Between Rocks and Hard Places and Safety and Refugees

rock and hard place

This isn’t a post about marriage but about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, that placed him between a rock and a hard place. (see Matthew 19:1-10)

To be more clear, this post is about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage and decided to deal with the thing behind the question about marriage.

In Matthew 19, Jesus opponents sought to test him by asking a question concerning a common debate among them:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

What a question!”For any and every reason?” Seriously? Try to answer a question where “any” and “every” are tied together.

This question was packed with serious heat. In the background of this question we have two schools of rabbinical thought that had argued about the topic of divorce for decades and the battle line seemed to be drawn in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses permits divorce for “anything indecent.” One school emphasized the “indecent” part of the passage, leaving marital unfaithfulness as the only acceptable reason for divorce while the other school emphasized the “anything” part of the ruling, allowing men to divorce their wives for things as menial as burning their meal.

So the question was tricky: “Who are you with Jesus? With the ‘indecent’  group or with the ‘anything’ group?”

The framing of the question left little room for actual discussion, but only just enough room for a quick vote of affiliation.

Therefore, wisely, Jesus moved the discussion “into a bigger room” by not trying to parse a particular passage in the law of Moses, but to a more radical (radical: think not of teenage angst but “root” where the word radical really comes from) vision of relationships: two people leave their families to journey on an adventure together and dwell as one person. Let’s talk about how we can stay together and not how, or if, we can plan to go our separate ways if we lose interest in our original commitment to one another.

Jesus’ opponents followed Jesus into that bigger room where they tested him again with another question. After all, they didn’t want to learn something but they wanted to engage in a game of rhetorical sword-fighting; everyone’s favorite pastime.

Their question was as follows:

“Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)

This is a fair question. Why did God allow Moses to permit a divorce if God was so adamant about couples not parting ways?

Jesus’ response might be a bit spooky for some of us to consider, because Jesus insinuates that the law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24 was in response to how the Israelite community had developed up to that point. Moses’ law was binding for that time and it seemed to be helpful for the vulnerable women in their culture, a formal way of making restitution for broken relationships in that zip code when faced with their plight. Jesus’ hope was that a more native vision of marriage would be recovered and would replace the (now) unhelpful vision from Moses community.

After this, his disciples chimed in with what could be called the nihilist position,

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)

Jesus acknowledges that the marriage debate from above isn’t for everyone, including those who were born into or forced into situations where they cannot even have the option to choose to be married. And still others who choose to be exempt because of their religious commitments.

As I read through this passage, I couldn’t help but think about how I have heard recent “discussions” about our national security on the one side and the welcoming of refugees on the other. Yes, if Jesus (and those seeking to follow Jesus) is to be tested today, I can hear the question now:

“Is it lawful for us to deny foreign refugees or to give them safe harbor?”

And we can compare the above conversation between Jesus and his opponents about marriage to how some of our conversations about refugees have gone. For they seem to have the same thing behind their corresponding questions.

The conversation about refugees is trapped in tight spaces, like as tight as a phone booth, where people are forced to give quick and (if they’d admit it) underdeveloped answers to complex situations.

We may struggle to find easy answers to these complex questions. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing. Easy answers usually draw us away from reality and if we are drawn away from reality we are drawn away from the people who are shaped the most by real, hard situations.

May we have the same guts that Jesus displayed here in this passage; with care, with courage, and with patience, understanding that our presence might be more helpful than a Retweet or Facebook Share.

Something More from the Sermon: Without Why

Our family is in Wichita for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was able to preach at GracePoint Church, where I was on staff before we moved to Atlanta. It’s a great church with a fun group of people.

They were in the middle of a series called “Whatever It Takes” sharing about the important traits of a member of a church: serving, giving, and attending. Pastor Mike and Pastor Terry wanted me to try to bring that series to a close and help the transition to the Advent series.

I tried to flip the theme for the last sermon: instead of us working on doing whatever it takes for God’s sake, what if God could also do “whatever it takes” for our sake?

Part of God doing whatever it takes is to place us in situations that are tough, but necessary for our growth. It might be difficult for God to see us struggle, but God is patient, trusts the process for transformation, even the difficult moments.

I made mention of Matthew 25, Jesus’ last parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s a stunning parable and I find that it is interesting that Matthew puts it at the end of the Jesus’ parable discourses. Robert Farrar Capon suggests that Jesus’ parables in Matthew go through an important flow:

Parables of God’s Kingdom Arriving

Parables of Grace

Parables of Judgment

The last parable in Matthew 25, then, has a peculiar shape to it. If you recall, those who enter God’s kingdom do because they fit a certain criteria:

They feed the king when he was hungry

Gave the king something to drink when he was thirsty

Welcomed the king in when he was a stranger

Clothed him when he was naked

Looked after him when he was sick

Visited him when he was in prison

All of which sounded absurd when the crowd heard it. I mean, when do you see a king in a food line needing some food, right?

The king said, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you also did for me.”

The crowd was unaware of God’s presence in the midst of God’s absence. The deeds that they performed were not out of obligation, but because it was the right thing to do. They weren’t anxious workers at a bank branch preparing for a visit from the district manager. Their deeds were “without why.”

“Without why” is seeking to live before God without conditions; the unconditional. Think of a rose… is there a functional reason for a rose? We can’t eat them; they don’t have a long life span.

But, can you imagine life without the rose?

The rose lets us consider how life does not have to be mechanical or only measured on pragmatic scales. The rose exists in doxology, or as Paul would say, “Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely… think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Think about the things that you enjoy doing but have often thought about not doing because you think no one notices: putting a piece of trash from the ground into the nearby dumpster, putting your neighbor’s trash can next to their home, holding the door for strangers, etc. It doesn’t seem like much, but God seems to be near deeds done with great love, even if their motivation is “without why.”

Maybe the world will be won by multitudes of without why deeds, small threads of goodness that hold together a fragile world bent towards hate and violence?

The Stiff-Arm of God

stiff arm

I’m preparing a talk for the weekend and wanted to post a bit about it. It will be some new material, so writing a bit about it helps to sort it out, a bit.

In Mark 5, Jesus and his friends are in a neighboring region called the Decapolis, the land of Tyre and Sidon, where foreigners lived and where (in their minds) bizarre religious practice dwelled.

They immediately encounter a man with many demons, who lives among the tombs, who cannot be bound by chains, who howls at the moon, and cuts himself with stones. Yikes! This guy is in some bad shape, right?

Through a brief and unusual interaction with Jesus, the man is freed from his plight and is seen as “in his right mind,” or as N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament renders it, “stone-cold sober.” (v.15)

This man has received new life, or what we might call in Christian environments, “born again.” We can only imagine what possibilities lied ahead for him now that he was in his right mind.

The nearby residents didn’t like the way in which this miracle was conducted and what it cost them to have the local eye-sore set free, so they revoked Jesus’ visa and demanded that he leave the country.

As Jesus and his disciples prepared to leave, the man-formerly-known-as-the-tomb-dweller asked if he could join Jesus and his friends.

Jesus stiff-arms him. And tells him to,

“go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (v.19)

The man did as Jesus asked and,

“all the people were amazed.” (v. 20)

We should be a bit struck, initially, at how Jesus resists this man coming aboard the boat and joining his band of disciples. The man was left by his own country people among the tombs and now has a reputation to be in league with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they just deported. What’s the chance that anyone would embrace him in community?

Wouldn’t it have been more kind of Jesus to allow him to climb in the boat, hang out with them for a while, until he got back on his feet?

It must have been a challenging call for Jesus to make. He was potentially asking this guy to go back to an impossible situation.

But, part of our development sociologically and psychologically is to experience a gap, even from those who we look up to and admire. As early as 18 months to 2 years old, our primary caregivers set this pattern within us and we recognize it for the first time: we are not them nor does their whole world revolve around us.

This “stiff-arm” is important, for it helps us to develop a sense of self and a way to engage the world in a more healthy way. The man from among the tombs experienced both this lack and the blessing from it, for he was able to face the uncertain world with confidence and maturity.

Jesus returns to that same region later in Mark’s gospel and the residents of that land embraced Jesus instead of rejecting him. (see Mark 7:31-8:10) Perhaps it was the direct work of this one man, formerly the eye-sore-of-the-community-turned-messenger, who helped to pave the way for that great work.

Something More from the Sermon: Zacchaeus

Yesterday, we spent the morning talking about the theme of Justice and how its every Christian’s calling to work to help the oppressed. We were blessed to have Richard Sterns from World Vision share and to have a Justice experience in the Fellowship hall to add to our conversation.

Yesterday, I shared about Zacchaeus’ interaction with Jesus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was a tax-collector and was probably not well-liked in his culture for it was known that tax collectors tended to help themselves while doing the tax deed for Rome. They were extortioners and thieves, and probably didn’t have many friends.

Jesus saw Zacchaeus and decided that he wanted to spend time with Zacchaeus, which was a bit of a scandalous thing for Jesus to do, the crowd began to “mutter” among themselves,

“He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)

We do not know what was said between Zacchaeus and Jesus, but it must have been profound. Zacchaeus made an stunning vow after their visit:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possession to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

Jesus responds by saying,

“Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:10)

Zacchaeus wasn’t just “asking Jesus into his heart,” or seeking to cultivate a private spirituality. Zacchaeus was also looking down below him, recognizing that his habits had crushed others; that he was stepping on others in order to have his way.

Zacchaeus’ vow goes beyond mere “settling;” that would be a one-for-one measurement, not the “four-times” dedication that he made to the poor.

No, Zacchaeus knew that if we was going to be freed from his sins, that he’d do his best to provide for the freedom for as many people as possible, to systemically lift the plight of the poor in his village.

This is important to consider in the pursuit of everyday justice. Some can make the argument that, from the chocolate that we eat to the energy that we expend to the technology that we use, we are making life hard on whole groups of people.

These realities should not paralyze us or cause to to feel the overwhelming guilt that we didn’t know that we needed to carry, but it should require more of us than a despondent shrug or a murmur of “well, I’m only one person, what can I do?”

Kingdom people never settle for these dismissive remarks, but keep our souls trained to continue to follow Christ in the midst of these complex scenarios, to have the optimism and commitment of Zacchaeus who wanted to do all that he could to lift the burdens of others.


Theological Dictionary Roulette – Semi-Pelagianism

It’s Friday and time for another exercise of random theological awesomeness. Each Friday, I’ll open the Evangelical Theological Dictionary to a random page and point to a random term and write a 500-word post about it. This is a fun way to preserve some of the terms that have given shape to our faith communities throughout the centuries.

Today’s topic: Semi-Pelagianism (not to be confused with Pelagianism, got that?)

Pelagianism is a theological term coined after the extreme teachings of Pelagius (5th century) which viewed the primacy of human will over God’s intervention with divine grace. Pelagius was condemned by the church as a heretic not once, but twice. I bet his parents were a bit embarrassed.

Semi-Pelagianism was first used to describe the theology of Jesuit Luis Molina by the 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord document. Molina, and others, would’ve preferred to have been called “Semi-Augustinians,” instead of having any connection to Pelagius.

Augustine, a direct opponent of Pelagius, believed that humans were totally depraved and therefore unable to make a move towards God without God’s intervention. Therefore, if God had to move first, one could suggest that those who were not elected by God to begin with, and did not receive God’s intervention are left in their own sin, without hope.

The semi-Pelagian sentiment has been around some time, even before Molina in the 16th century. Some as early as John Cassian (5th century) could be associated with this nuanced perspective between Augustine on the one side and Pelagius on the other. Cassian suggested that Augustine’s view of election was too wooden, too new and did not keep within the tenor of the faithful tradition. Cassian, and others, believed that, in a mystery, God’s grace and human free will worked together in the salvation event.

Semi-Pelagians would suggest that God’s love extends to all the world and that human will must move towards God in response, rather than the Augustinian view of God’s election.

I’ve appreciated some of these nuanced views between Election and Free Will. In the very least, it energizes a vibrant discussion that we’ve had in our tradition for centuries, now. This discussion moves beyond Bible School classrooms or theological discussion boards. Christians through the ages have tried to reconcile both a God who is sovereign over all and who seems to allow humans to make seismic decisions for ourselves.

A pro-Augustine camp would seek to uphold the priority of God’s sovereignty, all-the-while, know that they have a ghastly Problem of Evil argument to wrestle with.

A Semi-Pelagian proponent, however, has to wrestle with the idea of God’s sovereignty somehow having to come into submission under the decision of the human’s will.


To put it another way, both sides of this argument have to live with the tension of scope and effect:

Augustinians limit the scope of God’s salvation (only for the elect) but experience a profound depth to the effect of salvation (once saved, always saved).

Semi-Pelagians will limit the effect of salvation (human free will moves me towards God and can move me away from God, too) but experience a profound scope of salvation (God’s grace extends to all)


The Thing About this Red Cup

red cup

Yeah, I guess I’ll go there, mainly because we’ve all heard about it. If you have not, here’s a post that has links to a representative from Starbucks and the link to Joshua Feuerstein’s original video. There are some conspiracy theories out there, trying to make light of it. Along the way, it seems like people have just chalked it up to a media frenzy and have stayed rather indifferent by it.

Feuerstein is unmoved and thinks that this “campaign” has caused Starbucks to think twice:

“I think Starbucks has gotten the message that the Christian majority in this country has awakened and are demanding that our voice be heard.”

The Christian majority has “awakened,” because of a red Starbucks cup? Really?

Feuerstein’s protest is already hijacked, though. Here is the logic:

  • Starbucks sells coffee; a lot of coffee.
  • Feuerstein wants to confront Starbucks by having people go buy coffee and insist that their name is “Merry Christmas” and by doing so “tricking” Starbucks into saying Merry Christmas.
  • Starbucks makes the same money no matter what name is on the red cup and is enjoying the outcry of disappointed people continuing to buy their coffee so the customer can put a picture up on Instagram where most of his/her followers already agree with their political/religious/consumer choices.

Don’t mind us, watching world, for nothing is really changing, here.

Feuerstein’s “religious expression” is occupied by consumerism. To play his game, you need to spend your money. Here is the irony: Christians are bemoaning about how Christmas has been reduced to consumerism in recent days. Joshua is asking people to consume more for the sake of Christmas.

I guess that I’m not surprised that this is awakening much of anything.

A couple of books were released a few years back examining the way a culture moves from point A to point B. Each of them compelling in their own right:

Andy Crouch’s Culture Making

James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World

Each of these illustrate just how difficult and complex it is to predict when seismic culture change happens and how one might even suggest that they can “start a movement,” as Feuerstein suggests this could do in his video.

All of us, yes even those who take home videos with smart phones, are a small part in the complex connection of gears that move our cultures forward. To suggest that a video and words on a cup can be the pivot of change is a bit strange to imagine. This may “lionize” Feuerstein’s congregation or friends list, it might get him some air time on the media for a week, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be changing much.

I hope that Joshua starts using his name on his cup soon. Mainly because, it’s a good name. A name that his parents chose out of the list of possibilities when they lifted him in the air when he was born. And, to be honest, giving energy to building lives in our families and communities seems to have a more lasting impression than much of anything else these days.


Preaching is Like… An Uncomfortable Mattress

uncomfortable mattress


I’ve been putting some work towards a book on preaching and since I didn’t preach this last weekend, I thought that I would share a thumbnail of some of that content in place of the Monday afternoon “Something More from the Sermon” post.

The gist, the pitch to Preaching is Like… Speed-Dating- Preaching is easy and preaching is hard. Because of that tension, we as preachers struggle a bit to find our own voice while delivering a sermon. In the midst of this gap, we tend to try to mimic our favorite preachers. Some of us can do this well, at times, and in others… yeah, not so much. Leaving our people a bit worried for us and a bit uninspired.

So, I thought that I would put together some thoughts of how I’ve encountered the process of developing a talk and of being a preacher. Instead of presenting the sermon more formally (talking about outlines, theory, expository vs topical, blah blah blah) I am going to go at this topic from a via negativa, or using images, illustrations, indirect comparisons, etc., to talk about preaching. My hope is that someone reading it will, at some point in their experience with the book, “Oh, I get it now!” And from there, they can just have fun and be themselves when giving a talk, barely remembering where the shift in their thinking took place, a bit like inception, or something.

Aside: preaching is one of those things that is awkward to suggest that I love. But, I do love it. I love it so much that I might be like that guy who buys a fancy ski boat before I am an advanced skier. I know that I am more passionate about preaching than even my competence in preaching. Are you with me?

So, I believe that preaching is like an uncomfortable mattress. A mattress that is just comfortable enough to not give up trying to sleep on it and going to the couch, but not comfortable enough to get deep, restful sleep. In other words, have you ever been to a hotel that didn’t cost a lot of money and right before you booked the reservation you said, “It won’t be bad… It’ll just be one night.”

Huge mistake, right? (In my head right now, I see Jimmy Fallon impersonating Donald Trump and saying, “Huuuuuuge.” Anyone else?)

I find that when I am not completely comfortable while sleeping, I have the most bizarre, vivid dreams. I am a novice dream-rememberer, but when I don’t get the deep, coma-like sleep I remember them all.

In a similar way, preaching gathers people around the word of God in a place of comfort-yet-irritability.

Or, to quote a wiry, Baptist preacher I know (you probably have one in your life, too),

“Sermons are meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

But, the “dreams” we are meant to have during sermons are supposed to provoke, to challenge, and to spook, if I might add. As one protestant theologian has said, the Christian life is meant to give us the “right type of nightmares.” Much like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Those nightmares lead to deep transformation. At the appropriate time, sermons are supposed to say, “Dude, are you kidding me right now? Let’s get it together. You are above this…”

A practice that we see the good preachers of the Scripture text and those most helpful and influential within the corridor of our lovely history, especially in the teaching and preaching ministry of Jesus.

More next time.