The Architecture of Life Sermon

I preached today at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC (where Rev. Merianna Harrelson is the Pastor). The main thread of the sermon and the service was a rumination on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s talk at Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia in 1967. The video of his words was feared lost for decades until they were recovered and then posted here on YouTube. I have listened to many of MLK’s sermons available in various formats over the years, but this talk/lesson/sermon always resonates with me, given that I’m a teacher.

The basic idea is that we are all working on our life’s blueprint. That’s especially true for young people in school who need to hear this message. Good blueprints create good life patterns, whatever our age. What’s required is 1) deep belief in your own dignity, 2) determination to achieve excellence and 3) commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.

King distills so much wisdom and insight in these 20 short minutes. I highly suggest you watch it.

I’ve also attached the presentation from our worship service this morning with our Scripture from Deuteronomy and the accompanying liturgy.

Imagining Jesus (Again)

One of my favorite Bible studies to lead every year is the “Imagining Jesus” series, where we look at historical, theological, and entertainment (movies, music videos, cartoons, etc.) depictions of Jesus. The ultimate point is to help the participant realize that we “imagine” Jesus’ appearance, demeanor, and personality based on a number of our cultural influences and personal ideas (and perhaps reading the Gospels and New Testament more closely can help us expand our preconceptions). As a Baptist, I heavily emphasize reading the Bible rather than taking someone else’s word for it.

When we get to the end, people often ask me, “ok, ok, this is all good… but what did Jesus really look like?”. To answer, I usually turn back to this explanation from my beloved Dura Europos and how the closest conception we can get to what Jesus might have looked like actually comes from a depiction of Moses in the Synagogue there (or Abraham / Nehemiah in the second image here… there’s still debate there).

Good read during this Christmas Season, nonetheless!

“For all that may be done with modelling on ancient bones, I think the closest correspondence to what Jesus really looked like is found in the depiction of Moses on the walls of the 3rd Century synagogue of Dura-Europos since it shows how a Jewish sage was imagined in the Graeco-Roman world. Moses is imagined in undyed clothing, and in fact, his one mantle is a tallith since in the Dura image of Moses parting the Red Sea, one can see tassels (tzitzit) at the corners. At any rate, this image is far more correct as a basis for imagining the historical Jesus than the adaptations of the Byzantine Jesus that have become standard: he’s short-haired and with a slight beard, and he’s wearing a short tunic, with short sleeves, and a himation.”

When you tell your daughters that you collect images of Jonah and they send you one from a Basilica

Pretty cool kids…

It’s always been my conjecture that the Dura Europos Baptistry had images of Jonah present as a representation of the 3-day Resurrection event in a Jewish/Chritian context. There were depictions of Adam and Eve in the Baptistry area (along with Jesus as the Good Shepherd as well as other common representations from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in places such as the Catacombs in Rome).

Here’s an image of the Dura Baptistry from the original printing of Dura Europos and Its Art by Prof. M. Rostovtzeff (1938, Oxford Press)… one of my favorite books and possessions:

The top register includes a depiction of Jesus telling the disabled person by the Bethesda Pool to grab their cot and get up and walk off (John 5). It’s a terrific passage.

The amazing (and frustrating thing) is that the register literally flows the pool into a depiction of Jesus walking on water on the Sea of Galilee and getting Peter to hop out of the boat to walk towards him (Mark 6, Matthew 14, and John 6)… which doesn’t turn out well for Peter. The depiction here actually shows Peter sinking in the waves!

Here are the two panels we have with the earliest depictions of Jesus that we know of …

Dura Europos Baptistry Depictions of Jesus Healing the Paralytic and Walking on Water

While a grad student at Yale, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of years working at the incredible Yale Art Gallery with Prof. Susan Matheson and the talented staff there. One of my “jobs” (it was more like dream assignments) was working in the basement to catalog the Dura Europos collection with digital photography. I got to see this fresco on a pretty regular basis and we became good pals. If I knew then what I know now…

However, the frustrating part is that the water continues to flow to the next register… which has been lost to history after the sack of the (then) Roman Dura Europos in 256-257 CE by Sassanians and subsequent abandonment of the fort / town and eventual disappearance into history before the complete looting of the site by ISIS over the last decade. It’s a sad tale and I had always hoped to travel to Dura and participate in a dig where we’d uncover the other pieces of the top register in the Baptistry that would almost certainly have included Jonah being regurgitated from the fish and therefore seal my case about Jewish-Christianity extending well into the 3rd and 4th centuries. Alas.

Again, Jonah shows up quite often in early Christian artwork and imagery as a signifier of the Resurrection (the Catacombs especially), but I always wanted to see what those genius artists who designed the Dura Europos Baptistry did with the rest of the panels and the water theme as they perched between the edge of the desert and overlooking the Euphrates River.

Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary — so evangelicals silence it

I certainly had never heard of the term “Magnificat” until college. It’s difficult to divorce biblical passages such as these from contemporary politics when we are in a season of listening to footsteps. Good read in these closing days of Advent 2018:

Why has this song been forgotten, or trimmed, for so many people who grew up evangelical? It could be a byproduct of the Reformation, which caused Protestants to devalue Mary in reaction to Catholic theology. Or a lack of familiarity with liturgy, and an emphasis on other texts. Or perhaps the song doesn’t sound like good news if you are well fed, or rich, or in a position of power and might — or if you benefit from systems that oppress. How does the Magnificat feel if you aren’t one of the lowly, if you aren’t as vulnerable and humble as Mary?

— Read on

“Catholic in nature”

In a letter dated May 10, 2018 to Baker, church leaders say the congregation voted 131 to 40 to take down the work because community members view it as “Catholic in nature.” “We understand that this is not a Catholic icon, however, people perceive it in these terms,” the letter said, “As a result, it is bringing into question the theology and core values of Red Bank Baptist Church.”

Source: ‘The removal is between you and God’: Artist fights removal of C – – Columbia, South Carolina

What did Jesus look like?

I’ve taught a series on depictions of Jesus numerous times at churches and for Sunday Schools of all flavors. This is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on the subject. Thorough, but approachable.

Plus, there’s a connection to my beloved Dura Europos

However, there is one other place to look: to the synagogue Dura Europos, dating from the early 3rd century. The depiction of Moses on the walls of the synagogue of Dura-Europos is probably the closest fit, I think, since it shows how a Jewish sage was imagined in the Graeco-Roman world. Moses is shown in undyed clothing, appropriate to tastes of ascetic masculinity (eschewing color), and his one mantle is a tallith, since one can see tassels (tzitzith). This image is a far more correct as a basis for imagining the historical Jesus than the adaptations of the Byzantine Jesus that have become standard.

Source: – ANE TODAY – 201803 – What did Jesus look like?

Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

The following is my sermon from June 18, 2017 (Father’s Day here in the US) at New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, SC.

In countless American churches this morning, a preacher (mostly white males with white hair such as myself) will give a sermon about the importance of Fathers and how Fathers are their best when they match the example of God The Father with their own family.

The sermon writes itself, right?

Pluck a passage out of this collection of books about God The Father and talk about how God placed us men at the head of our families to model that notion of fatherhood. Be responsible, and be loving and caring, but be stern when needed (because those kids will test you, after all!). Be loving to your wife and support her in all that she needs while you’re out winning the bread because your wife is just like the church and can’t do much without your guidance and wisdom.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be too cynical here, but this is the word that God has laid on my heart. So bear with me.

I love my family. I love my children. They love me (right, kids?). But I’m not a fan of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day for much of the same reason that our family doesn’t participate in cultural Christmas. We need Easter more. And I want my children to know that.

I also want my children to know that the patriarchal language that we use when we talk about “God the Father” in the 21st Century United States is far far removed from the biblical witness. I don’t believe that God can be described as a male or in the sense of an American Dad anymore than I believe that an actual human-sized bunny breaks into houses all over the world once a year.

I want my family to hear from “Dad” that if we take our faith seriously, it comes with a whole set of challenges that we must face honestly in a world that encourages easy answers. In a world where Facebook posts and over sentimentality based on likes and hearts tells us to shut our minds to complicated issues, we are faced with a Jesus who tells us to listen up and to get ready to move.

I want my daughters and son to hear that God is not a male and is not white haired and doesn’t hold a lightning bolt at bay ready to strike you down if you displease HIM.

But in acting out on faith, it’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to get everything we want. Santa will not follow us all the days of our lives. There will be times when we are called weird, different, odd or even hurt psychologically or physically for a faith that goes deeper and is lived out in actions and intentional ways. But this is what happens when we let the Spirit of the Father speaking through us. And the Spirit of the Mother. And the Spirit of the one Triune God.

Hear now, the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ:

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

9:35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

9:37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;

9:38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

10:2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;

10:3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;

10:4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans,

10:6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

10:7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

10:8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

10:9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,

10:10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

10:11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.

10:12 As you enter the house, greet it.

10:13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

10:14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

10:15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

10:17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues;

10:18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

10:19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

10:20 for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

10:21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;

10:22 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

This is one of the five important sections in Matthew. Often called the Five Discourses of Matthew, these sections are perhaps meant to mimic the Five Books of the Torah in what we Christians now call the Old Testament. The Torah was of utmost importance to Jews in Jesus’ day but even the community around the author of Matthew would have still viewed them as their scripture as we don’t have anything like a New Testament yet (Matthew would have been written sometime around the year 75, or forty to forty-five years after the death of Jesus). Matthew was setting up Jesus as a new Moses. A Moses 2.0 that would restore Israel to its glory and righteousness as a people set apart to follow God’s law.

So in this section, we have a different depiction of Jesus that stands in contrast to the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew when Jesus commands his apostles to spread the Good News to all people on earth. Here, Jesus is only concerned with the people of Israel to the point where he actively directs his apostles not to go into Gentile or Samaritan towns.

That’s not always the Jesus we want to encounter, is it?

As we find Jesus here, he is doing lots of healing, preaching, and teaching in synagogues. But things aren’t particularly going as well for his ministry as we might-might think. The crowds, when there are any, are skeptical. He’s being sent out of towns for his works. Pharisees are accusing him and his disciples of being gluttons and hanging out with the wrong groups of people.

Previous to this, Jesus had just healed the bleeding woman, cured two blind men, raised up a dead girl, healed a paralytic, called Matthew to follow him, and healed a mute demoniac (which caused those who saw it called him the Ruler of Demons). Plus, he drove two deadly possessed souls into the body of a herd of pigs… and was asked to leave the town right away. It has been busy, but not necessarily easy or popular, time for Jesus and his ragtag group.

We open here with Jesus wandering around Israelite villages in the Galilee teaching in Synagogues, proclaiming the Kingdom, and curing diseases and sickness.

But he has a growing compassion for the people in these towns and villages. He sees them as lost sheep without shepherds or leaders.

We get the famous “harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” statement. It’s nice language that makes it easy to read this as a quick directive on missions work. But keep in mind that anytime we hear or read “Harvest” in the OT or NT, it’s not necessarily a positive term. In both, “harvest” normally refers to the judgment coming at the end of the age. Jesus sees the end times coming any moment.

I like this passage in many ways, but particularly it’s here that we see Jesus have something of a revelation himself. It’s almost as if he begins to see the enormity of his own mission and comes to grips with what his developing ministry needs.

And that’s where we come in.

After all of this healing, teaching, and preaching, Jesus realizes that it’s going to take others besides just himself for these ongoing missions. So here at the beginning of Ch. 10, Jesus gathers together his twelve disciples (12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples… 12 is an important number) and gives them authority to cast out unclean spirits, cure every disease. This is a new Israel. Jesus is enacting the Kingdom and not just preparing but actively setting up the infrastructure that will be needed when it arrives (which it will any minute now).

Jesus can’t do this all by himself. Just as Moses did.

Jesus uses the exact same phrasing as Moses did in Numbers “sheep without a shepherd” as he passes authority to the Apostles, just as Moses passed authority to Joshua. There’s an element here, where if we think about the early Christians living fifty or hundred years after the death of Jesus, that makes sense to the hearers of this text both then and now… we want legitimate leadership. Jesus is giving us that with these apostles just as Moses did with Joshua.

Then we get the names of the apostles themselves. See the change from “disciples” to “apostles”? It’s important. A disciple is one who follows. Apostle literally means “one sent out”. So, we see a transition here in Jesus’ group.

Then in Ch. 10 vs 5, we get “The Little Commission” to the Twelve. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the sick, cast out demons.

The apostles are sent to Israel, all Israel, and only to Israel.

This is an eschatological event. Jesus is enacting the Kingdom. THIS is the Kingdom. This is Heaven. I’m going to break the Fourth Wall here. This is what pastors or preachers or clergy have a hard time telling you. It’s almost like an industry secret. Like how Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are capitalist holidays created by corporations to make us spend money and why we emphasize Christmas so much more than Easter in our culture that is so much more in need of the Easter story than the one of the cute baby.


Here it goes.

Jesus is telling us here as he reconstructs Israel, as does the entirety of the biblical witness, that heaven will come down to the earth as the Kingdom of God draws near. Jesus isn’t just healing people or raising people from the dead in order to win souls for some afterlife where we’ll all float around on clouds and play harps. No, this is very real. And very now. And it should matter to us. Jesus here isn’t concerned with your soul or with the souls of Israelites. He is concerned with getting the people of Israel ready to enter the imminent and very real Kingdom of Heaven that will happen… here. Not somewhere up there after we die.

It is reaffirming and warming to think of heaven as some fantastical place where there will be chocolate fountains (well, in mine at least) and we’ll be reunited with Ol’ Sparky and have cool white robes. But that’s simply not what Jesus taught. We miss the point every time.

Instead, the Kingdom is coming here. Heaven and the reign of God will be in this reconstituted creation.

God is not abandoning the earth and drawing us all into a sky kingdom. It’s here and it’s real. It’s a place where the dead will rise, the sick will be made well and the disease will be cleaned. “Then there will be no time of sorrow.” In our world of modern medical marvels, food production at scale, and government programs meant to help those who have needs they cannot meet, it’s comforting to think that heaven or what Jesus is doing here is meant to edify our souls so that our souls can “go to heaven” after we die. But I don’t think that’s the point here or from any of the biblical witness on the Kingdom of Heaven.

So as we read the Little Commission and Jesus’ instructions to his newly-minted apostles here, we realize that there are an immediacy and importance to what he is directing them to do. Keep moving, don’t worry about whether you’ll make money if people don’t want to keep you or hear the Good News then shake the dust off your sandals and go. Don’t let money or gear slow you down. Move. Move. Move. The Kingdom of God is at Hand.

But then.


10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Tough passage and we try to make light of it. I’ve read pastors try to use it as a testimony to “Balancing Acts” or that Jesus is telling us to be “Prudent Yet Pure.”


It’s important to read this in the context of what is going on. Jesus is telling the Twelve that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. They must go. And go quickly. Spread the Good News. But, he says, but … know that not only will there be challenges. There will be persecutions, especially as you preach this to the Chosen People. Jesus has already felt the sting of rejection from his hometown, from the places where he performed miracles, and even from his family. But don’t look to a political party or TV host or blog or money seeking false teacher to tell you how you are being persecuted.

No, those trollings and persecutions and challenges won’t come from where you expect.

You, the apostles of Jesus (if you so desire) will face those same people Jesus faced who knowingly and unknowingly will curse you, persecute you, and look down on you because we live in a world where Christmas is much more important than Easter and it’s much easier to send a greeting card or an email or make a Facebook post than it is to actually get out and do something.

But realize, you will not be trolled or persecuted because you call yourself a Christian in the US. You won’t face the dirty underbelly of the internet or the office water cooler or the warehouse lunch room because you cling to a cultural form of Christianity that dilutes messages to platitudes and repeatable sound bites from the latest radio personality or Instagram meme card that we all just hearted. I want my family to hear that American Christianity is not under attack from some radical world government or a powerful fringe group of ultra-fascists looking to take our guns and our crosses and replace them with healthcare. No, the liberals are not persecuting American Christians. No, the conservatives are not taking away our religious liberties. We are all lost sheep. Jesus is calling us to be apostles.

Instead, Jesus is calling us to go beyond. Go deeper. Take our faith seriously. To take the Kingdom seriously. To have ears to hear and eyes to see rather than fingers to angrily respond to a tweet that doesn’t fit your previous conception of what it means to be one of God’s people.

God keeps us on our toes like that. So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are very real wolves ready to pounce. But be bold with God.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Go.

You will be persecuted because of the very name of the one who offers entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t worry about those who will mock and beat you and put you on trial or pick on your “weird” faith. Move. Go. Practice Resurrection. The Kingdom is at Hand.