Blinded by Grace

This sermon was delivered on April 3, 2019 at the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church for a community Lenten Service with the McDonald Area Ministerium. I am sharing it again now to participate in the ongoing discussion in Christian circles over the deconstruction movement. Were it not for Jesus deconstructing Paul’s faith, the greatest evangelist of Christian history would not have known the Grace of Jesus himself, let alone told others about it. I have found it helpful to read the New Testament account of Christian history after the ascension through this lens: Christians are the religious insiders of our day, as were Saul and his Jewish brothers of theirs. If we open our eyes to what Jesus is doing now through the Spirit, we might find that God is leading us into re-formation and a re-orientation toward those who are “outside” our circle.

Acts 9:1–22

We have no doubt heard this story before. It is one of the most dramatic accounts of God’s work in the Scriptures. Saul the persecutor of the early Christians becomes an apostle, missionary, and church planter who brings the good news of God’s Grace to those who did not know of God’s love. He becomes known, not by his Hebrew name, but by his Greek name, Paul.

Since this is a familiar story, we already know what to think about Saul before his conversion. He is the enemy. He is complicit in the killing of the first Christian martyr. We imagine his conversion as a 180-degree turn from pure evil to faithful service.

But let’s give pre-Damascus Saul some credit. Saul was a devout and faithful believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was part of God’s chosen people. His family brought him to synagogue every week. His family was named on the synagogue memorial plaques, honoring those who had been part of its construction. He had a deep, rich heritage of faith.

From birth, Saul heard the story of creation and knew it was God who made everything that exists. He heard of God’s promise to Abraham and the miraculous way that promise was fulfilled. Saul knew that his people were once slaves in Egypt, but their loving God had set them free and given them new life in a land of promise.

Saul knew how God could be accessed. He faithfully studied the Scriptures to draw closer to God and even studied under one of the greatest teachers of his generation. He prayed every day. He confessed his sins and atoned for them. Saul worked diligently with his hands, making tents, and faithfully gave his tithe to God. He even gave from his gross income and not just his take-home pay, just to make sure he was doing all that God required. If there was a divine commandment to follow, he obeyed it to the letter.

Saul did everything God asked of him and more. When he heard of those who were blaspheming the name of God, he knew something had to be done. Saul wanted to defend the faith. How dare someone claim to be the Son of God! Idolatry was a sin of the highest order, deserving of capital punishment.

We might label Saul a murderer prior to his conversion, but that’s not exactly fair. He wasn’t going around lawlessly killing people. Saul, Acts tells us, was rounding up those who were, by the law, idolaters. Saul was a man zealous for law and order. He found those who had committed capital offenses and bound them in prison so they would not pollute the body of believers with their heresies.

This capital offense Saul was so zealous to prosecute was the worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and King of the Universe. Saul knew who God was and it wasn’t anyone who had been publicly executed on a tree.

There was no possibility that Saul could save himself from this condition. You know why? Because Saul knew he was doing what was right in God’s eyes. He didn’t need saving. He couldn’t see his own blindness. Saul had no idea there was a veil over his eyes preventing him from seeing the new thing God was doing. There was no possibility in his mind that he could be wrong about God. The Scriptures confirmed to him that his zealous defense of the faith was a righteous cause.

Nothing other than a direct revelation to the contrary could change Saul’s mind.

A glorious light had entered the world and Saul had no way of seeing it. He wasn’t in the right place at the right time. He wasn’t one of the twelve who had been called to be disciples of the rabbi Jesus. He wasn’t one of the three who walked with Jesus up the Mountain of Transfiguration and saw the glory of God revealed in Jesus’ face. He hadn’t heard that it was God’s plan for this Jesus to die a shameful death at the hand of his own people so God’s mercy could be known through suffering. Surely those Saul threw into prison said something about a “resurrection” and new life through the crucified one, but in his mind they were just the babblings of the deceived. People do not rise from the dead, at least not until the consummation of all things. Saul knew this for sure. Dead people stay dead.

As he writes in 2 Corinthians, after his encounter on the Damascus road, the good news is “veiled to those who are perishing.” The extent of God’s grace is a scandal to the religious, the power of resurrection is nonsense to the skeptic, and the cross is outright foolishness to anyone who really considers its meaning.

Saul’s vision was fine, he thought. It took an encounter with the living God for him to realize that everything he knew was wrong. Ok, maybe not everything. Just the most important thing. 

Saul was going along, zealously looking for Christians to arrest on his way to Damascus, when a light from heaven flashed around him.

The sign is unmistakable. Since the beginning, God has been associated with light. In the beginning, God speaks and there is light. To Moses, God appears in a firey bush that won’t burn up. As the Israelites were led out of Egypt, God appeared in a pillar of fire to guide them by night. On Mount Sinai, the brightness of God was so powerful that the face of Moses shone with God’s glory.

A blinding light can mean only one thing—the presence of the living God.

Saul knows this. What a privilege to encounter the living God! Could this be Saul’s reward for his zealous defense of the faith?

But then, God asks a curious thing: “Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In Saul’s mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Saul is a righteous man, a devoted defender of the faith. He is only doing what is right, what the law requires of him. Saul is confused. This cannot be the same God he has known since his youth… or is it?

The voice, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob says—“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The veil has been lifted. Saul can see clearly for the first time in his life. And as a result, he’s rendered blind. Don’t you love the irony? Saul’s eyes are open, but he has been blinded by the glory of God, the glory of the one who was crucified.

For three days, Saul is without sight. Three days—the length of time between the suffering and death of Jesus and his resurrection. The time that is needed for Saul to die to himself and be raised with Christ into new life.

And it is through the waters of baptism that Saul is raised to a new life through his new brother in Christ. Ananias is initially scared. Saul is his enemy. He knows what Saul can do to him. But Ananias lays his hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

All of this would have been ludicrous to Saul just three days earlier. He was so certain of his faith, convinced that God was pleased with his campaign of law and order.

But because of this encounter, the veil was lifted. Saul saw the glory of God and that glory looked like Jesus.

Saul later tells the church in Philippi that he had every reason to be confident in his status in his old life—he was circumcised according to the law, a member of God’s people, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee trained in the law, a zealous defender of the faith, blameless even in his rightousness.

Saul had done everything right. And yet, he comes to regard this pedigree, knowledge, status, and righteousness as rubbish. It’s all smelly garbage in comparison to Jesus, the one who blinded him along the road, the one who called him to suffer for the sake of his name.

Saul spends the rest of his life as Paul—relying not on the heritage of his Hebrew name, but putting his life on the line to proclaim God’s transforming grace to the Gentiles who had known nothing of God’s love.

Once the veil is lifted and we encounter the glory of Jesus, there’s no turning back. Everything else is dull in comparison. Our own righteousness is meaningless. It is only Jesus and his grace that counts for anything.

———

My guess is that none of us have a conversion story as powerful as Paul’s. But we may be able to identify with him prior to his conversion.

Most of us, since we are here in church on a Wednesday night, are “exceedingly religious in every way.” We have some reasons to boast in our righteousness. We are taking this Lent seriously, preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the story we’ve all heard time and time again. We’ve given our lives to Jesus—over and over again. We serve at every opportunity.

And yet—our eyes may very well be dulled to the glory of this good news, the scandal of the cross, the power of the resurrection.

We know Jesus, and yet our faith can be just as motivated as Saul’s was at keeping the right people out. Our zealous religiosity can be a veil that keeps us from seeing the Good News that God saves all sorts of people whom we would rather keep at bay.

Are we blinded by a veil that keeps us from seeing the extent of God’s good news for the world? Are there people whom we, like Saul, would rather see condemned than saved by the free grace of God? We might not want to throw them in prison, but we sure don’t want them in worship next to us. 

When Jesus encounters the Pharisees—Saul’s type and ours—in John 9, he declares, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’

“Some of the Pharisees responded, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

We are church people! We’ve been worshipping Jesus all our lives. We might be tempted to say to Jesus “We see! We know all there is to know. We have done all you asked of us.”

The season of Lent is a time for us to humble ourselves enough to say, “we do not see.” The power of this good news is often veiled even to us. 

Like Saul, we might go through life convinced of our own righteousness. We take pride in our religious pedigree. We thank God that we are not like the publicans and sinners. 

That is why we confess our sins—to open our eyes to the transforming power of knowing that we are yet forgiven, to see that it is only Christ and him crucified that really matters in the end. 

Thinking that our vision is fine, that we see things perfectly, that our supposed righteousness means anything, is the surest sign that we need God’s transforming grace. 

Look at what that transforming power did for Saul. Knocked off his feet, blinded by glory, transformed by God’s grace—he told everyone who would listen that they were children of God, that Jesus died their death, that Jesus had power to bring them into new life.

Paul ushered others into the glory of the light. He extended God’s grace to more and more people that they too might know God’s power. And ultimately, he laid down his life for the sake of this all-inclusive Gospel.

If the grace of God can lift the veil from Saul’s eyes, then surely God can open our eyes to the glory of the good news. If Jesus can save Saul, then who else can be saved by the glory of this gospel?

Our Lord has the power to make enemies into brothers and sisters. Jesus has the power to restore our sight—to show us the way of Grace for those who we have written off, and perhaps even harmed.

Only our God can knock us off our feet and commission us to see the true transformative nature of life in Jesus. Yes, our God even has the power to transform and convert us.

Open our eyes, Lord, that we might see, glimpses of truth you have for us. Blind us with the glory of your gospel. Show us who you have called us to reach with your mercy and love. Open our eyes, illumine your church, Spirit divine! Amen.

A Lenten Thought

Written at the start of Lent 2020, as the church remained blissfully unaware of the impending COVID crisis. This year, I feel the power of these words once again.

A week into your Lenten fast, you may find yourself having taken on a burden too heavy for you to bear. This Lent, I intentionally set a relatively low bar for myself as a way to compensate for the spiritual self-flagellation that is normally my downfall.

Sometimes we need a reminder: Jesus does not want us to suffer for the sake of suffering.
Yes, the Christian life will often lead us through times of wilderness, trial, temptation, and suffering. Yes, we should engage in acts of piety and mercy that help us to empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering in a real way. But these times in the wilderness should never cause us to lose sight of the good news.

Cain, after killing his brother, was ready to go into the wilderness with a target on his back, ready for his certain death. Yet, God placed a different kind of mark on Cain, that no one would dare kill him (Genesis 4:15).

Moses, after taking justice into his own hands and killing an Egyptian slave-master, fled from Pharaoh and his Hebrew kinsfolk through the wilderness into the land of Midian. This young man who had been full of promise became a lowly shepherd. Yet God did not abandon him. From the blazing bush that would not burn up, God called out to him and made him the shepherd of his people Israel.

The people of Israel, having followed Moses on his “damn fool idealistic crusade” (to quote Ben Kenobi), found themselves in the wilderness, fearing the uncertainty of food, water, and shelter. Time and time again, they cried out, wishing to have died in Egypt. In fact, when they got to the promised land of Canaan, the place of their deliverance, they refused to go, fearing the challenges that laid ahead of them. They remain in the wilderness for forty years, but God never ceases to provide for them.

David, after being called out on his sin by the prophet Nathan, is disgraced publicly for his private sin. David confesses his sin and is told by Nathan that he will not die. Yet, he had to endure the illness and death of his child through Uriah’s wife. His servants thought he might kill himself in response. But after he fasted and prayed, David returned to the house of the Lord and ate once again. Through Bathsheba, having endured the loss of their first son, Solomon is born and David is remembered as the anointed one, through whom God’s everlasting kingdom would come.

Elijah, the great prophet, was so zealous for God that he slaughtered the prophets of Baal by the sword. As word got to Jezebel, the prophet of Baal, Elijah’s life was threatened with the same fate: an eye for an eye. Elijah ran into the wilderness, afraid for his life. It was all too much for him so he sat under a bush and prayed that he might die. God didn’t leave him there, he didn’t allow Elijah to return to the dust. An angel appeared to him and gave him bread and water that would strengthen him for his journey to the mountain of God.

Time and time again, God’s people are called out into the wilderness. On quite a few occasions, their time there causes them to throw their hands up expecting death, expecting things to only get worse.

But God.

God sends Jesus into the wilderness, not so that we might follow him there to get stuck in our own suffering and self-pity. Not even so that we might give up enough things to be holy. God sends Jesus ahead of us to prepare a way for his people out of the wilderness of sin and death.

You know what seems to be the main barrier to the assurance of salvation by grace through faith for most Christians I talk to? Trying too hard. Starving ourselves of grace that we might turn God’s face to us. Beating up on ourselves that God might come and save us from our own self-flagellation.

The Satan tempts Jesus with that very thing. He took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told him to throw himself down that God might save him. Wisely, Jesus answers, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Maybe this Lent you need to fast from starvation, fast from trying to be enough, fast from testing God. Take the mark of protection. Take up your staff of leadership. Face the challenge in front of you head on. Eat, worship, and rejoice in the Lord’s blessings. Eat the bread, drink the water.

“I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

What Does a Christian Look Like? (a sermon)

This sermon was delivered to Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff, on February 27, 2022, Transfiguration Sunday.

Luke 9:28–36

Today as we end the season of the revelation of who Jesus is (called Epiphany) and prepare to enter the season of repentance and preparation (called Lent), we stand next to Peter, James, and John (the top 25% of all disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration. 

We have heard in Rev. Tina’s preaching the message of Jesus’ sermon to the crowds gathered on the plains at the bottom of the mountain. Now we ascend the great mountain of God to witness the greatest unveiling yet in the Gospel story. 

On the mountain of Transfiguration, this place of prayer where God has spoken clearly to God’s people for generations, we see Jesus displaying the full glory of God.

On this mountain, the glowing face of Jesus recalls the face of Moses, which shone with God’s glory as he talked with God “face-to-face, as one speaks with a friend” (Exodus 33:11). And the dazzling white clothes of Jesus call to mind both God’s glory on Mt. Sinai and the future resurrected appearance of our savior. 

Here we stand between God’s revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement as King of the Universe. Notice what details Luke finds it important to convey to us. We are told nothing about the appearance of the mountain, for example. Luke tells us instead about what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah look like. Go back and look at the clues in verses 29 and 31.

Jesus’ face changed. His clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory.”

The question I want us to investigate this morning is this: “What do Peter, John, and James look like?” Is their appearance fixed, or will it change? And the question is bigger than just the upper-crust of the apostles. “What does a Christian look like?”


It’s a question you may not have considered before. Christians, you might say, don’t have an appearance (aside from, perhaps, their fondness for identifying bumper stickers on their car). Perhaps you could identify better what a Christian doesn’t look like. We make assumptions every day when we see people who look different than us that they couldn’t possibly be a Christian because of how they’re dressed, for example.

We may also have a better time identifying the faithful of other religious traditions than we would distinguishing the likeness of a Christian.

This, for example is a picture of… (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism).

And this is… (an orthodox Jewish rabbi, the late Rabbi Hager from NYC).

This picture is from… (the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, led by Imam Abdul Aziz Suraqah).

And these are Hindu worshipers in Penn Hills, celebrating the Diwali Festival of Lights.

Of course, such identifications are often based more in prejudice than understanding. Many of the garments of other faiths are the traditions of the religious leadership (like the pulpit robes of the Presbyterian tradition, for example) or worship expression. We would have a harder time identifying a Buddhist on the street, for example. And lest we convince ourselves that all Christians look like we do, this is a picture from Cornerstone Church in Ross Township where Angela and Edisa lift their praises to God, having immigrated to Pittsburgh from the African nation of Burundi.

Okay, so we can’t identify Christians based on clothing or skin tone, that much should be clear. We know that Christians can be of any race, of any age, and from any nation (and the same is true of other religious traditions). 

We could look at hundreds of different pictures of people whose appearance is as different as can be, and they could all be Christians: from believers in Japan to Kenya to Poland to Mexico. The people who follow the glory of God as made visible in God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ are from every tribe and nation of the world.

So, what does a Christian look like?


When we read and study the Gospel writers’ account of the Transfiguration and hear of how Jesus of Nazareth shone with the Glory of God, we often emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus. After all, how many bright, shiny, glowing people do you know? Do you ever look at the face of a friend and feel like you’re staring right into a flashlight? Probably not.

Jesus is, after all, a unique and distinct person of the Trinity. There is only one begotten Son of God. We profess this to be true when we recite together the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in God the Father…Jesus Christ God’s only Son…and the Holy Spirit” who unites us together as The Church.

But the Transfiguration is not a wholly unique thing to Jesus. Transfiguration––a holy change of appearance––is not something that only happens to Jesus. Remember who else appears on the mountain with him?

The Transfiguration

“Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking” of his Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.

In case it wasn’t clear to you in Sunday school, Moses and Elijah are not God. They were born of a human mother and father in the same way we were. They talked with God as if talking to a friend, but they were not present in the beginning with God. Their life had a start date, and it was way after God created the Heavens and the Earth.

Moses and Elijah were not God, and yet their faces shone with the Glory of God because their experience of God’s presence had changed them. God’s Glory made them more than who they had been. It caused their faces to radiate the brightness of Almighty God.

Like the moon, Moses and Elijah have no source of light within themselves. Yet, their entire being reflects the Glory of God.

This incident on the Mount of Transfiguration shows us, at the least, what the greatest prophets of Israel look like. Moses and Elijah glowed like the moon, reflecting the  brightness of God’s image. They captured the original created intent of humanity: to bear the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

What about the rest of us? We’re definitely not Jesus, the King of the Universe and Savior of the World. And we’re nowhere close to the rank of God’s greatest prophets–not even Peter, James, and John would be given that “status.”

What, then, does a Christian look like? Your average, everyday child of God?


Luke 9 isn’t the last time in the Gospel writer’s great 2 volume story that we see faces glowing with the glory of God, though the next time it happens we easily miss it.

Turn over to the other half of Luke’s story of redemption to Acts 6:15. Here we read about a Christian named Stephen. 

Stephen wasn’t important enough to have appeared in the story before now. He wasn’t one of the twelve. He’s not mentioned specifically as being in the crowds around Jesus, but he may have heard Jesus teach before his crucifixion. We are left to assume that Stephen was one of the multitudes of people that became Christians soon after the Holy Spirit fell upon the church.

We are told that Stephen was an eager volunteer in the early church. He didn’t wait to be asked to do something––when there was a need, he let the leaders know that he was available.

In Acts 6:5, Stephen is chosen to be the first deacon, the cohort of servant-leaders who would make ensure that the Gentile widows would not be neglected in the daily distribution of food. They ran the first Church food pantry and meals on wheels program.

Luke tells us that Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” so we might assume that there was something special and unique about Stephen. Perhaps Stephen would become a great leader and hold, not just a position of service, but one of authority as well.

But Stephen really has nothing that we ourselves lack. Stephen has faith and the Holy Spirit, both of which are gifts given from God to every single Christian. Stephen represents each and every one of us, when we make ourselves open to God’s Spirit.

Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, Martyrdom of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, 1594

If you’ve turned to Acts 6:15 you will already know where this is going. Stephen is arrested by the religious establishment for declaring Jesus-the-Crucified-One to be worthy of worship. As the religious lawyers called their witnesses against Stephen, Luke tells us “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Lowly Stephen, chief among servants, has a face “like the face of an angel.” What does that mean? It means Stephen’s face reflected the brightness of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It means the whole religious council saw Stephen before them in the same was as Peter, James, and John had seen Moses and Elijah.

This is what a Christian looks like. A Christian looks like St. Stephen, first martyr of the faith whose face shone with the Glory of God.


I don’t know about you, but my face isn’t always reflecting God’s Glory. It’s often reflecting something closer to fatigue, frustration, pride, or even anger.

What, then, makes the face of a Christian shine with the Glory of God?

The answer is in what we see in Stephen’s heart. As he is being interrogated and put on trial for a capital crime, Stephen gives a plain and honest account of his faith in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob all the way to the revelation of Jesus.

And as Stephen breathed his last, his final recorded words are this: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Sound familiar? These are also some of the last words of Jesus––“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is why a Christian shines bright like a full Moon on a clear night: forgiveness.


I have one final image to show you. This is the February 1997 booking photo of Kelly Gissendaner at the Gwinnett County Georgia Sheriff’s Office.

Kelly had a rocky family history, to say the least. She was born to a poor family, abused by countless men in her adolescence, and bore a child at 18 after being assaulted 9 months earlier. Her first marriage lasted six months. Two years later, she was married again, to Douglas Gissendaner.

The marriage was off and on. They were divorced in 1993, but remarried two years later. Imagine, what was their support system like? Who was there for Kelly and for Douglas?

Kelly entered into an affair with Gregory Owen, with whom she conspired to have him kill her husband, Douglas. In her depraved mind, it was the only way out, so that she could have what she wanted.

At 30, Douglas Gissendaner’s life was over. Kelly would be sentenced to death and placed on death row for 17 years before her execution in 2015.

What does a Christian look like? That image may be how Kelly Gissendaner is remembered by the world and I don’t imagine any would venture to say that is the face of a Christian.


But for the Grace of God…

While incarcerated in Metro State Prison, and then Arrendale State Prison, Kelly professed faith in Jesus Christ. She had gone to church before. Her and Doug had gone at the beginning of their second marriage. But this was different.

Kelly didn’t know how long she had to live, but she knew there was time to change.

In 2010, Kelly enrolled in a theology certificate program run by the Divinity School at Emory University. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose Christian faith led him to prison in a failed plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. She read the writing of Archbishop Rowan Williams, who wrote on what it meant to be a Christian. She even developed a friendship with the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who was a soldier in the German Army in World War II. Moltmann had surrendered to the British army and was confined as a prisoner of war, where he was given a pocket New Testament by an American chaplain.

Like St. Stephen, Kelly Gissendaner appeared before the council. Her clemency application to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles was supported by many of her guards in prison, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and Congressman Bob Barr.

Her sentence was carried out on September 20, 2015. Her last recorded words were this, “Tell the Gissendaner family, I am so sorry. That amazing man lost his life because of me; and if I could take it back, if this would change it, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s not. And I just hope they find peace, and I hope they find some happiness. God bless you.”

Forgiveness changed Kelly Gissendaner’s life. Her testimony has changed countless others. 

As Anne Lamott has written, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”

Because of the transforming––and even transfiguring–– forgiveness of Jesus Christ, our Christian sister Kelly Gissendaner has a life with Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, her story is not ultimately determined by the mark of sin, but by the brightness of the image of God.

Forgiveness is giving up the pain of the past for the sure and confident hope of future glory.

This is what the Transfiguration means––for sister Kelly Gissendaner, for you, for me. That is what a Christian looks like.

I offer this to you in the name of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tough Love (a sermon)

This sermon was written and preached in May 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An adapted version of this sermon was delivered at Eldersville UMC on May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

Hosea 11

Do you remember the moment when you felt God’s love for the first time? Many of us grew up in the church and have been nurtured in this loving environment for our whole lives, but even still, there was likely a moment when we realized the weight of our sin and the power of God’s grace. I remember when I experienced the power of God’s grace and love for the first time. I was twelve years old and I had been sent off to summer camp by my parents at a place called Wesley Woods. For the first time, I began to read the Scriptures for myself and learned about my faith through Bible studies with my counselors and conversations with my friends. Then, about halfway through the week, we gathered for worship and I felt the presence of God in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I heard about what God had done for me through Jesus Christ and began to know of God’s love and mercy. After worship, we had a time of prayer—an extended altar call of sorts—and I prayed that Jesus Christ would take away my sins and guide my steps for the rest of my life. I became a child of God—part of God’s family. Though I’ve been through many trials and joys in my faith journey since then, that moment is still special for me because it was the beginning of my spiritual history.

All of us have a spiritual history, and if we think back, we can see all the ways that God was present in our lives. Likely, many of us can remember that first experience of God’s grace. But our story of faith is not just an individual story. The words of our Lord through the prophet Hosea remind us today that we are part of a bigger story of faith, extending back thousands of years to a singular event that changed the world: Israel’s exodus from Egypt. God, the loving parent of Israel and all of us, reminds the people, “when you were a child, I loved you and called you out of Egypt.”

If you could only turn to one text in the Old Testament to show how much God loved his people, the story of the Exodus would be that text. Sure, God had appeared to Abraham and promised a multitude of descendants and blessings, and he certainly provided, but at the end of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus there was trouble. Joseph, who had a good relationship with the Egyptians, had died and a new king had come to rule in Egypt who did not know Joseph and his family. This new king was determined to oppress the Israelites so that they would not pose a threat to his rule. Yet, God had not forgotten his promise. The God who is merciful and gracious, and abounding in steadfast love, saw the plight of our ancestors of the faith and called Moses to lead them out of Egypt. Nothing could be more merciful than this.

The first verse of Hosea 11 brings all this to mind for us, but verse 2 reminds us that God’s children quickly turned from his guidance. You remember, as Moses went up the holy mountain to receive the law from God, the people grew tired of waiting and asked Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship. Yet, Hosea reminds us, God continued to show mercy. God taught Israel how to walk on their own, leading them through the wilderness even when they wanted to turn back. God healed them and led them with cords of kindness and bands of love. God bent down to them and fed them with manna and quail. God’s mercy was steadfast. The more God’s children turned from him, the more he showed them mercy.

We all know about this mercy of God in our own lives. We know that God didn’t just save us from our sins and leave us alone. Since that first moment of faith, we made mistakes and started going the wrong way, but God continued to show us love and mercy! After all, we are here today in the presence of our God to worship and remember what God has done for us. We have gotten far more grace and mercy than we deserved.

Yet, mercy is not the only way that God shows love to his children. In God’s words of self-revelation in Exodus 34, we hear not only that our Lord is “merciful and gracious” but also that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” So, in the message of Hosea, there is a quick turn in verse 5 from the reminder of how God has shown mercy to a declarative statement of impending judgment: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because my people have refused to return to me.”

A quick glance through the book of Hosea tells us why this harsh judgment has come. Israel has called out to other gods, trusting in themselves and forgetting their identity as God’s people. They have sought protection through alliances with the king of Assyria and the king of Egypt rather than trusting in their God. Since God’s people no longer see God as their loving parent, they will no longer be called God’s children. God has shown them a bit of tough love, causing pain for both the parent and the children. Had they remembered God’s law, they would have been safe and secure. Instead, they have turned to call on others who have no power to raise them up. As a result, they are going “back to Egypt.” The cords of kindness and bands of love have been loosened, and the people have gone back to their own way. Perhaps we remember times in our own life when we have faced the natural consequences of thinking that we know best.

Yet, judgment is not the end for God’s people. Judgment can never be the final word. Just as God looked upon the Israelite slaves in Egypt with mercy, so too does God look upon these people who have been enslaved by their sin with compassion and mercy. But I think, having wrestled with the pain of punishment, we have to see God’s mercy a little bit differently. We have to see the pain of God’s love that remains with us even when we are facing the consequences of our actions. After all, God really is like a loving parent who remains with his children through trials and joys. God shows mercy as a parent shows mercy to a child who has made the wrong choice.

In the final word of hope in our text from Hosea, we are given an image that sums up what it means to understand God’s mercy after coming through judgment: the image of a lion. In his book “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis draws on this image of the lion to express the complex nature of God. In the magical land of Narnia, a witch has cast a spell which makes it always winter, but never Christmas. As the characters search for a way to save Narnia from the witch, they hear of one named Aslan who has even greater power than the witch.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you might remember the conversation that Susan has with Mr. Beaver, as he tells her about Aslan, this lion who will come to save them from evil. Susan responds to the revelation that Aslan is a lion by saying, “I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver responds, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

How true that is! Our God may not be safe. The word of the Lord may be challenging to us, as was the harsh word of judgment for Israel. If God is like a lion, we probably should not try and test God. After all, God has power over our life and death. But God is profoundly good! God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love. That is what it means that our Lord is “God and no mortal.” It means that we receive far more grace than we deserve.

Since our own personal exodus moment, we’ve made a few mistakes. We’ve found ourselves stuck in the depth of our own sin on more than one occasion. We’ve found ourselves face to face with the terrifying lion that is our God, but remember in good times and in bad: God loves his children. Remember the story of Israel’s exodus and your own exodus from sin. Remember the ways that God has rejoiced with us in good times and has had compassion for us in bad times. Best of all, remember that God will lead and guide us with cords of kindness and bands of love until we enter the eternal kingdom. Amen.

You Are Set Free (a sermon)

This sermon was written in April 2017 for a Homiletics course at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This sermon is the root of the later sermon “Set Free from the Contagion,” delivered at the begining of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was inspired to share this sermon after reading chapter 3 of my seminary homiletics professor L. Roger Owens’ new book, “Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living.” This text is one of the suggested texts for sacred reading. If you are looking for a spiritual refresh, I highly commend his book to you.

Luke 13:10–17

When we hear the words of Scripture, it is easy for us to assume that we are hearing a word from a long time ago in a world very different from 21st century North America. It’s true, our present context is far removed from the synagogue where Jesus healed this unnamed woman from her ailment. When we see someone who is disabled, we do not assume that their ailment was caused by an evil spirit. Yet, in the world of our text, it was assumed that anything negative was caused by Satan and everything good came from God. Or, consider Jesus’s response to the synagogue leader. None of us have donkeys or oxen. What could this ancient text possibly have to say to us today?

The most challenging question for me when I read a miracle account in the Gospels is, “why has God stopped performing grand miracles like these in our midst?” There are many today who are in bondage, physically or spiritually, who need Jesus’s healing power. Where is Jesus today? What is he doing?

The theological and practical questions of this text may cause our minds to wander as we hear from the Gospel this afternoon. We are, after all, seminary students who have been trained to ask difficult questions and exhaust a text of all its possible meanings. Yet, what if we set those questions aside for a moment and imagined ourselves as part of the story? What if we had gathered with the people of God on that Sabbath all those years ago?

Which character in the story would we be?

We might imagine ourselves as the leader of the synagogue. All of us are, in one way or another, religious leaders who are keepers of the faith and representatives of the church. We have many different roles as church leaders, and sometimes our role is to interject when something is happening out of order and say, “wait a minute, I think our church policies require that we do things differently.” Serving as a United Methodist pastor, I turn to the denomination’s Book of Discipline to make sure the local church follows the policies that they have covenanted to follow. Sometimes those rules are unpopular. Individuals would rather do things their own way. Like the synagogue leader, it is sometimes my role to correct well-meaning people who are unaware of the rules. Other times, it is the role of a colleague or supervisor to correct me regarding rules or guidelines I have neglected.

Most of the time, the rules we have are good! They help protect us against a whole host of problems. Even more importantly, the rules the synagogue leader was referencing had come directly from God. He was not quoting mere human rules and regulations, but the very law of God. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses gathered the people and told them what God requires of them, saying “observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Perhaps we can understand the synagogue leader’s point. “Any other day would be suitable for healing, but our Scriptures and denominational regulations prohibit healing on the Sabbath,” we might say. “Come back tomorrow.”

Yet, perhaps we don’t think of ourselves as the synagogue leader because we know better. We know that the point of the Sabbath was not to restrict the power of God to heal, nor was it merely given as a prohibition of work. Sabbath is a wonderful gift from God! In Egypt, the people of God were slaves who had to endure continual work without rest, but in the Sabbath God had given them rest. God had delivered them from the shackles of evil into a new day of abundant life, joy, and peace. How fitting would it be for Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath, to liberate this woman who had been in bondage for eighteen years on the Sabbath? How wonderful it was for him to provide this woman with a reason to praise her God on the day of rest and liberation!

See, we know better than to ignore the person who is suffering right in front of us. Surely, we would not tell anyone, let alone Jesus, to cease doing good works on the Sabbath. After all, we live under grace, not under the law. Yet, we might label other people as the Sabbath leader—those who we think focus too much on regulations and not enough on the grace of God. Perhaps we look at those in holiness churches who are strict Sabbatarians with contempt. “They are like the synagogue leader,” we might say. “They don’t understand the point of the Sabbath. But we are more like Jesus in this story: proclaiming a message of liberation in both word and deed.”

We have good reason to follow Jesus’s example as we serve as ministers of the Gospel and ambassadors for Christ. In the sending of the seventy in Luke 10, Jesus sent out his followers to proclaim peace and heal the sick. In the great commission of Matthew 28, Jesus gave authority to his disciples that they might live out his teaching. And in John 14, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” We see these texts as commandments, not just to Jesus’s first followers, but to us. We long to embody the oft-repeated saying that we are “the hands and feet of Christ” in the world.

We easily identify with Jesus in this story. We don’t just denounce the legalists who get in the way of the Gospel, but we want to liberate others from whatever holds them in bondage. Granted, we might not have the supernatural power Jesus had to heal the sick or lift up and straighten the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, but there are things we can do.

We might not perform supernatural miracles, but we can engage in works of justice and righteousness so that both invisible and visible chains of bondage are broken and walls are torn down. We might be increasingly frustrated with the church’s complacency and restfulness in the face of injustice and oppression. We long for people to rise up and act, rather than just sitting in the pews, singing the same old songs and hearing the same old word. We want to be like Jesus and we want others to follow us.

Oh, how much good work there is to be done! We busily scurry around trying to help as many people as we can. There aren’t just people to heal, but sermons to preach, and committee meetings to attend. How good it feels to us when we are finally able to see the bonds of evil broken and the joy on someone’s face as they worship God. There’s so much work to be done—the mission field is endless—that there’s not enough time for us to rest, to take a Sabbath, and to hear the word for ourselves.

We might, on our best days, do a good job of following Jesus. We might even, on occasion, be able to put aside our inner-synagogue leader who prioritizes policies over people. But when Jesus sees us, he sees the woman who is in bondage, hunched over for eighteen years. When Jesus sees us, he sees a child who needs to be set free from the pursuit of accomplishment and self-righteousness. When Jesus sees us in the crowd of the faithful gathered in worship, he invites us forward, he lays his hands on us, and immediately we are set free to stand up and praise our God.

When we rush to go out and follow Jesus in healing the sick and freeing people from bondage, we might just forget that we need saving too. We might set off on our mission of liberation only to realize that there’s something holding us back in bondage.

Friends, more than anyone else in this story, we are like the woman who needed to be set free from her ailment. We are beloved sons and daughters of Abraham. We are children of the living God. And in this moment of gathering to hear the word, we have done what she did. We have faithfully come to hear the word of Jesus. We have taken our place in the crowd, expecting the same old thing, but hoping that this Jesus might have something new to teach us. We simply showed up for this moment of Sabbath, as we always do. And as we have taken our place in the crowd to hear the word, Jesus has called us over to himself, laid his hands on us, and set us free.

Miracles of healing and deliverance do still happen today. And they happen when we faithfully show up in the worshipping community to hear a word. They happen because Jesus has come in our midst to set us free.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Don’t Just Do Something––Stand There (a sermon)

Ephesians 6:10-20 – “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

NASA has been answering the bold call from the President of the United States to plan for a return to the surface of the Moon in 2024. It was December of 1972 the last time boots touched the lunar surface in the Apollo 17 mission. There have been many missions to space since then, to be sure. The Apollo program atop the Saturn V rocket was followed by the Space Shuttle program that began in 1980 and ended 10 years ago, in 2011. For the last 22 years, trips to the International Space Station have been a common occurrence. Right now there are 7.6 Billion people on Earth and 10 in Space. But there is something that still captures our imagination when we think about humans traveling to, and even living on, a celestial body that is not our own. The Artemis program plans to send astronauts to the Moon’s surface in 2024, with the eventual goal of regular lunar flights and even a permanent base on the moon.

There is, however, already a hangup that threatens to delay our next mission to the moon. The astronauts’ outfit isn’t ready yet. Space is not hospitable to human beings. Without a protective garment, a human would pass out in 15 seconds and die from asphyxiation after 90 seconds. Eventually, an unprotected human being in space would turn into an ice cube. All those things we take for granted on Earth, like breathing, are almost impossible when you’re outside the Earth’s protective atmosphere. Space is openly hostile to humans.

For the past 40 years, astronauts have been using a suit called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) to protect them against exposure to space. These white puffy-looking suits, resembling the Michelin Man, were the result of 21 years of development and testing. The Artemis program requires an update to the old design. The xEMU will be specially designed to be more adaptable to different body types, protect against lunar dust, and keep astronauts at a comfortable temperature as they travel extreme temperatures on the moon ranging from -250℉ to 250℉.

I could put a whole outfit together at Old Navy for $50, but it won’t keep me safe in space. The development and deployment of the first two xEMU spacesuits is estimated to cost $1 Billion and is currently 6 months behind schedule. 

If you’re asking an astronaut, the outfit they wear isn’t just important—it’s a lifeline. One small tear in the garment would mean a rush to safety to prevent a certain death. The whole suit is necessary for survival and the work of exploration. 

The Hard Upper Torso assembly provides a rigid enclosure around the astronaut and is the keystone for the entire suit. The Primary Life Support System regulates suit pressure, provides oxygen, cools the suit, provides communication, and displays suit and astronaut health data. Arm sections and gloves as well as leg sections and boots provide contained mobility for their work and connect together to maintain pressure. The bubble helmet and visor assembly protect the head and eyes. Finally, the Maximum Absorbency Garment contains any liquid waste that is expelled during their work. (No one ever said being an astronaut was glamorous…)

Astronauts need the whole EMU suit to survive and perform their work while in the hostile environment of space.


To say that Christians belonged in the 1st century world about as well as humans belong in space is only a slight exaggeration. As space is hostile and hazardous to human life, so too was Ancient Rome opposed to the mere survival of this ragtag group that claimed to follow a crucified—and risen—Lord.

Rome knew of only one lord and his name was Caesar, not Yeshua (or Jesus). Lord Caesar was venerated in Temples, his likeness etched in money, his offerings demanded through taxation, and his might demonstrated through an army 350,000 men strong.

Those who dared challenge the might of Rome may have survived slightly more than 90 seconds, but they would quickly become an example none would dare to follow. Revolutionaries, and worshipers of another Lord, would be stripped naked, whipped, and hung on a cross barely above the eye level of the passing crowds. Onlookers would see the bloody execution and know Caesar’s might was not to be messed with.

The savior Jesus, along with many of his disciples and followers, were crucified as a testament to the lordship of Caesar over Rome. The environment was hostile to any other Lord. This was the Pax Romana, the Roman peace.

In the terrifying and inhospitable Roman world, where everything was working against them and their ability to live as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom of Jesus, they would need a protective suit of their own. They would need garments that would protect them and advance the cause of the Gospel that was announcing the reign of God to every corner of the Roman world. They would need armor.

Mere mention of armor to the early Christians would have conjured up images of one thing: the uniform of the Roman Garrison. The hundreds of thousands of Roman soldiers stationed around the empire wore a helmet with a plume on top and a mask protecting the face. A tunic was worn, covered with chain mail armor and solid metal plates. A belt around the waist held clothing together as well as weapons, with an optional shoulder belt that could carry a sword or drum. A scarf protected the neck from chafing and a satchel carried their rations. Finally, their feet were protected by sandal-boots with heavy soles and shoe tacks for added traction.

In contrast, the average Roman peasant would have been a simple, flowing white tunic tied together at the waist. They stood no chance against the heavily armored Roman guard. Early Christians had no strength in themselves, no earthly defenses that could take on the lordship of Caesar.

Paul knew this. He himself, a Roman citizen by birth, was imprisoned in the city of Rome as he was writing this letter for disrupting the Roman peace with his travels to Jerusalem. The presence of the Roman army was a constant reality for him, a source of fear and trembling. Now he was under their watchful eye and constrained in his motions.

In this week and vulnerable position, like an astronaut surviving precariously in the vacuum of space, Paul writes, “be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God.”

As members of the Kingdom of Jesus, ambassadors of the Gospel, and facing the might of the Roman legion, Christians are to “take up the whole armor of God” so that they might be able “to stand firm.”

The helmet of salvation protects the wearer from the threats of Sin that might make damning strikes of judgment against them. Over their tunic goes the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness, which guards and protects their heart from deceitful schemes and around their waist, the belt of truth holds them together. 

On their feet are not heavy boots that trample on the weak, but sandals that equip them to share the good news of peace with God. As Isaiah declares, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, and who say” to Zion and now to Rome, the God of Abraham now reigns over all creation. And now all people are welcomed into God’s family, God’s Kingdom, where all are one.

And then there is the shield of faith—the protection of the hope a follower of Jesus possesses that extinguishes the fiery arrows of despair and destruction.

This is the armor of God. It is, to be noted, a defensive armor. Like the EMU suit of an astronaut, it serves to protect the wearer against a hostile environment. The armor of God serves to enable the announcement of something that is already true––that Jesus is Lord.

Yet there is one element of the armor that is not primarily defensive: the sword of the Spirit. To be sure, a sword can be a helpful defensive tool. It is quick and agile against the strikes of another in a duel. Still, the sword is an offensive weapon. It is sharp and pointed to strike the armor of another and to cut through points of weakness.


To understand this sword of the Spirit we need to know more about the enemy the first Christians were up against. Sure, as we have identified, Ceasar was emperor and lord over Rome. He commanded his legions of armies, he made sure he was worshiped above any other. But scripture identifies another behind the comparatively puny little lords like Caesar. The New Testament tells us about an enemy that Jesus faced from the beginning of his ministry to the end, one who asserts control and authority over the whole world. 

That enemy is identified as Satan. Jesus calls him in John 14 “the ruler of this world.” Our text from Ephesians today refers to the enemy as something more powerful than flesh and blood rulers like Caesar who seek to control and destroy. “Our struggle,” Paul says, is “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.”

It is this ruler of the world that Jesus came to cast out. He healed the sick, freed the captives, and proclaimed good news of God’s Kingdom in order to gain territory against the enemy. The Word of liberation was his sword. He spoke, and people were set free from Satan’s power.

We exist, like the first Christians, in a hostile world in which the enemy is seeking to control and destroy with his schemes. That is why we need the Armor of God. We need the spacesuit of protection against an environment that is set for our destruction.

Without this protective garment, the ruler of this world will, in a mere matter of seconds, suck the life out of us. He will hold us captive to Sin and control us with shame. Mistake and error will lead to our destruction. The death and frailty of those we love will constantly hang over us and attack us until we meet our end as well. These are the devil’s wiles, Satan’s schemes.

In this battle we have little to no power. We know this because when a diagnosis is pronounced upon ourselves or someone we love, we realize that we are powerless to remove it. We are powerless to heal. We will do our best to fight, to advocate for those we love, to bring them to those who can heal, to intercess on their behalf. Yet, we are powerless to just make that enemy of death go away. As we witness the suffering of a parent, child, colleague, or friend, we expend our effort in care. But we are powerless to fix it.

All we can do is don the armor that is laid out for us.


A hospital housekeeper recently described to CNN her daily work against the powers and principalities as COVID has led countless people to their deathbeds. As Rosaura Quinteros went about her cleaning duties, she encountered Jason Denney, who was in isolation for a severe case of COVID-19. Denney was fighting a battle it looked as if he would lose. But Quinteros told him not to lose hope. She told him that his life was in the good hands of doctors and God, that God was not done with Denney, and he should keep fighting for his life.

Every day as Quinteros the housekeeper went to work, she put on her protective armor. She put on her  work scrubs and shoes for a day’s hard work. As she enters the isolation room, she dons the respirator that will filter the air she breathes to protect her from infection. She puts on her protective gown and gloves so that when she exists isolation, those items can be discarded, leaving her scrubs clean for use. She puts on protective eyewear to keep out any particulates.

And as she relies on the training the hospital gave and the armor of protection they provide her, she puts her faith in God. “I put everything in God’s hands,” she said.

It turns out that Jason Denney was not on his deathbed after all. He would make a full recovery. And he credits Quinteros and her faith, her caring ministry of standing with him in his fight, for giving him the hope to pull through.

This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 6. This is how the Armor of God works. This is how believers are united in God’s Kingdom in solidarity and service—a fearful veteran who had received last rites and said goodbye to his family and a caring housekeeper who had emigrated from Guatamala. 

As we find ourselves in situations where we need to don a mask of protection, and as we receive the protective armor of a vaccine, maybe we too will consider that to be an outward sign of the inward spiritual armor of God.

The world in which we live is hostile to our survival. Every day, cells in our body die, parts of our body grow frail, and our body is often corrupted by forces that mutate those elements to grow and destroy themselves. If there is any truth we know beyond a shadow of a doubt it should be this: we cannot do it on our own.

And yet, this is often our narrative. We imagine ourselves and others to be singular soldiers facing formidable enemies alone. We are one soldier against a legion.


Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who lives with Stage 4 Colon Cancer, talks in an interview about how her rugged individualism was demolished by her diagnosis. She was a high achiever who climbed the academic ladder. She said she “fell in love with that individualism” and self-determination. She could be anything she set her mind to!

But then, Cancer. The power of Death came knocking. Suddenly she can’t do it on her own anymore. She says “I have been absolutely held up by the people who have chosen to love me.”

That is what it looks like when God’s family takes on the armor of God and, as Philippians 1:27 says, “strives side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” We stand side by side in our protective armor as a legion ready for battle against the forces of Sin and Death. 

We can’t do it on our own. We need each other. We need the armor.

We have that fellowship and protection, not because of anything we have done, but because of the one who acted unilaterally to strengthen us. Notice how our passage begins, “be strengthened in the Lord,” is the most accurate translation of the Greek. It is in the passive voice. We aren’t strengthening ourselves or pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are being strengthened by the work of Christ. The protection of God’s armor is not something we can fashion ourselves, but is a protection that comes wholly from outside us.


Richard Manning grew up closer than a brother with his best fried Ray Brennan. As the Korean War raged and as they reached the age of enlistment, Richard and Ray joined the US Marines.

As Manning later told the story, Ray Brennan was in the foxhole with him one night when a live grenade was thrown into the trench. Brennan looked at Manning and gave a wry smile. Brennan looked down at the grenade and threw himself onto it, absorbing the fatal blast as his friend Manning stood helpless.

Richard Manning lived to tell the tale. He survived the war because of the selfless sacrifice of his best friend Ray Brennan. That sacrifice led Manning to service, now not as a military soldier, but as a prayer warrior in religious life as a Franciscan monk.

In religious life, monks take on the name of a saint they want to emulate. Someone whose life of selfless service to God they wish to carry on and be reminded of every day. Manning knew the saint he would choose. He took the name of his best friend who had saved his life, Ray Brennan. For the rest of his life, Richard Manning would be known as Brennan Manning.

Brennan Manning had taken up the armor of his friend’s sacrifice. He had clothed himself with a strength and protective garment that he could not earn on his own. It was Brennan’s sacrifice that had done it for him.

So too it is with each of us. Jesus Christ has jumped on the live grenade in front of each of us. He has taken on Death into his own body that we might have life everlasting. In his crucifixion, Christ took on our death that in rising he would break its very power. 

Dressed in Christ’s armor, there is only one thing required of us in this passage: stand firm. Stand in the knowledge that Christ has won the battle, that salvation has been secured. Jesus has flung himself on the grenade of Sin and Death, securing life for all who live in his name.

Wearing the protective exoskeleton of God’s armor, we know we still live in a hostile world that is filled with sickness, Sin, and Death. And yet, as the theologian Abraham Kuyper writes, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

The battle has been won. Christ has placed his name on us. Christ has won and will be ultimately victorious over Sin and Death, redeeming all creation from the grip of the evil one. 

So don’t just do something. There is nothing you can do. Just stand there. Be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his powerful sacrifice. Clothe yourselves with his armor so that you may be able to stand firm. And may the God who is the true ruler of the Cosmos, both Heaven and Earth, be with you now through his Spirit, as he also protects you with the armor of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Great Acquittal (a sermon)

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was dressed with filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you with festal apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with the apparel; and the angel of the LORD was standing by.

Zechariah 3:1–5

I would speak to you today in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Last summer, as the protests over the death of George Floyd were taking place in countless cities across the country, I took the time to watch a movie that had come out a year earlier about systemic racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. The movie, Just Mercy, tells the story of a novice, Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who follows a calling to provide legal representation to individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted.

As his work begins, he meets a death row inmate named “Johnny D.” McMillian. Johnny D. is a Black man who was convicted for the murder of a white woman, Ronda Morrison.

The movie follows Stevenson as he uncovers evidence that McMillian is innocent and fights in the court of public opinion and in the Supreme Court of Alabama for a retrial of the case and a dismissal of all charges.

The movie is powerful and convicting. An innocent man is finally given the justice he is due. We are moved by the stunning partiality of justice in our country and the diligent work by lawyers like Bryan Stevenson to recalibrate the scales of justice. 

We wonder, “what does it mean there have likely been innocent people who were executed for a crime they did not commit?”

The story of Just Mercy moves us for the same reason that law enforcement and courtroom dramas captivate our eyeballs on primetime television. We long to see the wicked punished. We demand to see the innocent freed. We long for justice. Specifically, we long for retributive justice. We want people to receive what they deserve, either good or bad.

Since retribution is the way our brains are programmed, we assume that this is also how God works. The wicked should be punished while the righteous prosper. With authority from the divine, we set up our civil society to punish the guilty and to exonerate the innocent.

Who would dare represent the truly guilty and fight for their acquittal?

In a recent essay for The Atlantic magazine, Elizabeth Bruenig researched innocence programs like the one Bryan Stevenson started in the 1980s. Plenty of idealistic young attorneys now graduate law school interested in freeing the innocent, the wrongly convicted, from death row. They want justice, freedom for the innocent. 

The stark reality is that most of those on death row committed the crime for which they received their sentence. No lawyer wants to take the case of a guilty poor man pro-bono. They want justice, punishment for the guilty: an eye for an eye and a life for a life.

If we are looking for guilty individuals to punish, we don’t have to look very hard.

We are moved to anger and revenge for the deaths of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh at the hands of Robert Bowers and the deaths of 9 at a Black congregation in Charleston, SC at the hands of Dylann Roof.

Justifiably, the dominant cultural voice is to demand “an eye for an eye,” a life for a life.

–––

Human depravity—our theological term for the human inclination to selfishness and evil—is not new. Scripture is rife with examples of human transgression deserving of punishment. 

The first law in Scripture is also the first law that was broken. As quickly as the words are uttered from the mouth of God, they are disobeyed. “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed.

Later, as the people of God are freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives them direction on how they should order their lives as free people. Do not worship other gods, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

The ten big laws are followed by plenty of more detailed regulations that would help God’s people to know exactly where the line between good and evil, permitted and prohibited, would be.

Before the entirety of that law leaves God’s mouth and enters Moses’ ear, it is broken.

Aaron, the brother of Moses, encouraged the people to collect their gold jewelry and melt it down into the image of a calf, saying, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 

The law is spoken and the law is disobeyed. This is how it goes between God and the people of God.

Perhaps the most well-known example of Biblical lawlessness was King David. Despite the fact that he was “a man after God’s own heart” who was chosen by God to be Israel’s righteous ruler, David’s pride, power, and selfishness leads him to break the commandments at the core of God’s law.

David covets Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and uses his power as king to commit adultery with her and then, to cover it all up, he has her husband Uriah killed in battle.

The prophet Samuel was right when he said that a king would take sons, daughters, fields, servants, and cattle for his own use. King David showed the depths to which human depravity can go—and he was one of the good ones.

The prophets of God declare with one voice the constant sinfulness of God’s people. Amos charges the people with “trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” and accruing wealth by “violence and robbery.” They made a mockery of the justice of the courts. As a result, the people would suffer by the sword of judgment.

As we have heard from the prophet Malachi over the past few weeks, even the worship of God was corrupted by human selfishness.

God has declared in holy law what is good, what God requires of us, and throughout history we have been unable to do it.

Romans 3 declares powerfully, “there is no one righteous, not even one.”

Still, we convince ourselves that there is a categorical difference between us and those who do evil. We insist, to assure ourselves of self-righteousness, that there are good people who deserve blessing and there are bad people who deserve God’s curse. We convince ourselves that there is an invisible line between human beings that separates the righteous from the sinner. If we could only do away with all the sinful people in the world, we think, there would finally be peace and prosperity.

Jesus challenges that notion in the Sermon on the Mount. Have you kept all ten of God’s commandments? Jesus prophetically declares that while the letter of the law “you shall not murder” may let us off the hook, the spirit of the law implies that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Have you committed adultery? Everyone who has looked on someone lustfully has already committed adultery in his or her heart.

In the face of the law, none of us are faultless. And that’s to say nothing about the countless laws outside of Scripture that find us lacking. We are constantly told, “you’re not successful enough, skinny enough, happy enough. You’re not from the right place. You don’t have enough of the right things. You don’t work hard enough. You don’t have the right opinions.”

None of this does any good in changing us. As Paul declares, hearing what we ought to do just makes us more inclined to rebel. When we are told to wear a mask to protect our neighbor, our human nature speaks up and asserts our rights to do the opposite of what the law requires. When we feel called out in a sermon for a sin or shortcoming, our shame leads us to double down on our behavior. When we are told about the threat of CO2 to our climate, we purchase bigger, more consumptive vehicles.

This is what is in our human nature to do.

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The law that accuses brings us to the third chapter of Zechariah. 

The prophet is brought into a vision of God standing as supreme judge in the divine court. Joshua, representing the whole people of Israel, stands to the left in the place of the defendant. Satan, in the position of heavenly prosecutor, stands at the right ready to accuse. As prosecutor, Satan has a list of charges for which he knows the defendant is guilty. He has compiled accusation after accusation, testimony after testimony, witness after witness. Satan is prepared to offer them all in evidence in the divine court. 

The LORD stands ready to begin the proceedings. Order is brought to the court. Before the trial can even begin, a judgment comes down from on high. It is not the defendant Joshua, battered and covered in the filth of sin, who is accosted by the judge. No, it is the prosecutor, the satan, who is called out.

The defendant is acquitted. The rags of sin are removed from his body. His guilt is taken away. No longer will Joshua be known as the sinful one. No, Joshua will be known as the one who has been forgiven, cleansed, washed, and made new. The past will no longer define him. Accusations of previous offenses can no longer be offered in the divine court. The defendant is free to begin again. 

If we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, this is where Jesus is going with his intensification of the law. It is what Paul will later do in his letter to the Romans. Jesus is finding all guilty under the law so that all may be offered forgiveness under grace. All of us have been bound in disobedience in order that God may have mercy on all of us (Romans 11:32).

It is for this reason that Jesus calls not for the righteous to follow him, but sinners. Jesus calls out to those who know and feel their guilt and shame to follow him so that they can receive forgiveness. There is nothing Jesus can do for one who is righteous, one who is convinced of their own superiority.

When Jesus quotes the law “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” he obliterates the principle of retribution. “I tell you,” he says, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

Whatever a person does to sin against us, Jesus declares that we are to respond in love. We are called to take the steam out of rage and violence rather than responding in retaliation. We are called to prayer rather than revenge. We are called to see even the thief with compassion, knowing that if they are after the shirt on our backs, they probably need a coat as well.

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The Spirit of Grace, the Holy Spirit who stands in defense of the accused, stands in opposition to the Spirit of this world, the Spirit identified by Scripture as Satan. The accuser speaks up every time a wrong is committed and demands the maximum sentence. 

Countless people have been fired from their jobs when one poorly considered social media post has gone viral or something from their past has been exposed. 

When individuals are convicted of violent crimes, the demands for “justice” through the death penalty grow louder. When a life is taken, the best recourse we can muster is to take a life in return.

When an individual is shamed on the nightly news for their worst decision, the social media comments in response go for blood.

In the age of the internet that never forgets, it seems there is no path forward, no future, and no forgiveness for those who have erred.

And yet, we see glimpses in our world of a different way. Grace is in no sense easier than judgment. It is easy to declare the end of a career, a reputation, or a life. It is easy to deny the truth of a wrong that is committed than it is to bring it out into the open. It is much harder to declare the truth of a fault and to absolve it through the power of grace.

In South Africa in the late 1990s, as Nelson Mandela was elected president and the apartheid regime was finally overthrown, the new government sought a different way, a way of grace, to resolve the pain of the past. People had been tortured and killed in defense and opposition to apartheid—the institutional segregation by race which had lasted over 40 years.

Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to enact restorative justice at an unprecedented scale. It shined a light into the darkness and evil of the apartheid years as the voices of over 21,000 victims were heard and 849 individuals were granted amnesty for their crimes. The truth was exposed and justice came, not through retribution, but through forgiveness.

Desmond Tutu wrote in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, “to forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that…communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.” 

The TRC and the unification of South Africa was not without its faults, but it was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

So too have the survivors of tragic violence in this country been witnesses to the power of grace in God’s Kingdom.

In response to the death of five children in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Amish community reached out to the family of the gunman, expressing sympathy for their loss. Rather than anger and revenge, they sought forgiveness and restoration.

As Dylann Roof stood trial for the massacre of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, family members of the victims began to offer statements for the prosecution. What happened next was shocking to all involved. The first to testify, Nadine Collier, told Roof “I forgive you…You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to holder again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

Chris Singleton, whose mother was killed, later said, “After seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t us just saying words. I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”

That was God’s Kingdom, coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In 2018, our own wider community was struck by unthinkable violence as the Tree of Life synagogue was attacked by Robert Bowers. The U.S. Attorney’s office plans to pursue the death penalty in the case, given the extreme depravity of his murder of 11 worshipers. 

And yet, members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh have spoken up to plead with the Attorney General not to pursue the death penalty. They argue that a guilty plea with the guarantee of life in prison would not only spare the community from the trauma of a capital trial and appeals, but it would also be more consistant with the values of their faith.

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The testimony of Scripture is that the accuser has been thrown out of the heavenly courtroom. The work of Jesus means that Jesus has taken on the garments of our sin and shame. When we could do nothing to free ourselves from the constant barrage of temptations and the shackles of sin, Jesus came and cast out Satan that we would be given new life, that we would be freed—not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of the whole world.

Our culture demands denial and revenge. The accused never fully admit their guilt and the victim rarely gives up their right to vengeance.

But Jesus came into this world that there might be another way. Jesus came that there might be “one new humanity out of the two” that there might be peace (Ephesians 2:15).

The Spirit of Grace that declares to us the words of acquittal, of forgiveness also reminds us that every single person we encounter is someone for whom Christ died and someone for whom God desires salvation.

Rather than taking the position of Satan in the divine court of justice, we are called to abandon our self-righteous accusations in exchange for mercy. We are called to abandon the tool of shame for that of empathy. We are called to desire the welfare of even the chief of sinners.

The Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust that without forgiveness, without being “released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.”

This is the most important gift we as Christians have to give to our wider society––the power of Grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. It is the power of Jesus who interceded for his oppressors on the cross, saying, “father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is the gift that declares the end of the titles “sinner” and “criminal” and replaces them with the garments of the redeemed.

Through his prophets, and ultimately through his Son Jesus, God declares that the past does not determine the future. Sin and Death will not be victorious. Satan, the tempter and accuser will ultimately be thrown down, forever caught in the fire as our filthy clothes, our guilt and shame, is forever taken from us and we are clothed with the garments of celebration. 

By this we will be known as disciples of Jesus—by living as people forgiven by grace who forgive by grace, who are eager and willing to welcome anyone into the forgiveness we ourselves have received.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people, now and forever. Amen.

The Good Shepherd (a sermon)

This sermon was originally preached for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

John 10:11–18 (NIV)

This week, we’re greeted by two familiar texts that are favorites to many. Psalm 23 might be the only complete chapter of the Bible we have memorized. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” For many of us, this text has added significance because it’s a text we turn to for comfort in our darkest hours, when we ourselves are traveling through the valley of the shadow of death. These words are promises of God that we cling to when we feel burnt out and beaten down.

The words of this Psalm help to restore our parched souls that desperately search for the water by which we will no longer be thirsty. Sometimes we say these words, and immediately we know them to be true. We’ve been off on the wrong path, but our Lord can guide us back to safety. We are surrounded by evil, but we no longer fear because our shepherd holds the rod of correction and the staff of protection. We hunger for the bread of life, and God provides for that need at the table of fellowship. We may feel alone and exposed on a treacherous road, chased down by temptation and accusation, but we delight in the promise that God will only let goodness and mercy pursue us. We don’t need to fear out on our own, because we have a dwelling place in the house of the Lord.

There are times when things around us seem to change, just because we took the time to bask in the promises of God expressed in this Psalm.

But what happens when our life experience betrays these promises? What do we do when we feel like a sheep that has wandered off without its shepherd? Or worse. What happens when the shepherd of correction and protection seems to turn on us and fence us in, rather than giving us free reign in his fields? What do we do when the comforting promise of a table in the presence of enemies becomes all too true because our friends and family have abandoned us, leaving those who hate us as our only houseguests?

That was the experience of Job, a man who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Things had gone well for Job for a long time. He had seven sons and three daughters and seven thousand sheep. Surely, he had to employ quite a few good shepherds to care for them! It was said that Job was the greatest of all people in the East. He was rich, wise, and faithful to God. His whole life revolved around devotional activity meant to protect him and his family from any accusation from God of wrongdoing.

But one day, things changed for Job. Unbeknownst to him, the heavenly court was convened to decide on the question of Job’s true character. The Lord, the chief justice of the heavens and earth called upon a spy and prosecuting attorney under his employ and asked, “what do you think of my servant Job? Surely there is no one like him. He is a pristine example of one who lives according to my standards of justice and righteousness. If only all the other humans I created were as faithful as Job.” But God’s prosecutor wasn’t so sure.

The accuser said before God, “Do you really think Job performs all those sacrifices because of his love for you? He only does it because he receives good things as a result. You have protected him so that nothing bad can happen to him. If you took away your blessings and protection, Job would stop blessing you. In fact, he would curse you to your face.”

God wasn’t so sure, but he wanted to test this hypothesis. So this heavenly adversary was permitted to go down to earth and take away everything Job had—his sons, daughters, sheep, and every one of his possessions. The only thing that God wouldn’t allow to be taken from Job was his life.

Initially, Job accepted this first experience of suffering in his life in stride. When his wife told him to curse God and die, he responded, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” He knew with his head that life is a mixed bad, and you can’t expect prosperity all the time. Even his friends were supportive at first. They sat with him for seven days and seven nights, not speaking a word.

I’m sure all of us have had that experience, sitting with a family member or friend in a time of grief. At first, when things don’t seem real, when the grief hasn’t fully set in, things seem okay. Words of consolation and comfort are accepted. All someone needs is to know that they’re not alone. Perhaps in those still, quiet days of grief the friends offered the words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Then the floodgates open. Job speaks up out of the depth of his grief and curses the day he was born. He wishes things would have gone differently, that he would never have been born. No longer do the good days outweigh the bad in Job’s grief-stricken mind. Job had thrived in the protection of God, and now he feels fenced in by God’s judgment. Job cries out, “Why would God do this to me? Why would God allow this to happen? Maybe I would be better off if God just left me alone.”

The words of the Psalmist are no longer comforting to Job. God’s promise to never abandon him becomes a punishment.

We too know this stage of grief. We’ve said those words or heard them from someone we love. If we’re smart, we don’t try and come up with a reason. We comfort and support the best we can through our presence more than through any words. We try and meet the needs that the person who is suffering can’t attend to themselves.

Maybe, later on, they’ll be able to find God in their pain and suffering. But in that flood of grief, answers are nowhere to be found. It may even feel like God is absent or cruel. The good shepherd of Psalm 23 has either turned into the cruel shepherd or the absent shepherd.

In these moments, the 22nd Psalm feels more accurate: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? O my God, I cry day by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

If you’re familiar with the story of Job, you know that his friends didn’t handle this stage of grief particularly well. Rather than continuing to comfort their friend, they became frustrated with his attacks on God’s lovingkindness. Rather than joining Job’s defense against God, they found themselves trying to defend God.

They were sure that God wouldn’t punish someone who didn’t deserve it. They thought Job had earned his prosperity through righteousness, through his tithes to the church and prayers. Now, on the flip-side of such blessing, they were certain that Job must have earned his punishment. He must have sinned. That’s why God abandoned him, they thought. If Job would just pray harder, give God everything he had left, and confess unknown sin, God would turn away his anger. Instead, they thought Job was making things worse by complaining.

They didn’t think God could handle the shouts and accusations of poor little Job. They thought such vain words would only lead to further punishment.

In the end of Job’s story, God’s verdict wasn’t favorable to those who had abandoned their friend. God told them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. You are the ones who need to make penance for the suffering you have caused.”

In doing so, God took the side of the accused and not the accuser. God took the side of those who cry out to God out of their grief, and not those who always speak lofty and true words about God’s glory. God reminds them that the right words spoken at the wrong time are the wrong words.

God gives us permission to not only pray to God in the comforting words of Psalm 23, but also out of the pain of Psalm 22.

In our moments of unspeakable grief, God gives us permission to cry out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As we witness atrocities and terrors around the world, God gives us permission to ask, “Where are you, God?” 

As we reflect on the pain evils done in God’s name and the evils some have accused God of committing, God does not ask that we come to God’s defense. The faithful response is not to say that “God must have been punishing sin,” but rather that God is on the side of those who suffer. God is on the side of those who are abandoned, even when they feel abandoned by God.

How do we know this? Certainly we know it is true in the story of Job. But even more so, we know this because of the one who was sent from God to suffer with us, to become death so that we would be saved from death, and to become a curse for us.

We know this because Jesus himself cried out in the words of Psalm 22 at the hour of his death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Job’s friends knew God as high and mighty, as the one who appoints goodness for the righteous and suffering for the sinner. Job’s friends knew God as the hired hand, who took care of the good sheep who stayed in the fold while letting the wanderers experience the pain of their own decisions.

But we know God as the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In Jesus Christ, God looks at Job and says, “let me come and join you.” God looks at his people who are suffering and says, “let me take your place.” In Jesus, the good shepherd becomes the sheep who is mauled by the wolf who seeks to scatter the flock.

Through Jesus Christ, we know God not as the one turning the dials of suffering, but as the one who knows our suffering because he himself has experienced it.

And only because God has suffered for us can we then be asked to suffer for one another. That’s what 1 John 3 tells us, “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That’s what God asks of us who are the friends of Job, the friends of the one who suffers: to suffer with them. As God has laid down his life for his sheep, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we give our lives over to death.

In some way, that might be easier! We know how to die for something, but Jesus has already done that for us. We’re asked, instead, to live for something. The sacrifice asked of us is obedience and faithfulness. God doesn’t ask that we give our lives over to death, but rather that we give our whole lives over to the love of God and our neighbor. God asks us to lay what we have at the feet of others, pouring ourselves out for them.

At the end of the story of Job, this is in fact the mechanism God uses to restore Job’s life. Job 42:10–11 says, “the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.”

This is how God restores the lives of those who are suffering, by friends who don’t lift up lofty words but rather pour themselves out at the feet of others. That’s the kind of selfless action modeled in Jesus and his disciples. It’s embodied in the practice of foot washing, where Jesus takes the position of a servant who cleans the smelly feet of those who have traveled through dusty roads in their sandals. It’s embodied in the radical giving of Mary, who took and broke a pint of costly perfume and poured it over Jesus’s head. It’s shown in the woman who gave her last two coins, everything she had to live on, to God in her temple offering, even though she knew it would be misused. This kind of radical self-giving is the call of Jesus to his disciples, as they abandon everything to follow him.

And yes, this self-giving love of God is shown in Jesus who takes the position of a shepherd, the smelliest and most despised of positions in the ancient world. It’s shown through Jesus who cares for even the smelliest of sheep and brings them into his fold.

God doesn’t stand idly by in the heavens while his people suffer. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us to shepherd and guide us through the darkest valleys of life. Even when we cry to God out of the depth of our grief, accusing God of abandoning us, God remains the calm, caring shepherd who leads us to water.

Do you feel like Job today, abandoned by God and barely clinging onto life? I pray that you would know the comfort of God, who pursues you with goodness and mercy in your frustration and pain. The God who created us leads us to lush green pastures when we need to recover.

Do you feel like one of God’s prized sheep today, feeling good about your own life? You may be laying out in those green pastures right now, grateful for where God has placed you. You may want to stay put and enjoy the lush grass in front of you. But God calls us out of our comfort, to follow the good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep so that we might lay down our lives for one another. God is calling you to find a Job in your life, a fellow sheep who is off on their own. Sit with them. Comfort them. Lead them into the fold. Tell them about their shepherd who knows their grief and pain. Lay what you have at their feet, so that they might be restored to life.

No matter where you are in life right now, or where you find yourself in this story, know that God the Father loves you and calls you home. God the Son is your shepherd, leading you to the waters of life. And God the Spirit surrounds you with grace, mercy, and love this day and forevermore. Amen.

Building on Rock Bottom (a sermon)

This sermon was preached to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on January 31, 2021 on the forty-sixth week of Coronatide.

Matthew 7:24–27

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Home Improvement

As the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn on in the United States now for almost a year, many industries have been hit especially hard, including the “church industry.” Once changing at a glacial pace, we now struggle to keep up with the needs and desires of a scattered flock. There has been one industry, though, which was uniquely prepared to weather the destruction of this virus.

In mid-March of last year, as we were all told to stay at home to flatten the upward climb of infections, one industry was prepared to cash in. See, as we all were forced to spend time inside the four walls of our family dwellings, many of us decided we really were not happy with how things looked. For years, we had all been too busy outside our home to give much notice to what was inside. Our bathrooms and kitchens needed a remodel from their 1970s pink tile and pressed wood, sure. But that was a project for an unspecified later time.

That later time had come. So, Americans logged on to Lowes and Home Depot to place pickup orders for all the things that would make their house, once just a functional resting place, into a true sanctuary that could provide homely comfort.

As many industries have cut back their advertising on television, regional contractors for home remodeling have been running ads at every commercial break. One contractor after another promises that you’ll be happy with your new windows. You’ll love preparing meals in your new kitchen. And this new bathroom will change your life. “Pay nothing now, we have installment plans!” they boast.

This is surely a positive thing for the home improvement industry, but it’s also been a positive thing for us at the church. One of the bright spots of this past year has been that the work crew has almost finished not just one or two, but four different major projects since we have all been away! Their diligence and forward-thinking with the church’s property is inspiring, and they are just one concrete way that we are building back better.

Even more encouraging has been the response to Rev. Tina’s messages about self-examination. We heard a couple weeks ago about the positive spiritual changes you all are making in this new year. It’s awesome to hear how the seeds of God’s word are growing and bearing fruit in so many lives.

All of that talk about self-examination and the important internal work we all need to do got me thinking about this construction parable from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a parable that still makes sense to us on the surface, as it did for its first hearers––dig deeper and build your house on the rock so your house doesn’t collapse in a storm. It fits with what Rev. Tina has been saying about looking underneath the surface, because one has to dig below the sand and soft soil to hit the bedrock below.

It also seems like a good, American truism that would fit well with one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, like “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one that on its surface seems to be all about our individual human effort, teaching the wisdom of self-reliance. 

The trouble is, when we read this parable––and the entire Gospel––through the lens of our American Protestant Work Ethic, we miss the point and we lose the Gospel. How many of you who engaged in pandemic “nesting,” DIY home improvement, or hiring a contractor did so relying on God through prayer?

Maybe there are some of you who prayed about your home improvement projects. But usually building, constructing, remodeling, and improving our homes are things we do ourselves with our own effort and our own resources. We can do it foolishly or wisely, but it is we who are doing the work. This picture of improvement, in stark contrast to Jesus’ parable, has nothing to do with God.

Since we view our home improvement as something resulting from our own effort, and Jesus uses a home improvement metaphor to think about self-improvement, we’re liable to think we can improve ourselves through our own effort too!

If anything, we only go to Jesus for help telling us how to rebuild and remodel ourselves. We pray to Jesus for wisdom and discernment and then do the rest with our own effort.

As we engage in this important work of self-improvement, Jesus is asking us now if we have really counted the cost. Have we figured out if we can really finish this work ourselves, as Jesus asks in Luke 14:28? Do we have the resources within us to remodel and rebuild ourselves from the ground up?

Are we even building in the right place?

As I wondered about what it means to build on the right foundation with this parable, I was drawn to the images of destruction and rebuilding after a hurricane. The images of destruction from 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina will forever be implanted in my memory. The houses flattened on their foundation. The Superdome, packed with 26,000 newly homeless people.

Invariably, whenever the hurricane was discussed in the years that followed, someone would ask, “why don’t they just move out of the hurricane zone?” As I researched this question on the internet this week, I found plenty of cynical responses that sounded familiar.

“Well, they won’t move because the insurance will pay for damages. They don’t want to give up their ocean views. The government enables them to live where they shouldn’t. And since they didn’t die, they’ll never learn.”

Again, in our cultural narrative, people don’t move out of a coastal area at risk of disaster because they’re stupid. They are, in the Benjamin Franklin wisdom reading of our parable this morning, the foolish builder. In our culture of individual effort, the parable is about building in the right place so as to avoid trouble. It’s about being self-righteous enough to put yourself out of harm’s way.

Here’s the problem, if we’re talking about literal houses: where in the US can you build a house that would be immune to natural disaster? Where can you build a place for you and your family that will not be threatened by wind, rain, fire, snow, and earthquakes? If you do know of such a place, I’m sure you’d save a lot of money on insurance if you moved there! But no such place exists. Everywhere you could build yourself a house has substantial risk of disaster coming in and leveling the place.

I can just imagine that there was some troublesome listener in Jesus’ audience who asked Jesus the same question. “Why don’t you just build your house away from the stream? Why don’t you build outside of the hurricane zone? Why don’t you tell these people to build somewhere safe?”

The answer that Jesus knows, and we should too, is that no such place exists.

We are, of course, not talking about physical houses or environmental storms at all. We are talking about the house of our bodies and the storm of Sin and death.

No matter how hard we try, we are incapable of picking up and moving to a place where Sin and death cannot strike us. We can’t move out of our frail bodies and become someone else instead. We can’t start over from scratch. In this work of self-awareness and self-improvement, we are stuck with ourselves. The best we can do is build back better in the same place with a better foundation.

Let’s go deeper into the parable. Jesus tells us about the sand and the rock where the builders set their foundations.

First, the sand. 

Jesus is not telling his hearers not to build houses on the beach where they might be blown away by a hurricane. He is not telling us to build our houses far enough out from where a storm might strike––he knows there is no truly safe place in this world.

Throughout Scripture, sand is used as a metaphor for humanity. In Genesis, God promises Abraham as many descendents as there are grains of sand on the seashore. Isaiah counts the number of the sons of Israel to be as numerous as the sand of the sea, lamenting that only a remnant would be saved from the coming storm. 

For many of us, this pandemic has revealed human selfishness like never before. We are unwilling to care for the most vulnerable among us. We are unable to follow the guidance of scientists. We are incapable of letting go of our desires for the safety of others. In the face of all of that, many of us are losing our faith in humanity.

To this, the Gospel says, good! Humanity is, after all, like the plentiful sand along the sea. To use a more well-known metaphor, humanity is but dust, and to the dust we will return. As Lent begins, we will put that metaphor directly on our foreheads.

Does sand seem like a smart material to build on? Of course not. Neither is humanity, our individual ego! If we engage the process of self-awareness and self-improvement to build on this sand of our humanity, we aren’t going to last long.

Let me say it plain: if you build the house of your life on the foundation of yourself, it is going to fall. Hard. Eventually, it will all wash away with the storms of trouble.

If we are going to follow the Gospel of Jesus, then the first step of our self-improvement will be the same as the first step of the Twelve Steps for all you friends of Bill: “we admitted we were powerless over _____––that our lives had become unmanageable.

Put another way, humanity is dust and to dust it will return. We are sand. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We ourselves are powerless over any number of things we might try to control in our lives.

That blank, the thing you are powerless over, may be any number of things. It could be one of any number of hurts, habits, or hang-ups. It may be drugs or alcohol, food, consumer goods, sex, gambling, work, or any number of other things. But when we have built a foundation on our own frail humanity, our own egos, our own self-sufficiency, our lives will become unmanageable.

Since we’re foolish humans, we often don’t acknowledge our own powerlessness and instead try to remodel and fix the “house” on top of the foundation. We remodel one area of our lives, maybe our nutrition and exercise or even our prayer and spiritual life, only so we can brag about how good of a builder we are! So we can brag about how much we’ve done! We find confidence in ourselves with the changes we’ve made, the success we’ve had, the artistic product we’ve produced. We pat ourselves on the back for all this hard work, only to find it all comes crashing to the ground when the rains come. (And the rains will come!)

To admit that we are sand is to declare the holy phrase, “I can’t!” There is nothing that will last that is built on the sand of our humanity. This is the radical truth of the Gospel and the truth about ourselves: all of us are sinners.

To not admit that we are sand is to live in denial and continue to perform building maintenance on a house that is condemned because of its cracking foundation. 

No matter how hard we try, we will never transform our foundation of sand into a solid rock. No matter how hard we try to do maintenance on our condemned houses, the cracks will keep coming.

Since the storms are inevitable, what is going to happen to our foundation if it’s built on sand?

Our foundation will crack.

At first, the foundation built on the sand of ourselves will look new. It’ll even look good and righteous to all our Christian friends! Don’t you just love the look of freshly poured concrete? Everyone will marvel at us and our brand new foundation. Piece by piece, we’ll construct the house on top of that foundation, making it look just like we want it.

All the while, trouble is brewing underneath. See, even before the rains come down and the floods come up, that foundation built on sand is going to start cracking. We might not even notice it at first, since most of us don’t live in our basements. But cynicism, judgment, bad relationships and friendships, and unwanted feelings are going to start cracking that foundation. And through those cracks, the first signs of sin are going to trickle back in through the floor. Unwanted feelings and desires will turn to unwanted behaviors. The water will seep into our basements through our cracking foundation.

What do we do? We engage in behavior control as a concrete crack sealer. Put another way, we start playing whack-a-mole with sinful behaviors. We think, if we can just stop _____ (whatever it is) by our own personal effort, our foundation will be restored. We start trying to improve the “spiritual rooms” of the house of our bodies in hopes that our sacrifices will appease God.

As I’ve illustrated, we can engage in all sorts of Christian behaviors while the sand of self is our foundation. You can be “Christian” and have a foundation on sand. You can be a deacon or elder, a Pastor or professor and still have a foundation built on the sand of self. Trust me, I know from experience. 

You can have a personal relationship with Jesus and have been saved at Bible camp and still have a foundation that is cracking on top of sand. You can be part of every weeknight Bible study group and have an accountability group and still be built on the sand of your own righteous effort. 

As you think of yourself, you’re a basically good person. There are others who are basically irredeemably evil, and you’re better than them. So you’re okay! You know who the bad people are, and you do your best to not be like them. Except, you know, for all those cracks in your basement foundation. So all the while, you keep doing foundation crack repair. And the shame about your leaky cracked floor amplifies the trespass! You hide the cracks, and they keep multiplying. No one can know that you don’t have it all together! Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know! You have to keep up the show.

It’s exhausting! And if you let that go on long enough, your whole house is going to fall over. Again, I know from experience. 

We can never transform our sand into a solid rock. We can never do more than damage repair on a foundation that is cracking.

The way to healing, the way to wholeness, the way out of the perpetual whack-a-mole is to admit the radical truth of the gospel and ourselves: all of us are sinners, none better than another. We cannot transform our sand into a stable foundation.

Until we get foundation on the stable ground, the solid rock, we’re completely powerless. Our own lives are unmanageable, to say nothing about trying to help anyone else.

If we don’t get the foundation right, we’re never going to be able to reach out to others or share the Gospel. Because all we will be able to share is our own fallible work, our own broken foundation atop sinking sand. Built on the sand, all of our works for Jesus will be either out of guilt or ego. We’ll help others so we can feel better about ourselves. We’ll give to the church just like we shop at Target. We’ll be part of a community out of a desire for control. 

When we help others from a cracked foundation atop the sinking sand, we’ll say, “I saved myself, here, let me save you.” But no, we need the message that we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless! We are powerless. But we know the one who can save.

We need the rock.

The truth about ourselves is that all of us are sinners, incapable of managing our own lives, unable to save ourselves––we are sand. The good news of the Gospel is that recognizing ourselves for who we are is a good thing. Because when we admit that truth about ourselves, we come up against the radical grace of the Gospel.

Jesus didn’t die for the ones who have it all together, the ones who are self-sufficient. Jesus didn’t die for those who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, as if such a thing was possible. Jesus died for the ungodly. Jesus died for we who are sand, dust in the wind.

God’s grace is sufficient because it works when we understand our weakness. We who are built on the rock cannot take any pride in being better than some other sinner because there is “no distinction.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:22ff)

This grace, this rock underneath our foundation is a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can do to get a fancier version of it. No amount of work will produce more of it. All of us are given the same solid place to build our lives when we recognize our powerlessness and rely on Jesus instead.

When we have exhausted all of our own resources, when all the sand of self-sufficiency washes away, we hit rock bottom. And it is there that the sand of the self comes up against the strength of the rock who is Jesus

On the rock, we find that our concrete foundation, freshly poured after the latest storm, isn’t developing so many cracks. We find that we don’t have to spend our whole day in the basement playing whack-a-mole with our sins and perceived flaws. On the rock, we have a safe, hospitable sanctuary to offer to others in need––and we’re not doing it for our own glory. On the rock, we recognize that church is not a consumer good that can be bought, but a community sustained by our recognition that all we have is a gift from God.

It is on this rock, Jesus Christ, that the church and our lives can be built when we surrender to God by grace through faith.

On the rock, we find that our spiritual disciplines are no longer tools to appease God, but rather life giving pipelines of God’s spirit. On the rock, we are much less concerned with the sins of others than we are with sharing the grace of the Gospel. 

On the rock we have holy indifference about money, power, and material things and a holy passion for building up something that will last forever. On the rock we recognize that our body is a temple and we care about our food and exercise. because they are holy and set apart by God. On the rock we stop using other people to get our needs met and find ourselves in mutual relationships with each other for the very first time.

On the rock we create not for our glory, but for the glory of the one who saved us. On the rock we boast of our weakness, that others might be inspired through our story that yes, God can save even them.

In this season when COVID-19 has taken away so much with its fierce storm against our wellbeing, relationships, and security, we may be tempted to rebuild a new house on the same old sand of self-sufficiency. If we do, the cracks will re-form. Another storm will come along and knock us over yet again.

May we instead cease the ritual of building maintenance on a condemned dwelling. May we start from scratch, pouring a new concrete foundation of faith, hope, and love on the one who is the rock––Jesus Christ our Lord.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

Amen.

Receive (Advent 4B Devotional)

This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 23, 2020.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Through the first three weeks of our Advent waiting, we have considered the words of Jesus to “ask, seek, and knock” through the lens of Isaiah, a prophet of God who wrote during Israel’s time in exile. Each week we have seen how Isaiah’s context in exile is similar to our own situation in various levels of isolation due to the Coronavirus. In this time that we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ, we have considered the important spiritual tasks of asking God for what we need, seeking after a new way, and knocking at the door of the future.

We need relief from Coronavirus, both the symptoms of the illness and the loss of life and livelihood it has caused. 

We need God to show us a new way, because many in our world have been robbed of true peace and justice.

We need to be willing to stand at the doorway of that new way and actively request entry into it. We need to tell God “yes,” we will follow God’s way.

This is what Advent is all about. This Advent, more than usual, is a time when we await God’s promised deliverance, God’s coming again into our future.

Today’s message from the prophet Isaiah is half Advent message. Isaiah 55:6-9 in particular call us back to the theme of “seeking the Lord,” But let’s start at the beginning with a message that is perfect for these short days before Christmas.

Isaiah says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you thirsty? Come to the water! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway to buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Similar to the Message Paraphrase)

Over the past few weeks, our faithful deacons purchased food boxes from the Food Bank along with Christmas food staples to make sure families in our community who are in need have food to eat at Christmas. The deacons engage in this kind of ministry year round, making sure those who request food or other resources from the church can receive it. But Christmas is a time when this kind of ministry is in full force. 

There are all sorts of more “secular” reasons why we engage in acts of charity this time of year. We are more conscious of the blessings that we have. There is social pressure to do something for those who are less fortunate. Our mailboxes are filled with year-end financial appeals from charities.

But there is also a deeply Christian reason why the Advent and Christmas season is a time when we would open our hearts and resources for those who are in need. See, in Advent, we await the future coming of Jesus Christ. Not just in Isaiah, but in the New Testament as well, the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, is a time when both hearts and bellies will be full, not just with the bare essentials, but with wonderful things. Isaiah 25 tells us that there will be a feast of “rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine [with] the best of meats!” The New Testament likens it to a wedding feast or a king’s banquet.

The promise of Christmas, both now and future, is a great feast! A great banquet! An occasion for celebration with family and friends old and new. A time when when our bellies would be full of foods we cannot afford. A time when our hearts would be full of good news that we do not deserve.

But then the prophet, after giving the promise, asks the hard, discipleship question: “why?”

Isaiah asks, “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?” I don’t know about you, but even despite the restrictions and tightened belts of the pandemic, I’ve spent money I didn’t need to spend. The things of last month don’t satisfy this month. My priorities aren’t always in the right place, especially this time of year. There are all sorts of great things that God gives me for free and plenty of people who do not have daily bread and what do I do? I spend money on fleeting entertainment. Why do we invest so much time and energy in things that do not satisfy? I don’t know, Isaiah. Because we’re bored? (I think Isaiah might scoff at our honest answer.)

Matthew and Luke’s Gospels ask another question about the way people respond to the Great Feast. “Why do people who are invited to the free water, the free bread, the free feast of blessing not come to get it?”

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about those who do not come to the free banquet. The host says, “Hey there! Yeah, you! Are you hungry? Come to the feast! Do you have money? That’s no trouble, come anyway. I’ve set a place for you.” And what do the guests do? They tell the host that they have better things to do. “Sorry, I can’t come.”

This is, perhaps, primarily a metaphor for a spiritual reality. Those who belong to God’s people and God’s church are often the ones who make excuses about why they can’t make time for God’s blessings.

But also, it’s just a plain fact. You can announce to the world that you have free food to give out, and some people will be too proud to come and receive it. They’re in need, but those blessings are for other people. And on the other side, you have people who say “yeah, I need some food!” who do not actually come to get it. 

Why are our priorities so out of whack? Why do we not admit our needs? Why do we not show up for the blessings God gives out so abundantly for free.

The answer is, of course, that we are human. We’ve been turning away from God’s blessings in search of something else since that first day in the garden. God was like, “look at all this stuff I’m giving you for free!” And we said, “Nah, God. I’d rather eat that fruit over there instead.”

And so, the Christmas promise (as it always does) leads us back into the Advent question. The promise of a great feast of FREE (did I mention, FREE) FOOD leads us to wonder why we do not ask, seek, and knock for what we need.

The prophet turns us to this Advent theme in Isaiah 55:6-9 — “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”

We’re right back where we started. Ask God for what we need. Seek God’s way. Knock at the door. Receive the blessings.

Again we ask, what does it mean for us to seek God’s way in the Christmas season during a global Pandemic?

I’m sorry for jumping around so much today, but if you look at Matthew 24:42-44 I think we’ll find the answer. 

“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Keep watch. Stay vigilant.

If you’ve considered this Scripture text before, you may have noticed that the Lord here is likened to an unexpected thief. It’s a shocking comparison, like many in the Advent season. God, like a thief will come at the moment you’re not prepared and ready. The moment you’ve let your guard down.

Right now, there is something far more covert and menacing than a thief going around. Right now, at the moment when Coronavirus vaccines are starting to be distributed, hospitals are running out of space. Many of us are starting to let our guard down.

Over and over, our Scriptures remind us, “seek righteousness, care for your neighbor, keep watch, don’t let your guard down.”

Both blessings and suffering come at an unexpected time.

It is for that reason that Paul admonishes the early church to “not be like the others who are asleep” on the job, lax in their duty to keep watch and stay attentive.

“Let us be awake and sober” because we are children of the light of Christ.

Let us actively ask, seek, and knock in this season. Let’s stay vigilant because the day of our promised deliverance from COVID is coming. God is coming into our future and making a way and a future for us.

But as we remain ready and vigilant, let us also take time to celebrate and thank God for the free blessings God gives us. We have food to eat. We have shelter. We have connection with other people, even if only virtually. God is meeting our needs. God is present with us this Christmas.

Thank you for taking this journey through the message of Isaiah with me this month. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!