Making Sense of the Bible and Violence

Beware of god

Below is the script from which I preached a recent sermon on “Making Sense of the Bible and Violence.” The Sermon was preached in the context of a series called Making Sense of the Bible based on the book of the same title by Adam Hamilton.

At the beginning you will see a list of traveling car games that will not make much sense. They were used as reminder points for me as I told an introductory story illustrating our (humans) varied points of relationship with violence. The main point was that we are both entertained by violence and sickened by it too.

After the introductory point, the script begins to make more sense as a readable sermon.

Sermon feedback was very positive. I sense a large number of our congregation have struggled with the problems of biblical literalism for some time. In this sermon, and in this series, they have discovered some freedom.

I post it here as a record of the preach

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We have an interesting relationship with violence, don’t we?

Think about it for a minute with me as I give you an example.

Car games:
License Plate Game
Skittles
The daddy of all car games – Punch Buggy
Jackson – caring, loving, non-violent soul (thank God)
– weak punch
– teaching him to punch – a rite of passage

We have an interesting relationship with violence.

We kind of enjoy it on one level
WWE
UFC
Mayweather/McGregor
Rugby
Hockey
Football

We are entertained by violence and we like it on one level

And we abhor it on another. We looked on in disbelief on September 11th 2001, as some individuals took it upon themselves to commit an horrendous act of violence which ended up changing our world.

Personally speaking, I have had a changing relationship with violence.

Growing up in a violent, conflict ridden country like Northern Ireland
– It normalized violence – the new reports, the hatred, the complete devaluation of human life was all just normal, and not shocking.
– It never made me bat an eyelid as a boy. It was just what humans do. Right?

– But i am not a little boy any more.
– I have made two wee humans of my own.
– I have seen the devastating effects of violence on a person’s life and I have concluded that, in fact, violence does nothing but beget more violence in the world.
– Dunkirk movie
– compelling watch, but not entertaining
– found it hard work because I was grieving it – grieving the violent depictions of those moments in human history.
– I was grieving what human beings are capable of doing to one another in the name of politics, territory, economy; in the name of war.

We have a strange relationship with violence.

We are entertained by it.

It is somewhat normalized in our world.
And yet we abhor it.

We never want to be the victims of violence. I imagine we never want to perpetrate violence either.

As humans, we have a strange, mixed up relationship with violence.

And, for sure, it can seem that the Bible does too.

We spend a lot of time in church reading in the NT about Jesus who is the very image of God.
We reflect on Jesus the Prince of Peace
– Jesus the one who said love your enemies and pray for them.
– Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek
– Jesus who will turn swords into ploughshares and spears to pruning hooks.
– Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers.

But we are people of the whole book.
Our story does not simply start in the New Testament. Our story starts at the very beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. As we have said in the last number of weeks, our story, as humans, is found in the story of Israel and their relationship with God.

In that story we see a God who is loving and compassionate and forgiving of Israel.
In that story we see a God who is willing to rescue his people from slavery.
In that story we see a God who is willing to make a piece of land available to these people; the Promised Land.
In that story we see a God, who they report, was willing to completely annihilate the occupants of that piece of land in order to give it to Israel.

Time and time again, the writers of the Old Testament testify to a God who regularly would take sides in a fight, and who would willingly wipe out the opposition – men, women, children, animals…
We encounter a God who, on initial reading of the words in the Old Testament, seems like a bit of a monster.

So how do we make sense of that?

I am going to begin to sound like a bit of a broken record in this series, but it all comes back to what your starting point with Scripture is.

If we take a literalist position on Scripture, that is that God dictated each and every word of the Bible as we know it today, and that there are no faults, contradictions or discrepancies there in, then we can conclude that God is a violent God, and that God does love and come alongside some humans more than others.

We can also conclude that since we are made in God’s image, and God uses violence, then it is okay for us to be violent too, because God is or was.

And finally we can also conclude that God is not the same yesterday, today and forever as the Bible says God is, because the images of God that we read in the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different in nature that one can do nothing but conclude that these are either different God’s, or else the one God of the Bible has an absolutely confused identity.

Now if we are Biblical literalists, then we simply accept all this. We accept the violence of God, by saying that God is God and God can choose to use whatever means God desires to get the job done. God can give and God can take as God pleases. If God did it that way, then thats just the way it is, and we can rejoice that God chose us and not the others, right?

But, like I have said already, Biblical literalism can get us into trouble.

If we are literalists then we better not be eating any shell fish. There’s a law against that.
If we are literalists then we better hope our children are not unruly, because the Bible commands the death penalty for such rebellion.
If we are literalists then we better hope our boss doesn’t want us to work on the Sabbath because that offense also warrants the death penalty.

And then there is already mentioned problem of Jesus, for the literalist. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, according to the writer of the letter to the Colossians. If you want to see God, then look to Jesus because God the Son is one with God the Father. But Jesus, God the Son, is night and day different from the God we read of in the Old Testament.

So the first thing that we have to do is remember that the Bible is a complex collection of ancient inspired writing. It is the writings of people in very different times, in which they seek to communicate their understanding of God and God’s involvement in their lives. In essence, when we read the Scripture and are beginning to try to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament, we must remember the absolute humanity of the authors, and therefore the humanity of the text. These were human authors, with human experiences, in a human culture and a historical context different to our own. When we read these tough and violent texts we must do the work of understanding the world that was being written about – a world very different to our own world in these days.

You see, when we remember the humanity of the authors it becomes possible to remember that they were likely writing to represent what they thought about God, rather than than what God actually told them to say.

When they won a violent battle victory, of course they were going to say that God was with them and God gave them that victory. That’s what we do as humans who believe in the divine. In another movie about the military that I watched recently, there is a part where the Captain of the platoon is giving a rousing speech to his men, and when he is done he invites the chaplain to come and say a prayer with them; to invoke the mighty hand of God to protect them and go before them.

When Israel won a hard fought victory, or when the Hebrew people took control of the Promised land at great cost to the human life which had existed there before hand, God was given the glory and God was given the praise because God had given them the victory.

Make no mistake, friends, the first century Ancient Near Eastern world was a world in which conquest and conflict between tribes and nations was common. This was a violent world. Therefore the writers of the ancient works that we today call Scripture had to write in order to make sense of God in the context of a violent world filled with violent and power hungry humans.

And this world is the same in the New Testament. In the NT world it is the time of the Roman Empire – a battle happy and quite blood thirsty, conquesting empire. In the New Testament and in the gospels in particular, perhaps the best example of the violent world that it still was is in the fact that crucifixion was still an accepted form of criminal punishment. The human bent toward violence in Biblical times is absolutely witnessed to in the gospel accounts of the passion, crucifixion and death of Christ Jesus.

Jesus.

There’s that name again. The name that we can’t get away from.

You see Jesus is the fullest and most fathomable expression of God that we can ever look to. When we look to Jesus, we are looking at God, because Jesus is God the Son – the very Word of God. John’s Gospel states that – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the very beginning God.” The two cannot be separated and that is why, Adam Hamilton argues, and i stand with him on this, we must read the words of the Biblical text through the lens of the person, ministry, heart and words of Jesus Christ. That means that when we read a passage in the Bible that seems contrary to the life, ministry and Kingdom message of Jesus, who is the Word of God, we are being invited to ask questions and to do the work of making sense of the passage in light of who God has testified to being in Christ Jesus.

So today, I put across the argument, which you might disagree with, that God is in nature and essence loving, good, compassionate and merciful. God seeks peace in human relationships and God grieves when we attack, maim and hurt one another. Today i put it to you that the violence attributed to God in the Bible is actually the violence of sinful human beings whose hearts perennially struggle to be in control of the world around them; whose hearts are power hungry and are willing to become violent in the pursuit of power and control.

Jesus invites us to declare that God is King and to surrender control. Jesus invites his followers not to the violent way of conquest and conflict, but to the way of peace-making and non-violence. In fact when we look at the cross we see that not only is Jesus non-violent, but in fact Jesus submits himself to the violence of humans. Jesus submits himself to a violent death at the hands of humans in order to show them that in God, death has no victory or sting; that death does not win; that in God we find life in all its complete; we find peace.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We remember the times which were being written about – times very different to our own.
We remember the humanity of the writers and that in their humanity they were doing their best to testify to God.
We remember that they were interpreting the times around them with the tools they had in their box – the tools of a context and culture which was bloody and violent in a way that our context and culture is not.
We remember that we can only interpret the seeming violent God of the OT by looking through the lens of Jesus, the Word in the NT.

In this sermon I am not trying to excuse the violence by saying that this is just the way things were back in the day.

Rather, in this sermon I am trying to give you a framework within which you might begin to make sense of this difficult theme in Scripture.

In this sermon, and in every sermon, I am trying to point you to Jesus – the very image of God here on earth; the name above all names; the Prince of peace; our rock and our redeemer, who bore the violence of sinful man so that all of us may know freedom; so that all of us may know first hand the love of God; so that all of us might experience in Christ the transforming grace that calls us each to die to ourselves and rise up to new life in Christ

I am trying to point you to Jesus as the only lens through which we must interpret Scripture and the world around us.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We develop a framework for understanding it by understanding the humanity of the authors and the culture and context of the world they inhabited and were trying to make sense of, of course. But ultimately we look to Jesus as our master and we hear Jesus’ say “Blessed are the Peacemakers…Love your enemies and pray for them…turn the other cheek.

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My Journey to Civil Rights Alabama…

There are places in the world that are of significant importance in terms of the events that have happened in those places and the impact said events have had on a world scale afterwards. Perhaps one would think of Auschwitz in Poland as such a place, or Ground Zero in New York City. These are examples of places where significant human suffering happened. They are also examples of places in which, in the face of human suffering, humanity appeared to ultimately unite in order to recover well and subsequently find a new way forward, making the world a better place.

This week I have found myself in a series of such places.

The State of Alabama (U.S.A.) is home to three places that are, in my opinion, three of the most significant sites in the world in terms of the importance of the events that took place in them, and also in terms of the ripples of impact that spread across the world, ripples that were generated by these events. These three places are Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

During the last week, as part of my studies with Wesley Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to take a class/make a pilgrimage to these sites in order to study the stories and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer some of the primary reflections I noted as my week there progressed.

1. Human beings in so called civil societies possess the ability to treat horrendously their fellow humans.

I knew this already. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, where hearing stories of abhorrent acts of violence between humans was a normal part of daily life, I absolutely knew just how badly we can treat one another. But this last week it was impressed on me again as I heard the stories of lynchings, the general de-humanizing and mistreatment of African Americans, the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church in which four little girls had their lives robbed from them, and the brutality with which local law enforcement beat and trampled the black people of Selma as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Recently, I find myself grieving the violence that humans inflict on one another. As I watched the movie Dunkirk, I could not help but grieve what humans do to each other. As I moved through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, I felt exactly the same. I was just so deeply saddened by the human ability to cheapen life and see it as something that is expendable in the name of a cause or ideology. The Declaration of Independence states:

…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How can it be that in a nation founded on such truths; a civilized nation, such abhorrent treatment of human beings could be allowed to take place?

Human life is precious.
Even when human life exists in the most depraved and cruel human beings, it is still precious.
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, human life is absolutely precious and should ALWAYS be highly valued.

2. “What will I be willing to die for?”

This question came back again and again as the week went on. In each site we visited we were told of attacks upon the African American people; attacks which, in some cases, led to terrible human loss. For example, in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, 4 little girls lost their lives. In Selma blood was shed as marchers absorbed the violence of the authorities. On Christmas Day in 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth’s parsonage was bombed (an attack which Rev. Shuttlesworth survived). Although each attack brought its own pain, and inflicted unimaginable suffering upon families and entire communities, the pain and suffering seemed to be that which galvanised these communities to take their next faithful steps to freedom. Rev. Shuttlesworth recognized that in the fight for freedom, “Somebody may have to die.” and proved himself willing to take the hits which came his way again and again and again.

As I reflected on this thought with my classmates, I could not help but ask myself what it is that I am willing to die for? What is it that I am willing to go all the way for? What cause or situation will I willingly bear pain for?

In churches across the world, privileged, well-off Christians like me sing the old refrain, “I surrender all” with passion and gusto. We kneel in submission to God at the alter rails of our churches, symbolizing our willingness to go all the way for Christ. But are we really willing to submit and surrender? Am I really willing to take up my cross and join Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the Kingdom; for the sake of my suffering fellow humans in the world? If I am honest, I can say that in my head and in my heart, I absolutely WANT to be willing to follow Christ all the way into the world, but will my desire to follow Christ prove substantial if it ever begins to cost me physically? Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and many un-named and not so famous members of the African America community made a choice and declared that their personal freedom and the freedom of their people was important enough that it was worth suffering for; worth deliberately putting themselves in harms way agains and again and again for. Their courage, faith, and rugged determination is not only admirable, but also enviable.

As I got to the end of the week I had found myself reflecting on the fact that Dr. King and his peers had sold themselves out to a philosophy, and sold themselves out to a vision. Completely. They had a goal to move towards and they resolutely set out towards the fulfilling of that goal.

What are your goals?
What philosophy are you sold out to?
What are my goals?
What philosophy am I sold out to?
What is my cause?
What I am willing to suffer for it?

I personify the idea of privilege in life. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been looked down upon because of the color of my skin. I have never been discriminated against because of my gender or sexuality. I have never been so poor that I do not know where I will get my next meal. I am an immigrant, but I am a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I have never experienced any kind of maltreatment as other immigrants do. I have never experienced suffering personally, or among my people group, that would have put me in a position to have to fight for freedom or for legally protected rights that were being with withheld from me.

I, too, sing that refrain, “I surrender all” but would I really be willing to? This alone was the most massive challenge of my week: I am called to not only sing, “I surrender all,” but to live it out. My sincere prayer is that my willingness to surrender all will only increase from this point forward.

3. Civil Rights leaders were young.

Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he was appointed as the Senior Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He already had achieved his doctoral degree by this time, and he would go on to spend the next 15 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement before his untimely death in 1968. Fred Shuttlesworth was 31 when he became the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham and spent 8 years there at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America’s south, before moving to Ohio (Incidentally, Shuttleworth remained in close contact and regularly flew back to meetings with the movement leaders in Birmingham).

My point is that these were not leaders who had served their time in a system which would eventually reward them with esteemed positions of leadership. They were young men who were willing to step out in front and lead their people in the march towards freedom. They preached with authority. They kept their eyes on the prize, and kept moving forward towards it.

As I stated, Dr. King came to the fore at 24 years of age, and his life was ended prematurely at the age of 39. He had 15 years.

15 years.

I had never really thought about that until this week, and, even though I myself have just turned 39, I could not help but ask myself this: As a still relatively young leader in the Christian faith, if I had only 15 more years to live and lead, what would I be determined to achieve in that time frame? Again, the question has to be asked – what am I sold out to, and what am I willing to suffer for?

4. The march towards freedom must continue.

American society has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Many of the specific struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s may no longer appear to be the primary struggles of the Civil Rights movement. However, the reality is that while some landmark achievements were indeed made, there is still much work to be done in order to right some of the wrongs that continue to exist in America. This was so clear to me as I walked through Kelly Ingram park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The park is designed as a memorial of the hardest days of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, and celebrates the end of segregation in the south. As I walked through the park, I saw several homeless people asleep in the park. In seeing them both, I could not help but remember that the march to freedom that we had been learning about all week is far from over. Economic Inequality, educational underachievement among working class minority communities, discrimination in the work place, gender inequality and the general effects of relative poverty are still all stark realities in the United States. The work of the Civil Rights movement is not finished and must continue, and the church can absolutely play an important part in that.

5. Size doesn’t matter.

Before this last week, the dominant image, in my mind, of the US Civil Rights was always the image of Dr. King speaking and preaching at mass meetings at which vast crowds had gathered. My impression was that it was his celebrity that drew crowds, and that the currency of the movement was the size of the crowds. However, the reality is that much of the work of the Civil Rights movement was lead and made real in little churches. The church was at the center of the movement, because the church still had pride of place at the center of African American communities. The churches we visited last week were not large churches. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only ever had a couple of hundred members at it’s height. Brown Chapel AME had a similar number in it’s congregation.

Often, in our culture, we can be guilty of assuming that the power to achieve great things only lies with churches or groups that are well resourced, but the evidence of the Civil Rights Movement tells a different story. The evidence of the Civil Rights Movement of 1950’s and 60’s American suggests that where there is a people who are motivated and united; where there is a people who are led diligently by focussed, informed, organized and dedicated leaders, great and significant things can be achieved. Success and the achievement of goals is not limited to large and seemingly influential groups. Any body of people can achieve their goals if they are sold out to the vision, led ably, and are willing to stand together in unity. Size does not matter.

6. Leadership matters.

This, also, is a well known truth, and I have already made several references to it throughout this piece. The Civil Rights Movement shows that leadership absolutely matters. Without Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Diane Nash, etc, the movement would not have had the widespread impact that it ultimately did have. These leaders were captivated by a vision of freedom, they were willing to suffer in order to win this freedom, they were committed to leading non violently, and they were united.

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The Civil Rights Movement was without doubt one of the most, if not the most significant civilian movement of the 20th century. The ripples of its impact spread far and wide throughout the world, and they continue to do so. I have been inspired by the example of strong and focussed leadership, the willingness to suffer and pay a price for a cause, and the ability to influence and bring about change through non-violent means.

The Church of Johnny

My way2

So I had an experience this week, one which has stuck with me and caused me to reflect a lot.

I was in a local hospital visiting with a church member on Monday afternoon. He was in a room which had two beds, which is not uncommon in some settings locally. I made my way in. passing the individual who occupied the other bed, and I visited with my church member. The time then came for me to leave and on my way past the other bed, the individual sitting in it, who had obviously worked out that I am a pastor, asked me if I would say a prayer for him. Of course I said I would and I stepped over to his bedside. The following conversation then took place:

Me: What’s your name?

Patient: Johnny

Me: Hi Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Charlie. Where are you from?

Patient: Felsmere/Sebastian.

Me: Wow, you are a long way from home. I have a good friend that lives down there, I know the area a little. Do you have a local church family down there?

Patient: No. I have not gone to a church for a long time.

A slightly awkward silence then took place, lasting around 5 seconds before the patient looked up at me and said this:

“I go to the church of Johnny. I pray every day and I believe in God.”

I assured Johnny that he was not alone and that there are many, many other people in the world like him who believe deeply in God and who pray regularly but yet do not belong to a local church. I then proceeded to pray for him before saying good bye and walking out of the room.

I encounter folks like Johnny very frequently. They have no connection to a local church either because they never have done so in their lives, or because they have become disillusioned with the local church or with God, and they have given up on church attendance/membership as a means of expressing any faith they have left.

This is, of course, troubling to me in some ways. I am a pastor and therefore I do very much believe in the local church, and I believe in being part of a local church as a vital aspect of maintaining healthy faith. Does this mean that I blindly affirm all that happens in local churches? No way. I am more than happy to critique local churches and admit oftentimes the local church can make a real mess of living out the Christian life. That said though, I also know that in most cases the local church also does the very best job it can of professing and witnessing to the love of God in both word and action in the local communities where the church exists. Any criticism of the local church which does not also affirm the brilliant work done by people of faith through the local church, is not worth listening to, in my opinion.

But back to the Church of Johnny and why it troubles me.

The Church of Johnny is the church of the individual. It lacks any sense of family or community. In the church of Johnny, there is no sense of life together, or loving one another. There is only life in Johnny’s way, lived out on his own. Spirituality in the church of Johnny is a spirituality made up by Johnny as he is going along through life. Whatever feels right in the moment is what is right. There is no sense in which anyone can question the spirituality of the church of Johnny. There is no-one to question it, because in the church of Johnny there is only Johnny. In the Church of Johnny there is no accountability of thought or action. The single member, Johnny, is the sole arbiter of all doctrinal statements of belief which the Church of Johnny adheres to. There is no-one to question you or your thinking in the Church of Johnny. The church of Johnny is the very epitome of the rampant individualism which is tearing western civilization and culture apart, as millions of Johnnys all over the world sing along with Frank Sinatra and do life “My Way…”

You might be reading this and thinking that there is absolutely nothing wrong with life in the Church of Johnny.

Respectfully, I disagree. Let me illustrate why by telling you a little more about the man I went to hospital to see that day.

He was an 89 year old man. He had been married for over 60 years, raised 4 children, who in turn had raised their own families. This man had served in the US Navy, and then worked on Cape Canaveral, helping to send humans into space. He loved his family, bluegrass music, and his garden. He was a Christian man and had been a regular (weekly) church attender throughout his lifetime. He had been a member the church where I pastor for over 30 years. He was a gentle soul who loved God and knew that God loved him. He was a treasured member of our church family. He loved the people of our church and they very much loved him too.

As I spoke with him that day, it was very clear to me that he was approaching the end of his life. We talked about how that felt, and he told me that he had absolute peace. He told me he knew God, who is the creator of all things, and that he knew he would be okay. That day he embodied ‘eschatological hope;’ actual peace and hope, which, I believe, is only found in God’s love through Christ and the Christian community. His was a spirit which was at peace with the world, and with life.

He passed away three days later.

As I walked away from the hospital that day I reflected on the experiences of the two men I was talking to.

The member of my church was completely at peace and utterly bereft of any fear of what the future might hold. In his pain, he had peace. In his struggle for breath, he had peace. In the thought of the end of his life he had peace. His was a peace which was born in his faith in Christ and in his experience of the Christian community.

Johnny, on the other hand, appeared to lack any peace. His life was not in danger that day – he had had a relatively routine surgery that morning, and yet he still felt fear and discontent, and he appeared to have no sense of peace.

Both men were believers. My church member professed his faith in a loving God, and Johnny told me he too believed in God.

Both men were men of prayer. My church member was faithful in prayer, and Johnny told me that he too prayed every day to God.

And yet…both men seemed to have very different levels of peace within their souls. My only conclusion that day and since was to note the difference in the ‘belief experience’s the two men. One stands alone, developing his own beliefs about the world and about God; he is utterly dependent on his own thoughts for any sense of spiritual security. The other stood in the fellowship of Christian community, and has his beliefs about the world and God shaped in the context of that community. His sense of peace and hope is found in Christ; born in the 2000 year old Christian tradition; lived out over a lifetime in Christian community.

And this is where my problem with the Church of Johnny lies – ultimately it lacks any depth to its foundation, and when the fragility of life comes to the fore, the Church of Johnny collapses and is found wanting. It offers no real hope, and no lasting peace.

As I reflected on my brother’s life when I was preparing his funeral service, I couldn’t help but think that when my time comes to leave this earth, I want to do it with all the peace and all the hope that my brother, Dean did. The only place I will find that peace is in the divine love of God, made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church.

The Church of Johnny might be great in the here and now; it might offer the illusion of personal freedom and spiritual autonomy in one’s life. But ultimately it is foundationless, and, at in moment of fear, worry or desperation, the whole structure could, and probably will, in most cases, come crashing down, and I find that deeply saddening.

On the Sudden Passing of a Saint…

She was here last week, as she had been every other week before that.

She was old school in that way.
Church wasn’t a side show in her life – it was her family away from family, her community, her tribe.
That’s why she lived here alone with no blood relatives near by.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

“Didn’t your heart burn within you when the preacher preached today?”
Those were the words she would say to me on her way out of church on the days when her heart had been stirred by the words I had preached.
They were the words she had heard within her own family of origin.
I can’t remember whether it was her father, her grandfather or an uncle in her family…
…but those were the words she had heard when she was young; the words she would use to affirm a good sermon.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

And she could sing. Good Lord, but she could sing!
Each word, each note ringing out from somewhere deep.
Each word, each note telling some of the story of her people.
Each word, each note singing out in praise to God.

She loved God.
And God loved her.

She could sing on her own and lead the church in song:
“His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down.”
Each time she stepped up we knew we were in for a treat; a holy moment.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She could sing in the choir too.
Our choir. Her choir.
That special group of people committed to each other;
Meeting, praying, and singing together every single week.

She loved them.
And they loved her.

And she could sing in the congregation.
She raised her voice alongside the people of her tribe.
And so many times, at just the right moment,
When the tribe needed to know that the words they were singing were deep, and meaningful and true…
*CLAP, CLAP, CLAP*
She would clap her hands in praise.
She would clap her hands to tell her people to sing louder; to lift their praise higher.

And we would.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She was a lady among ladies.
Well spoken.
Well dressed. Always immaculately dressed.
Assured in her identity as a daughter of the King of kings.

Faith ran deep within her. So deep.
If you had poked a hole anywhere in her, I am sure that Jesus would have oozed out.

She loved him.
And he loved her.

__________

She is gone from us now.
Such shocking news to hear and share with her tribe in church yesterday.
She is gone from us and will not be coming back.
And that makes us sad. Deeply sad.

__________

But even in the sadness we rejoice.

“To live is Christ and to die is gain!”

That’s the faith story of this tribe.

That was her story.
That was the song she sang among us.
It’s the faith story that gives us such hope.

She is no longer with us, but she is dancing with God now.
She is no longer with us, but she is embracing her beloved daughter who went on ahead of her.
She is no longer with us, but she is clapping her hands and leading the choirs of Heaven
Oh yes! The angels and archangels are singing louder today than they were last week. That’s for sure.
She is no longer with us, but she is in a place where there are no more tears; where there is no more grief and no more broken hearts.
She is no longer with us, but she is with her savior.
In this we rejoice.

And in faith we declare that we will see her and sing with her again. Some day.

Rest in peace, dear, beloved sister in Christ.
We love you and we will miss you.

The Calling of Levi – a narrative sermon

Follow Me

This is the sermon that was preached by me this morning (Sunday 19th March) at St. Andrew UMC, in Titusville, FL.

I don’t put all my sermons on here, but I feel that this one went particularly well this morning and folks seemed to connect with it. In fact, folks seem to connect with any story telling sermon I do. Maybe I should do more…

The following was my guide for the monologue. There were points in the delivery of the sermon when I came slightly off script and ad lib’d a few bits and pieces. The entire sermon can be listened to here

Hi! I’m Levi.

I heard that you all were reading a little story about me today; the story of that time when Jesus came up to my table and asked me to follow him. What a day that was…it totally changed my life forever.

Yeah…I heard you were reading that story today and I wanted to come along and make sure that you heard it right. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t trust Dr. Luke – everybody trust Dr. Luke – he is a great writer and always gets it pretty much spot on. But Dr. Luke had so much to write about when it comes to those three years of Jesus’s life I know that there is no way he could get everything that you need to know about me in there. So don’t consider this conversation between you and me to be a corrective of Dr. Luke’s work. I would never think to do that. Just think of this as some additional information that the good Dr. did not have room for. A little bit of personal testimony if you will.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself first. I had a fairly average upbringing. Nothing special at all. I was a reasonably good kid and didn’t get into that much trouble. Eventually I grew up and had to start thinking about how I would make a living. We weren’t a rich family – I could not rely on an inheritance. No…I would have to get a job and I would have to work hard to provide all that I needed in life.

I can’t remember how I got into this line of work. Trust me, no one grows up wanting to be a tax collector. I guess the opportunity was just there one day. I needed the work. There was the job and here was my need – I just went for it. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out? Right?

There are two sides to every story. Everyone says that tax collectors are the worst kind of people. They call us traitors because we are collecting funds for the Roman Empire. They call us thieves because they think we take more than we ought to from them. But it’s not that simple. When we get sent out as tax collectors we are told that we have to get from the people what we have to get from them and then there Roman’s tell us what we owe them. If there is a difference in those amounts, and it is to our benefit we are under no obligation to give it back. It’s just the system.

Well I got the job and I was good at it, and I would also say that it was good to me too. I had to put up with some social rejection and stigma, of course, but back in the early days it was worth it. I looked up to one of our big bosses, Zacchaeus, and I thought to myself, “I want all the things he has.” He really looked as if he had everything that anyone would ever want in life.

As the years went by I noticed that while I was doing very well and getting all the things I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really getting any happier. On the outside everything looked amazing. But on the inside I felt like I had nothing: no friends, no encouragement, and really no love in my life.

So I was stuck. I was in a corner. I was between a rock and a hard place. I needed the job to pay the bills and have the stuff I thought I wanted to have, but the job also meant that I had none of the things I really need in life; no fulfillment. I was just empty.

But what could I do?

I used to set up my table anywhere a crowd was gathering. I would go to the temple some days. On other days i would set up outside the governors office, knowing that the people would gather their to make a complaint or bring a case before him. On other days I would go to the market place – people always went there and they always had money too – the market was a great place to collect tax!

Then I discovered this other way to get people. We had so many traveling teachers and rabbis who would journey around the region saying this and saying that. Most of them had small followings and it usually was not worth setting up my table where they were. But that all changed when Jesus came on to the scene. Word had spread like wildfire about this guy. He was the one worth hearing. He was the one you wanted to be around. I know that one day the crowd was so big where he was that one group of guys who wanted to get close to him actually climbed on top of the house where Jesus was and made a hole in the roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was.

I thought to myself, “If that’s where the people are then that is where i should be to collect their taxes.” So I took my table along and set up shop right there where he was. I did so well that i started to follow him around. Wherever Jesus was, I would go too. I heard every word he said and I saw every person he interacted with.

The funny thing about it was this: when Jesus spoke; when he said his words and told his stories, I found myself feeling different inside. I don’t know what the feeling was exactly, but there was something going on inside me – I felt alive inside, and I had not felt that way in a very long time.

But I did nothing with those feelings. Jesus was never going to have anything for me. I was a tax collector. I was one of the worst. I knew that and everyone else knew that, and Jesus probably knew it too.

Or at least I thought he did, but the evidence pointed somewhere else. You see, I began to notice that everywhere he went he was not spending his time with good people. Normally religious teachers and rabbis spend their time with the good people; the people on the inside. But not Jesus. No! He spent his time with different people; ordinary people, and some downright rough people too – you know the ones that no-one would be seen with. He spent time with fishermen and shepherds, with lepers, he spoke back to the teachers of the law and to the Pharisees. There was even this one time when he got close to that lunatic in the Capernaum synagogue and told the demons to leave the luny alone. And they did. Jesus even spent time with women. In public. And they were not always respectable women. No. You think that tax collectors are looked down on? The only person considered as bad as people like me are those kind of women. The women Jesus seemed to always spend time with – and not in a bad way either.

Anyway, I was there time after time with Jesus. Sitting at my table, collecting my taxes, feeling something inside when he spoke, but always thinking that it could never be for me. People like this guy Jesus could never do anything for people like me. I was as far gone in life as anyone could imagine and that was just the way it was. I was a sinner; a reject; a social misfit and that was how it was always going to be.

Or so I thought.

That day when the guys had made that hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it; that day when the crowd was so big that no one could get close to Jesus. That was the day when I found out that Jesus is interested in sinners like me.

He came out of the building that day and made his way straight to my table.

“Follow me.” He said.

That was it. Nothing more. Just those two short words. Follow. Me.

You know what they say about those moments when you life is threatened and things all seem to slow down and your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well thats what it was like for me in this moment.

The main man; the star of the show; the biggest name in town who could get in to any house and sit with whomever he desired to sit with had just come to my table and asked me to follow him.

What was I to do? I had a good gig going on here. I was rich. I was only going to get richer. I had everything I wanted in life. But I also had nothing because the huge emptiness within me was always with me.

Do I stay in this job and keep on earning all the while feeling empty on the inside and rejected by everyone on the outside?

Or do I take a chance with Jesus.

I could continue to walk on the same road and continue getting what I had always got. Or I could make a change. Now. In this moment. A change that might break all the emptiness.

I have no idea what made me do what I did next, but I made the choice to go with Jesus. I got up and left my table right there and started to follow him.

This was a game changing moment for me and there was only one way I knew that would mark this moment appropriately – to throw a party. So I did. I threw a party at my house. I invited all my other tax collection colleagues and any other reject we could find and we had a banquet right there at my house. Jesus was in his element as we laughed and joked around the table. He told us stories that night which helped me understand just how much I needed him in my life. Where I had felt rejected, he made me feel welcome. Where I had felt too sinful to be in anyone’s company, he assured me that I was just as deserving of love as anyone else. Where I felt ashamed about my past and the things I had done in my life, he taught me that I could lift my head and starting living a new life.

Not everyone heard Jesus the same way though. And funnily enough it was the religious people that were making all the noise of complaint that night. “Why do you spend time with tax collectors and sinners like these?” They asked.

Jesus looked straight at them and said this:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Boom! Na na na boo boo! Take that, religious people! In your face! Ha ha ha

I know, I know…Jesus told me already that I can’t go showboating like that when I tell this story…but still!

Anyway the point is this:

Jesus came for people like me.
Jesus came to the world for people like me.
Sinners. Rejects. Misfits.

The ones everyone else can’t stand.
The ones no one else has any interest in.
The anonymous ones who go through life with no name because no one cares.
The ones who knew most that they needed Jesus’ help.
Jesus came for them.
Jesus came for you.

Yes. You.

You guys look really good – like butter wouldn’t melt.

But I know that all of us have things in our lives that we think might just be enough to turn Jesus away – regrets, actions, thoughts, those words we spoke in the heat of the moment, that relationship that did not work out, that habit we just can’t seem to kick.

We all have them.
We are all sick with sin and Jesus has come to us to call us to repent. To turn from those things and walk in a new path.

For me, that meant walking away from the table…literally. For me, that meant sacrificing the riches and things that I had become accustomed to in life. but you know what i learned? It’s all just stuff and none of that stuff on the outside of my life could ever have, or has ever since come close to the feeling I get on the inside when I remember that day that Jesus showed me that I am worthy of love and worthy of being welcomed. Nothing.

So…yeah…that’s my story. It has been amazing being here with you all, but it’s time for me to get back to following Jesus…

Oh yeah…just one more thing. I just described to you the moment in my life when Jesus came and asked me to follow him. Well I just had a thought. Maybe this is your moment. Maybe this is the moment in which Jesus has come to you and said those two little words: Follow me.

If he has. If that is what you have heard today then take it from someone who knows – don’t say no. you may think your life is okay without Jesus right now, or you may think that life with Jesus is not a life that you could handle very well. But let me guarantee you that walking away from the table of my life that day was the best and smartest thing i ever did. Before that moment I was lost and lonely, i felt rejected and ashamed of myself all the time; Before that moment I was a sinner – pure and simple. But now I’m free. I am loved. I am changed.

I. Am. Free.

If this is your moment – don’t miss it.

Seriously.

“I am…” (8:48-59)

I am

John 8 feels like one big long argument between Jesus and the Jewish people that seemed hell bent on discrediting him and all that he was teaching. This is of course because Jesus has been making claims that he is the one sent from God, and, in the last passage, he has even called into question their very identity as descendants of Abraham. In this particular passage the dispute, which has been raging through the chapter, rises to a jaw dropping climactic moment when Jesus pretty much seals his fate by uttering two tiny words.

You will remember that Jesus previously had said that if these believers fully believed him, and were truly his disciples that they would experience the truth and the truth would set them free. That particular passage ended with Jesus saying that the reason they could not make sense of what he was saying was that they did not really know God. It is fair to say that Jesus had insulted them in that exchange and so it is unsurprising that this next section opens up with them returning the insult: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

Jesus does not rise to their bait in the exchange and chooses instead to continue to try and prove to them/convince them that he is who he says he is – God’s sent one. He takes his argument a stage further in this passage. He is no longer simply saying that following him will set you free. Now Jesus is saying that if these folks follow him and obey his word will never taste death. This was way too much for the feeble minds of these Jewish followers to conceive. No one can get out of tasting death. No-one – not even the heroes of their tradition had avoided death – Abraham, all the prophets…all of them had succumbed to death just like every other human. What Jesus was saying now was too much for them. Who on earth did Jesus think he was?

Again, Jesus does not rise to the point they are making. He simply continues to offer his testimony. Jesus is under no pressure here. His only work is to glorify God, and that is all that he seeks to do. Again taunts them by questioning whether or not they really do know God in the way their father, Abraham, knew God. Abraham rejoiced at hearing from God – but they cannot even seem to hear God through what Jesus is saying. They cannot even seem to fathom that God might be right there with them in this moment.

Then comes the crescendo moment. These followers have absolutely had enough. This young teacher/preacher is going too far. And what can he know about Abraham anyway: “You are not yet 50 years old…and you have seen Abraham.”

The next words of Jesus are huge:

“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!”

In my mind, as I imagine the last two words of that sentence being uttered I imagine it being a complete sucker punch to the Jewish descendants of Abraham. There is a silence that only lasts for a couple of seconds, but seems to last for an eternity. Did he really just say that? Did he really just self reference himself as “I am”? Does he know how serious a claim that is? Does he know how blasphemous that is?

Yes.

Yes he does.

For any human to claim that they are God was too much. “I am” was the name God used for God-self in the the Exodus story. To even utter the words was considered blasphemous. So you can imagine the utter shock of this moment, and you can understand why these men picked up stones and were ready to kill Jesus there and then.

Why would Jesus say this?

Because Jesus is who he says he is.

Jesus is the word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the living water.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is the Messiah sent by God.

Jesus is who he says he is and that means Jesus has the power to do what he came to do: heal the sick, bind up the broken, announce, enact, and embody the kingdom of God, save the lost, defeat death, and cancel the power of sin.

The fact that Jesus is who he says he is is exceedingly good news for us all. Will you believe him today?

“And the truth shall set you free…” (8:21-47

The truth shall set you free

In the previous two passages Jesus has faced disputes over what he has been saying and who he has been saying he is. In this passage the reader is witness to another dispute between Jesus and some of the Jews who had chosen to believe what he had been saying so far. Yes, you read that correctly. This passage records a conversation between Jesus and some of his new believers.

Why is that important?

It is important because those 7 little words at the beginning of verse 31 show that even when we have chosen to believe and follow Jesus, the temptation will always be there to fall back into our old identities and find meaning in them. Look at the people Jesus was talking to if you don’t believe me. Jesus says to them that having believed what he says, if they really are to be his disciples they will hold to his teaching, and when they hold to his teaching they will know the truth and the truth shall set them free.

What is Jesus’ teaching? In John 3 Jesus said to Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. New birth. New life. New identity. Or as Paul writes to the Corinthian church in 2nd Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.” In John 4 Jesus met a woman at the well in Sychar and invited her to drink living water and live a new life; a life different from her old one. In John 5 Jesus healed the man by the pool in Bethesda and encourages him to go off and live a new life free of sin.

Jesus’ teaching is that when you come to him; when you live your life in his way; when you really are his disciples you will know the truth and the truth will set you free, because you will know that the old has gone and the new has come; you will know that you are a new creation in Christ; you will know that in Christ you are adopted into the family of God; that you have become a beloved child of God.

In this text, the Jews who have believed Jesus have not realized fully what it means to believe Jesus. They have not understood that they have become new creations in Christ. How do we know this? We know this because when Jesus tells them that the truth will set them free they respond by stating that they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves of anyone. In other words they believe what Jesus is saying, but they still don’t get that Jesus is inviting them to a completely new life, hence they continue to hold on to their old identity as children of Abraham. And Jesus even challenges them on that understanding of themselves: “But if you really were children of Abraham you would do what Abraham did.” What did Abraham do? He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:5, Rom 4:3, Gal 3:6) Jesus is saying that if these followers were really children of Abraham as they claim to be, they would recognize the Father in the Son; they would recognize that Jesus is who he is saying that he is and they would believe him, rather than plotting to capture and kill him. As Jesus goes on to say later in this passage, “Whoever belongs to God hears what God says.” If these believers really do recognize that Jesus is who he says he is then they will recognize God in their midst and will hear what Jesus has to say.

So I say it again, it is possible for us to hear Jesus and believe what Jesus has to say about all things and still not fully get what it means. We can hear Jesus and believe what Jesus has to say about one new life and new birth and still remain unchanged by it.

The Jewish believers in this passage had believed Jesus but had not considered themselves new creations in Christ, and i think that is a challenge to every reader of this passage. Are you a believer of the things Jesus has said? Has believing Jesus brought about a new birth in you? Have you had an experience of the new life? Has the old gone and the new come? Or are you living a life which believes that Jesus taught great things, but ultimately remains stuck in the old identity.

As John has said from the very beginning of this work, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; Jesus is the light which the darkness cannot over come; Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is the one sent by God. In Jesus you and me and every other human being in the world can be born again and can experience a new life and a brand new identity which is not marred by the old identity. This is the absolute truth from the lips of Jesus himself, and when we become his followers; when we really are his disciples we will know the truth and the truth shall set us free to live this new life as the beloved children of God.

So how about that? Is it time for you to be born again and experience this first hand?

I hope so.