Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


It takes a downright sinner to be a biblical saint.

The biblical book of Hebrews is not a letter. It was not written by Paul and it was not mailed to the Hebrews. Its origins are murkier, but its message is still on the mark. Think of it as a letter to the editor of the First Century’s Good News – a running commentary on testaments old and new. 

Hebrews sings a Song of the Saints of God, faithful and brave and true .It waxes poetic over the faithful deeds of our ancestors. One by one, salvation history’s star players strut on stage. The cast is dressed to impress. Cain and Abel. Abraham and Sarah. Isaac and Jacob. By faith there was Joseph and, of course, Moses, and the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea. Joshua and Rahab, at the Battle of Jericho. King David and King Solomon. A great cloud of witnesses.

Now Hebrews gives these saints a hero’s welcome. With God’s help “they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword and put foreign armies to flight.” Makes your heart beat a little faster just thinking about it, right? 

These are just the highlights, of course, the dramatic climaxes. The anonymous author of Hebrews has left out all the dirty, messy parts. Those lie in pieces on the cutting room floor. Let’s listen to these stories again. And with a little help from Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian pastor and author, one of my faborite authors. Let’s see if we  can read between the lines. 

In the beginning, East of Eden there were Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve’s boys. God preferred Abel to Cain. God is apparently not a vegetarian and he preferred a juicy leg of lamb to a nice bowl of couscous. But God’s love was poured out to no end on the rebellious Cain. Cain in a fit of jealous rage did his brother in with a pitchfork. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain said ‘I don’t know’, which didn’t fool God for a second. But even so, God let Cain’s crime be his punishment.

 So, Cain the farmer took to wandering forever fearful of being found out. A fugitive, without a leg to stand on, he complains to God. ‘You know, God, whatever bandits find me along the road will kill me. You know they will.’  So, God, out of love, protected Cain. He vowed vengeance on anyone who would touch a hair on his head. The God of mercy marked the murderer as his own and Cain went and dwelt in the land East of Eden. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

And then a multitude of generations later, there was Abraham, a righteous man of God. Who could be more faithful than Abraham? He packed up his home and family lock, stock and barrel and set out believing in some crazy land deal that Yahweh had promised. Imagine Abraham, a hundred years old and Sarah just shy of ninety, travelling by camel through the wilderness and she pregnant at that. Now these certainly have to be God’s saints. But that road to the Promised Land was long and difficult and when God wasn’t looking, Abraham took a few shortcuts. 

Low on food and supplies, Abraham took Sarah on a shopping spree into Egypt. He didn’t bring Sarah along just to push the shopping cart. He took her along as his cash flow card. You see Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, so Sarah could sleep with Pharaoh in exchange for a little food. Abraham, thinking himself quite clever repeated this disgraceful ruse with Abimelech. the King of Gerar. ‘Sure, you can sleep with her, she’s not my wife! She’s my sister, I tell you.’ 

Abraham subjected Sarah to abuse to advance his career as father of a great nation. Fortunately, God looked after Sarah even when Abraham did not. The first king, God strikes dead and the second king, Yahweh scares the bejesus out of him in his dreams. Abraham. a far less than faithful husband is rescued by the most faithful of Fathers. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

Fast forward a generation or two and we find ourselves in Jericho. We all know about Joshua “who fit the battle of Jericho.” But you may not be acquainted with Rahab.

Scripture tells us that she was the real hero of the story. She was one of Jesus’ great-great grandmothers and a most unlikely hero. You see she was a woman in a man’s world. She was also a foreigner, a Canaanite, and not to be trusted. And worst of all she was a business woman, an inn keeper and a ‘lady of the night’. Nevertheless, she and Joshua became strange bedfellows. You see the King of Jericho found out there were some Jewish spies shacked up at Rahab’s place. So, the King gave her a call and told her that she had better turn those boys loose or he would close down her house of ill repute.

 ‘Now Sir, I do believe there were a couple of shepherds who fit those descriptions, but I took their money and kissed them goodbye a good half hour ago’. When Rahab got off the phone with the King, she ran up to the roof where she had stashed the spies. ‘Boys’, she said, ‘with Yahweh on your side, I do believe that Jericho is going to be a pushover. I only ask that when the walls come tumbling down, you leave my house standing’. And so, by the wiles and deceit of the ‘lady of the night’ Rahab, Yahweh secured the Promised Land.  (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be her God. 

Eventually we know as the story goes, God raised up a king and no doubt the greatest of these was David.  He found David, a shepherd boy bringing up the rear of his flock behind his older brothers. God picked this scraggly little boy, the one with the flute and a slingshot in his pocket. David grew up to be a poet and a musician, a soldier and a story book king. He captured the hearts of his kingdom and he captured the city no one could capture — Jerusalem. All vainglory, he named it after himself — the City of David. And with a stroke of genius, he moved the Ark of the Covenant into town. This was kind of like having Yahweh himself move in next door. David brought the Ark into town with great fanfare — a parade of horns, harps, cymbals and psalms. And David himself marched at the front. And then without warning, he did the flashiest, tackies,t most flamboyant thing of all. David stripped down to his skivvies and danced in all his naked glory before the crowd – and before Michal his mortified wife. Well you know she just wanted to crawl under the floor.

 But Yahweh’s passion for his people caught fire in David. And David whirled and danced around the Ark in a blazing flame of glory. Well from that day on David went on the break the hearts of his people. His vanity, his deceit and lust got the better of him, but out of love – God claimed him anyway – and sat him on the throne. (Buechner, Peculiar Treasures) 

And God was not ashamed to be his God. 

God was not ashamed to be the God of Cain, to be the God of Abraham, to be the God of Rahab and the God of David. This does not mean they all got a pass or get-out-of-jail-free card. It does not mean that God blessed all that they did. Far from it, much of what they did made God weep, I am sure. And for it these biblical characters are just as accountable as you and me. 

 But God can do crazy wonderful things through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely times and places. And in fact, if you think about it, God created each and every one of us to be ourselves and no one else. Free to be our imperfect and sinful selves. By design we are all God has to work with in this world.

Yahweh loves us, yes, we know because scripture tells us this love story again and again. How else could this motley crew be a Chosen People?  A cloud of witnesses thick with murderers, liars, thieves, adulterers, and prostitutes. Love is the only explanation. Love is the only possible reason that God was not ashamed to be called their God. 

While we mortals may argue here on earth about who are the deserving poor or who has earned our mercy and who is worthy of our love, God does not. God takes a crazy leap of faith. God comes to live among us as Jesus, son of Mary. This Jesus ate with tax collectors and ladies of the night. He drank with dirty fishermen. A single man, he stayed in the home of Mary and Martha. He broke bread with the poor. He attracted the sick and sinners, alike. Jesus cast out their demons and healed their wounds. He gave them eyes to see with and legs to walk. 


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Show Up. It’s the Least You Can Do.

Show yourself, Jesus.  In the middle of drought and famine and disease, for God’s sake, why can’t you just show up?

This was the lament of the little village of Kingala, whose story is told by novelist Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible. It is the fictitious epic tale of a misguided mission to the Congo in the early sixties. Each chapter is narrated by the somewhat miserable minister’s wife and daughters. The youngest one writes:

Looking back over the months that led to this day, it seems the collapse of things started in October with the vote in the church. The congregation of Father’s church interrupted his sermon to hold an election on whether or not to accept Jesus Christ as the personal savior of Kingala.

 The crops were flat and dead. Fruit trees were barren. There were rumors of rain in the river valleys to the west and those tales aroused – the thirst of dying animals and crops. Tata Kuvudundu (the local witch doctor) cast her bone predictions. And nearly every girl in the village danced with a chicken on her head to bring down rain.

 Church attendance rose and fell. Jesus may have sounded like a very helpful sort of savior in the beginning, but he was not what the villagers had hoped.

 We went ahead and had church that day and Tata Ndu, the chief sat in the front pew. Papa preached a railing sermon against idolatry:

 ‘The people revered the statue of Baal and went every day to worship him, but Daniel worshipped the Lord our God. Don’t be fooled by a statue of clay and bronze!’

 Papa paused in his sermon for dramatic effect. Tata Ndu stood straight up and held up his hand.

 ‘Now is the time for the people to have an election. If you don’t mind, Reverend we will have our election now. We are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God for the Kingala village.’

 Papa tried to object by explaining that Jesus Christ was exempt from popular elections and that matters of the Spirit were not decided by polls. But Tata Ndu forged ahead.

 ‘You Americans say elections are good. You Americans say Jesus is good. Now we will have a vote.’

The voting bowls were passed up and down the pews.

 Jesus Christ lost: 11 to 56.

 One week after Easter, we are waiting for Jesus to show himself. One week out of the grave, we are waiting for him to make an appearance. To show up and do his job. His savior thing.

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Now most of us recognize the messiah, the same way we measure success. By the measure of peace, the measure of power, the measure of prosperity. Money in the bank?  Fancy car in the driveway? Promotion on the way?

We want a successful savior. One in a three-piece suit and a power tie. One who gets things done. One who can heal whatever sickens us. One who can resurrect whatever we may have ruined. Only water walkers and wonder workers need apply.

On this traditionally ‘low Sunday’ we have very high expectations. But given the current state of the world, like Thomas we have our doubts.

Doubt has dogged the faithful for two thousand years.

How can the divine die? How can the eternal end?

How can the dead bring the dead back to life?

Is this stuff historical? Or just mystical?

Physically true? Or just metaphysically true?

So much ink has been spilled struggling with these questions. Theological tome upon boring tome, has been penned trying to make sense of it all. Theology that would surely put you to sleep.

I typed  resurrection in the Bishop Payne library catalog search box and 2043 titles popped up. Type in Easter, you get 1002.  Doubting Thomas scores a mere 28.

Because maybe the story is ultimately not about Thomas (though we are ALL Thomas and Thomas is US). Maybe the story is about a “God coming to us, wherever we are”, no matter where we are.

Christians believe in a God who shows up.

On the second Sunday of Easter, two thousand years ago, Thomas the Apostle, was hoping for just that.  Frederick Buechner writes:

Imagination was not Thomas’ strong suit. He was a numbers man, a realist. He did not believe in fairy tales. Thomas wasn’t around at the time the rest of the disciples were as they sat together in the Upper Room. Doors locked. Shades drawn. Scared sick one of them would be next to be nailed to a cross.

When suddenly Jesus came in. He wasn’t a ghost or a figment of their imagination. He said ‘Shalom’ and showed them some of the Romans’ handiwork. To show them that he was as real as they were – and maybe more so.

 He breathed the Holy Spirit on them, gave them a few directions, and then he left.

 Now nobody knew where Thomas was at the time, maybe out for coffee, but he missed the whole thing. And he said, NO, I don’t’ believe you. Let Jesus show me himself, the marks in his hands, the wounds in his side.

 Eight days later Jesus shows up.

 Dumbfounded Thomas does not have much to say except, ‘My Lord and my God!’

 Jesus’ response to Thomas was to show up in person. Not in a book. Not in a creed. But in the flesh. Jesus let Thomas see his face and hear his voice and hold his ruined hands.

And that is the conundrum and miracle of Easter. We have a God with a human face – we may not recognize at first – but who shows up again and again.

In the tired nurse by the hospice bed.

In the relief worker handing out bread.

In the mother, hiding a timid child beneath her skirts.

In the words of a counselor, assuaging past hurts.

In the service of a soldier, setting captives free.

In the face of a stranger, in acts of random kindness and hospitality.

Thank God for this God. In this crazy and broken world, for me, this is the only kind of God who makes any sense. A God who embraces our lives despite our faults.  A God who believes in us, though like Thomas we doubt. A God who lifts us out of the dirt and into the light.

To live this earth bound but also resurrected life.

To live this earth bound but also resurrected life.

JoaniSign