I Just Don’t Have Words

I am not quite sure how to address this.  Last week I wrote the piece that I wrote.  You know where I am on how people are responding.  But my comments where much more about the philosophical and political response, the words and practices of what is being done about church associations and a unified body of Christ.

So I want to make sure that I am absolutely clear.  The people that I responded to last week are not who I’m responding to today.

I woke up this morning to see that 4 churches were threatened with violence because of the decision that was made.  Literally, somebody threatened to burn the churches down in this area, not because the pastors were doing anything (or that they even can because it isn’t legal in Missouri) but because of the decision of the national church.  I have words, but they ring hollow.  I can write how this is antithetical to scripture, how it is antithetical to Jesus, how it makes no sense, but that is my desire to make sense of a senseless threat.All I can do is pray for peace in the hearts of those who send threats like this, safety for those who are threatened, and a sense of love and unity that transcends our Earthly desires.  I can’t make sense of it, as I shouldn’t.  I just pray for peace and love.

– Robby

The Need for Unity and Love

Let’s dive right in.  Last night is was announced that Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 14-F will pass.  The vote is unofficial as of this moment, but enough presbyteries have responded to show that it will pass.

What is Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 14-F?  It is the amendment that allows pastors who believe that same-sex marriage is something that can be blessed by God to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions that it is legal (and perform ceremonies blessing civil unions already created) and sessions to use their facilities for such ceremonies.  To do this, it redefines marriage to be between two people instead of a man and a woman.

Now, if you are wondering why I wrote that as a description of something humdrum and rote, it’s because I don’t particularly care about the decision. I could make it all sensationalized, write it in a way that charges the emotions and sets your battling heart afire, but this, to me, is not that big of a decision. It does not compel any action whatsoever. Pastors who want to refuse to have any part of same-sex marriages are empowered to do so. Any sessions that want to categorically deny the use of their facilities for same-sex marriages can do so. Pastors and sessions who believe God can bless and be present and the third person in a same-sex marriage can do so. It is freeing, not compelling.  Anyone can treat it as the same interpretation as it was before if they desire.  It simply takes the decision of conscious and put it in the hands of sessions and pastors instead of the General Assembly.

I happen to believe that our restrictions on same-sex marriage hold a lot less biblical weight than a restriction on second marriages after divorce would and are a symptom of discomfort, not strong morality. I think we should be seeking, as churches, to be welcoming people who want Christ to be part of their lives to invite Christ into every facet of their lives and because same-sex civil union (legal marriage, which I think should be the term for all contracts that bound two people, not just same-sex) will soon be nation-wide and likely federally recognized, we should act in a way that opens the door for the Spirit to work within all couples that are legally bound and have Christ bless all unions. Call me crazy, but forcing people to seek Spiritual care, counsel, and guidance elsewhere because of homosexuality strikes me as antithetical to the message of love in the gospel.

That’s what I think about the decision. That’s my answer, as I am able to state it right now.  I wrote that before I had even gotten out of my pajamas, before I had any coffee, I spent the day working on a sermon and worship prep, and my position hasn’t changed.  That’s what I think of the decision.

But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel strongly about it.  I don’t think it as historical of an issue for the church as everyone feels it is, and I think our desire to make it historical has more to do with emotions and right now than it does with 20 years from now.  But that’s me.

You know what I do care about, though?  Hatred and disunity in my church.

If you read that post I wrote last week, you had a glimpse into the struggles I’ve had getting ordained.  There were multiple times I contemplated leaving this church that I love so much because the ordination process was killing my faith.  There were times that I felt this church that raised me and helped me grow was pushing me out and wanted nothing to do with my ministry.  I had to choose to be here, to fight to be there, and sacrifice time in my career (and likely some of Nora’s career) to stay in this church.  And I’m on the right path now, I see a light at the end of the tunnel – and the tunnel isn’t nearly as dark as it used to be – and ordination no longer feels like a pipe dream but an eventuality if I’m willing to work for it.

I had to fight to stay here, though.  I chose to be in this church, and made that decision multiple times when it felt like it was the wrong decision.  I would not have done that if I didn’t love this church, love God, and worship a savior through Biblical means.

Here is what I’ve seen my church do since the passing of 10-A in 2010 and affirmation by presbyteries in 2011:

Disunity and Hatred

I decided to visit the websites of the two PC(USA) groups that fall on the radical ends of the spectrum – the Covenant Network and the Layman – to see what each had to say.  The Covenant Network had a simple letter expressing joy that the measure they had worked to get passed had come to fruition yet understanding that it would create a rift between Presbyterians and hope that the conversation between them could continue.  In honesty, I thought it was a classy gesture and expressed joy while recognizing that not all would be celebrating.

I can’t fault them for that.  They faithfully believed this was the action that God was calling them to, and the celebrated in having it pass.  It’s the same as celebrating victory in an election.

I wanted to present a balanced account of how people were responding and yet I couldn’t because the response wasn’t balanced.  Covenant Network’s letter was about unity and not compelling any action.

When I visit the Layman, I was horrified as I was in 2011 to see how they responded.  I want to give them a benefit of the doubt, that they truly believe that this is so antithetical to Biblical teachings that all who agree with it should be labeled as heretics and stop being called pastors.  (To the Layman’s benefit, much of my horror was from the comment section and not the letter – though the letter wasn’t exactly unifying, either – but those comments point to a mentality.)  I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt when I read nothing but judgement – not admonition or disagreement – in their response.

I can’t understand it because I know people who were fighting this battle on the side that won.  I know pastors who have fought this battle from day one who are biblical teachers, well read and knowledgable and faithful.  I know scholars who have spent a considerable amount of time with the scriptures, the historical context of the words, and the style of literature each book is made up of, and come to conclusions that aren’t just well reasoned but faithful and Spirit-filled, in my opinion.

I know these people.  Some of these people are the reason I’m still in the process and didn’t jump ship.  Some of them have radically changed by views through use of the scriptures – the whole scriptures.  They have made me better at preaching, better at interpreting, better at every facet of ministry.  I am three or four times the pastor I would have been had I just been with people who agreed with me.  I still disagree with many of them – MANY – but I am better, and hopefully they are, too, because we butted heads.

So when I see people calling these faithful, loving, well-read, and Bible-followers heretics, evil, non-pastors, or anything other than loving Christian leaders, I get incredibly angry and I see a symptom of our fallenness.  We desire to be right so much that when we think we are right and the majority disagree with us, instead of seeking to find a way to reconcile that, and reconcile back with each other, we lash out and act in hatred instead of love.

That is unacceptable.  I had a list of people who I believed where literally pushing me out of the PC(USA) for no reason other than they didn’t like me.  Those feelings lead me to lash out at the process – not necessarily the wrong things to say in the situation, but certainly not done in a pastoral way to people who were judging my fitness for pastoral ministry – and that lashing out rightly risked me being removed from the process.  Everything that lead up to it was wrong, but my lashing out made it worse, and needlessly so.

Lashing out of emotion is not helpful.  It may feel good in the moment – I know it did for me – but it does nothing but create hostility.  If you are going to claim that your lashing out is because of something in scripture, show me in the same book of 66 pieces of literature where lashing out of emotion is how to reconcile differing opinions.

The other response from the losing side I see is the victim status.  I could spend hours dissecting that and saying why I think it is childish and baseless, but I’m going to say this:

Nothing in this decision compels anyone to do anything, and no one made this decision outside of their understanding of scripture.  You don’t get to claim victim status if it has no effect on your ministry and wasn’t an attack on your beliefs.

All teaching elders require seminary education, and there isn’t a PC(USA) seminary that doesn’t have exegesis courses.  We may not all agree on the path of interpretation, but we all have a strong background in interpretation because of our educations and the heritage we come from.  No one is a heretic in this situation – conservative or liberal.  You can’t make that claim every time you lose; you have to be an adult about it.

Fight for the next 100 GA’s.  Create resolutions every two years.  Discuss and debate passionately and peacefully.  Spend time honing your Biblical, theological, and historical arguments, and make them stronger so your position can become the majority position.  I encourage it; that’s how we grow.

What you cannot do, period, is claim that anyone who disagrees with you does not follow Christ.  It’s not fair, and you know it.

The other half of victim status is presbyteries who are making it difficult for churches to leave the denomination.  I’ve seen it a couple of times today, and I just want to address it like this:

I think leaving a denomination, further splintering the Body of Christ, is the wrong action.  Period.  If you can show me where we are supposed to fracture and splinter over disagreements of teachings and faithful interpretation in scripture, I will delete this whole thing and publicly shame myself.  But it’s not there.

We are one Body.  One.  I support presbyteries who make it difficult for congregations to leave – especially over an issues that have no effect on ministries that don’t want to have an effect on them – because we preach unity.

If the decisions today were to compel pastors to perform the ceremonies and sessions to allow them under their roof, then I would think the splintering was done to the congregations.  As it is now – and has been stated as the goal all along – the decision is to lie with the teaching elders and sessions.  You can be blunt about disagreeing, vocal about not doing it, put it in bylaws.  You are not forced to be something you cannot faithfully be, and splintering because effectively nothing changed for you is unacceptable and an emotional response.

And again, if it were truly heresy, then it would no longer represent the Body of Christ.  As it is, we also ordain women and allow women to enter the church while menstruating and eat shrimp and say slavery is bad and no longer have concubines and polygamy, all of which is from scripture.  This isn’t a heretical decision much like saying slavery is bad wasn’t a heretical decision; it is an interpretation of scripture, done faithful and humbly.

We cannot become splintered because of this.  We can’t just run away every time we don’t get our way.  Some of us fought to serve this church and find it offensive that people are willing to split because a decision didn’t go their way.

And ignoring my selfishness, that isn’t the way we show love to one another.  If you truly believe something is evil, you stick around and lovingly try to fix it.  If you believe someone has erred, you admonishing them lovingly, from a position of humility, and seek to reconcile.  You don’t respond out of hate, disunity, and a desire to break apart.

We are called to be One Body, and confess to One God.  Maybe we should worry a little bit more about that and not a decision of conscious being given to the individual churches instead of a mandate from on high.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Pray my sermon – which is completely irrelevant to this blog post – is actually Spirit filled and not just me blabbering for 15 minutes tonight.

In Christ and out of love,

– Robert

Struggling with Isaiah 6:9

So if you saw the beginning of the most horrifying and nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done the Sermon Podcast, you saw that I preached on Luke 5:4-15 on Sunday.  If you listened to it (you did listen to it, didn’t you?), you know that I focused on the metaphor of the soils, like every other preacher in the world does.  For the sermon, that is where the focus had to be, but there was something that I didn’t get to address in this sermon that has been stuck in my craw since exegeting the passage.

Read Luke 8:10 and then Isaiah 6:9, which is what Jesus is referencing in the Luke verse.  Read the surrounding context.  Then you tell me if that makes you feel good.

No?  Doesn’t feel great?  Feels pretty crappy, actually?  Great, then you are where I was.

I really struggled with this.  The idea of making the entire sermon about that one verse briefly crossed my mind because of just how difficult I find that verse.  It strikes me as deliberately deceptive.  If I reworded that honestly using just English translations, I would word it as, “I’m talking in parables so other are confused and don’t understand, and it will blind them so they don’t see the glory of God.”

If you want to scream shenanigans at this sort of method, I agree with you.  I have always had a problem with deceptive preaching and deceptive teaching.  I know preachers who will start a sermon by preaching at the congregation believes and they attach those beliefs with “true” teachings – though, oddly, those “true” teachings often come down to interpretive issues, not strong immorality – and, though effective, is also rather condescending and self-righteous.  I can see validity in this method for humble prophetic messages – an emphasis on “humble” and “prophetic” – but for standard correction of teaching, I think this is unacceptable.

To address those who may say it’s really effective, I make my congregation question their beliefs regularly (for the sake of questioning, not necessarily because they are wrong) and search for deeper, truer truths and beliefs closer to Christ’s actual call in the gospel, and I’m straight and honest about it.  I don’t like being deceived or lied to, and that shows in my preaching.

Okay, off my rant horse for a bit.  I just have a problem with this who idea of hiding the message.  So, as a good exegete and horrible procrastinator, I went down the rabbit hole of Isaiah 6:9.  I looked at the Hebrew (and learned how rusty my Hebrew skills have become) and tried to rationalize a different translation.  I’ll tell ya, my BibleWorks is set up with many good and different translations and I couldn’t come to a different translation than I already had in front of me that got me past this hang-up and to a point where I wanted to pull a Thomas Jefferson and start cutting verses I didn’t like out of the Bible.

So how do I deal with this?  What am I missing?

When you don’t understand something, ask someone for help.  In life, that usually means a call to a trusted elder, in career, a trusted mentor.  In biblical exegesis, though, we don’t often have that person who was can call.  Instead, we have to hope someone has written something somewhere that will answer our questions and not make more1.  So I looked up at my book shelf, saw an Isaiah commentary that I bought cheap and haven’t used yet, and found the entry on 6:8-11.

Baumgartel, by way of Otto, wrote something in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that started to chip away at this very difficult passage:

Every word of the prophet will merely make them (his hearers) even wiser in their human thoughts, and will make them more determined not to abandon their human attitude, in which they consider they are so firm and unassailable2.

At the moment I read it, it put the idea to rest enough for me to abandon it at the moment and go back to sermon writing.  Sermon came out fast, I got all of my worship materials finished, and I rewarded myself with a beer.  Life was good.

At the same time, I still struggled with that one verse.  Even when I was standing at the pulpit, trying to impress visitors and preach something better because I was recording, this verse caught me up.  I glossed it over, as my sermon needed, but I still find it festering in the back of my mind.

So Wednesday, days removed from the sermon and the next sermon leering from the distance, I’m still wondering about this verse.  What does it mean?

Look back at what Baumgartel said.  When I read these verses, I get stuck on the speaker.  I get stuck on how it seems that the speakers intent is to deceive and condemn.  If you look around this blog, or hear my sermons, I focus a lot on love, and that is certainly not a loving act.

I get stuck on the speaker and I don’t even consider the ears that are hearing it.  I don’t consider that they may not be in a position to hear what they need to hear, or that these teachings are going to turn them off.  I want so badly for every prophet to have the success of Jonah but that isn’t the case3.

God wasn’t telling Isaiah to make the people daft and to make reject the message. He was telling Isaiah to go to the people and preach the message even though they would refuse to understand it and refuse to see it. It seems like a bit of a stretch, but it works and here’s why:

God isn’t above being a bit passive-aggressive.  Read it like this: Listen, even though you won’t understand; watch, even though you won’t see.  It’s subtle, and I would listen to arguments that this doesn’t paint God in the best light, but it’s there.

This may seem weird, but read it through the lens of Nineveh.  If the Judeans would have approached Isaiah’s message with humility, God probably would have changed His mind.  If they had heard the message, and I mean heard it in their hearts and not just the physical and intellectual act of hearing.  If they were humble enough to recognize their own flaws, they could have avoided this.  If they would have understood that they were fallible, they could have avoided this.  If they had repented, they could have avoided this.

If Isaiah were to go to humble people and give this message, they would change.  He isn’t going to humble people, and so his message will do nothing but shut them off and make them fall deeper down the hole that leads to the exile.  In the command in Isaiah 6:9, God is telling Isaiah to say, “Listen to me even though you will hear and not understand; watch as I teach and even though refuse to see the message.”  Yes, it sets them up for condemnation and assumes it before he even starts, but, again, though the lens of Nineveh, they aren’t condemned until it is over.  God just knows their hearts, and knows the outcome.

Back to Luke.  What exactly is Jesus saying here?  I’m going to conjecture a bit here, but I think, when we read “disciples” in the gospels, we wrongly assume it’s only to the 12.  In all honesty, we have no reason to assume that.  There are multitudes there, and Gingrich (according to BibleWorks) says that we can, in practice, use the word “Christian” to translate “μαθητης”4 in Acts, even if it isn’t the best literal translation, which means we can probably assume that this means something more than the 12.  So, when Jesus is saying this, he is saying that those who are followers have been shown and will be taught; those who aren’t will be confused and refuse to learn.  He isn’t being intentionally deceptive; just that his teaching allude those who are unwilling to follow.

Kind of, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink no matter how hard you whip it.”  Something like that.

So there you go.  If you have ever wanted to see what it’s like in my mind when I exegete, there you have it.  If not, then why did you read this whole thing?

To curiosity in exegesis, not just the task at hand,

– Robby


1Just need to say that getting more questions than answers is great as a mental exercise and desiring that a philosophical position, but it screws with sermon writing.  You can’t say, “I don’t know” at the end of a sermon more than a couple of times a year before they start asking why they need to listen to you say your understand isn’t any greater than theirs.  Even if we are humble, teachers have to accept and act within the authority they have, even if it requires speaking in truths instead of questions.

2Kaiser, Otto. The Old Testament Library – Isaiah 1-12.  (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1972).  p. 83.

3I love Jonah. Even though he runs away, gets swallowed by the whale, begrudgingly preaches the prophetic message, and wants so badly for the people to be condemned, they still turn it around and follow God. Makes me smile, even if Jonah was a bit of a drama queen about it.

4What I could do in WordPress for Greek word. I know it’s missing an accent; sue me.

Who am I?

I ask myself this question more than the average bear, I suppose.  I find myself wondering who it that I am from moment to moment.  I stand in a pulpit and I’m a teacher, and a teacher of the Word none the less.  I stand behind a camera and all of a sudden I’m back to a previous self that doesn’t understand how people blush at certain words and sound like I spent a considerable amount of time on a naval vessel.  Put a beer in front of me and I’m somewhere in between.  If I find myself behind a keyboard, all of a sudden I am forcing myself to be vulnerable.  In a meeting, I’m a closed vault of sorts.

At any moment, I have to decide which me is going to come through.  Actively decide.  I have to choose what level of vulnerability, brashness, and that intangible but always known “sailor talk” is appropriate in every moment.  I actually spend an inordinate about of time deciding if I need to go through and change every “hell” and “damn” I’ve put in this blog.

As much as I may want it to, it doesn’t make me unique.  Every adult has to do that.  Every person who ministers really has to do this.  If you stand at a pulpit, you are hyper-vigilant about it.  You have to decide how honest you are in the pulpit, on the street, and in the hospital room.  Do you show a bit of vulnerability at the risk of authority?  How do you balance that?

This has been weighing on me because I find myself wanting to be more honest and vulnerable from the pulpit.  I’m not desiring to make it my therapy session or a session to air my dirty laundry, but I still feel like there is a certain amount of “faking it” in my sermons.  I had a conversation with one of the ladies of the church after Sunday worship one week and we got to talking about my sermons and somehow it went to our imperfection.  I will never forget her words:

…when you talk about the bad things you’ve done in your sermons, you aren’t that bad.

“…not that bad.” I have to chuckle because I know myself, and I know the whole history. I smile because I know there are weeks that my exegesis is paired with a decent sized glass of bourbon. I chuckle because I think about editing a sermon while South Park is on in the background.  I shake my head because I think about the actual bad things I’ve done, and the things that I thought were really bad.  And I’m torn because I know that those facts shared from the pulpit in a pastoral way would make me more accessible to some people hearing my teachings and yet would drive away other that hear because I cannot meet a certain standard of “piety”, even if my not meeting that standard is a conscious, thought-out choice.

Again, though, this doesn’t make me unique.  If I lined up all of my pastor/preacher friends, I could similar conversations.  Maybe they don’t want to talk about their whiskey and entertainment choices, but maybe there is a bad decision they made or a horribly difficult life situation that they have to hide while in the pulpit that would open up relationships because of the vulnerability it shows and it makes the preacher, the teacher “real”.  The line of how vulnerable and “real” we are supposed to be while preaching, while teaching, and while interacting and providing care for those who we are charged with leading is not straight and changes in thickness, depending on the day, person, and situation.  An act of vulnerability can be too vulnerable, just right, or not vulnerable enough and not change in the slightest.

It’s a battle and “game” that anyone in a caring profession – ministry, counseling, or any others – play out every day, and find the ways to land on that line as often as possible.  Success in these fields requires it.  Period.

And it is freaking draining.  I’m not full-time in ministry at the moment, but even in the small bits of ministry that do come my way, I’m always torn.  Combine that with being on a media crew that is essentially a polar opposite of my church family and wanting to be the best “me” I can be to feed the souls in both groups the best that I can because I am a Christian and that is my interpretation of the call of the gospel (Feeding All Souls In Love) and it is exhausting because I don’t know when I am the real me.  After 27 years, 4 months, and 25 days, I don’t really know who I am.

… … …

Actually, yes I do.  I know exactly who I am.  I’m a God-worshiping beer drinker who cooks a bit too much, swears a bit too much, and loves as much as he can.  That’s who I am.  I think the reason I have to ask myself “Who am I?” constantly is because I don’t let myself be myself.  Sometimes I can’t be myself – cracking opening a beer at the pulpit is unacceptable, I think – and sometimes I don’t think I should be myself but this short, overweight, beer-loving preacher who curses and loves and gets distracted so easily (from the start of this sentence to now I’ve followed 6 new blogs….) and worships Jesus as much as he can and maybe relies on the Holy Spirit a bit too much on Sundays and tries really hard to be a good husband but falls short sometimes and really just wants to be real and vulnerable.

And that conflicts with who I have to be to feed some souls, and matches right up with other souls I feed.  And I want to feed them all.

So to respond to Ben Huberman’s prompt about our various “Me’s” colliding, I simply say, “Got 27 years, 4 months, and 25 days?  Because my life is defined by various versions of myself colliding with the real me.”

Who am I?  I am “Jesus, Beer, and My Tiny Kitchen” in human form; this blog is me in writing form.  Only person me messes up a whole lot more in the kitchen and written me cures a whole lot less.

To honesty, vulnerability, and beer,

– Robby

Seeking Unity

I realized a long time ago that, along with all of the writing I do here, I also do about 1500 words of writing every week for my sermon.  Most weeks they aren’t really something that translates that well into reading on a blog – or maybe I’m just over-critical – but this week I really liked when I wrote.  I also have had the idea of unity and disunity and wanted, at least subconsciously, to touch on the subject here.  It worked out perfectly, I suppose.

Here is my manuscript, edited a bit after I gave it yesterday:


The Unifying Act of Pentecost

Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.  Many gifts, one Body.

Every year, when I approach my Pentecost sermon, I find myself focusing on the gifts of the individual.  Each one of us is part of the Body of Christ.  We have have a talent, a gift, a skill that we contribute to that Body.  We are each important.  Every year I tend to find myself focusing on the individuals.

That is a valid focus.  There will always be times that we find ourselves wondering if we are a necessary part of the Body of Christ.  Do we contribute?  Does Jesus actually desire us to be in his Body?  Can we even contribute to this Body?  What can we contribute?

Every year come to the same conclusion.  We each have gifts to share, we each have something that we contribute.  We each are part of the Body of Christ.  As faithful believers, we each have a roll that we play.  We fall short, we deny that role from time to time, but we each have a role in furthering Christ’s message, showing Christ’s love, and growing the Body of Christ.  We each are a part of the Body of Christ.

Every year I preach the same sermon.  Every year I talk about talents and gifts and how even the most miniscule act that do that is done in love and out of our faith in and love of Jesus Christ has radical effects.  A balloon has just a bit of air and yet it grows from something ugly, dull, and boring into something large, fun, and beautiful.  It does not take radical action to change the world.

Every year the same sermon.  I fear, though, that we miss something with that same sermon.  We need to reverse the lens that we are looking through.  We need to look not at each of us individually, but at the entire Body of Christ.  We need to do this because I’m afraid we miss an incredibly important part of the Pentecost day and what it did for our faith.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that Jews from every corner of the Earth, from every country, and in every language hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  In this one act they were unified by hearing one Word.  They were one people connected to one message at one moment in time.  The Pentecost was as much a unifying act as it was an act of talent and gifts.  In that moment, the world of believers became one united Body of Christ.

Those who heard and understood were brought into the Body of Christ, becominf followers of the true Word of God expressed through Jesus.  They saw and heard the works of the Holy Spirit and were moved to follow Christ.  They were made better, their souls more whole, when they entered into the Body of christ.

It is better and joyful to be part of the Body of Christ.

Importantly, each of those who were brought into the Body of Christ were sinners.  Each had their flaws, each fell horribly short of the glory of God.  They were unworthy of being in this Body, and yet through Christ they were brought into one Body, showing mercy and love, and given their salvation.  Only faith, love, and submission to Christ was required.

No one was turned away, each was brought into the Body of Christ.

I see this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the unifying actions of those who followed Jesus, the creation of a Body that requires only faith in Christ to be part of, and I cannot help but contrast it with the world we live in.  This world is not a world that is modeled after the actions of the Pentecost; it is the exact opposite of it.

When you look at politics, what do you see?  Do you see a unified Body working towards the good of the people, or a disunified Body whose concern is individual and selfish?  What do political ads say?  Do they speak to what good can be done, or what evil someone else has done?  What do we hear from our leaders?  Is it that they want to sacrifice for those who have elected them, or that they can help us if we just follow them and not that other person who has a different letter after their name?

But this goes beyond these divisions we’ve made for ourselves; we don’t just divide, we actively work to exclude people.  The world is set up in a way that we can only act like adversaries.  We are divided as “Us vs. Them” and the only ones who deserve to be part of the Body of Christ are the ones who fit in our “Us”.  The Body of Christ is universal and yet we like to see it as only those who minister like we do, talk like we do, and sin like we do.  Those other sinners have more black marks and different black marks on their souls so they cannot possibly be part of the Body of Christ.  They aren’t good enough.

We live in a world and we live lives that are anti-Pentecost.  We live in intentional disunity, we divide ourselves into groups that look and act and sound and sin the same, and we are glad to do it.

Glad to do it, joyful when we do it, and celebrative when it is done.

Disunity saddens me to a deep degree.  We are all called to be part of one Body and yet we are so divided.  If we disagree, we are more likely to battle, flee, or separate versus trying to solve the disagreement.  If something fails, we are ready to oust the person responsible and remove them from the Body.  If someone sins in a way that scares us, disgusts us, or just makes us feel uncomfortable, we are ready to cut their part of the Body of Christ away and make a more “pure” Body of Christ.  We are so ready to do this, so very ready.

Even denominations have the same issue.  I am not a huge fan of denominationalism as a whole, but I am even more angry at the denominations, my own Presbyterian Church included, that create more disunity in the Body of Christ over issues that are not that large, mostly issues that make people uncomfortable.  They split instead of trying to find a way to live within the same Body.  Martin Luther in no way wanted to divide the church and split it apart; he wanted change, he wanted discussion, but he realized that one of the calls of the gospel is unity within the Body.  His 95 Thesis was not supposed to be a wedge, even if the church treated it as one.

The Body of Christ is so divided, both as Christian bodies dividing themselves into fractured individual bodies and Christian churches denying entrance into the Body of Christ to those who are “different”, and those who contribute to this fracturing are denying everything about the Pentecost.  We were unified in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and we have done our best to deny that in our lives.

What is the solution, then?  What are we called to do?  We are divided, we are broken, we are fractured, and we live in a world of disunity; what are we supposed to do about it?

We can only work towards unity and wholeness of the Body of Christ in our own lives.  We need to recognize that all are called to the Body of Christ, including those whose ministries are different than our own, whose appearance is different than our own, and even those who sins are different than our own.  We have to act in a way that is accepting, loving, and unifies of the entire Body.  This is not to say that we need to turn a blind eye to sin but that sin does not exclude from the Body of Christ because of Jesus; we are redeemed, saved, and called to this Body despite of our shortcomings and our failures and our sins.  Christ makes us more than ourselves, and he makes everyone else more than themselves to be part of this one, unified Body.

Above all, the most unifying thing that we can do is love.  I talk about it every week, and I will every week.  One of the greatest things that Jesus gave us was an example of how to love.  Every action that we take must be made out of love, love of God and love of neighbor.  If we desire unity within our world, if we desire unity within the Body of Christ, we must love at every intersection and every waypoint.  We must love in everything we do.  We cannot have unity if we don’t.  Period.

We can only be unified if we love.  So love.  At all times and in all things.  Amen.


As always, comments encouraged (including homiletics comments if you are so inclined)!

To preaching the Word and being part of the Body of Christ,

– Robby

Fire and Ice (or, Robby Rambling about Preaching)

Last night we had a bonfire because…well, I cut up a lot of firewood Friday, I haven’t had a chance to have a fire since then, and we’re leaving Wednesday for a wedding and I wanted to actually benefit from my labors instead of just longingly looking at the wood and being sad a fire wasn’t burning.

Holy crap, I love bonfires.

Anyway, as the fire was burning I couldn’t keep something out of my mind.  A couple of summers ago I worked with a pastor who has a very intellectual mind.  Very organized, very regimented, clean desk and set schedule.  This isn’t to say he is horribly inflexible – successful pastors can’t be inflexible and unsuccessful pastors don’t stay at a church happily for 30+ years – but his mind is very much logical and rational.

Anyone who knows me in my personal life could tell you that it was only destined that we would get along very well.  We just kind of clicked when I started my rotation at that church.  I’m less regimented than him, and I’m certainly not a clean-desk sort of guy, but the logical and rationality he showed in his ministry makes sense to me.

Another thing that worked with just getting along is he is a musician and a fan of jazz. Our lunches would be a sandwich at his kitchen table and then 20 minutes or so listening to jazz records CDs before we went back to work.  I can tell you, there isn’t much in the world I enjoy more than something like that; just listening to even part of a beautiful record like Kind of Blue as a break from whatever work you are doing can reset your engines and clear your mind (especially if you are an introvert).

One of these lunch sessions we got to talking about his violin playing and he mentioned something that a conductor had given as inspiration to the orchestra he as performing with: “Hearts on fire, minds on ice.”

Something about that has resonated with me since that day.  An idea that, even in the midst of our deepest intellectual moments, the midst of the coldest logical thinking, our hearts can still be on fire.  The fire of passion and desire does not require the brain to be shut off or even reduced at all; in fact, an expression of a heart “on fire” can be a brain working at its fullest and coldest.

Last night it popped into my head because of the fire because the fire didn’t want to start.  The leaves were damp, the wood a bit wet, and the wind a bit strong to be conducive to starting a fire in a small fire pit.  I couldn’t just have a spark to easily light a fire; it required work, it required thinking, and it required maintenance.  It just wouldn’t become the raging fire that burns anything easily; even when it got hot and the wind was making it bigger than the fuel said it should have been, a small misstep could have reduced it to smoldering.

In a lot of real ways, a fire in optimal conditions is better than my fire last night.  In optimal conditions, with dry kindle, dry wood, and properly sized logs, you are only limited to the size of the fire pit and the time you want to spend with the fire.  It burns bright, it burns warmly, and it just works on every level.  It just comes out.

I’ve had sermons like this.  You sit down at the computer and suddenly 2000 words are on the page and it flows perfectly.  It’s theologically sound, artful, and just a good sermon.  I’ve had this happen to me, I’ve had it happen when I didn’t deserve it, and I’ve had it happen when I deserved to have nothing sit on the page because of the lack of preparation I’ve had.  Sometimes it just happens that way.  Some of it is obviously the Holy Spirit, the flame of our souls, and some of it is the training and experience we’ve had.

A world of change can happen to a sermon between printing Saturday night and preaching Sunday morning.  I’ll use a fire I built at camp to explain.

One night I had one of those nights that young, angst-filled college students have.  I decided that I needed to build a fire to get through it and it was a darn good fire. Literally, it is one of the best bonfires I’ve ever built.  It just burned well, stayed lit, and it was a beautiful fire.

No one enjoyed it.  I was alone, and I was angst-filled in particular that night; this beautiful fire seemed wasted because no one enjoyed it.

I’ve written beautiful sermons I was proud of, and I still love despite the need for a couple of tweaks.  I can think of one in particular that just felt right.  It was artful, different, followed a homiletical style, and I just enjoyed writing it.  I had a solid interpretation of the scripture in use, backed up my commentaries, and it was just what the spark of the Holy Spirit lit in me.  I was ready to be lauded for my beautiful effort.

It is, in my opinion, lack on small word change, the best sermon in terms of art form I have ever written.  And my church enjoyed it immensely.

That C I got on it in Preaching Class showed me exactly how much a good sermon can completely miss it’s mark.  The best manuscript, the best delivery, and the best preacher – abstract, not specific in my case – can be heard wrong, suffer from the distraction of those listening, and have a small phrase that is mostly irrelevant to the message of the sermon derail the entire thing.  The beauty of that “fire” that I wanted to share ended up putting a sour taste for preaching in my mouth.

If I’m honest, both that fire I built at camp and that sermon I gave in class nearly caused me to quit.

Pride sucks and can kill everything about you.  It just is that way.  Especially when you think you’ve done this amazing thing, no one may notice and it may feel worse after than before.

That isn’t to say that every good sermon – or every good bonfire – that went like that was wasted and caused me grief.  I’ve written good sermons, preached them, and they hit exactly where I was aiming.  I felt good, the sermon had its message heard, and it was obvious that the Spirit was guiding my lips and the congregations ears.  I don’t always fail when the sermon came out easy and came out good.

What I will also say is that the sermon doesn’t always hurt when it is a grinder.

Sometimes the fires in non-optimal conditions are so much more meaningful than fires in the best of conditions.  Last night I just felt good that I got that stupid fire to burn.  The flames never got big (expect when the wind blew and they were way bigger than I wanted them to be) and it was hard to keep a flame at all.  Yet it was good and mind-clearing to be outside, to feel the warmth of the flames, and to have time with my wife without distraction other than the constant need to keep up with the fire.

Sermons can be like that.  There are certain passages that you decide to preach on early in the week (or weeks before) and Saturday comes and the sermon just won’t come out. Even passages that lend themselves to easy sermons just don’t have a message for you every time.

But Sunday morning doesn’t wait for you.  At 10:30 I have to have a worship service planned, bulletins printed, and something to say when I get to the sermon.  I can’t just say, “Screw it!  No sermon this week!”

Okay, maybe I could, but I like not being asked to not return.

It is amazing to me, though, how often those sermons hit the mark they needed to. Even more amazing – and annoying, if I’m honest – is when that mark is nowhere near where I was aiming.  It’s not that I didn’t prepare, it’s not that I didn’t try to hit a good message, but the sermon lent itself to another message and another point without my intervention.  Often times I don’t even know how it did it, and can’t find it when I read my manuscript again, but it worked on a spiritual level.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  With or without me.

I’ve also been burnt by those sermons.  Sometimes you talk for 15 minutes just to have the message, “Jesus loves you and the pastor loves the sound of his own voice” come through.  I know it’s happened; my congregation would never tell me, but I know it.  It happens.

So what about that quote, “Hearts of fire, minds on ice?”  It seems like I got derailed – and I did – but there is a point.  The first is obviously that the Holy Spirit can fix my brokenness from the pulpit.

But that isn’t the end.  Despite how many times the Holy Spirit has saved me from myself, it always works better when I’m in study and thought about my sermons.  There is a definite correlation between my working through a sermon before Friday or Saturday and the sermon coming out good and hitting its mark.  And there is a correlation between a grinder sermon actually working out and me having spent time with the scripture.

Compare it to my fire last night.  If I had just left it up to what was there without work, I would have burnt some wet leaves and then watched TV all night.  If I have no preparation and just grind out whatever will come, nothing will come of it.  “Jesus loves you and I love the sound of my own voice” is not a good or useful message.  If I had just relied of the little bit of flame I had starting on its own, it would have died.

If I rely on just the Holy Spirit to give me a message without the brain work, I am going to fail as a preacher.  Period.  I will fail as a preacher if I don’t let my mind be on ice and think through this stuff.  Passion, emotion, and fire are all good things in a preacher, but they don’t come together as a whole, cohesive piece on Sunday morning.  I offer 1 Corinthians 14 as proof of what I am speaking of; speaking in tongues is a bit different than just standing up and speaking on Sunday without preparation but the whole idea of one just using the heart while the other uses both the heart and the mind stands true.

So here is my interpretation of that ideal, “Heart of fire, mind on ice,” in a ministry standpoint.  There are people who believe we should just go out and do and let the Holy Spirit guide on the fly.  I disagree.  I believe the Holy Spirit guides my preparation, my study, and my thinking.  Preparation is holy and good, and can also lead to a refined message instead of a rough one.  Rough wood can be beautiful, but refinement can make it shine.

So I guess I’m saying let your hearts be on fire.  It requires passion and love to preach the gospel and share Christ’s love.  But when the time calls for it, set your minds on ice and allow them to do what they do: process, think, and analyze.  Both can, and should, work complimentary, not oppositionally.  Let them.

Not preaching this week so you kind of got an extra-Biblical homily. Hopefully I’ll get the second part of the sin series flushed out sometime today (but I wouldn’t bet on it).

To preaching with our minds and loving with our hearts, and also visa-versa,

– Robby

P.S.: I used four words that WordPress’s writing checker doesn’t recognize.  Either I’m brilliant or arrogant…

Do No Harm

Writer’s block, you are just a horrible, horrible thing.  Not only do you prevent me from actually be productive but you also force me to play 2048 in hopes that something in my creative brain will spring a leak and I’ll finally get the ambition to either get up and leave or just write something.  And how fickle she is with what will spark the fuel.

Facebook.  I spend so very little on Facebook when I’m not working on SSEM stuff or trying to fall asleep and I get bored easily on it.  But I do like to post interesting things, and when I see Vince Gilligan is making a show that has the same name as my home town (Battle Creek, which I assume is Michigan because a crime show about Battle Creek, Iowa is going to be about as exciting as Corner Gas), I had to post it.

After that, I looked a bit and I saw a Methodist pastor friend of mine had posted a short guide to a Wesleyan approach to social media and the first rule was “Do No Harm.”  I’ve also been bingeing on House, M.D. (thank you Netflix) and that whole ideal pretty much gets thrown out the window constantly in hopes of diagnosis and healing.  I’ve also had the Westboro Baptist Church in my mind, both their hatred and some of the positive response to their hatred (and negative response), and I’ve wanted to address that whole method of evangelism.

I think it sticks in my mind so much because my goal with every sermon is, first and foremost, to “Do No Harm.”  Whenever I’m writing a sermon and I come up on something that is going to poke the congregation in the eye with a sharp stick – which I do like to do – I always consider the ramifications beyond forcing thought and questioning.  I don’t even really mind offending people but just offending people for offense sake is going to do nothing for their soul.  There is no reason for me to kick the souls of those who are gathered there to worship on Sunday just because I want to be edgy and whack all of the preconceived notions they hold in their hearts with a flaming sledge-hammer as violently as possible.  There is not point or reason for that unless those preconceived notions are actually harming them in a way that is comparable to the harm I am doing to their psyche by doing this.  I am not that arrogant.

The one big thing that I am always stuck on is the harm that can be done around death and mourning.  I tell people their being jerks, their being judgmental, or that their views on sin are all sorts of wrong with only a slight amount of trepidation but even mentioning death and dying makes me want to fall into that path of no resistance.  If I can just get “Jesus loves you” across without saddening anyone too much, I think I’ve won.  In that moment of mourning, it is so incredibly easy to lose faith; trying to use that moment as a springboard for a prophetic word is basically forcing people away from God.

But the prophetic words are necessary.  We have 4 major prophets and 12 minor prophets that get their own book in the Bible.  We are sinful and we need those who have a prophetic word to share to actually share it with us and guide us back to a path of righteousness.  It is necessary and good, but it also should be intentional, timed well, and should focus on the glory and goodness of God and not at all on the goodness of the messenger.  “You’re evil and I’m good!” is not a prophetic message, as much as those who preach would like it to be.

No matter the message, and no matter the messenger, there are times that a prophetic message will do harm and no good.  I think about the prophetic messages in the Bible and I cannot think of message that was given in a time of mourning.  There are plenty that came preceding and telling of times of mourning, plenty that basically told the Jewish people that what was coming was brought upon them by themselves, but it was never delivered once they were mourning.  People don’t hear those messages in times of mourning.  Christ taught a lot of prophetic things and yet he simply mourned at Lazarus’s death (then brought him back to life, but that’s a bit off topic).

A prophetic word given specifically in terms of a death will do nothing but drive people away.  Even if the person was (insert horrible, disgusting sin that the community believes will send them to Hell), that moment is not the moment to remind people of Hell and condemnation.  The funeral of a 14-year-old son of a minister and grandson doctor is certainly not the time to give a universal prophetic of how the United States is going to Hell because of homosexuality and holding funerals.

Trying to not get pointed but can you see the flaw in their logic?  This boy probably loved everyone around him, his father has dedicated his life to teaching Christ’s message, his grandfather dedicated his life to healing, and they were shot in cold blood.  The Jewish people mourned and held services to honor the dead.  Christ’s body was to be prepared by Mary Magdalene.

Disagree with the theology around having a body at a funeral?  That’s fine.  Think we worship the dead a bit too much?  I agree with you.  Think the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who has friends who need to cope with the senseless loss of life and need to see a body for their psyche to accept that his death is real is the place to protest funerals?  No, it isn’t.

Do no harm.  No matter what your theology is, what your message is, there is no where in the Bible we are called to do harm.  If we take Christ as an example, especially on this Maundy Thursday submitting himself to the priests to become the sacrificial lamb for humanity, we should also be submitting ourselves, sacrificing ourselves for others and looking to life them up, not tear them down.

Do no harm.  I’m also struck, though, at the hatred that is shown towards people of this nature.  I’m not surprised by it – heck, I’ve even joyfully participated at times – but I am struck at how easily we hate them because of the sins they commit.

Have you thought about what kind of room in Hell Fred Phelps is sitting in right now? Because I have, and I am shamed by that.  I have had a serious shift in how my theological stances express themselves in a practical manner and if I am going to stand by the ideal that there isn’t a sin that is uniquely capable to condemning you to Hell, I have to stand by that.  Condemning anyone, judging anyone, and glorifying yourself are each sinful, but so is gluttony and sloth.  If my sins don’t condemn me to Hell because of my faith in Christ and recognition of my sin, then I cannot begin to claim that he is in Hell when I am saved.

I posted this sign before but I am going to post it again.  I’m going to be working with the “What Not To Do” when talking about sin but I think we need to worry about what to do, as well.  So in practice, the inverse of “Do No Harm” is “Do Good.”  So if I wanted to do good with this, this would be my option:

Do good.  I wonder why people don’t offer them food and drink, feed them and make sure they are healthy.  I get the counter-protests, I get the desire to drive them away, but we should be like the Good Samaritan.  Even if they are the most detestable group of people to us, we should be loving them like we love each other.

“Do No Harm”

To loving each other,

– Robby

The Women

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for me to muse about what my sermon on Sunday is going to look like.  Aren’t you lucky?

To sum up where I’ve been throughout this Lenten series, here is a list of the people I’ve focused on, in order:

The Bystanders, The 12 as a whole, Peter, John, Judas, and The Jewish Leadership.

This week I was going to just do Mary, Mother of Jesus, but I realized something: we have a grand total of 3 verse that have anything to do with just Mary, mother of Jesus.  I can speculate on what she is feeling, but only as an outside without any real experience to empathize with her.  I can pretend I know the pain of child loss, especially senseless child loss, but I can’t actually empathize.  “Mary was at the cross, she was sad, and John took her as his mother,” it a pretty short and crappy sermon.

Though a short sermon gets the families home for ham sooner.  So maybe…..?

So I thought about this for a bit and I decided we have a lot of women in the gospel story of Holy Week.  Off the top of my head, we have Mary brother of Lazarus, Martha, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Madeline, and the other women who were watching the tomb.  Women play just a pivotal role in Christ’s death and resurrection and this entire event would be entirely different if they weren’t involved.

I’m going to try to go in chronological order with the women.  How that will look as a practical matter is still to be determined but as a broad concept, I want to tell the story of Holy Week from the eyes of these women.  What did they experience, what did they feel, why did they do the things they did?

The first, then, is obviously Mary brother of Lazarus.  I touched on this part of the story with my Judas sermon but Mary brings a whole different view.  I find it interesting that she seems to know what is going on before even Jesus’ betrayer does.  She seems to understand that his end has come.  This is really her way of mourning, her way of giving Christ an amazing gift at the end of his life, her way of accepting his death.

I am reminded of lesson I got in seminary about funeral honorariums.  A lot of people in the class, myself included, initially thought that doing a funeral for a member of the congregation was just part of the job.  We certainly wouldn’t ask for honorariums and would have a hard time taking them.  (Oh, how innocent and pure we were as Juniors.)  Then we were hit with a stark reality check: the honorarium is a way for the family to thank you for helping them mourn.  In essence, it is part of the mourning process.  To deny them that is to deny them healthy mourning.

So, applying it to here, we have become Judases if we refuse to allow them to present their gifts of mourning.  We may not do it out of greed, but we have decided we know better what they should do with their money, and we’ve put our own desires above theirs.

So Mary is mourning in a beautiful way.  And Martha isn’t, focusing on fixing the meal and working.  So much could be said about that, but I’ll simply put this in there: people mourn in different ways.  Not every way is healthy, not every way is proper, but each of us mourns differently.  What Martha missed, though, is allowing herself to enjoy the company she had and instead worried so much about the appearance and the work that she missed the opportunity to mourn with Jesus.  Still need to flush that out some more.

Then we have Mary mother of Christ at the cross.  I don’t even know if I have words; maybe silence will speak louder than I ever could.  A moment for mourning, both for Christ and for those who we have lost.  A time of mourn.

Then we have Mary Magdalene.  Who went to prepare the body.  Who found the tomb empty.  Whom Jesus appeared to first.

I am reminded of Lamb by Christopher Moore.  Now, I won’t talk about any romantic feelings between Mary and Jesus, going one or both directions, but I think I can safely say she has a devotion to him that the other disciples and followers did not.  I would argue that she is probably his closest companion.  There is something special between them, and I can’t help but think that Moore touches on it better than anyone.  Even if she is madly in love with him (entirely possible – Jesus is pretty awesome), she knows who he is and knows, at least in her soul, how this is going to end.  You don’t fall in love with Jesus and expect a long, happy life.  If nothing else, the Pharisees have given her ample reason to fear Jesus’ death.  I don’t see anything in scripture that lets me think she was shocked or surprised by his death.

Pained, jarred, and saddened?  Absolutely.  Shocked?  Probably not.

His resurrection, though, that was pretty amazing and shocking.  What I think we need to focus on, given her devotion, is that she didn’t recognize Jesus even when she was so devoted.  If his closest companion, the woman whom so much is written and speculated about the nature of their relationship, cannot recognize him, the change that happened was miraculous.  He was no longer the same man.  His resurrection was so healing and transformative that the new cannot be recognized as the old.

We are so changed by Christ.  Whenever someone interprets new life as a Spring thing, with baby chicks and bunnies, I want to scream.  The new life is not a birth; it is a rebirth.  It is taking something that was before Christ and transforming it into its perfect form.  Christ was transformed from is flawed body into a perfect version of his human self.  Radical transformation.

So yeah, that’s where we’re going.  From a point of mourning to a point of radical transformation given out of radical love.  It’s ought to be a decent sermon.

To preaching and sharing the Word.

– Robby

Judas and Forgiveness

Again, it’s time for sermon musing.  Did it two weeks ago, sermon flew off my hands and was good.  Didn’t do it last week, sermon didn’t want to come out and most certainly wasn’t nearly as good as it could be.

Granted, my last page printed blank.  I am not amazing on the fly when I’ve been preaching from a manuscript for 7 pages 😕

So sermon musing early in the week it is!  I haven’t chosen passages for this weeks yet but I know who I’m talking about: Judas.  Cue Lady Gaga!  Wait, no, no, no, no, no!  Now it’s stuck in my head!

(For your listening pleasure torture)

That…not offensive in my mind lyrically but musically offensive to my ears song notwithstanding, a friend of mine posited a question a few years ago that I think about every Easter season:

Had Judas waited until Sunday and talked with Jesus, would Jesus have forgave him?

Now, that is actually two questions.  The first is the theological question of the divine Jesus forgiving Judas for committing a sin.  I take a very simple stance on this.  Jesus came to forgive all sins.  All sins.  If Judas’ betrayal was unforgivable, then no repentant sins are forgivable.  There isn’t basis for condemning specific sins or his greed and betrayal being worse than any other greed or betrayal just because it happened against Jesus.  It doesn’t work that way, as much as our self-righteous natures would have us believe.

So, had Judas waited and repented, he would have been saved if he wasn’t already.

The second question is, could human Jesus forgive the betrayal of a friend?  I automatically want to say, “Yes, absolutely!”  I’m backed up a bit; read John 21:15-19.  Jesus has taken Peter aside to discussion his faith tell him what to do with his love.  Jesus didn’t take him aside and tell him, “You denied me, I cannot forgive you.”  There isn’t a passive-aggressive, or active-aggressive confrontation to tell Peter just how much he cannot forgive him.  It just isn’t there.

My mind wants to complicate the matter.  I want to see motivations and, in my humanity, that makes some things more forgivable.  Peter acted out of fear, Judas out of greed.  Peter was literally going to die if he didn’t deny Christ – or at least he believed he would.  Judas did it for a few dollars.  I can sympathize with Peter and say I would probably have acted the same way; likewise, I can honestly say Judas did something I cannot fathom and I would not be able to forgive him.  I don’t even know if I could forgive him if I was a disciple; his action was so selfish and placed the life of their teacher at 30 pieces of silver. Greed that leads to death I cannot forgive.

…which goes to prove that I am very much a fallen sinner.  Jesus was human as we are, only in perfect form.  I want to forgive Peter but Peter, too, did his act selfishly.  His stakes were much higher but he valued his life over Christ’s and he knew it where as Judas probably didn’t realize that the silver would lead to Jesus’ death; he threw the coins back, if you remember.  I can’t see Jesus differentiating between the two acts; Judas was a friend and disciple (if a bit of a thief) and I can’t believe that our Lord and Savior, having been to Hell and back and knowing Judas’ betrayal being necessary for the redeeming act, would have held the grudge.

So the answer, given my flawed mind and lacking theology, is that, had Judas waited, he would have been forgiven.

I have to ask the next question in this line, then.  Is Judas in Hell?  Was Judas condemned for his actions?

This goes to something deeper than just Judas.  Is suicide unforgivable?  Can we only be forgiven of those sins we actively confess?  Does God condemn those whose mental illness, that they have no control over, causes them to sin?  How about people who refuse treatment when they could be saved; is that suicide?  How about people who take cancer treatments that will most likely kill them?  Or refuse cancer treatments that may save them?  Or how about the guy who ate too much and felt good about it and then died of a heart attack; his is gluttony unforgivable?

This isn’t a slippery slope question; this is a question of consequences for answers.  There are three major questions that need to be answered to answer this fully.  What is sin?  Can we be forgiven of sins we don’t confess?  Is is possible to confess every sin?

What is sin?  I am going to take off my hat of theologian, hat of biblical scholar, and just answer as best I can without digging through theology books and never finding a complete answer.  Sin is an act of selfishness.  A sin is an act that places your own self-interest above the interest of another or above God, even if that “another” is an abstraction without an actual victim.  I know there are books of the law and rules and regulations but I think all can be distilled down to this.  It’s also, essentially, the inverse of the greatest commandments (He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” – Matthew 22:37-40 CEB).

The Old Testament is full of laws that speak to the interest of the community above the self-interest of the individual.  I know a lot of people struggle with a lot of the ceremonial purity laws but they were in place to keep the temple clean, and I mean that literally.  A lot of the laws about reproduction and relationships have to do with the survival of the Jewish people as a people, as a race, and as followers of a true God.  So much of the law is about simply putting the needs of other above your own needs and desires.  As such, much of it is irrelevant to today not because Christians pick and choose or they ignore the parts that make them uncomfortable but because the laws would no longer work towards the betterment of others.

Much the same way, I wonder if what Paul said to people had more to do with survival of the new church – and not falling into or being confused with the pagan traditions surrounding them – than with what is actually specifically sinful.  Again, placing the interest of others before yourself.  What that has to do with long hair on women, I’m not quite sure, but I digress.

Okay, so I define sin as “an act that places your own self-interest above the interest of another or above God, even if that “another” is an abstraction without an actual victim.”  The next question is, “Can we be forgiven of sins we don’t confess?”  I say yes, but I have to use the answer to the next question to prove it.  I will mention, though, that there are theological traditions that disagree with me (most notably the Catholic tradition).  Why this is specifically important to Judas is, if you have to confess every sin to be forgiven, then you can’t be forgiven of suicide; it becomes the only unforgivable sin.  Any sins being unforgivable makes me uncomfortable, but this particular one doesn’t go against the rest of the theology of the forgiving nature of Christ so I can only say, my next answer is where my struggle is.

“Is is possible to confess every sin?”  In the most literal sense, no, but I don’t think anyone is really going to argue that.  What I am going to argue is that confessing all of our sins while not being contrite over some of them means we didn’t actually confess all of our sins.

Let me play an example out.  I ate a Big Mac and washed it down with a Large Dr. Pepper, no ice last night.  I followed that with a mixed drink and then about 20 chocolate letter cookies that are the size of big animal crackers.  Guess how guilty I feel about that?  Not at all.  And before you ask how that placed my desires and needs above others, I actively participated in shortening my life for a bit of pleasure so my wife will have to deal with my death while I’m (hopefully) in heaven.

That Big Mac was pretty stinking selfish, right?  Still don’t feel contrite about it.  If I were out and about right now, I’d go have myself another one.  I am selfishly sinning and I feel fine about it.  When I die and my life is playing before my eyes, gluttony and sloth without a bit of remorse is what is going to play for me.  It isn’t going to be pretty, and I will only feel contrition because I’m looking into the face of God.

So what I’m saying is, on my death-bed, I’m going to have sins I haven’t truly repented yet because I’m a fallen human and I am incapable.  I may grow up and learn to feel contrite over gluttony and sloth but then I may pick up greed as I make more money.  At the end, I will not have confessed all of my sins honestly, not acknowledged my sins, and still die.

I believe, in suicide, a person probably feels more sorrow for their own failings and their own sins that most people do.  Judas killed himself because of a grave sin he committed.  To say he wasn’t contrite and aware of his own sin in that moment would be a flaw.  Yes, taking his own life was a sin, but it isn’t the only selfish was to die and if we condemn all people to die in a selfish act, we are condemning a lot of people to Hell.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m too much of a bleeding-heart liberal, but I think we need to reevaluate how we view suicide and sin in general.

So is Judas in Hell?  Dante says yes, most people say yes, I say….

To being a coward and not taking a stand,

– Robby

“I messed up…”

Anyway, one of the best sermons I’ve written in the last few months ever, I suppose, was when I spent some time just musing on here about what was rolling around in my head about the passage I was going to preach on.  So I’m going to do that again.

For Lent I’ve been preaching on how the Holy Week affected different groups and individuals.  The first week I did the standard bystanders that watched these events happen.  This last Sunday I talked about how the disciples, as a group, would have responded to what was happening.  This week I’m talking about the denier, Peter.

This week is going to be a deviation from what I’ve done the last two weeks for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I’m deviating from what I have been drawing source material from.  Before Lent I was going through Luke a chunk at a time, and I decided, since we were already in Luke, I could just keep with it and pull source material from Luke for the series, and then pick up where I left off after Pentecost.

When you look at the first two groups, that actually works out fairly well.  There is quite a bit you can pull; the only thing that was missing that I had to pull from somewhere else is the mention of the striking the shepherd and the sheep scattering, and I only needed to mention it in passing because everything else I wanted to draw from was there.

No so with Peter.  One of the benefits that you get with talking about the disciples as a whole using Luke is that the author doesn’t tell you who cut off the guard’s ear.  You can leave it anonymous, allowing Peter to exit this role of super-close companion and let him be just one of the 11 in the group.  It makes it easier to look at the group and get the emotions they were feeling.

When you talk specifically about Peter, though, it’s kind of nice to know that he is the one who did it.  Because of that, I have to pull from the other gospels to get a more complete picture of Peter.  I’m always torn on this – I have a bias towards letting individual books speak for themselves and not pulling from other to justify a message – but I think allowing scripture to interpret itself and forming a complete picture given the four sources we have on the topic is a fair method of interpretation.  And I’m not cherry picking – at least, I don’t think I’m cherry picking – and I’m letting Luke provide the basis of the story, only using other gospels to fill on holes.

It’s fair, I think….

Here is my scripture list for this sermon:
Luke 22:7-13
Luke 22:31-34
Matthew 26:36-46
John 18:1-11
Luke 22:54-62

A decent list.  I’m not typically a multi-passage preacher (single passage almost exclusively) but I’m trying to tell a story and having more source material is good.  And I’ve been using this multi-passage format to introduce the congregation to various other biblical translations.  I respect the NKJV for what it is but I just…I just think there are better translations out there.

The other way I am shifting gears is that I’m talking about an individual, not a group. Palm Sunday I’m going to be talking about the Pharisees and Scribes as a group; every week between now and then I’m going to be talking about an individual.

Part of talking about an individual is defining them within their group.  That said, it’s more about getting a complete picture of the person, not just what we typically see.

Be honest, when you think about Peter and Lent, what comes to mind?

If you said anything other than the denial, you are lying (or you are a better person than me).  Peter denies Christ 3 times, everyone knows that.

Who prepares the meal?  Who goes with Jesus after the departs to pray?  It seems to be relevant to the whole story that Peter is in the inner circle, a trust disciple, and probably the loyalist follower Jesus has.  When he says, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death,” (Luke 22:33 CEB) I believe he meant it completely.  At that moment, had the guards busted in, he would have fought valiantly.  He would have struggled, been arrested or killed, and accept his fate.  He is being straight with Jesus here.

The problem is that he doesn’t find himself in this active role of dying with Christ.  He doesn’t get arrested with Jesus when he’s ready to go, and he doesn’t die when we tries to defend Jesus.  Instead, he is faced with a difficult situation we don’t really talk about.

First, think about his physical state.  They were having dinner where a large cup of wine was shared.  I imagine that plenty of wine was shared between the men.  I don’t want to argue drunkenness but a couple of glasses of wine coupled with general physical exhaustion leads to the situation where the three men are falling asleep while Jesus is praying.

Peter is tired, a little under the influence, and then something crazy happens: Jesus gets arrested!

Okay, that part isn’t crazy.  The Pharisees have been plotting for weeks and haven’t even been quiet about it since they walked into Jerusalem.  This wasn’t that unexpected.

What is crazy is that Peter didn’t get arrested or killed at that moment.  He drew a sword, cut off a guard’s ear – demonstrating just now little understanding he had of swordplay – and not only lived to tell about it but didn’t get arrested.  He has to finds himself in shock in that moment.  He should have been arrested or killed.

Now a bit tipsy, really tired, in shock, and nerves on edge, he finds himself at a fire with strangers.  And they start questioning him, and he can’t handle it.  I don’t know if the logic of this went through his head or if it was subconscious, but this is where he finds himself if he confirms who he is and they do turn on him:

He doesn’t die with Jesus, he doesn’t die a martyr in public, he just dies.

In his shoes, in his physical state, I can easily see where he would think they were going to turn on him and the last thing he needed was to die there, in a back alley, where no one would care.

I don’t know if I could have not denied Christ, either.

Then the rooster crows, he runs to a dark corner, and every motion that he’s felt over the last few hours, day, and years comes out in a stream of guilt-ridden tears.  That’s where we end until Easter.  That’s horrifying, this moment of truth that Peter, the rock of the church, fails miserably, is the end of this story until Easter.

If that leaves you uneasy – it certainly does me – good.  I’m struck with how much we are convinced that we need to be comfortable.  Heck, I have a hard time watching fictional characters on TV when it gets awkward and uncomfortable.  We should not dismiss this as one guy’s denial because all of us could easily have found ourselves in that position.

Not quite as horrifying as thinking about walking around in Judas’s shoes but still a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Okay, that’s enough of that.  Time to drink a beer.

– Robby