Archives For Preachments

michelangelo_pieta_grtI’m in Ohio this week for my grandfather’s funeral.

Six years ago I attended the funeral of my other grandfather. His death occurred in the winter, just before Advent.

This is the Advent sermon I preached shortly after his burial. Though the sermon is about Mary’s ‘Let it be…’ I think it’s still appropriate for Holy Week, for this is the week we confront the full measure of Mary’s words.

November 30, 2008

This past weekend I helped Father Stephen Bloom bury my father’s father.

It was the first time I’ve participated with the funeral of someone in my own family. The service was held at St. Charles Catholic Church in Northern Ohio. In the sanctuary, stained glass scenes wrapped around the pentagonal spire. In the center was a picture of creation. To its left, the disciples were fishing in what looked like the Ohio River. Next to it, Jesus was feeding loaves and fishes to a multitude of hungry factory workers.

Carved, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross lined the circumference of the cross-shaped sanctuary, and in front of the front pew where I sat with my sister was a copper drum filled with baptismal water.

I watched numbly as Father Bloom draped a pall over my grandpa’s oak casket- the casket’s pewter crucifix bulging through the pall’s gray cloth. I watched as the Father took what looked like twiney bristles from a broom and flicked baptismal water over my grandpa.

Try as I might I didn’t really hear any of the scripture readings read by my cousins and I sang along to the 23rd Psalm without really thinking- but then, maybe that’s the point of such familiar words.

I spoke and when I was done I watched Father Bloom celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of my family. I knelt in the front pew and watched while others received the sacrament.

Now, there was a statue of Mary with her hands folded together on the wall in the front end of the sanctuary. While I was on my knees- because of the architecture and lines of the room- I noticed that it looked like Mother Mary was standing directly above my grandfather, praying for him. A sight my Protestant eyes are unused to seeing.

In fact, Mary was more of a fixture in my grandpa’s funeral service than I was prepared for.

During the intercessory prayer when the priest intoned over and again: ‘Blessed Mary, pray for us…’ I wasn’t sure whether or not I should join in and echo back.

And during the committal, when Father Bloom placed his hands on my grandpa’s casket and prayed: ‘May angels guide you and may Holy Mother Mary come forth to welcome you and lead you into the Holy City’ I didn’t know whether to say ‘Amen’ or ‘Hold on just a minute!’

When it comes to Mary, it’s my experience that most Protestant Christians know more about what they do not believe than they actually know about her.

For example, as a Protestant I know I don’t believe that Mary, after Jesus’ birth, was forever, perpetually a virgin. Nor do I believe that Mary herself was immaculately, miraculously conceived in her mother’s womb.

As a Protestant Christian I know I’m supposed to shake my head ‘no’ at the notion that- rather than suffering death- Mary, like Elijah, was lifted up into heaven. And I know that Mary is not the one whom I worship. Mary is not the one who decides my salvation and praying to her seems to walk a suspicious line.

When it comes to Mary, I know what I don’t believe.

I know too that we could rename this church St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s or St. Stephens. We change the sign out front to read Faith or Wesley or Collingwood Community United Methodist Church. No one would ever let us get away with St. Mary’s United Methodist Church.

As a Protestant Christian, I know Mary’s name would be off limits but, to be honest, I don’t know why.

After all, Mary’s name comes up 217 times in the New Testament, nearly as many times as Peter or Paul. When almost everyone else has given up and fled, it’s Mary who’s at the foot of Jesus’ cross. And if she was in Jerusalem for Jesus’ arrest and trial then chances are she was by his side throughout his entire ministry.

As a Protestant Christian I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but why is it I forget that when Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the faithful, Mary is among those set loose to prophesy and proclaim?

Or that when Luke describes the early church breaking bread, praying and sharing their possessions with one another, Mary is one of the few leaders he identifies by name.

Most commentaries on today’s passage go out of their way to stress how the Annunciation is a story of God’s initiative and power. When Gabriel climbs in through Mary’s bedroom window, it’s God’s grace at work. You don’t see Him but God is the main character here.

The Annunciation, these commentators stress, is a display that God can work through the unlikely and unable- just like with Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. What God can do through Mary’s womb is just a foretaste of what God can accomplish on a Cross.

Nothing, after all, is impossible with God.

It’s a story of God’s initiative. It’s not a story set in motion by Mary’s goodness- that’s all you need to remember in order to be a good Protestant. But once you’ve gotten that bit of doctrine nailed down, what else do we say about Mary?

Because there’s got to be more to say.

For most of us, Mary disappears from Jesus’ story as soon as the Christmas crèche is put away, but it’s ridiculous to think that once he’s born Mary simply disappears from Jesus’ life.

If Jesus is fully human, if the paradox is true and he’s as much flesh and blood as you or me, then someone taught Jesus his aleph, bet and gimmels.

Someone taught him to pray. Jesus sat on someone’s lap and learned the meaning of his name: God saves.

Someone taught him to treat others like he would want to be treated. When other children were mean to him, someone probably patted Jesus’ back and said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’

And once a year someone sat Jesus around the family supper table and broke bread and poured out wine and taught Jesus to remember the violent night when God rescued them from bondage.

Someone kept faith and kept Gabriel’s promise alive during those growing up years when the angel’s promise was anything but obvious- and that someone was probably Mary.

Mary was most likely only 13- certainly no older than 16. She was poor, from a poor, obscure town.

Maybe she was dreaming or praying or planning her wedding day when the angel Gabriel erupts in her room and surprises her with the news that just like the opening day of creation God was about to bring a very big something from nothing.

But the biggest surprise has to be that Mary says ‘Yes.’

A surprise because Mary says ‘Let it be’ to Gabriel, many months before she says ‘I do’ to Joseph.

Mary and Joseph were not yet married but Mary’s betrothal to him was legally binding in 1st century Judaism. She couldn’t yet sleep with Joseph, but she could be charged with adultery should she sleep with another man.

Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that but you can bet Mary did.

Don’t forget. No one else is in the room when the angel breaks the news. What’s Mary supposed to tell people- that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she’s pregnant with the long-promised Messiah?

As far as public scrutiny went, God was asking Mary to become an unwed, teenage mother.

When Mary says ‘Yes’ to Gabriel, she’s saying ‘Yes’ to being labeled an adultress.

People would question the integrity of her marriage. People would gossip about her son’s real father. People would curse her, shun her, call her names not fit for church or temple and they would wish disaster on her pregnancy. Her husband’s reputation would be ruined and her son would be forever ostracized.

You see, Luke doesn’t spell it out in his Gospel because he assumes you know what treatment Mary can expect to receive for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s calling.

According to Old Testament law, for her untimely pregnancy, if accused Mary would have her clothes torn and her body exposed. She’d be forced to let her down. She’d be displayed at the town entrance where the public and passersby would be encouraged to stare at her and shame her.

If Mary protested or denied any wrongdoing, then, according to Numbers 5, Mary would be forced by a priest to drink a bitter concoction mixed of dust, ink from her written condemnation and holy water.

If the potion made her sick, then she was guilty and, according to Deuteronomy 22, she would be led to the town gate. There, she would be stoned.

Mary’s suffering begins 33 years and 9 months before her son’s suffering.

She carries her cross before Jesus even learns to walk.

That’s what Luke assumes you know when he tells us that Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s news.

What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the many risks, Mary says: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’

Unlike Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah, Mary doesn’t protest: Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t you choose someone else? Can’t you wait until next spring when Joseph and I are married? Can’t you send out a press release so everyone will know who his real father really is? But I’m afraid.

Mary doesn’t protest. She just says: ‘Yes.’

As a Protestant Christian, I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but how is it that I so easily miss the fact that, in the middle of Galilee, was an ordinary girl whose faith had prepared her to make a risk-filled commitment to God?

My skepticism about her perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven doesn’t change the fact that Mary knew and trusted God in a way no one had since Abraham.

The only explanation for Mary’s unhesitating ‘Yes’ is that she knew God, in his mercy, would look after her.

She knew that following God doesn’t necessarily lead to comfort or safety or material blessing, but it does guarantee that God will use you to be a blessing to the world.

Mary must have known the stories of people like Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab- she must have known that more often than not God uses ordinary people with ordinary means and ordinary gifts to do redemption’s work.

Mary knew that faith in our God doesn’t exempt you from hardship or struggle, but it does mean you’ll never be alone. You’ll never be forgotten. You’ll never be abandoned.

If you were to tell the story of my grandfather’s life, you would find that it’s a simple story to tell. Still, in the telling of it, you would, from time to time, have to use words like: FEAR, WORRY, DESPAIR and DEPRESSION.

Depending on which part of my grandpa’s story you were telling, you would have to use other words like: ADDICTION, INFIDELITY, ANGER, ILLNESS, GRIEF, LONELINESS.

Because of my parent’s divorce and our having moved away, I hadn’t seen much of my grandpa since I was 12 or 13 so I don’t honestly know what role faith played in my grandpa’s story.

But I know enough of his story to know that faith could have made all the difference.

It was only 10 degrees at my grandfather’s burial- so cold that Father Bloom’s numb fingers couldn’t turn the pages of his prayer book when it came time for the final prayer and benediction.

Standing at the head of my grandpa’s casket, Father Bloom improvised. He looked at the living gathered around my grandpa and said: May the grace of Jesus Christ fill you, and may the faith and obedience of Mary guide you. 

You could see my breath hit the cold air so loudly did I say: Amen.

lightstock_60074_small_user_2741517Unbeknownst to many Christians who invited him into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior, Jesus couldn’t be more political.

Even the words ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ come out of the Hebrew Bible dripping with political overtones.

Perhaps no other day in the Christian year is as thoroughly political as tomorrow, Palm Sunday.

Jesus rides into town on a donkey to shouts of ‘Save us, King’ and waving palm branches- all of it calculated, political street theater designed to mock Pontius Pilate and the Caesar who sent him.

Here’s an old Palm Sunday sermon from the vault:

This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.

You can listen to the sermon here below or in the sidebar widget to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app.

 

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

     When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or 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 an unfinished, 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).

Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.

The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.

Tim and Diane were members of the first 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.

Nonetheless, they 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.

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

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

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

In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d 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 nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.

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As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and 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 Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.

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 vocabulary at their disposal.

Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.

By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”

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I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.

I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…

     Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:

     ‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’

     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. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.

They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.

     And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.

He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.

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

With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:

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

     The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, 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 a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are 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_______________?’

You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.

It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’

At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.

Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”

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     Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.

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      And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.

      Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.

True, but beside the point when it comes 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 the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping 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 Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’

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     “All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.” 

We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete 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, Pete 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 Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’

And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.

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the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.

What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.

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     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.

Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.

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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 Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.

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

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

No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:

‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘

Then they stormed out of the church parlor.

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

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

Jesus laughing2

     After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘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 light to the world not just like the world.

     We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’

I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.

And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.

‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.

‘And of course you know you’re 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?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’

‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.

‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:

Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?

Someone like me for what I’ve done?

Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’

‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.

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

Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.

Jesus laughing2

     Look-

Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.

Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.

Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.

It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.

The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.

So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.

Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.

Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.

Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?

Could be. I don’t know.

Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.

I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:

‘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?’

Other than me.

I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.

But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.

 

 

I just love Jesus’ annoying habit of spinning parables so obviously designed to wipe the s#@$-eating grin off our faces.

Example:

In Luke 16, Jesus serves up a story that contradicts all the pious niceties we perpetuate at church, a story in which, despite everything we teach our children in Sunday School, Jesus sides with Gordon Gecko and says in essence: ‘Greed is good.’

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We continue our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, this weekend by looking at Greed.

The text will be the story of the ‘dishonest manager,’ a parable that, while it does come up in the lectionary, most preachers treat it like was the latest Joel Osteen book.

Here it is:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 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 I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  

In case you’re a Methodist and just skipped over the scripture, here it is in a nutshell:

Manager gets fired with cause.

Decides to save his own skin.

Knows he can’t do X, Y or Z so he criminally halves his Boss’ debtors’ debts to win their favor.

Jesus says: ‘Well done.’

Actually Jesus says: ‘Make friends for yourselves through dishonesty.’

And all the church people said: ‘What the_________?’

Jesus praises the bad guy, the cheating little blank, and tells us to mimic him?

Jesus’ point and how it jives with our picture of Jesus has long been the cause of head-scratching for preachers.

Here’s one thing, though, that hit me this week.

The chapter divisions in our bibles weren’t there until the 4th/5th century.

Meaning, in Luke’s original Gospel (the ‘Director’s Cut so to speak) this parable followed immediately after, without division, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

What changes in the reading of the parable, I wonder, when its read as a companion to the Prodigal Father who had two sons?

Our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, continued with a slothful look at Jesus’ hackneyed parable of the Samaritan in Luke 10.25-37. 

You can download the sermon in iTunes here. Or, you can download the free mobile app and listen that way.

The audio is also here below.

 

SONY DSCI should apologize here at the beginning. This sermon sucks.

It’s not one of my better sermons. Or even really a good one.

But I’d like to think it’s not my fault.

What do you expect me to do with such a stale scripture passage?

All week long I felt like:

     What’s the point? What difference could this sermon possibly make today?

There’s nothing I could preach that you haven’t already heard before.

So why bother?

The ancient Christians called that attitude ‘sloth.’

Among the 7 Deadly Sins, Dante ranked it in at #4.

St Thomas AquinasThe Church Father Thomas Aquinas described sloth as listlessness, the dull depression that keeps us from doing the duty before us. Sloth, said Aquinas, is feeling zero spiritual zeal.

Sloth is the sin you don’t do. Sloth is when instead you sit around wondering why bother?

     In other words, or in 1 other word: Apathy.

     That’s exactly how I felt all week long whenever I thought about having to preach Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan.

We have laws named after the Good Samaritan.

We have hospitals named after the Good Samaritan.

You probably have flannel-graph Sunday School memories of learning about the Good Samaritan.

You all already know all about this story, which is enough to reduce any preacher to paralyzing, what’s-the-point, why-should-I-bother apathy.

I mean, you already know about the lawyer, the ‘teacher of the Jewish Law,’ who attempts to test Jesus just like the devil had done a few chapters earlier, tries to trap Jesus by turning the scriptures against him.

And you probably already know the lawyer’s question itself is problematic ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ because you can’t DO anything to inherit something. You can only receive an inheritance in gratitude, as a gift.

You already know this story.

Don’t you know that Jesus, like any good rabbi, always a question with another question?

You know that, right?

And you might already know that this lawyer’s no moron, that he responds by scotch-taping together 2 different texts of Torah: ‘You should love the Lord your God’ (that’s Deuteronomy) and ‘You should love your neighbor as yourself’ (that’s Leviticus).

Why should I bother?

You likely already know that ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is the sort of bible question they could’ve debated all day.

Read one part of Leviticus and your neighbor is just your fellow Jew. Read another and it includes the illegal immigrants in your land.

Turn to another text and the illegal aliens who count as your neighbor might really only include those who’ve converted to your faith. Read the right Psalms and neighbor definitely does not include your enemies.

They could’ve stood around and debated all day.

Which is probably why Jesus resorts to a story instead.

If you ever went to Vacation Bible School then you already know about the man who gets mule-jacked making the 17 mile trek from Jerusalem down to Jericho and who’s left  for dead, naked and unconscious, in a ditch on the side of the road.

 

And you certainly know about the priest and the Levite who respond to the man in need with only 2 verbs to their credit: See and Pass By.

 

I came down with a why-bother, apathetic attitude this week thinking about this parable.

I could barely drag myself out of bed on Friday, my sermon-writing day.

 

Because you all already know all about this story.

 

You know that, like State Farm, it’s a Samaritan who’s there.

For the man in the ditch.

You know that Jesus credits him with a whopping 14 verbs.

14 verbs to the priest’s puny 2:

He comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, bandages him, pours oil and wine on him. Puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes out his money, gives it, asks the innkeeper to take care of him, says he will return and repay anything else. 

14 verbs!

 And because you’ve already heard this story more times than that, you already know 14 verbs is the sum that equals the solution to Jesus’ table-turning question: ‘Which man became a neighbor?’

There’s nothing you don’t already know about this story and so this week the closer I saw Sunday coming down the road, the more I just wanted to slink on by.

     Because not only do you know this parable by heart, you know what to expect when you hear a sermon on the Samaritan.

You expect me to wind my way to the point that correct answers are not as important as compassionate actions, that bible study is not the way to heaven but bible doing.

You see, why bother preaching this parable?

Why bother when you already know what I’m going to say and where it will go?

I mean, show of hands:

How many of you would expect a sermon on this parable to segway into a contemporary illustration of it?

How many of you would expect some real-life example of me or someone I know taking a risk, sacrificing time, giving away money to help someone in need?

How many of you all would expect me to try and connect the world of the bible with the real world by telling you an anecdote like…

 photo 1

…on Friday morning I drove to Starbucks to work on a sermon for which I had zero interest. As I got of my car, standing in front of empty storefront windows, I saw this guy in the rain.

I could tell from the embarrassed look on his face and the hurried, nervous pace of those who skirted past him that he was begging.

And seeing him there standing, pathetic, in the rain, I thought to myself:

‘Crap. How am I going to get into the coffee-shop without him shaking me down for money?’

It’s not impressive, but it’s true. I didn’t want to be bothered with him. I didn’t want to give him any money.

‘Who’s to say what he’d spend it on or if giving him a handout was really helping him out?

I know Jesus said to give to people whatever they ask from you, but Jesus also said to be as wise as snakes and I’m no fool.

You can’t give money to every single person who begs for it. It’s not realistic.

Jesus never would’ve made it to the cross if he stopped to help every single person in need…’

I thought to myself.

 

But mostly, I was irritated. images-1

Irritated because on Friday morning I was wearing my clergy collar and if Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, was going to thrust me into a real-life version of his parable then I was damned if I was going to get cast as the priest.

I sat in my car with these thoughts running through my head and for a few minutes I just watched.

 

I watched as a Starbucks manager saw him begging on the sidewalk.

And passed by.

 

Then a Petsmart employee saw him begging.

And passed by.

 

Then some moms in workout clothes pretended not to see him.

And passed by.

photo 2

When I walked up to him, he smiled and asked if I could spare any cash.

 

‘I don’t have any cash on me’ I lied.

I asked him what he needed and he said ‘food.’

 

Motioning to the Starbucks behind us, I offered to buy him breakfast, but he shook his head and explained: ‘I need food, like groceries, for my family.’

And then we stood in the rain and Jamison- his name’s Jamison- told me about his wife and 3 kids and the motel room on Route 1 where they’ve been living for 3 weeks since their eviction which came 2 weeks after he lost hours at his job.

After he told me his story I gave him my card and then I walked across the parking lot to Shoppers and I bought him a couple of sacks of groceries- things you can keep in a motel room- and then I carried them back to him.

It wasn’t 14 verbs worth of compassion but it wasn’t shabby.

And Jamison smiled. And said thank you.

And then I took his picture.

Tacky, I know, but I figured you’d never believe this sermon illustration fell into my lap like manna from heaven just this Friday.

photo 3

I took his picture and then, having gone and done likewise, I said goodbye and held out my hand to shake his.

 

See, isn’t that exactly the sort of story you’d expect me to share?

A predictable slice-of-life story for a worn-out parable.

Why bother? What’s the point? You expect me to tell you a story like that for a parable like this right before I end the sermon by saying ‘Go and do likewise.’

And, I expect, you will go feeling not inspired but guilty.

Guilty knowing that 7/10 times, whether you’re walking by a metro or a street bench or a coffee-shop, you won’t do likewise because none of us has the time or the energy or the money to spend 14 verbs on every Jamison we meet.

If 14 verbs x Everyone We Meet is how much we must do, then eternal life isn’t a gift we inherit at all.

It’s instead a more expensive transaction than even the best of us can afford.

If 14 verbs x Every Jamison = the price of admission- if that’s what Jesus is saying- then apathy is most sensible response to it.

Why bother?

Why bother preaching a parable you’ve heard so many times before?

Why bother listening to a parable you can possibly live up to?

 

The good news is- there’s more to the story.

I shook Jamison’s hand while, in my head, I was cursing at Jesus for sticking me in the middle of such a predictable sermon illustration.

Then I turned to go into Starbucks when Jamison said:

‘You know, when I saw you was a priest, I expected you’d help me.’

Then it hit me.

‘Say that again’ I said.

‘When I saw who you were,’ he said,’ the collar, I figured you’d help me.’

And suddenly it was like he’d thrown cold water on me, smacked me across the face, to wake me up.

‘That’s it’ I said, coming alive and, in my zeal, I smacked him on the shoulder.

‘What’s it?’ You could tell he was starting to wonder if maybe I was the crazy street person.

And, sure enough, like a crazy street person I kept repeating myself: ‘That’s it!’

I thanked him and I hurried inside to begin working on my sermon.

 

‘When I saw you was a priest I expected you to help me.’

We all know this story so well, we’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the prophetic point of the parable is hidden right there in plain sight.

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

The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the 72 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 in Luke 10 was 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 ‘Ok, sure, we’re tracking. What’s your point? Where you going with this? 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 thought the priest and Levite jerks. No one would’ve thought their actions apathetic. The priest and Levite would’ve struck no one as compassionless hypocrites.

No one would’ve been offended by their passing on by.

No one would’ve been surprised they passed 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.

Unknown

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic, immoral, and contrary to everything we know of God.

Of course we feel that way.

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 what Jesus says they did.

So-

     If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or 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.

 

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to 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.

Unknown

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized.

They weren’t just considered outsiders or other.

They were a lot more than heretics.

 

They were considered enemies.

Terrorists. Less than human.

 

Just a chapter before this, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. 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 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 story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

The irony is- as bored as we’ve become with this parable, we’ve gotten it all backwards.

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It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.

The good news is that this parable isn’t the stale object lesson about serving the needy that we’ve made it out to be.

The bad news is that this parable is much worse than most of us ever realized.

Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need. You don’t crucify someone for saying something so obvious. If that’s what Jesus meant, he was boring and we were stupid.

     No, Jesus is saying that even our worst enemies care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

     And if we’re to inherit eternal life, we better learn to love our enemies as we love ourselves.

So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to spend 14 verbs on every needy person we meet.

He’s telling us to go and do something much costlier.

I warned you it was a sucky sermon.

It’s no wonder why people always reacted to Jesus’ parables in 1 of 2 ways:

Apathy- wanting nothing to do with him.

Or wanting to do away with him.

 

 

Here’s the homily from Sunday on Mark 1.40-45. You can listen to the audio below, on the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

The sermon was short this week because we used the worship service time to package meals for Stop Hunger Now.

This is Anna Lucia.

image

     She’s five years old in this picture. I met her just before Christmas a few years ago. She lives in the Highlands in Guatemala.

I built a wood-stove in her family’s house so that her mother would have something to cook over instead of cooking over an open fire inside their home.

Anna’s house is about half the size of my bathroom. It’s made of mud with an earth floor in a village routinely devastated by mudslides.

The only other possessions in the house were a dirty mattress, a faded soccer poster, and a tiny little Christmas tree with jagged, broken colored lights.

At that altitude it frosts every night, but there’s no heat. Not even a door just bright pink tapestry hanging from the ceiling- and you could hear that cold in Anna’s breathing. It sounded like she had pneumonia.

image-1

You can’t tell from this photograph but Anna’s nose ran with black snot from the fire her mother had to cook over.

The only water Anna Lucia has access to is polluted.

She and her family have no sink. No toilet.

Anna’s mother is named Maria and she’s only a teenager though she looks three times her age.

Her father works a tiny field outside their house.

The summer before this picture Anna’s parents borrowed money to send a family member to the States to find work.

So when I met them not only were they impoverished, they were in debt too.

I’ve been working in Guatemala for a long time. Aldersgate has been sending service teams there for almost 10 years.

     People often speak of the ‘spiritual high’ they get from serving the poor.

     They talk about the ‘joy’ that comes in helping others.

     And that’s part of it.

     But you know what else I always leave feeling?

     What I left Anna Lucia feeling?

     Anger.

 

Right after he’s baptized, Jesus goes to Galilee.

‘Galilee’ is Mark’s shorthand way of saying ‘on the other side of the tracks.’

As soon as he arrives, a leper comes up to Jesus. Gets down on his knees begging.

Leprosy assaults your body as your skin rots away.

But ‘leprosy also attacks your social network.

It brings you isolation. It makes you unclean. It leaves you socially unacceptable’ (Walter Brueggemann).

So not only does leprosy makes sick, it stigmatizes you.

Which, if you weren’t already, makes you poor.

 

And according to the Law of Moses, a leper’s ‘uncleanness’ can only be ritually removed by a duly vested priest.

 

This leper obviously knows the rules don’t give Jesus the right to cleanse him. That’s why he gives Jesus an out: “You could declare me clean, if you dare.”

And Mark says that ‘moved with anger’ Jesus stretches out his hand and Jesus touches this untouchable leper- touches him before he heals him- and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

     And while the leprosy leaves him, Jesus doesn’t say ‘come and follow me’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’

     No, Mark says Jesus snorts “with indignation.”

ὀργισθείς

     Here’s the money question Mark wants you to puzzle out:

     Why is Jesus so angry?

Because this pushy leper didn’t say the magic word?

Because now all anyone will want from him are miracles?

Because this leper is only interested in a cure not carrying a cross?

Why is Jesus so angry?

     In order to answer that question, you have to ask another one:

     Why does Jesus send this ex-leper to show himself to the priests?

 

The answer Mark wants you to tease out is that this ex-leper had already gone to the priests and with the same question: ‘Will you declare me clean?’

 

Jesus is angry. Jesus snorts with indignation. Jesus huffs and puffs because before this leper begged Jesus, he went before the priests.

Just as the Bible instructs.

And they turned him away.

 

You see, the priests in Jesus’ day charged money for the ritual cleansing.

And money, if you were a leper, is something you didn’t have.

     So not only were lepers marginalized and ostracized, they were victimized too.

     And that, Mark says, makes for one PO’d Messiah.

What Would Jesus Do?

As often as we ask ourselves that question, ‘Get Torqued Off’ isn’t usually what comes to mind.

Jesus only has 19 verses of actual ministry under his belt here and already he’s righteously mad.

And Jesus keeps on getting angry, again and again, in Mark’s Gospel.

 

When a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus in church and the Pharisees look on in apathy, Jesus gets angry.

And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and sees what’s going on, Jesus gets angry and throws a Temple tantrum.

And when Peter brings a sword to protect the Prince of Peace, Jesus gets angry and scolds him.

 

We tend to think that anger is a bad thing, that it’s something to be stamped out not sought after. Some have even numbered anger a ‘deadly sin.’

But we believe that Jesus was fully human, in him was the full complement of sinless human emotions.

Not only do we believe Jesus was fully human, scripture calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

 Meaning:

Jesus wasn’t just truly human; he’s the True Human.

He’s not only fully human; he’s the only human- the only one to ever be as fully alive as God made each of us to be.

Yet Jesus is angry all the time.

So anger isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of a flaw in our humanity, anger could be a way for us to become more human, as fully human as Jesus.

 

But how do we know the difference?

Between anger as a vice and anger as a virtue?

Scripture speaks of sin as ‘missing the mark.’ 

That is, sin is when our actions or desires are aimed towards something other than what God intends.

When you read straight through the Gospels, you notice how Jesus gets angry…all the time.

But what Jesus gets angry at-

is injustice, oppression, poverty

suffering and stigmatization

abuse and apathy.

That’s the kind of anger that hits God’s mark.

 

As a pastor, I run into people all the time who are convinced either that God is angry at them OR that the god of the Bible is an angry god.

So let me just say it plain:

     The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us is unconditional.

     Because the love between the Father, Son and Spirit is unceasing.

     God’s love for us is unchanging because GOD IS UNCHANGING.

We cannot earn God’s love, no matter how hard we try.

We cannot lose God’s love, no matter how hard we try.

God does not change his mind about us.

Because God does not change his mind.

Because God does not change.

     God IS NOT ANGRY.

     God CANNOT EVER BE ANGRY.

     Because he’s God.

But Jesus, the True Human Person, the 2nd Adam, the Fully Human One, he gets Angry.

And that means…so should we.

 

When we built that wood- stove in Anna’s house, we looked around for bits of rock and odds and ends to use to fill the holes in the cinder blocks before we filled them with mortar.

Want to guess one of the things I came across underneath some old, woven grain sacks?

An empty wrapper from an old meal.

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     What we do today by packaging these meals for people like Anna- I hope it gives you that feeling of joy that comes from serving others; I hope it leaves you with a sense of fulfillment having helped a cause greater than yourself.

     But I hope it leaves you a little bit angry too.

     Because if it does, you’ll leave here just a little bit more human.

 

We continued our Lenten sermon series, The 7 Deadlies & the 7 Ways Jesus Us, by looking at the disciples’ envy in Mark 10.35-45 and what’s sometimes called the Ransom Theory of the atonement.

You can listen to it here below or download it in iTunes. Better yet, get the free mobile app.

When it comes to the act of writing, writers sometimes have strange habits.

James Joyce wrote with a blue crayon on pieces of cardboard while wearing a white lab coat and lying down on his stomach. jamesjoyce_whitecoat

 

penn02Truman Capote could not write if there were more than 3 cigarettes in any nearby ashtray; meanwhile, while Stephen King forces himself to write 2,000 adverb-less words every day.

 

Ernest Hemingway, the author of A Farewell to Arms, bid adieu to his clothes every morning. He wrote completely naked and forbid anyone to return his clothes to him until he’d written his requisite number of words. ErnestHemingway

 

When it comes to the act of writing, writers can have odd habits.

I’m no Hemingway but when it comes to writing sermons my habit is to get up first thing in the morning, get right out of bed, go straight downstairs, put on a pot of coffee, sit down at the dining room table and immediately start writing.

     In my boxer shorts.

     And nothing else.

     It’s a habit I started in seminary and it’s served me well.

For the most part.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was busy writing my sermon.

As is my habit, I was sporting boxers and bed-head and nothing else. My wife and sons were gone, getting breakfast before going shopping.

I was alone, and I was writing and I was approaching that ethereal, Aha moment where I knew what I wanted to say and what I wanted the sermon to do when I heard a knock at my front door.

I got up from the table and I walked unsuspecting to the front door. I didn’t ask who it was. I didn’t look through the window to see.

I just assumed it was my wife and kids needing to be let inside. So without thinking (and without putting any clothes on) I opened the front door.

     Just so you can picture this in your mind’s eye:

     This is my front porch. photo

    photo copy

This is what I typically look like in the morning.

 And these are the boxers I had on on that particular morning. photo 2

 

And standing in front of me were 2 elderly women, African American, both of whom wore stern-looking glasses and had sterner-looking buns in their hair and were wearing long, mournful black coats.

     Assuming they were there to sell me some thing or some cause, I went into my standard evasive maneuvers: ‘Yo soy el señor Dennis Perry. No hablo Inglés. Sólo Español. Buen día.’

But I hadn’t rolled my ‘r’s’ properly on Perry. So they squinted at me, not buying it.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘my wife has the checkbook. I can’t buy whatever it is you’re selling.’

The lady at the top of my stoop widened her eyes and said ‘We’re not here to sell you anything, dear.’

And the woman on my bottom step said ‘Or you might say we’re selling the most important thing there is.’

As she spoke she opened up this fake leather Trapper Keeper and pulled out a piece of paper.

She handed me the paper and asked: ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

     I looked down at the piece of paper.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. images 9.36.08 PM

 ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘I was just thinking I must’ve died yesterday.’

‘What was that?’ the one on the top step asked.

‘Oh nothing, never mind.’

She adjusted her glasses, looked down at my boxers and then bent her eyebrows in to a frown. ‘You look cold so we’ll be quick. When was the last time you read the Holy Bible?’

‘Um, actually you just interrupted me.’

‘Oh really? So then you already know that Jesus Christ was punished for your sin so that you can leave this fallen world and go to heaven when you die?’

‘That’s 1 way of putting it I guess.’

‘1 way? Oh no honey, that’s the only way! That’s the Good News: God punished Jesus Christ in your place so you can be forgiven and go to heaven. It’s just like the signs say.’

‘What signs?’ I asked.

‘You know, the ones that say ‘1 Cross + 3 Nails…’

I finished the equation for her: ‘Equals 4-given?’ images 10.51.35 PM

 

If I were to ask you about the Cross, then you might say there’s only 1 way of putting it too. You might answer with the same sort of Jesus Equation:

God punished Jesus for you sin

so that God can forgive you

so that you can go to heaven when you die.

It’s not that that’s the wrong way of putting it.

It’s more like- if the question is how does Jesus save us on the cross, there’s more than one right answer.

The language we most often use about the cross- about Christ suffering for our sin- that’s just 1 way St. Paul has of speaking about the cross.

But, even more importantly, its not the language Jesus chose to use.

The meaning we so often give to Jesus’ death- it’s not the meaning Jesus himself ascribed to his approaching death.

Jesus knew he was going to die.

As soon as John the Baptist gets executed, Jesus had to know he would get killed too. And the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more he alludes to and predicts his Crucifixion.

You probably already knew that.

But you might not know that Jesus only makes sense of his death, he only uses scripture to reflect upon his death, he only interprets his death twice.

Just two times.

He does so at the Last Supper.

And before that, he does so here in Mark 10, when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, reveal just how captive they are to envying the world’s brand of power and glory.

An envy that quickly ensnares the other 10 disciples too.

     It’s their envy that provokes Jesus to tell them that he’ll give his life as a ransom for many.

      Last Supper.

     Ransom for many.

     Those are the 2 times Jesus interprets the meaning of own death, and both connect back to the Passover.

To the story of the Exodus.

The word ‘ransom’ Jesus uses- in Hebrew the word is ‘padah‘

פָּדָה

‘Padah’ means release and rescue from captivity.

‘Padah’ in the Hebrew scriptures refers exclusively to God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to their exodus from suffering, to their liberation from bondage.

So what Christ says to the disciples about his life being a ransom for many is exactly what Christ says to them again at the Last Supper.

In both cases Jesus casts his death as a Passover. As an Exodus.

And that can only have one meaning.

For Jesus, his death will mean our deliverance from captivity.

His death will mean our freedom.

 If it was all about our guilt and sin, if it was only about Jesus suffering punishment so that could be forgiven and go to heaven, then why would Jesus interpret his death- why would Jesus schedule his death- light of Passover and not Yom Kippur?

After all, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the day when the people’s sins are covered over by the blood of another.

Yom Kippur is the day when the guilt of your sin is taken off you and put on a scapegoat.

Yom Kippur is the day when your sins are washed white as snow and you’re forgiven.

But Passover-

     Passover’s not about forgiveness.

     Passover’s not about atonement or guilt or punishment.

     Passover’s about liberation from captivity.

     Passover’s about being ransomed into freedom.

 

The woman at the top of my stoop shot me a warm smile when I finished my Jesus Math for her: 1 Cross & 3 Nails = 4Given.

But I was cold. My aha moment- whatever it might’ve been- had vanished, and I was irritated.

So I said: ‘If that’s the only way of putting it, then how come Jesus never talked about it that way?’

Their countenance darkened.

The one on the bottom step said: ‘Honey, I’m not sure you know quite what you’re talking about.’

The other, the one on the top step added: ‘Maybe you’d like to talk to a pastor sometime?’

‘Actually…uh…I’m a pastor.’

And like IRS auditors, they examined the toothpastey drool  at the crook of my mouth and my polar bear boxers and, after an awkward silence, announced the obvious: ‘You don’t look like a man of the cloth.’

‘Yeah, I get that a lot.’

‘Well, since you’re a pastor,’ the one on the top stoop said after another awkward silence, ‘maybe you could give us some advice.’

‘What kind of advice?’

      ‘Going to door to door like this,’ she said, ‘so few people read the Bible. Do you have any advice for making Jesus seem relevant to people in their lives?‘

     And I thought about it and I said:

     ‘Maybe instead of treating Jesus like fire insurance for eternal life you should show people how Jesus frees us for this one.’

It could’ve been the polar bear boxers but what I’d said- I could tell- it didn’t compute.

Their polite but vacant expressions told me that what I’d said about Jesus made as much sense as saying that 1& 3 adds up to 5.

 

When Jesus uses a loaded, story-saturated word like ‘ransom’ about himself.

And when Jesus takes the Passover bread and says not ‘this is the body of the Passover’ but ‘this is my body.’

And when Jesus picks up the cup and says that the blood of the passover lamb is his own.

     He’s saying something very different from what we usually say

when we talk about the Cross.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about escaping from this world.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about our rescue in this world.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about going to heaven when we die.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about his dying so that we can live on earth as it is in heaven.

 

When we talk about the Cross, we make it about God’s forgiveness of our sin.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about God freeing us from Sin.

Freeing us not just for heaven but for the here and now.

 

When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when Jesus says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling his disciples that his death will be a New Exodus.

 

That just as Israel was set free and given a new identity and delivered to a promised place-

So too will we be set free from captivity

So too will we be given a new identity

So too will be delivered to a whole new place in life

A place where will live the promised Kingdom in the present.

When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when he says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling us that just like Israel in the Exodus, God rescues us not to wait around for another world but so that we can be a light to this world.

That’s why the Gospels, go out of their way to tell you:

That Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges against him- just as the Passover lamb is to be perfect and without blemish.

 

That Jesus was flogged before he was crucified- just as the Passover lamb is to be bled before it is hung.

 

That Jesus’ bones, despite the soldiers’ intentions, were not broken- just as the Passover lamb’s bones are not to be broken.

 

And it’s why the Gospels tell you that darkness covered Jerusalem for 3 hours as Jesus died- just as darkness stretched across Egypt for 3 days before God freed his people.

 

It’s why the Gospels tell you that when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, water rushed out just as God led Israel to freedom through the Sea.

 

     The Gospels want you to see that the cross isn’t just your ticket to heaven or hell.

     It’s your exodus to a new life.

 

A friend of mine found out what I’d planned to preach today, and she asked me if I’d share part of her story.

And I said no.

I said ‘no, why don’t you share your story.

So here it is. I only wish I’d had this to play when the Jehovah’s Witnesses asked me for advice on making God relevant in people’s lives:

 

Did you hear what led to her being a prisoner to addiction?

     Not liking herself.

Not thinking she was good enough.

Wanting to be someone, anyone, else.

What the Church calls envy. The first sin of the fallen world.

And did you catch what words she used to describe her addiction?

     Life Sentence.

     Captivity.

     From Bondage into Blessing to be a Blessing.

     Freedom.

It’s not on the recording but at one point she told me that her Rescue wasn’t something anyone could do for her. And it wasn’t anything she could do by herself.

     Rescue, she said, is what God does.

     It’s what God does.

 

When we talk about the Cross, what we so often miss is that sin isn’t just something we commit.

Just like the Israelites in Egypt, just like the Jews under Rome, sin is something that captures us.

Sin isn’t just something we’re guilty of; it’s also something that binds us.

And so it isn’t just something we need to be forgiven of.

Just as much- if not more- it’s something we need to be freed from.

ALG195548When Jesus talks about the Cross, Jesus chooses Passover- not Yom Kippur- because Jesus wants you to look at the Cross and see that God is in the rescue business.

When Jesus talks about the Cross, he doesn’t say ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll come up to the communion table with grim faces and remember a punishment that should’ve been yours. No.

Jesus says ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll march up here, joyful, like Pharaoh’s army just got swallowed up by the sea.

And your chains?

They’re broken.

When Jesus talks about the Cross he says ‘I’m your Passover’ because the good news of the cross is that you have been set free.

From whatever binds you.

That means- for Jesus, salvation isn’t something you wait for until after you die.

Salvation is here and now.

    Salvation is people in bondage being rescued by God and delivered to a new place in their lives.

And just ask my friend- that journey isn’t easy and it might take as long as Israel wandered in the wilderness after the First Exodus, but it doesn’t mean you’re not free today.

You see when we talk about the Cross we get the math all wrong.

     We say the equation is 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4Given. 

But Jesus-

     When Jesus talks about his Death, it’s 1 Cross & 3 Nails 4Freedom.

 

DESIGN copy

When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.

For example:

Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?

Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?

Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?

Does Jesus die with us?

As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?

Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.

Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.

 

 

We kicked off weekly worship our satellite campus this Sunday with the first in a sermon of series: The 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways that Jesus Saves Us. As you’ll see, the new venue allowed me to use slides and video for the first time.

During the series I’ll be pairing one of the ancient capital vices (aka: Deadly Sins) with one of the Church’s ancient or modern understandings of atonement- how Jesus makes us at-one with God. In this sermon, I owe a debt to Jonathan Martin’s work in Prototype and, like him, owe a debt to St Iraeneus and the late Herbert McCabe.

You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar ‘Listen’ Widget to the right or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

 

 

christ-in-the-wilderness-briton-riviereMatthew 4.1-11 & Ephesian 1.9-10

Who are you?

Not only is that a question some of you might be wondering about me, especially after seeing me on toilet, I’m convinced it’s the most important question of all.

Who are you?

I believe it’s the question at the heart of what we call the Gospel- the good news.

And it’s the reason I believe people need the church- need a church.

Because we certainly don’t have all the answers but we have heard one answer.

We’ve heard the answer to that ‘who are you?’ question.

Since it’s so important, it makes sense to tell you.

Who I am.

Without going into genealogies or boring you with begats, the best answer to who I am starts here with this boy. 942763_238129929671334_1061230345_n

He’s 4 or 5 here.

And twice a day, morning and evening, breakfast and dinner, on the back deck, a brown squirrel would wait outside the screen door, sitting on its hind legs, and beg for food.

Twice a day the squirrel would eat out of the little boy’s hand.

The boy called the squirrel ‘Foxy.’

He was only 4 or 5, but even then he knew that squirrels don’t eat out of people’s hands.

But Foxy did. This boy- he lived in an enchanted world.

He felt happy and special and free and infinitely loved. He’d never heard the word ‘God’ before, but even so he felt surrounded by God’s loving presence.

This boy- he felt no fear, no doubt. He felt no shame, no reason to hide behind any masks, no self-consciousness at all.

You don’t wear shorts that short if you’re burdened with self-consciousness or shame.

If you asked this boy that question ‘Who are you?’ then I probably would’ve told you: ‘I’m the boy with the magic squirrel.’

1233470_238129893004671_1944569950_nBut that boy grew up to be this boy.

And it’s true that this boy isn’t happy to wearing a cutesy, home-made costume that only other moms will think is cool. It’s true this boy isn’t happy he’s not wearing one of those cheap, plastic superhero masks, the kind with the one staple and the rubber band that snaps as soon as you try to put it on your head.

It’s true this boy isn’t happy to be dressed like a clown, but, truthfully, this isn’t the first time this boy learned how to smear a fake smile on his face.

A few months before this Halloween was the first time the boy laid awake in his bunk bed and listened to the screaming and hitting downstairs.

Other nights he’d cry quietly, sitting at the top of the stairs and listening to his parents below when they thought he was asleep in bed.

Right before this Halloween was when his Dad hit the tree in their front yard after another night out drinking too much. He knew because he heard his Mom say so when he was supposed to be asleep.

But when the boy asked his Dad what happened to the car, his Dad lied to him. And when the boy asked his Mom what happened to the car…     So if you asked this boy that question: ‘Who are you?’ he might’ve said ‘Who do you think? Obviously, I’m a clown.’

But the truth is, the boy didn’t know.

Halloween was just one day of the year that he wore a mask.

When that boy became a teenager, he wished he could wear an actual mask.

This is one of the only pictures of him. 1174693_238129899671337_673103939_n

When that boy became a teenager, he didn’t let that many pictures of him get taken. His complexion eventually got so bad that after exhausting a battery of treatments the doctors prescribed him the same medication used to treat leprosy.

To add another layer of biblical allusion, the leprosy once got so bad that the kids at his bus stop would throw stones at him.

He responded by retreating into sarcasm and when that didn’t work he just retaliated. Desperation, it turns out, makes for a good fighter.

Not having any answer to that ‘Who are you?’ question made it impossible for him to forgive or turn the other cheek or think about walking an inch in his bullies’ shoes or even trust someone else enough to tell them what was going on with him.

His family was broken up and his body was broken out, and if you asked him that ‘Who are you?’ question there’s no way he would’ve answered honestly.

He just would’ve hid, but the truth was he felt unloved and unlovely.

One day the boy next door invited him to church, a house church.

He’d never heard of such a thing but as invitations to anything were a rarity he went.

Already feeling unloved and unlovely, the friendly souls at this house church told the boy there was something else wrong with him.

They told him he was a sinner.

That’s the answer they gave him to the ‘Who are you? question.

To make matters worse, they gave a teenager homework.

They told him there was something he had to do.

Believe in Jesus.

So that.

God would forgive him and love him.

So that.

He could go to heaven one day.

But this boy really didn’t think he needed forgiving, and he wasn’t interested in how to go to heaven so much as how his life could stop being a living hell.

Who are you? It is, I believe, the most important of questions.

So having the right answer makes all the difference.

Mural_-_Jesus_Baptism

The most important part of Matthew’s Gospel story today is what comes before it.

Jesus shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.

And as he comes up out of the water, Matthew says the sky opens up and the Holy Spirit comes down and God’s voice declares like it was the first week of creation: ‘This is my Beloved in whom I delight.’

But no one falls down instantly and worships Jesus or signs up to be a disciple.

So no one else hears God say ‘This is my Beloved.’

Only Jesus hears it, like a voice in his head.

It’s not like proof or evidence.

It’s more like something Jesus has to trust and believe: who God has said he is.

When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God declared to them: ‘I will be your God and you will be my Beloved.’

But not long after God rescues them from bondage, when they’re still damp from crossing through the Red Sea, the Israelites forget. They forget who God said they were.

As soon as they’re in the wilderness, they start to worry and complain that they’re going to starve or die of thirst or be left all alone.

And God responds by giving them bread and water, but God tells them you can’t live by bread alone. You have to know who you are. Don’t put your God to the test because that just shows you’ve forgotten who you are. And don’t flirt with any other little ‘g’ gods. Remember, I am yours and you are my Beloved.

But soon after they forget again.

Immediately after he’s baptized and hears God declare ‘You are my Beloved’ the Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into the wilderness. And in the wilderness, after 40 days of fasting, when Jesus is weak and lonely and at his lowliest, Jesus hears another voice:

‘If you’re really God’s Beloved…

Turn those stones to bread.

Take a leap and let everyone see.

Bow down and I’ll give you power the world will recognize.’

Each step of the way Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Israel’s own. And where Israel forgot who they were, Jesus remembers. And believes it.

Not only that, Jesus’ experience in the wilderness echoes Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden.

The questions the devil puts to Jesus aren’t really any different than the very first question the devil ever asked: ‘Did God really say…? That you’re very good…that you’re Beloved?’

Isn’t it interesting how scripture never personifies the devil with horns and a pitchfork but as that voice in your head, that voice around you, tempting you to forget what God has said about you, to forget who you are?

I never went back to my neighbor’s house church.

I never went to any church for a half-dozen years. It was pre-smartphone, so I don’t a lot of pictures, but if there’s 1 image from those years, 1 image that best captures who I was becoming, it’s this one. 225px-Magritte_TheSonOfMan

Empty inside. No joy. Nothing to me besides what I presented on the outside.

And because of who she was afraid I was becoming, my mom one day announced we were going to church, which in our family was about as casual an announcement as ‘I have a tapeworm.’

The church she took us to was a new church. It didn’t even look like a church. It looked like an auditorium, and it was Christmas Eve. I now know that’s a night when many folks try out a church for the first time, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the only one there who didn’t belong. So I sat through the service feeling cynical and scornful and fake.

And I kept at it like that, kept up that attitude, Sunday after successive Sunday. My mom kept at it too, kept making us go.

One day, I don’t know how many Sundays after that first day, we read this story. The story before today’s story. The story where Jesus hears God say ‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’

3260 And this guy talked about the story. And this guy can barely remember what he had for breakfast so there’s no way he remembers what he said.

But I do. Because it changed my life.

He said:

If Jesus took on our humanity, if each one of us is represented in Jesus, then that means that what God says to Jesus, God says to each one of you.

You are beloved. In you God delights.

He told me who I am.

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone: ‘You are my Beloved.’

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 believing it and never forgets it even when he’s suffering and that other voice from the wilderness creeps back for another go at him.

The theologian Hebert McCabe says that what sets Jesus apart is not the miracles he performed. It’s not his teaching or preaching. Or, even, that he died on a Cross.

No, what sets Jesus apart:

is his deep and abiding belief that he was loved by God.

 

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 ever been since Adam.

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who he was. He never doubted that he was Beloved.

And knowing, all the way down, that he was loved, set him free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation.

That’s why Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of the Gospels. It’s what kick-offs his ministry. We make a big deal of Christmas, but it’s those words ‘You are my Beloved’ that’s when Jesus ‘becomes’ Jesus.

‘You are my Beloved, in you I delight.’

It’s just a few words, but the Gospels put those few words right before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry so that you can see that all it takes is to believe those few words.

That if you just believe those few words

That if you trust that who you are is loved

Then that can change literally everything.

pastedGraphic_8.pdf

 

Scripture says that pride- forgetting who God has said you are and trying to manufacture a different you- is the ‘head of all sin.’

But scripture also says Jesus ‘re-heads’ the human story.

That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 1: that God has ‘recapitulated’ all things in Jesus, things in heaven and things on earth.

The word Paul uses there, recapitulation, means literally ‘re-head.’

Jesus renarrates the human story. He renews our humanity.

He redefines what it means to be human.

The first Christians believed that’s one of the ways Jesus saves us.

Their way of putting it was that in Jesus, God became what we are- prideful sinners, people who don’t know who we are- so that we might become what Jesus is:

someone who knows he is beloved

and trusts it enough to live into it

and live it out in a way that changes the world.

In other words,

If that’s true,

Then Jesus isn’t just a prophet.

He isn’t just a preacher.

And he sure isn’t just a person who’s punished for your sin.

He’s the prototype for your life.

That’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

It’s what scripture means when it calls Jesus the eikon- the visible picture- of the invisible God. Good_Shepherd

He’s the prototype of a new humanity.

And you don’t bother to make a prototype if you don’t desire that one day there will be others just like it

There are some who will tell you that Christianity is about just being forgiven for your sin. But if Jesus is the prototype, then Christianity is about learning to become as fully human as Jesus.

There are some who will tell you that Christianity is all about believing in Jesus. Or believing certain things about Jesus.

But if Jesus is God’s prototype for a new way of being human then believing in Jesus has got to begin and end with believing like Jesus.

Believing like Jesus believed.

Believing that you can face trials without fear.

Believing that you can show mercy rather than cast stones.

Believing that you can love your enemies and bless those who curse us and forgive 70 x 7.

Believing that you can be a person of compassion and hope.

Believing that you- you- can bring news to the poor.

You can lift up the lowly.

You can show the world snapshots of what God’s Kingdom looks like.

If you only believe.

If Jesus is God’s prototype, then believing in Jesus has everything to do with believing like Jesus.

And believing like Jesus- for you that begins just like it began for Jesus: with knowing who you are.

You are God’s Beloved. In you God delights.

And that’s who I am.

I don’t have a magic squirrel anymore, but I do have these. photo-1

You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’ve been set free.

From shame and self-consciousness.

You don’t wear shorts this short unless you’re completely confident that you’re delight to the Source of all Delight. Unless you’re sure, all the way down, that you’re beloved.

 

 

 

 

 

UnknownIt’s the Sabbath for a few hours more.

From the vault:

Here’s a sermon on the practice of Sabbath from a sermon series on Lauren Winner’s book, Mudhouse Sabbath.

 

You can listen to it in the widget to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’