Archive for June, 2013

Science can’t make miracles harder to believe in

June 28, 2013

My sermon this Sunday is based on Matthew 14:22-33.

I’m still working my way through C.S. Lewis’s Miracles. So far, he’s laying the philosophical groundwork for miracles. It’s a bit of a trudge, but it goes to show, in case anyone doubted it, that Richard Dawkins and those guys really aren’t saying anything new (although I’m sure Lewis would be disappointed that they’re not saying it better). In one chapter, entitled “A Chapter of Red Herrings,” he tackles the modern myth that the “march of science” has somehow made belief in miracles impossible. “Of course the ancients were gullible enough to believe them! After all, they believed that the sun revolved around the earth. We know better now.” But this, he says, is a red herring. Here’s why:

If the miracles were offered us as events that normally occurred, then the progress of science, whose business is to tell us what normally occurs, would render belief in them gradually harder and finally impossible. The progress of science has in just this way (and greatly to our benefit) made all sorts of things incredible which our ancestors believed; man-eating ants and gryphons in Scythia, men with one single gigantic foot, magnetic islands that draw all ships towards them, mermaids and fire-breathing dragons. But these things were never put forward as supernatural interruptions of the course of nature. They were put forward as items within her ordinary course—in fact, as ‘science’… If there were fire-breathing dragons our big-game hunters would find them: but no one ever pretended that the Virgin Birth or Christ’s walking on water could be reckoned to recur. When a thing professes from the outset to be a unique invasion of Nature by something from outside, increasing knowledge of Nature can never make it either more or less credible than it was at the beginning. In this sense it is mere confusion of thought to suppose that advancing science has made it harder for us to accept miracles. We always knew they were contrary to the natural course of events.[†]

It pays to keep this in mind this Sunday, when I’ll be preaching on Matthew 14:22-33, a passage in which both Jesus and Peter walk on water.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 75-6.

Sermon 06-23-13: “The Main Thing”

June 27, 2013
Jesus moved from his hometown of Galilee to Capernaum, where he likely worked as a carpenter.

Jesus moved from his hometown of Galilee to Capernaum, where he likely worked as a carpenter.

Sermon Text: Mark 2:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Mark Burgess told me the story of his first Sunday at Hampton UMC. It turns out it also corresponded to the first day of Vacation Bible School. So Mark got up and preached what he thought was a good sermon, but he had barely finished his benediction, he said, when these people marched up and took the pulpit away. And Mark thought, “Was I that bad? Are they not going to let me do this anymore?” I am so grateful to Mark for his faithful, effective, and grace-filled leadership over these past seven years, and his love and support of me during this transition. He has left a strong foundation for ministry on which each of us can continue to build. Praise God?

Corin Tucker, on left

“My favorite band perspired on me!”

As you will surely learn about me, I am passionately interested in music. Back in the late-’90s I saw one of my favorite bands in concert at a sold-out club in Atlanta. They were a female punk-rock trio called Sleater-Kinney. In fact, one of members of the group was a woman named Carrie Brownstein, who now stars with comedian Fred Armisen on a show called Portlandia. She’s even featured in an American Express commercial. Anyway, this small club was packed, wall-to-wall, with people. Standing room only. No elbow room. To make matters worse, the air-conditioning wasn’t working, and it was very hot—and everyone was sweating profusely. Anyway, I was standing near the door that led backstage. Shortly before the show started, the three members of this band that I idolized walked out of that door. And they walked right up to me, and they politely said, “Excuse me,” and they squeezed past me on their way to the concession stand. Each of them brushed against me as they passed. And after they did so, I turned to my friend Keith and said, “I’ve been perspired on by my favorite band! I’ll never wash this shirt again!” Read the rest of this entry »

“Gnostic distaste for embodiment”

June 27, 2013

So… Anything interesting in the news this week?

Christianity Today posted a must-read article from Andy Crouch yesterday whose main point I’ve argued for a while (though not nearly as well): that embodied sexual differentiation matters to God.

What unites the LGBTQIA coalition is a conviction that human beings are not created male and female in any essential or important way. What matters is not one’s body but one’s heart—the seat of human will and desire, which only its owner can know.

Christians will have to choose between two consistent positions. One, which we believe Christians who affirm gay and lesbian unions will ultimately have to embrace, is to say that embodied sexual differentiation is irrelevant—completely, thoroughly, totally irrelevant—to covenant faithfulness.

The proof text for this view will be that in Christ, there is neither male nor female. And as with all readings based on proof texts, upholding it will require openly discarding a vast expanse of other biblical material, the many biblical voices (including Jesus’) that affirm and elucidate the significance of male-and-female creation…

It is no accident that as normative sexuality has been redefined, from an essentially exterior reality uniting male and female bodies to an essentially interior reality expressing one’s heart, the charges of bigotry have been heard more fiercely against those who hold the traditional Christian view. How dare we Christians speak against any person’s heart?

As Crouch argues, one thing at stake in the question of gay marriage, theologically, is that matter matters:

For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general. To uphold a biblical ethic on marriage is to affirm the sweeping scriptural witness—hardly a matter of a few isolated “thou shalt not” verses—that male and female together image God, that the creation of humanity as male and female is “very good,” and that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18, NRSV).

Sexual differentiation (along with its crucial outcome of children, who have a biological connection to two parents but are not mirror images of either one) is not an accident of evolution or a barrier to fulfillment. It is in fact the way God is imaged, and the way fruitfulness, diversity, and abundance are sustained in the world.

Crouch reminds us, however, that we Christians who affirm the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ neighbors in one important way:

All of us know, in the depths of our heart, that we are queer. Our yearnings, especially those bound up with our sexuality, are hardly ever fully satisfied by the biblical model of one man and one woman yoked together for life. Every one of us is a member of the coalition of human beings who feel out of place in our bodies east of Eden. And every one of us has fallen far short of honoring God and other human beings with our bodies.

God isn’t surprised by our sin

June 26, 2013


This thought-provoking post by Jonathan Merritt (thanks to Scot McKnight’s blog) makes me wonder whether I’ve used language about “disappointing” God in the past. I probably have. But I confess that it’s a sloppy word that probably can’t apply to God without cutting God down to human size. As Merritt writes:

The two elements that comprise disappointment are surprise and frustration. Accepting the first—that God is surprised with our most tragic failures—tests our belief in His sovereignty. God knows the events that will unfold tomorrow, and they never take Him off guard. Additionally, He created our “inmost being” (Ps 139:13) and knows our hearts better than we do. We cannot take God by surprise.

Many people, when confronted by the gravity of their own recent sin, feel as if God were so disappointed with them that he couldn’t possibly still love, forgive, or accept them. If this describes you, let me ask: Did God ever love, forgive, or accept you? Because if God ever did, then he did so with the full knowledge of all the sins of your life—past, present, and future.

Or think of it like this: Have there been moments in your life when you felt especially loved and accepted by God—perhaps at your Christian conversion, baptism, or confirmation? Then consider this: you have done nothing since then that has surprised God. In that moment when you felt God’s pouring out his love on you, he was doing so knowing all the ways that you would rebel against him in the future. Yet he loved you anyway.

This is why Mark Galli, in this article from Christianity Today, calls God’s omniscience (including his foreknowledge) a “revelation of God’s grace.”

God in his foreknowledge knew that when he drew me into his family, I would lust and lie and gossip and slander and practice all manner of immorality through the years ahead. He knew the particular sins and the particular people I would sin against. He has known for some time the particular evil inclination that I recognized for the first time yesterday in worship. He knows this morning how I’m going to fail him before the morning is out.

Yet despite his complete knowledge of the darkness of my heart and the wickedness of my future, he accepted my initial sinner’s prayer and has held me to that commitment. He has remained committed to me despite his full knowledge of my deeds, words, and motives, past, present, and future. 
As Paul put it, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” 
(2 Tim. 2:13, esv).

All I can say to this is, Amen and Hallelujah.

New sermon series: “Summer Vacation”

June 25, 2013

Summer Vacation

This Sunday at Hampton UMC, I’m beginning a summer sermon series entitled “Summer Vacation: What These Bible Heroes Did Last Summer.” Each week I’ll preach a passage of scripture related to an activity or experience we often associate with summer.

The schedule is as follows:

Date Sermon Title Scripture
June 30  Lifeguard On Duty Matthew 14:22-33
July 7  Set a Course for Adventure Jonah 1-2
July 14 How to Prevent Sunburn Daniel 3:8-30 
July 21 Camp Meeting Joshua 6:1-5, 15-27 
July 28 Nice Day for a Picnic John 6:1-14 
August 4 Gone Fishing Luke 5:1-11 

“Son, your sins are forgiven”

June 24, 2013

(The pictures above were taken during my trip to the Holy Land in 2011. Click on each photo to expand.)

I preached my inaugural sermon at Hampton UMC yesterday on Mark 2:1-12. I called it “The Main Thing.” I reflected on the surprise or disappointment that the four friends likely felt when Jesus told their paralyzed friend, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Surely they wanted Jesus to do for their friend what he had done for so many people in Mark 1: they wanted Jesus to heal the man physically. Who said anything about forgiveness?

Forgiveness of sins, however, is the main thing. It’s the reason Jesus came into the world.

In the background of my thinking was something that Joseph Ratzinger (formerly Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in his excellent book on the first Christmas: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Discussing the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 that the Messiah will “save his people from their sins,” Ratzinger writes,

The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.[1]

Although our present-day challenges—in the industrialized West at least—can’t compare with Israel’s in the first century, isn’t it still true that forgiveness of sins often falls far short of what we think we need? Yet, as Ratzinger argues,

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.[2]

Like most preachers, I worry about repeating myself—repeating a theme, an idea, a sermon illustration. I don’t want to be boring or predictable. I also want my sermons to be practical and relevant—”the Good News you can use.” But this message of forgiveness of sins, made possible by the cross of Jesus Christ, is the central message of Christianity. The message of the cross can’t be repeated often enough. No message is more relevant for our lives.

1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.

2. Ibid., 44.

Bono: “I’m holding out for grace”

June 20, 2013
I love the fact that this very young Bono is playing a Fender Lead II. That's my guitar!

I love the fact that this very young Bono is playing a Fender Lead II. That’s my guitar!

Last week, Frank Viola blogged about a biography of Bono written by an author named Michka Assayas. I loved the following excerpt from an interview, in which Bono articulates the meaning of the Atonement about as well as anything I’ve read.

Michka: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Michka: I haven’t heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Michka: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Michka: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Michka: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled . It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Sermon 06-16-13: “Pressing On”

June 20, 2013
Vinebranch constantly challenged me to step outside of my small and safe comfort zone.

Vinebranch constantly challenged me to step outside of my small and safe comfort zone.

I preached the following farewell sermon in Vinebranch last Sunday using Paul’s words from Philippians about “pressing on to win the prize.” As I told the congregation, “I know I’m a better pastor and a better person now than I was six years ago. And the truth is, it’s mostly because I was trying to keep up with you.”

Sermon Text: Philippians 3:4-14

The following is my original sermon text with footnotes.

Some of you, I’m sure, will be running the Peachtree Road Race in a couple of weeks. I’ve run it several times in the past, and I’m struck by the “party atmosphere” of it: It’s a big celebration more than anything. It doesn’t really matter how fast we run it—or even whether we run it at all. The only thing that matters is that we cross the finish line—whether running, walking, crawling, sliding, skipping, rolling, or somersaulting—so that we can get the big prize: the T-shirt.


I know that in front of the 50 thousand or so who are running for the T-shirt there is a group of elite, world-class runners—probably some of Bill and Chat’s friends from Kenya—who are running for more than the T-shirt. But most of us, let’s face it, are in it for the T-shirt. Read the rest of this entry »

Saying goodbye with an Office-style movie

June 18, 2013


My own daughter made this for me! Can you believe it?

My own daughter made this for me! Can you believe it?

Stephanie Newton and John Ramminger, not to mention all the people in front of the camera, helped to put together this going-away video, which was shown in Vinebranch last Sunday. Enjoy!

Two of my heroes

June 17, 2013
Kenyan UMC pastor Paul Matheri speaks at the North Georgia Annual Conference in Athens, flanked by Bill and Chat Coble.

Kenyan UMC pastor Paul Matheri speaks at the North Georgia Annual Conference in Athens last week, flanked by my friends Bill and Chat Coble.

The theme of last week’s North Georgia Annual Conference in Athens was “Bridges to Mission.” My friends Bill and Chat Coble, UMVIM missionaries, talked to the 3,000 or so people there about their work in Kenya. They also had a question-and-answer session last Wednesday evening, at which Kenyan pastor and district superintendent Paul Matheri spoke.

Yesterday, Bill and Chat gave a testimony in both Vinebranch services about their work in Kenya—and I’m sure they inspired some of my congregation as much as they’ve inspired me. They are two of my heroes. Find out more about  their ministry, Start With One Kenya, here.

I put together the following video, which I showed in yesterday’s services. In the video, Chat is teaching a church in an IDP camp about the life-saving water filters that their ministry distributes.