If Jesus Forgives us All, Do People Still Go To Hell?

Third Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Stefan_Lochner_-_Last_Judgement_-_circa_1435
Stefan Lochner- The Last Judgement

 

Preached by Madison JohnstonField Education Intern at Saint Bartholomew and student at Princeton Theological Seminary

 

Our Stump the Pastor question this morning is, “If Jesus forgives us all, why do people still go to hell?” Guys, I know we agreed that we wouldn’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, but wow…I don’t think they get any tougher than this. “If Jesus forgives us all, why do people still go to hell?”

To understand what this question implies, and maybe even to answer it, we’re going to have to take a closer look at today’s gospel text. In our very first verse, Jesus is in Jerusalem. By now, Luke has already shown us a lot of important parts of Jesus’ life–the buildup to his miraculous birth, his teaching in the Temple when he was little, his Baptism by the Holy Spirit and his being tempted by Satan that Pastor Daniel explained to us just a little while ago. We see Jesus commissioning disciples, preaching and performing healing miracles in Galilee, we see his face glowing at the Transfiguration, and we see him teaching crowds how to pray the Lord’s Prayer. At this point, we’ve already seen a lot of Jesus. We’re beginning to get a sense of what Jesus is about. But in Chapter 13, we see Jesus doing something different; something that probably makes a lot of us uncomfortable–we see Jesus judging and condemning. We see Jesus making threats.

So let’s break this thing down a little bit more. A crowd that has gathered around Jesus starts telling him what sounds to us like horrible news: that the Roman governor of Judea named Pontius Pilate killed a group of Galilean worshipers in the Jerusalem Temple. Pilate had a very long, bloody history of attacks on Jewish people in his day. Plus, a lot of Jews in Jerusalem were skeptical of Galileans at the time, and some even thought that Galilean Jews were less devout or less worthy than Jews in Jerusalem. So it’s pretty likely that this news isn’t surprising, or maybe even that upsetting, to this crowd–they probably didn’t like it, but it’s something they might have been relatively used to. What is surprising here is Jesus’ response. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge what they’re saying. He answers to the crowd by comparing the victims of this attack to the victims of a separate event–an accident, actually–where a crumbling guard tower finally crashed down and killed 18 innocent Jerusalemites who were standing nearby.

Then Jesus pulls out a scary line: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Then he says it again. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” I don’t know about all of you, but if I were one of the people in that crowd, I would just freeze. I would be thinking, “Jesus, where did that come from? What do we have to do with this? Why are you threatening us?”

The crazy thing is, Jesus uses this kind of threat a lot throughout the Bible. In Matthew 7, we hear him say, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.” Later in Matthew 23, he says, “So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He’s talking about Gehenna, which Pastor Daniel has touched on before, and which we usually translate as “hell.” In Mark, Jesus tells the crowds around him that “if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off–or your eye? Pluck it out. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to be cast into Gehenna–hell–with your body maintained.” And these are just a few of the quotes! What are we supposed to do with all that, here, in this place, today? What is this crowd in Luke supposed to do with all that 2000-some years ago? With this cause-and-effect kind of Jesus? He sounds like a fundamentalist billboard on the highway telling you to call a cheesy 1-800 number so that you can finally understand some great, religious secret. “REPENT OR PERISH! Call 1-800-HE SAVES NOW and know!”

But, my friends, that’s not what this story is about. We don’t have a billboard Jesus in our holy scriptures. I think that Jesus speaks to these people, and to us, in this dramatic way so that he can emphasize that neither group of victims, the Galileans or the Jerusalemites, was more guilty or more deserving of punishment than the other, no matter what the prejudices of the time might have been. Jesus isn’t threatening these people with literal death here. What he’s really talking about is imminent judgment–the very same imminent judgment that he mentioned in Matthew and in Mark. It’s like our First Corinthians reading tells us today: Because we are human, we are “all under a cloud. We are all baptized into Moses, we all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink.” We are all subject to sin, and therefore subject to judgment, simply because we are human.

But the important thing to remember is that Jesus doesn’t just stop at that. God isn’t satisfied with that. Luke smashes another strange little story onto the end of this strange little story to remind us that, as much as God is judgmental, God is, ultimately, merciful. One minute we’re sitting here listening to these reports of violence and death, and to threats about repentance, and all of the sudden, we’re talking about a fig tree. There’s a very brief argument between the vineyard owner and the gardener that, if you noticed, never actually gets resolved, and we never find out whether or not the tree turned itself around! We never hear about it or its fruit again.

At our Feast of Faith last month, the adult class got to take part in a curriculum that was put together by an incredible woman and an even more incredible pastor out in Denver. Her name is Nadia Bolz-Weber. I will never be as punk rock as she is. I can’t pull off her tattoos or ride everywhere on a motorcycle or compete in crazy weight lifting competitions like she does, or any of that. So I’m sorry, St. Barth. I’m pretty boring compared to her. But I can use her words! She explains this parable of the barren fig tree using the idea of the gardener’s plea for one more year. “One more year,” she says, “to do what needs to be done. One more year to trust in God more than money.  One more year to forgive others.  One more year to forgive yourself. One more year to be enchanted by the story of Jesus.  One more year to help someone else. One more year to learn that God is the one telling your vineyard owner to back off, because you are a beloved child of God who God has named and claimed and forgiven and loved as God’s very own so that you can bear fruit. So to all of you God again says…one more year.”

Nadia is trying to drive home a point here, and that point is that God always gives us that little bit of extra time to grow in grace.

Now, Lutherans are really good at talking about grace. We love grace. We think God is all about grace, which means we’re all about grace, and we want everybody else to know it! We find grace in every corner of every scripture, and we have a lot of theological words and ideas to explain why grace is so obviously important. But one thing that I think we struggle a little bit more to explain is what grace looks like in an everyday sense of the word. What it means to actually live right here, right now, as St. Barth, in a state of grace–what it means to grow in grace, like I just said.

My friends, to grow in grace means to grow in the awareness of how much we need God’s forgiveness. To grow in grace means to accept the fact that we’re a bunch of fig trees. Because when we do that over and over and over again, our awareness of our need grows, and so does our trust that God will provide us with whatever we need to bear good fruit. That God will be the gardener who steps in to protect us and water us and dig around us and give us one more shot, no matter what the owner of the vineyard is saying. That God will be the Lorax, speaking for the trees because the trees have no tongues (and no figs). To grow in grace, my friends, is to repent. To return, time and time again, and for any variety of reasons, to the foot of the cross where Christ perished for us. To grow in grace is to repent.

And the good news this morning is that repentance is exactly what God has promised to us from the beginning of time. God speaks to us through Isaiah this morning, saying “Come to the waters, incline your ear, listen so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant–my steadfast, sure love. I will glorify you. I will abundantly pardon.” Paul writes to us this morning in the same Spirit, saying that “we’re all under a cloud. No testing has overtaken any of us that is not common to everyone but we do not despair because God is faithful. God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. God will provide endurance–provide the way out.”

So is the idea of eternal punishment–something we might call hell–real? Yes. It lies in the very fact that all of us are human beings. Does Jesus say that it’s possible that some people will end up there? Yeah, he does. But not to scare us into good behavior or to prove that he knows more about the universe than we do. Jesus talks about Hell so that what we take away from the conversation is an understanding of repentance. And an understanding that it will always be there for us.

God offers us an escape from the power of hell–and even more than that, God empowers us to take that escape. God will never stop offering us grace through repentance, and God will never stop nurturing us as we grow in that grace, one more year at a time. Amen.

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Wriggling out from Christ’s Wings

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Brushtail_the_Fox_-_Milo_Winter_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_18667 (1)
From The Project Gutenberg EBook of Doctor Rabbit and Brushtail the Fox, by Thomas Clark Hinkle, illustrated by Milo Winter

Jesus hears that King Herod, who has already killed his cousin, John the Baptist, is looking to murder him too. Jesus boldly announces to those who are carrying this message of murderous intent, “You tell that fox I am going to keep casting out demons and curing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I finish my work.” Jesus sends a message to Herod that he isn’t afraid of the conniving King and he is going to keep doing his work until he is darn well finished. But then Jesus does something strange. You might expect, after such a confrontational and inflammatory message, Jesus would march away defiantly or start a riot or make some sort of public demonstration. Instead, Jesus laments over Jerusalem. The strangest thing of all happens when Jesus says of the city that kills God’s prophets, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus calls his murderous, sneaky enemy, Herod, a fox, and then he calls himself a hen. In this battle between fox and hen, you can be pretty confident that fox is going to win. I think Jesus would have inspired much more confidence if he had said something like this after telling that “fox,” Herod, to mind his own business, “I am the farmhand who does the will of my Father. I lay out the traps for the fox to protect the chicks.” In the battle between fox and human, you can be pretty confident that human is going to win.

That, however, is not an accurate depiction of how Christ protects her chicks. Christ is the one who lays down her life for the sake of all her brood- even the ones who “were not willing” and wriggling to get out from their mother’s wings. When the fox comes- be it sin or death- Christ the hen lays down her life for us, her chicks.

We do often try to wriggle out from the wings of Christ, don’t we? We sometimes think we know what is best for ourselves. We sometimes get sick of being stifled up in those wings and want to get out from this bossy and oppressive God. The rest of the chicks are hypocrites, I can have my own experiences of true goodness on my own, and there is no solid proof that the hen can actually protect us from the foxes around us. Maybe, like me, you’ve experienced these doubts and fears or maybe you know some loved ones who have. You may be or probably know of people who keep doing what they feel is right even though it seems so obviously self destructive from the outside. You may be or probably know of people who are uncaring toward their neighbors. You may be or probably know of people who feel like they don’t belong in God’s fold- that they are not good enough or know enough about God and Jesus. You may be or probably know of people who are losing or have lost their faith in God. When a loved one dies sometimes we wonder why God didn’t do anything to save their life. That wonder quickly turns to anger and we try to wriggle free from the wings of our hen.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, a state governor in Mexico has outlawed Catholicism. Churches are burned, relics and crossed are destroyed, and Catholics themselves are imprisoned. The story follows one Catholic priest who has remained faithful to practicing the religion performing secret Masses. He is also a man of many vices. He drinks too much (the author calls him the “whiskey priest”), he is an angry man, and has a questionable moral compass. This priest is by no means fit for the spiritual welfare of the communities he serves, but there he is. By the end of the novel he acknowledges his sinfulness and comes to the realization that the world, “needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

Jesus certainly did die for the half-hearted and the corrupt. Despite threats of violence and opponents who seek to undercut his credibility, Jesus continues onward toward Jerusalem. He enters the gates of the city on Palm Sunday where he is greeted by the overjoyed crowds shouting Hosannas and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” In a few short days when Jesus is arrested, Jesus’ closest disciples abandon him and deny that they even know him. They try to wriggle out from under the hen’s wings. The same crowd who welcomed Jesus with joyful song and waving palms now angrily call for his crucifixion. They too try to wriggle out from under the hen’s protective, life-giving wings. All of these people in Jerusalem did their best to wriggle out from the loving embrace of Christ the Hen as she protected them from the effects of sin and death itself. Even from the cross, Christ did not let them go. As he was dying, he prayed to God in the presence of those who had crucified him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Those who crucified Jesus were certainly “half-hearted and corrupt,” they were certainly people who had embraced hatred and sin, they were certainly people who had placed their faith in the power of this execution rather than in the power of God. Even so, Jesus forgives them and saves them through his cross.

sanctuary_lamp

Our Stump the Pastor question is “What is the candle in the red holder hanging up? Who lights it or snuffs it and when? Or does it stay lit until it burns out?” That candle goes by several names including sanctuary lamp, eternal candle, and others. I have often seen Brandon replace it and light it. We always have one burning and each candle lasts for about eight days. We let it stay lit until it burns out or until it is nearly burned out. The use of this candle by churches in worship spaces is inspired by a reading from Exodus 27:20-21 that describes some of the things present in the Tabernacle of God. The tabernacle being the tent where God resided when the Israelites were traveling to the Promised Land from Egypt. The reading goes, “You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons (the priests) shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites.”

The eternal candle is always lit so that we, like the wandering Israelites before us, might be reminded of God’s faithful presence at all times. Christ is with us in this place and always. Christ is our hen who will always protect us to save us from the foxes of sin and death, and she even lays down her life for us. We may try to wriggle out from those protective and grace-filled wings, but even then Christ desires to keep us close. When we struggle against doubts, fears, and loss Christ still holds us. Christ holds us in her wings of forgiveness and life even if we are as confused and sinful/saintly as the whiskey priest; or as hopeless and heartbroken as one who has given up on God; or as hypocritical and cowardly as the disciples and residents of Jerusalem who sing Christ’s praises one day and call for his crucifixion on another. Christ cries out to God that we be forgiven and lays down his life so that we might join him in paradise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Why Jesus is not Like Evel Knievel

First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Romans 10:8b-13

Luke 4:1-13

Sandro_Botticelli,_The_Temptation_of_Christ_(detail_5)
Part of Botticelli’s The Temptation of Christ

We are starting our Stump the Pastor Questions! The first question is, “What time was the crucifixion?” That may initially sound like a pretty insignificant question, but it actually is very important. In our last Feast of Faith adult class we talked about the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At the end of our class we asked the question, “Why do we have four Gospels telling the same story about Jesus?” and then we talked about how the four Gospel accounts contradict each other in various ways. Some of the contradictions consist of the following:

  • According to Matthew, at Jesus’ baptism the voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved…” but in Luke and Mark the voice says, “This is my Son, the beloved…”(Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22/Mark 1:11). In one account it seems like the voice is speaking to Jesus directly and in the others it seems like the voice is speaking to everyone present.
  • According to John, one of the first things Jesus does in his ministry is cleanse the Temple, chasing out the money changers, but according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is one of the last things Jesus does. (John 2:13-16 and Matthew 21:12-13/Mark 11:15-17)
  • According to John, Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover at the 6th hour (about noon) and according to Mark, Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover at the 3rd hour (about 9:00am)

The same thing happens in the Temptation of Jesus. The ordering of the devil’s tests is different between Matthew and Luke. Matthew lists them in the following order:

  1. Turn stones into bread.
  2. Throw yourself from the Temple and be caught by God’s angels.
  3. Worship the devil and receive all the kingdoms of the world.

 

Luke, however, lists them in this order:

  1. Turn stones into bread
  2. Worship the devil and receive all the kingdoms of the world.
  3. Throw yourself from the Temple and be caught by God’s angels.

 

When confronted with these apparent contradictions in the Gospels we are left with a few choices regarding how to understand them.

First, you can throw out the whole thing. You could decide that if every fact doesn’t line up, then someone must be lying and none of the story can be trusted. I do not think this is a good or valid approach.

Second, you can try to explain away the differences and harmonize the texts. For the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, some say that John and Mark were using different ways of telling time and when Mark says Jesus was crucified at the 3rd hour he means 9am, but John says 6th hour he is using a different way of telling time and means 6am which would give Jesus 3 hours before the crucifixion process is complete. Some people opt for the harmonization approach, but frankly it requires some serious flexibility in reading the texts. Most of the time, these explanations are far-fetched. It also doesn’t explain how in the 1700 years since the Bible took on its current form, no one thought it important enough to harmonize these ambiguities.

Third, you can let the texts say what they say. Each Gospel writer has a unique message to say about Jesus Christ and you cannot lump them all together in a single harmonized story. The details of the story are drawn out to make a point about who Jesus is and not to prove that he really exists and did what the church says he did- that was already a given. Mark, the first Gospel, portrays Jesus as a man on a mission and always on the move, and Jesus emphasizes his self-giving and suffering role as Messiah. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ wisdom and instruction for how the church ought to get along with each other and those outside of the church. Luke remembers the importance of prayer to Jesus and how highly favored the poor and marginalized are in God’s kingdom. John remembers Jesus’ closeness with God the Father and his divine origin.

So what does Luke want us to know about Jesus in his telling of the temptation story? Luke and Matthew differ on the grand finale test from the devil. The last temptation is meant to stick with us as the most defining test that shows us what Jesus’ ministry is all about. Think of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back- at the end of the movie you get the big reveal- Darth Vader is Luke’s father! A few minutes later, the scene is wrapped up and the movie concludes. Roll credits. Think about how distracting or underwhelming that moment would have been if Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father, Luke gets away and is reunited with his friends, and then they talk for five minutes about how to make lightsabers or how old the Millennium Falcon is. The grand finale is meant to be just that- Grand. In Matthew, Jesus’ grand finale is that he refuses to receive the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil. In Luke, Jesus’ grand finale is that he refuses to put God to the test by leaping off of the Temple in Jerusalem in the hope that he will be caught by God’s angels.

The devil offers Jesus the easy way out. Make a huge leap of faith from the Temple roof and you will know for certain whether or not your mission from God will succeed. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil says, “jump. If you don’t, maybe you are too chicken and afraid that you aren’t really God’s Son.” The other test is to see if Jesus will make a spectacle of himself. If Jesus leaps from the Temple and is caught by God’s angels, then the people who see it will have no doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. That type of spectacle can raise an army or a church very quickly.

The devil gives Jesus what I like to think of as the “Evel Knievel pitch.” Evel Knievel was famous for making jumps with his motorcycle over all kinds of interesting obstacles- rows of cars, rows of buses, a shark tank, and the Grand Canyon to name a few. Death-defying stunts are exciting. Few people have the courage to undertake them and very few wind up unscathed. Knievel took his fair share of falls and almost died multiple times. If Jesus pulled off this Temple leap stunt, he would certainly be remembered as blessed as God’s own Son.

 

But Jesus refuses to leap off the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is ready to go to Jerusalem, but he does not go there to dazzle the people into following him. He goes there to serve and to give his life for the sake of many. He travels to Jerusalem, the capital of God’s chosen people. He travels to the place where the Temple of God is- where God’s very presence is said to be. He goes there not to show off his power so that many might serve him, but he goes to give his own life on the cross so that he might serve many with the gifts of forgiveness and abundant life.

The testing of Jesus is not a lesson showing us how we can resist temptation just like Jesus did. The reality is that we, like the Israelites before us who were tempted in the wilderness do not trust that God will provide us with all that we need, we do worship other gods, and we do trust in spectacles of power rather than humble deeds of mercy. The lesson Luke shares with us, is that Jesus did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He opened the way of everlasting life for us through humble service and the giving up of his entire life. Remembering that Jesus did not take the easy way out and rule by force or spectacle, we know that we can call on the name of Jesus and be saved from sin and death just as the Israelites were saved from slavery in Egypt.

We start and end our Lenten journey at the cross of Jesus. Luke wants us to remember what Jesus did in Jerusalem, but also what he did not do. He did not wow us into following him by doing Evel Knievel type stunts. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t all about what an amazing, powerful guy he was, but it was about the way he emptied himself in loving service to an undeserving people. Jesus did not leap from the Temple, but he was raised on a cross for us.

Repentance and Remembering God

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 

Paul_arrested
Paul arrested

I read a reflection on the season of Lent this past week and I was struck by what the author said about Lent. She said that Lent “is not holiness boot camp.” (Range, Sharon, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2) That struck me. So often I feel that Christians (myself included) have treated this penitential season as a sort of holiness boot camp. We give up Facebook, chocolate, or swearing for 40 days; or we resolve to put more money in the offering plate, pray more often, or be nicer to our friends for 40 days. Those practices aren’t bad necessarily, but Lent was not meant to be merely a time of self-improvement. Often, we take on our disciplines for the sake of growing into better Christians and being more acceptable to God. At worst, our Lenten practices become a measure of piety that we use to determine who is a better Christian than another person.

“Oh. He is giving up chocolate for Lent? Well, I am giving up all sweets.”

“Oh. She is giving up swearing for Lent? Well, she shouldn’t be doing that anyway. I am so glad I don’t have that problem.”

This is exactly the type of self-righteousness that Jesus warns about in our reading from Matthew. When we view Lent simply as a measurement for how holy we are and how much more pious we are than someone else, then we are no better than the person who sounds a trumpet when they put money in the offering plate or the person who shows off their prayers on the street corners or the person who dirties their faces to prove that they are fasting.

If Lent is not about spiritual self-improvement, then what is this season about? We start Lent today, Ash Wednesday, by acknowledging our own mortality. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We remember that our lives are fleeting and finite. The age of the earth is more than four and half billion years old. Human beings are only 200,000 years old. And if we are extremely lucky and considerably healthy we might live to be 100 years old. What is 100 years stacked against 4.5 billion years of earth history? Or even 100 years stacked against 200,000 years of human history? Without God we are creatures whose time on earth is gone in a blink of an eye. Dust to dust.

Repentance is a major part of the Christian life and we focus on that in this penitential season of Lent, but we often mistake repentance for an act that earns God’s favor. God’s love and grace has already been given to us, but we often lose sight of that truth. We fall into a belief that we are not worthy of God’s love or that our problems are too big for God to handle. Repentance is the act of turning around and seeing God’s faithful love for us and facing the world and its great challenges with that love informing and supporting us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazi regime and was killed for his convictions, spoke about what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He writes,

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a [person] will gladly go and self all that [one] has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods… it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves [their] nets and follows him.

Costly grace… is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a [person] [their] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon [God’s] Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

We are not the ones that make grace cheap or costly. We lose sight of how costly that grace is and that affects our lives. God gave everything to be with us and will stop at nothing to redeem us. Our fear of sin, death, and the devil cause us to lose sight of the great love of God given through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle, Paul, urges the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” He is urging them to remember the costly graces that God bestows and that the steadfast love of God makes a difference in the face of our fears and losses. Through God-given faith, we may not be spared from the effects of sin and death, but we are given the assurance that God’s love is supporting us and giving us new life. Continue reading

D&D and the Church

Dungeons and Dragons and The Church

d20

I have a nerdy confession to make. Are you ready? OK. I play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) regularly. Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest. Not only do I play, but I run most of the games my group plays. I am the Dungeon Master (DM) or the Game Master (GM).

I know that when some people think of Dungeons and Dragons they think of sweaty kids with zero social skills and a very loose grasp on reality. Some people even believe that D&D players like to dress up in wizard hats and carry foam swords. This has not been the case, at least in my experience. People of all ages play D&D, players fit no stereotypes that I have seen as far as social awkwardness goes, and I have never been to a game where players wore wizard hats and/or carried foam swords.

I love playing D&D. It is fun. My favorite aspect of the game is that you get to control the story. As a player or a GM, you are engaging in a cooperative story-telling adventure. You do not get that same experience in books, movies, or even video games. The world is expansive and the only thing that can limit it is your imagination. I have played games with a gnome with a pet crocodile, a sorcerer who loved dancing more than magic, and a barbarian whose weapon of choice was a shovel. I have fought dragon zombies, I have charmed powerful diplomats, and unveiled the true identities of a vampire acting troupe.

I also love D&D for the fun character/player dynamics that come up in play. We really need every character in order to make the game run well. Lord of the Rings is usually lifted up as a point of inspiration for the creation of D&D and we can note that the characters are all so diverse. Wizards, humans, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and more are necessary to the story of Lord of the Rings. The same is true in D&D. No game would be successful if a party consisted of only one type of character. Five wizards may be very impressive as they hurl fireballs and cast lightning bolts, but pit them against a feat of strength or a locked door that needs to be picked, and they are out of luck. A good D&D game needs a variety of character types in order to be successful. The same can be said for the faithfulness of the body of Christ. The apostle Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…” (1 Cor. 12:12). He goes on to talk about how no one body part is more important than another. You cannot have just one part of the body in the body of Christ, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). We need the body of Christ to be as diverse as our own bodies and as a D&D party. We can rejoice that God has blessed us with such diversity within the body of Christ.

I love the church for many of the same reasons I love Dungeons and Dragons. God has given us an opportunity to dream dreams and seek out visions (Acts 2:17-18). We have God on our side, the one who created the heavens and the earth, who is alpha and omega, and who is beginning and end. With God on our side we are only limited by what we can imagine. That is what I love about Saint Bart. We are blessed with so many diverse people who are not afraid to dream big. Without a God-given holy imagination, no one would have dreamed up the Clothes Closet, hosting the Share Food Program, the Women’s Group, Craft Group, worship in the park, a dynamic VBS program, Feast of Faith, and much more! I truly believe that those visions were gifts from God and that God is not done providing visions and dreams to God’s church.

Lent is traditionally a time of preparation and deep reflection for the church. I invite you this Lenten season, to take time in prayer and conversation to dream of what God might be calling you to do- as an individual and as the people of Saint Bart. We have all been given unique gifts and talents and God calls us to joyfully share the Good News of Jesus Christ through these gifts and talents. God has been faithful to God’s people throughout the ages and God has promised to be faithful today.

Tents

Transfiguration of our Lord

Exodus 34:29-35

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

I was completely wiped out. It had been a particularly busy semester at seminary with all of the classes, the papers, the exams, and the presentations. Working as a church youth worker was often fun, but the late nights and the recent 2 night lock-in style Confirmation retreat was starting to catch up with me.

Emily and I sat down one day and decided to get away for a couple of days. We didn’t have the money or the time to go very far, do anything very fancy, or go away for very long, but we had a couple of days and a little bit of gas money. We considered going to the Jersey Shore, but it was fall and getting a bit chilly and I’m not a big beach person anyway. We thought about going to Virginia like we did for our honeymoon, but that was too far. Finally, Emily did a little bit of research and came up with the perfect idea- we could go camping at a light preserve. A light preserve is a piece of land that is so far removed from any towns or cities that there is hardly any light pollution and almost all of the visible night sky can be seen. You could see the Pleiades, the Milky Way, and so much more of the heavenly bodies than you certainly could see from Philadelphia.

We drove to a place high up on a mountain somewhere in a remote part of Upstate New York and found our camp site. We set up the tent, made a campfire, cooked hot dogs, and got ready to see some stars. As the sun began to set, we noticed some dark clouds rolling over the horizon. Not storm clouds, but they still did the job of obscuring the stars that we meant to see.

We stayed up as late as we could in hope that the clouds would disappear and let the stars out. We were desperate to see those stars. We had driven all this way and there was no place like this anywhere near us. We had set up our tent in this place, not our home. We were only there for one night and we would miss our big chance to see some beautiful stars because of those clouds. Defeated, we crawled back into our tent and went to sleep.

Some hours later (I don’t know when) I woke up to Emily nudging me. “Dan! You can see them! Look!” We hurried out of the tent and looked up at the sky. The clouds were gone and the sky was shimmering. There were more stars than I could count. It was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sights I had ever seen. When God promised Abraham and Sarah that their descendents would be as numerous as the stars that they were looking at, I used to think, “Big deal. What’s wrong with them? Can’t they count to double-digits?” Sarah and Abraham were looking at this night sky and these stars, not the sky of Philadelphia.

I think of that mountaintop experience and my experience of God’s majesty looking up at the miraculous heavens when I read the Transfiguration story. I imagine that I was feeling something similar to Peter when he witnessed Jesus’ face change and his clothes become dazzling white, and see with his own eyes the great prophets and servants of God, Moses and Elijah. Continue reading