A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

This meditation was delivered at  First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday). The scripture was John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Those of you who are members of First Congregational United Church of Christ might have read the little bio of me that you received before you called me as your pastor. And, of you did, you might remember that about a year ago, I was consecrated as a diakonal minister by the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.

And as part of that, I got this bowl, and this towel, and this story.

In the 1850s or so, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union — one of the predecessors to the United Church of Christ — sent Louis Edward Nollau to the United States to minister to the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. On his way across America, he ended up stuck in St. Louis. So he became the pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

And he founded some nonprofit organizations. One of them was an orphanage.

When he proposed the idea of an orphanage to the congregation at St. Peter’s, they said, “Rev. Nollau, we don’t have what we need to open an orphanage.” And he replied, “We have exactly what we need… we have an orphan.”

A boy named Henry Sam moved into the parsonage, and more joined him. And that community became the German Protestant Children’s Home, and then Evangelical Children’s Home. Today, it’s named Every Child’s Hope, it’s way more than an orphanage, and it serves more than 1,400 children every year.

All because there was an orphan, and there was someone who understood today’s gospel reading.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other.

Today is Maundy Thursday. The word ‘maundy’ comes from a Latin phrase: mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos: A new command I give you: Love one another as I love you.

Jesus loved his disciples by washing their feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other. And he washed their feet because they were dirty.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison. Click To Tweet

All that Pastor Nollau and his congregation needed to open an orphanage was an orphan. All that we need to love one another is someone who needs to be loved; which is to say, anyone at all.

Amen.

Scenes from a #MarchForOurLives

Winter decided to throw one hopefully-last storm at us on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. But despite the rapidly accumulating heart attack snow — it’s called that because it’s wet and heavy, and people push themselves too hard when shoveling, inducing heart attacks — hundreds of people from the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois gathered at Vander Veer Park.

We were invited into St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), where we took up two rooms. Speakers — including students, teachers, and community members — spoke in one room and then the other. Then we headed outside to march around the park showing our signs. There was chanting, cheering, and — since the park sits between two of the busiest streets in the cities — honking.

Hundreds of thousands of people — maybe more than a million — marched in Washington, D.C., and around the country. And I’m happy that a few hundred were willing to march in bad weather in Davenport, Iowa. Far too many people are injured and killed by guns in this country. Some of those injuries and deaths are from mass shootings. Many more are from guns used in crimes and suicides. As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it.

As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it. And I strongly suspect those won't be little changes. Click To Tweet

And I strongly suspect those won’t be little changes. They will need to be big, sweeping changes. Things like outlawing some kinds of guns, creating real licensing programs based on everything from the kind of gun to the individual’s training and mental health status, red flag laws, and banning both open and concealed carry. 

Yes, that will inconvenience some people. And yes, it will feel to some people like their rights are being taken away. But, in reality, it will simply be a reassertion of the second amendment’s own words. Gun ownership and use will be well regulated. And that will mean that our children — and all of our friends and neighbors — are safer.

The Parade of the Powerful, the Protest of the Pitiful

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Psalm 118:19-29 and Mark 11:1-11.

As with many of our readings during Lent, today’s reading takes place in the lead up to Passover. And to understand what’s happening in today’s reading — what’s happening when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt — we need to understand Passover.

Remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. And Moses, one of God’s prophets, led them out of slavery and out of Egypt.

And remember that Moses didn’t do that by asking nicely. And Pharaoh didn’t just let the people go.

Instead, God sent ten plagues through Egypt. The Nile turned to blood. Frogs flooded the land. Gnats were everywhere. Wild animals swarmed the land. Livestock got diseases. People and animals got boils. A great storm came to Egypt. Locusts devoured the crops. There was darkness for three days. And, in the final plague, God killed the firstborn of every family in Egypt. From the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the Egyptians’ livestock.

The name of the holiday — Passover — comes from the fact that each Israelite family slaughtered a lamb and rubbed its blood on their doorpost so that the spirit of the Lord would pass over their home and spare their children.

And, in the chaos, the Israelites fled. Passover is about revolution and revolt. And a little bit about killing the oppressors.

To understand what’s happing in today’s reading, we need to understand Passover. Because here we are on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Jews come to Jerusalem for Passover. All of them remember the time when their ancestors threw off the mantle of oppression. Some of them talk about throwing off the mantle of oppression now. And, every year, the Romans get nervous. The Romans don’t want an uprising. They don’t want a rebellion. They don’t want revolution and revolt.

And when Empires get nervous, they flex their muscle. They put their power on display. They have military parades. And, around Passover, the Romans would march troops into Jerusalem and a reminder: the Jews could have their own God and keep their own festivals, but only because the Romans let them.

And here comes this guy, riding in on a colt. And it’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman power, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Two marches: a parade of the powerful and a protest of the pitiful.

This is my fifth Sunday with you. You’re getting used to my preaching. You’re starting to see which parts of the gospel I emphasize. And one thing you’ll find is that this choice comes up a lot. God has set before us the way of life and the way of death. And we have a choice about which path we walk down.

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful.

We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful. We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Click To Tweet

And, let’s face it, it is easy to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is easy to march with the Romans. And it is especially easy for many of us in this congregation.
God knows it’s easy for me.

I am — and this is not an exhaustive list — a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. If we were in Egypt, I’d be one of Pharaoh’s people. If we were in Rome, I’d be one of Caesar’s people. By any measure you care to take, I am among the rulers of this world. And, while I may have hard times, I move through this world much more easily than by friends and neighbors who are not those things.

I am privileged.

And so are many of you. While you might not check all of the same boxes I do, you probably check a lot of them. We are a fairly privileged congregation.

And I want to be clear. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t struggle. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t have trauma. Having privilege is not something to feel guilty about. It is simply a fact.

But it is also a fact that makes it easier to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is a fact that makes it easier to march with the Romans.

It makes it easy for us not to fly a rainbow flag… after all, we know we’re welcome here.

It makes it easy for us not to say, ‘Black lives matter’… after all, we know that our lives do.

It makes it easy for us not to walk out with students chanting ‘never again’… after all, we don’t have lockdown drills.

It makes it easy for us not to call for the dream to be kept alive… after all, we won’t be deported.

It makes it easy to do the things that the rulers of this world demand of people who are privileged: to sit back, and enjoy our lives…

…and do nothing.

It makes it easy to join the protest of the pitiful.

I did not mis-speak. The power of this world is nothing compared to the power of God.

Moses went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Let the people go.’ And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he tried to hold on. He tried to keep the Israelites in slavery through blood and frogs and gnats and wild animals. Through diseased livestock and boils and storms and locusts. Through three days of darkness. Through the death of the firstborn.

The Egyptians tried to keep their privilege in the face of God’s overwhelming power.

And now we’re here on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire. And the Romans are trying to hold onto their empire in the face of God’s overwhelming power. They just don’t know it yet.

And Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a colt. It’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman protest, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Jesus on a colt is God’s power. In the coming days Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and tried and he will take up his cross. Jesus will be stripped of his clothes and hung on his cross; he will die and be put in the tomb. There will be three days in the grave. There will be the resurrection of God’s only begotten son.

God will do that thing that God does: she will will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; they will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; he will use what is weak in this world to show that he is powerful and sovereign and the God of all creation.

And the question that we are asked on this Palm Sunday and every Sunday and every day — the question that is before us especially when we are privileged by our race or sex or gender identity or sexual orientation or age or class or anything else — is where we will be when that happens.

Will we be with the Egyptians and the Romans? With Pharaoh and Caesar Desperately trying to cling to our privilege and comfort in the world-as-it-is? Pitifully protesting against the world that God is creating?

Or will we be with the crowds? Spreading our coats on the road and leafy branches on the road. Shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king?

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king? Click To Tweet

And, since I don’t like to end a sermon on a question, and since it’s the kind of thing that I ask the kids to do, and since church is where we practice how we should be in the world, please join me in an echo prayer:

Hosanna! [Echo]

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! [Echo]

Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! [Echo]

Hosanna in the highest heaven!” [Echo]

Amen! [Echo]

People I Listen To: Opening Arguments

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Opening Arguments.

This is a new podcast for me, but I’ve listened to several episodes (even going back into the archives) and find it really enjoyable. In Opening Arguments, lawyer Andrew Torrez and guy-who-I-think-maybe-went-to-law-school Thomas Smith examine legal issues that are in the news, from Stormy Daniels to DACA to Constitutional originalism with intelligence and humor. As the intro to Opening Arguments says, don’t take legal advice from a podcast. But definitely take the time to listen!

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sermons Are Not Systematic

The United Church of Christ is a non-creedal tradition. That means that we don’t have a list of Things People Have to Believe. There is no central authority that tells our congregations or our members what they have to believe or how they have to worship. Instead, as the United Church of Christ website puts it,

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.

And that creates a neat little challenge for preachers.

When I start preparing a sermon. I’m not bound by a list of Things People Have to Believe. I don’t have to bring everything around to a predetermined theological point. Instead, I’m bound by the scripture passages for that week (and their historical and literary context), the needs of my congregation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And that means that the people of the congregation aren’t getting a single message or a systematic theology.

The Bible is a diverse collection of texts. While the biblical authors may have been inspired by God, they are not delivering a single unified message. They disagree. They emphasize different points. They argue from different perspectives and in different contexts. Working with one or two passages at a time tends to show different sides of the Bible in different weeks.

The needs of the congregation change over time. During different weeks, the world is a different place and the people are dealing with different things. That means using the Bible to do different things, offer different challenges, and bring different comforts.

The Holy Spirit moves in different ways. On some days, she is convicting me of my sin. On others, she is offering comfort for my sorrows. On still others, she is calling me in a new direction. And, of course, a million other things. The Holy Spirit does not seem intent on having me deliver the same message every time I speak.

All of this is really to say two important things. First, I am called to preach the gospel and I believe that I am faithful to that call. I believe that my sermons are well-supported by scripture, the traditions of the church, and the testimony of the Spirit. Second, my sermons are rarely (if ever) showing the members of my congregation the fullness of the gospel. Instead, they are offering snapshots of something much bigger than anything I can deliver in that time.

The fullness of the gospel is seen and experienced in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that.

We experience the gospel in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that. Click To Tweet

Will You Be Transformed?

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 18, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.

Some of you may know that, before I came to serve as your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission. The Mission is a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. And it has a variety of programs centered on helping people who live in poverty. There’s a day center, a housing rehabilitation program, a community garden, and supportive housing… among other things.

And one of the most powerful programs there is the mission trip program. Every year, hundreds of people from dozens of congregations go to the Mission to work in its ministries. They repair houses, serve people in the food pantry, clean showers in the day center, and meet people living in poverty or homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the groups that comes every year is a huge youth group from one of Chicago’s affluent western suburbs. There are always young people in this group who have never really encountered someone who is experiencing homelessness. Sure, they’ve seen people on the streets asking for money, and they’ve almost certainly known a classmate who was staying with relatives, but they’ve never talked to a homeless person about being homeless.

Well, one year this group was sitting in the common room listening to one of the people who the Mission had been serving. Mr. Jesse is a 70-something-year-old veteran who had been on the streets for years before the Mission got him in an apartment. And he told his story.

And when he was done, this young woman raised her hand. Mr. Jesse called on her, and she cocked her head to one side – you could see the wheels turning – and she asked, “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?”
And that’s a good question. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a society. We don’t just house vets. We don’t just house anyone. We don’t just feed people. We don’t just provide healthcare for people. We don’t just welcome people.

We don’t just do these things. We just don’t do these things.

In today’s gospel reading, we’re given a frightening image.

“Very truly,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And that’s scary because, not to spoil the story, I think something bad is going to happen to Jesus. ‘Those who love their life must lose it’ and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ sound a lot like Jesus is asking us, “Would you die for this?”

That’s a good question. It might even be an important question.

You might know about RuPaul Charles. He’s an actor, model, singer, author, and, yes, drag queen. He’s probably the most commercially successful drag queen in history. And he has this great quote: we’re born naked, the rest is drag. Not just the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, but the respectability, civility, politeness, and propriety. All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit.

And ‘what would you die for?’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. Not ‘what do you fantasize about dying for?’ This isn’t about being an action hero. What would you die for? What would you run into a burning building to save? Who would you take a bullet for? Really. Like, really really.

‘What would you die for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking.

There’s another question that goes along with ‘What would you die for?’ And that question is ‘What would you live for?’ It’s a good question. It might even be an important question. It is certainly a hard question.

All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And it’s easy to slide into the performance and start living for other people’s expectations. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live the lives that other people have planned for us. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live a life that isn’t our own.

And ‘what would you live for’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. What would you spend every day doing? Who would you spend every hour with?

‘What would you live for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s still not the question Jesus is asking.

Jesus is asking a much scarier question.

And it’s scary because, not to spoil the story, something amazing is going to happen to Jesus. He is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies… and bears much fruit. He is the judgement of the world, who drives out the ruler of this world, and draws all people to himself. He strips away the drag and shows us who we are underneath.

The question Jesus is asking is, ‘Will you be transformed?’

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be a covenant that’s written on paper or carved in stone. It won’t be a set of rules that we try — and fail — to follow. It will be inside of us. It will be written on our hearts. It will be part of who we are.

Jesus is calling us into that life. Jesus is calling us into knowing God. Jesus is calling us into being the people of God.

And that’s scary.

It’s scary because all of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And following Jesus — going where Jesus is — means giving up those performances. It means not living the lives that other people expect. It means not living the lives that other people have planned for us. It means not living the lives that aren’t our own. It means taking off the drag and standing naked before world, as who God means for us to be: servants of Christ and servants to each other.

It means housing people and feeding people and caring for people and welcoming people. No matter who they are. No matter where they are on life’s journey. No matter what.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman who asked Mr. Jesse that question — “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?” — on a mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. But I have faith that somewhere on that trip — sometime while she was rebuilding a house or cleaning showers or handing out food or talking to someone she was serving — she met Jesus. And I have faith that she was changed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. I have faith that a word of God’s law was written on her heart. I have faith that Christ drew her a little closer to himself.

And I have faith that the same thing can happen to us. Whether in Jamaica or Haiti, whether in Kentucky or Colorado, whether in Biloxi or right here in DeWitt, when we serve, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus. And when we meet Jesus, we are transformed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer.

When we serve, we meet Jesus. When we meet Jesus, we are transformed. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer. Click To Tweet

And as we continue to serve day by day, our heart become cleaner and our spirits become more willing.

Because it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying to the ways of the world — to the lives that the rulers of this world demand from us — that we are born to eternal life.

Tom Critchlow: Small b blogging

What’s going on here? I call it small b blogging. It’s a virtuous cycle of making interesting connections while also being a way to clarify and strengthen my own ideas. I’m not reaching a big audience by any measure but the direct impact and benefit is material.

Small b blogging is learning to write and think with the network. Small b blogging is writing content designed for small deliberate audiences and showing it to them. Small b blogging is deliberately chasing interesting ideas over pageviews and scale. An attempt at genuine connection vs the gloss and polish and mass market of most “content marketing”.

Tom Critchlow: Small b blogging

There’s Nothing Wrong with a Handout

The other week, a colleague came to tell me about an idea he had to provide shelter for homeless families in our area. The backbone of the idea was providing shelter. The responsibility to provide overnight housing for these families would be rotated among the churches in the area. There would also be a central location where parents could get help finding a job and other services while their children were in school.

And, while there are a lot of details to figure out, I thought it was a good idea. I’m going to take it to my community outreach committee to see what they think and what we can do.

But when my colleague ended his pitch, he used an old trope: it’s not a handout… it’s a hand up.

And I thought two things.

First, it’s totally a handout. We’re talking about giving people a place to stay overnight and help connecting to jobs and services. I think we should also help them with food, clothing, and other needs. All of these things are handouts.

Second, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At this point, the research is clear that handouts work. Countless studies of direct cash transfers from around the world show three important things:

Cash transfers have an array of positive impacts on the people who receive them. Transfers are associated with increased birthweight, reduction in HIV infections and psychological distress, increased schooling, and decreased child labor

Cash transfers have long-term effects. People who receive transfers invest the money in ways that lead to increased income in the years that follow (like getting vocational training or investing in a business) and that increase future savings and flexibility (like replacing a thatched roof with a metal one).

People who receive cash transfers don’t tend to abuse them. Recipients don’t spend the money on temptation goods or reduce their work hours. Some studies even show that transfer recipients are less likely to spend money on temptation goods and more likely to work more hours (especially as they move into skilled work).

Cash transfers have an array of positive effects, including long-term effects. And people who receive them don't tend to abuse them. Click To Tweet

Obviously, the low-income families that researchers studied in countries like Uganda,1Christopher Blattman, Nathan Fiala, Sebastian Martinez, “The Economic and Social Returns to Cash Transfers” Kenya,2Innovations for Poverty Action, “The Impact of Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya” and Morocco,3Najy Benhassine, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen, “Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A ‘Labeled Cash Transfer’ for Education,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2015, 7(3): 86–125 aren’t the same as homeless families in Iowa. But the research gives us good reason to believe that the right gift — the right handout — at the right time can help people begin their journeys out of poverty. For some people, that might mean a large cash payment. For others, it might be a place to stay for a few nights, a warm meal, and some help finding a job. For others, it might be a few hundred dollars to help them avoid a late mortgage payment. Those are all handouts, and they can all help people.

So let’s ditch the idea that help for people living in poverty needs to be in the form of a hand up instead of a handout. Sometimes — maybe even most of the time — the right handout is exactly the hand up someone needs.

Let's ditch the idea that help for people living in poverty needs to be in the form of a hand up instead of a handout. Sometimes — maybe even most of the time — the right handout is exactly the hand up someone needs. Click To Tweet

Footnotes   [ + ]

Even Me. Even You.

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 11, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

When I was in college, I met some Christians who believed in the contract. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the contract, but I’ve seen it many times. It’s usually at the end of a thin little pamphlet.

These pamphlets lay out a version of Christianity that’s neat and simple and clean. God is good and you are a sinner. And because God is good and you are a sinner, God has no choice but to condemn you to eternal punishment in hell. But God sent his — and in these pamphlets, God is emphatically a him — God sent his son to take your punishment. Christ died on the cross in your place. He took the punishment you so richly deserve. And if you accept him as your personal lord and savior, you can trade eternal hellfire for eternal bliss. And you should do it now. Because you could die.

That’s the first part of the contract: believe these things.

Then these pamphlets have some version of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen. 1Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner%27s_prayer

That’s the second part of the contract: say this prayer.

And then, right below that prayer, there’s a place to sign and date. And there are a lot of people who can tell you the year and month and day — the hour and the minute — that they signed on the dotted line and gave their life to Jesus Christ.

That’s the third part of the contract: sign here.

And that’s okay. Different people walk different paths. Different people have different stories. And while I might not have signed a contract on the back of a pamphlet, other people have. And that matters to them. And the fact that it matters to them, matters to me.

These Christians who I knew believed in the contract. Maybe not literally — most of them had probably never signed the back of a pamphlet — but they believed in it all the same. They believed the things they were supposed to believe. They prayed the sinner’s prayer. They knew when they had accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

And I was never one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It would be nice to have that kind of control over my fate. It would be nice to be that sure of my salvation. It would be nice if I could guarantee eternal life just by believing these things and saying this prayer and signing on the dotted line. It would be nice.

And there’s always the temptation to believe that I have that power. To think that I’m in control. To think that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

But I don’t. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

There’s something that comes along with the temptation to be in control: the temptation to judge. And there’s something that comes along with the temptation to judge: the temptation to condemn. If I know the list of things that we have to believe, then I can scrutinize your beliefs and tell you where you fall short. If I know the prayer that we have to pray, then I can listen to your prayer and tell you which words are wrong. If I know that my signature is on the contract, then I can tell you why it’s wrong if yours isn’t.

And I can look at the world and all of its horrors — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — can condemn it. I can do that. I’m good at it.

But I don’t have that power. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

Because when God saw this world — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — God did not condemn it. God loved it.

And God loved the world this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. Soon, we’ll remember that Jesus was betrayed, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. For not, we remember that we have been dead. We have been dead through our trespasses. We have been dead through poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred. In the simplest of language, we have been dead through sin.

That doesn’t mean we’ve been in the ground; it means something worse. It might seem hard to believe, but we have been walking around like zombies. We’ve been missing out on the chance to really live. We have stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to to let the world see us. We’ve stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to let God see us.

We’ve been so afraid that God will condemn us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

We’ve been so afraid that God is like us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in this season of Lent — even in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news. Especially in this season of Lent — especially in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news.

Because God saw us, dead through our sin, shambling in the dark, and loved us. And God loved us this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world. Even you. Even me.

Now, I want to be fair. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner. I am a sinner because I choose to sin. I am a sinner because I’m caught up in systems that leave me no choice but to sin. I am trapped in a world where I do not know how to be the person who I believe God is calling me to be. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner.

And if it were up to me, I would condemn myself.

And I want to be even more fair. The pamphlets are right. I can be sure of my salvation. I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. The pamphlets are right. Another life is possible.

But here is something I am sure of, here is a way that the pamphlets are wrong: There is nothing I can do that will save me.

There is nothing that I can believe that will make God love me. There is no prayer I can say that will make God save me from my sin. There is nowhere I can sign that will make God extend her grace to me.

Because God has always loved me. God has already saved me. God is grace-filled and grace-giving. That is who God is.

Grace is not a contract. Grace is not a deal. Grace is a gift.

And there is nothing we can do to earn it. God gives it to us because that’s who God is.

Being a Christian — having faith in Christ — doesn’t mean believing a list of things or praying a certain way or praying or signing on the dotted line. Christians around the world and throughout history have believed so many things and prayed in so many ways. Being Christian must be about more than the list of things we believe or the ways that we pray.

Being a Christian means — at least in part — trusting that God is rich in mercy. It means trusting that even when we were dead through our sins, God raised us up. It means trusting that we do not need to stay in the darkness and condemn ourselves for our sins. It means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us.

Being Christian means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us. Click To Tweet

That is why I can be sure of my salvation. That is why I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. That is the other life that is possible.

And it means trusting that this is true for everyone. Not half of us. Not some of us. But the entire world. Even me. Even you.

And here’s the thing. That work is much harder than believing the things and saying the prayer and signing on the dotted line. That work is much more important than having a moment of conversion. That work is much braver than judging ourselves and the world. Because when we can walk into the light and open up to God — when we can be vulnerable to God’s love — then we can begin to love others.

And then we can be what God intended us for be: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Vox’s the Weeds

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Vox’s The Weeds.

Vox.com is well known as a place to go for explanatory journalism, providing context to current and ongoing news stories so that people can know more than the headlines. The Weeds is one of its companion podcasts, where Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias provide a deep dive into one or more current stories. It’s a great place to learn more about bank regulations, steel tariffs, Medicaid work requirements, or whatever else is in the news.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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