Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the lectionary Gospel reading from Luke 12. I wish I had a recording of the band’s rendition of ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It’ that accompanied the reading. Shout out to my friend Andrew DiAntonio for the collage art for the August Luke series.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching a two hour class every day at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission for about thirty licensed local pastors from all over the country.
I can only imagine how much it tightens some of your sphincters to think of me shaping and influencing other pastors into how to do ministry.
Lest you worry, I taught them the basics for success:
- Get yourself a past-his-prime, passionless, shoot-from-the hip senior pastor who can serve as the straight man to all your jokes.
- If your bishop ever calls at 10:00 PM to ask if you think the word ‘Toilet’ is appropriate for conversation, then- like Peter Venkman Advises Ray Stantz in the only good Ghostbusters movie, Say No.
- Despite #2, Nothing you say will ever offend your congregation like preaching what Jesus preached. Straight up.
Teaching these last two weeks reminded me of when I was a licensed local pastor 16 years ago. Believe it or not, Aldersgate is not the church where I made all my first mistakes.
One of my first mistakes, in fact, was attending my first clergy meeting.
I had just started my first semester as a student at Princeton, and I had just been licensed to pastor a small congregation outside of town when I received an email notifying me of that month’s clergy meeting.
I was only a rookie, a licensed local pastor. I didn’t know any better. So I actually attended the meeting.
It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained glass windows.
A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a dreadlocked man praying. The banner read: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.’
An ironic slogan, I thought, when you considered the four cameras mounted on the corners of the building and how to get into the church you had to go around to the back, ring a security buzzer on a steel door— the kind you see on Orange is the New Black. From there, some faceless person buzzed you into a foyer where you first had to show identification and submit to a cavity search.
Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so mostly older pastors. And when I say old, I mean like you-know-who-old: like, our wizened, vacationing (I mean, sabbath-taking) Dennis Perry.
After a perfunctory devotional time and the obligatory announcements, the agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.
She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.
The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar Igniting Ministry advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members. Today our advertising campaign is Rethink Church. Same pig, different lipstick.
The woman was dressed like a Lululemon mannequin. Her eyes were lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials this side of Billy Mays’ sham-wow. .
She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado in her body language, she pressed play on a VCR which, even in the year 2000, felt antiquated.
The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voiced-over narrator said: ‘Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.’
And then some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. And then it said: ‘Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.’
When the commercial was over, she pressed pause.
I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads. Nearly all of them were smiling.
‘That’s great,’ some of them said.
‘That will really speak to young people.’
‘This will revitalize the Church.’
The woman from UM Communications was beaming.
‘Any other thoughts?’ she asked.
You’ll be happy to know the people of Aldersgate are not responsible for making me the way I am. Even then, only ankle deep in my first month of ministry, I was cynical and contrary.
‘I don’t get it’ I said.
And everyone turned and stared at me.
‘What don’t you get?’ she asked with a frown.
‘Well…I mean…the commercial doesn’t mention…you know…like…Jesus.’
‘Young man,’ she said through a forced smile, ‘these commercials are designed to appeal to the unchurched, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.’
‘But what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?’ I asked.
She bit her bottom lip and said: ‘Our research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less appealing.’
I suppose she had a point.
Maybe it’s better to lure people to church with promises of giving their lives meaning and significance.
Maybe it’s better to hook people with the promise that God can quell all your fears and anxieties. Solve all your problems.
Maybe it’s better to do that than just dump Jesus on someone all at once.
Take today’s Gospel- not the tiny little snippet the lectionary thinks you can handle without freaking out but take all of Luke 12. Take the whole passage, what provokes and what proceeds what the lectionary allows you to hear today.
First, in verse four, Jesus warns not the masses but his disciples- warns them:
“Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more to you. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after you have died, has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, fear that One.”
In other words, fear me.
And then, right after today’s little lectionary snippet about not being afraid, Jesus tells a white-knuckled, Wes Craven parable about a Master who returns home after a long absence, and when the Master discovers his servants have not done what he commanded them to do, the Master- get this, you’re going to love this– cuts them into pieces and casts them off.
In other words, fear me.
What do you do with a Jesus like that?
A few weeks ago I preached that “God is at least as nice as Jesus.”
But if Jesus is God in the flesh, then a correlative truth is:
“God is at least as scary as Jesus.”
Just think: how would you turn a Luke 12 Jesus into an effective advertising campaign?
Instead of rain dribbling down a window, would you maybe film the forsaken fiery garbage dump that Jesus calls Gehenna and we call Hell? ‘Come to the United Methodist Church,’ the ad could say, ‘where Jesus promises to come back and cut you into pieces if you don’t do what he commanded.’
An ad like that would break the internet faster than an Orlando Bloom, in full bloom, vacation photo.
Or what if you kept the footage of the rain dribbling down the window. ‘Are you afraid in these uncertain economic times and in our terror-filled world?’ the narrator- who in my head has to be Ed Harris- could query. ‘Come to the United Methodist Church and let Jesus give you something much, much bigger to fear.’
Just before today’s passage, a Pharisee invites Jesus and the disciples to dinner at his house. The appetizers aren’t even on the table before the Pharisee rebukes Jesus for sitting down to eat without washing up first as both courtesy and commandment require.
And Jesus, ever the delicate dinner guest, shouts back at his host: “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cups and dishes, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”
That is, Jesus calls them hypocrites- of pretending to be something they are not. Jesus accuses them of pretending to be different when they are just like everyone else, of pretending to be holier in order to put themselves above the crowd.
After they leave the Pharisee’s dinner table, a crowd of thousands- a mob, really- starts to tag along after Jesus and the disciples. And there’s no other provocation. No one says anything or does anything. There’s no other provocation than that the disciples now find themselves among this crowd, this mob.
And Jesus turns to them, to his disciples standing there among the mob, and he warns his followers away from a different kind of hypocrisy.
A different kind of hypocrisy:
“…my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. Fear him who, after you have died, has authority to cast into hell.”
Where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of pretending to be something they’re not, Jesus warns his disciples against pretending not to be something they are.
Where the Pharisees’ hypocrisy is meant to elevate them above the crowds in order to make them superior, Jesus warns his disciples against an hypocrisy that would blend them into the crowd in order to make them safe.
Do not pretend not to be the disciples you are, Jesus warns. Do not pretend not to have heard what I’ve taught you. Do not pretend not to know what I’ve commanded you. Just because you fear what the crowds might say about you or do to you, do not pretend you’re not who you are, who I’ve called you to be. Just because you’re afraid, do not pretend that you’re not different from the crowds.
Yes, following me in a world like ours might be scary, Jesus says, but it’s not as frightening as me. The worst the world can do to you is kill you. I have the power, after death, to throw you like so much rubbish into a dumpster fire.
And just in case his warning isn’t clear, Jesus then tells not the Pharisees, not the crowds, but tells his disciples- tells us- a parable about the Second Coming.
A story about a Master who comes back and finds that his servants have not done what he told them to do.
When the Master returns, he cuts his servants into pieces, for to those who have been given much responsibility much is required.
Right after telling us, his little flock, not to be afraid.
She pressed ‘Play’ on the VCR and sampled a few more of the dozen or so Igniting Ministry commercials.
One had a woman sitting down against a soft-focus background. She was bent over, her elbows leaning on her knees. Maybe she’d been crying or just pondering. The commercial was again filmed in a depressing kind of grey, gloomy palette.
And then came the voiceover: ‘If you’re searching for meaning in your life, we invite you to join us this week. Our hearts, our minds and our doors are always open.’
She pressed ‘Pause’ after that one and the comments that followed were every bit as euphoric as they’d been in the beginning.
Now, far be it for me to be argumentative, but she’d called me young man and that got my blood up. So I raised my hand.
She looked long and hard over the pews before finally calling on me.
‘So, do any of these commercials mention Jesus?’
She took a deep breath and explained all over again the marketing strategy of targeting people who fear their lives lack meaning, direction, significance.
‘Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?’ I wondered aloud.
She just looked at me, confused.
‘What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little comfort in their lives and what they end up with instead is Jesus?’
Some of the pastors chuckled.
They all thought I was joking.
The Book of Common Prayer contains an old litany that guides us to pray “Lord, save us from a sudden death.”
Where most of us hope to die suddenly, painlessly, and in our sleep, the Christians before us dreaded the prospect of dying before they had the opportunity to confess their sins and reconcile with those they’d sinned against. Where we fear meeting Death, the Christians before us feared meeting God, having not done what God commands us to do.
I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed it before, but maybe that’s what we mean when we sing that God’s amazing grace not only relieves all our fears it also teaches our hearts to fear.
To fear God.
It’s become cliche but no less true to observe that ours is a culture captive to fear and the ugliness fear exudes.
Fear of eroding values and traditions.
Fear of dim economic trends.
Fear of immigrants. Fear of Muslims.
Fear of terrorism and violence.
Look- I’m not suggesting those fears are all illegitimate, but- for Christians- those fears are all misplaced.
Those fears are all misplaced because- as Christians- we ought not to fear those fears more than we fear our Master, Jesus Christ.
I wish as much as anyone we had a Master who told us “Do not be afraid little flock” and left it at that. Unfortunately Jesus Christ seems less interested in comforting us in our fears than in giving us all new fears to deal with, fears we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met Jesus.
Fears we wouldn’t have if we could just blend into the mob and pretend not to be who we are. His disciples.
And Christ’s disciples are those people who are not more afraid of immigrants strangers, not more afraid of enemies and the Muslim Other, not more afraid of violence and Death, hardship and harm- not more afraid of those fears than we are afraid of him.
For Christ commanded us- he didn’t suggest to us-
He commanded us:
To welcome the Other- that’s Matthew 25.
To show hospitality to the immigrant- that’s one of the Sinai
To not obsess over our pocketbooks and portfolios but trust that the Lord will take care of our tomorrow – that’s Luke 12.
To love your enemy and pray for them because while you were his enemy, Christ died for you and Christ has given you his ministry not of retaliation but reconciliation- that’s the Sermon on the Mount and St. Paul in sum.
Christ has commanded us, his servants, to live in this sort of love. Not because it makes sense. Not because it’s good red or blue politics. Not because it’s a strategy to make our world more safe. But because this is how he first loved us- says the Apostle John.
Of course, the bad news is that we believe he’s coming back to judge how well we’ve done what he told us to do.
The Master’s standards for his servants is higher than for anyone else, Jesus says. To know the Lord’s will and NOT do it is far worse than not knowing the Lord at all.
You see, it’s not that Christians are unafraid.
It’s that we have a fear others have the luxury never to know.
We have a fear that trumps all our other fears.
We have the fear of the Lord. Or, we should.
The good news in that is that you do not get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid.
Trust me, take it from someone who was afraid he was going to die a year ago. You don’t get out of being afraid by trying not to be afraid. That only makes you more fearful.
The only way NOT to fear
The only way NOT to fear is to realize Jesus Christ would have us fear him. And, by fearing him, we can begin to recognize how finite and sometimes even foolish are the fears that the crowds give us.
Look, I’m not an idiot.
It’s natural to fear the Other.
It’s natural to fear the immigrant. It’s natural to fear the enemy. It’s not natural to welcome them. It’s not natural to show them hospitality. It’s not natural to pray for them and to try to love them.
We need to be formed, re-formed, into something so unnatural.
We need this Table. We need to come to this Table where Jesus Christ is host and invites Judases like us to be his guests. We need to come to this Table where Jesus offers undeserving us his broken body and his poured out blood and gives us again his unnatural, catch-all commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”