Archives For Jason Micheli

Luke 15.11-32

St. Luke reports the motive. 

The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling, Luke writes at the top of chapter fifteen. They were outraged: “This Jesus welcomes sinners— tax collectors, even, Jewish enablers of Israel’s imperial enemy. This rabbbi welcomes the very worst sinners among us.” 

So Jesus, Luke says, told them three parables. The first about a lost sheep. The second about a lost coin. And then, a parable about a family. 

The father said his son had wandered far off from how he’d been raised. 

He’d wandered far from home. 

That’s what the father had told the tipline after the Charleston Police Department released Dylan Roof’s picture to the press just after six in the morning on June 18, already four years ago. The father called the hotline to identify the suspect as his son. The father warned them that Dylan owned a .45 caliber pistol, a gift he’d given his son for his twenty-first birthday. 

But the son had taken the father’s gift and left home and was now living out of his black Hyundai, the father told the tipline, adding that they could identify the nondescript car by the confederate flag on it. 

“My son’s gotten himself lost,” the father said, “obsessing over segregation and another civil war coming. I keep hoping he’ll come to his senses.” 

He’d wandered and gotten himself lost. 

The night before, aiming to ignite a nationwide race war, the father’s son crept into the fellowship hall of Emmanuel AME, an historically black church in Charleston. The pastor and eleven church members gathered there for Wednesday night Bible Study welcomed him and invited him to join them. 

Seeing the stranger, Polly Sheppard, one of the leaders of the Bible Study, declared that “if our guest has come to Emmanuel in search of God, we will guide him to God.” She didn’t know he carried hidden in his napsack a Glock and eighty-eighty bullets— the number symbolic for “Heil Hitler.” 

The class members pulled up a chair for him. They gave him a Bible. They offered him a spare copy of the study guide. 

They prepared table in the presence of their enemy. 

He joined them in turning to the Gospel of Mark, chapter four. They were in the middle of a Bible Study on the parables of Jesus. And he sat next to them and studied with them the Parable of the Sower as Mark tells it. 

After an hour, a class leader named Myra read from their study guide: “In like manner, the seed of God’s word, falling upon a heart rendered callous by the custom of sinning, is straightaway snatched away by the “Evil One.”” 

Given their hospitality towards him, he almost changed his mind. But, while they all bowed their heads and closed their eyes to pray, he pulled his gun, quickly, as he’d practiced. 

And then he wandered out, even more lost than when he’d come, as Felicia Sanders, one of the three survivors, wept Jesus’ name over and again. 

You know the story. 

Two days later Dylan Roof appeared before a magistrate in Charleston County’s bond court. Reporters, photographers, and cameramen filled the courtroom to cover the bail hearing. Cable news stations showed Dylan Roof as he entered escorted by a sheriff, wearing shackles and a gray striped jumpsuit. 

As the black-robed and silver-haired judge announced the case, on the other side of the world, in Dubai, Steve Hurd, whose wife had been a victim and who was desperately trying to make his way home, stood up in an airport bar and pointed at the television screen and shouted: “That! That thing killed my wife!”

Before the bond hearing concluded, Judge James Gosnell read the names of the victims, carefully, one at a time. Having finished, he invited their family members to come forward to speak. 

Nadine Collier, the youngest daughter of Ethel Lance, sat in the back and hadn’t planned to say anything. 

Yet, when her mother’s name was read, she later said she felt herself rise. Something moved her to the front of the packed room, she said. And as she walked forward, she said she heard her mother’s voice warning her, “I don’t want any fast talking out of you today. Don’t be a smart-ass today.” 

Nadine’s Mother, Ethel, had been the church’s custodian. Ethel had chided Nadine for her stubborness and incendiary sense of humor, but in the bond coutroom Nadine was determined that her words would be her mother’s words and her mother’s words had always been disciplined by the Gospel Word. 

Nadine was so overcome by the Holy Spirit that when she stepped the microphone, at first she couldn’t remember her name. 

“You can talk to me,” the judge told her, “I’m listening to you.”

Instead Nadine looked at the lost son and summoned what she knew her mother would’ve said to him:

“I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you! You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you! And have mercy on your soul. You. Hurt. Me! You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. And I forgive you.” 

And then she turned away from him and returned to her seat. 

Next, a pastor, Anthony Thompson, came forward on behalf of his dead wife, Myra. A retired probabtion officer, he knew the bond hearing was only a formality so he hadn’t planned to say anything. 

Like Nadine, the Spirit compelled him, he said later. He stood at the lectern, staring at Roof. In his mind, he said, it was as if everyone else had vanished and he was sitting alone with the killer in his jail cell. 

In fact, Reverend Thompson spoke so softly the judge had to ask him to speak up. 

“I forgive you,” the pastor whispered to him, “and my family forgives you, and we invite you to give your life to the one who matters the most; so that, he can change it, change you, no matter what happens to you.”

When Felicia Sanders heard her son, Tywanza‘s, name read by the judge, she said she felt God nudge her foward. 

As she walked to the microphone, clutching a ball of folded-up tissues, she said she’d thought about how her baby boy was in heaven now and how Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a father who forgives his son who’d wished him dead. Therefore, she figured, forgiveness was the way she’d see her son again. 

And so she said to the lost son who’d killed her son: 

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts! And I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but he was also my hero! As we say in Bible Study: We enjoyed you, but may God have grace and mercy on you.”

Other family members spoke too. All of them echoed the same themes of God’s unmerited grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. 

If you read Luke’s parable closely, it’s the gratuity of the grace that sets him off.

Whatever resentments the older brother was harboring, whatever anger lay buried inside him already— it’s the singing and the dancing and the feasting and the rejoicing that send him over the edge. Why shouldn’t it?

     Ancient Judaism had clear guidelines for the return of a penitent. Ancient Judaism was clear about how to handle a prodigal’s homecoming.  There was nothing ambiguous in Ancient Judaism about how to treat someone who’d abandoned and disgraced his family. It was called a ‘kezazah’ ritual, a cutting off ritual. 

Just as they would have done when the prodigal left for the far country, when he returned home members of his community and members of his family would have filled a barrel with parched corn and nuts. 

And then in front of everyone, including the children— to teach them an example— they would smash the barrel and declare, “This disgrace is cut-off from us.”

     Having returned home, thus would begin his shame and his penance. 

     So you see, by all means, let the prodigal return, but to bread and water not to fatted calf. 

     By all means, let him come back, but dress him in sackcloth not in a new robe. Sure, let him come back, but make him wear ashes not a new ring. By all means let the prodigal return, but in tears not in merriment, with his head hung down not with his spirits lifted up. Bring him to his knees before you bring him home. 

     Celebration comes after contrition not as soon as the sinner heads home. Repentance is more than saying “I’m sorry” and forgiveness cannot be without justice. It’s the outrageousness of the forgiveness that outrages him. Here’s the thing: the eldest, he’s absolutely right. 

It’s as if, in this parable, Jesus is after something different— something bigger— than what’s right.

One of the children of the Emmanuel Nine stood on the outside, looking in on their outrageous Gospel celeration. 

Sharon Risher is Nadine Collier’s sister. 

Of church custodian Ethel Lance’s five children, Sharon is the oldest. 

She is the one who’d helped their mother care for her deaf brother. She is the one who showed up and did whatever needed to be done when Ethel’s second child, Terrie, struggled in a fatal battle with cervical cancer. She is the one who made their mother proud by being ordained and working as a trauma chaplain in Dallas. 

Resentments still lingered between Sharon, the eldest, and Nadine, the youngest, from the fight that exploded between them at their sister, Terrie’s, funeral. 

Sharon was still in Dallas, packing for a late flight to South Carolina, when the bail hearing came on the network news. Pacing her apartment and chain-smoking cigarettes, she heard her youngest sister, Nadine, mention their Mother— Ethel’s faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ— before announcing in a quavering voice, “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you!”

With her black horn-rimmed glasses pointed at the TV screen, Sharon watched from afar as other victim’s family members echoed her sister’s outrageous sentiments. 

“What is going on?” she asked the television.

Nadine hadn’t told her about any bond hearing much less anything about any plans to offer up forgiveness for him— the police hadn’t even contacted her. While busy juggling her work and now her responsibilities as the family’s eldest, she just stumbled upon it on the TV. 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” she wondered aloud. 

When the news coverage of the hearing ended and the anchors marveled at the extravagant display of grace, Sharon felt infuriated. Not two days had passed. They hadn’t even buried their mother. She still hardly knew any details of what he had done. 

Seeing their outrageous display of forgiveness on the TV screen, Sharon, Ethel Lance’s eldest, refused ever to join in. 

“I’m the one who knows what should be done. How can you forgive this man?!” Sharon screamed the television.

  When Sharon finally arrived in Charleston, she and her sister Nadine embraced, but the latter didn’t feel any warmth from the former. 

None was intended, the eldest said. 

 

Colloquial wisdom says that Jesus taught in parables so that the everyday rabble would better understand him. Clearly, whoever first made that argument hadn’t read many of Christ’s parables. 

Surely though the members of the Bible Study at Emmanuel knew better. Likely, in their study guide on the parables of Jesus, they’d already encountered Jesus explaining to his disciples that the reason he taught in parables was so that the crowds would not understand him. 

Jesus taught in parables— according to Jesus— not to make his teaching clear for the eavesdropping crowds but to confuse them. “To you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but to them it has not been given.”

Jesus teaches in parables because the offensive, upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God is not for everybody to know. 

Just anyone (who knows not Jesus) cannot possibly understand such a counterintuitive Kingdom. 

You’ve got to see such a Kingdom before you can believe it— you’ve got to catch a glimpse of it. 

The words need to find flesh. 

Jesus teaches in parables because the parables aren’t for everyone. 

Jesus teaches in parables because the parables are for the new family constituted by his call his call to baptism and discipleship. 

Jesus teaches in parables that are unintelligible to the world; so that, Jesus’ disciples might then live lives that make intelligible the Kingdom disclosed in those parables. 

That is, the parable Jesus gives to the unbelieving world is the parable that the Church tells by its becoming a parable— by exemplifying for the world what Jesus deliberately obscures from the world. 

This parable at the end of Luke 15– it’s not a picture of a generalized, universal principle of forgiveness to which anyone can aspire. 

We are meant to be the way of the Son in the far country of Sin and Death. 

As Stanley Hauerwas says, a God who forgives sinners without giving them something to do is a God of sentimentality. This is why the lectionary always pairs Christ’s parable of the family with St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: 

“If anyone is in Christ [by baptism] there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 

Christ has given the ministry of reconciliation to us— not to Congress, not to POTUS OR SCOTUS, not to Democrats, not to Republicans, to us.

Christ has given us— the new family of the Father and the Son, created by baptism— Christ’s own ministry of reconciliation.

Christ has given it to us; therefore, it’s not simply something we should do or ought to do in order to get to Christ. We’re already in Christ. And Christ has given us his ministry of reconciliation; therefore, it’s something we can do— it’s something we get to do. 

Karl Barth said one of the ways we’re hostile to God’s grace, one of the ways we contend against God’s grace is by not doing what we may and can do, for grace not only pardons; grace empowers. 

Grace empowers us to live lives that make no sense if the one who told this parable of the family is not Lord. 

Grace not only pardons. 

Grace empowers us to live lives that corroborate the Gospel. 

Grace empowers us to live lives that corroborate the Gospel because what God wants is not just your life but the whole world. 

We are, as St. Paul says in that same passage, “ambassadors of Christ.” 

The Living God, the apostle Paul writes, is determined to make his appeal through us, the particular, peculiar people called Church. 

We’re the parable Christ communicates to the wider, watching world. 

At the end of their testimony at Dylan Roof’s bond hearing, the Charleston police chief, Greg Mullen, said he sat in awe of how, with the world watching, God’s Church had rendered every reporter in the courtroom speechless, their jaws all hanging open, dumbfounded, amazed at grace. 

”As a preacher, I am in over my head on a weekly basis, saying far more than I know for certain, continuously bordering on blasphemy, risking, and fully exposed to contradiction and rejection. It’s a tough way to make a living, but it is the best living worth God’s making.”

Friend of the podcast, mentor, and muse, Will Willimon joined Teer and Jason to talk about his brand new (wondeful) memoir, Accidental Preacher. His answer to the last of the Ten Questions: Q: “Since heaven exists, what do you want to hear God say when you arrive?” A: ”I won’t like it, but it’d be just like God to say “Oh Will, welcome— the Trumps are right over there. They’ve been waiting for you.””

Before you listen, click over to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can support the show by purchasing you’re very own Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.

 

When God appears to him in an unconsuming fire, calling and commissioning Moses, who’s on the lam in the desert for murdering a man, Moses rightly asks for God’s name. Moses knows that his hearers in Pharaoh’s court will inquire of him which god has dispatched him to bring them a message of liberation. 

The god of which place? The god of what function? Moses anticipates them asking. 

By answering “I Am Who I Am,” Yawhweh refuses to be confined to a particular place or people. The God who is “I Am Who I Am” is Being itself; this God will not be circumscribed to a specific location nor limited— as the fertility gods— according to utility. 

Likewise, God issues the same refusal earlier in Genesis 12. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram in a burning bush. The God who calls Abram doesn’t appear to Abram at all. The God who calls Abram just calls. 

The ancient rabbis believed that Abram’s father was idol maker. Whether that’s true or not, Abram did grow up in a culture populated by a pantheon of gods— useful deities who could be fashioned out of wood and stone, gods that could be sought out when you needed them and put back on the shelf when you didn’t. Abram grew up with gods who were visible and confined to particular places and people and called upon only on particular days.

But this God who calls Abram is different, different from the gods he grew up with.

This God who calls Abram just calls.

Unlike the gods he grew up with, this God who calls Abram is invisible. Invisibility, that’s scripture’s way of speaking of God’s omnipresence. Because God is not precisely there, God can always be here, which is to say, everywhere. You can bet Abram’s takeaway from his encounter with the Living God matched Moses’ takeaway: the discovery that the God who hung the stars in the sky is everywhere. 

There is no where Abram can go in his life where this God isn’t already.

And calling Abram, this God immediately sends Abram away his land. 

To belong to the true God is to be summoned out of your place of birth and people of belonging.

This God is not a god who can be taken off the shelf to bless the land where you live.

This God is a God who calls people out of their people to be a pilgrim people.

In order to bless the entire world. 

As Karl Barth notes, the Israelites received the Torah amidst a theophany on Mt. Sinai; therefore, the commandments themselves are not natural, universal principles but are a revelation of God. And because this revelation of God comes amidst their delivery from one master to another Master, the commandments also function as a kind of description of an idolatrous society. In as much as “Thou shall not kill” is a command it’s also an indication that the society which worships God falsely is a society marked by violence. Thus the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods except me,” is a command meant to contrast with the land whence they came. 

Unlike Yahweh, the false gods of the Old Testament represent a settling for a partial local identity. 

The late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe, writes that “to worship the local gods of the Old Testament meant seeing oneself as essentially belonging to this tribe, this place, this time.” The false gods with which Moses, Abram, and the Israelites in Egypt were familiar were closely tied to the soil of a particular region, to the fixed rhythms of nature, or to the structures of a particular society. “The call away from this to the worship of the non-god Yahweh,” McCabe insists, “meant a radical dissatisfaction with any such settled belonging.”

Yahweh doesn’t simply give the Israelites the commandments as they’re getting out of Egypt; rather, Yahweh gives the commandments to the Israelites so that the commandments might function as the means by which Yahweh gets Egypt out of the Israelites. The problem with nationalism, then— or, even, patriotism, is that it replicates the very devotion Yahweh would have his pilgrim people renounce. The Ten Commandments essentially confess to our idolatries “I do not believe, and I will not serve you.” 

The danger posed by nationalism is the lure of false worship. 

The false gods made you feel at home in a place, McCabe observes, that was their purpose. The fake gods had to do with the country in which you grew up and loved. The fake gods affirmed where you were and thus affirmed who you were. By doing so, rather than creature to Creator, the fake gods bound your identity as a person to your place of origin. Thus the idol creates a dependent, mutually reinforcing relationship between place and personhood such that to critique the former risks undoing the latter. 

In other words, idolatry requires mythology. 

The fake gods of nation and state demand obeisance to false narratives of exceptionalism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was no stranger to the fake gods, said the danger of nationalism is not love of one’s country but that very often nationalism— even patriotism— does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this “religion” of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church by its baptism into the exodus of Christ’s death and resurrection has been commissioned to confront. 

That is, nationalism is an idol which makes it difficult for Christians, in obedience to the true God, to call bullshit, as Stanley Hauerwas counsels Christians, on the Powers of the places where they find themselves and this fake god makes it impossible for Christians to confess truthfully our own promiscuity with these other lords. 


In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul mixes his metaphors when he writes about the already but still not yet character of the New Creation. Paul uses both the language of adoption and childbirth. I never before considered the soundness of Paul’s dissonant terms until I reflected upon what it’s like to be the adoptive, white parent of an Hispanic children in Trump’s America.  

It reveals the extent of my white privilege that, even though he’ll be a junior this fall, I’m still naive and thus fail to anticipate how others will often treat my son. Alexander, my son, in other words, has delivered me, groaning and with sighs too deep for words, into a world I would not know apart from his adoption in to our family.

For instance— 

Some months ago, I took Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. We own a home there and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back. We’ve just got to make he’s not one of them.”

When I implied that she was being racist by asking her, “What gives you permission to treat my son in such a racist way?” she suddenly acted as though she was the offended party. Wounded, she replied, “I’m no such sort of person. I believe all lives matter.” 

“Seriously?” my son said, shaking his head. 

I could tell from his jaw, clenched to hide his embarrassment, sticks and stones could not have hurt him as much as her words. 

There have been other moments just like the day at the DMV. I thought of them this past Saturday after I learned of a gunman named Patrick Crusius targeting people who look like my kids in an El Paso WalMart. I clicked over to the Washington Post on my iPhone after taking pictures of my boys as they shot pellet guns with their grandpa. The racist rhetoric we read on Twitter, hear from the campain trail, and later excused or normalized on cable TV was echoed in Crusius’ online screed. The latter validated if not directly motivated by the former.

We can debate guns (and whether stomaching the deaths of so many innocent children at the altar of a version of the second amendment is not the very definition of child sacrifice to an idol) another day. 

What’s not debatable, Christianly-speaking— 

Words have power. 

As every Jew and Christian should know (for the Bible tells us so), the loquacious Lord Almighty creates and destroys with nothing but words, and, as creatures made in this God’s image, our words too have the power “to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, to build and to plant.” Not only does God create everything from nothing by nothing but speech, speech is so constitutitive of God’s identity that the Gospel names the second person of the Trinity as the Word which worded all of creation in existence. 

Jesus, John testifies, is the rhetoric of God. 

When (so-called) evangelical Christians minimize, dismiss, or excuse a leader’s nativist, racist rhetoric as “just words,” as Rev. Robert Jeffress recently did— not for the first time, it is a failure of catechesis.

The creeds remind Christians every Sunday that Christianity is primarily a language. Discipleship is extended training in learning how to speak Christian. Words matter. Words matter more so for Christians, for we are the peculiar people who call God “Word.” Therefore, the words we use to speak about racism matter too. 

And because words matter, story matters too. 

Story is exactly what is at stake in a culture that seeks to avoid difficult stories by telling us the lie that we’re free to choose our own story. Black and brown Americans have a particular, peculiar story to tell that can be neither lost nor obfuscated if America (or, even, the Church in America) is to be a truthful people. The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, for example, matters because it recognizes how African-Americans share not only a common story but a story which reminds them how they need one another and need each other to remind them of the Enemy they face. Meanwhile, the problem with rhetoric like All Lives Matter is that it emerges from no peculiarly shared, community-bound story. All Lives Matter, at best, is a universal principle, and as a people who worship a God who took particular flesh in a specific crucified Jew, Christians refuse to speak in terms of generic universal truths.

But white Americans— at least, white Christians who happen to live in America— should not feel threatened by the imperative felt by black and brown Americans to remember and retell their own story. The felt threat is a symptom of our inability as Americans to grapple truthfully with how we are a slave nation and how the Civil Rights movement was not the success our self-understanding as white Americans requires it to have been. That many feel threatened by the stories of brown and black Americans and do not how to locate themselves within that ugly story demonstrates, I think, how conversations about race and racism become unintelligible to the extent they get abstracted away from the particular language of sin and redemption.

Without the language of the Church, and the low anthropology with which it views the old Adam that in every one of us, we’re left instead with the American myth of moral progress as our alternative. The presumption that we’ve overcome racism becomes a part of how we understand ourselves as Americans. Thus, many of us feel compelled to deny the President’s racism— and our own— because the abiding presence of racism in America (and in us) threatens our self-understanding as Americans. 

As Joe Winters argues in Hope Draped in Black, the narrative of moral progress— or, as theologian Gerhard Forde would term it, the glory story— is not only a false narrative it is, like all lies, a pernicious narrative, for it’s “truth” relies upon minimizing conflicts and contradictions. The stories of brown and black Americans agitate against the myth of moral progress, requiring the telling of stories in tension with it. 

This is why so many white people are angry. 

They no longer know how to tell their story. 

To this extent, conservatives who wish to blame mass murders on the alienating effects on secularism are correct in a way they themselves do not appreciate. They’re right that white Americans no longer have a story to call their own; they’re wrong in assuming that white Americans’ former story— which was the “American” story— was a story sufficient to narrate a good life.

There are only two options in dealing with a wrong so wrong, like slavery and racism, it seems nothing can be done to make it right. The first option is to forget it, which the glory story of American moral progress unintentionally invites us to do. The only other option is to frame the story of the wrong within a story of sin and redemption. 

The tragedy of white Americans’ racism is that white Americans— at least, white Christians who happen to live in America— are not without a story. 

White Christians already possess their own particular story, not the generic story of All Lives Matter, but the story of the One who died for sinners and rose from the dead for their justification. White Christians in America, who ought to be confessing their badness every Sunday, should be the last white people in America offended by the notion that they too are racist in ways visible and invisible to them; likewise, they should be the people most ready to hear the testimony of those whose stories undermine the story in which Caesar attempts to condition us. White Christians already possess a story which punctures the stifling myth of moral progress which we learn every day is a lie. That story frees us to hear truthful testimony from others, for it insists that we are always at once, simultaneously, sinful yet reckoned in the right only according to God’s gratuitous forgiveness. 

As Stanley Hauerwas argues:

“Racism is a sin that can only be dealt with by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If slavery is a wrong so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right, the only alternative is to be drafted into a history of God’s redemption that makes confession and forgiveness a reality. Only those who are willing to be called sinners can be forgiven and only those who are willing to be forgiven are those who can seek reconciliation with those they have harmed.”

For American Christians to be a truthful people, white and black and brown Christians must share their stories with another, testing their testimonies against the truthfulness of the cross. Just as God’s siding with the enslaved Israelites is part of God’s rescue of his entire creation, so too white Christians in American should have the courage of their convictions to see how within the particular stories witnessed to by black and brown Christians in America is a story that includes their redemption too.

Martin Luther believed the way we make moral progress as Christians— the only way to sanctification— is by a daily dying; that is, by returning over and again to our justification, the news that we’re sinners graced by God. 

In other words, words couldn’t matter more. 

To the extent then that white Christians shut our ears to the painful and angry stories of others who do not look like us, insisting that their stories corraborate our own, we risk not only truthfulness but our own holiness. 

And thus, our salvation.


God’s grace is a commanding grace, Karl Barth says. The sheer fact that God turns towards us to say anything at all means that revelation IS grace. God’s free forgiveness is inseparable from God’s command and call for us to be his particular people in the world.

Across decades and in over 20 books, Stanley Hauerwas has explicated those sentences above, equipping the Church to be the Church so that the world might learn it’s the “world.” Though as a preacher I work in the medium of wild exaggeration, I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I give God thanks every day that God put Stanley into my life. Folks like Barth, Fleming, Luther, DBH and others make my Mt. Rushmore, but it’s Stanley that I return to again and again. From him, I’ve learned that the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord and the purpose of the Church is not to make the world come out right but to perform the Gospel so that the lives of Christians might make it intelligible.

This is an old episode, one of our first, in which I failed to get Stan off his usual talking points. Oh well, look for an upcoming episode with Stan and David Hunsicker about David’s new book on The Making of Stanley Hauerwas.

In the meantime, get your very own Stanley T-Shirt emblazoned with his choice quip “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit.”

To learn more about the podcast and to get your very own Hauerwas Mafia t-shirt, visit www.crackersandgrapejuice.com/hauerwas

Here’s a snippet from my new book, Living in Sin: Making Marriage Work Between I Do and Death. You can get your copy here. Just think this may be your only opportunity to pick up a Christian book whose title pulls it up in Amazon with a whole bunch of porny-sounding romance novels. Here you go…

Many engaged couples I meet have only vague goals for their marriage: We want to be happy. We want to have a family. We want to be best friends.

“That’s all well and good,” I’ve typically told them, “but how in the hell do you measure goals that airy?”

Likewise, I’ve met with many married couples who describe their marriage as “stagnant” or “stuck.” They have no idea where they’re trying to go.

“You only put your car in drive to head toward a destination,” I tell them, feigning a fraudulent wisdom. “Otherwise you leave it in park. Or neutral. And if you’re not headed to any particular, specific destination, it’s not long before you’re wondering why you’re wasting your time sitting in a car that’s not moving. And it’s not long before you get annoyed with all the commotion the kids are making in the back seat.”

Theologians use the term telos to describe human life. It’s Greek for end. By it, they mean that having been made in God’s image, a life well-lived is one with a trajectory that points to and proceeds toward Christ and his grace. Sin is literally something that gets our lives off track.

Husbands and wives should have specific, concrete goals for their marriage. Not only should couples have micro goals for each stage of their marriage, they should have macro goals for their marriage as a whole. It’s just common sense. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can end up anywhere but there. You cannot solve the problem of impotence effectively. And if you don’t know where you’re trying to get, it’s very easy to get hung up on things that don’t matter and to compromise on things that do.

For years I’ve told engaged couples to imagine their married life as a story or memoir—as a book. “What do you want the dust jacket to say?” I ask them. “What do you want the summary of your story together to be?”

And I tell them to be damn specific. I tell them I don’t want to hear something like “Dick and Jane were just so happy together because they loved each other so much.” That’s usually what their first drafts will say. I tell them they should choose, together, three to five things they want to accomplish in their marriage and weave that into dust-jacket summary:

Dick and Jane built their dream house at X.

Dick and Jane traveled to Y.

Dick and Jane worked to make sure their relationship was always characterized by Z, that nothing ever changed _______ about them.

Sure those three to five things can change as life happens and things change, but you’ve got to be intentional about identifying what the new three to five things are when that happens. You’ve got to be intentional about what the rewrite on the dust jacket says now.

“This isn’t about married people having a bucket list,” I counsel them, “It’s about married people having a compass to steer by. You have to have an agreed-upon basis by which you’ll make decisions and set priorities as a couple. You have to be able to say as a married couple: These are the three to five things we refuse to compromise on in our marriage. Because the truth is, if you have goals in your marriage you won’t compromise on, it’s less likely that other things will compromise your marriage. You’ve got to know the ending of the story you’re trying to get to. You’ve got to know what your dust jacket says.” 

I think it’s good counsel for couples, and it’s always been received as such, but I don’t think I ever appreciated how the oughts accuse us as couples into thinking our story needs to be about something awesome and extraordinary. With the dust-jacket lingo, I gave couples a good image by which to think about the trajectory of their marriage. 

I just never gave them enough freedom. 

I didn’t convey clearly to them: What do you want the dust jacket of your story to say now that you have the freedom for it not to say anything in particular at all?

When the Peasants’ Revolt roiled the kingdoms of sixteenth-century Germany, the unprecedented violence and depravity of war spurred a wave of doomsday preaching and end-times predictions. Many churchmen, including Martin Luther, suspected the apocalypse was near and Christ’s return was around the corner. With the world upside-down and maybe nearing closing time, Luther didn’t put on a sandwich board or pick up a bullhorn. He didn’t throw himself into prayer or fasting. He didn’t become a prepper, packing away food into flood buckets. 

He got married.

If the end was nigh and Christ was near, Luther didn’t think he was required to be found doing super-spiritual, pious, religious acts, as though he needed to impress God or had any outstanding IOUs. No, if the Maker of heaven and earth was about to bring heaven to earth, then Luther wanted to be found by the Creator living as a creature. He wanted to be found tending his little patch of the garden of God, an unanxious Adam with an at-ease Eve, both of them unafraid because of the happy news that the Creator has already born all the brokenness of the Old Creation away in his body and has returned to still the groanings and labor pains of a New Creation awaiting its promised full and final redemption.

Marriage, therefore, isn’t a religious vocation. 

It is a creaturely one. 

Marriage is one of the ways we give flesh-and-blood expression to the gospel announcement that “religion” (what we do to get right with God) is over and done, consummated once for all by the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Marriage is a means that two creatures, in all their sin and infuriating imperfections, wonder and beauty, embody the hilarious news of God’s grace. 

Marriage is a creaturely vocation because the work of religion is finished for all time. In marriage, we can enter one another’s lives fully, embracing another as they are and accepting the two of you together as you are, with all your dirt and in all your delight, freed by the knowledge that, because Christ has taken care of everything, your marriage doesn’t need to be anything. 

Your marriage doesn’t need to be anything other than what you want it to be. 

An ordinary marriage can become something extraordinary, a sacrament even, once it’s freed from the burden of being a religious undertaking.

It’s true, as I said at the outset, that by their mutual vows husband and wife become a parable of the love of God. But that’s not as weighty or freighted as it sounds, for the Christ who compares his kingdom to a wedding party also compares his kingdom to a stupid sheep who can’t help but get itself lost. 

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves. Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless. Sheep aren’t like other animals. Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Even goats do work by which they earn their value. The only real work—if you can call it work—a sheep performs is trusting the shepherd’s voice. 

By our daily “I do’s” to one another, living in sin yet loving one another in spite of those sins, we become a parable of the Shepherd who found us lost. He put us on his shoulders and carried us back once and for all, so that, as his friends, we can rejoice in one another as the stupid but spectacular creatures we are. 

We’ve been working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time and now we’re in the crappy letters.

What in the world starts with X?

In this episode, we talk about the word “xeno” the Greek New Testament word for Stranger. As in, “I was a xeno and you welcomed me…” With xenophobia an abiding facet of human sinfulness, it’s always a good idea to reflect upon how God comes to us in the guise of One we’d rather demonize and wall-off from ourselves.

Don’t end up a goat…listen to the latest.

 

This Sunday I’m the featured preacher at Day 1 Radio, the Protestant Hour, where I join former guests like Fleming Rutledge, Will Willimon, and Billy Graham. That’s a preposterous sentence. Anways, my text was this Sunday’s epistle lection from Colossians 3.1-11.

You can check it out here or below.

     According to my Facebook Timeline, I preached on this lectionary text from Colossians 3 exactly two years ago today. 

     Actually, my Facebook Timeline reminded me that two former youth, Will and Becca, exchanged marriage vows, two years ago today. 

     Will and Becca chose this passage from Paul about putting on Christ for their wedding service. Well, they didn’t choose the part about fornication. 

     And they didn’t just choose this text; they also chose a reading from the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem from the Old Testament that makes 50 Shades of Grey sound like a Cary Grant and Doris Day movie. 

     It’s probably for the best that the lectionary today only gives us one of those passages I preached for Will and Becca. 

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     I’d known them since Will was 8 and Becca was 7.

     And so I wanted to do a good job with their wedding. I wanted to make sure I preached clearly this passage from Colossians 3 that they’d chosen and that through it I said something not only helpful but gospel true. 

     So I started by asking them a question, a Colossians 3 sort of question, the question begged by every bridal magazine, rom-com, and wedding ceremony. 

     I asked them this question: 

     If love is a feeling, how in the world can you promise to love someone forever? 

     If love is a feeling, how can two people promise that to each other forever?

        Of all the things in our lives, our feelings are the part of us we have the least control over. You can’t promise to feel a certain feeling every day for the rest of your life.

     If love is a feeling, then it’s no wonder the odds are better than even that it won’t last.

     Two years ago today I’m not sure Will and Becca heard that as good news.  

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      And then- 

     Then it got worse for me. 

     Because then I turned to the New Testament and reminded them that love in the New Testament isn’t just something you promise to another. It’s something you’re commanded to give another.

     When a rich lawyer asks Jesus for the key to it all, Jesus says: ‘Love the Lord completely and love your neighbor as yourself.’

     And when Jesus washes his friends’ feet, he tells them: ‘I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.’

     And when the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians he commands them to ‘bear with each other, forgive one another, put on love.’ 

    Those are all imperatives.

     Jesus doesn’t say like your neighbor. Jesus doesn’t say you should love one another. Paul doesn’t tell us to try to love and forgive one another.

     They’re imperatives not aspirations. They’re commands not considerations.

     Here’s the thing. You can’t force a feeling. You can’t command an emotion.

     You can only command an action. 

     You can only command a doing. A practice. A habit. 

     I told them two years ago today. 

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     In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

     Jesus and Paul take a word we use as a noun, and they make it a verb. 

     Which is the exact opposite of how the culture has taught us all to think about love. 

     We think of love as a noun, as a feeling, as something that happens to us, which means then we think we must feel love in order to give it. 

      But that’s a recipe for a broken relationship. Because when you think you must feel love first in order to give it, then when you don’t feel love towards the other you stop offering them loving acts.

     And of course the fewer loving actions you show someone else, the fewer loving feelings there will be between you.

     In scripture, love is an action first and a feeling second.

     Love is something you do- even when you don’t feel like it; so that, you feel like it. 

     That’s how Jesus can command us to love our enemies. And just ask any married person- the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary condition to love your spouse. 

     Jesus can’t force us to feel a certain way about our enemies, but Jesus can command us to do concrete loving actions for our enemies knowing that those loving acts might eventually transform how we feel.

     The key to having love as a noun in your life is making love a verb. Where you invest loving actions, loving feelings will follow. 

     You do it and then you feel it. Love is something you do and you promise to trust that the doing of love will transform your heart so that you do feel love. 

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     Two years ago today, I led with that question: If love is a feeling, how can you promise to love someone always and forever? 

     Today, two years later, I have a different Colossians question: 

If that’s how love works for a spouse

     If that’s how love works in a relationship

     Then why do we suppose it’s any different when it comes to our love for God? 

      If our heart works this way when it has a person as its object of desire, then why do we suppose that our heart works any differently when the object of its desire is three-personned, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

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     The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians roughly a generation after Jesus and 250 years before the Gospel about Jesus converted the Empire. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, Christians’ faith made them like unwelcome immigrants in a hostile land. 

     For the Christians in Colossae,  you couldn’t accept Jesus as Lord without rejecting Caesar as Lord. To make a commitment to Christ was to make enemies. So you didn’t join a church without thinking about it. Seriously and hard. 

     In fact, the Church wouldn’t let you. The Church first required you to undergo rigorous catechesis, throughout the long season of Lent. 

    Then, and only then, you would be led outside the sanctuary on Easter Eve to a pool of water. There the Church would strip you naked. And facing the darkness you would renounce Caesar and Satan and all their works. 

     Then, like Pharoah’s soliders, you would be drown in the water three times and, rising up from the water as Jesus from the grave, you would turn the opposite direction to affirm his Lordship and every practical implication that now had for your life. 

     Maybe it’s TMI but I certainly wouldn’t want to strip naked, plunge down into night cold water (with its, you know, shrinkage factor) and then stand around with a crowd of church people looking at me and what God gave me. 

     To do something like that- you’d really have to feel and believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

     And yet- 

     Those same Christians who faced down Caesar and spit in Sin’s face and renounced the world and took the plunge into a new one, naked and unashamed, still had trouble forsaking their former ways of life. 

     Just before today’s text, Paul chastises them for worrying about pagan food regulations, lunar festivals, idolatrous mysticism and ascetic practices. 

     And again here in chapter 3 Paul scolds them that though they’d died with Christ they still haven’t put to death their prior way of life: their malice, their deception, their fornication. 

     How does that happen?

     They’d risked too much when they’d become Christian not to have felt its truth down deep inside them. But, it didn’t stick. 

     They knew that Jesus is Lord; too much was at stake for them not to have taken their faith with life and death seriousness. Still, it didn’t take. 

    They believed that they’d been set free to live as in a New Creation. Yet, they fell back to doing what they’d done in the Old Creation. 

     They had stripped naked for Christ- shrinkage factor and all- but they still hadn’t stripped off their old selves. 

     They had stripped naked for Christ, but they still hadn’t put him on. 

     Why not? Or, how not?

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     It’s revealing- 

     In chapter two Paul admonishes the Colossians against false philosophy, wrong thinking, and deceitful beliefs. 

     In other words, Paul scolds them to get their heads straight, but then his prescription for false thinking and wrong belief is through their hands. Through their habits.      

     And then here in chapter three it’s the very same dynamic. Paul tells them in verse two to “set your minds on things that are above.” 

     But then, further down in verse 12, what Paul commends to them is not beliefs but practices, not ideas but doings. Paul uses a clothing metaphor:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

    Any one who’s been around little kids knows- putting on clothes takes practice. Compassion, humility, patience- these aren’t attitudes in our heads. They’re not affections in our hearts. They’re virtues. They’re moral attributes that you can only acquire over time through habits. Though hands-on practice. 

     We assume our feelings of love for God produce works of love, that faith leads to action. I mean, we make habit a dirty word and suppose that we’re saved by the sincerity of our feelings for God or the strength of our belief in God. 

      But for Paul it’s our habits that shape our feelings and beliefs. For Paul, the way to our hearts, the way into our heads, is through our hands. Through practices and actions and habits and every day doings. 

     Before you can invite Jesus in to your heart, before you can conform your mind to Christ, you’ve got to put him on and practice.  

      You’ve got to practice serving the poor so that it becomes a habit until that habit becomes compassion. 

     You’ve got to practice praising God, week in and week out, until it becomes such a habit that you know without thinking about it that you are creature of God- which makes you NOT God- which becomes humility. 

     You’ve got to practice confessing your sins and bringing another’s sins to them without malice and passing the peace of Christ until those practices become habits because eventually those habits will make you forgiving. 

     You’ve got to practice praying “Thy Kingdom come…” and working towards that Kingdom in your own community. 

     You’ve got to practice the Kingdom until it becomes a habit so that it becomes, in you, patience and hope. 

    You’ve got to practice receiving with outstretched hands the body and blood of Christ so that the habit of the sacrament makes you hunger and thirst for God’s justice. 

      You’ve got to put on Christ in order to calibrate your head and your heart to him. 

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     Your love for God can never be just a feeling that you feel. It can never be just a belief that you believe. 

     If that’s all it is, then your love for God will never last because- here’s the rub- it’s not just the practices of Christ that become habits that then shape your head and your heart. It’s every kind of practice. It’s all your habits and every day doings. 

     So it’s not that your heart can either belong to God or to nothing at all; it’s that your heart will belong to God or to another god. The gods of capitalism or consumerism or partisan politics. The gods of nationalism or individualism. 

     If the way to our heads and our hearts is through our hands- through our habits- then our heads and our hearts will belong to something if they do not belong to God. 

     Victoria’s secret is that she’s after your head and your heart not just your wallet. And so is Hollywood. And so is the Republican Party and so is the Democratic Party and so is Amazon and Apple and Wall Street and the NFL and all the stuff and noise that make up our everyday habits. 

     You see if you do not put on Christ, if you do not practice the habits of Jesus following, then all your other habits will shape you. 

     That’s why it’s not a bad idea, for example, to give God one day of your week. 

      Because your heart will have a lover. And your habits determine who. 

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     When Will and Becca got married two years ago today, I told me them how lifelong monogamous love, for better and for worse, was an enormous, outrageous promise to make and even more impossible promise to keep. 

     That is, without a community to hold them accountable to it. 

     “That’s why, for Christians, there’s no such thing as a private wedding,” I told them.

     Of course, the same goes for our lifelong, monogamous love for God. 

     It’s why there can be no such thing as a person who is a Christian in private. 

     It’s why there can be no such thing as a Christian who is not a practicing part of the Christian community. 

     It’s why there’s no salvation outside of the Church. 

     Because without the practices that become habits of the Christian community- 

     without putting on Christ:

 in prayer and praise and passing peace and serving the poor- 

     your mouth might confess that Jesus is Lord 

     but your heart will eventually hunger for another lover 

     and soon you’ll be worshipping idols unawares. 

         

     

    

Luke 16.1-8

    “He’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

     I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen when Diane exploded at me, “He’ll get what he has coming to him!”

Diane was standing in her kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis, Princess Diana, or Frank Sinatra on them. I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen, because that was the only place to sit. Diane’s new house was unfinished, a messy maze of boxes, sheet rock, and plastic drop cloths. 

Her yard outside wasn’t even “unfinished.” It was “unbegun.” 

No driveway. No grass. 

Just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was, also, unfinished). A row of rain-drenched, useless bags of cement sat orphaned in the side yard. Their mailbox leaned loosely in the mud like a pick-up stick. The mailbox had a blue and green mountain retirement dreamscape painted on it. She’d calligraphed their names on the mailbox, “Tim and Diane.” Tim and Diane were members of a church I pastored. 

     Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching. 

Already, I had mastered the subtle Southern art of passive-aggressive politeness, so I replied, “Bless your heart.” 

Which, of course, meant, “Watch it, lady, I just may throw you through the stained-glass Good Shepherd.”

     Nonetheless, Tim and Diane were good people and good church members. And, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory— a fact she later wielded like a weapon.

     Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Bill to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town. 

     Bill, who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church. Bill, who was friends with Tim and Diane. Bill, whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation. Bill, whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching. 

“Bless your heart,” I said, grinning like the Joker in the pale moonlight. 

“Oh, well. Bless your heart, too,” she replied, pinching my cheek.

     Diane had missed church for several Sundays, so one afternoon, I decided to drive out to their new, unfinished home. 

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there for some Law-laying, to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Because, her unfinished front yard was a sea of mud, I had to take off my shoes. 

Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing your Superman socks and when said Superman socks have holes in the pinkie toe.

     As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper. Bill had taken their money for their retirement home and used it to pay off debts and business endeavors.  

Now, Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed, and their home unfinished.

     I said something foolish about needing to hear Bill’s side of the story. Diane swung around from the box she was unpacking and screamed at me, 

“Look here, preacher. I’ve been conned, cheated, and swindled. There is no “other side” to this story.”

When I was in High School, I made a little money helping a carpenter put up sheet rock, so I know. If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid linguistic arsenal at their disposal. Diane said a lot of things about Bill, mostly along the lines of what Bill resembled, where Bill could go, and what Bill could do when he got there.

     By way of conclusion, she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to me:

“All I know is, he’ll get what he has coming to him. He’s got to answer to the Lord someday for what he’s done.”

     I said a lot of things about Bill too, mostly boring, predictable preacher-like things, as in Bill needed to make restitution, do penance, and seek forgiveness. But it never would’ve occured to say something like:

“Sure Diane, I know Bill’s a two-faced, crooked liar, but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg from you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.” 

     But, I never would’ve said something that offensive.

     Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.

 

     In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists, colluding with the Empire against their fellow Jews. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets accused of spending a suspect amount of free time with prostitutes (maybe that’s why Jesus never has any money on him). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets accused of eating and drinking— partying hard— with sinners. In Luke’s Gospel, the well-behaved begrudgers of grace, accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps. 

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, who are all conditioned to be conflict avoidant, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it. 

     He tells all the good, Law-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep that wandered from the shepherd than he cares about those dues-paying, do-gooders who never wandered far from their flock. 

     And then, Jesus watches his stock drop further when he praises lying, cheating and stealing. 

Don’t forget—

The chapter divisions weren’t added to the New Testament until the sixteenth century, which means Jesus has just offended everybody by killing the fatted calf for the father’s lost then found son and comparing all of them to his self-righteous older brother, standing outside.

“Father, I wish you were dead,” the son had said. “Give me my inheritance!” 

And, Jesus says God is just like that prodigal Dad, who never so much as says “thank you” to the son who stayed and slaved for his Father, and kept the church— I mean, the farm— running.

Then, as if he’s trying to get himself killed, Jesus doubles down on the insult. With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on and listening in, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story, just for them. 

This story— 

This story is meant to press salt into the wound cut in them by that story. 

“Son, you’re always with me. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life.  He was lost and now is found.”

      “An executive at Goldman Sachs,” Jesus says, “gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company. 

The boss calls the manager into his office, confronts him, and tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day. 

     As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds, “And, I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”

     Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself, “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills, and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.” 

     And, before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own “severance package.” 

     He’s still got the firm’s credit card, so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the District, and over drinks and foie gras, he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm. 

     “Just write it off, and we’ll call it even,” he says. 

     He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes, he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet, instead of on food stamps. 

     Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story, and he doesn’t end it with any woes or words of warning.

No, Jesus spins this story starring a corrupt guy that would make Aunt Becky from FullHouse proud, and he doesn’t drop one word of woe. 

He doesn’t even use the story to warn us, like Carlos Santana that “we’ve got to change our evil ways.” 

He doesn’t tell this story, turn to the Pharisees eavesdropping in on him, and exhort them to give up their dishonest ways and follow him. 

     Instead, Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly. For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

     And all of God’s People say, “What the f@#%?”

 

     You know, I watched you all while the Gospel was read this morning. You all stood there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense. At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did. 

     Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Mar-a-Lago Club seem like an Amish Community Center, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity. Julian labeled Christians “atheists,” and said the Gospel encouraged its followers to be “liars and thieves.” 

      And, St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable, because Luke tacks all these other unused sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable after verse nine. Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money. True, but it’s beside the point when it comes to this parable.

Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little, will not be faithful in much. Again, it’s true, but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable; it’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities. 

      And, maybe, getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.  

      Maybe, you expect me to tell you not to worry— in the original Greek story, the dishonest manager is more like a Robin Hood who rips off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.

      Yeah, not so much. 

      If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable, then there simply isn’t one.  

      What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more. 

      And, what does Jesus do—Jesus points to him and says, “Gold star.”

 

“All I know is, he’ll get what he has coming to him. He’s got to answer to the Lord someday for what he’s done.”

    We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Bill and Jane, and the church lay leader. 

     The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself, that’s what I envisioned would happen.

     With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Bill would repent. As a group, we would draft steps towards penance. 

I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. 

Instead, Bill, one Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and commit himself to straightening up and flying right. 

And then, I imagined, without a dry eye in the house, we’d end the service singing “Amazing Grace,” that saved a wretch like him.

     And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination, my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtues, the sort of church you read about in the religion section of the Washington Post. 

And, I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever— the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy. 

     What went down, though, was more like Maury Povich than Doogie Howser. 

     We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it. 

     Bill sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally, tacky painting of the Smiling (Kenny Loggins) Jesus hung in a frame right above his head. I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said, “Amen.” 

Instead, Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet. 

    And Bill, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate, boring church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. 

There was suddenly an urgency to him.

     With surprising creativity, Bill had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge. 

     I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Bill tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say:

“I know Bill bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind, but there’s just something wonderful about the way he did it.”

          No, instead, in the middle of Bill’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him, “You think you can just live your life banking on God’s forgiveness?”

And then she turned to me. 

To second her assertion. 

To say “No.”

“No, you can’t.”

“You can’t just live your life banking on God’s forgiveness.”

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it (because you can).

So Diane pointed her finger at me instead and with a thunderous whisper said: “After all the good we’ve done for this church, we shouldn’t even need to be having this conversation!” 

    Then they stormed out of the church parlor. 

     And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good. 

 

     Meanwhile, Bill just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively, tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him. 

     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Bill, “Well, I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?”

     He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur. “No, why would I be wondering that?” 

     “Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral. We’re supposed to be the light to the world not just like the world,” I said, in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis. 

     And, Bill nodded. 

“The way I see it,” Bill said, “This church can’t afford to lose someone like me.”

“Can’t afford to lose someone like you? You’re bankrupt. You can’t even pay your own bills, Bill, much less help us pay our bills. What do you mean we can’t afford to lose someone like you?”

Bill nodded and leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another crooked business deal. 

     “You’re seminary-educated right, preacher?” he asked. 

I nodded. 

     “And, of course, you know your Bible a lot better than me.” 

And, I feigned humility and nodded. 

     “I could be wrong’ he said. “But, wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?”

     “Yeah,” I nodded, not liking where this was going.  

     “And, back then, weren’t they the professional clergy and lay leaders?” Bill asked. “You know, like you and them two? 

     “And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but who would you say Jesus would be harsher on? Someone like me, who knows he’s not good and thinks the Gospel is the shadiest, too-good-to-be-true real estate deal of all time? 

Or, someone like you? Or, them,” he said, looking over at the parlor door where they’d left, “someone who’s pretty good and thinks that makes them good enough for God? 

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on? Someone who thinks they’re good or someone who knows they’re not?”

     “You slippery son of a…” I thought to myself. 

“Sure, I know what I deserve,” Bill said, rocking in the rocking chair. “But, that’s why you all can’t afford to lose me.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.

“Well, without someone like me around church, good folks like you are liable to forget how it’s lucky for all of us that we don’t have to deal with a just God. Without someone like me around, good people like you might take it for granted how lucky it is that we all have a gracious God, who refuses to give us what we deserve.”

     I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively, tacky picture hanging above Bill on the wall. 

     Maybe his smile had gotten bigger, because Bill was smiling. 

And, I wasn’t. 

 

     Look- 

     Stealing is a sin. It’s the Seventh Commandment. Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment. Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments. It’s all there in scripture.  It’s wrong. The Bible says so. Sometimes, Jesus even says so. 

But, why is it that when Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us? Why is it— what does it say about us— that we get all caught up with the supposed “offense” of this story, rather than grabbing a hold of the Gospel in this story’s silver lining?

The silver lining in this story is that the crooked manager’s only hope is your only hope, too. 

The crooked manager banked on the mercy of his master. 

When he got found out, his master’s compassion and generosity were his only hope for the future. His judge became his savior.

And, so it is with you. 

When it comes to the stewardship given you by the heavenly Master— your body and soul, your money and property, your vocation and family— admit it, I see how you spend your time on Facebook— at best we’re faithful, a little. 

Go ahead and deny it— you’re only deceiving yourself. 

Sure, the story’s offensive if you somehow think you’re good enough.

I’m not saying you’re all crooks and thieves. I’m saying that even the best of us aren’t good enough. 

The Law accuses all of us. Every single one of us— even the saints-in-the-making— fall short of the glory of God.

I’ve no doubt most of you are better than the corrupt guy in today’s parable— probably because you (like me) lack his energy and imagination.

But the crooked guy’s only hope is your only hope, too. 

Your hope is not that you are better than others. 

Your hope is not that God has been blind to your wrongdoing.

Your hope is not that your good deeds will somehow, in the end, outweigh your misdeeds. 

Your hope is in the very One who will sit in judgment upon you. For the One who will come again to judge the quick and the dead, is the very One who was willingly nailed to a tree to be judged for you.

Recall the Collect of Purity as the prayerbook calls it. Almighty God is the Master “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”

You’re not going to pull a fast one on him. But more importantly, he knows that you are His. And as His own, beloved by your baptism, He will never deal with you justly. 

Don’t forget how all these parables begin. “The Kingdom of God is like…” It’s not that God doesn’t care what you do. It’s that God will do anything to get what God wants, including calling someone like you.

 

 

“Experiences are nice, but they’re not what the Gospel is about.”

“Faith needs something external to it to which it can cling or one’s faith inevitably becomes faith in one’s faith.”

”Without justification by grace through faith at the heart of the Gospel, every resulting version of Christianity will become a theology of glory and a religion of Law.”

”As much as it might make them uncomfortable, Wesleyans exist downstream from Calvinists— the same stream not an alternate stream.”

You might recognize his mellifluous voice from the lectures he’s given through the Great Courses Library— our guest this week is Dr. Phillip Cary of Eastern University. Cary is the author of a wonderful theological commentary on Jonah. He’s also the author of Good News for Anxious Christians: Ten Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do and the new book that I highly commend The Meaning of Protestant Theology. 

Before you listen, head over to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” to become a patron for peanuts. In short order, you’ll be able to order our “Incompatible” pint glass or our Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt.

 

This Sunday and next I’m the featured preacher at Day 1 Radio, the Protestant Hour, where I join former guests like Fleming Rutledge, Will Willimon, and Billy Graham. That’s a preposterous sentence. Anways, my text was this Sunday’s epistle lection from Colossians.

You can check it out here or below.

Today’s passage begins the heart of the apostle Paul’s argument in his letter to the Colossians, and it’s a passage that begs an obvious and inescapable question.

Not – “Why are there so few praise songs about circumcision?”

That’s not the question.

It’s this one: “If you’re already forgiven, they why bother following?”

If you’re already forgiven by Christ of every sin you’ve done, every sin you’re sinning this very instant in your little head, every sin you will commit next week or next year – if you’re already and for always forgiven by Christ, then why would you bother following him?

If you’ve no reason to fear fire and brimstone, then what reason do you have to follow?

Because you don’t, you know, have any reason to fear. Fear God or fear for your salvation.

That’s the lie, the empty deceit, the false teaching, Paul admonishes the Colossians against in verse 8 where Paul warns them against any practices or philosophy that lure them into forgetting that Christ is Lord and in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin – with a capital S – and cancelled out the stain of all your “little s” sins.

You are forgiven. You have no reason to fear. Because the whole reality of God (without remainder) dwells in Christ Jesus and, by your baptism, you’ve been incorporated into Christ fully and so you are fully restored to God. You have fullness with God through Christ in whom God fully dwells.

Fully is Paul’s key boldfaced word – there is no lack in your relationship with God. At least, from God’s side there’s not.

And for Paul – your incorporation in Christ, your restoration by Christ to God, it’s objective not subjective. It’s fact, not foreshadowing. It’s an announcement not an invitation. Christ’s incorporation of us has happened – literally – over our dead bodies, our sin-dead bodies.

And it’s happened perfectly. As in, once – for all. It’s not conditional. It’s not an if then proposition. It’s not if you believe, if you have faith, if you roll up your sleeves and serve the poor, if you give more money, if you stop your stupid sinning. Then and only then will God forgive you.

No, it’s not future tense. It’s past perfect tense.

It’s passive even. You have been reconciled by Christ without qualification. It’s a finished deed and no deeds you do can add to it or – or subtract from it.

From Paul’s perspective, “What must I do to be saved?” is the wrong question to ask this side of the cross because you were saved – already – in 33 AD and Christ’s cross never stops paying it forward into the future for you.

It’s as obvious as an empty tomb: God forever rejects our rejection of him.

What circumcision was to Israel, Christ is to us. He’s made us his family, and, just as it is with your biological one, as much as you might like to, you can’t under family.

You once were lost, dead (to sin), but he has made you alive in Jesus Christ, raised you up right along with him; so that, you can say he’s forgiven all your trespasses. Your debt of sin that you never could’ve paid, it’s like a credit card Christ has cut up and nailed to the cross.

And it’s not just your “little s” sins he’s obliterated, it’s the Power of Sin, with a capital S. He’s defeated it forever. He’s brought down the principalities and powers, Paul says.

He’s thrown the dragon down, as St. John puts it. He’s plundered Satan’s lair, as St. Peter puts it; he’s descended all the way into Hell to liberate the condemned and, on his way up, he hung a condemned sign on the devil’s doors. Out of business, God literally does not give a damn anymore.

Your sin. Our alienation and guilt and separation from God. Humanity’s hostility and divisions. God’s wrath and judgement. All of it, every bit of it, the fullness of it – it’s just like he said it was. It is finished.

But, that begs the question:

If you’re already forgiven, once for always and all,

If you’re a sinner in the hands of a loving God,

If you’ve no fire and brimstone to fear,

Then, why bother following?

If you have no reason to fear God, then why would you upend your life, complicate your conscience, career, and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses? Why would you invert the values the culture gives you and compromise your American dream by following the God who meets us in Jesus Christ?

If Christ has handed you a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, then what’s the incentive to follow Christ? Why would you bother? Why would you forgive that person in your life, who knows exactly what they do to you, as many as 70 x 7? Why would you do that if you know you’ve already been forgiven for not doing it?

Why bother giving water to the stranger (who is Christ) when he’s thirsty or food when he’s hungry, why bother visiting Christ when he’s locked away in prison or clothing Christ when he’s naked or sheltering Christ when he’s homeless?

Why go to all that trouble if Christ is only going to say to you what he says to the woman caught in sin: I do not condemn you?

You know as well as I do. It feels better to leave the log in your own eye and point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye instead. It feels better.

It feels almost as good as not walking a mile in another’s shoes, nearly as good as not giving them the shirt off your back, as comfortable as not giving up everything and giving it away to the poor.

And none of that feels as right and good as it does to withhold celebration when a prodigal comes creeping back into your life expecting forgiveness they don’t deserve.

So, why would you bother doing all of what Jesus commands if you’re already forgiven for not doing it any of it?

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Easy and light my log-jammed eye! Not when he says the way to be blessed is to wage peace and to show mercy and swallow every insult that comes your way because you hunger and thirst for justice.

Easy and light – have you been following the news lately? You could starve to death hungering and thirsting for God’s justice.

So, why? What’s the point? What’s the benefit to you? If you’ve no reason to fear Christ, if you’re already forgiven by Christ, then why bother following the peculiar path laid out by Christ?

I don’t have cable on my TV. Instead I have this HBO Now app on my iPhone. So anywhere, anytime, whenever I want, on my 8 Plus screen I can watch Rape of Thrones. Or, if I’m in the mood for something less violent, I can watch old episodes of the Sopranos right there on my phone.

Of, if I want to see more of Matthew McConaughey than I need to see I can re-binge season one of True Detective. Right there on my iPhone, I can thumb through all of HBO’s titles: it’s like a rolodex of violence and profanity, sex and secularism.

Earlier this week, I opened the HBO Now app on my phone, and I wasn’t in the mood for another brother-sister funeral make-out session on Game of Thrones. Because I wasn’t in the mood for my usual prurient interests, I happened upon this little documentary film from 2011 about Delores Hart.

Delores Hart was an actress in the 1950’s and 60’s. Her father was a poor man’s Clark Gable and had starred in Forever Amber. She grew up a Hollywood brat until her parents split at which time she went to live with her grandpa, who was a movie theater projectionist in Chicago.

Delores would sit in the dark alcove of her grandpa’s movie house watching film after film and dreaming tinsel town dreams. After high school and college, Delores Hart landed a role as Elvis Presley’s love interest in the 1956 film Loving You, a role that featured a provocative 15 second kiss with Elvis. She starred with Elvis again in 1958 in King Creole.

She followed that up with an award-winning turn on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company. In 1960 she starred in the cult-hit, spring break flick Where the Boys Are, which led to the lead in the golden-globe winning film The Inspector in 1961.

Delores Hart was the toast of Hollywood. She was compared to Grace Kelly. She was pursued by Elvis Presley and Paul Newman. Her childhood dreams were coming true. She was engaged to a famous LA architect.

But then – in 1963 she was in New York promoting her new movie Come Fly with Me when something compelled her – called her – to take a one-way cab ride to the Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut for a retreat. After the retreat, she returned to her red-carpet Hollywood life and society pages engagement, but she was overwhelmed by an ache, a sensation of absence. Emptiness.

So, she quit her acting gigs, got rid of all her baubles, and broke off her engagement – renounced all of her former dreams – and joined that Benedictine convent where she is the head prioress today.

What’s more remarkable than her story is the documentary filmmakers’ reaction to it, their appropriation of it. This is HBO remember, the flagship station for everything postmodern, post Christian, prurient and radically secular. Here’s this odd story of a woman giving up her red-carpet dreams and giving her life to God, and the filmmakers aren’t just respectful of her story; they’re drawn to it. They’re not just interested in her life; they’re captivated by it.

Even though it’s clear in the film that her motivation is a mystery to them, you can tell from the way they film her story that they think, even though she wears a habit and has no husband or family or ordinary aspirations, they think she is somehow more human than most of us.

You can tell that they think her life is beautiful, that believing she is God’s beloved and living fully into that belief has made her life beautiful.

That’s why – why we follow even though there’s no fire and brimstone to fear, even though we’re already and always forgiven. Because if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, as Paul says here in Colossians, then what it means for us to be made in God’s image is for us to resemble Jesus, to look and live like Jesus.

If the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ, if Jesus is what God looks like when God puts on skin and becomes fully human – totally, completely, authentically human – then we follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human.

We follow Jesus not because we hope to get into heaven but because we hope to become human, too.

Fully human.

The reason Christ’s yoke doesn’t feel easy nor his burden light, the reason we prefer our log-jammed eyes, the reason we’re daunted by forgiving 70 x 7 and intimidated by a love that washes feet is that we’re not yet human. Fully human. As human as God.

It’s not that God doesn’t understand what it is to live a human life; it’s that we don’t. We’re the only creatures who don’t know how to be the creatures we were created to be. We get it backwards: it’s not that Jesus presents to us an impossible human life; it’s that Jesus presents to us the prototype for every human life. For a fully human life.

So, we follow not to avoid brimstone in the afterlife but to become beautiful in this one.

That’s the why, so what about the how? How do we become as fully human? How do we become beautiful?

If Jesus is the prototype, then it begins for us the same way it begins for Jesus. And for Jesus, according to the oldest of the Gospels, Mark – the story of Jesus’ fully human life begins not with his birth but with his baptism – with Jesus coming up out of the water and God declaring like it was the first week of creation: “This is my Beloved in whom I delight.”

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: “You are my Beloved. In you I delight.” It’s not the first time in scripture that God says that to someone, but it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life all the way to a cross believing it.

What sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or his preaching or even that he died on a cross. No, what sets Jesus apart is his deep and abiding belief that he was God’s beloved. Jesus was like us in every way. Tempted like us. Flesh and blood like us. Born and died like us. In every way he was like every one of us who’s every been since Adam. Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved, a delight to God. And knowing, all the way down, that he was beloved, set him free to live a life whose beauty renewed the whole world as a new and different creation.

When Delores Hart took her final vows as a Benedictine nun, seven years later, she wore the wedding dress she’d bought for her red-carpet Hollywood wedding. She thought it was the perfect thing to wear because the most profound love in our lives isn’t the one that sends couples down the aisle to the altar. It’s the love that God declares to all of us from the altar.

If Jesus is the prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human, it begins not with believing inJesus and not with believing certain things about Jesus.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then you and I becoming fully, beautifully human begins with believing likeJesus.

Believing like Jesus believed. Believing what Jesus believed. You are God’s Beloved. In you, in you, God delights.

 

 

Matthew 25.14-30

    

     Hey- 

     Hey, you got a flashlight? Or, even a match? 

     Yeah, I figured as much. 

     You can call me #3. No, I was never a Next Generation fan, why?

     What about ear plugs? I’d give a kidney and my last pair of clean undies for some ear plugs. I mean, that gnashing sound is one thing. If you’ve ever been married, then it doesn’t take too long to get used to that sound of gnashing teeth. 

     But, the weeping? The weeping can mess with your head after a while. And, because of the darkness, because you can’t see anyone, after a while you start to think the weeping is in your head. That, it’s you. That, you’re the one weeping. 

     You know that Groucho joke about how I’d never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member? 

     Yeah, that’s this place. 

     With the weeping and gnashing, you’d expect it to be a lot louder than it is. Instead, it’s just creepy quiet. And, even though it’s dark, you can just feel it— there’s a lot of people here. 

     A lot of people, though not the ones you’d expect. I haven’t bumped into one atheist, adulterer, or a TMZ reporter. 

I mean, sure, Vladimir Putin is here; he keeps trying to assure Charlie Rose that he can influence a Divine election. 

     But, other than them and Justin Bieber, nobody here are the sorts of people you’d expect to find here. 

     Mostly, they’re all people just like me. Just as surprised to be here as I am. 

     I suppose that’s the money question, isn’t it? Why am I here?

     So- 

Just before my Master went away, he tells us a story— my Master was always telling stories. To people who weren’t his servants, he never spoke anything but stories. 

     He told one story about a kid who wished his old man dead, cashed in his inheritance, then left home, and blew all the money at the MGM. And, when the kid comes crawling back home, what’s the father do? The father blows even more cash— that would’ve been for his well-behaved, older brother’s inheritance— on a “welcome home” party. I know, right?

     My Master told another story about a shepherd who had one hundred sheep and goes off and abandons ninety-nine of them to search for the one sheep who wandered away from the flock. 

It’s like that Woody Allen joke. Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, shepherd. 

     My Master was always telling stories like that. I mean, my Master was killed— like he was determined to get himself killed— because, of the stories he told. 

     And, just before my Master went away on a journey, he tells us a story about another master, who had three servants. 

     The master gives the first servant five talents, and the master gives his second servant two talents— and one talent is worth about twenty years’ income, so we’re talking a crazy, prodigal amount. It’s like this master is forsaking everything for them before he leaves. It’s like he’s dying to his riches, pouring out everything that’s his, for their sake.

     Even the master’s third servant, who gets a single talent, gets more cash than he’d ever seen in his life, more than he could possibly know what to do with. 

     And that’s the thing. That’s what I’m thinking as the Master is telling this story about a master. What kind of fool would risk wealth like that on “nobodies” like them? I mean, at least Lehman Brothers knew how to handle money. 

     And, what kind of bigger fools would take that master’s treasure and jeopardize it? Gamble on it? 

     But, in the Master’s story that’s what the master’s first two servants do, and lucky for them (or lucky the master came back when he did), because they both managed to double their investment. Five talents becomes ten and two talents becomes a fourscore gross. Just the two of them turned those gifts into the equivalent of three hundred years worth of wages. 

     And, their master praises them for it, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

     The third servant, though— the one with the single talent that was still worth a fortune— he does the prudent, responsible thing. 

     He buries his master’s talent in the ground, which is what you did in those days. Don’t forget, usury, lending at interest, was against God’s Law. It violated the Commandments. So, investing that single talent or saving it in a bank account would’ve been as Bible-bad as spending it on prostitutes or Bacon Bits. By not investing his master’s money, I’m thinking this third servant’s doing the faithful, biblical thing, right?

     Wrong. 

     In my Master’s story, when the master returns, he calls this third servant “wicked.” 

     And “lazy,” which might surprise some of you who think my Master’s so warm and fuzzy it had to have been a huge misunderstanding that got him crucified. 

     No, my Master says that master calls his servant “wicked and lazy.”

     Pretty harsh, right? 

     

That’s what I thought, too. Then, this master ships his servant off to the outer darkness where there is nothing but weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

     At the time, I thought “outer darkness” was just a rabbinic euphemism for Cleveland, but it turns out I was wrong. 

     So, just before my Master went away he tells this story, and, sure, it didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s how it was with most of his stories. 

     Still, because it was one of the last stories he told before he went away, I figured it was important, so I tried to live my life according to it. 

     I tried to produce with the financial blessings the Master gave me. I didn’t try to hide my stinginess behind caution or prudence. I took some risks for a higher yield, and other than a few shares of Uber and Redskins season tickets, I never wasted the wealth God gave me. 

     I earned as much as I could, so that I could give as much as I could. That’s the point of the story, right? A rising tide lifts all boats? Trickle down blessings? 

     But then- When I saw the Master again? When he came back again to judge the quick and the dead?

     No gold watch. 

     No, “My servant is good and faithful,” bumper sticker. 

     Not even a Starbucks gift card. 

     No, instead I end up here, which I assume is the outer darkness. If there’s a sign, it’s not like I can read it. But, there’s definitely weeping and if that sound’s not teeth gnashing, then someone should call a plumber. 

     I guess this is better than being cut up into tiny, little pieces— that’s what happened to the fall guys in one of the Master’s other stories. 

     And, maybe, it’s better than what I would’ve guessed it to be like, fire and brimstone. But, it’s God-awful cold here in the darkness.  And, for as crowded as it is, it’s terribly lonely. 

     What day is it anyway? Or, year even?

     I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it’s still hard to believe I ended up here. 

     Or, not hard to believe at all, I guess. 

     The truth is-

     How I heard my Master’s story reveals an awful lot. 

     About me. 

         It shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. If it’s possible to see anything clearly in the dark, it’s obvious to me now. 

     I really believed the only real, realistic wealth in the world was cold, hard cash. Not only did I believe it made the world go around, made me “successful” and made my family secure; I believed you needed it to change the world. 

     I really believed that you can’t change the world one person at a time from the inside out. I really believed that the only real change in the world comes through political change and, ever since Citizens United, that sort of change takes more than your spare change.  

     Like I said, it shows how captive I was to money that I just assumed my Master’s story was about money. 

     Now, in the darkness, I can see the light. Or, see how stupid I was. 

     Why would I think he was talking about money? As though my Master subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. He didn’t even HAVE money! 

     This one time— right after he told this story, actually— some hypocritical clergy (which might be redundant) tried to trap my Master with a question about taxes. And, he tries to answer them with an illustration. 

So, he asks them if any of them have any money on them, as a sort of visual aid. 

     He asks them if they have any money on them. Because, he doesn’t. He doesn’t carry it, he doesn’t have it, and he doesn’t think the odds are in the favor of those who do have it. He doesn’t have anything positive to say about money at all, for that matter. 

     So why— how could I be so dumb— would I ever think my Master’s story was really about money? 

     What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story like that? What does it say about greedy, unimaginative me that when I heard this story, I just assumed it was about money? And making more of it. And, being rewarded for making more money. And, being encouraged to go make still more money. 

     What would a Master like mine be doing telling a story that just reinforced all the other stories we tell ourselves?

     How could I be so blinded by greed that I didn’t see the obvious? 

The master in this story is supposed to be my Master. 

     And money— talent— that’s not the treasure he gave us before he went away. 

     I don’t know how I missed it before. He wasn’t vague or coy. 

     The gifts the Master left us before he went away weren’t cash and coin, or CODs. 

     No, he gave us bread and wine. He left us water, for baptism. He taught us how to pray. He spent fifty days after Easter teaching us how to interpret Scripture. And, he passed on to us his promise of absolution, giving us the authority— which only God has the authority to do— to forgive people’s sins. 

     Before he went away, my Master gave us wisdom and knowledge, faith and prophecy, healing and miracles, and love. Which is just another way to say that the gift he gave us, to each of us his servants, is the Holy Spirit. 

     And, sure, that gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us, the gift is more than enough. 

     More than enough—

     To shape communities of mercy. 

     More than enough— 

     To announce his grace in places of conflict and suffering. 

     More than enough— 

     To teach that he is not dead, that he’s a Living Lord, and that he is at work in our world even now, setting captives free, lifting up the lowly, and bringing down the proud and the powerful. 

     What he gave to us before he left, it’s more than enough. 

More than enough—

To bear witness that he is the only good and faithful servant whose perfect obedience has been reckoned as our own and therefore, by His Grace, we have been set free to imitate him without any sort of performance anxiety, whatsoever. 

     The gift comes to each of us in different amounts, but for each of us, the gift is more than enough for us to proclaim that He has taken away the handwriting that was against us, and it’s more than enough for us to apprentice people into living lives that make His Grace intelligible. 

     Even the servant with one gift— a grandma with the ability to pray, say, or a mother too busy to do anything but receive the bread of life in her hands, or a spouse focused solely on forgiving their spouse—even that servant is sitting on a fortune large enough to change the world, one person at a time, from the inside out. 

That’s what my Master wanted us to know before he went away. 

     Shoulda woulda, coulda. 

     It wasn’t until I was shocked to wind up here, buried in the darkness, that the shock of my Master’s story finally hit me. 

     Think about it.

     After spending so much time with his master, one of the master’s servants still doesn’t really know his master. He thinks his master is a hard, harsh master, and misunderstanding who his master is determines what he does with what the master has given him. 

He hides the gift. 

And then when the master returns, he tries to give it back. “Here,” he says to his master. “Have what belongs to you,” as though he doesn’t realize that, as a servant— a slave— he belongs to the master, too. 

The single talent is the master’s possession, sure, but he’s the master’s possession, too. 

There’s nothing in the story that’s not possessed— that’s the key to the story! 

The servant in the story misunderstands his relationship with the master completely; he doesn’t understand that he’s the master’s valuable possession. Not understanding who his master is and who that makes him, he fails to understand that the gift the master has given him— it’s not something he has to do in order to please his master. It’s something he gets to do, because he has been made a participant in his master’s pleasure. The servant’s work is not a gift he must offer back to his master in order to please his master. The servant’s work is, itself, a gift from the master who is already pleased with his servant. Not understanding who his master is and who that makes him, it ruins all the fun! It turns the adventure of servanthood into an obligation. It turns the zero-risk opportunity of the master’s gifts into a high-risk burden that feels better buried away underfoot.

     Here’s the punchline. 

     There’s only one servant like that in the story, but there’s not only one servant like that. 

     There’s only one servant like that in the story, but there’s more than one servant, who so misunderstands the Master, they think a servant’s work is a gift we must give to the Master to please him, rather than a gift given to us from a Master who is pleased with us. 

There’s only one servant like that in the story, but there’s more than one servant who so misunderstands the Master, so mistrusts that they’re the Master’s prized possession— that nothing can take that status away— they bury away the gifts the Master gives them or they bear those gifts like a burden. 

  There’s more than one servant like that. Or else, I wouldn’t be here, gnashing my teeth, weeping. 

The joke’s on me. Turns out, all my “sin” boiled down to unbelief. A lack of faith in my Belovedness.

     In the story, the master says to his servant, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then, you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return, I would have received what was my own, plus some.” 

     But— take it from me— what the Master says in real life sounds more like: 

After all the time you spent following me? Worshipping me? Learning from me? Hearing my Gospel? Eating in bread and wine my promise that I’m FOR YOU? 

Still, you don’t know me? You refuse to take me at my Word— that you are my beloved? 

After I’ve given you all the gifts you need to do everything I’ve taught you to do, you don’t?

You don’t do anything with the gifts I’ve given you?

Because, you’re afraid of failing?

Because, you’re afraid of me?

You can’t even mess it up— there’s no one keeping score, you’re baptized; you’ve been handed my own permament perfect record— but, still you don’t bother with the gifts I gave you? 

What were you thinking? Whose job did you think it was?

My Kingdom is by Grace, yes. 

And my Grace is free, yes. 

But, Grace is just an idea,if it remains invisible. 

    Evangelism requires exemplification. 

Without witnesses, it’s just words. 

This Word took flesh, and it never stops needing to be put in the flesh.

I gave you these gifts. 

And then, I invited you into the crazy, good fun of making my Grace visible. 

But, you still don’t take me at my word?

You think I’m such a hard, harsh Bookkeeper that you bury my gifts in a deep, dark hole? 

If that’s where you think my precious belongings belong, then fine— but they’re incomplete with you joining them there— you’re my precious belonging too.Outer darkness, for you. 

      You’re sure you don’t have any ear plugs you could spare?

     No? 

     Well, make sure you pack some for yourself. 

     I mean, obviously I’m not a gambling man, but if I had to make a bet, you might here, too, someday. 

    

“The truthfulness of Christian convictions can be known only as they are demonstrated through the lives of the faithful.”

Our guest this week is Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religion at Elon University. Jeffrey is the author of books such as The Devil’s Ink, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to the End Times, and Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times. It’s his expertise on Bonhoeffer we turn to in this episode, asking him to reflect on the border crisis, how Christians are to discern when they’re in a “biblical moment” that calls for witness and resistance, the need for another Barmen-type confession.

He also gives the best answer to the “What do you want to hear God say when you arrive in heaven?” question.”

A: ”At least you didn’t fuck that up.”

If you’re getting this by email, you can find the audio here.

 

We’ve been working our way through the alphabet one stained-glass word at a time, and today our word is everyone’s favorite Bible word:

Wrath.

Are we just sinners in the hands of an angry God?

Or is there something better, even good news, behind this five-letter scare word?

If you get this by email, you can find the link here.

 

 

Here’s an excerpt from my latest book, which, if you haven’t already (what’s the matter with you?!), you can get here.

The reason I insist that the couples over whose nuptials I preside are people of faith is because they need to believe that the call and response of repentance and forgiveness is the only way they will be changed. I use the passive voice on purpose. The call and response of I’m sorry/You’re forgiven is the liturgy of married life. It’s the back-and-forth of bride and groom by which God sanctifies us. 

Offering forgiveness freely and freely receiving it, we are made holy. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God. Yet, the God who condescends to us in the suffering, humble, and humiliated Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne. God comes down still. He hides behind unimpressive words like, “I forgive you.” 

God changes us through the ordinary means of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” As much as water, wine, and bread, your wife’s free offer of forgiveness in the face of your sin is a sacrament of God’s transforming grace. The Beloved gets no closer to us than our bride or our groom. The Bridegroom has condescended to us whenever we see our sin in the eyes of our beloved yet hear instead words of unmerited pardon. God not only wears these words of forgiveness like flesh, God uses them to transform us. This is why, to every prospective husband and wife who gushingly tell me how they’ve found their soul mate, I’ve practiced responding, “Big deal.” 

We have so much in common. 

“Big deal.”

She’s just like me in every way.

“Big deal.”

We fit together like two puzzle pieces. [People actually talk like this.]

“Big deal.”

We’re so compatible. 

“Big deal.”

Don’t get me wrong, compatibility sounds awesome. The language of compatibility makes marriage sound easy. The problem my unimpressed “big deal” is meant to unveil is that, to the extent Christian marriage is meant to be a parable of God’s own love, change does not come through compatibility. Change, Christianly speaking, comes through collision. We are not transformed by seamlessly fitting another into our life. We’re not all puzzle pieces strewn across the great cosmic game table. Sorry, no one is The One for you. Another can only become The One for you as you are both made holy. And holiness comes through the rough-and-tumble process of having another reveal our true sucky self to us. 

Before we’re married, not only do we have an incomplete understanding of the other person. We have an incomplete understanding of our selves. We bring in to marriage a self-image that’s been formed by the judgments and praise of people who don’t know us as well as our spouse eventually will know us; consequently, as we live our lives with someone else, we discover that we’re not the same person we thought we were. And in a marriage, there’s not a lot of room to hide. You’re exposed. All the veils are pulled away. It’s not that there’s no secrets in marriage. It’s that there aren’t as many secrets as we want. 

It’s the inverse of what I like to call Jason’s Rule, which is really a cribbed version of Hauerwas’s Rule. Jason’s Rule states that You never really know the person you’re marrying until after you’ve been married to the person you’re marrying. The corollary to Jason’s Rule is that You are never as fully known as you are known by the person to whom you’re married.So once you’re inside a marriage, it’s not just the other person’s flaws and imperfections that are revealed. It’s your own.

But notice, it’s not your spouse who’s unveiling your flaws and imperfections. It’s marriage. This is what collared types like me mean when we call marriage “a means of God’s grace.” It’s a means by which God condescends to us to convict us and to change us. Our true self must be revealed through the painful process occasioned by the need to say “I’m sorry” so that through his word of free pardon, God can unveil, by degrees, our transformed self. 

Seldom do we hear about the burden our culture of mass-shootings places upon the undertakers who have to go about the painstaking work of putting the victims back together again for their loved ones to bury.

Friend of the podcast, Thomas Lynch, rejoins us to talk about his new book, Whither and When: On Lives and Living. Thomas is an undertaker and poet whose work has garnered numerous awards, including the National Book Award for his collection of essays The Undertaking: Notes on the Dismal Trade.

Luke 10.25-37

I’ve had it sitting in my sermon file for years, a review of the book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa, by the journalist Daniel Bergner, whose book documents the gruesome aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone. 

The title of Bergner’s book refers to the popular— desperate— belief in the region that certain rituals, going even to the extreme of cannabalism, will guarantee immunity to bullets. Hence, the term “magic soliders.”

What caught my attention in the review is the section that begins with this line:  “What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.” 

Specifically, the reviewer is referring to one human, Neall Ellis, whose story in the book says something offensive about the lot of us. 

Neall Ellis is a white avaitor from South Africa. After a brief stint in the Rhodesian Army, he joined the South African Air Force, where he was awarded the Honoris Crux in 1983, and later attained field rank. 

After retiring from the SAAF, Ellis used his savings and retirement funds to pay the tuition costs for local schoolchildren in war torn Sierra Leone. 

He sent one young woman all the way to England, set her up with lodging, and paid her way through nursing school and, after nursing school, midwifery school. 

He covered all the expenses of another young man’s medical school education in Johannesburg, as well as the extensive plastic surgeries required by a young woman who had been badly burned during the conflict in Sierra Leone. 

And not just her— Ellis raised the funds to construct an entire burn hospital.

I’ve got a c-note that says it’s named after the Good Samaritan. 

Ellis told the journalist that he was building the hospital, “because right now there isn’t a place like that in the whole of Sierra Leone, nowhere a victim can go to get that type of treatment. Seeing such a need, I can’t just pass on by.” 

Admit it— you expect a sermon on this parable to segway into an illustration just like this of some real-life Good Samaritan making good on the lessons we all learned in Kindergarten.

Whenever you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you expect to hear a story about someone like Neal Ellis. 

Well, here’s the rest of Neal Ellis’ story. 

After he retired from the South African Air Force in the 1980’s, Neal Ellis took a job as a mercenary for the government of Sierra Leone, piloting the sole combat helicopter the nation owned. 

He took the job not for the pay, he admitted to the journalist, but for the work. He loved the thrill of rocketing and machine-gunning from the air, confessing to Bergner:  “It’s better than sex. . . . There’s a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, it’s a great feeling.” 

According to Human Rights Watch, they’ve documented dozens of dead and wounded civilians, women and children, in scores of towns that Neal Ellis attacked. The burn victims whose medical bills Neal Ellis covers— Neal Ellis is responsible for their condition. 

They’re in the hospital, because he put them there. 

Even after In the Land of Magic Soldiers went to print, Ellis emailed the author mentioning another civil war that had broken out on the continent and how he was “hoping for a possible contract.” 

Writing about Neal Ellis, journalist Daniel Bergner doesn’t call him a Good Samaritan. 

Instead, Ellis makes Bergner question if there’s any such thing as a Good Samaritan. 

Until the complexity of casting someone like Neal Ellis as Jesus’ protagonist in today’s parable has stuck in your craw, you’ve not really comprehended Christ’s answer to the lawyer.  

———————-

     We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable passes us by.

     It’s so obvious we never notice it:  Jesus told this story to Jews. 

     The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the twelve disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered round to hear about their Kingdom, work. 

    Every last listener is a Jew. 

     And so, when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked, and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. 

     When Jesus says, “So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,” NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like, “That’s outrageous!”

     When Jesus says, “There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch, so he crossed to other side and passed on by,” EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking, “What’s your point? Of course, he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.”

     

     Ditto, the Levite. 

     No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.  

No one would’ve been outraged.

     As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking. 

     The priest had no choice— for the greater good. 

     According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. 

     Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.    

     And, if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, (according to the Mishna), the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs. 

     Now, of course, that strikes us as god-awful. 

     But, the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. 

     As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but, exactly, what Jesus says they did. 

     So— 

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable. 

     If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then— no matter how many hospitals we name after this story— the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.  

     If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need, then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway. 

     The takeaway is the who, who is doing the helping.

The point of the parable doesn’t start with the what, but the who.

———————-

     Just like Neal Ellis, this Samaritan has a more complicated backstory. 

    In Jesus’ own day a mob of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke into the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it. 

Looted it. 

     And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses, bodies they dug up and bodies killed.  

     Whereas, the priest and the Levite would not touch a dead body in the ditch out of deference to the Law and it’s ritual obligations, the Samaritans made a mockery of God’s Law by vandalizing the Temple with bodies they’d robbed from the grave.

     In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

     That’s why, when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed mercy” is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth. 

You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. 

The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. 

The offense of the parable is that Jesus casts someone like a Samaritan as the protagonist.  

We get it all backwards. 

Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need. 

I wish. 

How flattering is that? 

It says a lot about our privilege that we automatically identify with the rescuer in the story.

    We get it backwards. 

     Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

Of course, loving your neighbor means caring for someone in need. 

But that’s not what Jesus is doing here. 

———————-

 

Not only do we forget that every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew, seldom do we notice what prompts Jesus’ story in the first place. 

What does Luke tell you? 

Luke reports,  “The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus:  ‛Who is my neighbor?’”

This lawyer is attempting to establish his enoughness before God all on his own. 

This is what Jesus is picking apart with his parable. 

Jesus shows you what St. Paul tells you in Galatians— that, if justification could come through our keeping of the commandments, (if it was as easy as this lawyer supposes), then Christ died for absolutely nothing.

So, what does Jesus do to this lawyer and his self-justification project? 

To this expert in the Law, Jesus tells a story where the hero is the personification of unrighteousness under the Law. 

Jesus skewers the lawyer’s good, godly self-image by spinning a story starring an ungodly sort like Neal Ellis. 

And then, like Jesus does in the sermon on the mount, Jesus amps up the expectations to an impossible degree. Jesus overwhelms the lawyer by crediting to the Samaritan a whopping fourteen verbs worth of compassion and care, count them up.

And finally, in order to blow the lawyer’s self-righteousness to smithereens, Jesus lowers the boom and says, “Go and do likewise.”

Pay attention. 

This is where our reading of this passage tends to run off the rails. What Jesus is driving at here with his, “Go and do,” is heavy, and the demand is the same for me, and it’s the same for you too. 

Go and do like that Samaritan, Jesus is saying, help every single person in need who comes your way, regardless of how busy you are. 

No matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, no matter the safety. Book them a room. Give the front desk your Amex Gold Card and put no restrictions on room service.   

And do it, Jesus is saying, like that Samaritan. Do it with the purest of intentions, with no thought about yourself, without any expectation of recriprocation or promise of reward. Do it spontaneously, provoked solely by the love of God alone, and do not be disappointed when they recidivize. 

Do it just like that— spend fourteen verbs on every single person. Do it no matter if they’re wearing a “MAGA” hat or a “Black Lives Matter” tee. 

Do all of that, perfectly, from the heart, and on your own, all by your lonesome, you will be justified.

How’s that working for you?

This parable is not about helping people in need. 

This parable is about helping you recognize your need. 

For a savior.

YOU’RE THE ONE IN THE DITCH!

And while we were yet enemies, when there was “no health in us” and we were as good as dead in our trespasses, the Son of God condescended to us— he took flesh— and he got down into the ditch with us and he loved you, his neighbor, more than himself, carrying you in his body, lavishing upon you his every last verb, sparing no expense, until his love for you drove him to fall among thieves, bloodied and beaten and ditched by a world too busy to do anything, but pass him by. 

———————-

In his book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers, journalist Daniel Bergner  doesn’t call Neal Ellis a Good Samaritan. 

He calls him “a haunting figure…haunting, because the strange blend of compassion and cruelty in his life is a reminder of what we all carry within us. He’s a reminder of how fragile is our human predicament and of how we are all in need not only of rescue, but also repair.”

Or, as the Apostle Paul puts in Romans, rectification. 

We’re in need not only of rescue, but also rectification.

———————-

We’re the ones in the ditch. 

But before Jesus Christ departed us by Death and Resurrection, he left us not his Discover Card, but his Holy Spirit. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to nurse us back into health. 

He left us his Holy Spirit to rehabilitate us. 

To rectify— to make right— the image in which God, the Father Almighty made you.  

Before he left, he left you his Holy Spirit. 

And his Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, is the deposit that guarantees the inheritance this lawyer was inquiring about with Jesus. 

Eternal life. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of eternity in time.

The Holy Spirit is the present-tense downpayment of the future life this lawyer seeks.

That’s this lawyer’s other error; he thinks eternal life can only begin somewhere down the line past the present. 

As Karl Barth liked to joke—what sort of eternal life would it be if it begins after something else? If eternal life is eternal, it cannot come after anything.

Because it’s eternal, it’s always already and always ongoing, and though it is always also still not yet, the Holy Spirit is the deposit of it in the here and now. 

The Holy Spirit is the deposit of the not yet in the now.

The practices of the faith, therefore, the work we engage in the Spirit:

The sandwiches you make at the mission center;

The tutoring you contribute to at-risk kids;

The service you offer to our neighbors;

The shelter you provide for the homeless, and

The support you send to churches along the border.

They are not ways we in Christ’s stead help the poor. 

They are the ways that Christ’s Spirit uses the poor to heal us. 

They are not ways we rescue the needy stranger. 

They are ways the Spirit rectifies the stranger in need that you call “you.”

They are not ways we go and do likewise— there’s only one way for us to be justified. 

The practices of the faith— they are not ways we go and do. 

They are ways we are done to. 

Done to by the Holy Spirit. 

Until the Holy Spirit has rendered us likewise.

———————-

We’re all born lawyers. 

We need to be made Christians. 

So hear the Good News:

While we were yet enemies, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification to be given to you not as your wage for what you go and do, but as an unconditional gift, no matter where you go or what you do. 

By grace through faith, you already possess irrevocably what that lawyer pursued.

Your justification.  

But your rectification?

For that, our Rescuer has left his Spirit. 

So all you lawyers, lay all your doings down. 

They can’t cure what ails you still. 

Lay all your doings down.

And come to the table. 

Come and be done to.

Come and be done to by the Spirit of our Good Samaritan. 

Come, and with bread and wine, be done to by the Spirit of the Samaritan, who is determined not only to rescue you from the ditch of Sin and Death, but to bind up all your wounds, heal your every affliction, and strengthen you in your weakness until you are what you eat.  

“Racism is the ideological building block of our nation. Our current politics, our prisons, our inner cities— our system produces exactly the results it seeks by design.”

As we celebrate Independence Day weekend and Democrats re-debate bussing and a new strain of birtherism gets directed at another candidate of color, we talk with with Joel Goza who is a Duke Divinity School alumni and now works as a church planter and for a non-profit in the 5th Ward. His new book is an important one, especially on Independence Day weekend. It’s titled America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics. 

Our awesome producer, Tommie, has also spliced in a couple of tracks by my favorite band, The Drive-By Truckers, one song on Trayvon Martin and another about Charlottesville, as both come up in the course of our conversation with Joel.

Before you listen, help us out. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click “Support the Show” and become a patron of the pod for peanuts.

You can also go to Facebook and ‘like’ our page, share something. Or, find us in iTunes and give us a rating and review. Every little bit helps other folks find the program.

God kills and makes alive and through no more frequent means than water. What unsettles us about the Noah story is what God does every time God baptizes, drowning us into Christ’s death and resurrection.

We’re working our way through the alphabet one stained glass word at a time…here’s the latest on Water.

If you’re so inclined, help us out. Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, click on “Support the Show” and become a patron for peanuts. Otherwise, go to our Facebook Page and like it and share something. We’d love it too if you go to iTunes and leave us a rating and review.

Luke 18.9-14 — The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

At the first unsuspecting church on which a bishop foisted me— we staged a Christmas pageant during the season of Advent. 

During dress rehearsal that final Sunday morning before the performance, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. 

When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first-grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds—both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men— started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son upside the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

Truth be told, the little church had neither the numbers nor the talent to man a lemonade stand much less mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better— and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman— I said yes.

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. 

At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: “Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings as though he were wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

Because, of course, he was wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

For some reason, be it haste, laziness, or a dare involving some sum of cash, the mother-in-charge of the pageant had made the magi responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. 

Another wise man was dressed like the former WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik. 

And the third wise man wore a gray and green Philadelphia Eagles bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white fur-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, King Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself a question you all cause me to ask from time to time too. 

Why didn’t I go to law school?

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: “The Gift of Christmas.”

On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me.

His name was Mike. He was an insurance adjustor with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. He led a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings that met at the diner. He delivered Meals on Wheels. He chaired the church council. He supervised the coat closet. He mentored kids caughgt in the juvenile justice system. He was the little church’s most generous donor. 

And he was more than little officious in his righteousness.

Mike never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. 

Of all the nerve.

I knew immediately what he was implying or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman— a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

The Holy Mother of God was being portrayed by a homewrecker. 

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business to fund his gambling habit. Another wise man was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel— he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. 

His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played by a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

The man playing the role of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of Jesus’ cousin John, owned a construction company and had been accused of and charged for fraud by several customers in town, including a couple in the congregation. 

He’d bilked them out of thousands and thousands of dollars.

Zechariah— his name was Bill— every first Sunday of the month, Bill began to cry, tears streaming down his sunburnt carpenter’s cheeks, whenever I placed a piece of bread in his rough, calloused hands and promised him, “This is the Body of Christ broken for you.” 

Maybe more than anyone in that little church, he depended on the promise that when Christ says “This is my Body broken for you” you means me, too.

“There’s no conditions,” I’d told him once after the you-know-what with his business hit the fan. 

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. For all of us, that you means me. The forgiveness— it’s for you. You’ve got to take Christ at his absolving word or you’re calling God a liar, which is alot worse of a sin than any you’ve committed. The truth about you is never what you see in the mirror— good or bad— the truth about you is always found in the broken piece of bread placed in your hand. You’re no different than anyone else here.”

Mike, the insurance adjuster, held the program in his hands and read the cast members’ names under his breath. 

Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:    

“Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?’

And because I’m not a brave man (and because I didn’t much like her) I pointed at the mother-in-charge. 

“She did. She cast them all. Blame her.”     

He shook his head in disgust and then he gestured towards Zechariah, pretending now to be struck mute, and he said: “It’s one thing for him to even show his face here Sunday after Sunday without mending his ways but…this?! Do you really think he’s the sort of person who should be sharing this story with our church and our community? What in the hell have you been preaching to him, pastor? Go and sin some more?!”

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. 

She hadn’t had the energy for any of the rehearsals. She just showed up at the worship service when it was time to perform the pageant pushing a walker, from which hung a black and green oxygen tank.

Mary was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. 

She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his makeshift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod, Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

With the walker resting next to the pulpit, the tube to her oxygen was pulled almost taut. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone.

With her hands bruised from blood thinner, she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but again I was terrified of the mother-in-charge. 

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air: “She shall bear a son…(breath)…and you are to name him Jesus…(breath)…for he will save people from their sins…(breath)…”

Except—

That morning Mary didn’t start by narrating the Christmas story. 

She went off script. 

I don’t know if she went off script because she hadn’t been at the rehearsals or if in her old age she was confused and rambling, or maybe she was just filling time while she tried to locate her spot in the script. 

I like to think she’d heard the scuttlebutt about Mike and his righteous indignation over the likes of the people who populated the parish’s pageant. 

She began by introducing the passage. 

“The Bible tells us about God being born as Jesus,” Mary said, “only after a long list of begats.” And she took a breath from her oxygen mask. “Emmanuel…God-with-us…(breath) comes from a family tree every bit as knotted as ours (breath) a family of scoundrels and unbelievers (breath) rapists and hookers (breath) cheats and those consumed by their resentment over being cheated upon (breath) all the way back to Abraham (breath) who wasn’t righteous (breath) but was reckoned so on the only basis any of us are so counted, faith, alone (breath). Christ comes from a family just like us,” she said and took a breath.  

“He comes from sinners for sinners.”

And I looked over at Mike, who’d been standing in the narthex passing out programs. In addition to everything else, Mike was the head usher too. 

When the pageant began, Mike’s ears had been beat red and the vein in his forehead throbbing so outraged and incredulous was he that we were “telling the story of our savior with those kinds of people,” but, hearing that tiny little women with her Gospel promise, he suddenly hung his head. 

He looked embarrassed— as though, God the Holy Spirit had just smacked him upside the head. 

Humility is only ever something we discover because humility is something done to us.

Katie in the heavenly host nearly made it through the Christmas pageant in the clear, but when the wise men showed up delivering their gift-wrapped boxes she ran to the trash can in the choir loft to deliver into it the last of her breakfast. 

Mary never made it to the next Christmas. She died that spring clutching the same promise she’d preached to us that Sunday in Advent. 

Zechariah left the church shortly after I did, and he became a preacher in a storefront start-up church, preaching the promise that whether we mend our ways or not, when it comes us,  God never mends his ways. No matter what, God will deal with you tomorrow exactly as God dealt with you yesterday, by grace. 

Turns out, he was a good preacher too— only those who know they’re not good realize that the promise is too good not to believe.

After the worship service that Sunday in Advent finished, I stood outside near the front door to the sanctuary, shaking hands as the bell rang and the organ groaned out the last notes of the postlude. Mike was one of the last to leave. In addition to everything else, he always cleaned up the pews after worship and vacuumed up the communion crumbs from the floor. 

His hand felt hot and sweaty in the December air, like he’d been wringing his hands in consternation. 

“We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but I guess that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances does it?” 

But I didn’t catch his meaning because as he started to walk home down the sidewalk, I thought to myself (and remember, this is a long time ago in a county far far away, back in my pre-sanctified days): 

“Thank God, I’m not a self-righteous, holier-than-thou, bookkeeping hypocrite like him.” 

  Two men went up to the temple to pray one Advent Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher— a professional Christian— the second a modern day Pharisee named Mike. 

The latter, not the former, went back down to his house justified. 

———————-

But on some other Sunday?

You know as well as I do. 

Under a different set of circumstances, it could just as easily be the former not the latter. Come next Sunday it could just as easily be the tax collector ubering home whilst congratulating himself that he really gets how God’s grace works unlike that holy-rolling bookkeeper who makes himself the subject of all his prayers and gets caught red-handed in his self-righteousness.

All of us— we’re always, if not simultaneously then from one Sunday to the next, at once, sinners and saints. We leave church tax collectors enjoying our forgiveness, yet as soon as we get into the fellowship hall or log into Facebook we’re back to being Pharisees. 

They’re two different characters in the parable, but they’re both in us. 

No matter how hard you try, you will go and sin some more.

That’s why (this might sound obvious to some of you, but I promise you it’s not self-evident to many) the Gospel is for Christians. 

The Gospel is even for Christians. 

The Gospel is especially for Christians. 

We tend to think of the Gospel (the promise that while you were yet hostile to God, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification)— as though it’s for non-Christians. 

Street-corner evangelists stand on street-corners not in church parking lots.

We tend to think of the Gospel of grace as a doorway through which we pass to get into the household of God; so that, we can then get on with the real business of living like Christ and doing as Christ for our neighbors. 

But thinking of the Gospel as prologue to your Christian life, nothing could be more unbiblical. 

The Bible teaches that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by what exactly? 

By faith. 

And the Bible teaches that the faith by which Christ gives himself to us comes to us how?

Not by doing. 

By hearing. 

Christ gives himself to us by faith that comes to us by hearing the word. 

And not just any word, the Bible teaches, a specific word. 

The promise of grace. 

The Gospel word. 

The Gospel gives Christ himself to us the way a wedding vow gives a bride her groom. 

The Gospel, therefore, is for Christians too not just potential converts. 

The Gospel is for Christians especially because the Gospel that gives you Christ, the Bible teaches, is the same Gospel that grows Christ in you. 

The way to grow in grace is to cling to the promise of it, to return to it over and again. 

Living a grace-filled life is like learning a song by heart— this song.

Because we don’t ever stop being a tax collector one Sunday and a Pharisee the next, we don’t ever stop, we don’t ever advance past, we don’t ever level up beyond needing to the hear the Gospel. 

This good word, the Gospel of Christ— just as Jesus said— it’s the Living Water without which first we get thirsty and then we get exhausted before finally our faith dries up, and we die in our sins. 

The Gospel word that gives Christ to you is the Bread of Life that keeps on feeding Christ to you— that’s what he means by calling himself Manna. 

The Gospel is the Bread of Life, and we’re always one meal away from starving.

And, without that meal, without the Gospel, we have nothing to offer our neighbor, we have nothing to offer the poor and the oppressed, we have nothing to offer them other than what the world already offers them and how the world offers it. 

Which is to say, thank God. 

God has not made us like other people. 

God has made us Christians. 

We are different from other people. 

We are the particular people God has put into the world who’ve been set free by the Gospel to admit that we’re just like other people. We’re publicans and Pharisees all. We’re worse than our worst enemy thinks of us, yet we’re loved to the grave and back.

Thank God, we’re not like other people. 

We’re different in that we have this Gospel that frees to confess that we’re no different. 

And that difference—

A people set freed to know and own that we’re no different than other people…

That difference is the difference Christ makes in a world of Us vs. Them.