me. Deep dark depression and excessive misery. His was not the result of bad luck, it was the consequence of learning that he lived among a group of people who had set such a low bar for all their relationships. 

It would be easier for us, like it would have been last week with Jeremiah, to think this is all about Isaiah. That the words we read are only for his day and his people. That somehow after Jesus’ coming the people of God are immune to to reverting to things as they were rather than living in the newness of what God has revealed in the Messiah, in Christ Jesus. But, that is an optimism that cannot connect us with hope. I know, you fear that the Pastor has reverted to some former Fundamentalist ideology. That the once optimistic and hopeful version of your pastor has been kidnapped and brainwashed. The reality is I am the little boy that heard the words, Just wait until your Father gets home. And, while I am not as bad as I could be, I am not as good as I want you to think I am. If I am not careful, I will create a vision of God that happens to give me a pass for what is lacking … but not you. And, that is the projection of the Christian Church, the Evangelical Church, even the Southern Baptist Church, that the world rejects. And, so may we.

Isaiah, like Jeremiah, is about God. While we cannot escape the details of either prophets call and context, we must not forget that the Scripture is about God, not about us. We are the objects. God is the subject. What that means is that God acts in ways to change the way things are. That reality turns my sadness, my madness, into hope. 

God’s messengers took a hot coal and touched Isaiah’s lips. The act did not give third degree burns. Instead, God cleansed Isaiah. His confession included his cleansing. Did you see that?

Grace.

God’s grace to Isaiah moved him to respond to a question without detail. 

Who should I send?

Who will go for us?

When we hear God call, we want a job description, what will it cost me, how much time do I have? Grace experienced prompted Isaiah to answer without so much as a hint that he would be asked to give a message that essentially meant no one would listen. In other words, Isaiah was asked to give announcements at church to which almost no one ever listens. 

Listen to his assignment,

Go! Say to these people:

Keep listening but do not understand;

keep looking but do not perceive.

Make the minds of these people dull;

deafen their hears and blind their eyes;

otherwise they might see with their eyes

and hear with their ears,

understand with their minds,

turn back, and be healed.

Oh, boy! It gets better.

Then I said, “Until when, Lord? And he replied:

Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants,

houses are without people,

the land is ruined and desolate,

and the LORD drives the people far away,

leaving great emptiness in the land,

Though a tenth will remain in the land,

it will be burned again.

Like the terebinth or the oak

that leaves a stump when felled,

the holy seed is the stump.

Wow, Pastor, it is cold enough outside. We came for some warmth!

There it is. Do you see it?

All four of the gospels tell the story of Jesus quoting Isaiah. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it comes as the disciples ask why parables or what does a parable mean. John points to the lack of response to the signs Jesus gives that Messiah has come as the enactment of Isaiah 6. In other words, Isaiah’s words point to an issue human beings have always had. We look for the God of our making.

We want warmth. We want an end to the Until. There in the last line of Isaiah 6,

the holy seed is the stump

From the ashes comes grace. Our readings from 1 Corinthians and from Luke combine to give us two people who saw God not as the object they had created for themselves, but as the One who came to them and loved them despite themselves.

Peter and Paul.

Quickly, Peter and his fishing buddies were asked to trust someone whom they figured did not know as much as they about fishing. “Cast out in deeper water,” came the suggestion. “We are slap worn out after a long night of unsuccessful fishing.” But like any of us who fish, the prospect of finally catching a fish would spur us to try another place. What Peter had experienced in scarcity, Jesus delivered in abundance. The overwhelmed Peter recognized that his self-dependence was exposed and needed Jesus to go. Jesus did not riff on Peter. Instead he gave him hope that others would be drawn into the same net of grace. This same Peter would run to Jesus on the shoreline after the Resurrection. 

Paul recounts the message, announcement, he heard. This is the fellow that stood by as Stephen was stoned. Paul is the one name that struck fear in the hearts of early Christians as he roamed about looking to purge the world of those who followed Jesus. Yet, God appeared to him. His vision of God, the one that he had made suitable to himself, was crushed beneath the weight of the Resurrected Jesus. He knew himself all the more in the face of Jesus.

Until . . . Where the power of Sin abounds, grace much more abounds. 

Until we see the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Can’t Drain the Swamp

Luke 4:21-30; Jeremiah 1:4-10

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, it is easy for us to get tied to things as they are. After all, it is what we know and have known. We admit that we really like Jesus’ message of planting and building his Kingdom. We do find it hard that Jesus also challenges our idols. We fear what we might lose. Help us, Lord, to see that grace is greater than all our sin. And all God’s people say, Amen.

Ecologists tell us that it is not good to drain the swamp. Plant and animal life need the available water to survive. Remove the water and there is a rupture in the ecosystem. Things die. Rebecca Harrington noted in a piece for the Business Insider, written in 2016, that the practice of draining swamps was popular when malaria was a problem in the U.S. and Europe. Keep the mosquito population down and maybe you could reduce the incidence. 

If there is anything we know, we have not rid the planet of mosquitos. Do you really think we could? 

Human beings cannot drain the swamp, you know, the one Ronald Reagan called for in 1980. Reportedly it had been found that there was $424 billion dollars of waste that could be cut from the Federal Budget. Drain the swamp. Reagan appointed the Grace Commission. After the report was combed through, it was learned that the writers had included in their numbers items that were necessary, not wasteful. The recommendations were never implemented.

The phrase stuck. Anytime you need to rally voter sentiment in one direction or the other, just shout, Drain the Swamp. I suspect that had the phrase not been first used in 1903, it may well have been floated in Israel. Think about it. Over the course of 208 years, Israel, even if divided between North and South, suffered through 38 kings. Of those 38, 33 were considered evil kings and only 5 deserve the description righteous, or good. Human begins can’t drain the swamp.

What is it? Well, Washington, or Jerusalem, seem like handy scapegoats. Blame those leaders for all the ill in their respective countries. But, before you decide to do just that, remember, those swamps are filled with people just like us. Don’t forget, Israel asked for a king. With all the sadness he could muster, Samuel relayed the words from God. He told them what would happen should they get a king,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

For more than 200 years the people lived most of their time under the rule of kings that gave them what they wanted. Or, maybe it would be better to say, they served under kings that produced for them the sort of leadership that magnified their own faithlessness.

Have we learned much?

Before Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah heard a call from the Lord. YHWH, Israel’s God, had given the young man a commission. For 40 years his voice could be heard. Jeremiah describes God’s actions and the content of his message,

Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me:

I have now filled your mouth with my words.

See I have appointed you today

over nations and kingdoms

to uproot and tear down,

to destroy and demolish,

to build and plant.

If you are keeping score, that is four verbs that describe demolition and two verbs that paint the picture of renewal. That is a 2 to 1 ratio of words that foretell loss. Some get distracted. They think this is about Jeremiah. What we find in the Scriptures is that Jeremiah is God’s object, not his subject. That is, the story is about God renewing and restoring. He describes God’s activity. Before there is building and planting, those things in the way of faithfulness must be torn down. Focusing on Jeremiah would reveal a prophet of little success. Jeremiah was saddened. No amount of positive thinking would change the very real landscape of a people who could not drain the swamp. They could not see they helped create the swamp. 

Jeremiah is often referred to as the Weeping Prophet for he exclaimed,

If my head were a flowing spring,

my eyes a fountain of tears,

I would weep day and night

over the slain of my dear people.

Compare these words of Jesus,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Nearly six centuries had passed between the fall of Jerusalem and the time of Jesus. Yet, the message given Jeremiah rings in the words used to describe the Messiah.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;

he has scattered the proud

because the thoughts of their hearts;

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

And these words,

Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul – that the thoughts of many hearts many be revealed.

A sign that will be opposed – the hearts of many will be revealed.

Uproot. 

Tear Down. 

Destroy. 

Demolish.

Jesus had just stood to proclaim the very words spoken about him by his mother had come to pass,

Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.

Quickly the crowds buzzed with enthusiasm. The idea that the LORD had sent someone to change the system, topple the institutions of oppression, to break up the monopoly of power energized the crowd toward Jesus. Luke records, 

They were all speaking well of him and were amazed at his gracious words that came from his mouth;

Even in their praise of Jesus, the witnesses to his work in Capernaum, and the way he handled the Scriptures, they could not get beyond what they saw,

Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

Firmly stuck in the world as it is, the people poured cold water on their own enthusiasm. Did you get that? Gracious words of deliverance. Amazing words of promise. Despite the hope in Jesus’ words, they built a wall and dared Jesus to scale it. And just like that, Jesus did not opt for positive thinking. He began to uproot their ideas of what is. He called attention to the sort of thinking that needed to be destroyed. He spoke in such a way as to demolish their dependence on more than the very words of God. Jesus demolished their reliance on their own judgement. He exposed the swamp.

And to be a sign that is opposed – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

We not only hear the themes of Jeremiah’s words in Jesus’ preaching, we witness the living out of those words in the life of Jesus. Rather than evoke images through words, God made clear in Jesus what filled the hearts of people. Try as we might to paint a better picture by downplaying the walls we build and emphasizing our confidence in human potential, human history does not lie. 

And that is what Jesus does. He tells them history does not lie. When the people were faithless, God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreigner, some outsider, a widow. When people were faithless, God sent Elisha to Syria, to an outsider. Plenty were hungry in Israel  during famine and many were afflicted by leprosy in Israel, but their lack resulted in God showing up elsewhere. Lest we think God only shows up among us, that we can wall God into our tribe, our group, these stories demonstrate how God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Telling the people their story did not convince them. Instead it exposed them. Rather than own their faithlessness, they became engaged at Jesus. They drove him out of the synagogue – for us the church – and brought him to the edge of a cliff and intended to hurl him over the cliff and be rid of him. 

But, it was not his time.

Hear me please. Jeremiah was given words that pointed to the creation of a new community – one built upon the faithfulness of God amidst the faithlessness of people. Jesus embodied those very words and plants a new community built upon his faithfulness to do for us what we cannot. We don’t rely on human beings to drain the swamp, we trust in Jesus who by his death and Resurrection drain the swamp of its power and influence over us. In fact, if you like a more vivid picture of the Gospel, Jesus entered the swamp and took all of its infectious parasites that represent the Power of Sin that build walls, structures and institutions that keep us sin sick, to borrow from the old evangelists. In his body he bore the disease that kills us and suffered death that comes from our exposure to those parasites. Then to demonstrate the power of God over our disease, in the Resurrection, Jesus tore down, uprooted, demolished and destroyed our enemies so that in us He may create a new community of hope.

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Here is a link to the preached sermon.

Freedom from the Tyranny of the Self or, You Are the Body

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.

Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, by the power of the Spirit Jesus came with the Good News. We risk missing it for we only hear the Law. Forgive us for taking the Good News and making it into a new law. By your grace set us free to love – all bodies, even your Church. And all God’s people say, Amen.

He would stand in the mirror before we left the cabin for evening worship. Upon checking out his hair and clothes he would declare, “I’m so pretty.” Just like that. The young man was years ahead of People Magazine’s, Sexiest Man Alive feature begun in 1985. People has since offered its award for the most attractive male annually. Notice, Michael declared himself pretty. People recognizes attractive as sexy.

My friend Jason, who has been here with us a couple of times, generally uses self-deprecating humor when talking about himself. Except, except, when talking about his baritone voice. His line about his voice? His line that he has used in a sermon or two? “I have a voice so manly it comes with its own chest hair.” How does he get away with it? Well, he is much younger than me. He is in a different denomination where he is assigned to his congregation. And, some may give him a pass since he carries in his body the death sentence of terminal cancer.

After thirty years as a full-time pastor, almost twenty-five of those years spent right here, I thought it high time we have a talk about the body. Not my body. After all, some of you know that Tommie picks me up every weekday at 5 a.m. in order to buffet my body. Remember, we are Baptists who tend to take the Scriptures literally and somewhere we misread buffet as buffet. The Apostle Paul wrote these words translated in the old American Standard Version,

But I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after all that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.

The more modern rendering, in for instance, the Christian Standard Bible,

Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Ideas about the body, during and after the time the Apostle Paul would have written these words, assumed anything material was bad. The body is material. The body is bad. Undercurrents of this idea have run along the rails of human history. Today we witness the same idea in body shaming. Consider art from not too long ago and we see something very different from what you find in Men’s Quarterly or Vogue Magazine. Thin indicated poverty. Thick reflected wealth. The idealized images of today actually become a social law under which humanity suffers an incredible weight.

Eating disorders, yo-yo dieting, and so-called healthy eating all indicate the cruel imposition the law has on human beings. Did you hear that? When we work to understand how the Law functions to enforce expectations – social and moral – we get a better understanding of grace when we discover that we have been forgiven and set free from the law. Remember, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the power of Sin is in the law. 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 

We are crushed beneath the weight of its constant reminder that we are not good enough, smart enough, strong enough or pretty enough. How can we fail to see that this is the most unifying human experience?

It is no different for the Church in the world today. The analogy works. Every ideal assigned to the Church becomes a law unto itself. The same power that works to shame the human body would enjoy nothing more than to shame the Church as God’s Body. The metaphor is right there, in the Scriptures. The Church does not do enough. Under the breath the specific charge is, The Church does not do what I want it to do. What that means is that the Church suffers the Body shaming normally expected from those on the outside only it comes when you or me idealize a vision for the Church from the inside.

It also means that a young pastor friend may be right. We were texting the other day and he sent this,

I came across [John] Wesley talking about how he’d not preach anything but justification to non-Christians or new Christians, sanctification only to those ready for meat. I think we are in a milk only moment.

My response? The response I sent back?

Given that many have conflated their faith, or understanding thereof, with American Civil Religion, I don’t know how we are not in a milk only moment.

The reference of course is to the Apostle Paul who described the need for us to move on from milk to meat. One thing about this working out regimen that Tommie lured me into is that it comes with a coach that knows her nutrition. Not only does she have the command of a drill sergeant, she also requires that we actually tell her what we are eating. Imagine that we are paying for this! When I open the Facebook App on my phone I wince when Julie has tagged me in a post. That means she is going to tell me that I have not been eating very well. Not enough protein, she scolds. 

I fill out the Diary of the My Fitness Pal App and hope that when I click the nutrition tab, I will feel the weight lifted. You know, the weight of not living up to the law of percentages. It is for my good. I do feel better. Little does she know that at my age no matter how well you eat or exercise, when the clock strikes 2 p.m. it is like Smokin’ Joe Fraizier delivered an uppercut and I am often looking for a power nap. Her insistence is that we are building muscle. I muse to myself. She does know what I do for a vocation, doesn’t she. Why normally we are poster folks for body shaming ourselves. I digress.

Our growth has been stunted by a low protein diet. We fail to build the muscle of resistance to the foods that have as their label, God and Country. There is no God and Country in the Scripture, particularly the New Testament. There is only an Empire that creates unhealthy conditions for its people. Look at conditions of the people Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61 – poor, captives, blind and oppressed. We think they describe others. But, under the banner of Country, Empire, that is us, all of us. Listen to the so-called religious leaders that consort with power. They have created for us a new law, bow or be ridiculed as disobedient. This is the milk of our diet. 

The law is every where. But the one place that it should not reign is in the Church. When we find the law in the Church, it usually comes under the pious conviction used in the sentence, “This is what our Church should be doing.” Whatever this is that is not connecting people with the grace of God is for some other organization, not the Body of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this as the wish dream. We bring our wish dreams to the Church and it disrupts our life together. How? Because the wish dream becomes the law for everyone else. This is the argument in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

Stand firm then and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

When we submit again to a yoke of slavery, we need a message of milk. We reached for the meat too soon.

That brings us back to the body. Each of today’s Texts point to something about the body. In Nehemiah Israel gathered like one body at the Water Gate to hear the Scriptures read. 

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and with their hands uplifted all the people said, “Amen, Amen!” Then they knelt low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Their bodies were involved. No, this is not to invoke a new law here at Snow Hill. The point is that the people involved their bodies. In fact, even though they realized they had missed the law, Ezra told them not to weep but instead to eat and drink and have a great celebration because they understood the words that had been explained to them. They had lived under Empire while in Babylon. Hearing the word of God explained led them to celebrat.

Maybe Paul had in mind Israel standing as one body listening to the word of God when he pressed the metaphor by saying,

Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.

Often all we hear is individual. We fail to connect ourselves to the Body. But, Paul did. He pointed out that we are Christ’s Body by God’s Spirit. There is no shaming Christ’s Body. If we point to the Psalmist that writes that we, our bodies, are fearfully and wonderfully made, is it any less fearful and wonderful that by God’s Spirit we are made to be Christ’s Body?!

This takes us back to the reading we heard in Luke 4. Don’t miss this. Jesus got up to preach. He used Isaiah 61. And then, he went out and practiced his sermon. How did Paul not take this from Jesus,


Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Here is some milk.

First, Jesus’ message was not for those folks over there. It was for us. It is for us. We cannot read Jesus’ sermon as though it was for someone else. We are the poor. We are the captives. We are the blind. We are the oppressed.

Second, Jesus cut off Isaiah’s words about judgment for he would take in his body our judgement. This startles some and confuses others. The law judges harshly. Though the Psalmist says the law of the Lord is good, the law does not redeem or rectify. The law lifts the ideal and condemns those who do not keep it. The judgment of the Power of Sin upon us is taken up in Jesus’ own Body.

Third, Jesus declares God’s grace – God’s favor. This is forgiveness. The tag line of a Church in Manhattan is, Enjoy your forgiveness. That might be worth borrowing. Enjoying our forgiveness entails connecting people with God’s grace. That is, when we hear the Good News, we look for ways to connect people to it.

How? 

Look around you. Here is what we are doing. It is not all we are doing. But at present it is what we are doing. We will not be working through the list and checking it twice to see who is signed up with at least one of these opportunities. That would be creating a new law. Instead, we are presenting to the Body what we do in the enjoyment of our forgiveness. Consider it an invitation to enjoy with us.

Freedom from the Tyranny of the Self or, You Are the Body