All I Really Need to Know About Jesus I Learned From My Grandma’s Cokesbury Hymnal

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1. The more frayed the pages, the stronger the notes.

2. The simpler harmonies, the better the theology. The more frayed the cover, the higher the Christology.

3. Blood hymns aren’t morbid songs. They are reality checks to keep our Christianity from becoming too neat and clean.

4. Don’t place your hope in things you can’t depend on.

5. Jesus is not tied to a particular direction north, south, east, or west. As such, Jesus is not an American.

6. Love will not let you go. Love is like a blanket that pushes its way into your open hands.

7. If the book keeps opening to “Joy to the World” you know that Christmas isn’t an idea to be contained to one day a year.

8. If you don’t know where you’re going, ask someone else to guide you.

9. Find a beautiful place, by a river, to lay down those things burdening and killing your ability to live with others.

10. Singing makes you feel better. Jesus sang; we should too.

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The Day God Blew Up Religion (1 Kings 18)

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This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  I like it, primarily, because it is easy to visualize.  It is well-written.  The scene is cinematically described.  We are a visual, image driven culture.  We think in movies.  When funny things happen to us, we say, “that would be a great television show” or “who do they think they are, the Kardashians?”  You read a passage like this, you immediately start to cast actors and see this action depicted on the big screen.  With modern special effects, 1 Kings 18 would make one awesome scene in a Biblical movie.  The fireball alone would be worth the price of the ticket.

So what does this mean? Is this a one sided account of God opening a can of divine whoop butt on the worshippers of Baal?  If so, he went to a great deal of trouble to make the point.  God, who is on record as having a sense of humor, clearly wants to make a point beyond the point.  Let’s start pulling back the layers of the ritual onion and see if we can find out what’s going on.

The first thing we need to acknowledge is we’re in operating in a world which acknowledged the existence of more than one God.  Even the Israelites talk about other gods but they do so in a way which gives primacy and singular importance to Yahweh.  This does not diminish God.  It’s a fact of human history.  To our modern ears, this may sound strange.  The three dominant world religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) are monotheistic.  This means we worship one God.  A devout Muslim will tell a Christian that our belief in the Trinity disqualifies us as monotheists.  They take monotheism very seriously.  Why is this?  We all came out of the same Middle Eastern environment where every tribe had multiple gods or goddesses.  However, if you believe that we don’t worship other gods in the second decade of the 21st century, then you’re delusional.   Yes, people worship money.  People also worship countless other pursuits.  Idolatry doesn’t come labeled and in carved figures sold by a local idol maker.  We substitute the worship of God for the opportunity to worship at the temples of nature, the human body, or simply hanging out with friends.  What God used to do for people, what the church community once provided; is now comfortably found somewhere else.   The reality is undeniable:  what was once received here is being obtained elsewhere.  We are not that different from the people read about in 1 Kings.   Which God are we worshipping?  Whose side are we on?   And by “side”, I don’t mean “good” or “evil”.  This is not taking sides with the devil over God.  No, it’s far more innocuous and insidious.  Are we on our own narcissistic side, a side that serves our own self-interest or God’s side?

What is God up to in this era of divided loyalties?  Have no doubt, our loyalties and priorities are being called into question.

This is a showdown.  It might be best to think of it as an old west gunfight. Elijah is outgunned and outmanned.  He is the US Marshal in a town that doesn’t want law and order.  His opponents, the cattle rustlers from the outskirts of town are the priests of Baal.  Baal is the other big named god and he has a staff of 450 priests.  Baal has got plenty of money, fancy clothes, and the backing of all the important rich people.  If you were to call central casting and order up a “bad guy God”, they would send over Baal.

They’ve decided to have a “God-off”.  Imagine the final of American Idol and every other reality television show rolled into one; God vs. God.  In order to see which God the Israelites would follow, they would set up a contest between the Gods.  Up to this point, as Elijah says, “they had been hobbling between two opinions.”  This wasn’t totally their fault.  The King was pro Yahweh and his wife was in the Baal camp.  Elijah decides to have a contest to help end their confusion.  Right there you ought to see a problem.  A red flag should shoot straight up.  Why?  A man made contest to decide who’s the best God; a human being had the idea to determine the rules and parameters for what would determine the best God.  God doesn’t play by our rules.  No matter the purpose or how elaborate the plan, God doesn’t conform to a structure we create.  This is a recipe for failure and disaster.

If we are foolish enough to create a contest, a challenge for God, something which says our belief will hinge on God performing an action according to conditions we’ve set, we will be both disappointed and amazed by the outcome.  God heal me and I’ll believe in you forever.  God save my child, mother, father, daughter, and I’ll believe in you forever.  God, if the IRS doesn’t audit my returns this year, I’ll give what I owe to the church and everyone else.  Our contests aren’t as physically elaborate as the priests of Baal and Elijah’s but they are contests of our own design.

Elijah’s contest began by building a massive stone altar.  Around the altar, he dug a trench large enough to hold 24 pounds of seed, evenly spread.  On top of the stone, he arranged chopped wood and a slaughtered bull.  At first glance, it looks like he’s prepping for a barbecue.  The last piece of the puzzle was the water.  Elijah took four large stone jars, filled to the brim with water, and doused the whole altar.  He repeated this step four times. There was so much water the runoff filled the trench.

All afternoon they had waited for either God to answer by fire.  Earlier in the day, the prophets of Baal had created their own super altar.  They had their own BBQ bull recipe.  According to their rituals, they sacrificed, slaughtered, and laid the meat on their stones.  The 450 prophets accepted Elijah’s challenge not to light the fire with lighter fluid.  One God or the other would light their altar fire-somehow, someway.  Elijah’s use of water was a sign of how confident he was in Israel’s God.

Here’s where it gets a little funny.  Throughout the morning, the prophets of Baal called on Baal’s name to fire it up.  They shouted, the writer says, “Baal, answer us!” Can’t you see 450 men in crazy headdresses dancing around the carcasses of a slaughtered bull yelling, “Baal, answer us!”  Nothing happens.  They’re going through their checklist from the Baal Worship Book of Discipline.

About noon, Elijah starts to trash talk the other team.  I think this maybe one the first Biblical occurrences of trash talking.  “Shout louder,” he says.   I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.  He doesn’t stop there.  “Perhaps he’s deep in thought, or busy or traveling.  Maybe is sleeping and must be awakened.”  He’s mocking them and it’s hilarious.  Maybe your God is out of the office and didn’t tell you he’d be kayaking in the Adirondacks.

These Baal prophets go absolutely nuts.  They scream louder, cut themselves with swords (as was their custom, says the Bible), and threw their religious fanaticism into high gear.  Still nothing happened.

That’s when Elijah built his altar and everything blew up.

God blew up the altar; God didn’t simply set it on fire.

Imagine that you are one of these fence-riding people, limping along under the weight of too many gods.  What have you just witnessed?

The prophets of Baal illustrate what we don’t want to admit: we confuse religion and spirituality.  Spirituality, in all its nebulous forms, is our religion.  Religion, has become too much like Baal worship; prophets, preachers, and practitioners limping about the altars we’ve made, crying, hurting ourselves, and raving in anger at unseen gods.  Religion, whether in the weak tea of one size fits all Rumi quotes or fundamentalism, really is a miserable thing.

What is this story?  Human beings trying to justify themselves before unseen forces and yet “there is no voice, no answer, no response”.  What about a deep abiding confidence, love, and faith?  There has to be a contest for the people to believe and have faith in God.  How sad is that?  That’s not how it’s supposed to work.  Religion works this way, faith does not.

In 1 Kings, God swallows religion whole.  Everything we created, “the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and the water that was in the trench” was obliterated.  Nothing of our doing is left behind.  The nothingness after the fire shows that God isn’t something we can contain or control.  God isn’t from our world.  When the temple was finally built, what was in the holy of holies?  There was nothing at all.  On Mount Carmel that afternoon, God created the Holy of Holies.

You can’t make Jesus up.  You cannot create the preconditions for you own salvation.  Jesus is completely the gift of God.  He is of God and from God.  He is God.  And while we were yet sinners, messing around with altars, faith, stones and religion of our own comfort an design, God died for us.  God became nothing, so that in our nothingness, we might be something.  That is not religion.  It is love.

 

Food for Thought-5 Ideas for the Church and Christians to Consider

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1. When the church is on the side of the status quo, it will fail to be prophetic.  When the church becomes the status quo, it will collapse.

2. If you want the ends to justify the means (in church or other issue), do you find yourself siding with Pontius Pilate during Holy Week readings?  If so, doesn’t that seem strange?

3. If you’re not shocked by the Beatitudes read them again.  If these words don’t blow your mind, read them until they do.  Jesus is turning the world upside down.  Given the entrenched nature of our world (and if you take Jesus’ words seriously), the challenge of living up to what Jesus asks of us should be unsettling at best and frightening at worst.

4. It’s a mystery that we keep referring to God as mysterious. To say God works in mysterious ways borders on a cop out.  This is a way of saying, “We’d rather not talk about God”.  People work in ways aligned in their self-interests; this too is not mysterious.  We simply choose not to understand Jesus.  By this time, we should be starting to get Jesus.  I can spot Jesus’ actions from well over a mile away.  Jesus is so predictable he’s not allowed to play blackjack in Las Vegas.

5. God has a strong distaste for organized religion and ritualized religious practices.  To God, religion is a pretty miserable thing.  How do I know? Re-read Amos 5 and 1 Kings 18. In 1 Kings, God swallows whole, with fire, the sum total of accepted religious practice.  God will not be defined, even by our well-meaning, hand stitched, Cokesbury purchased idolatry.   Churches continue to create practices and traditions despite God’s open disgust and condemnation of our efforts.  We are doing things in God’s name God never said to do.  We are ignoring God’s desire to emphasize relationships and mercy over ritual and religious practice.    Why?  Relationships are hard.  Religion is easy.  Make relationships more important than religion.

Love Is A Dangerous Word (John 15:12, John 16:12)

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In case no one has ever told you, you forgot, can’t recall, or have yet to hear; there are four Gospels.  Gospel is an English word, which comes to us through Anglo- Saxon and we translate as “Good News”.   They are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  These are the first four books of the New Testament, the second half of what Christians call the Holy Bible.

If you go to the Bible I just presented you and turn to the first page of the New Testament it says something like this, “This is the Gospel according to Matthew”.  This means you’re reading Matthew’s version of events.  It’s his perspective.  The same thing goes for Mark, Luke, and John.  I also need to tell you that these “according to stories” were written long after the events they describe.  John’s, the one we read this morning, was written some sixty years after Jesus death.  It is not a literal transcript of someone taking notes of Jesus speaking.  Instead, people are trying to recall what they remember from the distant past.  Sometimes we get our memories wrong, sometimes right.  Four people can see the same car accident and remember entirely different events.  We easily forget people, their looks, shapes, hair, and what we had for dinner last Thursday night..  Ideas and beliefs are much easier, it seems, to remember.  We can get the “gist” of things, even if we don’t remember the “thing” itself.

Sixty years after his death, some friends and followers of Jesus (people who knew him and people who didn’t know him) were sitting around asking themselves the question, “what did Jesus think was the most important stuff for us to remember?”  If there was anyone still alive, present in the room who knew Jesus, they would be between 80 and 90 years old.  In a world before modern medicine, random violence, and religious persecution; that would be amazing.  What might our 80 year old disciple remember Jesus saying?  “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”

Let that verse sink in.  We want to know it all.  It makes us uncomfortable to think about the frailties of human memory when transmitting the gospel from generation to generation.  Do we not realize the meaning of Jesus saying to us, his disciples, “we can’t handle everything he would like to tell us”?  There’s more and we’re not ready.

More what?  There are more ideas and more things Jesus wanted to tell us.  So they tried to recall, everything Jesus wanted them to remember.  Someone got a quill, papyrus, and started writing them down.  The older ones among them recalled that the night before he was executed he kept them up talking about certain ideas.  This is why, in the middle of John’s gospel, you find three chapters where Jesus is simply riffing on what not to forget, what’s really important, and what your priorities ought to be when he’s gone.

What does he tell them?  You are never going to believe this.  It is the most controversial scripture in the Bible.  This verse makes people angry.  People have been killed over this verse.  Jesus’ insistence upon these words led to his murder.  Are you ready for it?  Do you want me to tell you these most incendiary of words?

Jesus says, “Love each other as I have loved you.”  (John 15:12) Jesus tells his disciples to love each other.  You may forget many things over time but you do not forget being told to love each other by an innocent man on death row.

Can you believe the gall, the gumption, which Jesus has to tell us to love each other?  Jesus doesn’t say to judge or condemn anyone.  Jesus says to love others as he loves us, which is a crazy amount of love.

Jesus doesn’t stop there.  The controversy and easily misunderstood teachings continue.  “My command is this,” he goes on.  I’m sure when Jesus uses the word command it’s going to be harsh, official, and tell us to do serious stone casting.  Does everyone have their stone throwing arms ready?

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  I know longer call you servants, instead I call you friends.”  Let me get this straight, Jesus’ command to me is to sacrificially love you the way he loves me; to give up more than I’ll ever give in life.  Tacked on to that little beauty, Jesus goes so far as to tell us, “we’re not his slaves, we’re his friends.”  Jesus seems to be really hung up on these ideas of love, friendship, and giving.  It’s almost, as if he were trying to boil it down to the things he valued most.  Perhaps that’s why people remembered them and thought it important to share them.

If you were sixty years past the death of a great religious leader and trying to create a written legacy for the man you based your faith upon; what would you do?  When everyone was worshiping flashy Roman Gods and Goddesses would you claim your God was not into death but life, love not hate, friendship not slavery, and giving instead of exploitation?  You wouldn’t.   You’d be tempted to go with what’s trending.  Much like now, sacrificial love wasn’t popular.  This is why I believe John, Jesus, and think these are words worth listening to.  They bucked the trend.  These are dangerous words.  Words like this got Jesus killed.

You’ve been given these dangerous, healing words.  They are not only in the Bible you’ve received but are also etched on your hearts.  Love, friendship, and giving; radical Jesus endorsed ideas in a self-obsessed, social media driven world.  Do you really want to be different, dangerous, and radical?  Give Jesus’ kind of love a try.  It is dangerous, dirty, and risky.  However, the rewards outweigh any risk you can dare imagine.

 

A Prayer of Contrition-For Middle Aged Skateboarders

 

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Gracious God,

I know you have much on your rather large plate.   Despite this, like the Psalmist, I have heard the call to contrition and know of your desire to hear our prayers.  Today I need to seek forgiveness, humility, and contrition in my spirit. Lord, I need your help.  When I see grown men on skate boards, I become frustrated and judgmental.  I ask myself rhetorical questions that are impossible to answer.  I know I should not be so harsh with men my age or older who’ve chosen a means of transport identical to those used by my daughter’s 13 year old friends.  You love them.  I pray for their safety and that if they choose to ride bicycles in the near future,  you would make a way for two wheels to roll into their lives. Forgive me Lord for being so easily frustrated.  Allow me to graciously bring the Good News of Jesus to middle aged, bearded men on skateboards.

In Jesus Name,

Amen