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Here’s a sermon on 1 Samuel 17.1-11, 32-51 and Revelation 12.7-12 from my intern David King, a student at Haverford College.

I remember sitting in Sunday school some years ago and hearing the David and Goliath story for the first time.  I’m sure most of you remember it too.  It ran something like this: 

David was a little shepherd boy working for his father. He’s the underdog that everyone can root for. He’s a good boy who follows the law. He is the youngest of the sons of Jesse. He’s the unlikely one of the bunch, handsome and ruddy, small and unassuming in stature. You get the picture. 

The Sunday school teacher described the meaning of the story in three steps. 1) David was chosen and went to the river to get five stones. 2) “David is like you,” he said. “God has given you great gifts.” 3) like David, he went on, if you use those gifts, you can defeat your Goliath. 

As the saying goes, God sometimes puts a Goliath in your way so you can find the David within you. Thankfully, I had the great advantage of not having to look far to find David. 

Point is, much like me, my namesake isn’t the center of the story. In the ancient church, David was interpreted in light of Christ, as what St. Augustine calls a ‘prefiguration.’  This means that what occurs in David is an imaginative advance of what is accomplished in Christ.  David is the vessel by which the good news is communicated.  What my Sunday school teacher missed was not that David was a sinner, though the curriculum skipped over that for the most part as well; no, what my Sunday school teacher missed in the telling of the story, in the centering of David in the narrative, was Jesus.  

That the early church was committed to understanding the story of the Hebrew scriptures as the same continuous revelation of Christ meant that they were also committed to a rather creative reading of the text. If the Hebrew Scriptures were gesturing towards the fullness that is the Son of God, then they supposed that it could not be referring to our action. That is, David was never viewed or interpreted as a person we were capable of emulating, who was faithful to God, who lived a good life, who did all the right things and followed through when the time came.  He was not a moral example.  David stood in as a characterization of what occurs in Christ. 

The early church understood the opposition between David and Goliath to be an opposition between Christ and humanity in its captivity to sin.  The valley into which David descends to face Goliath is interpreted as Christ’s descent into hell.  He wrangles the devil, kills the death that holds us captive, and opens to us the life in him.  The battle of Revelation that is our second scripture is played out in the Davidic narrative.  

Now, bear with me here.  Let’s go through the story again.  Let’s listen to what the early church might have heard: Goliath, the giant of the time, the dominating force in geopolitics, decked out in the latest and greatest of armor and weapons, challenges the Lord and his people Israel.  He presumes to be God.  Goliath, you might begin to recognize, is a lot like us.  Goliath does not mince words: he is here to deny God’s presence and covenant, for as he says, “today I defy the ranks of Israel,” today I “curse David by my gods.”  David, the prefiguration of Christ, remains unmoved.  He announces Goliath’s defeat even before he approaches the battlefield, saying to Saul that “the battle is the Lord’s.”  David descends into the valley of death in order to meet Goliath head on – just as Christ condescends in the flesh to deliver us from the death that holds us captive.  The stone David launches at Goliath is the proclamation of the Gospel – Christ knocks Goliath off his feet with the full message of God’s steadfast determination to disallow Death a victory.  

With that stone, David denies us the ability to identify with him.  The stone he throws is “the stone the builders have rejected that has become the cornerstone.”  David, the early church saw, was to be identified with Christ, not ourselves.  David knew that Israel needed to be saved.  

Like it or not, we don’t need more Goliaths.  We don’t need more Goliaths because we already have more in common with him than we do with David; we don’t need more Goliaths because we can already see ourselves in him.  We defy God everyday.  We sin.  I mean, we armor ourselves with language and structures of security and its corresponding violence.  Everyday, we praise the gods of this world, giving them the honor and glory that only Christ deserves.  Everyday, we make the mistake of thinking ourselves to be a David, when the reality is we are a Goliath, to our neighbors and to ourselves.  How we treat our neighbors deeply how we treat God, and who among us can say that they have truly loved each and every one of their neighbors? 

Let me put it bluntly: the Revelation scripture today, through which we read the narrative of David, declares in unrelentingly militant terms that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of this world have been overcome.  Goliath has been defeated, struck dead by this truth.  The grip of sin on the world is no longer; Jesus has taken the violence that orients our lives and thrown it on its head.  David’s act prefigures Christ in the radicality of its claim: there is but one Lord, and it is God.

In 1916, Karl Barth declared that the church should not be a place of refuge, but rather a place of disturbance and crisis.  This is not because God is not our shelter in a time of storm; it is not because God does not care for us in our weakness.  The church is a place of disturbance and disruption precisely because of the Lord it proclaims.  The church is the place that witnesses to the overcoming of the powers of the world that is found on the cross and in the empty tomb.  The church ,constituted through its word and sacraments, is where the world is reminded that its violence will not be returned with violence but with the truthful speech of the grace of God.

The church is where we die to our goliath’s, where we die to ourselves.  St. Augustine notes that Goliath’s forehead, being the only part of his body not covered in armor, notably does not have on it the sign of the cross; that is, Goliath has, in all his armor, left himself vulnerable to the truth of the Gospel message, and it smacks him in the face.  The church is where we hear the Gospel that reminds us, ever so gently as a rock to the forehead, that in our armor of the world we have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  

However, as Revelation declares, this stone is also the stone that gives us new life, for in it “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down.”  In this watery death, the death inaugurated by “the blood of the lamb,” we are invited into the life that is Christ Jesus.  The baptism we share wraps us into the truth that sets us free.  That is, our baptism is into death, setting us free from the clinging to life that is the narrative of this world.  We can, therefore, truly proclaim the goodness of God, we can rejoice with all the heavens because we have been released from captivity to sin.  We need not cling to life anymore, even in the face of death, because God in Christ has thrown down the great Dragon that accuses us before Him.  

Apart from God, we are resigned to the woe of the earth, to the devil’s wrath, to the self-absorption and endless failure of pretending to be God.  Without Christ Jesus, we are liable to identify ourselves with David, rather than with Goliath.  Without the God who descends in Christ and is crucified on our behalf, the kingdoms, empires, and nations would have final say in our allegiance.  

For apart from God, David reminds us, we have no hope.  There is no sword or power that can overcome the Devil: it is the blood of the lamb and the proclamation, the speech, that overcomes.  

Apart from the mercy of Christ and the truth of his freedom we are impotent to be ministers of the kingdom.  David reminds us of this – he is not a glorious majestic figure in the story.  The strength that ultimately defeats Goliath is not his own, for “the battle is the Lord’s.”  In fact, David strips of all armour and safety, taking with him only the markings of a shepherd, the markings of that same shepherd who is nailed to the cross: he makes himself vulnerable to the violence Goliath wishes to enact because the Lord does not save by sword and spear.  David, as the prefiguration of Christ, approaches Goliath with only the truth of the cross, the conviction that, truly, God does not return our violence with violence, but with the ever disruptive word of forgiveness and grace, the word of Easter.  

David is denuded, made to appear naked in front of Goliath’s menacing figure.  This nakedness is constitutive of a people who follow Christ, a people whose lives are marked by the truth of the cross.  Revelation shows us that the time of the devil is short, because he has been thrown down by the cross.  It is the cross on our foreheads and on our hearts that reminds us of the glory of God that makes us naked in the truth.  No pretensions can be held.  So, let us come, naked and free, to worship with Michael and all the angels, glorying in the forgiveness and love that is given to all creation by the blood of the lamb and the word of that testimony.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.  

Daniel 3, Philippians 4

     A couple of years ago now, my wife, Ali, my mother, and I were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the mauve exam room where my oncologist had just handed me the results of my latest PET scan. 

     I’d finished my 8th round of chemo 7 weeks earlier, about a year after getting a call from a GI doctor who started by asking me if I was sitting down. 

I’d been getting these double-over stomach pains for months. 

The following day I was waking up from emergency abdominal surgery to my wife kissing my forehead and telling me they’d taken an 11×11 inch tumor from my intestine and that I had a rare, incurable cancer called Mantle Cell. 

Just like Catniss Everdeen, the odds weren’t ever in my favor, and I thought I was going to die.

     I’d staggered across chemo’s finish line like a runner who hadn’t practiced on enough hills. 

     “So…other than my… what am I looking at?” I asked with bated breath, holding my most recent PET scan in my hand. 

    “You’re as clear as a “bell”, my friend,” the doctor said, punctuating the news with a warm, knowing smile. “All the tumors you’d had all over you are completely gone.” 

———————-

     The chemo had killed off the cancer in my body, but we all knew I still had Mantle Cell percolating in my bone marrow, which, in the absence of the chemo treatment, would soon-to-eventually return lumps and masses throughout my lymph system. 

     “What the scan doesn’t show,” the doctor said, scooting the little round stool closer to us, “is the level of activity of Mantle Cell in your marrow. We’ll need to do a bone marrow biopsy for that.”

     The reality that the cloud of cancer would never be completely removed from my body or our lives reasserted itself and hung over us. We nodded. 

     “Knowing the level of activity in your marrow will help us to gauge how we approach your maintenance chemo over the coming years.”

     “We’ll do it here in the exam room. We’ll drill down into the center of your hip bone and extract a couple of vials of marrow.”

     “Come again?” I asked. 

     “Did you say drill?!”

     “Yes, drill” he said, oblivious. 

     “And am I, like, awake during this drilling?”

     “Yes, but you needn’t worry. You’ll feel only a quick, momentary discomfort.”

I nodded, calming down.

          “Well, I do plan on giving you a prescription for oxycontin to take before you come in that morning.”

     “Oxycontin? I thought you said it would be only a momentary discomfort?” 

     He didn’t reply. 

     ‘Can I just go back to dying?’  

     He slowly drew a smile across his face and then threw his head back in what seemed with hindsight, less hearty and more a diabolical laugh. 

————————-

     I returned a week later for the bone marrow biopsy. 

     I held out my arm for the lab nurse to draw my blood work. “I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said, sliding the needle into me seamlessly, “for most people, after chemo, their hair grows back thick…”

“Very funny.”

     The nurse drew the needle out. 

     “It looks like I’ll be back with you for your biopsy today.”

     “Awesome,” I said and then shared with her how the oncologist had described it as a momentary discomfort only then to prescribe a dangerous opiate normally associated with right wing radio hosts and gin-slinging country club wives. 

She smiled like a preschool teacher. 

“You took it though, right?” looking at me, suddenly sober. 

     “I didn’t even fill the prescription.” I said, “I forgot.”

     “This should be…memorable,” she said, putting a cotton swab and tape over the puncture in my arm. 

     “For you or for me?” I asked. 

“Both,” she was back to smiling. 

     “What’s it feel like?” 

     She was putting labels on my vials of blood. “Some people scream.”

     “Some? What about the others?” 

     “They usually pass out.”

     “But what does it feel like? There’s no nerves inside the bone there so it can’t hurt, right?”

     She was, I could tell, thinking about something, remembering. 

She chuckled to herself softly, glanced over into the lab to see if her supervisor was listening and then said: “This one guy- he said it felt like a Harry Potter Dementor sucking his soul out of his rear end.”

     I’m not sure why but that struck me as probably the most terrifying thing she could’ve said. 

      

———————

     Laying down on my stomach in my birthday suit, I squeezed the corners of the mattress. He pressed his large left hand on my back, in between my shoulder blades, pushing down on me, and grabbed a screw-shaped needle big enough to throw light off the corner of my eye. 

     “You’re going to feel a little bit of pressure,” he said euphemistically as he started to twist the needle down into my bone. 

     “You’ve got strong bones.” He grunted. 

     “That’s probably because I breast fed until I was 12.” 

I heard the nurse giggle. He did too. 

He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. 

He was covered in sweat too. 

The nurse squirted some water into his mouth like he was a boxer in the late rounds. 

     “Okay, are you ready?” he asked. 

     Just then it felt like a cord was being pulled deep inside me, from my heel all the way up my spine. My legs both kicked involuntarily, like I was a corpse with a last bit of life in me.

     “Good,” he said, “now only 2 maybe 3 more times.” 

     When he finished, I stood up from the exam table, too tired even to pull my pants up. “You were right about that Harry Potter thing,” I said to the nurse breathlessly. 

     I was so sweaty that pieces of butcher paper were stuck all over my arms and face, like I’d just had the worst shaving accident in history. 

     The doctor patted me on the shoulder. “You’ve been through the fire, Jason. You’ve been through the fire.”

       “Just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” I joked. 

     “Well, let’s hope there’s no lion’s den in store for you,” he said, patting me on the back.

———————-

My oncologist— it’s not his fault. 

He doesn’t know the Bible all that well. He grew up a Methodist. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re not thrown into a lion’s den. 

They’re made to suffer an oven. 

A fire from which we get the word, holocaust.

What made the Babylonians unique among ancient oppressors is that, upon invading and conquering neighbor nations, they did not simply kill the best and brightest of their neighbors. 

They exiled their enemy’s best and brightest back to Babylon and forced them to become Babylonians. 

They gave them new names and new gods.  

They made them pagans. 

And, so Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego— they’re Jewish exiles, conscripted into the civil service under Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan King of Babylon. 

They’re Jews, but the names with which they’re named by Babylon pay homage to Babylon’s pagan gods. 

Shadrach (his Hebrew name had been Hananiah) is named for the pagan god of the moon. 

Meschach (his Hebrew name had been Mishael) is named for the pagan god, Aku. 

And Abednego (his Hebrew name had been Azariah) is named for the pagan god of wisdom. 

You see— for Jews, for whom the first and most urgent commandment is “You shall have no other gods but the one, true God,” to bear the name of a false god is a grave sin indeed. 

To carry the name of a pagan god is to expect that the true God has forsaken you. 

Or, worse, it’s to expect that whatever suffering comes to you has been sent by the God you forsook. 

     In the story, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are denounced for refusing to submit to the gods of Babylon and, by implication, for refusing to submit to the authority of Nebuchadnezzar. 

     So Nebuchadnezzar orders the three exiles gagged, bound, and cast into a fiery furnace but not before the king instructs his men to crank the oven up to seven times its normal heat, and seven— you should note the surprising clue— is the biblical number for perfection or completeness and, thus, it’s a number that foreshadows the presence of God. 

     The furnace gets so hot that the heat obliterates the guards who come close enough to the fire to toss the prisoners inside but not Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

     According to Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar and his courtiers can see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace, walking around, unbound and unburned. 

     What’s more surprising, the bystanders report seeing a fourth person there in the fire. 

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and who exactly? 

“The fourth has the appearance of a son of God,” the counselor reports to Nebuchadnezzar. 

     The story in Daniel ends with a typical Old Testament flourish when King Nebuchadnezzar, having brought Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the fire, unsinged, throws off his former affections and declares: “…there is no other god like this Son of God!”

In other words:

There is no other god who meets us in the fire.

There is no other god who meets us in the crucible of suffering. 

———————-

    

     Here’s the thing— pay attention now:

Despite what so much of our God-talk implies, God is not the passive, inactive, fixed-point center of the universe to whom it’s your job, through prayer and piety, to grow closer. 

Jesus Christ is not just a God who suffers for us, for our sins. 

Jesus Christ is a God who suffers with us, with sinners like us— that’s what it means, as the Gospel promises us, for Jesus to be a friend of sinners. 

God doesn’t just take on our suffering in Jesus Christ. 

God joins us in our suffering in the Holy Spirit. 

It’s not on you to grow closer to God. 

God is already closer to you than you are to yourself. 

No matter what you’re going through in you life, God is completely active and present in it. 

That we don’t always perceive God’s presence in our troubles and suffering has less to do with God— even less with the strength of our faith— and more to do with where we think God is allowed to act in our lives. 

We lay down all these laws about where God’s allowed to act in our lives. God can be present in our worship, we think, or God can work through Bible study or prayer. 

We can find God, we think, in spiritual disciplines or in acts of service. 

But in our desperation? In our doubts? In our anxiety or addiction? In our suffering?

Surely God’s absent in our suffering, we assume. 

That we think God can only work in our lives through proper, pious channels but shows how we persist in construing Christianity as a religion of Law. 

But, it’s a religion of the opposite.

It’s a religion of grace.

It’s ironic how we don’t expect to discover God in our suffering anymore than Peter and the disciples expected to discover a suffering God. 

———————-

While I’ve not been burned or singed by flames, I do have the belly scars and the needle marks and the monthly nausea and the weekly panic attacks and the medical bills to prove to you that I am in the fire. 

     

     Here’s what Jason the Patient learned about the fire that Jason the Pastor didn’t appreciate. 

Just as learning I had Mantle Cell meant mourning the loss of the life I had and the loss of the future I’d envisioned, so too— paradoxically— finding out that I hadn’t died (just yet) meant mourning the loss of the life I’d found living with cancer. 

     This surprised me.

 

     As much as I wanted the nightmare called cancer to be over, I found a part of me grieving the news that I would (sort of) get my old life back. I found myself grieving the life I’d learned to enjoy with cancer. 

     What I had happened upon, without knowing it, is what the Protestant Reformers, starting with Martin Luther, termed a theology of the cross. 

Bear with me now. 

A theology of the cross is not the same as a theology about the cross. 

A theology about the cross says “While we were yet sinners, Christ on his cross died for us.” 

A theology of the cross says “My life was in ruins of my own making. 

My marriage was blown apart. My job was lost. My self-image was shattered by shame. My diagnosis trashed all my hopes and dreams. I thought God had forsaken me. I thought God must be punishing me. 

But God met me there in the crucible of my pain. God met me there in the crucible of my shame. God met me there in the crucifixion that was my suffering. 

A theology about the cross says “This is how God in Jesus Christ saves you from your sin.”

A theology of the cross says “This is where the God who has saved you in Jesus Christ meets you.” 

This is where God meets you in your own life. 

In your suffering. 

In your sin!

In your shame and your pain. 

A theology about the cross says “Christ and him crucified has taken away the handwriting that was against you.” 

A theoloy of the cross says “Jesus Christ joined me in my darkest moment when all I could do was stare at the handwriting on the wall.”

The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Jesus never chooses any other means to meet us than condescension into our suffering. 

That’s how Paul today can declare to the Philippians “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 

Paul’s behind bars when he writes to the Philippians. 

Paul thinks he’s about to be executed. 

Paul can say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because the Christ who strengthens him is with him there in the fiery furnace. 

Christ has joined him in his suffering. 

The cross is not what lies at the end of Jesus’ journey.

For every one of us, the way to Jesus Christ goes through a cross.  

The cross is not simply the message we proclaim. 

The cross is the means God uses to get to us. 

As sure as I’m standing here today, I met Jesus Christ in the crucible of cancer. 

Or rather, Jesus Christ met me there. 

And I’m not special. 

Neither are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

This is how the Living God works. 

He meets us in the fire. 

     As my friend Chad Bird, writes: “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility and suffering, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.” 

     Bird just puts more politely what Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation where Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, God condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine and happy parts of our lives but in the steaming piles of you-know-what in our lives. 

    Blank happens we say, but a theology of the cross says wherever it happens, God happens, too. 

———————-

    

    When I first got the diagnosis of something for which I’ll never be in remission, I reminded my parishioners over and over again that “God is not behind this. God is not behind my cancer.”  

The paradox of the theology of the cross, however, is that though God is not behind my cancer, God is behind my cancer.

 

That is, God is not behind my cancer in terms of culpability, but God is behind my cancer in terms of condescension, wearing my suffering like a mask or a wedding veil, real enough to bring Nebuchenezzar to his knees and declare, “There is no other god like this!”

     I’d never foist my diagnosis an another, yet, at the same time, I’ve found God hidden behind it, present in what others might perceive His absence. 

You see, how preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. 

In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed. By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer. 

No, God is to be found in our suffering.

     While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” anyone who insist that God isn’t in suffering. 

Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering, God is hidden, present, and there with us. 

Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. 

Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace. 

“Where is God in my suffering?” 

It can be the worst question to ask because it implies God’s not present in our suffering. 

But then again, “Where is God in my suffering?” can also be the very best question if you’re looking for where God is in your suffering. 

Because’s he’s there. 

Because the Son of God who joins Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace is the same God who meets you in your own suffering. 

————————

     In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy. 

Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.

     The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”

     Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:

“Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. And all at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze and back away slowly. One is not bold in an encounter with God.”    

    

The doctor and the husband— they’d become theologians of the cross. 

    

All Saints Sunday — Proverbs 3, 1 Corinthians 1

In 1971, at a church in Washougal, Washington, Everett Chance preached a remarkable sermon— remarkable, because Everett Chance did not believe in God.*

Everett Chance and his brother, Irwin, grew up in Washington state where their father somehow made a long career of playing minor league baseball. Their mother, meanwhile, devoted herself, and thus her children, to Jesus Christ in the form of their local church. 

In college, Everett left the faith for the antiwar movement. Eventually, Everett escaped to Canada to avoid the draft, yet he came back in 1971 to speak at his family’s church. He came back to compel the church to help free his brother, Irwin, from the “care” Irwin was receiving at a military hospital. 

Up until the day he got drafted, Irwin Chance held his church’s consecutive Bible Memory Verse record and also the consecutive Sunday School attendance record— and that turned out to be the problem for Irwin could never forget what he learned there about Jesus telling his followers to love their enemies. 

In Vietnam, an Army captain to whom Irwin was assigned ordered Irwin to shoot a young Vietnamese boy who’d been taken prisoner. Likely, the boy had killed a solider with a booby trap, yet Irwin couldn’t shake the knowledge that not only was this boy an enemy he was supposed to forgive, this enemy was still just a child, too. What would Jesus do?, Irwin contemplated.

As Everett Chance described it in his sermon, in that moment his brother went from being a U.S. soldier to a Christian soldier. Irwin attacked his captain with a tube of toothpaste. 

The real problem, however, began afterwards. 

In the brig, Irwin sat peacefully, singing hymns and reciting memory verses and praying prayers. The Army psychiatrist sent to examine Irwin, seeing him babbling to and about Jesus, concluded that Irwin was psychotic and prescribed a course of electric shock treatments and sedatives. 

Driving all night from Canada, Everett burst into the Sunday service of his family’s church determined to persuade the congregation to protest Irwin’s treatment. Stepping into the pulpit, Everett said: 

“The reason I came here, to Irwin’s God’s House, is that his trouble started here. I’m not trying to place blame. This whole situation is a compliment to the staying power of what gets taught here. Irwin, after he left here, kept on keeping your faith right up to the day he was drafted. And every letter we got from him, even from ‘Nam, was a Christian letter— the letters of a man who couldn’t reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with what was asked him. 

He’s still yours. That’s the crux of all I’m saying. He still believes every blame thing he ever learned here, and he still tells me I’m nuts when I try to tamper with those beliefs. It is the songs you sing here, the scriptures you read here, it’s his belief in this House and its God, that those doctors are out to destroy. It may be hard for you to believe it but the U.S. Government considers your faith a form of madness.” 

And then, like a good preacher, Everett offered the congregation an imaginative alternative: 

“You know, you folks have your own doctors and shrinks. If some of you caused enough fuss, I bet you could arrange for a Christian examination of Irwin by doctors who could see his faith for what it is, see that he’s not crazy. He’s a Christian.”

———————-

No doubt few of us would describe a soldier attacking his commanding officer with a tube of Colgate as having made a wise and prudent move, yet few of us could deny that pouncing upon an unjust superior with a tube of toothpaste is exactly the sort of odd, crazy witness for which we remember those Christians the Church has named saints. 

Notice how the Book of Proverbs today personifies wisdom: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” 

It’s wisdom with a capital W. 

Wisdom in the Old Testament isn’t an attribute.  

Wisdom is but another name for the God whom the Jews, out of reverence, refuse to name. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Proverbs tells us in chapter nine. 

The reason that the fear of the Lord is beginning of lowercase-w wisdom is because capital-W Wisdom and the Lord are one and the same. 

“By Wisdom, God founded the earth,” Proverbs 3 says today. But then in the New Testament Colossians 1 declares, “In Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created…” 

Thus, from Easter onward, the ancient Christians identified the Old Testament’s personification of Wisdom as the pre-incarnate Christ, the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity. 

Which means, the Wisdom which the Old Testament commends us to seek is the way of Jesus Christ, a way which, the Apostle Paul reports to the Corinthians, can’t help but appear as foolish to the so-called “wisdom” of the world.

Because Christ’s whole life, from creche to cross was one of suffering sinful humanity, that phrase “Christ crucified” refers not only to the crucifixion but to Christ’s entire ministry—  especially so to Christ’s Kingdom teaching which compels the kingdoms of this world to crucify him. 

That “Christ crucified” is a wisdom that appears as foolishness to such a world is not an unfortunate failure of communication, for the Apostle Paul tells us today that “Christ crucified,” the way of Jesus, is God’s way of destroying the world that builds crosses.

You see—

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an odd option among options in the world. 

The way of Jesus Christ isn’t just an alternative, counterintuitive lifestyle you can choose from other lifestyle choices as though the difference between being a Christian or a Buddhist is like the difference between choosing an iPhone or an Android. 

Rather, the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God. 

Visiting the prisoners in prison, as our Kairos volunteers did last weekend, is not a good thing to do nor is it a means for you to get in God’s good graces.  

It’s God’s offensive against a world where people of color make up nearly three-quarters of the prison system, yet only a third of the overall population.

Feeding the immigrants among us, as Betsy does at our Mission Center every week, it isn’t charity.  

It’s God’s assault against a world that refuses God’s command to “Treat the immigrant residing among you as native-born.  Love them as yourself.”

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s patient offensive against a world aligned against God. 

It is the power of God, Paul says in verse 18, “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’” That’s a quote the Apostle Paul lifts from a battle scene in the Book of Isaiah. 

As the Bible understands it, the incarnation of Jesus into the world is an invasion of territory controlled by an enemy, and to incarnate the way of Jesus Christ in your own flesh is to press the battle lines and continue the advance.  

Therefore, sainthood is not so much about piety, but about power. 

———————-

Saints are those who exemplify better than others a story that will appear foolish to the world because it is, in fact, the story by which God is destroying the world. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power, because sainthood names our participation in a cosmic conflict. 

Don’t buy it? 

Listen to these other verses from our opening hymn, For All the Saints: 

“O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victor’s crown of gold” 

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong”

Such martial language may sound problematic to you if you’ve forgotten the heads-up that came at the very beginning of your baptism, when you were asked on behalf of the whole communion of saints:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…reject the evil powers of this world? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

And here you all thought coming to church was about connecting with spiritual truths or enjoying your forgiveness or finding fellowship. 

Maybe, you came looking for Jesus to lend a little meaning to your life— good for you. 

Well, what’s Jesus have in store for you? 

A fight— conflict on a scale so cosmic you hardly seem to matter at all. 

———————-

It’s important to note that today we’re not simply remembering all those who’ve died. 

We’re remembering all the baptized who’ve died. 

As Paul implies at the top of 1 Corinthians, all the baptized are saints in that, through baptism, we die the only death that really matters; therefore, baptism frees us to live in a manner that is not determined by the fear of death. 

It’s necessary to have death behind you in order to join God’s campaign, for the most potent weapon in the Enemy’s arsenal is the fear of death.

The church is a hospital for sinners, the cliché goes. 

But it’s more like a field hospital, a MASH unit, surrounded by the enemy, where your wounds are bound up so that you can join the fight and contend against the Powers who would rule this world by hate, envy, and violence. 

It’s by God’s grace that God doesn’t so much solve your problems as God conscripts you into something bigger than yourself and against problems much, much bigger than your problems. 

St. Paul says in Ephesians that, “Before the foundation of the world, God chose us in Jesus Christ so that we might be holy.”

And the word holy in scripture is the same word from which we get the word saint.  

It means different. 

Odd. 

Saints are those whom God has made odd in a world that has made God its enemy. Saints are those who are different in that they know that the wisdom of God— the way of Jesus Christ— which the world finds foolish is in fact a power. 

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

And power is always also necessarily about conflict. 

The saints are those Christians who produced conflict by refusing to let everyday Christians like us off the hook and, instead, insisted that because the way of Jesus is a power in the world, Jesus should be taken at his word. 

That is, the saints are those who show us to what our faith has committed all of us. 

I mean—

We love to stick statues of St. Francis of Assisi in our flower beds and remember how the birds and the beasts loved him. 

We forget how the rich and the powerful hated Francis for his refusal to compromise on what Jesus Christ taught about money and violence. 

Likewise, we love to teach our kids a reassuring, congratulatory version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream sermon, but we prefer to forget that he died prophesying against war and poverty.

Sainthood is not about piety; it’s about power. 

It’s about living in an odd, different manner that locates where true power lies. 

Rome understood that it’s about locating where true power lies.

Why else did Rome kill so many of us?

To confess that Jesus Christ is Lord was to profess that Caesar is not. 

To rescue newborns abandoned in the fields to die (as the first Christians did) was to insist that the significance of life lies not with the authority of the government, but with the Giver of Life. 

And to pray for your enemy, to forgive your enemy, to practice the habits necessary to produce (possibly) love for your enemy…well, that proved at odds with an empire that had a stake— and still has a stake— in telling you, “These are your enemies. Go kill them.” 

Even if Christians in America don’t understand it, Caesar sure did. 

It’s about power. Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus had paid it all. 

Rome did not martyr scores of Christian saints because Christians believed Jesus taught the Golden Rule. 

No, Caesar did not kill Christians for singing some early version of Amazing Grace nor did Caesar kill Christians because Christians believed Christ taught what Mr. Rogers taught. 

Rome martyred Christians because Christians (back then, at least) understood that the preaching and teaching of the one who had forgiven all their sins by grace is not simply a prologue to the passion story. 

It is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world. 

The way of Jesus Christ is God’s way in the world to take back God’s world.

That’s bad news if you think you’re in charge of the world. 

And, it’s uncomfortable news if you’re comfortable with those who think they’re in charge of the world. 

But, if you’re willing to live with death behind you, if you’re willing to attempt an odd and different life, a life lived as though it’s good news, you’re a saint. 

———————-

Towards the end of his “sermon” delivered to his brother Irwin’s congregation, Everett Chance turned from the congregation to God:

“Unlike Irwin, I don’t even believe in God. It’s a little odd, for that reason, that I’d have such strong feelings about God’s House. But I do. I feel— because I love Irwin very much— that it’s crucial for me to at least try to address the One whose House Irwin believes this to be. Since I don’t believe in Him, I’m not sure my words qualify as prayer. But I feel I must say directly to You— Irwin’s dear God— that if somebody doesn’t hear our family’s cry, if somebody isn’t moved, not by be, but by You God, to sacrifice some time and thought and energy for Irwin’s sake, then his mind, his love for You, belief in this church, are going to be destroyed. 

It’s that simple, I think. 

Which puts the ball in Your court, God. Not a hopeful place to leave it, to my mind. But that’s where a saint like Irwin would want it. And for the first time in my life. I hope it’s Irwin, not me, who’s right about God and God’s church.”

Irwin got released from the psychiatrict hospital after Irwin’s church did exactly what Everett told them to do— or, rather, what God told them to do.

———————-

If the way of Jesus Christ is God’s offensive against a world aligned against God, if the wisdom that appears foolish is in fact a power, then that means the third to the last line of the Apostle’s Creed— the communion of saints— is the key doctrine of the Church. 

“I believe in the communion of saints” is the necessary predicate to everything else we profess in the creed.

If the cheek-turning, grace-giving, enemy-loving way of Jesus Christ is the patient way God is getting back all that belongs to God, then saints are not optional. 

The Holy Spirit continues to use ordinary churches to produce saints because God needs them. 

The story of Jesus Christ must produce lives that demonstrate the truthfulness of the story of Jesus Christ; so that, through such witnesses— through the way of Jesus Christ— God might finish God’s work of redemption.  

But— Irwin’s a good example— no one can choose to become a saint.

Saints are made. 

So, come to the table because the most reliable way to learn how to live with death behind you is to receive in your flesh the foolishness that is Christ’s broken body and blood.

* This story is from the novel The Brothers K by David James Duncan. I chose not to note that in the sermon because I didn’t want the fictional naure of the story to cause people to discount it. If saints are those whose lives story the gospel for us then the lives of those in novels can serve the same purpose.

Sermon Illustration

Jason Micheli —  October 20, 2019 — 1 Comment

Exodus 20, Matthew 5.38-48

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of a Trappist abbey in Algeria. A veteran of the French army, de Cherge grew up in an aristocratic family. 

After the rise of Islamic radicals in 1993, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to leave their monastery, because they refused to cease serving the community’s poor.

Held hostage for two months, de Cherge and his fellow monks were executed in 1996. Their heads were discovered inside a tree. Their bodies were never found. 

Anticipating his murder, Christian de Cherge left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

Published in newspapers all over the world, his letter is a moving exemplification of the Gospel. In it, he wrote:

“If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all of Algeria, I would like my community, the Church, to remember that I have dedicated my life to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

If the moment I fear comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, and the faithfulness, to ask for God’s pardon for myself and to ask it as well for he who would attack me. I pray that I am able to love my enemy even in my death….” 

The reason his note grabbed headlines and inspired a film, Of Gods and Men— Christian de Cherge then concluded his letter by addressing his would-be executioner: 

“And to you too, my dear friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ ‘[go with God] in whose image you too are made. May you and I meet in the kingdom of heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our Father.”

No doubt, on any other day but today, I expect that you would find Christian de Cherge’s witness not only edifying, but inspiring. 

If you heard the story of his martrydom on a different occasion, say All Saints Day, then in all likelihood you would understand, intuitively, how his exemplification of the Gospel is exactly the sort that first attracted pagans to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Don’t forget— 

Christianity converted the heart of the Roman Empire before there was anything called the “New Testament,” and they did so at a time when nearly everyone was illiterate. 

And in those first centuries of the Church, not only was the sacrament of holy communion off limits to outsiders— not only was the table closed to the unbaptized— so, too, was the Sunday worship gathering. 

Unbelievers didn’t become believers by having been invited to the worship of Christians. 

Unbelievers became believers by being attracted to the lives of Christians.

That’s just a fact of history. 

The ancient Christians did not pass out tracts to people who could not read. 

The lives of the ancient Christians themselves were the holy texts. 

The saints were the scripture and the sacraments that persuaded pagans to the truth of what Christians professed.  

That is, the Church in the ancient world grew by Christians daring to live in an odd, counter-intuitive manner that made no sense if God had not raised the crucified Christ from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth. 

Christian de Cherge’s story is the kind of story that exemplified the story of Jesus and, in the ancient world, stories like de Cherge’s story made the story of Jesus more than a short-lived rumor from a backwater place called Galilee. 

And for that reason, we rightly admire a story like Christian de Cherge’s story. 

Yet, if you’re like me, not today.

Because, today, admiration alone isn’t an option. 

Admiration is off the table.

———————-

Today, you might find the monk’s story unsettling— accusing, even— because today we’ve just heard his story in conjunction with the Sermon on the Mount where Christ teaches that we are to love our enemies. 

We’d prefer to think the witness made by those French monks was the exception rather than the expectation. 

We’d like to make their example remarkable, but today Jesus makes it the rule. 

Moreover, Jesus putting this teaching (on how his disciples are to love their enemies) at the very outset of his ministry, implies that following Jesus will make for us enemies— enemies we would not have were we not following Jesus. 

Our sentimental assumptions to the contrary, Christianity is not about having no enemies. Christianity is about loving the enemies we’ve made by our being Christian. 

Jesus is not referring here to the enemies you had before you met Jesus, (he’s not talking about your mother-in-law or your ex-husband). Jesus is, instead, preparing his disciples for the command he will give them later in Matthew’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

To follow the Crucified One is to anticipate that there will be those who wish to nail you to a cross, too. And like the Crucified One, Jesus teaches today, you are to suffer your persecutors in patience and love. 

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly problematic for people like us. 

After all, if we have any conviction, it’s that God is nice. And, because we’re a sanctificationist people, we think that the conviction, “God is nice,” ought to come with a correlative; therefore, we believe that we should be nice, too. 

It seems a contradiction that nice people following a nice God should discover that they’ve made enemies for themselves precisely by being Christian— enemies to whom we’re required to be more than nice. 

We’re required to love them, Jesus says, going so far as to offer them another cheek to strike, giving them the coat off our back, and walking an extra couple of miles in their shoes. 

It might not be any credit to us if we love the people who love us. 

But it sure sounds smarter. 

And safe.

But—

Christ’s command to love the enemies we’ve made by following him— the unavoidable implication to Christ’s command is that if we’ve made no enemies by following him then we’re likely not following him. 

We’re admiring him, maybe. But we’re not obeying him. 

John Wesley called those who admire Jesus but who dare not obey Jesus “almost Christians.” “Almost Christians” want Jesus to secure for them life after death, but “almost Christians” do not want to offer Jesus the kind of life that could mean their death. 

———————-

Listen up—

Let me make it plain. 

This is what is at stake in the sermon Jesus preaches today:

If your account of Christianity is such that it makes no sense whatsoever why anyone would want to kill Jesus or his followers (or you)— if we’re just a club of nice people admiring a nice God— then, it’s not Christianity. 

As Jesus tells the disciples later in the Gospel, following his peaceable way in the world will make the world more violent, not less: 

“Do you think that I will bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I will produce division! Even households will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”

Which means— pay attention now— 

Christ’s command to love our enemies is not a strategy. The point of Jesus’ preaching here is not, “Give peace a chance,” or “Love is all you need.” Christ does not promise us that through our love of the enemy our enemy will cease to be our enemy and will one day love us. 

No.

Christianity is not naive. 

Jesus does not promise us that our nonviolent, cruciform love is a strategy to rid the world of violence. 

Rather, in a world of violence Jesus has called his disciples to be a particular people who love their enemies, because that is the form God’s care for us became incarnate in the world. 

This is what we do, not because it works, but because this is who He is.

“While we were yet his enemies,” the Apostle Paul says, “God-in-Christ loved us.”

“Let that same mind be in you,” St. Paul writes, “that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Love of enemy— 

It’s not about what works in the world. 

It’s about our witness to the world. 

Our witness to what God has worked in Jesus Christ. 

He has conquered. 

He has overcome the crosses that we build with resurrection. 

———————-

And, then—

Just before this, Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths. 

That sounds innocent enough until you think about it and realize that Jesus forbids his followers from swearing oaths because an oath is but an exception to lies, and every word out of his followers mouths should be “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” 

Meanwhile, here we are in America, where we can no longer even distinguish the truth from the lie, much less speak nothing but the truth.

You gripe about some of our sermons. 

Jesus preaches a hard sermon, and then he ends this section today with “Be perfect.” Actually, in Greek, it says, “There should be no limit to your goodness.”

Jesus preaches a hard sermon. 

Just before the command about oaths, Jesus teaches that we are to live visibly in the world— like salt, like light— in a manner that substantiates our message. 

And, let’s be honest, most of us live in the world in a manner that corroborates our sin, not our having been saved from it.

Even if you could take a red pen and redact this part of Christ’s preaching, this part where we are commanded to love the enemies Jesus has managed to make for us, even if you could cut out today’s passage, it doesn’t make the rest of the sermon any less convicting on nice, Jesus- admiring, “almost Christians” like us. 

So, what are we to do with this Sermon on the Mount from which, on any number of counts, we all fall so short? 

I mean, I can barely manage my inbox, let alone love all the people who love me, much less cover all the law Jesus lays down in this sermon.

What do we do with this?

———————-

When we treat Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal to be realized only in some future kingdom, when we regard it as a collection of generalized principles that anyone can follow whether or not they’re following Jesus, when we interpret the sermon only as overwhelming law meant to convict us of our sin and compel us to Christ’s grace— when we interpret the Sermon on the Mount in any of those ways, we neglect to notice how the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon. 

That is, it’s not directed to unbelieving individuals. 

Nor is it meant for believing individuals. 

It’s a sermon. 

It’s addressed to a particular congregation. 

It’s intended for that community to act out and embody. 

This is why Matthew tells you at the top of Chapter Five that the twelve disciples have visibly left the crowd on the mountainside and drawn close to Christ. 

They are the ones for whom the Sermon on the Mount is meant, because they are the ones through whom Jesus is reconstituting Israel and relaunching Israel’s vocation to be a light unto the nations. 

Twelve tribes.

Twelve disciples. 

And like Israel’s Law, Jesus’ Torah on the Mount is meant for the particular people that Christ has called, and that Christ is putting into the world to witness to the new age inaugurated by his resurrection. 

The Sermon on the Mount is not meant for everybody. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body. 

The Sermon on the Mount is meant for his Body of disciples. 

So, the good news is that the command to love our enemies is not a command for everyone to obey. 

The bad news is that, by virtue of your baptism, it is a command— just like all the others in the sermon— that claims you. 

But, that burden is not all bad news for you are just a part of the Body, and, as St. Paul tells us, the Body of Christ is made up of many different members where no part of the Body can say to another part of the Body, “I have no need of you.” Which is but a way of saying, “I need you.” 

I need you.

We need each other. 

We need each other if we are, as a community, to be Christ’s sermon illustration.

You see, the object of Jesus’ sermon is that it makes us dependent on one another if we are to exemplify it. 

Some of you speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but you do not know how to pray well. 

Others of you are skilled at prayer, but struggle with gossip. 

Some of you are open about your faith, while others of you hide it so far under a bushel basket your closet friends would be surprised to discover that you’re a Christian. 

Many of you hunger and thirst for justice, but you do not pray for those who persecute the victims of injustice. You advocate for vicitms of oppression, but you do not pray for the victimizers. 

We need each other if we are to be Christ’s sermon illustration. 

The point of the sermon isn’t that each of you, individually, need to be like Jesus Christ. 

The point of the sermon is that Christ’s Body, collectively, bear witness to him.

You might be weak on sanctification.

But, taken together, Christ’s Body spread through the world— there is no limit to the goodness. 

And so, perhaps you aren’t very compassionate on the poor, yet here you are today a part of a people who will package thousands of meals for them. 

Maybe you can’t imagine ever being capable of loving your enemies in any risk-taking ways, yet by baptism you belong to a Body with members that include witnesses like Christian de Cherge. 

———————-

Brother Paul (Favre-Miville) was another Trappist monk martryed at the abbey in Algeria in 1996. He came from a family of blacksmiths in France, a family of cultural Christians who had Paul baptized as a baby, but who did not practice the faith with any real commitment. 

Paul’s family did not welcome his decision to become a monk, nor did they understand his insistence on remaining at the abbey after it had become dangerous. 

When his unbelieving friends and secular, skeptical family would ask him about his life in Algeria amidst enemies, Brother Paul would often joke to them, “Well, my head is still on my shoulders.” 

In a letter to his friends and family, Brother Paul wrote:

“Becoming a monk is a choice, like the choice to become a follower of Christ….  Our sins are not the same nor are our gifts the same and in this way the calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. The faithfulness of his Body is bigger than the failures of its individual members.”

The calling Christ places upon us as his Body compels us to live in such a way as to be dependent on one another. 

I’ll tell you what that means—

It means faith does not name your own inner commitments, your own private beliefs, or your own interior feelings.

No, faith names making your life vulnerable to a people who will hold you accountable to what you think is true, a people through whom, by belonging to one another, each of us is made more than we otherwise might be. 

That is the hope we call the Gospel. 

And it is the hope that takes flesh in these creatures of bread and wine; so that, we might taste and see here and now what, one day, we shall become. 

The Cure for Atheism

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2019 — Leave a comment

Genesis 32, Romans 9

     I like Jacob. I like Jacob even though it’s not clear from the biblical witness why I’m supposed to like Jacob. 

     In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t. 

     In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow by faith when God calls, Jacob doesn’t. 

     I like Jacob, but in a tradition where names mean everything, convey everything, foreshadow everything, its not clear from the name, “Jacob,” that we’re meant to root for this character. 

     When he was yet unborn, Jacob, who wrestles God in the dark along the riverbank, for nine months wrestled his twin brother in the dark waters of his mother’s womb. 

And when she gives birth to them, Esau first, the youngest comes out clutching at the leg of the eldest. 

     As if to say, “Me first.”

     So, Rebekah names him ‘Jacob.’ 

     Which is a little like naming your kid, “Rudy.“

In movies and television, “Jake” is always the name of the hunky, altruistic hero. 

     But, in Hebrew “Jacob” means heel-grabber, hustler, over-reacher, supplanter, scoundrel, trickster, liar, and a cheat. 

     In a religion where names signify and portend everything, it’s not clear that I’m meant to but, nevertheless, I like Jacob. 

 

     

It’s true, scripture gives us plenty of reasons to dislike Jacob. 

     More than twenty years before they meet face-to-face on the banks of the Jabbok River, Jacob took advantage of his brother. 

     One afternoon Esau had returned from the fields, dizzy and in a cold sweat from hunger. Jacob pulled some fresh bread from the oven and ladled some lentil soup from the stove. 

     When Esau asked for it, Jacob demanded his elder brother’s birthright in return. 

     As Jacob knew it would, Esau’s birthright seemed an intangible thing compared to hunger. Esau accepted the terms of his brother’s extortion. 

     And, even if Esau knew not what he’d just done, Jacob certainly did. 

     But, I still like Jacob. 

     It’s true that his birthright isn’t the only thing Jacob poaches from his brother. 

     It’s true that when their father, Isaac, was weighed down by age and his eyes were cobwebbed by years, when Isaac was dying and wanted to bless his eldest son— a blessing to be the most powerful of all, a blessing that couldn’t be taken back— he old man lay in his goat-skin tent waiting for his eldest son to appear. 

     After a while he heard someone enter and say, “My father.” And the old man, his eyes darkened by blindness, asked, “Who are you my son?”

     The boy boldly lied and said that he was Esau. And when the old man reached forward to the touch the face he could not see, the boy lied a second time. 

    And when the boy leaned over to kiss the old man and the old man sniffed the scent of Esau’s clothes, just as Jacob knew he would, Isaac blessed him. 

     Jacob lied to his father to steal from his brother the birthright that he coveted. 

     If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 out of 10 commandments, broken in one fail swoop. 

      Still, I’ve got my own reasons. 

I like Jacob. 

     It’s true that soon after Esau’s rage made Jacob a runaway, God spoke to him in a dream— gave him a vision of a ladder traveled by angels— it’s true that when Jacob awoke from the dream and marked the spot with an altar stone and prayed to God, Jacob didn’t pray for forgiveness. 

     He didn’t confess his sin. 

     He didn’t express any remorse or give any hint of a troubled conscience. 

     

     Instead, Jacob prayed with fingers crossed and one eye opened, a prayer that was really more of a deal: 

“If you stand by me God, if you protect me on this journey, God, if you keep me in food and clothing, and bring me back in one piece to my house and land, then you will be my God.”

God revealed God’s self to Jacob. 

And, afterwards, Jacob is still the same Jacob— the same sinner— Jacob was before. 

Like a lot of us (most of us?),  Jacob’s encounter with God leaves Jacob completely unchanged. 

     So, it’s hard for me not to like Jacob. 

    I know it’s true that when he had nowhere else to go, his mother’s brother, Laban, took Jacob in and gave him food and shelter and work and, eventually, a wife and family. 

     I know it’s true that after over 14 years of Laban’s hospitality Jacob became a rich man- but not rich enough to satisfy Jacob who returned Laban’s good deeds by cheating his father-in-law out his wealth. 

     I know it’s true that God, in his compassion, gave children to Leah, because Leah’s husband, Jacob, gave her neither a thought nor a care. 

     If you’re still counting at home, that’s another couple of commandments broken (which still gives him a winning percentage better than the Miami Marlins are likely to have this season.)

     Jacob’s a liar, a cheat, and a thief. 

     Jacob’s got a wandering eye and a fickle heart. 

     Jacob’s got shallow scruples and fleet feet. 

     Jacob’s always ready to run away from his problems. 

     

    Jacob’s not a bible hero. 

He’s not holy. 

     He’s a heel.

    Still, I can’t help it. 

I like Jacob. 

 

You might not. 

     You might not like Jacob. 

     You might not be like Jacob. 

     

Maybe you’re batting perfect when it comes to the commandments.      

     Congrats.

     Maybe you’ve never lied to your mother or your father, or your husband or your wife. 

     Maybe you’ve never watched idly by as a sibling or a friend, or a neighbor wanders out of your life, gets into trouble and then beyond your reach. 

    Maybe you’ve never betrayed someone you should’ve honored and obeyed. 

     Maybe you’ve never returned a good deed with a petty one, or turned to God only when you needed him. Maybe.

     Maybe your family never suffered such bad blood that it threatens to hemorrhage, or maybe you’ve never let the wounds of a broken relationship fester through years upon years. 

     Maybe you’ve never withheld forgiveness, because clenching that forgiveness in your fist was the only control you possessed. 

     At every point, from his mother’s womb to Jabbok’s river, Jacob has worried about Jacob. Jacob has only ever cared about Jacob. Jacob has looked after no one else, but Jacob. 

     Maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’ve never been like that. 

     Good for you. 

Gold star to you.

     Go ahead and turn your nose up at Jacob. 

 

     

Just because I like him doesn’t mean you should. 

     Not everyone can relate to Jacob. 

     Not everybody can identify with someone who suspects his sins are eventually going to sneak up on him from the shadows of his past. 

     Check the text— Jacob sends his wife and his kids and his possessions packing before a stranger jumps him in the dark and fights dirty until dawn. 

     Jacob ships them off across the Jabbok and then he just waits in the dark for a shadowy struggle he apparently anticipated, but had no actual reason to expect. 

     In other words, the stranger in the shadows doesn’t surprise Jacob, because Jacob was expecting that, sooner or later, the other shoe would drop, the bottom would fall out, and his ill-gotten gain would get him. 

      Maybe you can’t identify with someone like Jacob. 

      Maybe your rap sheet is clean. 

Maybe your conscience is clear.

      Maybe your past really doesn’t stink and so whenever it hits the fan, it never occurs to you that you had it coming.

     Maybe you’ve never clutched the covers at night convinced, “This is happening to me for a reason. God’s doing this to me, because of what I’ve done (or left undone).”

     Maybe you’ve never wondered that this sickness or struggle is because of that sin. 

     Maybe you’ve never harbored the suspicion that the darkness that’s enveloped you is what you deserve. 

     Lucky you if you can’t relate to Jacob. 

     Lucky you. 

     

Lord knows, I can. 

     I can. 

     But, that’s not why I like Jacob.

 

    

     No, I like Jacob because Jacob is not the sort of guy who would ever send a Hallmark card that says, “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

     I like Jacob, because Jacob, whom God leaves lame and limping and bruised,  knows that the good news is NOT, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” 

I like Jacob, because Jacob knows that God is to be found up at the top of that ladder God showed him, and Jacob knows that the good news— the Gospel— is not that God is there at the top of that ladder to meet u,s if we but climb our way up to him. 

     Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The ladder was not for us to journey up to God. 

The ladder was for God to come down to us. 

Jacob has the scars to prove it. 

The good news is that God meets us in the very midst of that which we cannot handle.

 

    Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this year. 

Arnade used to be atheist. The book started out as an essay he wrote for The Guardian entitled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.”

Arnade was an unbelieving, French-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

“I had always counted myself an atheist,” Arnade writes, “I picked on the Bible, a tome cobbled together over hundreds of years that provides so many inconsistencies.”

“When I first walked into the Bronx, photographing homeless addicts, I assumed I would find the same cynicism I had towards faith. If anyone seemed the perfect candidate for atheism it was the addicts who see daily how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be. None of them are. Rather, they are some of the strongest believers I have met.”

Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named, Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. Jesus. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, Jesus came down and stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

She’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always comes down and meets me where I am when I need him the most,” she told Arnade. 

 

     I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Martin Luther said that, from Adam onwards, you and I are addicted to the “glory story.”

That is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. 

     The “glory story” prompts those kinds of questions and clichés, because it gets the direction of the Gospel story backwards. 

The Gospel story, the story of the Cross, is not the story of our journey up to God, but God’s journey down to us. 

     The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension, not our ascension. 

     And, the story of the Cross isn’t a story that starts with Jesus. 

     Rather, the God who comes to us in the crucified Christ is the God who has always condescended. 

Indeed, that’s why the first Christians believed it was the pre-incarnate Christ Jacob wrestles here in the dark of the night. 

This angel in the darkness is the Second Adam (Jesus) who has the authority to (re)name God’s creatures. 

     The God who snuck up on us in Jesus is the God who crept up on Jacob in the shadows. 

     The God who jumped Jacob in the darkness of his guilt and sin is the same God who comes down and finds us in our own struggles. 

     And so I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     We need Jacob to inoculate us against the “glory story.”

     We need Jacob to remember that:

If we are to find strength from God, it starts with searching for Him in our weakness. 

If we hope to find wholeness from God, it begins by seeking Him out in our woundedness.  

If we dream of finding healing from God, we first must look for God not up in glory, but down into the pit of our nightmare. 

     Without Jacob, when we cry out to God for help, we’re liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction. 

     Up into glory, rather than down in to the darkness, and out into the shadows that surround us. 

    So, I don’t just like Jacob; I think we need him. 

     Because, it’s not just that the power of God is revealed in the weakness of Jesus Christ. 

It’s that the grace God gives to us in Jesus Christ can only be received in a weakness like Jacob’s. 

     Only in our weakness and woundedness do we realize our true helplessness, and only in helplessness can we discover the healing power of his blessing— that’s not just the Jacob story, that’s the Gospel. 

     That’s what we mean when we say that you are saved by grace alone through faith alone. We mean that you alone— by your lonesome— do not have the strength to save yourself. 

     You are as helpless as Jacob, hobbled over with his hip out of joint. NOTE: poor guy.

     That’s why the bread is broken. 

And it’s why you come to the table with the open, empty hands of a beggar. 

     Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. 

 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

“Meeting people like Takeesha,” Arnade writes, “I soon saw my atheism for what it is: an intellectual belief most accessible to those who have done well. We don’t believe in God because, with our cash and comfort, we don’t need to believe in God, which is but another way of saying “God only meets us in our need.”” 

The cure for atheism, in other words, is found not at the top of the ladder, but at the bottom. 

Or, in the middle of Jacob’s wrestling ring.

    

    

    

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  September 30, 2019 — 1 Comment

Genesis 22 and Hebrews 10

I know you’d never guess it from unimpressive me, but I have been a preacher for almost twenty years.

And sure, it reveals a lot  about me that in those years I’ve preached four different sermons on the prophet Isaiah prophesying in nothing but his birtday suit (it’s really in there). 

I’ve preached three different sermons on King David collecting one hundred Philistine foreskins from reluctant donors in order to win Michal as his bride (it’s in there too), and I’ve somehow managed to preach five different sermons on the talking ass in Numbers 22.

Every time, someone has left church telling me, “It takes one to know one.”  

Twenty years—

But, in all that time, I’ve never once preached on today’s passage. 

Luther was haunted by it. Rembrandt and Chagall painted it. In his asthmatic kitty dry-heave of a voice, Bob Dylan sang about it going down on Highway 61. 

But, I’ve never studied it closely until this week. 

I’ve never preached on it until today. 

And yesterday…

Yesterday, I stood outside in the church cemetery next to a shallow grave and a tiny two-foot coffin. 

Tossing a fist full of dirt I clawed from the ground, I looked into a mother’s vacant, tear-filled eyes and, in the name of Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, I promised her— I promised her— that God did not take her child from her. 

Was I wrong?

Sylvia was only four months old. 

The way the undertaker had prepared her body— she looked like she was nursing. She’d been dressed in a coat that looked like the kind Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day. 

Next to her body, I told her parents about Jesus Christ, about how God-in-the-flesh wept beside a grave just like Sylvia’s, wept over a friend who, like Sylvia, died much too soon. “On a day like today,” I said, “it’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any of you need to be here.”

I promised. 

Was I wrong? 

Did I bear false witness?

———————-

Is the God I promised to them, the God I promised was for them in Jesus Christ and with them in the Holy Spirit, the same God who tells Abraham, “Take your child, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him there as a burnt-offering?”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying, “Abraham, I know I said “Put down the sword” but I’m going to need you to pick it up and (really big favor) take your son Isaac, slit his throat, and set him on fire. As a sacrifice to please and appease me.”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying that, and that’s a problem, because if God is Trinity then, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Because God doesn’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” the Bible says, “yesterday, today, and forever.” 

Therefore, if Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God’s very Being, as the Book of Hebrews declares, then not only is God like Jesus, God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God has not been like Jesus. 

The Son who prays “forgive them for they know not what they do” is the same— of one being— as the Father to whom he prays. 

The Father was always like the Son. 

From before was was. 

God has never not been like Jesus. 

If Jesus Christ is the one by whom all things were made, as the creed confesses, if Christ was present at creation, as the Bible teaches— if Christ was present at creation and God doesn’t change, then present with Christ from before creation was his desire for mercy not sacrifice. 

———————-

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus tells the grumbling Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 

“Go study that Bible you like to thump,” Jesus says, sending them back to the prophet Hosea who declared, “Thus, says the Lord: I desire mercy not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.” 

God’s desire apparently is always falling on deaf ears because God keeps repeating himself. Through the prophet Micah, God speaks the same word, 

“Hear what the Lord says: With what shall you come before the Lord? Will the Lord be pleased with the sound of a thousand rams sacrificed? Shall we offer our first born children, the fruit not of the land but of our bodies? He has told you, o mortal, what is pleasing; to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility under your God.”

When King David gets caught red-handed, having broken about half the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t demand any quid pro quo.

No, God reveals to David that “God takes no delight in sacrifice.” 

“If I were to give you a burnt offering,” David sings in Psalm 51, “You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart.” 

Not only does God not want sacrifices of any sort, sacrifice, as the preacher of Hebrews says in today’s text, does not work. 

Sacrifice just tempts us into thinking we can right the scales of relationship with God. 

Thus sacrifice doesn’t atone for sin, it exacerbates sin because, fundamentally, it’s a refusal of grace.

But there’s the question:

If God doesn’t want sacrifice, if God has never wanted sacrifice, if sacrifice is a futile gesture that accomplishes nothing but deluding us into thinking we’re steering our standing before God, then why would God want to assess Abraham by Abraham’s willingess to do what God does not want done?

———————-

To test his faith?

That’s the usual explanation. 

God takes Abraham through this sadistic charade to test his faith by asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

Abraham has already sacrificed his past, being summoned by God out of his homeland. 

And here, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his future in order to make his future dependent not on biology but entirely upon God’s gracious provision. 

Just kidding— I was only testing you. 

Never mind that this makes the God of infinite Love and Goodness exponentially worse than Michael Scott fake-firing his employees at Dunder Mifflin, that’s the conventional answer. 

And, that’s why for Jews this passage is about akedah, obedience, and for Islam this story is about the virtue of surrendering to the will of God no matter where your discernment of God’s will takes you. 

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Abraham here demonstrates what true faith entails. 

True faith is contrary to what our senses tell us (even our sense of right and wrong). 

True faith exceeds the rational; such that, to anyone else faith looks absurd.

Which I take to be an absurd answer. 

Because in scripture the proper measure of faith isn’t the quantity of it. 

It’s the character of it. 

It’s not how much faith you have.

It’s who and what your faith is in. 

It’s not about amounts; it’s about allegiance. 

The chief priests and the Pharisees had alot of faith. 

They just placed their faith in the wrong who, “We have no King but Caesar!”

The measure of faith is not how much you have but to whom and to what you are allegiant. 

For Christians, there’s no such thing as blind faith, because God has shown himself.  

Fully in Jesus Christ. 

And God has also revealed himself through the law— laws like “Do not kill.” 

Therefore, it’s not a leap of faith to do that which is contrary to who God has revealed himself to be. 

This is not a test of faith, asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

For one thing—

Everywhere else the Old Testament , when God tests his People it’s for the purpose of making them holy. 

Holy means different. 

Whenever God tests his People, it’s to make them distinct from the pagans and idolators around them. 

So, for example, after God gets his chosen People out of Egypt, he tests them in the wilderness in order to get the Egypt of them. 

And this is how Jesus’ testing in the wilderness functions too. It’s to shape him to be different than all the other would-be-messiahs. 

“All these kingdoms of the world, I will give you,” Jesus is tested. 

And only Jesus declines the opportunity.

The purpose of testing in the Bible is make God’s People holy. 

To make them different. 

And that’s the other thing—

Child sacrifice was not different.  

This is not a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’ll go through with the unthinkable, because for Abraham it was not unthinkable. 

Not at all.

Don’t forget—

Abraham exists in an ancient near eastern world where child sacrifice is not unusual. 

The reason God has to spell it out in the law and say, “Don’t do it,” is because the Canaanite religions of Israel’s day did do it. 

Thus, child sacrifice would not be a way to test Abraham. 

It would not be a way to make the People of Abraham different because everybody else did it too. 

It would not make Abraham holy. 

It would make Abraham the same. 

And remember—

Abraham is only a recent convert from paganism. 

When God called Abraham, he was a ziggurat-attending, moon-worshipping pagan. 

Abraham’s father, the Talmud says, was an idol maker. 

That’s why Abraham doesn’t question this command he discerns to kill his kid. Child sacrifice— it’s what the gods do.

But what about the God who is Jesus Christ?

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

It’s like there’s two different gods here testing Abraham. 

———————- 

Yesterday morning before the burial, I was standing by the bell tower, talking with Sylvia’s uncle about how we’d process down to the gravesite with the baby. 

Stupidly, I asked him how he was doing.

And he said to me, “I know God didn’t do this to my family. I know God didn’t take her. But, still, I keep thinking God did it. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m being tested to sort out what’s true and what’s not.”

———————- 

What if the true test Abraham passes is a different test than the one we presume? What if the actual test Abraham passes is a test we fail to the extent that we fail even to notice it? 

It’s all right there in the text. 

The key to the passage is that it uses two different Hebrew words for God. 

The text refers to God as Elohim. 

Elohim is the generic Hebrew term for God. Elohim is like our English word God. 

And, in the Old Testament, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel but just as often— because it’s a generic term— elohim is the word used to talk about all gods, even the other false gods.

When the First Commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” elohim is the word for gods. 

And when the prophet Elijah does battle against the false prophets of Baal, the Bible uses elohim to refer to the false god. 

Today’s text uses the word Elohim, but it also uses a different word, Yahweh. 

Yahweh isn’t a generic term. Yahweh is the name given to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh is the true God who can be known only by God’s self-revelation.

It’s Elohim who asks Abraham to take his only son to Moriah, slit his throat, and set him ablaze as a sacrifice. 

It’s Yahweh who tells Abraham to stop. 

Actually, it’s the angel of Yahweh— who the first Christians identified as the pre-incarnate Son— who stills the blade of sacrifice. 

There are two gods in the story. 

And discerning the true one— that’s the test Abraham passes. 

That’s the test that makes him holy. 

Different.

Different even than from many of us, who think God demands payment.

———————- 

Traditionally, today’s passage is assigned by the lectionary for Easter. 

And to understand that scheduling, to hear today’s text as the Easter Gospel its meant to be, imagine that Abraham went through with the deed on Mt. Moriah. 

Imagine he did it. 

Just like we do it, for Moriah is Golgotha. 

Imagine Abraham raising his arm and plunging the knife. 

Imagine Isaac’s scream and the silence that would follow it, save for the bleating of a lost and forgotten ram amid the bushes. 

Imagine Abraham making his three day trek back down the mountain path to Isaac’s mother. 

And imagine a stranger approaching Abraham’s campfire that first night and, in the comfort of the darkness, Abraham confesses to this stranger his story about what he had believed god required, how it led him to violence and murder, how in his grief he knew now that heaven wept with him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith had been unfaith, how as he plunged the knife he realized he had mistaken the gods for the true God. 

Imagine Abraham spilling out his shame, and then realizing he’d not even asked for the stranger’s name. 

“Tell me your name,” Abraham asks. 

And the stranger lifts up his bowed head and pulls back his hood and replies, “Isaac.” 

And then imagine Isaac showing Abraham his hands and his side. That’s how to hear this story as Easter. 

———————-

God doesn’t take. 

God gives. 

Ceaselessly.

Even when we take— taking, even, God’s own Son— God returns the gift. 

That’s the Gospel. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is not the punishment God demands for our sins. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is the patience God demonstrates in the face of our sins— in our act of sinning. 

The cross isn’t the really big sacrifice God wanted all along, of which Isaac is a hint. 

The cross is the end of sacrifice, the final judgment on the whole way of thinking that God collects on our debts.” 

We’re naive if we think that ours isn’t still a world of many gods. 

False gods.

Idols who convince people that sacrifice— payment— must be made; therefore, this must be happening to me because of that thing I did (or didn’t do). 

God must’ve taken Sylvia because of…

And that’s why it’s important that we pay attention to today’s text from the Book of Hebrews. 

There, Jesus declares that God wants not sacrifice, but a body. 

The body that God has prepared for Jesus. 

The Body of Christ. 

A people who are holy, Hebrews says. 

Different. 

Different enough from the world to assure Sylvia’s mother and father, as we did yesterday, that “the True and Living God does not deal in death, for Death is God’s Enemy.”

They were wearing t-shirts with Sylvia’s picture on the chest. 

They were all wearing t-shirts with her picture emblazoned on the front

“Nor does the God of Jesus take from us to make good on our debts,” I promised them, “God did not, God could not, God would never take her from you, for the empty grave reveals once for all that God’s grace is a gift that exceeds every debt and the promise of the Gospel is that in the fullness of time every good gift will be given back.”

And, even though they were sobbing, they nodded their heads. 

Like Abraham before them, they’d passed the test. 

Genesis 6.11-22, 1 Peter 3.18-22

  Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles. In 1986, having served in Bolivia, Father Boyle was appointed pastor of Delores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. 

At the time, it was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, and surrounded by public housing projects.  The church was in the middle of a sea of gang violence. The parish had more gangs and gang activity than anywhere else in the country. Between 1986 and 1988, Father Boyle buried 294 victims of gang shootings, most of them kids. 

In 1988, Father Boyle and members of his church decided to do something about the flood of young deaths around them. They established an alternative school, since most gang members had exhausted all their opportunities in the public system. 

They started a day care program to help keep kids off the streets. They started a jobs training program to give gang members an option to a different lifestyle. 

And then, because so few businesses were willing to hire former gang members, they started their own social enterprise business, “Homeboy Bakery.” 

Homeboy Bakery has since grown to become Homeboy Industries, and it’s the largest and most effective gang rehabilitation program in the world. 

They help ten thousand men and women each year overcome the violence of their past, find forgiveness and healing, and train them for a different future for themselves. 

I heard Father Boyle share a story about a former gang member named, “Jose.” 

“Jose works at Homeboy and one day,” Father Boyle said, “he knocked on my office door and came in looking oddly at rest, reposed.”

“My father died,” Jose said. “And I just found out.”

“Jose’s father had been deported to Mexico twenty years ago,” Father said, “Jose hadn’t seen or talked to his Father in all that time.”

But a couple of days before he learned his Father died, Jose called his father, because he learned his Father was dying of cancer.”

And then, in relaying the story, Father Boyle filled in the back story. 

“When Jose and his twin brother were eleven,” he said, “They’d made a pact with each other. They’d promised, “When our father comes home tonight drunk and starts to beat on our mother, let’s stop him. Let’s protect her.’”

Predictably, Jose’s father came home drunk and soon became violent, and Jose and his brother, just little guys, jumped on their Dad’s back, knocking him down to the floor, and then they climbed on top of him, pinning him down. 

After the initial daze, Jose’s father threw them loose of him. 

Then, he beat both of them. He dragged them out of the house by their hair. He threw them into the street. 

And then he screamed at them, “I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

They were eleven-year-old boys. 

And they never went home, again. 

They lived in a park a few miles away. 

“There was a big trashcan in the park,” Father Boyle said, “and at night Jose would pull the bag out of the can and tilt the can on its side, and he and his brother would slide inside it and rest in each other’s arms.”

Jose and his brother sold drugs to survive. They got caught up in a gang and spent half of their ensuing life in prison. 

“But one day Jose knocks on my door,” Father Boyle said, “and after telling me his dad just died, he tells me he’d called his father a couple of days earlier.” 

“I heard he was dying,” he told me with these big tears in his eyes.

“I heard he was dying, so I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. I forgive him for everything, all of it.”

“And again,” Father Boyle said, “He looked so at rest as he told me about forgiving his father.”

Here’s my question—

Which of the two is more like God?

Who’s the better image of the Almighty?

Jose, who forgives the evil done to him?

Or his father, who beat him and then blotted him out of his life forever?

Is God the Father like Jose’s father? 

It sure sounds like it. 

Just four chapters, just one Bible page, after declaring everything “Very Good,” God declares:

“I will blot from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

“I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

It sounds like Jose’s father. 

And it doesn’t sound like the Son, like Jesus. 

The ancient Christians had a catch-phrase they used to think about God. 

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ (opus ad extra) God is eternally in himself (opus ad intra). 

There is no contradiction between the two.

If the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel— God with us— and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must have always been so. 

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son. 

If God is Trinity, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Which is to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus, and there never will be a time when God is not like Jesus. 

God doesn’t drown you for your sins one day but die to your sins on another day. 

The Father and the Son are one. 

But again, God the Father sure doesn’t sound like God the Son here today in Jose’s story. 

The word in Hebrew is mabbul. 

The English word flood doesn’t really capture what the story wants you to see. Mabbul refers to Creation’s architecture as the ancients understood it, where a protective shield above the earth and a protective shield below the earth— the firmament— held back an infinite ocean of water, protecting Creation. 

“In the beginning God swept across the dark waters,” we pray at baptism. 

God pushed back the dark waters and then held them at bay with the firmament. 

And so, that Hebrew word mabbul— it isn’t simply a lot of rain. 

It’s literally God taking a hands-off approach to Creation and walking away and letting the primeval ocean pour in and drown all that he’d made. 

It seems unfair to all the animals considering that none of them can be guilty of the crime for which God condemns them. 

Animals cannot have evil in their hearts. And more tragic than the animals, what about the babies? 

Don’t forget, in the Genesis story this is nine generations and one thousand years after Adam. 

Eve’s offspring has been fruitful and multiplied. 

What about the babies that God throws out with the bathwater? 

Infants cannot commit violence and so they cannot be blamed for it. 

And isn’t it evil to visit violence upon a vulnerable child? 

And isn’t that exactly what this God does here on a global scale? 

And would it be any more justifiable if there had been only a single newborn in Noah’s day? 

“The water covered the peaks of the highest mountains,” Genesis says. This isn’t local news; it’s an ecological apocalypse. 

Thanos only killed 50% of the population, and, just in case you haven’t seen the Avengers movie, Thanos is the villain. Yet, Thanos is even more merciful. Thanos just snaps his fingers and half of everything disappears. 

But God does it slow. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

A slow, soggy holocaust.

Notice— 7.1:

Noah doesn’t even know why he’s building the ark until he’s finished it and God tells him to get on it with his family. 

God doesn’t even trust Noah to close the door behind him; God shuts the door behind him. 

Why?

Because Noah would be tempted to rescue others?

Which is to say, because Noah is more merciful than God?

And what sort of god is this anyway?

He changed his mind?!

But God, by definition, can’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” Scripture says, “Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” because God is without beginning or end.

He changed his mind? 

He got so upset he decided to waterboard all of creation? 

That doesn’t sound like the capitol-G God. 

That doesn’t sound like the Father whose fullness is the self-offering, enemy-loving, peace-declaring, cheek-turning, sin-forgiving Son. 

Jesus Christ, the Book of Hebrews declares, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” 

Jesus Christ is of “one substance with the Father” the Nicene Creed confesses, as light is from light. 

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Okay, so where is the God who looks like Jesus here?

Because this god— admit it— sounds more like a pagan god. 

It turns out—

In order to find the God who is Jesus Christ in this story, you have to know how this story is different. 

You have to know what makes this story different because— pay attention, now— this story of the flood is not unique.

And you have to know a date, 587 BCE. 

That’s the 9/11 of the Bible. 

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the temple and left the promised land in smoldering ruins as they marched God’s chosen people back to Babylon in chains, where they were sorely tempted to believe the violence visited upon them was the vengeance of a holy God, that God was punishing them for their sins.

Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites learned a story told by their captors. 

A scripture story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

See if it sounds familiar:

The “great gods,” seeing the sorry state of mankind, planned to cause a great flood upon the earth. 

The gods swore one another to secrecy about the destruction they would send upon mortals. 

But the god Ea breaks their secret, whispering the news through a reed wall to a mortal whose name means, “He Who Saw Death.”

Ea commands the mortal to demolish his house and build— you guessed it— an ark.

So, the mortal and his workmen construct an ark with six decks and nine compartments and a hull 120 cubits on each side. 

When they finish the ark, the mortal loads his silver and gold into the ark, along with his family and his workers and all the beasts and animals of the earth. 

And then the thunder god rumbles and the storm gods converge and the lightening god flashes, shattering the dry land like a clay pot, and then the torrent of rain falls. 

The rains last six days and six nights. 

On the seventh day, “He Who Saw Death” releases a dove to search for land, but the dove flies back to the boat. He releases a swallow, but it comes back. Finally, he releases a raven, and it does not return. 

After he exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice and the aroma of the offering pleases the gods and they swarm to the source of the scent where they discover some mortals have survived. 

The god Enli becomes enraged, “How do these mortals live? No one was supposed to survive our annhilation.”

The ark and the animals, the flood and the reason for it— it’s all the same. 

Notice though what’s different—

The rainbow.

There’s no rainbow. 

At the end of the Noah story, after Noah offers a sacrifice and the aroma is pleasing to the Lord, God sets a rainbow in the clouds (literally, God hangs up his anger) as a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy his creatures because of their sins. 

You see what Israel did, right?

When they were prisoners and slaves in a foreign land (not the Promised Land); when their temple had been razed and their homes destroyed and all the promises God had made them (to be their God no matter what) seemed broken beyond repair; when they had every reason to believe that God was punishing them for their sins, for their unfaithfulness, for not holding up their end of the covenant, they take Babylon’s story of the flood. 

A story with gods just like that— angry, wrathful, fickle gods, gods who mete out their vengeance with violence, gods who dole out what we deserve. 

They take Babylon’s story of the flood, and they stick a rainbow on it at the end. 

“I’m not like that anymore,” God promises to Israel. 

Which is Israel’s way of saying that the true God has never been like that. 

And maybe that’s why Israel changed not only the ending to Babylon’s story, they changed the name of the arkbuilder too. 

From, “He Who Saw Death,” to “Noah.”

Which means rest.  

Comfort.

“I heard he was dying,” Jose told Father Boyle. “So I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him.”

“And then out of the blue,” Father Boyle said, “out of the blue Jose suddenly shifts gears and he says to me: “You know something, Father, I’m really enjoying the person I’m becoming here, like I’ve never enjoyed anything else in my life.”

“That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Father Boyle asked.

“Oh God, it’s the best feeling in the world” Jose replied. 

Unpacking what Jose had told him just then, Father Boyle explained, “That’s the sound of someone inChrist.“

 

That’s it. 

That’s where Christ is in the story.

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Christ is the ark. 

Christ is our ark. 

“That’s the sound of someone inChrist,” Father Boyle explained.  “That’s the sound of someone inside the ark of Christ’s Body, the Church, transporting him from his old life to a new one, where he can love, forgive himself, forgive those who’ve done him harm, and find a new identity.”

“Jose is working now,” Father Boyle added. “He has a lady friend— He has a reason to look towards his future. He’ll leave our program in 18 months, and the world will rage and storm all around him, but this time he won’t be swallowed up by it. The world and its troubles might toss him and to and fro, but he’s inside now. He’s safe, at rest in Christ, and he’ll be okay.”

It’s All Christophany

Jason Micheli —  September 2, 2019 — 1 Comment

Luke 24.13-28

Sunday, we kicked off a year-long sermon series through scripture called the Jesus Story Year.

“Jesus Christ [not the Bible] is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death…Jesus Christ is God’s vigorous announcement of God’s claim upon our whole life.”

Those lines constitute the opening salvo of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of Faith written by the pastor and theologian Karl Barth in 1934 on behalf of the dwindling minority of Christians in Germany who publicy repudiated the Third Reich. 

Barth wrote the whole document while his colleagues slept off their lunchtime booze.

“We reject the false doctrine,” Barth wrote, “that there could be areas of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords…With both its faith and its obedience, the Church must testify that it belongs to and obeys Christ alone.”

I studied Karl Barth at Princeton. My teacher, George Hunsinger, had a thick, white beard and reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. A photograph of Karl Barth laughing with Martin Luther King Jr. hung in his office. The picture captured Barth’s first and only visit to the United States. 

I remember we were discussing Barth’s Barmen Declaration in class, and Dr. Hunsinger, uncharacteristically, broke from his lecture and took off his reading glasses. His jovial countenance turned serious, and he said, seemingly at random though not random at all, “just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria, immediately outside the walls of the camp, there was and still is a Christian church.” 

It was an 8:00 class but suddenly no one was fighting off a yawn.

“Just imagine,” he said, “the prison guards and the commandant at that concentration camp probably went to that church on Sundays. They confessed their sins and received the assurance of pardon and prayed to the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ there, and then they walked out of the church and went back to the camp and killed scores of Jews not thinking it in any way contradicting their calling themselves Christians.”

“How does that work?” someone joked, trying to take the edge off. 

“It happens,” he replied, “when you reduce the Gospel to forgiveness and you evict Jesus Christ from every place but the privacy of your heart.”

His righteous anger was like an ember warming inside him. 

“Whenever you read Karl Barth,” the professor told us,” think of that church on the edge of the concentration camp. Think of the pews filled with Christians and the ovens filled with innocents and then think about what it means to call Jesus Lord.” 

Notice—

Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, they’re not unawares. 

They’ve  heard the Easter news. They’ve heard from the women who dropped their embalming fluid and fled to tell it. They’ve heard from Peter. They’ve heard that the tomb is empty.

And yet—

Having heard that Death has been defeated, having heard that the Power of Sin has been conquered, and having heard that self-giving, cheek-turning, cruciform love has been vindicated from the grave, our moral imagination is so impoverished that the first Easter Sunday isn’t even over and here we are (in these two disciples) walking back home as if the world is the same as it ever was and we can get back to our lives as knew them.

They’ve heard the Easter news, yet these two disciples still make two common mistakes— two common reductions— in how they understand Jesus. 

“Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God,” they tell the stranger (who is Christ). True enough, but not sufficient. 

“We had hoped he would be the one to liberate Israel,” they tell him, “we had hoped he was the revolutionary who would finally free us from our oppressors.” Again, their answers aren’t wrong; their answers just aren’t big enough.”

It’s not until this stranger breaks bread before them that their eyes are opened and they run— in the dark of night, eight miles to Emmaus, they run— to go and tell the disciples what they’ve learned. 

And when they get there, after the Risen Jesus has taught them the Bible study to end all Bible studies— what have the learned? 

They don’t call Jesus a prophet. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report “God has raised Jesus, the prophet, from the dead.”

They don’t call Jesus a liberator. 

They don’t run to Peter and say “Jesus the revolutionary has been resurrected.”

They don’t even call him a savior or a substitute. 

They don’t dash after the disciples to report, “The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world has come back.”

No, after the Risen Jesus interprets Moses and the prophets for them (ie, the Old Testament; ie, the only Bible they knew) they take off to herald the return of Jesus the kurios. 

They confess their faith in Jesus as kurios.

“The kurios is risen indeed!” they proclaim to Peter. 

Luke book-ends his Gospel with that inconviently all-encompassing word kurios. 

The whole entire Bible, Jesus has apparently taught these two, testifies to how this crucified Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the kurios who demands our faith. 

Kurios. 

Lord.

The word we translate into English as faith is the word pistis in the Greek of the New Testament. And pistis has a range of meanings. Pistis can mean confidence or trust. It can mean conviction, belief, or assurance. And those are the connotations we normally associate with the English word faith. 

In Christ alone by grace through trust alone. 

Through belief alone, is how we hear it.

But— here’s the rub— pistis also means fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, obedience. 

Or, allegiance. 

Allegiance. 

Now, keep in mind that the very first Christian creedwas “Jesus is kurios” and you tell me which is the likeliest definition for pistis. 

So how did we go from faith-as-obedience to faith-as-belief?

How did get from faith-as-allegiance to faith-as-trust?

I’m glad you asked.

When Luke wrote his Gospel and when Paul wrote his epistles, Christianity was an odd and tiny community amidst an empire antithetical to it. 

Christianity represented an alternative fealty to country and culture and even family.

Back then—

Baptism was not a cute christening. 

Baptism was not a sentimental dedication. 

Baptism was not a blessing, a way to baptize the life you would’ve lived anyway. 

Back then, to be baptized as a Christian was a radical coming out. It was an act of repentance in the most original meaning of that word: it was a reorientation and a rethinking of everything that had come before.

To profess that “Jesus is Lord” was to protest that “Caesar is not Lord.”

The affirmation of one requires the reununciation of the other. 

Which is why, in Luke’s day and for centuries after, when you submitted to baptism, you’d first be led outside. 

By a pool of water, you’d be stripped naked. 

Every bit of you laid bare, even the naughty bits. 

And first you’d face West, the direction where the darkness begins, and you would renounce the powers of this world, the ways of this world, the evils and injustices of this world. 

And the first Christians weren’t bullshitting. 

For example, if you were a gladiator, baptism meant that you renounced your career and got yourself a new one.

Then, having left the old world behind, you would turn and face East, the direction whence Light comes, and you would affirm your faith in Jesus the kurios and everything your new way of life as a disciple would demand. 

And the first Christians— they walked the Jesus talk of their baptismal pledge.

For example, Christians quickly became known— before almost anything else— in the Roman Empire for rescuing the unwanted, infirm babies that pagans would abandon to die in the fields. 

Baptism wasn’t an outward and visible sign of your inward and invisible trust. 

Quite the opposite.

Baptism was your public pledge of allegiance to the Caesar named Yeshua.

If that doesn’t sound much like baptism to you, there’s a reason.

A few hundred years after Luke wrote his Gospel and Paul wrote his letters, the kurios of that day, Constantine, discovered that it would behoove his hold on power to become a Christian and make the Roman Empire Christian too. 

Whereas prior to Constantine it took significant conviction to become a Christian, after Constantine it took considerable courage NOT to become a Christian. 

After Constantine, now that the empire was allegedly Christian, the ways of the world ostensibly got baptized; consequently, what it meant to be a Christian changed. 

Constantine is the reason why whenever you hear Jesus say “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s” it doesn’t occur to you that Jesus is being sarcastic. 

What had been an alternative way in the world became, with Constantine, a religion that awaited the world to come. 

Jesus was demoted from the kurios, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and to whom has been given all authority over the Earth, and Jesus was given instead the position of Secretary of Afterlife Affairs. 

Which meant pistis eventually became synonymous with trust.

Faith moved inside, to our heads and hearts, from embodiment to belief.

I apologize for the historical detour, but I figure if you’re such an over-acheiver that you come to church on Labor Day weekend then you ought to be able to handle it.  

I want you to see how it’s the shift that happened with the kurios called Constantine that makes it difficult for us to hear rightly when we hear Cleopas call Jesus Lord. 

It’s this difficulty that leads to us confusing faith with belief, making pistis private, and reducing the Gospel to after life affairs. 

It’s this shift that happens with the kurios called Constantine that produces nonsensical rubbish like the statement “I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.” 

Walking along the way to Emmaus, Luke reports that the Risen Christ “interpreted to [Cleopas and the other disciple] all the things about himself in all of the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets.” 

Straight out of the grave, what Jesus wants his disciples to know is that the whole Bible is about him. 

The Apostle Paul registers the same claim in his letter to the Romans when he declares that “Jesus Christ is the telos of the Law.” 

Telos means end; as in, aim or goal. 

Christ is the telos of the Torah, Paul writes. 

The Bible is about me, Jesus says today. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning of the Bible and the end, from the first page to the last page. 

It’s all Christophany. 

It’s all an epiphany of Christ. 

It’s not “The Old Testament is over here and the New Testament is over here and the two are radically distinct from one another.” 

No, that’s called heresy. 

All of it— it’s purpose, Jesus teaches today— is to reveal Jesus Christ to us, to apprentice us under Jesus Christ. 

Everything God had heretofore revealed to his People— all of it— telegraphs the way of Christ.

All those strange kosher laws in Leviticus? 

They anticipated the day when Christ would call his disciples to be a different and distinct People in the world.

“Eye for an eye?” 

In a world of wildly disproportionate justice, “eye for an eye” was meant to prepare a People who could turn the other cheek.

God forbade his People to make graven images because the Father has no visible image but the eternal Son who would take flesh and dwell among us. 

Christ is the telos of the Bible, Paul says. 

Everything in the Bible telegraphs the way of Christ.

God’s People wandered as refugees and aliens in a foreign land in order to make ready a People capable of Christ’s command to welcome the foreigners in their own land. 

God disciplined his People Israel to love neighbor as though the neighbor was God; so that, in Jesus Christ there might be a People schooled to love their enemy, for such a People— a people who’re trained to love their enemy— can never rightly call the Constantines of our world kurios.

After the professor told us about the church at the edge of the concentration camp, he told us about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in the hills of southern France. 

Around the same time Karl Barth was drafting his call to Christian resistance, Andre Trocme became the town’s pastor. In 1940, after the fall of France, Jewish refugees began arriving by the hundreds in Le Chambon seeking sanctuary. 

Without so much as a discussion or debate, Trocme and his parishioners began taking them into their homes and barns and, whenever German soldiers showed up, hiding them up in the mountains. 

Still more refugees arrived as word among the Jews spread that this was a community whose only Fuhrer was Jesus Christ. 

The villagers of Le Chambon did not decide that their home would become a haven for refugees. They did not cast themselves in the role of rescuers. 

In the process of obeying Jesus Christ, they simply now found themselves with refugees before them. 

Villagers later told a biographer they believed that having suffered under three centuries of Catholic persecution they’d developed “the habit of quietly refusing to dilute the claims the faith makes upon us.” 

“The Bible tells the story of Jesus,” one village woman explained, “and the story of Jesus reveals God’s way in the world so it would be self-destructive to live according to any other way, wouldn’t it? What the refugees asked of us was no different than what we had always done— abide with Jesus.”

Once, in February 1943, Nazi police arrived to arrest the pastor and some of his parishioners. The police officers sat in a villager’s living room waiting for the would-be prisoners to go fetch their suitcases. 

The woman in whose house they waited invited the policemen to join her at her dinner table— despite the fact that Jews were hiding upstairs in her bedroom. 

When asked by a biographer how she could be so hospitable to enemies who were there to take her husband away, perhaps to his death, the woman, Magda, replied: 

“It was dinner time…the food was ready…how could I not invite them to eat with me? Don’t use such foolish words as “forgiving” and “good” with me. Inviting strangers and enemies to supper is just the normal thing to do if Jesus is Lord.”

As the pastor, Andre Trocme, taught a men’s circle, all of whom harbored Jews in their homes, “If Jesus Christ is not only Lord but the one “by whom all things were made” then this life isn’t so much what Christ demands. It’s the life Christ has designed for all of us.”

Faith is a trust that takes the form of allegiance— lived out loyalty, embodied belief— not because we could ever measure up to the example of Christ, not because we’ll be graded on the quality of our performance, but because if Jesus Christ is the kurios “by whom all things are made” then the life of Jesus reveals the grain of the universe, and a beautiful life will be yielded by no other pattern.

.

    

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Every Last Loser

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2019 — 1 Comment

Matthew 20.1-16

I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that Jesus should mind his own business and stay out of the public square. 

“I don’t want to hear about politics at church!” 

It’s maybe the only surviving bipartisan sentiment. Church folks always want the Church to stay out of politics, which for most of us— let’s be honest now— usually means we don’t want the Church to challenge our particular hue of politics. 

I remember—

One Sunday back in my very first church just outside of Princeton, after I preached an allegedly “political” sermon against state-sponsored torture, which both of America’s political parties supported at the time (this was right after September 11), this ruddy-faced church member assaulted me in the narthex and, sticking his finger in my chest, hollored at me, “Just where do you get off preaching like that, preacher?!”

I stammered. 

So he pressed me.

“If Jesus were still alive, do you honestly think he’d having anything to say about torture and the government?!”

“Um, well, uh…I mean, he was crucified, I think…um…maybe he would have…” I started to say.

He shook his head and waved me off.

“Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if knew you’d brought politics into our church!”

Of course, that’s the rub. 

It’s not our church. It’s not my church. It’s not your church. It’s not our church. It’s his Church. We can insist that the Church keep out of politics— that’s fine, I’m not a sadist. It makes my life easier— but notice how such insistence assumes that we’re in charge of the Church. 

Though we spent three long years plotting to kill him, unfortunately for us Jesus Christ is not dead. 

With Gestapo officers standing in the back of his lecture hall, spying on him, Karl Barth said: 

“If Jesus Christ is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but a human community which is puffed up with the illusion that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that works its own revenge upon the church.” 

Most of the time, there, I think Barth’s describing the United Methodist Church, but Barth’s point is that Jesus Christ— God’s only chosen one— is not dead. 

And the God we serve is Living God, a God who speaks and acts, a God who calls and conscripts. The God we serve is a Living God, a God on the move, a God who is able— able to do more than answer the items on your prayer list. 

The God we serve is a Living God who is able to push and pull and prod and provoke his Church to go where it wants not to go.

In our sin, we can do our damnedest to keep politics out of the church, but can we, in our finitude, keep the Living God from dropping politics into our laps if God so elects? Are we able to resist the Risen Lord who persists in recruiting undeserving sinners like us into his labor?

———————-

I’m not being speculative here. 

Having returned from vacation last Sunday, I arrived here at church on Tuesday morning, bright and early, with a long To Do list and my whole work week meticulously laid out. 

Then our Lord, as he’s wont to do, messed up all my preconceived plans. He dragged politics into his church, and he strong-armed us into doing his work. 

We were in the middle of a staff meeting. 

A visitor buzzed the security intercom at Door #2. 

“I need help,” she shouted into the speaker in hesitant, broken English. 

Dottie, our secretary, buzzed her inside and showed her to my office to wait while we finished our work at the staff meeting. I figured if her request was illegitimate then she’d grow impatient with waiting and would move on to the next easy mark. 

When we were finished with our work, I walked back to my office and discovered a woman about my age, neatly but simply dressed, with her black hair pulled back taut. Three children sat across the same sofa as her. 

Their names, she told me, were Scarlett, Edward, and Denis— 6, 12, and 14 years old respectively. 

I offered her my hand and introduced myself in my broken Spanish. 

She introduced herself as Carolina. 

“I was a teacher,” she said out of the blue and looking like she was struggling to get the English right. 

I must’ve looked confused because she went on to explain, and what she told me wasn’t what I was expecting nor was it what I wanted to hear with such a busy week before me.

“We just arrived here,” she said, “last night. From Nicaragua.”

I still wasn’t processing her situation and it must’ve showed because she quickly added: “We left Nicaragua fifty days ago.”

“Porque?”

“My community very dangerous,” she said and wiped away tears, “I left— my home, my work— for them, for my children.” 

And then, as best as she could, she told me about their journey, first by bus, then on foot, and finally stowed away in the back of a delivery truck. 

Seeking asylum, they’d been separated and detained at the border and then eventually reunited and released on her own recognizance to report back at a later date. 

She pulled a cell phone out of her back pocket and showed me the documents that corraborated her story, the first one stamped with her mug shot. 

They arrived here on Monday and are now living in the basement of an acquaintance less than a minute’s walk from here. 

Literally, a stone’s throw. 

God apparently isn’t all that concerned with our concerns about keeping politics out of his Church. 

“Do you have any food?” I asked her. 

“No.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“No.”

“Do you have a lawyer— an abogado?”

“No.”

“What about your children— are they registered for school?”

She shook her head and appeared overwhelmed.

“What are you going to do?”

This time she had an answer. 

“I prayed and I prayed all last night,” she said, and she’d suddenly stopped crying and looked both serious and euphoric. “I prayed and finally God spoke. He answered me, and God said to me to come here.”

“Here?”

She nodded. 

“God said to me that he’d make you help us.”

“He did, did he?”

And she smiled and shook her head and said “Yes.” 

She said “Yes” emphatically, like she’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Isn’t that just like God,” I muttered under my breath, “he knows I don’t have time for one more thing and so he sends you my way.”

“Como?” she asked, confused by my mumbling to myself. 

“Nevermind,” I said, “it sounds like Jesus is determined for us to help you so what choice do I have?”

“None,” she said matter-of-factly, “no choice,” like it had been a serious question. 

As though God had made me her hired hand. 

———————-

Check out this parable. 

Jesus would’ve known it. It was taught by the ancient rabbis before getting recorded and canonized in the Jewish Talmud. 

“A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skillful. What did the king do? He took his laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. 

When the laborers came for their wage in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day’s wage from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, “We have toiled all day long while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage even as to us?” 

The king said to them: “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has produced more in two hours than all of you have done all the day long.”

Notice—

In the Jewish Talmudic parable, the emphasis falls on the exceptional worker’s economic productivity, but in Jesus’ remix of the parable, the stress is not on the laborer but on the landowner.

The focus is not on the worker’s activity but the owner’s activity, going out, again and again, seeking and summoning. The focus isn’t on the laborer’s contributions but on the landowner’s character, “Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Actually, in Matthew’s Greek, the landowner asks the grumbling laborers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” 

Because I am good— that’s the money line; that’s the clue.

Right before Jesus spins his version of this parable, Jesus chastises a wealthy honor roll student for calling him good. “Good teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus, “what must I do to have salvation?” 

And rather than answer him outright, Jesus takes him to task for his salutation. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

No one is good, Jesus has just said, but God.

If you want salvation, Jesus then tells him, you’ve got to be free for it. Freed for it. Go, offload all your stuff on Craigslist and then come follow me. 

In other words, whatever that word salvation includes it cannot exclude following and obeying Jesus Christ. 

Follow me, Jesus invites the rich kid with the perfect resume. 

But, Matthew reports (this was centuries before Marie Kondo), the rich young man had too much stuff in the way of following after Jesus so he turns around and turns away from Jesus and returns home. 

He is the only person recorded in the Gospels who’s invited by Jesus to become a disciple but refuses. 

And looking on the rich kid walking back home, Jesus says, “It’s hard for rich folks like him to follow me, about as hard as camel squeeing its humps and luggage through the eye of a needle.”

And the disciples, knowing they have more in common with the overachieving do-gooder than with the unemployed, homeless carpenter from Nazareth, throw up their hands, chagrined. 

“Then there’s no hope for any of us!” they gripe, “If a success story like him can’t follow you and following you is salvation, then who can be saved?”

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it’s impossible. But for God, all things are possible,” which offends Peter, who gave up his fishing business— all on his own— to come work for the Lord and here Jesus is saying “Well, God will get even losers like this rich guy to ‘Yes.’ Watch, God will make followers of them too.”

“That’s not fair” Peter grumbles, and I get it. Trust me, no one has a beef with Christ’s poor taste in Christians quite like a pastor.

“That’s not fair,” Peter gripes. 

So then Jesus doubles down with a redacted version of a familiar parable. 

———————-

The denarius, which the landowner pays all the laborers, was the daily subsistence pay required by the Torah. 

It’s prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. It’s minimum wage. It’s the equivalent of pulling a shift at Wendy’s. So the workers who show up just before quitting time— their pay is unearned, yes, but its not extravagant by any means. It’s not gratuitous; it’s what the Law requires.

This is not a parable of God’s grace as opposed to our works. 

This is a parable about God’s gracious and determined work to enlist every last loser to his work. Like alot of the parables, this one is misnamed. 

It’s not the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Heck, the laborers don’t do any labor onstage that we see at all. The laborers don’t so much as speak until they grumble at the very end. 

No, this is the Parable of the Land Owner and his prodigal labor of summoning workers to his vineyard. 

Nearly all the verbs in the story belong to him. He goes out— five times he goes out; he even goes out after there’s hardly anything left to be done— seeking laborers for his vineyard. 

Jesus tells you the takeaway at the very top of the story. 

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a landowner who went out to find laborers…”

For his what?

For his vineyard.

Jesus assumes you know the Book of Isaiah where God’s self-chosen image for Israel and her vocation— her vocation to be a light to the world, to be a peculiar, set-apart, pilgrim people, to be a holy people, to be a nation within and among the nations, to be a people who embody— unlike the nations— God’s justice and righteousness— God’s image for his elect People and their vocation in the world is a vineyard. 

It’s Isaiah chapter five. 

God is the landowner who labors in this parable. 

It’s about God’s work to find workers. 

The primary difference between a Living God and a dead god, an idol, is that the latter will never shock or surprise you, never offend you or inconvenience you, and never call you to do something you wouldn’t have done apart from conversion and worship.

This parable—

It’s about this vocative God of ours. 

This God who refuses to accomodate our apathy and functional atheism by remaining comfortably distant and idle but is instead always on the move, going out, inviting and enlisting, calling and conscripting, seeking and finding and arm-twisting Kingdom accomplices in a world that knows not that Jesus is Lord. 

We can argue whether or not there’s any work we must do as Christians who are justified by grace alone, but the reality is that Jesus Christ is not dead and if he’s got a work for you to do, by God, he’s going to give it to you and he’s going to get you to do it.

———————-

I remember—

There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was Ann. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. 

She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldnʼt have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.

Instead Ann threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they wanted, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.

I only found out about this when Annʼs mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her daughter’s head. 

Red-faced and furious, she said: “Preacher, youʼve got to talk to her. Youʼve got to convince her to change her mind. Youʼve got to show her sheʼs throwing her life away.”

Ever the obedient minister, I met with Ann and communicated all her motherʼs fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldnʼt jeopardize her career. 

The Gospel’s about grace not works, I told her.

Ann looked back at me liked Iʼd disappointed her in some way. “Didnʼt Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?” she asked.

“Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…Jewish hyperbole and all…he couldnʼt have been serious…that wouldʼve been irresponsible. At least tell me why youʼre doing this.”

“Why do you think?” she asked like there could be only possible answer and it should be obvious. “Jesus sorta came to me and he spoke to me and he told me to go and do it.”

“He did, did he?”

And her eyes narrowed, like she was about lay a straight flush down on the table. 

“Are you telling me, pastor, that I should listen to you instead of him.”

“Um, uh…okay, I think we’re done here. Just leave me out of it when you talk to your parents.”

————————

I know you want to keep politics out of the Church. 

I get it.

But the problem is, it’s not your Church and the Risen Christ, the Living God, he’s on the move. He’s always going out, calling and conscripting.

And he is free to drop whatever work he chooses into your lap whether or not it obeys our boundaries of what’s acceptable. 

The Lord is no respecter of propiety. With pictures of asylum seekers all over the newspapers, God this week brought politics in to his church here. 

And just like that, God got us to working. 

Meredith, our Children’s Director, found games to occupy the kids while they waited. Peter put down what he was doing and left to stuff his trunk with food for them. And I stared at the fourteen items I had on my To Do list for the day as I waited on hold, making calls all day long for Carlina, connecting her with the county, finding her a lawyer, locating services, resourcing her three kids.

When we drove them home later, I carried bags of food inside and I gave her my cell number and I told her that if there was anything else she needed to call me. It was the sort of compassionate gesture you make to someone when you don’t really expect them to take you up on the offer. 

Later that night I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize. 

“This is Carolina,” it said, “thank you to you and your church.”

“De nada.”

And then I watched the text bubbles roll up and down as she texted another message. “The school say I need to go to Central Office to register my children.” 

“How are you going to get there?” I texted back. 

“I prayed,” she replied, “and God said you should take me.”

“He did, did he?”

“Si.”

And then the next text quickly followed.

“God say to tell you that I’m baptized. You have an obligation to me. As a brother. In Christ.” 

“That’s the annoying inconvenience of worshipping a Living God,” I typed but didn’t send. 

And so, thanks to Jesus, I spent most of the next day driving her and her children to Merrifield to get her kids registered and tested and immunized. And then the next day, Jesus apparently summoned my wife and son to go purchase school supplies for all of them. 

———————-

At the end of the week, I mentioned all the details to Dottie, our secretary and she replied, “In order to be a pastor, you must have to really enjoy helping people in need.” 

“Enjoy?” I asked, “Do you know many people in need? Most of them aren’t that enjoyable.” 

“Then why did you choose to do it?” 

“Choose? I didn’t choose it at all. I got summoned.”

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. 

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.

 

 

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. 

    

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.  

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.  

God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.  

Here’s the Pentecost sermon I preached at All Saints Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. The texts were Acts 2, Romans 8, and John 14.

Today is Pentecost, and as always we read from St. Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, where the disciples are back in the Upper Room where they’d been the night they betrayed him. 

Outside the Upper Room, it’s like the SXSW Music Festival. There’s thousands of pilgrims from all over the Jewish Diaspora, from Mopac and Northwest Hills, from Biderman’s Deli to the JCC on Hart Lane. 

“And suddenly,” St. Luke says, there’s a sound— not like a still, small voice but a mighty rushing wind. And the Holy Spirit descends like fire, and people start speaking, and even though they’re speaking different languages there’s simultaneous translation. 

All these different languages but everybody understands everybody: Swedes and Texans, UT and A&M fans, woke folks and folks who have no idea how to use the word intersectional in a sentence, millenials and geezers in MAGA hats, people who watched the final episode of Rape of Thrones and people who didn’t, parents and their 13 year olds, guys who still wear cargo shorts and everyone else. 

The Holy Spirit descends. 

And everybody starts speaking and everybody understands everybody. 

The commotion gathers a crowd in the street, and the crowd starts to gripe: Those Christians are doing the same thing they did when Jesus was with them— they’ve been drinking (which, if you’re counting at home, is the first and last time anyone ever accused Christians of being fun). 

Peter comes out to the crowd. 

And Peter speaks. 

Remember where we left Peter in the story?

Back on the night they’d been in that same Upper Room—

“Jesus? Jesus who?” 

The third time he actually curses Jesus’ name, which sounds worse when you translate the name the angel gave him: “Jesus? Curse this Jesus whoever he is. Curse this savior.” 

———————-

And then the cock crowed. 

———————-

But today they’re back in the Upper Room, and the Holy Spirit descends and Peter speaks. Peter says to the crowd “We’re not drunk— yet. We’ve still got an hour before brunch. No, no, no. All this your hearing, this is what the prophet foretold.” 

And then Peter preaches this long sermon that crescendos with Peter proclaiming “This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has him raised from the dead [for our justification] and God has made him Lord. Be baptized.”

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

I don’t have anywhere near the time for this sermon as Peter got for his sermon. Cynthia tells me you’re used to sermons shorter in length than the average tenure of a Trump administration official. 

I’d need a flux capacitor just to get in all my normal preaching time. 

So let’s just get right down to it. 

Here’s my question for you: Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

———————-

I’m a guest preacher. You don’t know how to hear me. 

So make sure you’ve got my question straight. I’m not asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

Our teachers all lied. There are such things as stupid questions and that would be one because the Holy Spirit has already come. 

Today is not the arrival of a heretofore absent Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he first preached. The Holy Spirit overshadowed his mother’s womb. Even before the incarnation— the Holy Spirit spoke to us, we say in the creed, by the prophets. 

My question isn’t “Why does the Holy Spirit come?” 

The Holy Spirit already has come more times than…nevermind I can’t tell that joke here.

I’m asking “Why does the Holy Spirit come with fire and wind at Pentecost?”

Or, as the Jews call it in Hebrew, Shavuot. The Festival of Week. Five weeks (penta-) after the Passover. 

I mean— 

If Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to be with us in this in-between time between Christ’s first coming and his coming again, then why does the Holy Spirit not descend upon the disciples as they’re building make-shift tents of sticks and leaves to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish festival that commemorated Israel’s wandering in the wilderness in between their rescue from captivity and their deliverance into a promised kingdom of God. 

Why Shavuot? Why not Sukkot? 

For that matter, Yom Kippur would make sense too. 

Jesus said that the Holy Spirit’s work would include convicting us of our sin. So why does the Holy Spirit not descend on Yom Kippur as Jewish pilgrims watch the high priest cast all their iniquity onto a scapegoat?

Of all the days of the year, why does Jesus schedule the Spirit for Pentecost?

If the Holy Spirit is who Christ sends so that you know he’ll never give you up, never let you down, never run around and desert you, then why doesn’t the Holy Spirit come on February 6, the birthday of British pop icon Rick Astley?

That’s right, All Saints, you  just got Rick-rolled.

Why Pentecost?

Why not Passover?

You’ve all seen Leonardo’s Last Supper— the shock and the shame on the disciples’ faces when Jesus lowers the boom that they will betray him and deny him and cover their own hides while his is nailed to a cross. 

That’s the exact moment— in the Upper Room— when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus has dirt on his knees and his sleeves stink of toe-cheese because he’s just stooped over, washed their feet, and given them an entirely new commandment. 

Not the Golden Rule. 

Something much, much worse than the Golden Rule. 

“Love one another,” Jesus commands, “as I have loved you.” 

Or, as St. Paul puts it earlier in Romans, Christ loved not the rewardable or the improveable— not for the good but for the ungodly. 

I don’t even love my neighbor as much as I love brisket and a Fire Eagle IPA. 

How am I supposed to love the ungodly more than me?

Jesus knows not only can we not love the ungodly, we can’t even be relied upon to love God because no sooner does he command this impossible command than he dries off his hands and says “Where I’m going next you cannot go.” 

And Peter responds: “Nonsense, I’ll go right now.”

“Will you lay down your life for me?”

“Absolutely, yes.”

“No,” Jesus says, “just tonight you’ll have betrayed me by the time the cock crows three.”

And then they all flip their s@#$, and that’s it— the chapter divisions weren’t added to the Gospels until the 16th century. That’s the moment when Jesus promises the Spirit.

So why not Passover? 

Why does the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost?

But even that’s not putting it quite right. 

Luke doesn’t say here in Acts 2 “When the day of Pentecost had come…” 

No, the word Luke uses there in Greek is symplerousthai. 

It’s the word Luke used back in the ninth chapter of his Gospel when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem because, Luke says, his teaching ministry had been symplerousthai. 

Completed.  

When the promised Holy Spirit descends, Luke’s telling you, the day of Pentecost is symplerousthai. 

Pentecost is fulfilled. 

———————-

  Chris Arnade is a photojournalist who published a book entitled Dignity earlier this week. Arnade was an unbelieving, french-cuffed financier on Wall Street. 

When the market crashed in 2008 and he lost his job, he began travelling through urban America, interviewing homeless addicts and prostitutes and squatters and taking their pictures. 

In one of his essays, Arnade writes about a forty-something woman named Takeesha. She talked to him for an hour standing against a wall at the Corpus Christi Monastery in the South Bronx. 

When she was 13, Takeesha’s mother, who was a prostitute, put her out to work the streets with her, which she’s done for the last thirty years. 

“It’s sad,” Takeesha told Arnade, “when it’s your mother, who you trust, and she was out there with me, but you know what kept me through all that? God. The Holy Ghost. Whenever I got into [a guy’s] car, the Holy Ghost stuck with me and got into the car with me.” 

Takeesha has a framed print of the Last Supper that she takes with her— a moveable feast— wherever she goes to sleep for the night. 

This moment when Jesus promises the Holy Spirit— she’s hung the image of it above her in abandoned buildings and in sewage-filled basements and leaned it against a tent pole under an interstate overpass. She’s taken it with her to turn tricks.

“He’s always with me,” she told Arnade, “reminding me.”

When Chris Arnade finished his interview of Takeesha, he asked her how she wanted to be described for the reader. And without missing a beat, Takeesha responded: “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a beloved child of God.” 

When the author expresses surprise at her candor, Takeesha said— pay attention now— “the Holy Spirit tells me that I am not what I do; I am what has been done for me.” 

“My worth,” Takeesha said— preached is more like it— “is not in what I do— or don’t do— but in who God says I am.”

———————-

All those pilgrims, they’re gathered there in Jerusalem not because they’re waiting around for the Holy Spirit but because it’s Pentecost, the day when Jews would remember the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, not just the Top Ten but the 603 other commands God gives before capping them all off, like Jesus does on a different mountain with “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  

When Moses returns to his people from atop Sinai, he reads to them the Law, all 613 commands including that final one about perfection. 

And the people respond to the Law by promising all you’ve said to do, God, we will do and more.  

When the Holy Spirit shows up on that day, the day when God’s People remember their promise to do everything God had commanded them to do, Luke tells you that Pentecost is fulfilled— that’s why there’s no mention of Shavuot again in the New Testament. 

It’s symplerousthai. 

As the Apostle Paul says at the top of Romans 8, God has fulfilled the Law in the Son, who was the only one to live the Law perfectly.

I realize you don’t know how to hear me. 

So let me it put it plain for you to see— 

This is why the Spirit Jesus promises on Passover comes at Pentecost: 

In Jesus Christ, the promise of Pentecost is no longer “All this we will do for you, God.” 

When the Holy Spirit comes and Pentecost is fulfilled, the promise we remember now is that in Jesus Christ everything has already been done. 

All the commands the Lord spoke have been done for you by the Word made flesh.

Everything the Father said to do has been done—for you— in the Son, and his perfect obedience has been reckoned to you as your own irremovable suit of righteousness.

You are not what you do (or what you fail to do). 

You are who God declares you to be. 

That’s the promise we pray over the water at baptism: 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s righteousness. 

Clothe Elin in Christ’s permament perfect record.. 

This is why the language the Apostle Paul uses in our text today is the language not of earning and deserving but the language of adoption and inheritance. 

Your being recknoned as a righteous child of God, your being credited Christ’s permament perfect score—  it’s neither natural nor is it your hard-earned reward. 

It’s grace. 

And it’s not cheap. 

It’s not even expensive. 

It’s free. 

And it’s yours by faith.

———————-

“The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes, homeless and squatters.” 

Chris Arnade writes in Dignity:

“On the streets, with their daily battles and constant proximity to death, they have come to understand viscerally the truth about all of us which many privileged and wealthy people have the luxury to avoid: that life is neither rational nor fair, that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes.” 

I’ve heard from Rev. Cynthia and from some of you all about All Saints. 

I gather you all know as well as any church that everyone makes mistakes and often we are the victims of other people’s mistakes. 

You all have hit up against the hard truth that most of us have the cash and the comfort to avoid— the truth that our lives are not in our control. 

Hear the good news:

Not only are you enough

In Christ, right now, as you are, no matter what qualification is running through your head, you’re enough— indvidually and as a congregation— in Christ you’re enough. 

That’s the promise the Spirit brings on the day Pentecost is fulfilled. 

That’s the promise of your baptism. 

But not only are you enough, you’re not alone. 

The Spirit, who comes at Pentecost so that you might trust and believe this crazy, impossible promise that all of what God demands in the Law— perfect obedience and righteousness- is given to you (given away!) in the Gospel, has since become a squatter. 

That’s what the name Jesus gives for the Spirit, paraclete, means. 

Para means to come alongside of, to attach to, to cling to. 

When the Day of Pentecost is fulfilled and the Spirit descends like fire and wind, the Spirit becomes like a house guest you can’t get rid of. 

The Spirit who comes when Pentecost is fulfilled now clings to the word, to water, and to wine and bread. 

These sacraments are the Holy Squatter’s rites, and he uses them, Jesus promises to us today, to help you keep all of his commandments, which…chillax All Saints, it isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. 

Because in John’s Gospel—

Other than that impossible command in the Upper Room he knew we couldn’t keep the very moment he commanded it, the only other commandments Jesus gives in John’s Gospel are all the same commandment. 

To believe.

To Nicodemus under the cover of night.

To the woman at the well.

To the 5,000 with fish and bread in their bellies.

98 times in the Gospel of John the commandment is always the same.

To put your trust in him.

To believe.

So all you saints at All Saints, chillax. 

And hear the good news:

The message of Pentecost is not Do your best and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

The message of Pentecost is Everything has been done, gratis; so go, with the Holy Spirit with bread and wine and water and word tell the nations. 

Or, just, you know…your neighborhood.

With these Holy Squatter’s rites, word and sacrament— that’s it, just these— Jesus promises you will do greater things than him. 

Notice, All Saints—

The burden on you is not to do great things. 

The burden on you is his only command: to believe. 

To trust— no matter how out of control your life feels— that the simple things he has given you— bread and wine, water and word—  can yield something greater even than loaves and fishes. 

You’ll see for yourself at the font— they can kill and make alive.

   

Matthew 25.31-46

I celebrated a wedding last weekend for a family from my former parish. 

I hate weddings. 

Wedding planners are the bane of my existence— they’re almost always like those women Sandra Bullock brunches with in The Blind Side. 

No matter who gets married, every single time they stick me at the grandma table for the wedding reception. 

And when it comes time to get my party on and do the white-man overbite on the dance floor, almost always all the guests hide their drinks and keep their distance from me because we all know Pastor must be an ancient Greek word meaning Fun Sponge.

I hate weddings. 

As a pastor, I’m not even a fan of parties. 

I avoid parties. I go to parties only begrudgingly and whenever I’m at a party, I’m tempted, like George Castanza from Seinfeld, to pretend I’m anything other than a pastor— a marine biologist, say, or an architect. 

Nothing stops party conversations in their tracks— or starts unwanted conversations— like saying you’re a pastor. 

The problem with wedding parties, though, is that you can’t pull a Constanza. You can’t lie and pretend to be an orinthologist because everyone has already seen you dudded up in robe and collar. 

At wedding parties, I’m stuck being me.

So, there I was at this wedding party. The DJ had already played like his fourth Harry Connick Jr. song. 

I was nursing a beer and gnawing on nibblers like a beaver when this salt-and-peppered guy wearing white pants, a seersucker jacket, a bow tie, and suede shoes ambled up to me. 

“You must be a lawyer,” I said. 

“How’d you know?” 

“Well, the guy who wrote the Bonfire of the Vanities is dead so you’re not him,” I said, “you must be a lawyer.” 

“That was an interesting sermon,” he said, “if that’s your thing.”

Here we go, I thought.

“I’m actually a marine biologist,” I said, “that’s my day job.”

“Really?”

“No. No, I’m a pastor. Believe it or not, people really pay me to do this.”

He nodded. 

“I’m not a Christian,” he said, putting up his hands like a suspect getting nabbed red-handed, “but I do try to live a good life and to be good and to help people when I can. When you scrape off all the other stuff, isn’t that what Christianity’s really all about— the golden rule?”

And I thought: “Wow, that’s really deep. Did you come up with that all on your own or is that the fruit of years of philosophical searching? Damn, I should write that down: It’s really all about doing good for others. I don’t want to forget it. I might be able to use that in a sermon some day.”

Instead I said: “Yep, that’s Church— everything you learned in Kindegarten repeated Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and then you die.”

And he looked at me like he felt sad for me, giving my life to something so boring. So I raised my beer to him and said: “But sometimes we get to argue about sex.”

———————-

If you want proof that deep-down we want the comfort of merits and demerits rather than the indiscriminate acceptance of Easter, if you want evidence that in the end we prefer the Golden Rule instead of the Gospel, you need look no further than the fact that Matthew 25 is every Methodist’s favorite parable. 

The parable of the sheep and the goats is Jesus’ final parable. 

And, sure, this final parable sounds like it’s finally the end of Jesus’ preaching on bottomless, unconditional, no-matter-what-you-do-I-do-for-you grace. 

The closer he gets to his passion, it sounds like the prodigal father has run out of fatted calves and now is going to reward the rewardable. 

It sounds like Jesus has pivoted from gift to grades, from mercy for sinners to merit pay, from free undeserved pardon to punishment. 

Grace is God’s unmerited favor. 

Grace is God’s one-way love.  

Grace is the melody the New Testament returns to over and over again: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of good deeds you do— so that no one may boast about what they’ve earned.”

But—

There seems to be alot of earning and deserving going on here with the sheep and the goats.

As a Shepherd, this King doles out punishments and rewards based not on our faith but on our deeds alone. 

(We think) 

The sheep fed the hungry. The sheep gave water to the thirsty. The sheep welcomed the stranger. The sheep clothed the naked. The sheep cared for the sick. The sheep visited the prisoner. 

The sheep did all the things you need not believe in the Good Shepherd to believe are good things; nevertheless, the Good Shepherd rewards them for the doings they did.

And the goats did not do those deeds. 

And they are punished precisely for not doing them— we think. 

Salvation is based not on what Christ accomplished for us (so it seems here). Salvation is based on what we accomplish for Christ. 

The Gospel (it sounds like here) is not Christ the Lamb of God became a goat so that goats like us might be reckoned among the Father’s faithful flock. The Gospel (it sounds like here) is that you must get over your goatness and become a better sheep by doing what the Good Shepherd tells you to do.

The promise (it sure sounds like here) is not that everything has already been done for you in Christ and him crucified. The promise (it sure sounds like here) is that Christ is for you if you do everything for him. 

Even though Jesus thus far has studiously avoided making badness an obstacle for admittance into his Kingdom and spent all of his time eating and drinking not with sheep but with goats, it sure sounds like Jesus here has scrapped the prior three years of his preaching, taken off the velvet glove of grace and now put on the brass knuckles of the Law. 

Your sins of omission— what you’ve left undone— they’re sins against me, Jesus says. 

We think. 

Based on the conventional, cliched reading of this parable, even a busy flock like you all better buckle down and pump up the volume on your good deed doing. 

No matter how much you’re doing, do more. 

Do more; so that, when you meet the Lord for your final exam, your performance review, your everlasting audit, you can say to Christ your Savior: You gave us the course curriculum in Matthew 25— you gave us your marching orders. 

And we did what you said to do. 

And with our report cards and resumes in hand, with our discipleship diplomas and extracurricular accomplishments— with all our good deeds done for another— we will be able to give our valediction to Christ our Savior: 

Graduate us, Lord, to what we’ve earned. 

Pay us what we’re owed. 

Give us what we deserve.

Except—

If we said such to Christ, we wouldn’t be speaking to our Savior because he told us what to do and we did it so, really, we saved ourselves. 

Let me say it again: 

If Christianity boils down to doing what Christ said to do, then Christ is not a Savior, for by doing what he said to do we’ve effectively saved ourselves, which is sort of unfortunate because Jesus promptly goes from here to Jerusalem where he’s bound and determined to save us from our sins by dying for them.

As the angel at the gates of heaven says to the do-gooding dead guy in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Nothing here can be bought or earned. Everything here is bleeding charity, grace, and its yours only by the asking.”

It’s yours by the asking. 

———————-

The Bible says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone, but on every human heart too. Every single one us— we’re all hard-wired to be score-keepers and debt collectors, hellbent on turning the Golden Rule into a yard stick by which we can measure our enoughness over and against our neighbors. 

And because I’m just like you, I can bet what some of you are thinking right about now. 

Does this mean our good deed doing doesn’t matter?!

Of course what we do matters. 

The Paul who says that you are saved by grace through faith not good deed doing is the same Paul who tells the Philippians that “God is at work in you and through you to will and to work for his pleasure.”

So don’t misunderstand me: 

Yes, good works are important. 

Yet— 

We’re so stubborn about shaping Jesus in our score-keeping image, we’re so determined to turn Jesus into the Almighty Auditor from the Department of Afterlife Affairs, that we miss the embarrassingly obvious epiphany in this parable. 

The big reveal behind this parable of judgment is that good godly works cannot be tallied up on a scorecard. 

The good works that count for the Kingdom cannot be counted because— notice now— when the Shepherd hands out report cards neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea they’ve done what the King says they’ve done or left undone. 

When the King of the nations separates them as a Shepherd one from the other, the sheep are not standing there waiting to be handed their magna cum laude for a lifetime of charitable giving and community service hours. 

No.

For the sheep and the goats alike, there’s just surprise: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”

The sheep are surprised by the grade the Good Shepherd gives them. 

They’re stunned. 

To use this parable to exhort members of the flock to go and do good deeds for the Shepherd is to ignore the point that the sheep are blissfully ignorant that they’ve done good deeds for the Shepherd. 

Wait, wait, wait— when did we that?

They’re surprised. 

They’re surprised because they weren’t thinking at all about doing the good deeds they did.  

All their good works— the sheep did them not because they were told that’s what sheep ought to do. 

The sheep just did them as they were caught up in the joy of their Shepherd. 

The good works that count were not done to be counted; the good works that count were unpremeditated, done out of love— organically, such that the sheep weren’t even aware they’d done them. 

———————-

Listen again to who was counting. 

“Then those on the King’s left will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’”

It’s amazing how we mishear this parable.

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that they felt justified in having done enough.

We fed the hungry. We clothed the naked. We did all those things— when did we not take care of you too?

It’s not that the goats didn’t do any good deeds. 

It’s that the goats come to Jesus dependent upon their good deeds. 

The goats think they’re good enough; meanwhile, the sheep were so in love with their Shepherd they’re stunned to hear they’ve got any good grades on their report card at all.  

———————-

The danger in taking the Bible for granted is that we’re all natural born Pharisees, and we turn the Gospel in to the Law without even realizing we’ve done it.

We’re as stubborn as goats when it comes to this parable. 

We insist on hearing it in terms of reward and punishment, earning and deserving, but that contradicts the clear conclusion Christ contributes to it: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

Notice, Jesus does not say to the sheep Here’s your wage. Here’s your reward.

No, Jesus says to the sheep Inherit the Kingdom.

The Kingdom is not their compensation. The Kingdom is not their accomplishment. 

The Kingdom is their inheritance.  

You can’t earn an inheritance. 

Not only is this parable about inheriting instead of earning, Jesus says as plain as the nose on your face that this inheritance has been prepared for the sheep from before the foundation of the world. 

Before God put the stars in the sky, God made this promise to you. 

Think about it—

This parable isn’t about our works, good or bad, because before any of our works, good or bad, had been done, what work was God doing? 

Preparing a place in the Kingdom for you. 

For all of you. 

For every last one of you.

How do I know?

Notice—

In the parable, the King doesn’t say to the goats what he says to the sheep. 

He doesn’t say to those on his left “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” 

No, he says “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.” 

Sure, we can get our sphincters all in a pinch over that image of eternal annihilating fire. 

But if this parable is about our inheritance, then the point is that the place of punishment wasn’t prepared for them. 

Don’t you see— the place where the goats are going is not a place they were ever meant to go. 

The place the goats go is not a place that was prepared for them. 

Where the goats are going they don’t have to go. 

Don’t you see—

No one is out who wasn’t already in.

Nobody is excluded from the Kingdom who wasn’t already included in the Kingdom from before the foundation of the world.

The goats get themselves where they’re going by stubbornly insisting they’re earned what can only be inheirited. 

The goats are like the elder brother in that other parable, pouting with his arms crossed and gnashing his teeth in the outer darkness beyond the prodigal’s party. Father, I’ve worked for you all these years. I deserve that party.

In Heaven, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

In Hell, there is nothing but forgiven sinners. 

The only difference between the two is that those in Hell don’t think they deserve to be there.

And those in Heaven know they don’t deserve to be there. 

———————-

The DJ at the wedding party had stepped onto the parquet to lead some of the guests in dancing to the song Uptown Funk, which isn’t exactly eternal conscious torment but it’s close.

I was sitting at the grandma table, watching and picking at the leftovers on my dinner plate, when a woman in a mauve dress pushed some of the plates to the middle of the table, and sat down next to me. 

She sort of laughed to herself and shook her head and looked straight down at her lap, and when she looked back up at me, I could see she was crying. 

I held up my hands.

“Don’t look at me. I’m a marine biologist.”

She smiled and sniffed her runny nose. She looked to be about sixty. 

“Seeing you do the wedding,” she said, “I couldn’t help but think of my daughter.” 

“Did she get married recently?” 

She winced at the question and wiped her eyes. Then she took a deep breath like she was coaching herself up, and she told me her daughter was gay. 

She told me how her daughter had MS and how she’d found a partner, someone who would be there to care for her one day. 

“Watching these two get married today, it just reminded me of all the things I’ve heard people in my family and in my church say about my own daughter.”

“Like what things?” I was dumb enough to ask.

“They say she’s abomination. One of my good friends told me, matter-of-fact, that my daughter wouldn’t be with me or Jesus when she died, that she’d go to Hell like she deserved, but that I shouldn’t worry because in the Kingdom I won’t even remember her anymore.” 

That and the rest she told me— it honestly took my breath away. 

“What do you think?” she wiped her nose and asked. 

“What do I think? It’s not what I think; it’s what the Church and the Bible teach— and that’s that not a one of us gets in by the uprightness of our lives nor are even our awful sins an obstacle for admittance. We’re justified by grace through faith, alone. When it comes to the Kingdom, the only relationship of your daughter’s that matters is the relationship she has with Christ. Saying “I do” to that Bridegroom is all any of us gotta do to gain entry into the party.”

“But my friends say that she and her partner will go to Hell…”

I cut her off. 

“They might go to Hell— sure— but if they do it won’t be because Jesus sent them there and it won’t be for the reasons you fear. In fact those Pharisees you call family and friends— they might be surprised how things shake out for themselves too. Jesus is annoyingly consistent on the matter— the only ones not in the Kingdom are the ones who insist they ought to be there.”

———————-

I didn’t think of it until this week as I studied this scripture text. 

That mother at the wedding, worried sick over whether her daughter was a sheep or a goat, I could’ve pointed out to her that according to Jesus here there is one fool proof way of knowing for certain that he is with you. 

This parable of judgment— there’s a third category of people here. 

Not just sheep. Not just goats. 

There’s a third flock of people in this parable.

Those in need. 

Jesus says it bluntly: the place where his presence is promised— where there should be no surprise or speculation— is not with the good but with those in need.

And so if you’re worried about whether you’re a sheep or a goat, then your refuge should not be the work you’ve done for Christ but the work you need from him. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you lies not in your merits outmeasuring your demerits. 

The assurance that Jesus Christ abides with you— is for you— lies in your lack. 

The guarrantee that you are not alone— the guarrantee of God’s blessing upon you is not your awesome list of accomplishments but your inadequacy. 

I should’ve told that mother that the very fact of her tears and grief, the very fact of her daughter’s illness, the very fact of their rejection by and estrangement from others, the very fact that a lot of self-identified sheep treat them like goats and presume to do the King’s work of sorting and sending for him— those very facts are red-letter proof-positive that Jesus Christ— if he’s with anyone, he’s with them. 

Because Jesus puts it plain to both the sheep and the goats alike— he makes his office is at the end of your rope.

I didn’t think to tell her.

But I can tell you. 

Has the treadmill of good works alone left you exhausted and starving?

Do you thirst for the kind of faith and joy you see in others?

Are you sick of all your best efforts to be a good sheep?

Or are you just sick?

Is there something in your past that leaves you feeling naked and ashamed?

Are you in a relationship locked in resentment?

Are you captive to abuse? Or addiction?

Do you feel out place, wondering what the hell you’re even doing here?

If so, hear the good news. 

In the same way you come up here with the gesture of a beggar to receive him in bread and wine, Jesus Christ is present to you in your poverty, in your lack, in your inadequacy. 

Hear the good news: the ticket to this Table is the only ticket you need for his Kingdom. 

And that’s your need. 

You need only know your need. 

Nothing in the Kingdom can be bought; it is yours only by the asking.