We all really only have one sermon.

I’ve heard a few preachers say that they really only have one basic sermon–one essential message–that ends up having itself proclaimed over and over in different ways every time they stand in the pulpit.

I’m not a preacher most weeks, but Christianity has a number of habits that tug at our self-defined identities and make each of us exactly that which we want to leave for other people to be–priest, prophet, pastor, and even preacher. And, of course, sinner and stranger, too.

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Today I met again for an hour with two passionate, caring, struggling, angry, hopeful, funny guys from a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden area of south Memphis. And I told them that whereas I only meet with them one hour once a week as they are going through their job training program together, the most important realization to be made about our gatherings is that God has given them to each other.

Who am I? I’m just a guy from some other part of town and of a totally different background who has sat down with them for an hour a week for the past month. And on days like today, when they were in the mood to cut through all the crap and know why in the hell I’m meeting with them, I just told them: I was just invited to be with you. That’s it. I’m not here to show you that my middle-class background is superior, I’m not here to fix you, counsel you, or to be the answer to your problems. I’m just here to be with you. I do care about you, and I am most certainly not paid to be here.

That last part about not being paid to be with them was something they seemed especially curious about. So, when they had heard my response, they said, “Thank you.”

Here I sit, and in a few days I’ll be off to Seattle to be with people that when I think about it, I realize: I really don’t know how or why I’m going to be with them. What led to this trip was my first time at the Wild Goose Festival in the North Carolina Appalachian valley this past July. Without going into much detail now, if I could just summarize what happened (and is happening) through that time spent being with fellow Jesus-followers in the camp chairs and under the tents beside a mountain river, I would do it this way: It was, in its most basic form, God saying to me, “Here, have all these people.”

And people–these people–are what I needed. They are what I need. They are going to continue to be what I need.

I just finished Accidental Saints: Finding God In All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her understanding of what a saint is means that it is (at the same time) just as comforting, encouraging, and inspiring that we don’t work our way to being people through whom God can work as it is unsettling and challenging. Indeed, we are surprised (as we are by any accident) to discover in others and ourselves (!) the presence and activity of God.

Ultimately, I wasn’t just given a theological lesson or an even more emotionally-charged admonition to work for justice at Wild Goose; I was just given people through whom God happens to be present.

When Jesus comes proclaiming his message to Israel, it’s about Israel being who Israel was created to be–not for Israel’s sake alone, but for all of those other nations.

When Paul writes his letters to groups of adherents to the Jesus movement in which he interprets what has happened through this person Jesus, it has to do with Jew and Gentile–or “us and them”–being at the same table and actually sharing with each other. And what is shared is not just beliefs and stories or possessions and meals, but, themselves.

This is my one sermon. I’m already picking up on that. [SEE HERE.] In my understanding, being a part–or better–being included in the people of God is the definition of salvation. It’s not heaven, not eternal mansions, not ethereal immortal spirits; it’s rather, having each other, being welcomed to each other, and experiencing and sharing the divine hospitality. This is the very definition of our salvation and of our ultimate destiny.

And God’s grace is revealed in God’s timing–the miraculous timing of giving to us the right people at the right time.

I really hope you know what this is like. It’s the best thing there is. It is the highest gift of God.

Yes, we can’t do it/this/life in general by ourselves, but that’s really only truly profound if we understand that it’s because it’s not even about ourselves but about the others who have been given to us.

So, why did I just share on Facebook the Buzzfeed video of Muslims saying to the camera, “I’m a Muslim but I’m not … [insert stereotype]” but I simply don’t care about posting the Christian version of the same video?

Because of this: It’s not about creating God’s word of grace for me–it’s about telling, announcing, proclaiming God’s word of grace to each other and on behalf of each other.

And, also: receiving God’s word of grace for me and about me from … other people.


The Most Surprising Thing About Jesus

Every time I read the Gospels I’m surprised.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read them, or how often I’ve even picked apart the original language text for exegesis papers — I am surprised by the figure of Jesus.

This has been going on for some time, but only ever since the Gospels have truly begun to shape my understanding of two quite important things: 1) who “God” is, and 2) just what the hell is going on here (in this world).Gospels

For the first few years of my life discovering Jesus, the particular 21st-century-evangelical flavor of Christianity that was given to me at 17  years old was a hindrance to this. But thankfully, I managed to become curious or pious or thirsty enough (or a combination of the three) so that I read the Gospels in their entirety for what each author had to say about Jesus, not just as a collection of illustrations to support our shortsighted, simplified, and skewed understanding of a smaller version of Paul than even what the New Testament gives us. (This is the hearing of the biblical witness which tries so hard to convince us that what was really only important about Jesus’s life is that it ended.)

If you’re like me, you have human memory and simply forget, and Jesus as we think of him is viewed through how the world presently is instead of seeing the way the world should be through Jesus. I’m sure the usual suspects are culprits in this, too: cultural Jesus and pop-Jesus and even, churchy Jesus.

But, the darker side to this at work perhaps even more than my bad memory or the warping power of culture is that I make Jesus in my own image. Jesus in my image is a Jesus I understand fully, a Jesus that comforts me and doesn’t challenge me, a Jesus that likes what I like and hates what I hate.

The Gospels confront and correct my understanding of who Jesus is, and leave me captured by the person, persona, personality of Jesus (to take full advantage of some Latin roots there). It’s not doctrine, as much as character. And not necessarily character in the sense of virtue (though it is certainly a part of it), but more in the literary sort of sense — who this person is.

Although the Gospels and each New Testament document presents him differently in all the details, it is this — the character of Jesus — that is the consistent core throughout the early Christian witness.

Now this guy is interesting. Sometimes I wish we had more material about him. There probably are some statements in the Gospel of Thomas and maybe some stories in a few others like the Gospel of the Hebrews that presents us with some accurate testimony about what Jesus did and said, but overall it’s our four canonical ones.

Only four. Yes they’re long for ancient biographies, but we only have a few of them for our entire life. I’ve been caring about Jesus for only a decade now, but I can go ahead and tell you some things that Matthew is concerned about or how John is just so weird or talk about the structure of each one. I’ve read them before. Multiple times.

But I still don’t get them, really.

Because the most surprising thing about Jesus, at least for me, is himself.

And since God is a God of surprises anyway, perhaps Jesus himself is the most important, urgent, and most characteristic surprise of all.