Grace

Living in Sin: A Conversation with Jason Micheli

“I forgive you.” We generally think those words follow, “I’m sorry.” The Good News of the Gospel is that God’s, “I forgive you,” comes first. That is how Jason Micheli describes Grace. God’s one-way love.

Many couples at one point or another have reached for a book on marriage to help negotiate those difficult periods. Reading with a highlighter in hand pages of these books are scourged for the Holy Grail of marital success. Lists are made. Habits are rehearsed. Often these to-do’s become a greater burden than imagined. Frustration becomes the norm.

What if the better way to look at marriage is to consider it a parable for the love God has for the Church? For you? Micheli takes us on just such a journey. Equipped with a reprieve from stage-serious cancer Jason breaks open our defenses with self-deprecating humor, gut-wrenching episodes of fear and uncomfortable discoveries so that his encounter with God’s grace becomes fuel for a book we all need.

Today on this episode of Patheological, Jason comes on the podcast to talk about his new book. I suspect you will pause the interview and click over to purchase yourself a copy. Friends and family members may come to mind and you could buy a copy to give away. For pastors who happen on to this post or the podcast, let me encourage you to consider this a resource in your work with couples and others who could use a window into God’s grace that could well be the place where their lives are turned around by the Good News words, “I forgive you.”

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Enemy Love Is God’s Love

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, our world is short on mercy and long on judgment. The Good News that the Judge has become the judged for us means we are not needed to judge. Instead, you have planted your kindom where enemies are loved like family. May your Holy Spirit reveal in us that your mercy runs deeper than our lack. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

Luke 6:27-38; Genesis 45:3-15

Who doesn’t like a good argument?! Think about it. What would we do for amusement if Fox or CNN did not set up their segments by pitting opposing sides as if there are always only two. Like the disciples, any time power is in play you can find human beings jockeying for position,

What were you arguing about on the way? Jesus asked. But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.

Why even this week a group of pastors took to the use of inflammatory language to describe those with whom they disagreed. Harassing a State Senator’s pastor who made a decision with which the group took exception. Nearly 1000 United Methodists are meeting in St. Louis where the issues stir some of the deepest emotions revealing long standing divisions. Right. Why bring this up? Onlookers and critics have enough with which to criticize the church. Pastor, we don’t need you pointing it out. 

Maybe so. But, since the perception is that we are always on the ready to point out how others fail to measure up to Godly standards, don’t you think we ought to at least admit when we miss the mark? Just yesterday a group working to respond to the revelation that some Southern Baptist Churches have covered up clergy sexual abuse, issued a report that will be proven in error, likely by the end of this week. The rush to respond has produced an insufficient statement and soon enough it will look like a cover-up on a grander scale, even if it isn’t.

The problem we face is not that we don’t want to be better, to do better. Our issue is that we have yet to trust that the kindom Jesus brings inverts the order of things. That rather than judge others, we trust that mercy is more reflective of the character of God. And what is worse, that our tendency to retaliate when we sense someone hates and curses us projects to the world that we believe our God’s primary character is retribution. God can’t wait to get us back.

But, that is not the story. That is not the Good News.

Jesus announces the world is now different. It is not an idea. It is not a future plan. It is not something that is waiting on us to bring it. Instead, it is a reality that we have been asked to believe. This is something different than asking you to articulate an orthodox position on the Filioque clause. The what clause you ask? Deep in the history of the church is a moment where leaders wanted to clearly express the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. While I would not dare to minimize the importance of our attempts to explain things we believe, Jesus did not require the disciples to get their Latin right. But, the matter was divisive enough to create what we refer to as an Eastern Church and a Western Church since the tenth century. 

What is important is the way we talk about believe and trust. There are a number of things the disciples, the Apostles, came to believe. What they were asked to do was to trust that in Christ God became the judged for us. That is, when we assess the ways human beings exhibit their potential to mess things up, that Jesus became the judged in our place. Human authorities judged Jesus’ way as lacking, it did not satisfy the schemes and institutional requirements to replace the order of the world as it was. Instead of trusting in Jesus’ way, Jesus was judged and found wanting by human courts.

But, God, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans,

concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.

God vindicated Jesus Christ our Lord by the resurrection.The One human agents would judge and put to death, God judged righteous and holy and brought from that death, life.

For what did the world judge Jesus? Well, for things like what we find here in Luke 6. He went against the order of things when he said,

Love your enemies, do what is good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.

How is this set against the order of things? Think of the business maxim, “The customer is always right.” What could be better, sound better? Nothing if you’re the customer. A couple of years ago we bought a gallon of milk. We chose a gallon well within the best buy date. We opened the plastic carton. The milk was bad. Now, if you like milk, like I like milk, the disappointment was immediate. I tagged Hiland Diary in a Tweet. In what seemed like no time, their social media person had reached out to me, asked for my address, and sent me coupons for not one but two gallons of milk. They are so nice. Right? Not really. That is patronage. They want me to choose Hiland milk every time I reach into the cooler at a grocery store. Our world works this way. Patronage is the order of the world. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.” Our world has always worked this way.

That is, until Jesus comes on the scene and tells those with ears to hear that the kindom he announces is characterized by a different rule. It is not that the customer is always right, it is that God is always merciful,

For he [God] is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Do you see just how out of bounds Jesus was? Is it hard to see that Jesus brings a different way the kindom of God works? If we self-select to protect ourselves by setting our relationships in order along the lines of mutual benefit, then our first step is to judge a person’s worth by their response to us. Jesus put it like this,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you. Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. 

In other words, the Golden Rule that is tucked into Jesus words here is really just conventional wisdom. Everyone thinks that way. The world operates on the principle of mutual satisfaction. We will get along just fine if we understand what each of us brings to the relationship. If I let you down, it is over. We could lay over Jesus’ story this very idea. When Jesus, the Messiah, did not overthrow the Roman powers, the people turned on him. Rather than, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, they shouted, Crucify him.

And, every time we take up the order of the world, where our relationships are governed by the principle, You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back, we project for the world, the idea that God is the sort of deity that helps those who help themselves. He is the God who judges the lazy unworthy of help. We project to the world a God more interested in making sure our enemies get what they deserve. So, maybe now we see that it is important that we own up to the ways that these projections fail to point up the Good News that God in Christ has planted a new seed that has come to life ,in New Creation. If we make the connection, maybe now we see that it is startling Good News that Jesus says,

For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

Moving about the world from the vantage point of mercy naturally results in reduced stress. How you say? Judging is hard work. Have you ever gotten someone wrong? Before you had a chance to get to know another person you formed an opinion based on something someone else has said. Or, worse. You internalized the opposite of that neat compliment, “Any friend of, is a friend of mine.” You know the opposite, “Any enemy of, is an enemy of mine.”

If enemy love is hard, Jesus sets us up for the impossible,

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you;

Quickly we read these words, we hear them, and are drawn to make for ourselves a new list of things we must do. Maybe we would be better served by reading these words like Nathan has encouraged us to read 1 Corinthians 13. Rather than reading that chapter that describes love as a checklist for the way we love, he asked us to view it as the way God loves,

God is patient, God is kind . . . 

Here we may want to read these words of Jesus as Jesus’ Way in the kindom of God,

Jesus does not judge. Jesus does not condemn. Jesus forgives. Jesus gives.

Because we experience life as though forgiveness and giving run out, it is hard for us to assess that God’s mercy is more abundant than ours. But it is. In fact, since we tend to think along the lines of contract, Jesus actually explodes that idea in a simple, earthy illustration,

But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

When we read reward, we immediately think we have earned something. We may hear this better this way,

Surprise! When you love your enemies, do what is good and lend expecting nothing in return, you look like your God who is gracious to the ungrateful and evil.

And, for those times that we are not surprised, we embrace the mercy of God as those who are ungrateful and evil for in Christ Jesus, God has been merciful to us.

Audio of this sermon may be found here.

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.

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