Friday, March 30, 2018

Behold Before the Tree: Homily for Good Friday 2018

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby,
he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!"
Then he said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!"
And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.
(John 19:26-27)

The thunderous chaos of jeering spectators. I'm sure there were many reasons why people gathered around the three crosses that day. Some were bored, looking for entertainment, seeking a thrill; and watching the life drain from three crooks is more than enough rush to shake you from your doldrums. Some were greedy, hoping the soldiers might drop a scrap of leftover clothing as they divvied up the fringe benefits of their brutal trade. Some were down on their luck, feeling vulnerable and at the bottom of the world; and there's nothing to help you safeguard your dignity like finding someone you can point to as your inferior and tread underfoot. Some brought with them a scientific curiosity. What better way to study the impact of virtue on the dying process than by hanging holiness between a control group of twin terrorists, and carrying out the experiment?

Some were awe-struck, incredulous that a real live prophet had been brought from the wilds into captivity, that the stage had been set for an act of God. Some were incensed, betrayed, hungering and thirsting for vengeance – they had relied on this Jesus to free them from the Romans, but here he was in Roman custody on a Roman execution implement, and they might as well watch him meet the customary fate of disappointing non-deliverers. Some were exultant, delighted that a threat to their interests was being eliminated, gratified that the Romans were proving a useful tool for their own power play – and so they were here to gloat, here to rub it in, here to boast and vindicate themselves and the course they'd taken. What else had they come to behold?

And then there was a quartet there whose dull duty it was to flip the switch, administer the injection, monitor life signs 'til they stopped – a humdrum and thankless job, spiced up only by the creative flourishes they could invent to differentiate one routine crucifixion from the next. They were men of war by training, fierce, strong, courageous; perhaps they found their current assignment demeaning and stifling.

But another quartet stood mere feet, if that, from the spears and burnished armor of the first. For all their spatial proximity, they could not have been further from the soldiering life. The first quartet bulged with muscle and bristled with grit; they kept vigilant watch, lest anyone threatening approach too near the crosses and foil the end process of Roman justice. But this second quartet was no threat. They could not hope to spearhead any form of intervention. Just three women, ranging in age from their fifties to their late twenties, the soldiers may have guessed, and one beardless kid in his teens. That's how they must have looked to the guards. Only the most unthreatening devotees could be let close enough to watch the flies dance on the Messiah's bloodied chest.

Two voices in this threatless quartet, a pair of Marys, are named but textually dispensed with. From the vantage point of the cross, the focus narrows to the other two: a mother and a beloved disciple, mētēr and mathētēs, a woman and a man. Both dripping with frenzied grief. Both transfixed entirely, exclusively on what they love most in all the world. One sees the curious gift of heaven, a child she'd cradled in her arms, a boy she'd raised and found perfectly obedient and perfectly exasperating, a man she couldn't predict and whose potent vocation she found beyond direction, beyond domestication, beyond comprehension. The other sees a father and mentor he'd always longed for, who'd embraced and all but adopted him, who'd offered him friendship and closeness, who'd shared meals with him and taught him purpose and offered him the hot flesh over his beating heart as a resting-place in the weary hours. With this man and this woman before him, whose gaze was fixed on him, the Crucified had bonds like no other.

This man and this woman gazed up at the 'tree' – the gnarled wooden thing crafted into an instrument of death, stained with blood. And in the immortal eyes that looked back at them, maybe they reminded him of a memory so long buried in the mind divine. There stood a man and a woman, gazing up from the foot of a tree. Around them, not the shouts of crowds with cries for blood, but the chirping of birds with songs for food in due season. Not the barrenness of 'the skull,' but the fecundity of a garden. It was the beginning. It was the dawn of life, the prologue of a saga, the stirring of goodness and beauty and truth.

A man and a woman, gazing up at a tree. The wrong tree. A tree that looked so good. A tree that looked so very pretty. A tree that flashed and dazzled. A tree around which an entwined intruder hissed fatal deceit. They became ensnared by what was on the wrong tree. Faith beckoned them away, to the bounty given them in the wisdom of their Maker. Envy, pride, gluttony, lust, all beckoned them toward the wrong tree. Envy, to resent what had been withheld from them. Pride, to think themselves mature enough to handle the effect the fruit might have. Gluttony, to hanker after a bite too many. Lust, to be allured and entranced by the symmetry and shine. A man and a woman, gazing up at a tree, made theft of an object in place of faith and family.

Their gaze was soon lost from the tree. Their faith was in tatters. They could never gaze at each other again – not without being distracted by their own vulnerability, their own exposure; not without being distracted by the threat posed by the other, the utility offered by the other. A man saw a woman, and suddenly recognized that this 'flesh of his flesh' seemed a flesh no more his own – a flesh in competition with his. Challenged by their Creator, he could protect this woman's flesh as one flesh with his flesh – or he could sacrifice her flesh in a bid to save his own. He did the latter. She did the same. Man declared woman's, and woman declared man's, as 'other flesh,' a threat or a tool. And they would no more behold each other, lest they be beholden to each other.

From their example and their spiritual rot, their firstborn learned to be jealous if others were honored above him – they were 'other flesh,' rival flesh. This firstborn could never behold others – never see them as himself, never see them as icons of God, never see them as flowers of Eden to be tended. Wandering from the tree, our impulse has ever been to compete, to critique, to classify. My house before your house. My nation before your nation. My name before your name. My vision before your vision. My flesh before your flesh.

On the heels of this tawdry history, beneath the present darkness, a new man and new woman stand beneath a painful, bloody tree. But the right tree. The tree of life. This man and woman had long been different tribes; they had different histories, different genders, different ages, different socioeconomic brackets. But a man and a woman stood, gazing up at a tree. It was a new beginning. And they were told to behold – behold, not merely the God on the tree, but one another – to really see each other, not as flesh in competition, but as family in love. They cannot behold their God aright unless they learn to behold each other as a family of the new creation.

All we have heard so far, all the blessings contained in the first and second words from the cross, are startling, magnificent, overwhelming. At first glance, maybe this word looked small, looked personal, looked petty or provincial or insignificant. But this is the word that rewrites the garden. This is the word that rewrites Adam and Eve. This is the word that rewrites every marriage, every friendship, every church, every community. This is the word that breaks the hold of the wrong tree and teaches us to behold one another at the tree of life.

Let the woman behold. Let the man behold.
    Let the parent behold. Let the child behold.
Let every tribe and tongue behold every other, in the presence of the Christ crucified on a tree of life.
    Behold... and take one another as your own.

Injustice to Intercession: Homily for Good Friday 2018

And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Luke 23:34

As the brightness of the day the Lord had made gave way to the dark afternoon that would seek to unmake its Maker, I have strong suspicion an unseen throng of angels watched nearby with inferno eyes and bated breath. For eons untold, they had been the burning flames of God, shrouded in light and mystery, fierce to wield their arsenal in the interests of the kingdom. I suppose the cherubim were there who with flaring blade shielded Eden for Adam's posterity's own good. I imagine the pair was present who'd stricken blind the ruffians of Sodom and called sulphurous vengeance on the Cities of the Plain. Perhaps so was the one who was poised to smite all Jerusalem in the days of David's sin, and the one who bled the life from an Assyrian army in Hezekiah's reign. And surely waiting o'er the hills in silent fury were those who'd long ago roamed Egypt – for did not the psalmist sing, “He let loose on them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels” (Psalm 78:49)? If ever there were a day for a company of destroying angels to yearn for one word for leave to right what was wrong, this dark hour was it!

Because before the inferno eyes of any angel observers, the earth below saw the most audacious of crimes. For there, in the streets of the holy city and outside its forlorn gates, the representatives of all Adam's race dared to look their Maker in the face – he from whom seraphim shielded fiery eyes – and denounce him, deny him, mock him, strip him bare, auction off his goods, beat him bloody, whip him like a mongrel, drive spikes through his flesh, call him an evildoer and unfit to live, and enthrone him in a seat of torture to amuse all worms with hands and feet who cheered his killers and jeered his holy heart. The Maker of all had fallen into the grasp of satanic hate in the hearts of Adam's offspring, and if ever angels awaited eagerly orders to make war on earth, to avenge their High King's agony and shame against the ungrateful beasts of mud and breath, this dark hour was it!

What the angels so keenly must have seen that day, from a celestial vantage point removed from the fray, was the enormity of human evil. How could any creature be so twisted as to hate its Benefactor? How could any creature be so twisted as to stab its Healer, betray its Life-giver, mock its Truth, curse its Glory, murder its God? But there they were. Pharisee and Sadducee and Herodian, allied against a common enemy. Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, united in a common cause. The representative consent of an ultimately unanimous human race: that God must die. And in their declaration with whips and thorns, nails and wood, that God is on the wrong side of our laws, they laid bare the real inner logic of sin.

To sin is to miss the target for which God made us. God made us to live by faith, hope, and love – to trust him fully; to concur and participate in his style of rule; to display his character of love in every direction, in every context; to wield his delegated powers so as to beautify a world of goodness and truth; to hope for, and work toward, the full attainment of Adam's mission over every square millimeter of the universe; and thereby to be royal priests linking creation to Creator in a common paradise. To this end of perfect faith, hope, and love, God placed us in such a station and equipped us with immense power and authority. And to the extent we wield that power and authority in ways that miss that goal, or even struggle against it, we therefore 'sin' – falling into the clutches of lurking shadows and whispering wisps we were meant to chase away.

Of course, that's exactly what we did. We forfeited our birthright for less than a mess of pottage. God gave us power and authority to join him in expanding and enjoy a good and true and beautiful world, and we took that power and authority and pledged its service toward a feebler and duller and uglier world. With us splintered into a trillion agendas, with us neglecting beauty and goodness and truth, with us absent from our posts or even wielding power to destroy and degrade, the world is in clear disrepair. And the more the world around us and within us is in evident disrepair, the more prone we are to complain against the God who gave it to us.

We protest all that is wrong with the world. The prejudice, the violence, the tragedy, the sickness and predation and inequality and brokenness, and every other complaint you can imagine. We yell at God, we scream at God, we give God the cold shoulder. We invent lies in his name, we wage war, we deny him and decry him. We reimagine him, rewrite his guidance, redefine him, objectify him as one more weapon in our arsenal. At the root of it all, screeching with a trillion dissonant voices, we demand a trillion unbroken worlds to replace both the perfection we scorned and the disaster we authored. All the while, we've lain and ever do lie in wait. If we couldn't build a tower to drag him down, we'd wait 'til he came within reach – then we'd show him what's what.

So when God descends to meet us face-to-face, to bring us a remedy, we place him on trial. We accuse the Lawmaker of being the chief lawbreaker. We charge the Faithful One with neglect. We complain that Heaven's Health has made us sick, and we must vomit him out of his creation. We find that this Jesus, this human face of God, is guilty of daring to disrupt our disorder. And so we sentence the Life to death, even death on the cross. And in our perpetual sin is the seed of “crucifying the Son of God afresh” (Hebrews 6:16).

We knew not what we did. We knew not what we did, because we didn't want to know, didn't want to see, could not bear to believe. But isn't that how it is for every sin, in the end? For if we really grasped, really understood, really saw what it is we were doing, what toxic fumes of hell we exhaled with every sinful word, what poison we brewed with every envious look, what darkness dances at our fingertips and footsteps as we wield royalty unto rebellion and priesthood unto apostasy – how could we see anything but eternal horror in the mirror? Of course we know not what we do. Our godless minds are blinded, and to bring all things into full light and clear sight is to enter the Last Judgment.

That is what our sin really is. It's trendy today to imagine that God should just ignore it – should merely give it all a pass with a wave of his hand, should pat sin on the head and let it off its leash, should chuckle and shrug his shoulders, should dismiss and overlook it. But to dismiss and overlook sin, any sin, would be for God to declare that it ultimately doesn't matter – that it makes no difference in the fabric of the cosmos, that it has no reverberations throughout the world he has made, that it introduces no effect into the life he wants to share with us. But if our actions were so inconsequential, then what we actually are and what we actually do wouldn't matter. If our sin is to be accounted an overlookable thing, God must declare that we are irrelevant. And that he cannot do – for he has handed us far too much power and authority for that to be true. Sin cannot be overlooked – it can only be forgiven, which is a far different thing, and one with steep costs.

Faced with sin at its most extreme, its most wretched ugliness, its most audacious and bitter and cruel, the God placed on trial could have given avenging angels the word they awaited. Instead, he acquiesced to the sentence consequent to the wrongful verdict. In the moment of his greatest agony and deepest dishonor, this crucified God chose to pray for, and not against, his very own executioners. God the Son asked God the Father to accept this as the cost of forgiveness, and announced publicly from his splinter-ridden throne that even the most purely sinful act in all of human history could be overcome with a costly pardon.

When Jesus uttered those words, he changed everything. He redefined what was happening. He transmuted the exemplary sin, the defining failure of Adam's race, from our injustice into his intercession. And if he can turn that great injustice into an intercession, he can do the same in any hour, any instant. Faced with the heaviest or lightest failure of your life, faced with every time you've resisted beauty and goodness and truth, every time you have lacked faith or hope or love, he is ready to look you in the eye and step in for you. Itchy angel trigger-fingers grow still, and the cost of God's just forgiveness is achieved, when the Father hears these words prayed for you: “They know not what they do... Forgive her... Forgive him... Father, forgive them.”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Day God Wept: Sermon for Palm Sunday 2018

It had been a long walk of many days under the warm spring sun. But he was used to walking. Most of his walking – most of their walking – was from village to village in the same small region around the edges of the lake. Seldom did they take such a long journey away from Galilee. But the Passover was drawing very near. Everyone wanted to be near the temple for it. And so, for his own reasons, did he. So he, and those with him, set out on foot. But because he'd earned a reputation, it was not possible for it to be a quiet journey. There would be many pit stops along the way, many occasions to slow down and catch his breath.

There was one village, early on, that he'd walked through. A pack of lepers lived outside. They'd stood by the side of the road and called out to him, asking for divine mercy from this man who set the world abuzz. He'd bade them go get a check-up, and hinted they'd find themselves cleared at last of all that ailed them. And then he continued on his way. But only nine of them went through with the physical right away; one caught up with him before he left town, shouting how great this God must be, how he'd been moved with compassion by a poor leper's plight. It was the first of many shouts along a not-so-quiet journey (Luke 17:11-19).

He'd kept walking along the road. No time to stop for too long – just overnight here and there, but the day had to see movement. He hadn't been alone on the road. His dearest friends, his students, were all with him – the ones who tagged along with him everywhere, watching his every move, imitating what they could. But others wanted to go to the big city, too, for the festival. Tall folks and short folks, slim folks and round folks, menfolk and womenfolk and li'l young-folk, too. Even Pharisee-folk were on the way. Some of them fell in alongside him as he walked, asking questions about these things he'd been saying. But mostly he talked to his best friends; the rest could listen in as they pleased. He talked about a divine inspection, a visitation of the earth – would he find anybody who still trusted him? He talked about how God values the humble tears of a hopeless wreck over the applause of the squeaky clean; how God's favorites aren't the accomplished but the helpless, not the well-adjusted but the loud and messy who're quick to trust, like little kids (Luke 17:20—18:17).

Others fell in alongside him on the road, but – like them Pharisee-folk – only for a little while. There was a rich fellow, not too old, a synagogue trustee in his town. The fellow lived a good life; he did lots well, but he was hoping more for a pat on the back than an adventure with a price tag. The fellow didn't walk the road with this teacher man for long (Luke 18:18-30).

The dusty road wound its way for all the pilgrims through the oldest town they knew. Normally the far side of town was a quiet one. Dusk was getting near; all the inns were open for business. This was the rush of tourist season. Outside town, a fellow who couldn't work, couldn't earn, couldn't see, started yelling for help. He yelled for help from the man walking the road. The parade had paused for his sake. And the man on the road helped the fellow to see. And the fellow shouted, and the whole parade shouted, all the road was full of shouting. Town was overtaken with noise and festivity that night. A little man, an oppressor hiding in a tree, would play host to the man and his friends – this was, after all, what the man was all about, rescuing folks from themselves, hunting them down when they'd lost track of what they were for (Luke 18:35—19:10).

That was last night. This morning, the whole parade kept marching up the winding road through the cliffs and cracks. Safety in numbers. And they made quite the racket, singing and clapping. What a day it was, no clouds in the sky, a light breeze all around. And everyone wanted to be close to this man – this Jesus – and his best friends. They knew what they'd seen. This was no ordinary trip, no ordinary festival. The host of the party was on his way. So when they reached a couple little villages, separated by a small mountain from their destination, he sent a couple friends ahead to fetch an unbroken colt. He was going to announce, without any words, what he was all about: the appearance of Yahweh in the middle of his city, to protect them and throw them a party, replacing warfare with peace from coast to coast (Zechariah 9:9-17).

Up they went, over the hill, and down the other side they started. The whole parade surged, and as other road-travelers saw him, they sang their songs louder. They ripped off their coats and robes and threw them under the hooves that carried him. And this Jesus rode with no outward show but their celebration. All his friends, all his students, all the folks who'd decided to walk the road with him – they sang and they danced, they went ahead and waved palm branches and fruit, they talked about what they'd seen. The beggar was there, shouting, “I was blind but now I see!” The tax collector was there, crying out, “Salvation came to my house – it's him, it's him!” Men and women and little kids sang, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” It was time for everything to change, they sang. It was time to party.

So they partied. Before they even got to the venue, they partied. The party parade marched toward the big city, overwhelming and sweeping along scattered pilgrim troops along the way over the crest of the hill. Folks here and there along the side of the road must have heard the raucous ruckus long before they saw a glimpse. As for this Jesus, he was no mere man. He was the king. He was the god – he was the face of the God who owned it all. He was Yahweh on the march. He was here to review things, to make his sudden move. But he was also here – and the parade saw it loud and clear – for a party. That's why they blessed him.

Bearing Yahweh's name on his shoulders, he was coming to throw all Jerusalem a surprise party, a party nothing could break up. He was coming to snap the bars in every jail, haul folks up from the deepest holes, so they could join in the party. He was coming to protect everybody, gather them under his umbrella from the rain, shelter them like a mama hen shields her chicks with her wings. And safe from the rain and wind under a mama hen's wings, the chicks can peep and chirp to their heart's content. Their God had come near to shelter them, to be with them, to break out the good stuff and fill their cups to running over. Their God had come to throw them a surprise party. He was on his way for the big reunion. So there was no time to be quiet. The party was already underway (Luke 19:28-38; cf. Zechariah 9:9-12, 15-17; Matthew 23:37).

That's the part of today we usually remember. The donkey. The coats. The waving branches. The singing and shouting. The blessing and praising. The triumph. The celebration. The applause and the hootin' and the hollerin'. Not for nothing do we call it Palm Sunday. But there's more to today than the palms and the cloaks and the donkey. It's been a long trip from Galilee. The roads are dusty and crowded. But there's more to come. How is this party-on-the-move received? It is festival time, after all. The sudden appearance of the host is the surprise; the time set for the party, the sounds and smells of the party, shouldn't be.

And yet there, along the side of the road, are some Pharisee-folk from town. The experts. The neighborhood watch. The zoning board. The homeowners' association. And they have something to say about this party: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (Luke 19:39). God came to throw them a party. They bang on the door and warn God they're filing a noise complaint, and his guests better pipe down. They throw cold water on all the festivities. They want things safe and orderly, nice and domesticated. They want business as usual. They want their customs, their liturgy, without disruptions. They want a quiet meal in the corner of a candlelit restaurant – and they don't want this kind of God or his riffraff at their table. Jerusalem is no place for such a party.

As the parade descends further the crest of the hill, the whole city is spread out before them. The palm branches still wave. The songs still go up. But not from the God on the donkey. He isn't quiet. But he also isn't singing psalms. He sees the city and sings a different tune – a lament. He takes his mind off the prophet Zechariah and turns it to the prophet Jeremiah. And so the God on the donkey, praised by the whole pilgrim band, begins to sob. Tears get tangled in his beard. His cheeks are salty and wet. Do the disciples catch on, or do they keep up their oblivious songs? He sobs over a ruined reunion. He sobs over a crashed party. He looks down on the city and sees that she's in no mood for his party, the party that's been centuries and millennia in the planning.

He looks down on the city and sobs with his old prophet, “Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth.” He sobs, “They do not know the way of the LORD.” He sobs words about their “stubborn and rebellious heart.” He sobs about how “their houses are full of deceit,” how “they know no bounds in deeds of evil,” how within the city walls their “prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:1-31).

He sobs that the city hasn't recognized the party, hasn't recognized the day of her divine visitation, hasn't recognized the king who comes with salvation and peace. He sobs at what's going to come – how she's going to get herself into nothing but trouble, how she'll be taken apart piece by piece, how blood and fire will run her streets. He wants nothing but to protect her and wrap her in his arms and hug her close, wants nothing but to celebrate with her and soak her cups in his wine and party her into paradise. But she won't, this city; she won't make peace, she won't listen, she won't sing for him, she won't dance for him, she won't do anything but give him a cold shoulder and the stink-eye.

He sobs, “From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 6:13-15). And so he sobs, he weeps, for them. It won't be long before the armies of Rome “set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you; and they will not leave one stone upon another in you” (Luke 19:43-44).

And he sobs, he moans, he weeps, he groans, over the city (Luke 19:41). The party showed up on their front door, and they were unimpressed. They looked their God in the face and hadn't the foggiest clue who he was. They didn't want to know. The beggar shouted, “I was blind, but now I see!” But the city had their eyes wide shut. The tax collector was amazed salvation had come to his house. Salvation came to every house in the city, but the doors were locked, and the signs out front by the fence said, 'No solicitors,' 'Beware of dog,' 'Trespassers will be shot.' The city was rotten to its core. The Pharisees and other sectarians, those phony prophets who twisted God's liberating life-wisdom into an enslaving rule compendium, Vol. 1 of 613, prophesied falsely; and the corrupt priests in the temple establishment ruled by their direction, straining out gnats and cramming their mouths with camels.

In this city, they were addicted to their ways. Addicted to their sins. Addicted to their injustice. Addicted to their falsehood. Addicted to their greed. Addicted to their pride. Addicted to their social order. Addicted to their business as usual. So the way to real peace and wholeness was hidden from their eyes (Luke 19:42). They didn't know it when it tapped them on the shoulder, didn't know it when it blew a trumpet in their ear, didn't know it when it smacked them in the face with a palm branch. They couldn't see their God on the donkey. They didn't want his kind of party. They stared their God in the face and ordered him to get off their lawn.

And so he sobbed, knowing how starved and joyless they'd be without him, how much they preferred blindness to sight and lostness to being found. His heart was broken over them – each and every last one. Palm Sunday was not merely the day Yahweh God of Hosts rode into Jerusalem's midst amidst shouts of hosanna. Palm Sunday was the day Jerusalem made her God weep tears of grief and pain, so broken was the heart of her Maker. And without his party, destruction loomed inevitable.

How different, though, are we? Because in every human heart, in the depths of each created soul, God planned a holy city. And none of our hearts and souls has God neglected to visit. Time and again, in many various ways and on many various occasions, this God has ridden his donkey of peace and humility to the gateways of your heart and shouted, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Revelation 3:20). In the person of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the unclothed, the imprisoned, the outcast, the refugee, the stranger, God has ridden his donkey and bid us open the gates. In the circumstances of fire and trial, in the days of ease and luxury, the God of Love has ridden his donkey to our hearts and bid us join in his songs.

So often, though, have we put up a sign at our hearts: 'No solicitors.' 'Beware of dog.' 'Trespassers will be shot.' So often have we found God's kind of party too noisy, too messy. We worry he'll litter up the place. We worry he'll draw too much attention. We worry he'll disturb our sleep and our comfort. We worry he'll crowd the town with tax collectors and sinners, beggars and lepers, foreigners and deviants and all manner of riffraff. We worry he'll eat us out of house and home. We worry he'll call us to lay down our weapons and our agendas, our vision and our ambition and our plans – not to mention our peace and quiet.

So we don't recognize him when he comes. We don't recognize his party, and we don't want it; we cling to sin, we embrace sin, we make our bed in sin and lie down in it. We want our share of 'unjust gain' – of property, of ease, of health and wealth, of reputation and power and dignity. We want the prophecies of quiet prophets and the ministrations of quiet priests. We want affirmation as we are.

We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we grab our pitchforks. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we resent our parents and brothers and sisters and children. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we keep a loose grip on each other but a tight grasp on a grudge. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we guzzle the resources of the earth. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we clock in to our daily 9-to-5 grind. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we gift our children our hand-me-down idols. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we retire and collect our pensions and our Social Security. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we watch the news and get angry and feel good about ourselves for being angry at all the right things. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we sit alone behind our cloistered walls, shielded from our neighbors. We want to hear 'Peace, peace' as we tend our little gardens and walk our little streets and shop at our little shops and eat at our little restaurants and go back to our little homes.

So we're happy to hear 'Peace, peace.' We're happy to have our deep wounds “healed lightly” by conventional living and the American way and the spirit of the age in the twenty-first century. But such a spirit is no peace, no matter the 'Peace, peace' of the prophets of You're-OK-I'm-OK. We want to hear 'Peace, peace,' and shun the prophet proclaiming, 'Party, party, for the good of your soul!'

And this God on the donkey comes partying to the door of your heart, he comes when you least expect him, he comes when you thought he'd look so different, he comes at a bad time, he comes with a crowd, he comes with an eye for faith, he comes with a racket rising up all around him, he comes stirring up dust and stirring the pot. He comes with a zealous love that blazes and smolders and burns down the life we built. He totes a chisel, a pick-axe, a jackhammer to crack the concrete we paved over Eden's grasslands. He comes with a torch and a flashlight to shine in our eyes, comes with a party horn to blow in our ears, comes with mud on his shoes and grit on his palms, comes with a thousand songs you've never heard, comes with a fragrance in his lungs that'll sweeten death to life or melt your face off, if you catch a whiff.

And we don't recognize him. We post the signs. We pull down the shades. We lock the doors. We warn him to get off our lawns. We file a complaint. We turn out the lights he turned on. But he saw us anyway. He looked down over us, and every pocket of resistance was laid bare in an instant. He saw the corruption filling us, the corruption we can't see ourselves because we can't have an aerial view of our own souls. He inspected us from the inside, and his report was not promising. Will he find faith anywhere on the earth? Will he find it in you? Is your heart, is your soul, is your life place for such a party?

This God on the donkey brought his party to your door. But in every sin you protested. In every slowness of love, in every slackness of faith, in every smallness of hospitality, you put up a sign. And for all he saw in you, he wept. Hast thou no wonder, that he shed those tears for thee? For you, he sobbed. For you, he moaned. For you, he wept. For you, he groaned. He took a gander at what was in you, what was lurking in your shadows, what shady business was going down in the back alleys of your heart, and God wailed and shrieked and sobbed. Because he came for a long-awaited party, and so often have we ruined the reunion, spoiled the surprise, taken the sweetness out of the moment, sounded the wrong note and wrecked the melody. What can we do? What is there to do on the day God cries over you, cries because all he wants to do is set you free and be with you and wrap you in his arms and give you real peace and throw you a party? On the day God weeps for your sins, weep with him – and watch, this week, what he'll do.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Man the Rescue Boats! (Titus 3:12-15)

Out on the wide expanse of the Mediterranean. Vivid blue above and below. Ordinarily, the sea would be such a beautiful scene. Over and over again. But over and over again, tragedy has played itself out. Cries of distress. Floundering, flailing. Inflatable boats or small vessels, simply packed beyond what they can reasonably bear. They set out on the journey, but never make it the full way to harbor – not on their own. Aboard, a throng, sardine-tight, of tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The stories they could tell – stories of horror, stories of fear, stories of pain and bloodshed, poverty and woe and starvation, indignity stacked upon indignity. No one can blame them for setting out in quest of a better harbor. But they cannot make it as they are. The voyage is too much. And so the tragic scene plays itself out. Over and over again.

The starboard bow of their little inflatable dinghy collapses. They start taking on water. Some are dead – dead of drowning, dead of disease, dead of dehydration. Panic sets in. What have they gotten into? What has become of their journey? The shrieks rise from the choppy seas. They hadn't been told it would be like this. They had been deceived. Word had been that the journey would last mere hours – that it was scarcely greater than crossing a river. But they had not known boats to collapse this way in crossing a river. They had not seen this in Libya. They had not seen this in Syria. They had not seen this in Nigeria or Sudan. They had not seen this in the old country. It was not so simple. But they gambled all they had on this perilous voyage. Some hoped for safety and protection. More still hoped for prosperity hitherto unknown. None hoped to capsize, fracture, sink beneath the waves. Mothers lift their infants high as Mediterranean blue engulfs their laps.

Over and over again, the scene plays itself out. Not always with the same ending. There are, sorrow of sorrows, tellings of the tale that end beneath the waves. Cries for help drift off into dead air. It's not that water rises, but that their floating world ceases to float. Adrift, they try in vain to swim. But miles, nautical miles, separate them from all behind and all before. The spreading blue surrounds them, soaks them, saturates them. The spreading blue penetrates their lungs. Oxygen cut off, they go cold, they lose consciousness, their brains and hearts cease. Death claims another, and another, and another. The mighty sea has proven itself once more victor over puny man.

Over and over again. But not always with the same ending. There are tellings of the tale that do not end beneath the waves, unheard. Not all cries for help drift off into dead air. There are ships that trawl the blue sea for just such a time as this. In the silver moonlight or the dawning rays of day, they hear the calls and cries. They deploy their rapid-response boats, with two- or three-person teams. They aid the drowning sufferers, giving them words of calm and hands of help. They bring them aboard safely, reclaim them from the sea. The sea will not be victor over these. Intervention has come. Rescue has come. Volunteers – doctors, mechanics, therapists, firefighters, merchants – give of their time and effort to save those they can. Their teams approach on small rapid-response boats and bring those rescued aboard the bigger ship, which takes them toward safety at last, no more to drown beneath the waves. For those who know themselves rescued, they weep with joy, they embrace, they sink to their knees and pray gratefully to God – and, at last, they sleep the sleep of the redeemed.

Over and over again. But not always with the same ending. There are tellings of the tale where cries are heard – and still the story ends beneath the waves. In October 2013, a ship with hundreds of Syrian and Libyan refugees capsized sixty-one nautical miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. It had been damaged; people were hurt. For five hours, survivors of the initial wreck used their phones to call authorities, alert them to their plight. But authorities bickered. None could decide whose responsibility these were – the Italians, closer but without agreed-upon jurisdiction, or the more distant Maltese, with their nearest ship over three times as far as the closest Italian one. Some authorities simply refused to help at all. In the end, by the time the Italian authorities relented and permitted their Coast Guard to respond, time had run out for most. The death toll was measured in the hundreds. Dozens of casualties were children. All lost to the sea, not through inevitability or ignorance, but bound and strangled by red tape, consigned to the deep by decision and default.

Since mid-January, we've been exploring what Paul's letter to Vice-Admiral Titus, commander of the church fleet of Crete, tells us about the voyage of the church. Titus' fleet then, and our church now, has to sail through choppy seas filled with toxic and polluted waters. We can't make our voyage without the culture being there – and yet its pollution is a danger that can make us spiritually sick if we don't maintain a healthy spiritual diet and don't swab the decks clean of contaminants like false teachings. On our voyage, we have the truthful promises of God as our sure anchor, since we have a God who never lies. We have a hull that's been cleansed and sealed by the Holy Spirit through the baptismal waters. We see, piercing the fog and darkness, the light of grace from the lighthouse of Christ, who beckons us toward the safe harbor of his promised land, the new creation. In the meantime, we have, I hope, officers aboard the ship who maintain discipline on deck and steer our ship well; we aim to steer clear of the crags that would endanger and divide us; and we look upwards to the star-chart of the pattern of Jesus' life to see the way we should navigate the open waters of this world.

All that would seem to answer all our basic questions about the voyage we're on – and, make no mistake, there is no way around it, the church is on just such a voyage. If you are really on-board, so are you. You are part of this crew. You have responsibilities as part of this crew. You have something to do to help all of us make this journey a good one. Don't go sailing off aimlessly on your own. Don't go diving for a needless swim in toxic waters. Don't take hatchet to the cabins, don't make a mess on the deck, don't be absent from Sunday roll call. We are on a voyage. And we're in it together. We're aboard this ship, a particular ship of our own, but not of our own property. We belong to a greater Commander, whom even Admiral Paul and Vice-Admiral Titus serve. And we belong to a fleet – in our case, the EC fleet, and the local flotilla – as well as to a far greater navy – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

In this fleet, in this navy, each church-ship is aimed – or is commanded to aim, at least – for the same ultimate harbor. That's our goal, in the end: to make it, not just to any land, not just to a dry and desolate wasteland, not to any old hellscape – and that's what so many destinations would prove to be – but we aim to find harbor at God's promised land, his everlasting rest, where in his presence is fullness of joy and in his hand are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11). We hear the voice of the inspired exhortation: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God … Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9-11). And that is the hoped-for end of our voyage. We know the day will come when the navy has been fully docked, and all aboard will disembark into the arms of God. But we have the responsibility of guiding our church, in conjunction with its local flotilla and its denominational fleet, toward the harbor.

And yet there are questions we're left with. Not every aspect of our voyage has yet been covered by the Apostle Paul and his instructions. And he's got fewer verses left than I've got fingers on one hand! What's more to tell? What else did Vice-Admiral Titus near to hear? What else can we benefit from gleaning from this manual of the Navy of Christ?

Paul leaves Titus with some key personal instructions: “When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing” (Titus 3:12-13). Titus' service as Vice-Admiral of the Fleet of Christ in Crete was drawing to its end; he had another assignment, a new posting, of which he was being notified. He was to join Paul at Nicopolis, on the western coast of mainland Greece, to do work there for the coming winter. Titus had perhaps a month or two to finish his work in Crete before passing the baton. He'd know the deadline had come when either Artemas or Tychicus dropped by with the latest orders. Of the former, we know nothing; Tychicus gets mentioned in Acts and four of Paul's letters. He's from Asia Minor; he sailed with Paul on his later journeys (Acts 20:4); he was the messenger who delivered Paul's letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, since he was from that area to begin with; Paul calls him a “beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord” (Colossians 4:7). But probably Paul sent Artemas to Titus, because not long after this, Paul sent Tychicus back to Ephesus (2 Timothy 4:12).

In the meantime, Titus could expect to see some other faces. Apollos was an outstanding missionary; I suspect, though don't take this as gospel, that he's the author of Hebrews. Luke describes him as “an eloquent man, competent in the scriptures,” whose learning was a mighty flame because he was also “boiling in the Spirit” (Acts 18:24-25). Wherever he went, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (Acts 18:27). Of Zenas, we know nothing but that his legal training, whether Roman or Jewish, would have been helpful in a place like Crete, filled with “quarrels about the law” (Titus 3:9) and a place where Paul had to stress that Jesus came to “redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14). Maybe Apollos and Zenas carried Paul's letter to Titus; but they couldn't stay long, they had other places to be.

What Titus is facing is the reality of transition. Soon there'd be a new vice-admiral for the fleet of Christ in Crete. Even now, he saw helpers come and go. They all served in the same navy, but – as orders were given – they moved from one fleet to another, from one ship to the next. That happens sometimes: people transfer from our ship to another, and from another to ours. Ideally it should be rare – each ship's crew has work to do on that ship. But sometimes transfer orders come and have to be answered. We need to recognize that we're all of the same navy, if we all answer to the same Christ Jesus, if we're all baptized into the same Spirit (Ephesians 4:4-6). We've seen transitions, we will see transitions. All we can do is to bid each other well, to help each other get where God needs them to be, and while they're with us, “see that they lack nothing.”

Our ship should never be at odds with other ships in the same navy. I'm not talking about those pirate ships that falsely fly our colors, so that they can delude us and rob us of the riches of our faith – you know the sort I mean. But I mean that our church is not meant to see other churches as competitors. And too often, we lapse into that kind of thinking. We view members as a finite resource, and freely poach from other ships – well, our business is not to grow via 'sheep stealing,' is it? Nor, I pray to God, will other bigger ships poach from our crew and call it victory. We are not to divide church from church, ship from ship. For this reason, Paul ends his letter with those simple and lovely words: “All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all” (Titus 3:15). Paul had no vision of disconnected churches; his letters weren't his alone. They were a connectional system, meant to tie the fleet here and the fleet there, this ship and that ship, with the bonds of the love in the Spirit that made them seaworthy from the first.

And yet one question remains – an obvious question, but one maybe we've asked once or twice. Why is there a voyage at all? Why does it take so long to get from Point A to Point B? Why does the wind not come and blow us breakneck to the harbor? Why are we left to sail by day and night for these long years? Or, to step back from the image, why aren't we all just snatched up to heaven after we're saved? Or why hasn't Jesus come back yet? Or why hasn't God chased away all death, all disease, all despair? Why must the voyage be so long and so hard? The Psalmist spoke for many a Christian sailor: “How long must your servant endure?” (Psalm 119:84). “O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult?” (Psalm 94:3). “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?” (Psalm 74:10). “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46). “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17).

And so Paul writes one more verse, the only one we've saved 'til the end: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14). And that is the answer to all these questions. “How long must your servant endure?” As long as there are cases of urgent need. Why is the voyage so long and so hard? Why aren't we all snatched away from the earth? Because there are cases of urgent need. And because these are the open seas on which we're to be fruitful. We will reach our promised land, our safe harbor, in the end. God will purge away all death, all disease, all despair; those former things will be no more. How long? Until we've borne all the fruit that's ours to bear here. How long is the foe to scoff? Until our good works have silenced his scoffing.

Cases of urgent need surround us. We know of physical cases: Sailors saw them bobbing in the Mediterranean – men, women, and children adrift and at risk of drowning. But so there are physical cases of urgent need here, in our midst, in our neighborhood. Are there none outside our walls who sorely languish? Are there none among you who need help in this critical hour? Dare we risk hearing those fateful words: “I was hungry, and you gave me no food; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43)?

But all around us, just the same, are spiritual cases of urgent need. Men, women, and children adrift and at risk of drowning in worldly waters, in the wells of themselves, in the great sea of mere existence. All around us, people are drowning. They are drowning in sin. They are drowning in self. They are drowning in death, and drowning to death. They are drowning no less truly than any of the tens of thousands who try crossing the wide Mediterranean crowded into failed dinghies. Their inward calls for distress sound loud and clear for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Around us, they drown; around us, they die! One ship cannot reach them all; but one ship can reach some, if we listen to the radio for distress signals and sail toward the urgent need we find, if we deploy rescue boats and pull them up from the waters and into the body of Christ.

But we must decide. For over and over again, the tale is told. But some cries go unheard. But worse, far worse indeed, are those cries we hear – and ignore. Far worse are those we see drowning, those we see succumbing to the spreading blue, and yet we stand aloof and take no action. Far worse are those we hear and watch die, and are yet unmoved. Far worse are those good works of rescue to which we are not devoted, in which we do not engage, and let cases of urgent spiritual need become needless casualties. Far worse are the wreckages we let wash up on the coastlines of hell, when we could have brought them aboard to sail with us for a better harbor.

Nearly 160 years ago, a Scottish pastor named Horatius Bonar saw the inaction of the church – like the inaction of coastal authorities a few years ago who squabbled over responsibility until time ran too short – and Pastor Horatius asked us, “Do we believe there is an everlasting hell! – an everlasting hell for every Christless soul? And yet are we languid, formal, easy in dealing with and for the multitudes that are near the gate of that tremendous furnace of wrath! Our families, our schools, our congregations, not to speak of our cities at large, our land, our world, might well send us daily to our knees; for the loss of even one soul is terrible beyond conception.” Well might it send us daily to our knees, but better might it send us to where the urgent need is!

Another pastor, a missionary named C. T. Studd, famously said – decades after Horatius wrote – that the call of Christ to us is “to raise living churches of souls among the destitute, to capture men from the devil's clutches and snatch them from the very jaws of hell, to enlist and train them for Jesus, and make them into an Almighty Army of God.” Studd urges us, “Nail the colors to the mast! … What colors? The colors of Christ, the work He has given us to do – the evangelization of all the unevangelized. Christ wants not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible, by faith in the omnipotence, fidelity, and wisdom of the Almighty Savior who gave the command.” As for himself, Studd thundered, “I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” Do we? Are we deploying to the cases of urgent spiritual need within our reach? Are we willing to dive within a yard of hell, to snatch the souls of God's image-bearers from its very jaws?

Because make no mistake, this is the point of the church's prolonged voyage. The church is not a cruise liner. The church is not a luxury yacht. The church is not out for a three-hour tour. The church is fitted as a rescue vessel – such is the function of all the fleets of Christ – and has rapid-response boats ready to be deployed. This is why God calls his church across the choppy seas. This is what our voyage is for, and if we'd rather pretend we're out for a cruise, we may get a rude awakening when we make it to harbor. If the names of Bonar and Studd are too unfamiliar, consider what the lately heavenbound St. Billy had to say 44 years ago: “Evangelism and the salvation of souls is the vital mission of the church. The whole church must be mobilized to bring the whole gospel to the whole world. This is our calling. These are our orders. … The harvest is ripe! But harvest time only lasts a short time. What we do, we must do with urgency.”

And, I'd add, we do it with urgency because we see, hear, and realize the urgent spiritual need of lives that are being wrecked, not merely in the age to come, but here and now. All around us, if you listen, if you ask, you can hear the distress calls, you can hear the cries, you can hear the shriekings and the blubberings of the spiritually drowning, right in our own backyard, and in all the places our motor can reach. This is the point of our voyage. This is why the lighthouse is shining on us; this is why our hull is cleansed; this is why we maintain the rest of our discipline – so we can do the 'good works' of God to rescue those in urgent need, even for those within a yard of hell. So nail the colors of Christ to the mast! Man the rescue boats! Deploy, deploy! Full speed ahead! Find 'em, bring 'em aboard, bring 'em to harbor! Sail on, O church, to the rescue – sail on! Amen!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Steer Clear o' the Crags (Titus 3:9-11)

A darkened taverna just fifty yards from the water. Outside, seagulls caw and cackle, the waves lap and lash the shoreline. Inside, the earthy plumes of smoke mingle with the salty sharpness of the air. Can you see it, smell it, taste it? A gaggle of Greek sailors sit, solemnly drinking wine and tsikoudia, as one, scarred of face and thick of beard, warbles a lecture to the others. He swears he heard it once – resisted it with all his might, but heard it, really heard it.

They all know the stories. Out on the sea, he says, when one gets near certain rocky outcroppings, one hears the call of strange beings – the sirens. Half-woman, half-bird, they live in meadows amidst the cliffs and rocks and crags, the sharp points of stone that jut out from the water, and they sing a song that captivates the hearts of men, luring them toward the sirens – only to make them wreck on the crags and rocks and cliffs.

Not without cause, the grizzled sailor insisted, did the Argonautica warn that “many a traveler, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home.” Not without cause, he said, did the Odyssey warn to “keep clear of the sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers.” In the stories, Odysseus only survived by plugging his crew's ears with beeswax; in the stories, Jason and the Argonauts only survived because Orpheus outsang the sirens and drowned out their haunting strains. And the grizzled sailor insisted the stories were true, insisted he'd heard them once at a distance, and steered clear o' the sirens and clear o' the crags.

Had the apostle been in the taverna, he might well have scoffed. Inebriated seafarers and ancient poetic license aside, such beings were fiction. Oh, Paul surely knew the Argonautica. Paul surely knew the Odyssey. So Paul undoubtedly knew the legends of the sirens. And, no doubt, as he spent time in the company of pagan sailors – and, especially in the latter part of his travels, he surely did plenty of that – well, he no doubt heard of them tell their tall tales, and perhaps he could sympathize with their great fears. But though there were no sirens to truly fear out there in the water, yet there were crags that could wreck a ship if one didn't steer clear. And as on the open sea aboard ships of wood, so too on the voyage of the church, Paul might well have pondered: Just like the sirens of the myths, there are some who come to the churches and would beguile believers into wrecking on the rocks, crashing on the crags.

And so Paul bids us in his letters to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the teaching you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery” – not unlike the smoothness of the sirens' song – “they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17-18). That's just what sirens do, you see: they smoothly 'deceive' us into crashing into the obstacles, like crags jutting from the water. And Paul has the same advice to share a few years later with Titus, whom he'd commissioned to direct the fleet of local churches in Crete.

Paul observes that there are false teachers infiltrating these Cretan churches – that “there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10). The duped are led to “devote themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). They engage in “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars about the Law” (Titus 3:9). And we have to admit, we don't totally know what's going on here; Paul doesn't give us the play-by-play. Paul talks about their foolish controversies, their 'stupid inquiries' – these people, he says, are just incompetent – the very questions they ask are dumb and beside the point, and they go chasing their rabbit trails. Some ancient writers like Polybius observed that popular pagan writers would compose fake histories for various cities, indulging in “the question of genealogies and myths” (Histories 9.2.1). And just the same, Jewish teachers seem to have been going to Christian churches, passing off their pet theology, and boosting its credentials with fake histories like that. Maybe they complained about the purity of church leaders' families. Probably they obsessed over their speculations on hidden spiritual meanings in the Old Testament – allegories tucked away in the biblical family trees, legendary stories about biblical heroes, secret demands lurking beneath the rules and regulations.

In the century before Paul wrote, you started to see just a flood of new Jewish books being written, re-imagining and reworking the biblical genealogies and laws. I've read bunches of them. There was one called Jubilees, a retelling of the genealogies and laws but structured around jubilee cycles of seven years. And in it, you'll find all sorts of tidbits. You'll hear that Hebrew was the first language, the “tongue of creation.” You'll hear that Adam and Eve lived seven years in the garden before the serpent approached them. You'll hear that the animals – cows and sheep and cats and snakes – all used to speak Hebrew, but stopped when Adam got the boot. You'll hear names for Cain's wife Awan and Seth's wife Azura and plenty of other unnamed characters. You'll hear legends about the life Enoch lived with the angels, and myths about fallen angels mating with human women who give birth to giants. You'll hear of Jewish feasts like Pentecost being set up after the Flood. You'll hear Noah spend chapters giving monologues of his teaching. You'll read stories of Noah battling demons through his secret mystical knowledge. You'll be told the Tower of Babel was 8,150 feet high, and you'll read stories of the young Abram chasing flocks of crows away, and preaching, and burning down an idol temple in the night. You'll get shades of the Book of Job when the demon-prince Mastema challenges God to test Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. You'll be told that the sabbath is woven into the very fabric of history, and be told that circumcision is “an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the heavenly tablets,” and that anyone not circumcised is “to be destroyed and annihilated from the earth.”

And then there were other books. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, had plenty to say about the genealogy of Cain. He found plenty of allegories there. Cain, he said, signifies the human mind apart from God. Cain's wife is his doctrine that 'man is the measure of all things,' and their son Enoch represents everything being seen as a gift of the human mind. Enoch's son Irad represents the soul degenerating into a collection of 'irrational powers' that wander aimlessly. Irad's son Mehujael shows “that a man who lives in an irrational manner is separated from the life of God.” Mehujael's son Methushael signifies that irrational passion leads to “the death of the soul.” Methushael's son Lamech signifies humiliation, that is, the torture of the soul under its fatal disease. Lamech's son Jabal shows that such instability leads to “changing the limits which have been affixed by nature to every thing,” and so on, and so on, and so on.

And then there were other books. They wrote apocalypses portraying hideous angels carrying the souls of the wicked, weeping angels in heaven who write down all your sins, and so on. They wrote testaments, imagined instructions of all the patriarchs from their deathbeds. They wrote astrological tracts like the Treatise of Shem, explaining what it supposedly meant if a year started under this or that constellation. They wrote little biographies of Adam and Eve, of the patriarchs, of the biblical prophets. And then came the rabbis, who could argue any point – they could turn words to numbers and numbers to words, could tell you which days were free from Satan's power, could divide over the slightest points of Hebrew grammar, could give you a rule for each and every occasion – and give you five other opinions while you're at it.

Any and all of that could be the sort of speculative Jewish teaching that was infiltrating the churches in Crete. It was dangerous, because using methods like that, you could 'prove' just about anything; and in an atmosphere like Crete, it was painfully apparent that some Greek teachers used the same tactics to justify any and every act by making up stories about the gods indulging in it. The result of all these 'stupid inquiries' about 'genealogies' and 'Jewish myths' and 'human commands' was that people in the Cretan churches were getting all stirred up about these new special so-called insights. Paul warns in our passage about the 'strifes' that were ensuing all over the map. Folks heard these ideas, these speculations; they were exposed to the arguments; and so they'd start bickering about the right way to see behind the Bible for its inner meaning. Anybody here remember the 'Bible Code' craze from a few years back? If not, count yourself fortunate. But the result of what was taking place in the Cretan churches was that these arguments were distracting people. They were distracting people from what was really important. It wasn't shedding helpful light on the Bible at all; it was just giving off smoke and a dizzying heat – that's why Paul talks about “wars over matters of the Law.” Getting such a heat up wasn't a tough task in first-century Crete, and it was dividing churches! And no one really won such wars – so Paul calls them “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).

See, the truth is, some arguments, some debates, some issues – they just aren't useful. Even if you're totally right about them, you don't gain much. It makes no fruitful difference. It's not a good investment of time. It only distracts from what's really important, like faith, hope, and love. There is such a thing as a dumb question, Paul's saying. And these teachings that folks are introducing into the Cretan church – they're just rumors, they're hoaxes, they're fake news, they're pointless and insignificant and a waste of breath!

And yet how fond we can be in the church about arguing over and dividing over things like this – over myths and genealogies and wars about matters of the Law. Sometimes we argue about creation. That we were created, no Christian doubts; exactly how it played out, how we're supposed to read those first chapters of Genesis, is a hot topic in the church. There are Bible-believing Christians who insist in a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago, based on careful math tallying up lifespans in the genealogies. One archbishop once calculated the universe was created on the night of October 22, 4004 BC – around six PM, but he declined to specify a minute. There are Bible-believing Christians who find gaps in the story, or who interpret the seven days as long ages, or who see the seven days as days where God explained to Moses what had happened. There are Bible-believing Christians who accept evolution. But to hear the different sides bicker, you'd hear that one group is secret heathens and the other are blatant ignoramuses. How many churches have been inwardly divided when differing views on creation came to the fore? How many ministries have been derailed by this fight? How many good works has it distracted believers from? Not that it's unworthy of calm discussion now and again, but how easily have we gotten sidetracked from bigger and brighter things?

Or sometimes, we argue about the other tail of history – the end-times. People build elaborate theological and doctrinal systems based on their synthesis of bits and pieces of this book, that book, all the prophecies hither and yon. They transmute days to years, add them, count them, write histories of the future before the fact. How many different dates have been set for the end, I've surely lost count. Each one as plausible as the last. You've probably heard of signs and portents – “wars and rumors of wars,” and signs in the sky, eclipses and 'blood moons' and all that jazz. Folks in the church take every conceivable angle: preterist and historicist and futurist and idealist, premillennial and postmillennial and amillennial, pre-wrath and mid-wrath and post-wrath. Odds are, folks in any given church differ widely on all of those, or even whether some of the questions are sensible. How many churches have been divided? How much energy has been expended on 'prophecy ministries' that go nowhere and only feed our weird obsessions? How many good works has it distracted believers from, and how many divisions has it fostered? Back when I was choosing a seminary, there were seminaries I couldn't attend because I couldn't in good faith dot the i's and cross the t's on their official position on the end-times. How does that help the work of the kingdom?

Oh, oh, and the arguments scattered all over history! Nearly a thousand years ago, the western church and the eastern church formally cut ties. There were an assortment of issues there, but you know what one was? The East accused Western Christians of being repulsive azymites; the West retorted that the East were prozymites. What are those? It all comes down to using leavened versus unleavened bread in Communion! Or think of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli battling so heatedly, ruining the ties between their followers, over the exact nature of what happens in Communion! And tell me, church: who ever trusted God more, who ever had more hope, who ever loved better, for being either a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian? Anybody? Show of hands?

Today, of course, there are some important issues that divide churches. Some of those are fair disagreements about things that really matter. Others are disagreements about things that matter but should have been off the table, by the teaching of Old and New Testaments and the consensus of the church. In the nineteenth century, denominations split because, in spite of the longstanding witness of the church that slavery was evil, some folks in American churches wanted to tolerate and defend it – and so there emerged Northern and Southern Baptists, there arose a Methodist Episcopal Church North and a Methodist Episcopal Church South, and so on. Just the same, today, on issues of sexual ethics – all very important – many have broken with the longstanding witness of the church about homosexual practices and other sexual sins – there are folks in American churches wanting to advocate for its tolerance and acceptance, and churches and denominations are dividing over this alien and unchristian doctrine. That's what heresy does – it tears and devours, and it impairs our love by condemning people to the slavery of their temptations and their passions and their faulty vision and darkened thinking.

But there are plenty of more frivolous issues that divide churches today, issues that aren't a matter of biblical faithfulness. Political squabbles, for instance. We've especially seen that in the past few years. Whole churches have divided – arguments have started, trust has withered, people have left, congregations have split – over how people react to the man who currently works from the Oval Office. I won't say politics doesn't matter, in some relative sense. And, look, I'm sure we run a wide range of positions even in our church here. But could a little difference of opinion over any prince of men be warrant to rip apart the unity of Christ, who tells us to place not our trust in princes? How much Christian witness has been sabotaged by importing secular partisanship onto holy ground? How many good works have we been distracted from by Satan's siren call?

And then there are the pragmatic issues. Churches divide over music style, don't they? Even if it's just adding an extra service so that the people who like the organ don't have to worship next to people who like guitars and drums, that's a division. I've seen plenty of division over people's musical idolatries. Haven't you? Oh, and churches divide over personality conflicts – that happens all the time. Our denomination's history bears witness – such was a major factor in the split in the Evangelical Association in the 1890s. Churches divide over fairly petty matters of legal procedure – that's what split the United Evangelical Church in the 1920s, after all. Churches divide over silly things – all the way down to carpet color.

Don't believe me? One church leadership expert (Thom S. Rainer) did a survey on Twitter the other year. He wanted to hear the craziest true-life stories behind church fights, some of which did actually split churches outwardly, but surely all of which divided churches inwardly and distracted from kingdom work. Ready to hear his twenty-five favorite?
  1. People fought over whether to sing “Happy Birthday” each week.
  2. People fought over a proposal to require all church staff to be clean-shaven.
  3. People fought over the appropriate length for the worship pastor's beard.
  4. People fought over whether the worship leader had to wear shoes during the service.
  5. People fought over whether people were allowed to wear black T-shirts to church, since don't you know that's the devil's color?
  6. People fought over who had access to the copy machine.
  7. People fought over who had authority to buy postage stamps for the church.
  8. People fought over a ten-cent discrepancy in the church's budget.
  9. People fought over whether to add gluten-free communion bread.
  10. People fought over using a cranberry/grape-juice blend instead of pure grape juice.
  11. People fought over the youth group daring to use an otherwise-unused crockpot from the church kitchen.
  12. People fought over what kind of green beans to serve at the church dinner.
  13. People fought over whether deviled eggs were appropriate for a church potluck.
  14. People fought over whether to call it a 'potluck' or a 'pot blessing'!
  15. People fought over what brand of coffee to stock – and, yes, folks really left that church over that!
  16. People fought over whether adding vanilla syrup to coffee looked too much like adding liquor.
  17. People fought over whether fake plants should be removed from the podium.
  18. People fought over whether to keep or remove a clock from the worship center.
  19. People fought over whether the church should buy a weed eater.
  20. People fought over whether to put stall dividers in the women's bathroom.
  21. People fought over which filing cabinet to buy.
  22. People fought over which painting of Jesus to hang in the narthex.
  23. People fought over whether to use their plot of land to build a children's playground or a cemetery.
  24. People fought over somebody hiding the church's vacuum cleaner from somebody else – and, believe it or not, that church actually did split over it!
  25. At one church, two deacons argued over an anonymous letter – and they settled it with a fistfight in the church parking lot!
We laugh! We laugh precisely because it's so obvious that none of this is worth wasting breath on. We laugh because it's so pointless, so trivial. And yet how many times has something as trivial as this caused a division in our church? Maybe not this year, maybe not last year, but over the last few decades? How many times has some 'stupid inquiry' or some 'strife,' some frivolous 'war over the Law' or some other closely-held myth or pet idea or speculation, distracted us from being “carefully devoted to good works” (Titus 3:8)?

Brothers and sisters, when Christians gather together, our vocation is not to argue. Yes, there is a place for real teaching, healthy teaching (Titus 1:9; 2:1). Yes, there is even a place for correcting and rebuking (Titus 1:13; 2:15). But these take place within our prime vocation, which is to unite worshipfully around “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's to unite around the reality that our good and loving God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). These are the things Titus is told to be insistent about: they matter, they count, they bear fruit, they have functional relevance for Christian witness and life (Titus 3:8).

Such key truths, which Paul calls 'healthy teaching,' 'sound doctrine,' are worth clinging to and defending. And then there are other issues that are worth serious discussion. And then there are still others that can be fun to toss about in your downtime – (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, after all?) – just as long as you don't take it too seriously and don't waste too much time and effort on it. But then there are issues that are just pointless, and some stances that are simply beyond the pale. These things are “unprofitable and useless,” and Titus is cautioned to “avoid” them (Titus 3:9). 

But others will harp on them, sure enough. They will throw everything out of joint, blow everything out of proportion. A 'divisive person' always finds a hobby-horse to ride, and a hobby-horse's hoofbeats have a way of clouding the air with dust and ash. Their quibbles don't lead to a clearer understanding. Their quibbles won't help you see God any better. Nor will their quibbles equip you to trust more tenaciously, to hope more audaciously, or to love more ferociously. So Paul tells Titus to kindly give them attention once and then twice, in hopes of correcting their behavior and refocusing their attention – but if they persist in their fruitless obsession, to reject them (Titus 3:10).

Because the church has important things to do. We all, as believers, have important things to do – a veritable smorgasbord of good works spread out before us, with more variety than Shady Maple ever boasted. And these quibbles, all the “myths” and “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars over the law,” are a distraction and a detriment that dare to divide the divine deposit of our doctrine. Such is all heresy, and such is schism, and such is our perpetual foolishness.

But distracting our brothers and sisters with frivolous fights and asinine arguments is not merely inadvisable, Paul says here. It is a serious sin, to threaten the health and integrity of the fellowship of the people of God: such a divisive person is “warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). We dare not distract the church with our petty agendas, our idiosyncratic views, our closely-held myths. Don't listen to their siren temptations. Steer clear o' the crags! Rather, let us instead insist on keeping the main thing the main thing, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves” – devote ourselves – “to good works” (Titus 3:8). In this “excellent and profitable” path over the waves, sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.