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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.

Ephesians 4, 1 John 4

Since Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered under the power of his name there he is present too, I probably shouldn’t lie. I’ve never really liked weddings. Wedding planners are the bane of my existence. At receptions, I almost always get stuck at the grandma table, and don’t even get me started on mothers-in-law. 

I’ve never really liked weddings (and I say no to alot of couples). What I do like though is the wedding rite.

The wedding rite: your pledge today of free unmerited forgiveness and unconditional love come what may from this day forward. Not only are the promises you make one another the very definition of faith, by them you become for us all a parable of the prodigal, unnatural, foolish love with which God loves us all. 

But note—

The love with which you love one another is not God. 

God is love, but love is not God.

St. John, who tells us today that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” goes on in chapter four to write that “No one has ever seen God; if we love love another, God lives in us…” 

Hold up— 

No one has ever seen God?! 

Clearly, John can’t mean that as we hear it, for the entirety of John’s epistle is a no-holds-barred attack on those who would deny that the almighty, invisible God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, took up a body and resided among us as one of us in the flesh. John even has a name for those who would deny that in Jesus Christ we’ve seen all of God that there is to see. He calls such incarnation deniers antichrist. 

Before you start wondering what sort of wedding sermon this is, pay attention: a better way for us to hear verse eight then is “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is Jesus.” Whoever does not love does not know God, for Jesus is God. Whoever does not love obviously does not know the God is Jesus.

When St. John says today that God is love, he doesn’t mean that God is analogous to whatever the two of you feel today. Ask any married person, feelings are fleeting. I like to tell people about to be married: the ability to love your enemy is often the necessary precondition to loving your spouse. If that strikes you as unromantic, I can make it even worse. Consider, the vows you two make today derive from ancient monastic vows; that is, the promises you two make to each other derive from the promises made by single people who pledge poverty and chastity to Christ and his Church. Not very romantic.

When St. John tells us that “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” his point is not that your feelings of love are akin to God. His point is that Christ, who was God seen, in the flesh, the image of the invisible in whose image therefore you are made, is the measure of the love you two promise one another. This is why the marriage rite tonight begins with Jesus. 

The ancient rite doesn’t begin naturally. 

The ancient rite doesn’t proclaim— as you might expect— that Adam and Eve give us the example for marriage; it says Jesus gives us the example for married love. But Jesus was single and spent most of his time hanging out with twelve other single dudes. 

That Jesus is your example of married love, the prayerbook says, which changes how we often think about marriage.

If the unmarried Jesus is the example for marriage then marriage— Christian marriage— is not about bearing children but about bearing witness.

It’s not about procreation but about proclamation.

This is because what secures the future of the world now is not our progeny but the promise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

As the Book of Common Prayer paraphrases St. Paul: “Marriage signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” The marriage of Christ and the Church is not a metaphor. The marriage of Christ and the Church is the real marriage, to which starting today, your marriage points. So maybe Jesus isn’t such a bad example for married love after all.

When you step back and understand what St. Paul says in Ephesians, you realize that the reason Jesus is single is because for every (Christian) married couple, Christ is your bridegroom. 

To take scripture seriously then is to understand that every marriage— every Christian marriage— like the Trinity in whose name we wed, is a three-personed affair.  It’s not just the two who say “I do” but also Christ for whom both spouses are his bride. That’s why Jesus calls his Spirit the Paraclete. 

Para, in Greek, means “alongside.”

Indeed Christ in his Holy Spirit coming alongside of you two, the bridegroom making your marriage a threesome, is your only hope if your marriage is to yield the fruit we heard Paul describe in Ephesians. We can only love, as St. John writes, because he first loved us. We cannot on our own muster up love that is patient and humble. Paul isn’t giving advice there to the married folks in Ephesians. Paul is describing the fruit grown in us— not by us but by our marriage to Christ who is our Bridegroom. 

The Apostle Paul tends to get a bad rap from readers who read badly, but when Paul turns to the meaning and mission of marriage he does not associate marriage with the creation of children nor does he associate marriage with the complementarity of men and women.

No, when it comes to marriage Paul turns to typology. Paul says that by your daily undeserved “I dos” and by your desire for one another, you signify the mystery— the word Paul uses there is sacrament— of Christ’s union with us. 

Your marriage is a sacrament within a still larger sacrament. 

And a sacrament, as we say in the Church, is a means of grace. Your marriage today, therefore, does not justify your love. Your marriage today does not make your love official. Starting today, your marriage is the means of your love’s grace. 

Marriage is one of the chief places where we, as Christians, pay one another’s debts, forgive one another’s trespasses, and walk many miles in each other’s shoes. Marriage is where we learn to love the ungodly, welcome the stranger you call you, and to lay down our lives. In marriage, we suffer with and substitute for one another. 

The wedding of the Lamb— to which your wedding today points—and the blood of the Lamb, in other words, are inseparable. 

To put one’s body on the line in friendship with another, for better and worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part— to commit your loving actions in spite of all the conditions that will work to extinguish your loving feelings— marriage is a means where Christians daily and incarnately live out and partake in the cruciform love by which Christ re-befriends the world; that is to say:

Marriage makes a home a hospital

where Christ the Great Physician can make sinners well

by the constancy and forgiveness of a spouse. 

Or, as St. John says in his letter, through our love of one another, Christ’s love heals us. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus saves some of his darkest, harshest rhetoric for those who refuse to celebrate the wedding of those whom God has joined together. 

Becauses there’s no reason to refuse the celebration, for the only qualification any of us must meet to enter the marriage supper of the lamb called the Kingdom of Heaven is our faith alone. Not a one of us gets in by the goodness of our deeds or the rightness of our doctrine. We are justified in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. Saying “I do” to the Bridegroom is all any of us, sinner or saint, gotta do to gain entry into the party.

Speaking of marriage suppers—

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to a wedding but to a wedding feast. Jesus likens the Kingdom not to a wedding’s couple but to the whole party. That’s because you’re not the only people making promises today. 

There are three vows in the marriage rite not two. 

Not only do you two commit vows to God and to one another, those gathered here today— they too pledge to God uphold you in your love and to hold you accountable to the promises you offer each other. 

And where there is one who gives a promise of love and another who receives a promise of love and still another— all of you— who witness and bless and celebrate their promise of love— one, two, three— like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.

No one has ever seen God apart from Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, but today, you two along with all of us partygoers here become a parable of how the prodigal God loves us as God loves God. 

Amen.

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.

“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction. 

“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”

And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.” 

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” 

Here’s another question—

Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you. 

Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear? 

Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?

Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.

Except for the fear.

Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon. 

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner. 

When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified. 

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

      Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve. 

     And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection: 

“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”

It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom. 

But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.

The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness. 

Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved. 

Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate. 

———————-

They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand. 

They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard. 

And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection. 

“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be 

perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.” 

When they weren’t—

When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People. 

First, God sent them prophets. 

And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?

Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.

So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another. 

A final prophet. 

And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers. 

Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.

Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion. 

After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done.  God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”

His own disciples—

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him. 

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?

Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.

For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.

If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them. 

But no—

When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon. 

“Peace,” he says. 

When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them. 

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them. 

Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him. 

Three times. 

A do-over:

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous. 

The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified. 

But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve. 

They receive what only he deserves.

As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.

———————-

Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target. 

It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May. 

Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation. 

I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.

A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?” 

Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.  

“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled. 

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger. 

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”

The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful. 

“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté. 

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop. 

“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?” 

I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?” 

No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat. 

“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.” 

He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him. 

“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”

He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now. 

“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?” 

“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me. 

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word. 

“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.

“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief.  Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.  

“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”

It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.

But I didn’t care.

Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.

———————-

“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross. 

You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand. 

The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross. 

When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law. 

The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” 

He’s talking about the cross. 

It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.” 

The cross is our judgment. 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus. 

And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.” 

That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today. 

Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.

All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it. 

That’s it. 

And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.” 

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone. 

On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn. 

After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.” 

No matter who you are or what you’ve done. 

There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works. 

There is therefore now no judgment.

Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked. 

Forsaken. 

For you. 

What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable. 

God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness. 

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved. 

In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment. 

You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe. 

 

     

 

We started a new sermon series on Jesus’ parables that will take us through the summer. First up, Matthew 18.21-35, the parable of the unforgiving slave.

 I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

     “Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused. 

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

     She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red. 

     No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts. 

     “Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”

     She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed. 

     “It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

     “Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair. 

     “Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said. 

     “Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head. 

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

     And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent. 

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

     And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’

    “No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”

“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked. 

She nodded.  

“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath. 

“What was that?” 

“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.

     “I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”

And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted: 

“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered 

unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!” 

Just kidding. 

But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see. 

———————-

When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. 

     Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer. 

After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection. 

Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:

Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance. 

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question. 

How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?

How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

     And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one. 

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”

No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important. 

Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister. 

———————-

By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed,  God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns. 

Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times. 

If you don’t get this, you won’t get it. 

When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin. 

Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless. 

Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity. 

I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again. 

What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done. 

And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us). 

Think about it—

When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another. 

The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten. 

“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“ 

As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.

Ten thousand talents worth. 

The key to this entire text today is in the numbers. 

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.  

In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup. 

What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.

“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”

“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.” 

     Ten thousand talents. 

It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.” 

I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?

This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven. 

Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation. 

This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.  

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life. 

Remember the amount. 

It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies. 

In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger. 

The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one. 

     But notice. 

     After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score?

    No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU. 

    He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

     When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants. 

You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture. 

You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see. 

———————-

“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.

     I sipped my coffee. 

“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”

And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:

“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”

She bit her lip. 

“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”

And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her: 

“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure. 

But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”

She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes. 

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.” 

“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”

And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.

———————-

The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger. 

Admit it—

Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

    People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book. 

  Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you. 

Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?” 

No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death. 

You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus. 

And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today. 

Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread 

And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:

The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive. 

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious. 

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.

           

Explaining Easter

Jason Micheli —  April 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 20.1-18 — Easter 2019

Morning has broken— like the first morning of what St. Paul calls the Second Aeon.  It’s the first day of God’s new creation and already, just three days since they’d all sworn at the last supper never to forsake him, the Church is down to one member. 

Mary Magdalene.

Only Mary has come— as the Jewish Law requires— to sit shiva with the body of her dead rabbi. The reason they anoint Jesus’ dead body with oils and perfumes is because the Law requires them to sit with his dead body for seven stinking days. Only Mary comes to sit shiva as they all should under the Law. 

According to the Law, in order to sit shiva with the dead, the mourner must wear a keriah, an outer robe that will be torn in ritual lamentation. According to the Law, in order for shiva to commence the grave of the dead must be completely covered with earth or stone. But the Law leaves unsaid the obvious. You can’t sit shiva with the dead in their tomb if the dead ain’t there. That’s why Mary becomes upset a vandal has stolen his body. Without him, she can’t do what the Law requires she do for him. 

So when Mary sees the stone that had sealed Jesus in his grave— a stone which, mind you, bore Caesar’s image— rolled away, she guesses the worst. 

She runs to get Peter and the Beloved Disciple. 

And they rush to the new hewn tomb. 

They crawl into the grave. 

And they see it’s empty. 

And they see the linen with which Nicodemus had wrapped his body. 

And they see the cloth that had covered his thorn-cut head— folded neatly now. 

But they don’t see him. 

His body. His speared and spat-upon body. His crucified body. 

They don’t see him.

Not seeing is believing, John says. 

The disciples enter the tomb and they see that it’s empty. The disciples enter his tomb and they don’t see him. And they believe, John says. 

They believe. 

And, why not?

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

Remember a little over a week ago the disciples had witnessed Jesus wrest his friend Lazarus, who’d been four days dead, from the grave. “Lazarus, come out!” Christ had commanded the corpse, as sure and certain as God Almighty saying “Let there be light!” 

Why shouldn’t they believe? 

They’d seen his power over the Power of Death. They already had, therefore, everything they needed to know that he had power over those Powers who derived their power from the fear of Death.  And now, not seeing is believing. 

“They believed,” John says matter-of-factly. 

They believed that the one who declared to Lazarus’ grief-stricken sister “I am the Resurrection” had been resurrected. They believed that the One who had promised “I am Life” had put Death to death. 

“They believed,” John reports, “and then they went back home.” 

———————-

Wait— hold up— they went back home? 

What in the hell are they thinking?

Was there a Jerusalem United game kicking off soon? Did they have to get back to check out King Herod’s latest tweet storm? 

“The disciples saw and they believed…and then they went back home,” John says. 

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing the Gospel good news that Death has been undone, that the Power of Sin has been defeated— and with it, all your sins (past, present, future) forgiven, gratis, forgotten forever in his grave. Can you imagine hearing that the crucified and risen Christ is Lord, not of your heart but all of creation. Can you imagine hearing that God has vindicated everything he said and did and taught, for when God raises him up from the grave, God also exalts with him— in him— everything he said and did and taught; such that, now the sermon on the mount isn’t just some rabbi’s strategy for the world. No, the resurrection of this particular rabbi reveals that his cheek-turning, enemy-loving forgiveness is the very grain of the universe.

Can you even imagine?

Can you imagine hearing and believing the Gospel, and then just going home for brunch? 

Who does that? 

What would Jesus think of such people if he were still alive?

The Son who emptied himself of heaven, forsook his Father’s inheritance, and journeyed into the Far Country of Sin and Death. He was lost but now is found. He was dead and now he’s not dead for never again. He’s come back to the Father and to his brothers, and they just go home? Where’s the fatted calf?

The prodigal has been ransomed from the Pharaoh of Sin and Death by the God who raised Israel from bondage in Egypt. 

He is risen. 

And they what, go home?

This was centuries before GameofThrones so what’s their excuse? 

The victory is won. The battle is over. The war is ended. The clock on the Old Age has run down, St. Paul says.The Enemy— Sin, Death, and the Devil— is defeated, Paul says. It is finished, just as he said.

And now they’ve got to be getting on?

They believed, John says. 

He hadn’t vanished into memory. He’d been remembered by God. God had vindicated his life— his way of life— by resurrecting it from Death and rendering unto this King what belongs to God alone. Everything. God’s given him all dominion.

Easter is the answer to all of Good Friday’s questions. 

“What is truth?” Pilate had asked him before washing his hands of his death.

Now, the answer is as obvious as the shroud folded neatly next to where his dead body no longer lays— he is the Truth and the Way and the Life God gives back from the grave.

“Are you the king of the Jews” Pilate asked on Friday. 

“You say so,” Jesus had said to him. 

But now, God says so too. By undoing Death and rolling away the rock stamped with that other king’s face, God repeats himself: “This is my Beloved Son, what’s it gonna take for you to listen to him!” 

“You forgive sins?” the chief priests had asked, incredulous, “Only God can forgive sins!” 

On Friday Christ stood silent, but today the stones of his empty tomb cry out: Yep, only God can forgive sins. 

It’s Easter that answers Friday’s questions; which is to say, the cross has no meaning apart from the empty tomb. His death is empty if his tomb is not, if God has not resurrected him from the dead.  

These two disciples— they believed God had resurrected him, John says. 

But then they go back home. 

———————-

What a strange way to tell you the story if it’s just a story John aims to tell you. 

These two disciples seem almost as stupid as those other two disciples in Luke’s Gospel, who say they’ve heard the good news that Jesus, having been crucified, had been raised by God from the dead, yet they’re on the road home to Emmaus. 

I mean, you’ve got to wonder how people as dumb and dull as the disciples could have ever concocted something like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

For the record— 

Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names have been lost to history. Remember too that the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in a man’s resurrection. Take those two facts together, and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Of course, we’d prefer, like those two disciples, to see for ourselves, or, like Thomas, we’d rather even to touch his wounds— to hold the evidence of resurrection in our hands. 

Seeing is believing, we say; except, John in his Gospel has already told you that seeing is not necessarily believing. 

Just a week before his crucifixion, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, John reported that a whole crowd of Jews witnessed the miracle firsthand. And some of them believed, John said. But as many did not believe and immediately then went to the chief priests to hasten his murder. 

Seeing is not necessarily believing, John warns us. 

Nevertheless, not seeing for ourselves— if we’re honest with ourselves— we suspect the resurrection story must’ve gotten hatched. Not seeing for ourselves, we’re tempted to think it must’ve happened something like this. 

The disciples began to remember together their time with Jesus: 

Wasn’t it exciting? Remember when he threw that Temple tantrum and flipped over all the money-changers’ tables? And then there were all those miracles, lepers and Lazarus. His teachings— they really gave you something to think about, didn’t they? 

You know, just thinking about it now makes you feel like he’s still here with us. If we just remember him, it’ll be like he never left. Yes, he’s never truly gone— he’s never really dead— if we keep him alive in our hearts.

Even though that’s not Christianity (actually, it’s Spock’s death scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), we’re tempted to think this kind of post-crucifixion conversation happened. 

Of course our suspicions that such a conversation took place among the disciples only prove that we are like those disciples; that is, like the two disciples here in John’s Gospel and like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we would like to get on with our lives as though resurrection does not mean that the world has been turned upside down. 

We’d like to be able to celebrate Christ’s empty tomb, but then go on living with the assumptions and the habits that sustain our lives in a world that neither sees nor believes. 

This is Church, the one place we’re free to tell the truth, so let’s be honest. 

The reason we’re tempted to explain the resurrection is because we don’t want to live in a world turned upside down by resurrection, for if the grave is empty, then it’s people who bear crosses not people who build them who are working with the grain of the universe. 

In other words, explanations for the resurrection are the way we, like Mary Magdalene, attempt to keep a hold on Jesus. 

We hold out, wanting an explanation for the resurrection, as a way to keep a hold on Jesus in order to keep him from demolishing the world we’ve made in our image. 

Because if God really has vindicated this rabbifrom the grave, then that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do. 

So often we attempt to explain the resurrection as a way of keeping a hold on Jesus. 

Because if he’s not really risen indeed, then we don’t need to bother about what Mary calls him here and what John calls him fourteen times in the final chapters of his Gospel. 

———————-

Fourteen times— that’s no accident; that’s the Jewish number for perfection. 

Fourteen times— John all but tells you point blank: 

Pay attention, readers, this is the point of the resurrection. 

Fourteen times— John, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and eventually event Peter call him— fourteentimes— they call him Lord.

Kurios.

Lord over all. 

That’s no incidental piety in a world where the pledge of allegiance was “Caesar is Lord.”

Notice— the climax of the story— Mary Magdalene doesn’t rush from the empty tomb saying “I have seen a miracle!”  She certainly doesn’t say I have seen a metaphor for springtime renewal or I have seen a symbol for life after death. She damn sure doesn’t rush from the grave that is empty asking Who knows how to draw a butterfly?

No, instead of sitting shiva, she runs saying “I have seen the Lord,” God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Fourteen times, after he comes out of the grave, alive again, someone comes out and confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord.

You see—

The Gospels are not interested in explaining how Jesus came to be resurrected. The Gospels are instead interested in explaining how Mary Magdalene et al came to worship Jesus as Lord.

By definition, we cannot explain the resurrection. 

Think about it— if there was an underlying theory that explained the resurrection, then we should worship that theory and not the godforsaken son of Mary.

The Gospels do not— cannot— explain Easter. 

But the point of the Gospels is that Easter explains us—the particular, peculiar people called Church. 

For as St. Paul says in his Gospel announcement, if Easter is not true— if the crucified Jesus is not the Risen Lord— then, of all the people in the world, we are the most pathetic; which is to say, Easter dares us as Christians to live lives that make no sense if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead and made him Lord.

Easter dares us to live lives that are unintelligible if the one who taught us to bless those who curse us and to forgive— even love— our enemies is not the Living Lord. 

———————-

What does that mean?

What does that look like?

Victoria Ruvolo joined the company of heaven two weeks ago at the age of 59. You may remember hearing about her in the news 15 years ago. In 2004, Victoria had been watching her niece sing in a recital and was driving home on Portion Road on Long Island. Her friend Louis Erali sat next to her in the passenger seat of her Hyundai. 

As Victoria’s car approached from the opposite direction a car with three teenagers, one of the teenagers, Ryan Cushing, threw a twenty pound frozen turkey (purchased with a stolen credit card) through the open window of the back seat. The turkey crashed through Victoria Ruvolo’s windshield, crushing the bones in her skull, caving in her esophagus, and traumatizing her brain. 

Only after a year’s worth of surgeries could she return to work. 

Authorities had wanted to prosecute Ryan Cushing for first degree assault and other offenses, which would have given him over twenty years in prison. But Victoria Ruvolo wanted to forgive him. 

At his sentencing hearing, Victoria gave a statement in which she said: “Vengeance does not belong to me. It belongs to Christ the Lord, and he teaches me that I should forgive you.”

Ryan Cushing served six months. 

Prosecutors and many in the public thought his sentence and her gesture of grace ridiculous.

Hearing the news of her death, Ryan Cushing told the New York Times: 

“Her ability to forgive me, when forgiving me made no sense at all, it had a profound effect on me. It changed my life.”

Her surviving sister, meanwhile, told the press: 

“Not all of us would be that way, but that’s how Victoria was…she’s a Christian…she’s an example of forgiveness in a vengeful world.” 

When it comes to resurrection, it’s not about explanation. When it comes to resurrection, it’s about exemplification. 

She’s an example, Victoria’s sister could’ve said, of the people that God, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, has put into the world. She’s an example of the people that God has created out of the nothingness of an empty tomb to live lives that look ridiculous— maybe even wreckless— if Christ is not risen indeed. 

And if it’s true what the Bible promises, that Christ has been raised for our justification— that is, for us to be in the right with God, with all our sins forever swallowed up in the black hole of God’s own forgetting— then when God raises Jesus Christ from the dead God, in God’s patience, literally gives us all the time in the world to learn how to live lives that can be explained only by the resurrection.

Good Friday: The Seven Last Words

The First Word

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

One of my friends, a member of my former church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Bob was on a group text thread with his cross-country and track runners as they fled. 

And bled.

Bob messaged me the night of the shooting to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery. He asked me to pray for them. He asked me to add them to the church’s prayer list. “Pray for Maddie,” he texted, “she has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered.”

I saw the text bubbles bounce on the screen of my iPhone as Bob typed more I couldn’t see until it came all at once:

“I’m not in denial or shock. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did. Don’t talk to me about forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t enough. How does forgiveness make this right? There has to be a cost. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Just before the soldiers strip him naked and shoot dice for his clothes, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” 

We of course believe such a prayer for the Father’s forgiveness sounds like something Jesus would pray to the Father; after all, we take Jesus to be so patient and kind a teacher of love that, if we’re honest, we’re not sure why anyone wanted to kill Jesus. 

Yet our presumptions about Jesus don’t square with what Jesus says immediately before Jesus prays “Father, forgive them for they not what they’re doing.” 

On his way to be crucified at the place called The Skull, Jesus turns around to face the crowds who taunt him from behind.  

Don’t forget— this happened on the sabbath, on a passover weekend. 

Like Americans who took picnic baskets to watch the slaughter of Civil War battles, these crowds who mock him have chosen to spend their holiday by turning his torture into an entertainment.

And Jesus unloads on them in a way that sounds unlike the Jesus we think we know: 

“Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore.””

Blessed will be the barren— Jesus’ words are uncharacteristically harsh, especially so if Jesus is right that they know not what they are doing. 

But is Jesus right to impute ignorance to them? 

It certainly seems like they knew what they were doing. 

And Judas and Peter too. 

Ditto the clergy and the soldiers and Pontius Pilate— if Pilate didn’t know what he was doing, then why did he wash his hands of the whole affair?

No matter what Jesus says from the cross, they all know precisely what they’re doing; for that matter, that they all know what they’re doing— that is, the fact that their sin is not unwitting sin— is precisely why Jesus is on the cross. 

This is important—

All those obscure sacrifice rituals prescribed to Israel in Leviticus and Numbers, all those passages that frustrate every sincere effort to read the Bible cover to cover— if you ever get through them all, you might notice the attribute that holds them in common. 

All those sacrifices in the Old Testament were given for Israel to atone for unintended sin. The only atonement mechanism available in the Old Testament was for the sin you did when you didn’t know what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. There is no mechanism in the Old Testament for the forgiveness of sin when you knew exactly what you were doing. 

There is no sacrifice that makes atonement for deliberate sin. 

Not one. 

Until now. 

This is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews means when it describes Christ’s cross as the sacrifice for sin, once for all. For unwitting sin and for willful sin. This is the shock of the Apostle Paul’s announcement that while we were yet (willful) sinners Christ died for us. 

For us. 

For the ungodly, Paul preaches.

A sacrifice for the sin you sinned when you knew exactly what you were doing.

So it matters not whether Jesus is right or wrong about them knowing not what they do, for he himself is the final form of forgiveness for all wrong, witting and unwitting. 

Those like my friend Bob are right. There is indeed a cost to be paid for the wrong we wreak in the world. The God who says “vengeance is mine” bears that cost in his body, turning the other cheek all the way to a cross. 

It matters not if the people for whom Jesus prays knew or knew not what they were doing. 

The matter that matters is what the Father is doing in Jesus, for the Jesus who prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

Jesus is the Father’s prayer for the world. 

And the people formed by him who is the Father’s prayer, the people that God puts into the world to be shaped patiently by his forgiveness and peace, they are God’s answer to the prayers of people like Bob, crying out for the wrong we wreak to be made right.

That is to say—

God’s justice is Jesus.

The Second Word 

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Christian de Cherge was a French Catholic monk in charge of an abbey in Algeria. 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. 

Anticipating his murder— he was beheaded by radicals in 1996– Christian left a testament with his family to be opened upon his death. 

His letter is a moving sacrament to our faith, which he concludes 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. Amen! Insha Allah!”

Now consider—

If Christian de Cherge expresses hope that he’ll meet his murderer in paradise, the two of them thick as thieves by God’s grace, we likely judge it a beautiful gesture of faith. 

Flip it—

If the murderer asks the monk “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” and if the latter promises the former “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise—my Paradise” how would we judge the exchange? 

Likely, we’d think the criminal a fool, asking a rabbi for what’s not his to grant, and I suspect we’d say worse about the rabbi making promises upon which only God can deliver upon. 

We’d chalk both of them up as crazy, foolish heretics.

Both Luke and John, who give us this second word from the cross, would want us to hear the irony in the exchange. 

Jesus is nailed to a tree, not only helpless but, according to God’s own Law, godforsaken (which is why all his friends abandon him), and yet— the makeshift sign above his head has him right— he reigns from his cross as a King, granting admission to his Kingdom to…who exactly?

Most translations say that Jesus dies alongside two “common criminals” but, in Luke, Pilate tells you all you need to know. 

The two crucified with Jesus— and so, presumably Jesus also—  have been convicted of “perverting the people,” the term used by Pilate for insurrectionists. 

The two crucified with Jesus are zealots, activists who believed the Kingdom of God could be achieved by arms, making it all the more ironic that the unmerited admission they receive into that Kingdom comes from Jesus, the King who takes up a cross rather than a sword.

Though Luke would have us understand the revolutionary at Christ’s side as having been unfaithful in much, here he is faithful in more: “Jesus,” he asks, “remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” 

Only a Jew schooled in the psalms would know to ask that question of the crucified Jesus. Such a Jew schooled in the psalms would know also the problematic nature of a cross-bearing King. 

Like Paul, such a Jew would recall that according to the Mosaic Law crucifixion identified the crucified as accursed by God— this is why his own disciples have all abandoned him. 

They’ve done so not because they believe his Kingdom mission ended in failure; they’ve done so because they believe by their own scriptures that his Kingdom mission has ended in godforsakeness. 

This is why the two disciples on their way home to Emmaus— two disciples who, Luke makes sure to tell us, have heard the Easter news— don’t hasten to his empty grave. 

Resurrection or not, they’re too godfearing to have anything to do with a crucified King. 

And this is why the Risen Jesus, when he encounters them incognito on the way to Emmaus, must re-teach them the entire Bible. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke tells, “Jesus taught to them the things about himself in all of the scriptures.”

“Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Knowing what this Jew knows of the Bible, about the accursed nature of crucifixion, this is something more than a foolish request. 

The question only makes sense if Jesus can fulfill such a request. 

This thief beside him can already see what those two on the road to Emmaus require the Risen Christ to reveal. 

The crucified Jesus is the promised one to redeem Israel and through Israel, the world. 

This thief, schooled as he is to look past the cross to discover the King, likely would know he’s not put the question precisely right by asking Jesus “Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your Kingdom?” 

Such a Jew would know the Kingdom of God is not a place— a point Jesus has attempted to make in parable after parable. 

The Kingdom of God is not a where but a who. The Kingdom of God is not a place but a person. Of course, this is why Jesus can grant his request. 

The crucified Christ is not only the King. 

The crucified Christ is the Kingdom. “I am the Resurrection and the Life [eternal]” he tells his friend’s grief-stricken sister. Jesus is paradise. 

This happy thief beside Jesus has already received the answer to his prayer.

The Third Word 

“Woman, behold thy son! 

    When first she learned of God’s mercy made flesh in her belly, ex nihilo, Mary erupts into song: 

“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

Every line of Mary’s song is laden with the scripture Mary would’ve learned as a girl. 

She sings not because God has given her a child but she sings because of what that child will mean. She praises God for cracking open the heavens and pouring out justice upon a world thirsty for it. 

She extols the Father for the Son, her son, will be the One to relieve the proud and powerful of their swelled self-importance and he will be the One to fill the poor with more than money can buy. 

It’s a dangerous song. 

It’s a seditious song. 

It’s a cry from the bottom of the social ladder.        

     Except when Mary hears the news that she is to be a Second Eve bearing the New Adam, Mary takes all the future-tense “wills” of her Bible and she puts them in the past perfect tense for her song. 

She takes all the promises from her scripture and sings of them as though they were as good as done. 

She takes the hopes of her people and sings of them as having already been accomplished: “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

To sing such a song spontaneously can only mean that someone taught Mary the song— Hannah’s song— making it likely that Mary taught Jesus to sing too “He has lifted up the lowly, and he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” 

But now his disciples have all scatteed and Mary is brought low, watching as her boy is lifted up on a cross to be emptied and sent away from this world by the proud and the powerful still in their thrones. 

Mary watches as they fill his hungry mouth not with good things but gall. “He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary had sang, but now she watches as they break his bones to quicken his death because the passover sabbath is hastening. 

When he was twelve, she’d lost her boy on the journey home after they’d celebrated the passover in Jerusalem. 

She loses him again in Jerusalem during the passover.

Only, this passover Mary’s firstborn son is the lamb. 

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is taken away from her by the sins of the world.

The blood of the passover lamb is sprinkled not on the doorpost but on a cross. 

The passover script always begins with the children asking the parents “What does this mean?” but now Mary likely is the one asking that question of the Father. 

“What’s the meaning of this!?”

Unlike Isaac for Sarah, there’s no ram hidden in a bush. 

The Father who is the Son does not spare himself the sacrifice.

Standing there amidst the mob, hearing him cry out that God’s forsaken him and beholding him naked and bleeding from having told Caiphas and Pilate and all the priests and Pharisee that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority— as she beholds him, I imagine Mary wishes she’d never taught the Son to sing “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts/he has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.” 

The Fourth Word

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  Fill in the blanks:

If I say “The Lord is my shepherd…”

You say___________.

If I say “Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…”

What do you say next?

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and…”

And what?

Almost everyone knows the twenty-third psalm by heart. It’s like “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. 

You hear it everywhere— certainly almost every time someone dies. 

So what would Mark have us make of this line from Psalm 22 when Jesus dies “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Does Jesus stop believing on the cross? 

Or rather, does his cry of anguish suggest that Jesus believes God has abandoned him?

You know the twenty-third psalm from memory because you’ve had occassion to hear it and recite it over and over again. 

But what if I told you that, as Jews, the audience gathered at Golgotha would’ve had all 150 psalms committed to memory. 

As Jews, they would’ve sung the psalms, working their way in order, a minimum of three times a day. The psalms were an integral part of the daily office. The psalms were taught to children, orally, from before the children could form for themselves the harsh consonants of Hebrew. 

The Jews at the foot of his cross would’ve recognized the psalter’s line about godforsakeness. They would’ve known the song that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” like I stubbornly know all the words to Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” 

They would’ve known  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first line from the twenty-second psalm. 

And they would’ve known the next line of the psalm sings: “Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” 

Christians typically reads Jesus’ cry of forsakenness to proof-text an interpretation of Christ’s substitutionary death as penal; that is, we hear this verse of song as suggesting that our sin must be particularly serious and the Father’s wrath especially serious for the Son to suffer even the suffering of complete godforsakeness. 

God has abandoned Jesus, we conclude, just as God would abandon sinful were it not for Jesus, the vicarious sinner. 

Jesus on the cross is alone in the most existential possibility of the word, we imagine, he’s experiencing something worse than betrayal and torture, the sheer and total separation from God that is rightly due all of us woebegone sinners. 

But as all the Jews who heard Jesus would surely know “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is only the first line of Israel’s twenty-second psalm. They could’ve sung the rest of Psalm 22 right along with Jesus, and maybe those near the cross that Friday.

Jesus’ listeners would’ve known this psalm which begins with godforsakeness ends—it builds towards is more like it— on a different note entirely. 

The psalm that begins with an anguished cry of godabandonment concludes with confidence in God’s vindication: 

“You who fear the Lord, praise him!

For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It is not Christ’s final cry from the depths of a suffering we sinners deserve. 

It is the first line of Christ’s faithful affirmation that Death is being defeated, and that his faithful life unto death— even death on a cross— will be vindicated. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

It’s not hell made audible. 

It’s an overture to Easter.

The Fifth Word

“I thirst.”

The first bedside where I ever sat watch and waited for death to take someone: it was at a hospital outside of Philadelphia. 

     I was just a student pastor at the time.

All I knew of death came from books. 

     He was an old man. His name was on the church roll, but he’d never really been a part of the congregation. I hadn’t even met him before.  I didn’t know what I was doing. 

I was prepared for all sorts of highbrow, wide-ranging philosophical conversations about life after death. The way I had imagined it in the car— it would be something like Tuesdays with Morrie but with a little Kierkegaard and John 14 thrown in for good measure. 

     I didn’t know enough to know that discussions like those are for the living. 

The dying, literally, can’t waste their breath on speculation. 

     I sat next to him in his hospital room for what felt like hours and I held the cold, translucent skin of his hand in mine.  

     In the hours I kept vigil with him all he ever had the strength to say was: ‘I’m thirsty.’ 

So instead of giving him my wisdom on eternal life, I gave him some water.  

     Instead of offering absolution, or even a prayer, I offered him a drink- with a pink sponge at the end of a white, plastic straw on cracked dry lips that barely had the strength to open. 

      “God I’m thirsty,” he said in a rasp that rattled out from somewhere hollow in his chest. “I’m so thirsty.”

In the garden last night, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter drew a sword, hoping to resist them. 

And Jesus rebuked Peter: “The cup the Father has given me,” says Jesus, “am I not to drink it?” 

     Now, on the cross, Jesus says he wants a drink.  And he says it, John tells us, “to fulfill scripture.” But, which scripture exactly?

Some say— 

     Jesus intends to fulfill Psalm 69. 

     Psalm 69 is a poem for all those who suffer unjustly, and in the twenty-first verse of the Psalm the poet writes: “…for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink…’

     Others say—

     It’s Psalm 22 again that Jesus fulfills. That same Psalm laments “I am poured out like water/my mouth is dried up like clay/and my tongue sticks to my jaws/you lay me in the dust of death.”

     Of course, the answer is all of the above. 

Jesus intends to fulfill all of it. Not just Psalm 69 or 22 or 42 or 102. 

     

But all of it. All of it from Genesis to Golgotha, from “Let there be light” to “Let not your hearts be troubled. And everything in between.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.” 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” 

The blood of Jesus, says Luke, “makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.” 

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was “destined since before the foundation of the world.”

     The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. 

When Jesus says “I thirst” everything God has ever intended is at last coming together. 

     It’s just two words: I, thirst. 

     But it’s everything. 

     And it CLAIMS everything. 

     I spent a year working as a chaplain at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Altogether there were probably ten or so chaplains, and we all came from different traditions.       

     

     In our training, we were told the policy of the chaplaincy department was that we must never impose our personal religious beliefs on a patient. Actually, we weren’t even encouraged to share our beliefs with patients. Instead we were expected to practice a “ministry of presence.” 

Not until you’re older and know what you’re doing do you realize that such a ministry of presence is what Stanley Hauerwas means when he says “Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     As chaplains we were expected to treat faith as something that was only useful. 

We were not expected to treat faith as something that might be true. 

     Every week or so I had to work an overnight shift as the on-call chaplain. 

I remember one night. It was well-past midnight and my pager summoned me to the CCU: a man in his sixties had suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. When I arrived at his room, he was unconscious and surrounded by beeping monitors. 

    His wife was sitting next to him. Just like I’d been trained, I offered comfort. I empathized. I asked open-ended questions, and I helped her process the swell of emotions she was experiencing. 

     

She had an insistent sort of Southern accent. And I remember how she said she wasn’t afraid of her husband dying. She didn’t want him to suffer and, sure, she wanted more time with him, but that she wasn’t afraid of him dying. 

     And like a good chaplain, I asked her what she meant. 

     

She explained how Jesus’ death on the cross had defeated Death so even if her husband couldn’t be with her, she knew he’d be with God. 

     Like a good chaplain, I said: “Is that what’s true for you?”

     And she looked up at me and sort of raised her eyebrow and said: “True for me? Son, the way I see it— the Gospel’s like gravity. It’s true for all or it’s true not at all.”

     With Jesus’ “I thirst,” John wants to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. For the healing of the world. 

    The cross lays some uncomfortable claims on us. 

     You see— if the Gospel is true— it’s not simply true for me or true for you. 

It’s the true story about the world and everybody in the world. 

It’s the truth that from before creation began the heart of God has been bent towards the cross and that in Jesus’ self-giving love on the cross we witness as much of God as there is ever to see. 

Of course, the rub is that if the non-violent love of Christ reveals the grain of the universe, then there is no way we can truthfully resort to coercion to convince others of that truth.

The Sixth Word

“It is finished.”

It’s important that Jesus announces “It is finished” in the Gospel of John, for its in that Gospel that John litters the story of Jesus’ passion on passover to allusions to another holy day, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

     According to the instructions God gives to Moses in the Book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest who represents all of God’s people. After the minutiae of necessary preparation, the high priest is brought two goats. 

Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done. 

     One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple— the Father’s house— of sin. 

     The second goat is brought to him alive. 

     The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel. 

The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat. 

     And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death. 

         Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin. Yom Kippur is about God wanting to remove your sin. 

     The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry God. It’s about God removing that which separates us from God.     

     While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.       

     When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness. 

So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. 

Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job. 

     That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin. The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’ 

     Ahzahzel means “taking away.” 

    The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’ 

     Take it away. Take our sin away. 

John’s Gospel places Jesus’ death on the passover— that’s why there’s no last supper in John’s Gospel, for Jesus is the passover lamb. 

     But it’s not as simple as that. 

     John’s Gospel tells you the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement. 

     The Gospel shows you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom? The high priest. 

     The Gospel shows you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when, in reality, all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him. 

     The Gospel shows you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this “King of the Jews.” Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it. 

     The Gospel tells you that the calendar says Passover, but what John shows you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd. And Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus? What do the crowds shout? Not “Crucify him!” Not at first. 

     First, the crowds shout “Take him away!”

     Then they shout “Crucify him!” 

     Ahzahzel 

     And then he’s led away, like an animal, to Golgotha, a godforsaken garbage dump. 

     John’s Gospel tell you its Passover, but what John shows you isn’t just a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat, one who, as John the Baptist said, ahzahzels the sins of the world.

         Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off. 

And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin. 

     However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white. The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. 

     According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat. The whole process of atonement stopped working. 

     It was no longer effective, says the Talmud. 

     70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD. 

     In other words….

     Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working. 

     Says the Talmud. 

     Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly. 

     Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all. 

There’s a reason you don’t see any goats around here— it is finished. 

The Seventh Word

“Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

“And having said this,” Luke concludes for us, “Jesus breathed his last.”

Or, as the King James Version puts it: “Having said thus, Jesus gave up the ghost.”

Just as it sounds odd to hear that in her belly Mary bore the Maker of Heaven and Earth, it should strike us as every bit as odd to hear that Jesus Christ is dead. 

John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that no one can see the Father apart from the Son, which means when Jesus is dead, God is as good as gone. 

Jesus has told us that he alone is the way, the truth, and the life— that no one can come to the Father except by the Son— but now his way has led him to a cross. 

His way has been done away by the way of the world.

God is dead.

Elected over Barabbas, Jesus becomes the persecuted for righteousness’ sake. 

Giving up his spirit, Jesus becomes the poor in spirit.     

Dying on a cross, Jesus becomes the Beautitudes.

The Beautitudes are Jesus. 

And we are the antitheses.

In all our theologizing about the story, we conveniently forget— Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. 

The people who get Jesus to give up the ghost— Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem— they were all from the best of society not the worst. 

     And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. Even the chief priests’ reasoning, if we admit it, is right: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” 

That’s a perfectly rational position. 

It’s the position around which we’ve ordered the way of the world. 

     The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. 

     

     But in the end, what Luke gives us is different, plainer and more troubling. 

Luke gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. 

     The theologians give us theories about why Jesus had to die, but Luke just leaves us with Jesus giving up the ghost and wondering if the cross is the best we can do? 

Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to push him out of the world on a cross? 

     Luke gives us the painful irony—

Those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in. 

     And I think that is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail. 

     They make the cross seem almost reasonable. 

     They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God. 

     They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. 

That’s why the crowds are always smaller on Good Friday. 

     We don’t want to confront the truth that, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. When the Living God comes close inevitably we defend ourselves.  Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. 

We leave in silence on Good Friday because there’s not yet any good news here.

There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this:

A confrontation with God— a God who wills only to be gracious— that ends with Jesus dead. 

     The Gospels leave us with the bitter irony that the only person who can touch us and heal us and forgive us and make us whole is dead. 

Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. 

     Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.

     

          

     

Holy Thursday — Matthew 26.17-29

“For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano— on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob. 

On a recent morning, my neighbor Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens the Fergusons keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop. 

In her Newsweek story “Divided We Eat: What Food Says about Class in America,” writer Lisa Miller notes the the language of worship and devotion in how her neighbors,  the Fergusons, refer to themselves as “disciples” of Michael Pollan, who wrote the 2006 book which made the locavore movement a national phenomenon. 

Miller writes:

“[Alexandra Ferguson] believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to their existential happiness—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet.

“This is our tithe. This is my offering to the world,” says Alexandra,we contribute a lot. What’s on the table represents our goodness— our efforts to be good and do good.”

Lisa Miller goes on in “Divided We Eat” to demonstrate how food is the first form of conspicuous consumption in American history that’s divisive. 

The excesses of America’s elites have always been open to critique; however, their indulgences have always simultaneously united Americans. The cool car, the big house, the luxury fashion brand— the lifestyles of the rich and famous have traditionally unified people because people who didn’t have those things aspired to have them. 

Conspicuous consumption has always united Americans, Lisa Miller argues, because the have-nots have always wanted what the haves have.

The Food Culture, though, is different. 

Food is uniquely divisive in America, Miller suggests, because people who eat Big Macs instead of local kale don’t want the local kale. Worse, the Big Mac eaters resent the cleaning-eating, all-organic crowd’s disdain and self-righteousness.  

Food has always been inextricably linked with Judaism and Christianity, but in America Food has become a rival religion— what my friend David Zahl calls a seculosity— and it’s an idol that has inverted the symbolism of the table for those more ancient faiths. 

In our politics today we speak often of everyone having a place at the Table, but in our new religion— the religion of Food— only the faithful are welcome.

Thinking ourselves advanced, Miller says, we’ve gone backwards and made the Table an icon of division. 

———————-

What Jesus does with his last meal, however, undoes what we’ve done to the ancient iconography of the Table. 

After all, Jesus’ last meal is Jesus’ last meal because Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, yet even before the supper has been served Matthew wants you to know that Judas remains welcome at Jesus’ supper table. Betrayal unto a god-forsaken death on a cross apparently makes for awkward dinner conversation. 

As soon as Jesus sat down in the upper room, Jesus prophesied his imminent passion: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 

Matthew tells us that upon hearing this prediction the disciples became “greatly distressed,” the very same language John uses to describe Jesus praying before the grave of Lazarus who’d been four days dead. 

Greatlydistressed, the disciples respond one after another “Surely, not I Lord?”

Surely not I, Lord!?

So Jesus elaborates: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” 

The bowl to which Jesus refers is the basin of water required by the Law for the ritual hand-cleansing prior to the passover meal. The bowl was part of the prescribed place setting; the handwashing happens near the top of the script for the holy supper. 

That is, Jesus outs his betrayal by Judas just as Jesus passes the bowl of water— family style— around the table. 

Judas is still holding the bowl, both his hands and the towel damp, as Jesus drops the truth of Judas on Judas: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”

And Judas passes the basin and towel to the next disciple and says: “Surely not I, Rabbi?”  

Notice, Judas does not call Jesus “Lord” like the eleven; he calls him “Rabbi.” Judas can be a traitor because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord. Judas’ treachery is made possible because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and the firsborn of creation. 

To Judas— as he is to many today— Jesus is but another teacher among teachers. 

“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” Jesus says. 

Look, here’s the point:

The handwashing happens at the start of the passover script. Matthew doesn’t even pick up the story again until they’re in the middle of the meal.

They wash up. 

Jesus airs the dirty secret about Judas ratting him out.

Judas responds by lying and— noticeably— not calling the Lord Lord. 

And then what?

And then Jesus serves him supper, that’s what. 

Jesus eats and drinks with sinners even if it kills him.

Medieval painters always depict Jesus giving over the gossip about his betrayl as the moment of shock at the Last Supper, but that just goes to show how few Jews those artists knew. 

The moment of shock at the supper comes later in the meal. 

———————-

This Last Supper is the twelve’s third passover meal with Jesus. It’s the third time they’ve marked the doorframe with the blood from a lamb— just as the script instructs— blood to remind them the cost of their deliverance was death. 

It’s the third time they’ve set the supper table for Jesus. 

Just as the script instructs, they set the dinner table not with a single cup and a lone loaf but with four cups of wine— that’s why they fall asleep later in the garden, they’re hammered. 

Each cup, according to the supper script, symbolizes of a part of Israel’s life with the God who brought them out of Egypt. 

This last supper is the third passover they’ve laid out with the ingredients the Bible commands:

   

Nuts and Fruit Shaped to Look Like Bricks to Remember Their Forced Labor Under Pharaoh

A Plate of Bitter Herbs to Recall the Bitterness of their Slavery in Egypt

A Bowl of Saltwater Symbolizing the Tears Shed During their Long Captivity

Unleavened Bread to Remind Israel of the Haste with which they Fled for Freedom

And Lamb to Point Back Towards the Cost of their Freedom

There’s always lamb on the supper table, sourced according to the rules of scripture for the sake of righteousness. The lamb is the star of the supper. 

The lamb is the main if for no other reaon than the sound and the smell of lamb was unavoidable for the passover pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Passover week you couldn’t come to Jerusalem for the supper without being aware of all the lambs. 

The Jewish historian Josephus writes that two million Jews crowded into Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover. 

Two million people: teeming like tourists, filling all the hotels, arguing over tent space on the Mount of Olives, and all of them- all two million of them— searching for, sourcing and shopping for the right ingredients to keep the feast.

Now, according to the script given by God in the Bible, it takes at least ten people to celebrate a Passover supper.

You do the math: a couple million divided ten ways. 

That’s 250,000 lambs in Jerusalem when Jesus entered it donkey-back on Palm Sunday— lambs clustering into gateways, lambs bursting down passageways, lambs pouring into barns and shelters, and lambs making markets chaotic. 

One-quarter million lambs— imagine the sound for most of that week. 

The constant all during holy week would’ve been the bleating of all those baby sheep being readied for supper. It’s a wonder that anyone heard him when he shouted “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves!” 

And any foodie would know— it wasn’t just the sound but the smell. 

The morning of the supper (straight through that Thursday afternoon) every single householder would’ve brought their lamb to the Temple where they’d kill it with their own two hands, taking care not to strangle it.

Just as the script demanded.

There at the Temple two long lines of priests, robed in their vestments, would’ve received the blood of every one of those 250,000 lambs in a cup. Like an assembly line, each cup is passed from priest to priest through the Temple until finally it’s splashed upon the altar.

By the time the twelve are setting the supper table for their third meal with Jesus, the blood of all those lambs has flowed from the altar and out through pipes in the Temple floor and into the Kedron River; so that, by the time Jesus hosts the supper for the last time, the river has turned to a red, moving sludge— just like the Nile before Pharaoh let God’s People go. 

The lamb was the most obvious ingredient. 

The lamb was the icon of the table. 

And yet—

At this last passover, Jesus changes the script, and he deletes the line about the lamb. According to the script, about a quarter of the way in to the meal, Jesus is supposed to take the bread and scrape it together with the lamb and he’s supposed to say “This is the body of the Passover.” 

“This is the body of the Passover.” This— as in, this lamb is the body of the Passover. That’s what Jesus, the host, is scripted to say. Instead Jesus says “This is my body broken for you.”

That’s what Leonardo should’ve painted because you can be damn sure that’s where the needle on the Bible record scratched off. “This is my body broken for you.” 

And then— Jesus changes the script again and sticks himself in it. 

When Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt, Jesus doesn’t say as scripture scripts him to say: “This is the blood of the Passover.”

   No, you know our script. 

He says: “This is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Not the blood of the passover. This is me. 

He never mentioned the lamb because, like the bread and the wine— he’s it.

On this third and last time, with wine and bread, with his betrayer to Pharaoh seated beside him— I mean, Caesar— Jesus says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” 

This body of the passover is me.

Which is not only a way of Jesus saying with wine and bread “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” but it’s also a way of  Jesus saying “These creatures of wine and bread— they are the Creator, who has and who is and who will deliver you from captivity.”

With bread and wine, Jesus signals that he is both the cost of the passover and the Living God who carried it out. In doing so, Jesus undoes what Judas attempts to do— what we so often attempt to do— that is, with bread and wine Jesus makes it impossible for us to separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ. 

Because he’s given us the bread and the wine, no longer like Judas can we call him “Rabbi” without also confessing him as “Lord.” Christ does not simply point to the truth by his teaching— indeed there is no such thing as “truth” that lies behind Christ to which Christ might point— Christ just is the way, the truth, and the life. 

Just as Christ binds all of himself to the bread and the wine, those who eat it accept all of him. That is to say, to eat of the bread that is his body and drink of the wine that is his blood means you cannot have this Jesus as your Teacher without also having him as your Lord and Savior. 

Likewise, the bread and the wine mean that you cannot have Christ as your Lord and Savior without also having Jesus as your Teacher. 

For in declaring by bread and wine that he is the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt, Jesus simultaneously declares that through bread and wine we are made the Israel of God. 

To get hung up on material questions like “How can the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ” is to miss the more fundamental transformation of the meal; that is, through the body and blood of this passover, Christ makes us his pilgrim people. 

The invitation to eat and drink of the Lord who is our passover, therefore, is an invitation to be initiated into the New Israel, who witness to a reality otherwise unavailable to the “real” world. 

———————-

“You are what you eat,” we say, which is a frightening thought considering it makes me alot more Big Mac, Beer, and Flaming Hot Cheetos than Kale or Quinoa, yet even more frightening is that, after tonight, there is no Gospel without those who eat and drink this bread and wine.  

With this bread and this cup, Christ makes it impossible for there to be a Gospel apart from the People constituted by eating and drinking the Gospel. 

We cannot separate the person and work of Christ, the Church has always taught, but we ourselves— the Church— are the work of Christ who cannot separated from his person. 

Which is to say— what the Church has always said— that outside the Church there is no salvation. Or, better put: without the Church there is no salvation. 

Without the Church, there is no salvation. 

For as Jesus declares here with bread and wine, and as Jesus teaches again and again in the Gospels, salvation is his Kingdom People feasting with him at Table. 

“People will come from east and west, from north and south,” Jesus announces in Luke, “and they will feast in the Kingdom of God.” 

“The Kindgom of God is like a wedding feast, with wine and food…” Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. 

“Drink from this, all of you;” Jesus invites us tonight, “for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Truly, I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”

Until that day when I drink it new with you…

Without the Church, there is no salvation because salvation names what only this Table heralds. 

Until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.

We always leave off this last line, but the emphasis in any good sentence falls at the end. Jesus would have us do with this meal the opposite of what we so often do with this meal. 

We sometimes think, especially on a day like Holy Thursday, that Christ gives us this bread and wine so we can look backwards in time to what Christ has done for us. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the communion celebrant always says at our table, yet notice how Jesus does not say any such thing at his Table. 

Jesus does not speak of remembering at all. 

Jesus speaks of anticipating. 

Jesus does not point backwards. 

Jesus gestures forwards. 

To the extent we remember anything at all in the eucharist, we’re remembering the future.

Indeed the future is the only direction for us to go if this new passover in fact make us his new Israel. If he is to make us his new Israel with this meal, then he does not give us this bread and wine so that through them we might remind the world of Christ, as though he is dead. 

Rather, if Christ our Passover aims to make us his Israel then at this Table we are fed by Christ so that we might become Christ’s memory for the world in order for the world to be reconciled. 

Christ is in the world, in these things, bread and wine, so that through his Body, the Church, all things might be reconciled to him. 

And so this Table tonight is not like so many of our tables. 

It is not a Table of division. 

It is not a Table set aside for the righteous or the clean, the faithful or the good. 

While we are yet sinners, this is a Table where Christ our Lord dines with the ungodly and, by doing so, unites us together until Christ comes back in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

The bread and the wine— they’re not a memorial. 

They’re binding agents.

.

Virtue Signal

Jason Micheli —  April 8, 2019 — Leave a comment

John 12.1-8

For God’s sake, don’t lie. 

Admit it. 

You think Judas is right. 

Of course, if you’ve spent any time at all in church, then you already know that you’re not supposed to identify with Judas. Judas is the traitor. Judas is the villain. Judas is the Judas. 

He’s the bastard who turns around right after today’s text to rat out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, which according to the prophet Zechariah was about a day’s wage. 

A day’s wage. 

According to the Book of Exodus, thirty pieces of silver is the cost of an average slave. 

Judas sells out the Son of God as though a slave.

So we know we’re not supposed to identify with Judas but, be honest now, we think Judas is right, or at the very least he’s reasonable. If you saw a line item in our church operating budget for nard you’d be PO’d too. In case you’re not a first century Mary Kay agent, nard was a perfume from the Himalayas. Amazon Prime still doesn’t deliver to Bethany so how this much nard ended up there is anyone’s guess. Who knows how Mary got her hands on it, but you can be sure this nard was not gained on the cheap. 300 denarii is what Judas guesses it would go for on the open market. 

Just to help you locate your place in the story here today: 300 denarii was the rough equivalent to $45,000.00. 

The nard cost Mary more than a Tesla Model 3. 

Wanna come clean now?

You think Judas is right on the money about the money. For HimalayanObsession?! At that cost, it would be better to rub Jesus down with some $5.99 Old Spice and give the rest of the five figures worth to the poor. 

Or, why not Axe Body Spray? For ten measley bucks she could spray some sexy on Jesus and then they’d still have approximately $44,990.00 for do-gooding. 

And doing good is what it’s about, right?

After all, Matthew’s account of this anointing occurs right after Jesus lays down every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable— the one about clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner. Judas has just heard Jesus drop the boom about eternal punishment so how can you blame Judas for wanting to get reckoned a sheep rather than goat? 

If we’re honest, it’s hard for us to see what Judas got wrong. 

Christians ought to be on the side of the poor. If Christians fail to capture the cultured despisers’ respect and imagination isn’t it largely because of our inability to live lives that correspond to Christ and his teachings (perhaps especially his teaching about the poor)? 

What’s more, isn’t Judas’ the better strategy for the Church to survive in a pagan nation like America? After all, Americans may not believe that Jesus is Lord of anything but pious hearts, but they at least believe we probably ought to help the poor. 

Isn’t Judas’ the smarter strategy in a secular age? Surely, serving the poor is a way for us as Christians to win friends and influence people. And while we’re truth-telling, let’s be honest. Believing what Christians are required to believe is no easy thing. Believing that the infinite took flesh in Mary’s finite womb, believing that three days dead Christ was dead no more, believing that he now and forevermore sits at the right hand of the Father— believing what Christians believe is no easy matter. 

We’re not even sure what it means to say someone sits at the Father’s right hand. 

Handouts to the hungry though? Let’s be honest. It’s just easier. Helping the less fortunate— it makes sense, which likely explains why it’s not distinctively Christian.

If you’ve seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian then you already know. In first century Israel, “poor” was a political category. The poor weren’t lazy or left behind. The poor were the oppressed. Money’s tight when you’ve got to foot the bill for your own military occupation— that’s why the Christmas story kicks off with a census. 

Just read your Old Testament if you don’t believe me— it’s not a minor theme in scripture— the poor were poor because they were oppressed. 

If you don’t understand the relationship between poverty and oppression you won’t understand Palm Sunday. You won’t understand how the Messiah they anticipate with shouts of hosanna produces first their disappointment and then their betrayal when the “Messiah” they get turns out to be the Messiah named Jesus. 

Judas isn’t simply suggesting that this down payment’s worth of perfume should’ve been shared with the poor; he’s arguing that it’d be better spent on the cause. 

Judas isn’t griping that they should’ve given the money to feed the poor. 

He’s saying they should’ve used the money to free them. 

To free the poor. To liberate the oppressed. Judas’s point is not just about charity. Judas’ point is also about justice. After all, he’s named for Israel’s most famous armed revolutionary. 

Like today, Judas’ language about the poor is political language. It’s a campaign contribution’s worth of cash Judas watches Mary rub into Jesus’ calloused feet. 

“Why was this nard not sold for almost fifty grand and the money given to the Democratic National Committee?” That’s a better way to hear what Judas says. 

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money donated to Make Israel Great Again?” Is another way to hear him.

“What’s she doing? What a waste! Don’t you people know your Micah 6.8?! Do you know the kind of change we could make with that much cash?”

Even if we’re too chicken to admit it, Judas makes sense to us. But we’re right to pretend otherwise. Think about it— Judas is sitting at the supper table with Lazarus, a guy who’d been dead for four days. 

Judas had watched graveside as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, stinking with death and tripping over his burial clothes he was so surprised. In fact, Jesus had commanded him to be dead no longer: “Lazarus, come out!” 

From dust he came and to dust he returned and then he returned again.

Now Judas is eating with the guy who was wormfood a few days ago, but as soon as Judas sees Mary pull out some some five figure Chanel No. 5 he’s back to thinking in terms of scarcity.

Which puts Judas (and thus, puts us) in the same camp as Caiphas—another name we know better than to identify. 

In the text just before today’s text, John tells us that a crowd of Jews, having witnessed Jesus speak Lazarus forth from the dead, began “believing into Jesus.” 

Some of these bystanders, John says, went and tattled on Jesus to the Pharisees and the Pharisees went and tattled to the chief priests and the chief priests went and tattled to the Chief Priest, Caiphas. 

And how does Caiphas respond?

“If we let him go on like this,” Caiphas worries, “everyone will believe into him, and the Romans will come and destroy our nation.”

Sit with that for a second—

When the chief religious leaders of God’s people hear about Jesus’ power over the Power of Death, their immediate worry is not religious. It’s political. 

Like we do, Caiphus had been towing the God and Country line, but as soon as the Living God shows up our true colors come out.

When Caiphas hears Christ can raise the dead, he doesn’t cripe about commandments. He worries about the two things over which you most worry too. 

Currency. 

And country.

Jesus is hiding out here in Bethany because just after Jesus produces Lazarus alive from the tomb, Caiphas plots to kill Jesus because Caiphas worries that Christ’s power over the Power of Death will upset the political arrangement of the powers-that-be. 

Don’t forget:

This is the same Caiphas who on Good Friday will condemn Jesus to a cross on a charge of blasphemy while pledging to Pontius Pilate what exactly? He says what no Jew should ever say: “We have no King but Caesar.” 

But since Messiah and King and Caesar all name in different languages the same word, Caiphas basically says “We have no Messiah but the King you call Caesar.” That’s where the Old Testament grinds to halt. It ends there with “We have no Messiah  but Caesar.“ Christ’s passion is the price to secure Caiphas’ political promise to Pilate. 

“Forty-five grand! We could’ve donated that money to MoveOn.org— think of the justice work we could do with that much money.” Judas says. 

“Power over Death? But only Death makes our economy of scarcity possible. Resurrection, it’ll ruin the nation.” Says Caiphas.

You see— Judas and Caiphas, their failure is not primarily one of faithfulness. Their failure is a failure of imagination. Their failure is a failure of political imagination. 

In order to see their failure as a failure of political imagination, however, we must first swallow our squeamishness about what Jesus says to Judas. Even if we’re too cowardly to admit we think Judas is right, we should at least be able to acknowledge that Jesus’ response to Judas embarrasses us. We wish Jesus had not said what Jesus says: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me.” 

Just try that verse out on a woke, unbelieving Bernie supporter and see how they react. Talk about religion as the opiate of the people. What Jesus says to Judas seems to legitimate the sort of apathetic, pie-in-the-sky Christianity for which non-Christians critique Christians. 

Maybe it’s because “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” embarrases us that we seldom stop to notice the fact that the one who said “You’ll always have the poor with you; you don’t always have me” is himself poor. 

Jesus is poor. 

Jesus is oppressed.

And very soon, Jesus will be the naked without any clothes. Jesus will be the parched who’s given gall. Jesus will be the stranger shunned. Jesus will be the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. Surrounded by goats, they’ll be the only sheep at his side for the Last Judgement that is his Cross.

Don’t you see?

This is the point of it all— this is why Caiphus plots to kill him.

We think Judas is right, but we miss how right Caiphas really is.

Jesus is a threat to our politics.

Jesus does intend to end the world as we know it. 

Mary upends our categories of helping the poor and the oppressed by lavishing a Mercedes C-class worth of money on a single poor person (who also happens to be the incarnate God).  And Jesus praises her for it. It’s a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere, to do what she did. 

Judas has got his mind stuck in the grave— he still thinks that change-making comes in terms of charity and campaign contributions, but Mary’s response to Jesus’ power over the Power of Death is to shower two-thirds of our entire mission budget on a solitary poor man living on borrowed time. Judas lacks Mary’s imagination.

Only when you understand what Mary understands will you understand what Jesus means when he says to Judas that we will not always have Jesus with us bodily but we will always have the poor with us. 

Jesus is not implying that we should be resigned to the way of the world. On the contrary, we will always have the poor with us because the Church, the Body of Christ, is the People God has put in the world who know, by the sacrament of the resurrection, that the poor and the prisoner, the naked and the shunned, are to celebrated. 

The Church is the People God has put in the world who know that we can afford to love the poor with lavishment because Christ is a gift that can never be used up. So of course we’ll always have the poor with us. Because the Church is the Body of him who is poor. We will always have the poor with us because the Body of Christ is for them.

“Leave her alone,” the poor man said to Judas, “she bought it [she bought it—for $45K!] for me.” 

“She’s done the better thing,” the poor man adds in Matthew’s account. 

Jesus praises Mary because Mary understands that Jesus makes a different politics possible. To put a finer point on it, Mary understands that she-and-her-nard constitutes the different politics which God has made possible in the world in Jesus.

Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth and who remains my north star, wrote:

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity and Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

Barth liked to point out how when the devil temps Christ in the wilderness by offering him the governments of this world the implication is that the governments of this world are the devil’s to give. They belong to him. 

Barth, who was one of the only German Christians to stand up against Hitler’s Nazi regime, was not being hyperbolic.

“Whenever Christians use a construction like Christianity—and—Politics they open the door to every devil.” 

It’s the and there that’s problematic. Just as soon as the church begins to ponder how its Christianity can inform politics, Barth argued, you can be sure the church has lost the plot. Such a church might be a church of great sincerity and zeal. Such a church might be a church of fervent devotion and good works of charity. Nonetheless, such a church will be a church that’s failed to understand that it is the way God has chosen to love and redeem the world. 

Whenever we talk about Christianity and Politics, we risk forgetting that the way God has chosen to heal his creation is through his particular People— that’s a promise that goes all the way back to Abraham. 

The way God has chosen to heal his creation his through the witness of his People. 

Not the House or the Senate. Not POTUS or SCOTUS. Not with bills or billboards or hashtags. Not through political policy. But his People. The Church. The Body of Christ, sent by the Spirit, is God’s virtue signal; that is to say, the Church doesn’t have a politics the Church is a politics. 

I’m sure right about now that some of you (if not all of you) are thinking Well, gee Jason, that sounds nice but what in the hell do you mean“The Church doesn’t have a politics. The Church is a politics?” 

I’m glad you asked.

Yesterday afternoon we celebrated a Service of Death and Resurrection for a man here in the community, Gordon. 

Gordon was a Vietnam vet. The cancer that killed him likely came from Agent Orange that killed others. A couple of days before he died, he called me to his bedside. In addition to wanting to profess that Jesus is Lord and give to Christ what remained of his life, Gordon also wanted to confess his sins. 

“I want to confess,” he told me staring at the ceiling, “what I had to do in the war— it was necessary, but it was still sin.” 

Think about it—

He was dying. He didn’t know how quick. Time was a precious, valueable commodity to him. Time was a gift, and Gordon wanted to give it, to lavish it— some would say waste it— by giving his confession to Christ. 

In a culture that ships our soldiers off to do what is necessary and then, when they return home, we insist that they not tell us about what we’ve asked them to do, Gordon’s confession— what the Church calls the care of souls— that’s a politics. 

It’s how God has chosen to care for the world.

During the funeral service, Gordon’s son spoke candidly about his often difficult sometimes estranged relationship with his father. 

In a culture of sentimentality and pretense, the sort of truth-telling that this sanctuary makes possible— that’s a politics.

Later this afternoon, a group from church will go up to Sleepy Hollow Nursing Home to worship with elderly residents who may not be able to hear it or comprehend it. In a culture like ours that is determined to get out of life alive— a culture that worships at the altar of youth and achievement— the old are very often cloistered away and cast-off. 

It’s a simple thing some of you will do at Sleepy Hollow, offering them prayer and presence and touch. But

But make no mistake, it’s a politics.

A while ago, I read a story in the paper about the California Prison Hospice Program. The unintended consequence of stiff prison sentences doled out in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s is that now many penitentieries must double as nursing homes. 

Already underfunded, many prison systems have recruited and trained convicts to serve as hospice workers to care for and accompany aging inmates as they die of cancer and other causes. 

It might not surprise you to hear most of the prisoners who volunteer to care for the dying are Christians. 

“It’s what God’s given us the opportunity to do, to pour out our love on them” one prisoner— guilty of a gang bang in his youth— told the New York Times. 

It might not surprise you to hear that most of the hospice workers are Christians, but it might surprise you to hear that of the hundreds of prisoners who’ve worked caring for the dying and later been released not one of them has returned to prison. 

They have a recidivism rate of 0%. 

In a culture where even Democrats and Republicans can agree our criminal justice system is broken, a simple unimpressive act, Christian care for the dying…zero percent— that’s a politics.

At the end, the Times article unintentionally echoes St. Paul:

“Within the walls of the prison hospice, all the invisible boundaries of the world have fallen down. Black men give meal trays to [dying] white men with swastikas tattooed on their faces, Crips play cards with Bloods, and a terminal Latino with cirrhosis gets his hair cut by an Asian with whom he previously wouldn’t have peaceably shared a cellblock.” 

The way God has chosen to heal the world is the Church— that’s what we forget whenever we argue about the Church and Politics. 

We’re the nard that God has purchased at great cost to himself to lavish Christ upon the dying world. 

You see—

It’s not that grace— what God has done for us in Jesus Christ— makes what we do as Christians incidental or unimportant. 

It’s that what we do as Christians should be unintelligible— an expensive waste, even— if God has not raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

For our Wednesday evening eucharist service, I decided to write a homily on Matthew’s version of the Sunday Gospel lection:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus tells his disciples, but specifically Peter, just after calling Peter “Satan” for tempting Jesus with a fate other than cruciform destiny.

 

Perhaps because Jesus’ statement about our needing to lose our lives in order to gain them occurs within the context of Peter balking at the notion of a crucified Messiah we mishear Jesus as suggesting that we too must seek a cross if the Kingdom is to be added unto us.

 

But the Risen Christ is no nihilist. When Jesus says we must lose our lives to gain them, he’s not recruiting kamikaze Kingdom warriors, for the word “lose” in Matthew 16 is the same word Matthew uses just after Jesus tells us about the sheep and the goats.

 

The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

ἡ ἀπώλεια αὕτη

apoleia

“For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

 

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste” a few chapters later when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper for supper— Jesus might as well ask the Pharisees and chief priests to kill him. 

 

Two nights before Passover, two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman. She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil— about $45,000 worth. 

 

This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body. 

 

Just like the psalm about the good shepherd in the valley of death— just like King David, whose kingdom God promised would be forever— she anoints him. She anoints him for his death, for his cross will be his enthronment, thorns his crown, and the jeers of onlookers his acclamation.

 

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him. 

 

Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the “good” they could have done with that much money. I mean, don’t forget Jesus had just laid every liberal Methodist’s favorite parable on them— the one about the sheep and the goats. 

 

So here, watching this woman who shelled out a year’s worth of wages for perfume, they virtue signal, estimating the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. 

 

If she hadn’t wasted it. 

Yet Jesus praises her. 

 

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the waste. Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste. He praises her for lavishing love and devotion on him, who—don’t forget— is poor and will very soon be the naked without clothes, the thirsty who’s given gall, the prisoner abandoned by all but his mother and a single disciple. 

 

Lose. 

Waste. 

 

You see when Jesus tells us we need to lose our lives to gain a life in the Kingdom, he’s not talking about crosses. He’s talking about something even more reckless. He’s recommending the example of this woman— he’s urging us to lavish love and devotion— to spare no cost— on him. 

 

This woman at the leper’s house knows that Jesus is not a means to some other end. Rather devotion to Jesus— worship of him is a good in and of itself.  

 

An economy that the world cannot help but see as a waste and which ironically may lead the world in its economy to crucify us. 

For the Wednesdays of Lent we’re doing an evening eucharist service where each week I preach a homily on one of the Comfortable Words. The Comfortable Words are a collection of promises from the New Testament, compiled by Thomas Cranmer for the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer wanted to guarrantee that having confessed our sin and been confronted with the demands of God’s Law God’s people never left a service of Word and Table without having heard the promise of the Gospel.

Here’s my homily on John 3…

“If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’ 

You must be born again. Or- You must be born from above. Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else. Except- That you in “You must be born again” is plural.  It’s “You all must be born again.” 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says. And Jesus answers with “You all…” We are in that you. Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God. 

Being born anothen- It’s something God does; it’s not something we do. Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind— the Holy Spirit— blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” 

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me. You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?  

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…” Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God. What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given. Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does. But Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters:  It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

    ———————-

Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says. We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us. 

This Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John in his prologue, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit. 

Skip ahead. 

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.” 

 And what does John show you? Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. And what does Pilate say? 

“Behold, the adamah.” 

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? 

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit. And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you? Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity. 

     

Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

     

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week. And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what? For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them. Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day. He breathes on them. Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. 

They’re made new again. Anothen. 

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right. 

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit. 

And it’s ours.