LENT Never God’s Last Word

12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.

14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The Lord once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit. ’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal. (Jeremiah 11:12–17 ESV)

Didn’t I just say on Sunday that disaster wasn’t a punishment from God? That suffering wasn’t a sign of the judgement of God?

They aren’t. And I believe it. Jesus said so. At least in the case of the seemingly meaningless. Like the collapse of tall buildings. Or death at the hands of the state.

But in scripture, God frequently uses others — Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and by allusion, Romans — as means of judgment upon Israel. For Israel’s idolatry, for its failure to care for the least in its midst — strangers, widows, orphans — for its faith in its own power, strength, and wealth. These are Israel’s sins, the sins that matter, the sins that bring judgment. And so, the Lord has decreed disaster against the house of Israel, and nothing — nothing — can avert it. Not sacrifice, not pleadings, not prayer.

Do not pray for this people. The judgment of God is coming And nothing can save them.

There are consequences for sin and faithlessness. David and Solomon’s kingdom was divided because of its faithlessness, the northern kingdom disappeared underneath an Assyrian onslaught because of its faithlessness, and now Judah — little Judah — will face a Babylonian army because of its faithlessness.

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God outlines the blessings to come if Israel follows the covenant God has made with it, and the curses that will come if Israel proves faithless. But it isn’t an either/or promise. It is a both/and. “When all of these things come upon, the blessing and the curse,” God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 30, when you consider your exile and/or miserable state because you have failed to uphold the teachings of God, and you “return to the Lord your God,” then God will restore Israel.

Repentance. This is what God truly wants. This is what Jesus tells us matters. Repentance that leads to trust in God, and self-giving love of neighbor.

Sometimes it does not come in time to avert the disaster. Sometimes the disaster is needed to teach and refine and burnish. Sometimes the disaster catches us unawares, and we are gone. There are events in my life — like the ending of my first pastoral internship — which I have come to see as a judgment upon my faithlessness. God teaching me, in disaster, in dislocation, in exile, how to be faithful. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t pay attention the way I should have.

Repent. Turn your life around. Be who God has called you to be. Even as the fire consumes you.

Even as the fire consumes you.

Because judgement is never God’s last word on our sin. Resurrection is.

LENT God of wrath? Or God of love?

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness. ’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. ’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” (Numbers 14:13–20 ESV)

God is love. John writes this in his first letter, in his beautiful circular prose that makes me feel he’s losing his breath and possibly losing his balance, so giddy is he from the excitement over having encountered God the way he has.

Christians have believed this for a long, long time. And there’s no reason to doubt it. Because scripture says so. God is love.

And yet, there seems to be a disconnect, between the God of love and forgiveness, the God of redemption and surrender we meet in Christ, and the God who walks through the garden in the cool of the day, who expels the man and the woman from the garden, who drowns the earth in its sinfulness, who reigns terror and death upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who terrorizes Egypt with darkness, sickness, and death, and then who commands Israel to dispossess an entire people and take the land of Canaan from those who are already there.

The Old Testament shows us a God of wrath, a God who if simply looked at wrong inflicts sickness and death upon God’s people. A God who rides out to war to fight for Israel, defeating its enemies and brining them victory.

Doesn’t seem like Christ to me. Doesn’t seem like the cross. Not this God. Marcion must have been right — they cannot possibly be the same God.

But what Moses does here, in this passage that follows almost right on the heels of yesterday’s, is very similar to what Jesus does in chapter eight of John’s Gospel when he stands with and forgives the woman accused of adultery. He intercedes between the accused and her accusers, shaming those who judge, making a public case for and obtaining mercy.

Unlike Jesus, who deals with the religious leaders of his age, Moses got face-to-face with God here, because God has grown extremely exasperated with the Israelites, who all want to go back to Egypt, rejecting the saving work of God who not long ago yanked them out of Egypt. “I will strike them down and abandon them,” God says, “and start over and make a great nation from you, Moses.”

This is where Moses gets clever and shames The Lord. “What will people think when they see that you’ve blotted out and destroyed the people you only recently saved? What good is a God who would do that?” And besides, Moses adds, show the world that you are indeed a merciful God, a God who forgives.

And God … forgives. He is convinced, he is shamed into forgiveness because Moses talked him down from doing something rash and stupid. But it is still forgiveness.

Israel lives to see another day.

If you read the Bible carefully, something becomes readily apparent. Over time, as God reaches through the mess of the world to meet his people, God is changed. God demands less, expects less, and gives more. God holds less and less against faithless, wayward Israel, and promises to do more and more. God figures out what we simply are not capable of doing. God gives more of himself, inserts more of himself, promises more of himself, takes on more of the burdens of his people. Until God becomes one of his very own people. And assumes all of our sins and all of our burdens.

The creator is changed by his encounter with the creation, and with us, the creatures he fashioned from us breathed a bit of his spirit, his wind, his breath, into. Changed … for the better. Until he becomes a thing of mud himself.

But make no mistake, that incarnate God who proclaims forgiveness, who heals and casts out demons and feeds masses, who breaks bread and goes to his death on a cross, is the same God who breathed the universe into existence and had to be shamed into forgiving Israel because, well, what would people think of such a God? The God who seemed so wholly other that we could not even gaze upon him, not even behold his glory, now comes to us as a man, finite and fragile, bleeding and broken.

God is love. But not a sentimental love, the kind that cannot bear sorrow or suffering, that evaporates at the first sign of faithlessness. God’s love is a hard, unflinching love that finds us right where we are in a violent, brutal, cruel world. And does not let go.

Because God, who was changed in his encounter with us, knows that we can and will be changed. Utterly and completely. In our encounter with him.

LENT Bind the Sacrifice

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalms 118:26-29 ESV)

My father and I were sitting in a hotel room in Roswell, New Mexico, during our visit for his mother’s funeral. He was a religious man, a faithful man once, my father, but no longer. Not since college, when he first began to doubt the goodness of God.

Not since Vietnam, when he met the horror human beings could inflict upon each other face to face.

“I don’t understand why Jesus had to die so that we could be saved,” he confessed, almost in a sigh.

It’s an old question — one always willed into existence when we talk of God’s need for a sacrifice to mitigate sin. For many Christians, the death of Christ is a matter of god taking out God’s anger upon God’s incarnate self so that somehow, the books can be balanced and the world can be forgiven.

I looked at my dad.

“That’s the wrong way to think about it,” I said. “Consider the possibility that Christ came forgiving sins and we couldn’t stand it. So much so, we killed him for it. And God gave in to us, to our fear and our violence, the worst we can do, to show us that the death we deal has no power, and that it is not the final answer. Love is bigger than death.”

My dad was silent for a moment. A serious, thoughtful silence.

“I’m going to have to think about that.”

I don’t know if my father has or not. As long as I have known him, he has never been a believer, and I’m not out to “save his soul.” He is baptized, and bears the Cross of Christ already on his body. I am confident of his salvation, whatever he believes.

I look at today’s psalm fragment and I see words we will hear again on Palm Sunday when Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem in heady triumph — “Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Welcome to the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it!

Martin Luther considered the psalms to be the prayers of Jesus. And what a prayer this is! A prayer of overcoming, a prayer of triumph over enemies that surround. A prayer of thanksgiving! The victory of our God over our enemies, our occupiers, those who regularly humiliate and destroy us, is at hand!

Bind the festal sacrifice with cords; up to the horns of the altar!

What if Jesus is a sacrifice? But instead of being God’s sacrifice for sin, somehow, he is ours? A misguided sacrifice given with our own hands, out of fear that he will actually deliver us? That in proclaiming good news, he already has redeemed and delivered us, and we don’t want a redemption that looks like Jesus. That looks like his kingdom. In the Gospel of John, Caiaphas the high priest tells his colleagues as they discuss the mighty works of Jesus and their fear the people will make him king and start a war with Rome that Israel cannot win:

Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish. (John 11:50 ESV)

We always forget, when we speak of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, whose hands do the sacrificing — ours. We have bound him out of fear, fear that he will change everything, fear that he puts the careful order of the world at risk. We offer him up, in hopes that his death will silence the hope for salvation, will end the possibility of redemption, will prove all his talk of rising from the dead a hollow and fraudulent boast.

And here is Jesus, praying for this. Bind the sacrifice, nail him to the cross!

For this, he gives thanks to the Lord.

So do I. On this road to Jerusalem with Jesus, as we walk, doing miracles and casting out demons, preaching good news as we slowly work our way to that day when he shall show us what God’s glory really looks like, I will give thanks to the Lord.

LENT Walking in His Way

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:1–6 ESV)

I don’t like pietism. I don’t like sinlessness. I don’t like how church people use it, and frequently how it reads in scripture passages like this. “Do not sin,” the command comes. And yet, we still sin, and for some reason, that’s held against some of us.

Not by God, but by the church. By church people.

The striving is important. I grant that. The keeping of commandments — the effort expended in living as God invites us to live, to treat ourselves and to treat each other — is important. It’s important because it shows what it means to be faithful to God. To a God who has called us, and is faithful to us.

But this journey we take with Jesus, this journey through the wilderness to Jerusalem, to his triumphal entry, to his last supper, to his betrayal and arrest, his trial, and then his execution, this is journey is about so much more than being a good, virtuous, and pure person. It’s about following Jesus — about loving God, loving neighbors, loving enemies, meeting sinners where they are. Pronouncing forgiveness, yes, and telling them to sin no more.

But as John here notes, it’s about knowing Christ is our advocate, forgiving us, again and again, when we fall and when we fail. As we do. Constantly.

To walk in the way of Christ is to walk toward Jerusalem, knowing the same fate that befell Jesus may await us. Confident not only that Christ forgives our sins, but that he rose from the dead.

It’s also about knowing that abiding in Christ, and walking in his way, is about more than being good and pure. It’s about far more than living “above reproach.” It’s about preaching good news, forgiving sins, feeding the crowds, finding the lost, healing the sick, and casting out demons.

It’s also about suffering. And dying. To sin. To self. To the world. Because Jesus proclaimed the forgiveness of God to a world a great deal more interested in other things — power and glory and wealth and success.

Moral Injury and Moral Superiority

I’m a fan of old radio shows, and a temporary job I’ve had recently has given me the opportunity to listen to a number of them.

There’s a lot to be learned, I think, about our culture and our ideals from mass media, especially in an era as homogenous as the 1950s. This episode of the Gunsmoke radio show from 1956, “Bloody Hands,” (the television version is here, though let’s be honest, radio is better) says some important things about the nature of social order and the men — because it was men back then — who keep that order.

It is an ordinary day in Dodge City, Kansas. U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon rides into town on a buckboard, his gun in the back of a sullen man driving. Dillon has been after a gang of five thieves, robbers, and murderers, and he ambushed them somewhere outside of town, killing four of them in the process. “It was like butchering hogs,” the sullen man says as Chester locks him in jail.

All the time, the sullen man — Brand, I think — is complaining and criticizing Matt Dillon. “Do you like killing? Because you certainly are good at it!” Brand is relentless, and he makes Dillon angry. It’s not lost on the audience that this a killer talking.

But the criticism clearly hits and hurts Dillion. He has a nightmare in which we hear him say, as he sleeps, “Please, no, don’t make me kill again.” Chester has to wake him up, and groggily, Dillion resolves to quit. He writes out a telegram of resignation, and has Chester go to the train depot and send it to the War Department. Dillon then goes to breakfast.

Matt Dillon stops wearing a gun. He stops wearing his badge. When this scene takes place, we learn that several of Brand’s fellow outlaws are in town wrecking havoc while Dillon, and his “friend” (and Long Branch co-owner) Kitty Russell are sitting underneath the shade of a tree, fishing. Chester Proudfoot, Dillion’s rather hapless assistant, comes riding up.

Chester: Mr. Dillon, Joe Stanger’s in town.

Matt: Oh? Well, that doesn’t matter to me, Chester.

Chester: But you don’t understand.

Matt: I don’t understand what?

Chester: What I’ve come to tell you. Stanger’s at The Long Branch, and a while ago he had word with one of the girls there and she slapped him and he, he pulled out his gun, and he, he killed her.

Matt: He what?

Kitty: Who was the girl, Chester?

Chester: Kate Hawkins.

Kitty: Oh no…

Chester: That’s who it was, Miss Kitty. And the bartender tried to stop him and Stanger shot him too and I hear he’s gonna die. I grabbed a horse off the hitch rail and come right to tell you. You’ve gotta stop him, Mr. Dillon.

Matt: Look, Chester, I’m not the marshal here anymore. I quit, remember?

Chester: You mean you’re going to let Joe Stanger walk around Dodge and shoot everybody that gets in his way? Including women?

Matt: I’m through killing. I told you that.

Chester: Well, who’s gonna stop him, then? You’re the only man around here that will go up agin’ him and you know it.

Matt: That may be true, but I’m still not going to do it.

Chester: Wait, Mr. Dillon, wait, wait a minute. I been thinking a lot about all this lately and there’s something you’ve been overlooking.

Matt: Oh?

Chester: Men like Stanger and Brand, they gotta be stopped. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t. I just ain’t good enough. Most men ain’t. But you are. It’s kinda too bad for you that you are, but that’s the way it is, Mr. Dillon, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not now. It’s too late. It’s way too late.

[With that, Dillon sighs. We hear the clink of spurs and the grinding of boots in the dirt.]

Matt: Hand me your gun, Chester.

It’s this very last speech that interests me.

Matt Dillon is a “good man.” He’s more than competent gunman, fast on the draw, faster than nearly everyone he comes up against (there was one young gunman who was faster than Dillon, and did manage to shoot the marshal). He’s a solid fighter with his fists, too, and he’s pummeled and beaten men much bigger than he is. So, Dillion is “good enough” in that he possess the technical skill to defeat anyone who challenges him.

But there’s another meaning here, I think, to “good enough.” Dillion is a “good man” in a world where “bad men” are constantly doing violence. Here, we have an insight into what Dillon’s being “good enough “ means: he is bothered by the violence he does. It hangs heavy on his conscience. He has nightmares about it (though, only in this episode), even when the bad guys — people who themselves kill without mercy, pity, and conscience — hound him for it.

Matt Dillon is a sheepdog, protecting the sheep of Dodge City from the wolves of the world. He does the violence needed to maintain peace and order. And he does an awful lot of violence over the course of the Gunsmoke radio series. Sometimes it is capricious violence — “Why are you throwing me in jail?” once received a response akin to “I’ll think of a reason later!” Dillon as a character is unafraid to run men out of town, beat them to a pulp, threaten to shoot them, muse about hanging them himself, and tell them their ultimate fate — after a fair trial, of course — will be at the end of a rope. He frequently interferes in family life to protect children and women, something very enlightened for a character living in the frontier wilderness of the 1870s. He never takes the side of the wealthy in disputes with the poor, and several times refuses to follow the law in order to secure “greater justice” for smallholders threatened by the rich and powerful. More than once, he tells those who complain of his methods, “I AM the law!”

But what’s clear from all of this is that Dillon almost never makes a mistake. His violence, as capricious and lawless as it frequently is, is always aimed at people who deserve it — who have it coming. Bad people. Wolves.

This, I think, is the myth of authority and violence in America. Violence is always well aimed, always hits the right target. He may be violent and sometimes even lawless in his approach, but Matt Dillon is never unjust. The ends of justice are always served in Gunsmoke. The poor and weak are always protected, the innocent are always avenged, the disorderly are always brought to heel, the guilty are always punished, and the wicked are always dealt with.

Of course, it does not work that way in the real world. Power and authority frequently visit their violence on the weak and the powerless. Power and authority are rather good at constantly victimizing the innocent. It’s just easier that way. It’s fine to pretend to be sheepdogs, protecting the weak, but honestly, most sheepdogs are just wolves with badges. It’s simpler to prey on sheep.

There is one other thing about this narrative that interests me. Dillon is a “good man” who does the violence necessary for a peaceful, ordered existence. But because he is a good man who does “bad things” to secure peace and order — who does “bad things” for “good reasons” or “the greater good” — Dillon bears a special moral injury, a moral wound. He is wounded by what he does, he sacrifices himself to the violence he must commit, and the fact that he does it makes him a better person than the rest of us. “I’d do it,” Chester tells him, “but I just ain’t good enough.” He’s not fast enough on the draw, and he can’t handle a six-shooter well enough, but Chester also doesn’t possess the soul needed to be the kind of man who can do “bad things” for “good reasons” day after day.

It’s a calling, Chester says — an unfortunate calling — when he tells Dillon “that’s the way it is.”

This makes Dillon a kind-of distorted Christ figure, one I suspect frequents popular culture and myth across Christendom. He bears the sin of the world, he defeats evil (as opposed to sin and death, a common confusion among Christians of all flavors and persuasions) by doing the works of death better than wicked and bad men do. That it bothers him is proof of his goodness — the evil sleep soundly and well at night. The good and decent toss and turn, troubled by conscience, wondering about the fate of their souls, bothered by the sheer amount of death they must deal in securing the good order of the world.

And even that troubling is vicarious. Almost no one else seems to be bothered by the violence Dillon does to maintain peace and order. He also gets hounded by the very sheep whose lives he protects.

Again, this is myth. It doesn’t work this way in the real world, not really. Just as there are no sheepdogs, there are no Christ-like bearers of sin who do righteous violence so that we can sleep well. It is, as I said, too easy to brutalize the weak and powerless and call it just and righteous. THAT is how the world works.

There’s only violence. And sin. And human beings, struggling. There’s order, barely constrained and contained by sinful men (and women), whose sin itself is only partly restrained. That we impose this narrative of virtuous violence on the real world is one thing that causes so much undue pain and so much undeserved suffering. Because we believe those on the receiving end of that violence have it coming. Deserve it. Merit it. Earned it. After all, they are bad people. Wolves. And we are good people who do difficult things so that the world can work right. Sheepdogs.

We believe deeply in one thing scripture never teaches — that good people must confront and defeat evil. There are no good people in scripture. Just Israel — sinful, miserable, wayward Israel. The is no innocence in scripture save for Christ, who goes willingly to the cross. There is no virtue in scripture, save for a God who confronts our violence by surrendering utterly and completely to it.

Because … we are not good people. There’s no such thing. And few very bad people really twirl their mustaches and confess their wickedness. So much of what we do, and who we are, has no meaning. No purpose. No telos. No virtue. No evil. It just is.

It just is.

An Accidental Saint

I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber.

Oh, it’s nothing personal. Well, maybe. My publisher asked her to read a galley copy of my book to blurb — it would have been nice to have — and, according to my editor, she never responded. Which doesn’t really surprise me. We had a hard time getting blurbs past Rod Dreher (the reason I had a book deal to begin with), and Nadia probably gets lots and lots and lots of requests. Who was I to merit her attention?

I’m not bothered by her style. Anyone who reads this blog know that I am no tea-totoalling pietist. We’ve met once, briefly, Nadia and I, when she spoke at the Lutheran School of theology while I was student there. I like her style, the way she speaks, the stories she tells, and she’s very personable even from behind the pulpit. I know people who know her, including a seminary colleague of mine who interned at her church, and he’s now involved in a church start-up in Texas. Nothing about her offends or rubs me the wrong way.

No, I don’t like Nadia Boltz-Weber because she is constant reminder to me that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the same church that tossed me out on my ass — is run by a bunch of hypocrites.

Nadia is hip and edgy and out there. And, alas, something of a token for the ELCA, an exception, rather than an example of how that church is changing. (And I also think she knows that.) ELCA Lutherans can point to her and say, “see, we get it!” whenever they are told they don’t. This will have some negative consequences in the future, as a number of people who have come up through churches and camps and colleges and into seminaries admiring the example of Nadia discover to their disappointment and frustration that, no, the ELCA hasn’t really changed, and no, you can’t be like Nadia. Because we don’t want or need any more people like her.

There’s a flip side to knowing people who know her — I also know a little bit more about her story. She married well, and it is my understanding that her husband has deep connections throughout the ELCA that likely bought her some space and time for people within the institution to take who she is, and the pastoral gifts she brought, a little more seriously. Because of that, she also had the support of a bishop — something I never had — who was willing to spend some time and figure out how to put her gifts, and her calling, to use.

And even with all that, she was forced (or given the freedom, depending on how you look at it) to start her own congregation. Which, of course, succeeded wildly. But had she been reliant on the ordinary church candidacy process without any attentive institutional support, she likely would have failed as spectacularly as I did, and probably for many of the same reasons.

So, it’s nothing personal, and I know that. She’s just a reminder of who I am not. I don’t know whether I will read her latest book or not. (She probably hasn’t read mine.)

But reviews of Nadia’a latest book like this one from Tim Challies just piss me off. They also show me what I’m up again as I seek to live out my call as a pastor and preacher of the gospel:

Let me say it candidly: Bolz-Weber has no business being a pastor and, therefore, no business writing as a pastor. She proves this on nearly every page of her book. Time and again she shows that she is woefully lacking in godly character. Her stories, her word choice, her interactions with her parishioners, her temper, her endlessly foul mouth, her novel interpretations of Scripture—they lead to the alarming and disturbing picture of a person who does not take the office seriously enough to ask if she is qualified to it.

And yet she boldly tells others how to live as Christians even while she is so obviously and braggingly deficient in godly character. See, somehow she equates transparency with suitability, as if her abundance of flaws, foibles, and outright sin serve as a résumé, as if they are evidence of godliness. But, biblically, nothing could be farther from the truth. This kind of transparency may masquerade as humility but is actually the very height of pride. She revels in the things God forbids and makes little of an office God holds sacred.

“[W]oefully lacking in godly character.” Bishop Wayne Miller of the ELCA’s Metro Chicago Synod said roughly the same thing about me, and no doubt Bishop Richard Graham of Metro Washington DC thought something very similar when that synod sent me packing as well. (So, maybe it’s true.)

In this review, Challies shows something deep at work in the American church, a piety and culture which demands near absolute sinlessness of its leaders, a sinlessness not grounded in the story of scripture. The Bible is full of sinners — David is my personal favorite, a man who rarely thought before he acted and, so far as I know, only repented twice — who are beloved of God in their sin. (I wonder what Challies would do if a Samson or Jephthah or even a Jeremiah were raised up to save the church? Clutch his Bible in doily-covered terror, I suspect, that folks so sinful were doing God’s work.)

Challies tosses around the qualifications laid out in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter — qualifications I’ve seen in a lot a job adverts for churches looking for leaders — and yet it is never remembered who wrote those. Paul, who breathed murder and death at the church, who was present when Stephen was killed (and helped in his own way), who was on his way to Damascus with warrants in hand to arrest, torture and kill the followers of Jesus when the Lord intervened in his life. Peter, who betrayed Jesus, who could never do anything right except love his Lord, and who — like Paul — experienced that overwhelming call from Jesus to follow.

What would Challies and pietists like him make of rough-edged church leaders with pasts (and tongues) like Paul, or Peter, or Augustine, or even Martin Luther, if they came looking for institutional approval today? (Lutheran seminarians frequently joke that Martin Luther himself would not make it thought the ELCA’s candidacy process. And that’s probably true.)

I know the pastors, the overseers, the deacons, Challies wants. The people of “sparkling” character. They cannot look the suffering and sin of the world in the face without condemning it. They cannot walk with those who suffer without finding fault with them. Or, they flinch, their faith too dainty, to gentle, too demanding that the world conform, to speak with any love, compassion, or empathy to those wounded in and wounded by sin. That genteel and priggish pietism is, to me, not taking the office of pastor seriously.

“This is yet another in a long line of books meant to appeal to those who want to bear the name of Christ but without becoming like Christ,” Challies writes. But what does he mean by that? What does it mean to be “Christ-like,” but to meet the world where it is, love it, and offer it resurrection hope? It’s been my experience that such pastors as Challies wants and admires — whether Baptist or Lutheran — do not know how to love. And because of that, they don’t really know what hope is — true, sincere hope in the face of utter and complete hopelessness. They do not know what kind of a miserable place the world can be, how tough life really is, how much suffering some souls must bear, what awful things we are really capable of doing. They are the kinds of pastors who can quote Bible verses but have no idea what kind of story the Bible really is — that it is God’s unrelenting and unrequited love for a sinful people who God alone has redeemed.

Because we are utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves.

This is not merely a point of doctrine, a detail treated mainly as a theory that explains. It is our lives, our condition, and Nadia gets that in a way Challies does not and never will. Because she has lived in the midst of people told — by the likes Challies — that we are unloved and unlovable and must first get right with God in order to earn that love. Because she has been one of them. And understands, as a Lutheran ought to (though too many don’t), that she is still one of those people.

And we know, Nadia and me, and all the accidental saints in the world, that God does not work that way. God does not give us a list of demands that we must first satisfy in order to be worthy of being one of God’s people, or doing God’s work of speaking truth and love. God calls — the wayward, the wicked, the sinful — and makes us right with him in the call.

On Bearing The Cross

This last week’s Gospel reading from the revised common lectionary contains what I suspect for many is a familiar passage about what it means to follow Jesus:

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38 ESV)

The whole passage read for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost began with Jesus asking his disciples, as they were visting Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am,” and a whole clutch of answers. Jesus, of course, asks who people — οἱ ἄνθρωποι — think Jesus is. And it’s funny, given all Jesus has done, none of the disciples report that anyone thinks Jesus is ὁ χριστός / המשׁיח. Instead, they think he is Elijah, returned from heaven, or some resurrected version of John the Baptist. Or even a prophet. But only the disciples seem to know that Jesus is God’s anointed one, come to deliver and redeem his people.

Jesus then tells the disciples what that means — that he must suffer and be rejected and then be killed, only to rise against three days later. This does make Peter happy, who pulls him aside, and decides to tell the boss off. This is bad news, Peter says, and you should be giving us good news. Jesus then rebukes Peter, and tells him in no uncertain terms — what he described, about suffering and dying and rising, is good news. Because it is the work of God.

The work of God.

And then to make is clear, Jesus gathers not only the disciples, but the crowd who follows as well. And tells them what it means to come after him, to follow him — it means carrying a cross, it means suffering, it means dying. It means focusing on the glory of God, as opposed to the glory of the world, and running toward that glory.

But here’s the question. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow Jesus?

As long as I can remember, fairly conservative Christians in the United States — especially fundamentalists and those who have called themselves evangelicals — have told themselves a story of imminent persecution. The narrative, stitched together from bits and pieces of prophetic and apocalyptic scripture, predicts a time when a single world government will abolish true faith in Jesus Christ, and real belivers — if they haven’t already been snatched away — will suffer terribly for their faith.

And for a number of conservative Christians, the notion of being persecuted has an appeal. Being hated in the name of Jesus means they really truly follow Jesus. It means their faith and their following is both sincere and genuine in one of the few ways the gospels actually measure faith. I remember, if not quite a yearning to be persecuted, at least a kind of envy of those who truly suffered for their profession of Christ.

At the same time, while anticipating and predicting this series of events (they pre-date Left Behind by many decades, and came into their own in the years immediately following the Six Day War in 1967), conservative American Christians have also always claimed the cultural high ground. They see America as their country, and their society, one in which they get to set the rules and determine the meaning. In effect, they have always seen themselves a persecuted majority, with all the perks of both majority power and the claim to powerlessness that persecution endows.

So, you will see rapture beleiving Christians on the one hand claiming current events means the end is nigh, and yet vociferously and enthusiastically supporting U.S. government policies and actions that will effectively delay or postpone the end. Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist, but the United States still needs to fight him. The end will be ushered by an attack on the State of Israel, and the coming end is a glorious thing in which Jesus comes back, but the United States should, at the same time, protect Israel from attack, thus delaying the end. Perhaps indefinitely.

(In my time, I’ve only found one conservative rapture preacher who would even consider that the United States might not be on the right side of God and history in the last times.)

I’ve always found this to be something of a paradox. It certainly isn’t really denying one’s self.

I suspect some of this paradox is at work with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who temporarily went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For some conservative Christians, I suspect the long-awaited (and hoped for and feared) persecution has finally come. And yet, they still can’t square that with the belief both in righteousness and their own status as the majority.

And no doubt some believe Davis, in taking her stand, is denying herself and taking up her cross.

We speak of crosses to bear as our own suffering. I’ve heard a few things in my days described as crosses — health problems, troublesome spouses, ungrateful children, a difficult job. Crosses to bear.

And no doubt now some are calling Davis’s kind of standing up for Jesus a “cross to bear.” It is losing life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel.

I think we miss the point of what Jesus is saying here when we focus on our suffering as a cross to bear. Jesus didn’t come to bear his own suffering, he came to bear the suffering of the world. He bore my suffering, and your suffering, on that cross.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)

Remember, this isn’t about a self-righteous proclamation on our part. This is about following Jesus, and he is in front, leading us. And so, this isn’t about our suffering (even as it is), but it is about a full-on encounter with the suffering of others, of the world — meeting it without flinching, without fear, without turning back, and bearing it with those who suffer.

We who suffer stand with a suffering world, telling the world that suffering is how God meets the world.  Suffering is how God most loves the world. By suffering and dying with us, Jesus shows us what it means to love, to be loved, and to bear a cross with him.

Jesus would not be standing in a county clerk’s officer forbidding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But he wouldn’t be handing them out either. I’m not sure Jesus would care much either way. He had little to say about the governance of the world except that, in the end, it didn’t matter. Because the truth he proclaims is not the kind of abstract right and wrong that seeks to order the world or have us get right with God, but it is a truth about God’s presence in the suffering of the world. And our calling to be part of that presence of God.

To show the world what that means, we who follow Jesus — both the disciples whom Jesus calls and the crowds who choose of their own free will to follow Jesus — are called to join Jesus on that long journey to Golgotha, facing and meeting the world in its fear and loneliness and suffering and telling it the most important thing we can say — that God so loves the world that Jesus came to tell the world, to show the world that it has not been abandoned to despair, to sin, and to death.

How Sex Is Different

I wrote at length earlier this year about sexual ethics — who Israelites were not allowed to have sex with, who Israelites are allowed to marry, why God’s marriage to Israel/Church is a really awful marriage, and who apparently is not off limits according to the law of God — in order to show that homosexuality (or rather, homosexual acts) are no different in scripture from adultery or cavorting with one’s daughter-in-law. Or the neighboring Canaanites.

Because homosexual acts — specifically men lying with men as with women, whatever that might mean — are bundled with a whole bunch of other acts in Leviticus 18 & 20 which are condemned, and which Israel shall not do “as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (Lev. 18:3) So, while homosexual acts may not be different from any other breaking of the covenant in Leviticus, sex itself is different from all the other rules and teaching God gives to Israel.

It’s different because God says something very specific about the consequences that will flow from Israel’s failure to adhere to these specific rules:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)

and

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Leviticus 20:22 ESV)

The word vomit here comes from the Hebrew root קיא which means roughly what it says — to spew out, throw up, disgorge, cast out. It’s a very physical act. And an unpleasant one, an involuntary one, something a person does when she or he is very sick. Or poisoned.

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

But that said, nothing I wrote in my first essay on Leviticus 18 & 20 is changed. Israel is still built upon a violation of these very commandments — Abraham married his half-sister; Jacob took two sisters as wives; Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law; and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all born because their father took his aunt to be his wife. Granted, all of these things took place before the teaching was given (though the teaching was given to Moses, who by all rights should be excluded from the assembly as per Deuteronomy 23:2 because he was born of a “forbidden union”), but Israel would not exist — would not be standing before Mt. Sinai or wandering in the wilderness receiving this teaching — were it not for its sister(s)-marrying and daughter-in-law-fucking ancestors.

Again, this sounds like so many of the if/then, else/then construction that comes with the Torah. If Israel can stay clean, can keep from worshiping other gods and doing all these things it is told not to do, then Israel can stay in God’s good graces and keep the land. The land won’t be poisoned with its sin and will not vomit Israel out.

But none of this can be seen as an abstract command to the people of God. It cannot be read outside of the story. And in this story we have, Israel cavorts with other gods, it sacrifices its children to Molech, and very likely continues to do all of the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because of this, the Assyrians and the Babylonians come. Israel is conquered. And exiled.

The land does vomit Israel out.

Israel pays a harsh price for all of its sin, for all of its idolatry, for all of its faithlessness.

But never does Israel stop being the people of God. Never, after God’s initial pique of rage in Exodus 32 to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and a terrifying threat to walk away completely from Israel in Judges 10, does God ever disown Israel. Or abandon Israel to the ultimate fate of annihilation. Resurrection always looms as a promise. Jeremiah’s valley of slaughter becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, and the very breath of God makes new life where there was only stillness, silence, and death.

Where there was only the faint memory of a people.

Christians have longed feared the consequences — both collective and individual — of sin. We read the Bible and fear the wrath of God. Sinners didn’t just put their eternal souls at risk, they also put the wellbeing of the entire community at risk as well. Famine, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invader were all seen as consequences of allowing sin. So we teach ourselves to keep the law, to adhere to the teaching, if for no other reason than because that’s what virtuous and upstanding followers of Jesus do. And possibly because to do otherwise invites divine retaliation, the punishment of God, upon all of us.

But that’s not what God really tells Israel, not in the Old Testament nor in the New. The promise of God is not prosperity and success for those who walk the straight and narrow path (not even in Deuteronomy!), but resurrection for those of us who have perished in our sin. Christ came not to bear a burden for us, but with us. His defeat of death is the defeat of sin. It is the promise that whatever the judgment of God upon our sinful, chaotic, and deeply disordered lives (as individuals and as the people of God), our bones will not lay bleaching in the sun forever. Our dust will not moulder in the graves for eternity. Death has no hold over us. We are raised with him who rose.

We are raised with him who rose.

The Wages of Sin is … What, Exactly?

On my recent drive from Indianapolis to Baltimore, Jennifer and I sang some of my songs. (Just the words. I don’t play guitar or ukulele and try to drive at the same time. I fear that would end badly.) We do this often. One of the songs I started singing was this, something I wrote for a friend’s installation as a pastor in Virginia and based on a passage in Deuteronomy:

Basically, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of this:

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ESV)

And as I worried about whether our van would overheat as it crossed the hills of West Virginia and western Maryland, I found myself thinking about what it means that God has set before us “life and death and good and evil” (my rendering; the actual passage bundles the good and the bad together). And what it meant that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere follow the path of life.

After all, God commands Israel, through Moses, to “choose life.” Not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children (and their children) as well.

This passage is part of the blessings and curses that God proclaims to Israel regarding the following — or lack thereof — of the teaching God has just given to Israel through Moses. It’s echoed by Paul when he writes in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

And this verse is, at least in my experience, frequently used by fundamentalists to try and persuade. (I remember this from a lot of Chick tracts.) “If you are a sinner, you will surely die,” it says. The implication is, I think, that you will suffer for your sins, or perhaps even be struck down. God has no tolerance for sin. (That’s it part of a lengthy discourse on sin and reconciliation that begins with Paul speaking of Christ’s death, and our baptism into his death, frequently is ignored.)

I thought about these verses, about the promise from God that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere to the covenant.

Because Israel failed. It’s interesting, the Deuteronomy passage included blessings and curses. And both came true. Israel was blessed. Israel was cursed. The has been blessed. The church has been cursed.

Israel’s story is the story of failure. Of defeat. Of conquest and of exile. That fact — that Israel failed, and doing so, tells us what the church’s life as the people of God has will look like. In Leviticus 18, for example, after God gives Israel the long list of sex acts Israelites are not allowed to do:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28 ESV)

This bit about the land vomiting Israel out if it fails to adhere to these rules is repeated in Leviticus 20:22. And given the history, of Israel’s conquest, of the disappearance of the norther kingdom (Israel/Ephraim), and the conquest and exile of the southern kingdom (Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), it would be easy to describe what happened as exactly that — the land vomiting Israel out.

We tend to look at the law and consider the matter of consequence and punishment. The wages of sin are death, as if somehow we can avoid death.

But we all die. Jesus died. So, when God tells Israel that failure to adhere to the convenient means Israel will perish, he’s merely describing what is to come. When Paul speaks of sin and death, he speaks of something we all experience. As the Qur’an says,

Every soul shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception. (3:185, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

And so, threatening me with death for sinning is merely stating the obvious. I’m going to die anyway.

No, God has another answer to sin. To Israel’s failure — to our failure. And that’s resurrection.

It’s already there in Deuteronomy.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

It’s already there in Ezekiel 37, where God asks if the dry bones, the dead things, can live. (Ezekiel 37 seems like an answer to Jeremiah 7 & 8, in which God promises nothing but suffering and death for Israel. “Do not pray for this people,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I will not hear you.”) And then brings them to life.

This is why Jesus died. Because we die. Because our deaths are meaningless without his death. Because he rose and in him we rise. Long before writes of the wages of sin, he confidently tells the church in Rome:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11 ESV)

Dead to sin. Alive to God in Christ Jesus. There can be no real resurrection without death. And yet, in our baptisms, we are made part of the death of Christ. We taste his death, so that even before we die, we may taste something of his resurrection. And know it’s real. And live like it’s real.

How Will Anyone Ever Know?

There’s a hymn I really, really hate.

Actually, there are several. I hate “On Eagle’s Wings” (ELW 787 for you ELCA Lutherans out there). I mean I loathe this hymn. I has an awful melody that’s impossible to sing well, and its tawdry sentimentality unsettles my bowels. I understand the lyrics are drawn from Isaiah, and some of the images from psalms, but it’s still a piece of dreck that I do not ever want to hear again. Continue reading