Archives For Grace

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. 

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.

 

 

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.  

We’re doing a church-wide Bible study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. In addition to the crowd at church, literally thousands have downloaded the class notes or audio. It’s encouraging to see so many people from so many viewpoints earnestly want to learn.

THE CLOBBER PASSAGES AND CREATION (AKA: “THE GOOD STUFF”)

Where We Are

Last week, having solidified our understanding of Bible reading as a communal enterprise, we started to talk about sexuality through a positive, substantive understanding of marriage and its theological purpose:  to reflect the mutual joy and vulnerability that constitutes the life of the Trinity. 

And Now… the Good Stuff

After three weeks of re-learning how to read scripture, I know you are all anxious to get to the texts in contention. The day has finally arrived.  The “clobber passages” are finally here.  Just by the name, we must note the violence these passages have done, not only to certain LGBT people, but to the Church as a whole.  The “clobber passages” have done harm to the body of Christ called the Church not only because we throw them at each other with such disdain for the other, but because when we do so, we resist and reject the idea that reading the Bible is a Churchwide enterprise for the purpose of discernment, not destruction.

That is, when we read these passages and (1) take them out of context, (2) use them to hurt one another, and (3) refuse to open ourselves to any interpretation other than the one we supposedly conclude on our own, we preclude God from working through the process of discernment.  Like David Fitch told us a few weeks ago, such actions are the simple reiterations of cultural antagonisms.  

Thus, the fact that we have even coined the term “clobber passages” belies our captivity to the ideology of the world, and the need for the freedom Christ’s grace provides.  Before we even begin, then, we need to set out, once again, our communal assumptions.  Doing so provides a consistent reminder that keeps us framed well within both tradition and the concrete world we inhabit.  The interpretation of Holy Scripture is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Church, and in such a tumultuous world, this very activity of discerning the work of the Spirit in scripture and our lives can show the world the alternative that is Christ.  

By the same token, narrow, closed interpretations cannot do justice to the complexity of the issue at hand.  It is inadequate discipleship to approach this issue with a “the Bible says it’s wrong” attitude. Such a closed attitude treats scripture as a dead letter, and it fails to ask what the Holy Spirit might be speaking through the Word of God to the Church today.  

It is also insufficient to respond to this issue with the contrary attitude which says, “Well, I know how I feel about this matter.” Such an individualistic attitude fails to take seriously the testimony of the larger Christian community, both past and present. The Church is a community, and its testimony is predicated not on individual suppositions, but on the community’s work in discerning God’s work.  

With that, allow me one more remark about the nature of what we are doing here. Homosexuality is an issue that strikes at God’s intention for our relationships. Whatever answer one gives to this debate, it is clear that God intends for our conservations and discernment to be marked by mercy, humility and love.  This study, which we are undertaking for the sake of the Church and in the assurance of the Gospel, must be undertaken with the conviction that our world, being a profoundly polarized world, needs a sanctuary, a place where complex issues can be discussed, where God’s will can be discerned, and where such dialogue is guaranteed to happen with a love born of grace and a hospitality tempered by humility.

This conviction necessarily takes every side of the issue with sincerity and with the assumption that each person comes seeking God and what God is doing in the world.  It is inadequate to assume otherwise. If we treat this issue with silence, we do a deep injustice not only to LGBT people in our congregation, but to the Church as a whole. Christ came to forgive all sin, not to keep his people silent.  

With that, let’s remind ourselves of the guiding parameters from the first session: 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance, of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (”I know Jesus said, but I say to you.”). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriage was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

The Good Stuff, Part 1 – Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 19.1-29 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a familiar, yet little understood passage that many insist is a clear moment of God’s wrathful judgment levied against homosexual activity.  Clergy, laypeople, and theologians often make reference to this story to shore up their accounts of the absolute heterosexual proscription of the Bible.  

In the story, a mob of men from the city bang on Lot’s door. Their apparent intention is to gang-rape Lot’s visitors, whom the reader already knows are really angels. No reason is given in the text for why the men of the city should be so moved. Rather, their threat stands as a sort of symbol in the story for the city’s general wickedness.  That is, the specific intention of the mob is a byproduct of the city’s captivity to sin.  

The angels rescue Lot’s family and later pronounce the city’s destruction. Despite the propensity of some to read this narrative as an anti-homosexual text, no where in the story itself or in the rest of scripture is Sodom’s sin identified as homosexuality. Instead of homosexuality, the prophet Ezekiel identified Sodom’s chief sin to be: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49). In discerning scripture’s will for homosexuality, it is prudent for the Church to look to other texts.

Further, reading the text in this fashion forces one to draw an analogy between gang-rape and consensual homosexual relations. This is a textual and a logical stretch, at best.  Especially, in light of the work we have done in the past few weeks to resituate our communal understanding of marriage within the life of the Trinity, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly function as an example of such relationships.  If there is some condemnation of homosexual activity here, it is most certainly not of the kind that concerns the Church.  There is nothing that even remotely resembles the faithful, monogamous kind of nuptial relationships that are under consideration here.  

Bonus Note:

The activity of the mob is, as the text tells us, one unnatural to the human condition. That is, there is nothing about the people in the mob that naturally inclined them to gang-rape. Whether or not you believe being gay is a matter of nature or nurture, gay people are who they are, and that will not change. 

The attribution of the mob’s acts to their nature, and thus the blame of judgment on homosexual activity, does not hold.  After all, the members of the mob had wives.

The Good Stuff Part 2 – The Household Codes

Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 belong to a portion of Leviticus referred to by scholars as the “Holiness Codes.” If you read them, you will see that they clearly prohibit male [but not female— because the texts are most interested in preventing unclear lines of inheritance] homosexual behavior. They seem straightforward and clear. Case closed, right?  

As clear as these texts are, however, they are not satisfactory texts for many Christians. The Holiness Codes, after all, contain many moral admonitions that have been ignored by Christians since the days of the early Church. These are matters related to food regulations and the ritual necessity of circumcision. Both “Acts” and “Romans” confirm for us that these codes do not apply to the life of the Church.  It is inconsistent with the larger Christian tradition to pull these texts out of Leviticus for the purpose of debate when the communal consensus has been that they belong to a code that is no longer normative for followers of Jesus. In fact, even the biblical literalist would have to acknowledge that while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual behavior, it makes no mention of female homosexual relationships. Indeed, such a jump to the condemnation of all homosexual relationships would be outside the bounds of a strict interpretive lens.  

As interesting and provocative as these passages are, they are not binding to us unless we also do not eat bacon.  

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Paul’s Gospel announcement that “for freedom [from the Law] Christ has set us free,” I first think of bacon.  

The Good Stuff Part 3 – The New Testament

As we noted in our list of assumptions, the Gospels show Jesus teaching within the bounds of male-female normativity.  That is, Jesus does not denounce homosexuality, but he does not condone it either.  He is strongly within the bounds of male-female relations.  To be fair, Paul does reinterpret some of Jesus’ teachings, but he does not question those bounds.  

Beyond the Gospels, homosexuality and homosexual behavior receives few mentions.  For now, we will leave Romans 1 aside.  We will pick up on that next week.  

For now, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10. 

The First Letter to the Corinthians is a corrective that Paul issues out of frustration over their illicit actions.  The Corinthians, as bible readers and church-goers will remember, believed that they were already enjoying the exalted resurrection life. They concluded, therefore, that traditional moral conventions no longer applied to them. An aggravated Paul calls the Corinthians “wrong-doers.” To illustrate what he means by wrong-doer, Paul very helpfully provides them with a list of the sorts of people he is including the Corinthians among: “…fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.” 

For us, as Bible readers, it is important to note two things: 

  1. Sodomy does not equal homosexuality.  Sodomy is a particular sexual act, while homosexuality is a sexual orientation.  The two are not exchangeable, equivocal terms.
  1. Where we find homosexuality, especially in lists like this, it is often serving a rhetorical purpose, more so than being treated as a topic in itself.  

1 Timothy makes a similar move.  Timothy presumes that homosexuality is wrong, but 1 Timothy is not concerned with examining it in its own right. Instead, Timothy provides a list of behaviors and vices that are opposed to the Gospel, such as: “fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers.” 

In an earlier lesson, we talked about approaching scripture with a larger hermeneutical frame through which we interpret specific passages.  In passages like these, such a hermeneutic is requisite for proper ecclesial interpretation.  As much as these passages declare homosexuality as inconsistent with the Gospel, the broader theological condition that the New Testament diagnoses is that we are all incompatible with the Gospel.  

That theological conviction aside, the acts described here are, again, not the kind of relationships that concern the Church presently.  While it may seem like I am side-stepping the problem here, it is important to reflect on what kind of questions we want to ask, as a community, when it comes to this issue.  The nuptial vows we take in our wedding do not reflect individualized actions and vices that occur outside the bounds of our relationships, but rather the life and grace of the Trinity that has the possibility of being reflected in our relationships. Such distinctions are important when we interpret passages like this.  

What it is that we are after is a concrete, positive understandings of relationships in the life of the Church – relationships formed in the image of grace.  

Reframing Normativity – Genesis 1

When the “clobber passages” have worn themselves down, the conversation usually turns to Genesis and the account of creation.  Genesis 1 details the story of creation in pairs, and the heteronormative, supposedly binary creation of Adam and Eve, along with their complementarity, is used to support the doctrine of marriage.  

There is no denying the force of the Creation narrative on discussions of relationships, marriage, and human sexuality.  The beauty of the creation story seems bound up in the duality of the pairings.  More negatively, such a binary view necessarily flows into an interpretation that sees non-heterosexual relations and people as a result of the Fall.  

However, the narrative of creation is not primarily about the pairs that mark its ends.  Creation, as St. Gregory of Nyssa argues, is the script of the revelation of God as love.  Insofar as that is true, there must be a relationship of congruence between the Creator and creation.  Along with Christ, creation is the “primary act of God’s self-expression and an important part of God’s self-revelation to us.”  

With this frame, we can posit the creation narrative not as a strict narrative of ontology (a fancy word for the nature and existence of things), but rather,as a broad libretto that delineates the ends of the diversity creation inaugurates.  

Creation, in other words, is “non-binary.”  

The mystery such a conception of creation reveals is the notion that the pairings given in Genesis 1 are each “spectrums within which a variety of expressions occur.”  

Take light, for an example.  

Just as with day and night, light and darkness do not name the only possible options available within God’s creation. It’s not, that is, either light or dark. As I write this essay, it’s dusk.

The first act of creation is the creation of light and, as we know from quantum physics, light is “itself one, but with variety that’s visible when it’s passed through a prism.”  Further, if creation is an expression of the triune Creator, then, of necessity, it cannot be contained by binary sets of parameters.  Creation must reflect the full spectrum of the goodness of God.  

The phrase “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” thus, has force only as a rhetorical insult, with little interpretive basis behind it. The phrase assumes an absolute doublet pairing, lacking the room of diversity reflected in every pairing of the preceding creation narrative.

A non-binary conception of creation, despite how counter-intuitive it might strike us, actually proceeds from the source of creation:  God as Trinity, a unity of oneness that makes room for diversity.  The cosmos mirrors such diverse unity, and the demarcation of creation as such with pairs, indicative, but not wholly descriptive of its inner diversity, opens for us a new way of seeing the pairing of Adam and Eve: descriptive, normative, but not proscriptive, nor exhaustive.  

In Conclusion… Procreation?

You are probably wondering about the command ordered to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This is not an incidental question, for most orthodox Jews even today will name “Be fruitful and multiply” as God’s very first commandment to his creatures. 

As the ancient wedding rite makes clear, a willingness for a married couple to welcome children into their life (without condition— this is why Christians are against abortion) is an attribute constituitive of any understanding of Christian (or Jewish) marriage. After the clobber passages are set aside, Christians will often cite the inability of gay Christians to bear biological children as a disqualification of their marriage as Christian marriage. While this point is more constructive than resorting to the clobber passages, it often inappropriately elevates the role of child-rearing as a Christian vocation and, in doing so, dismisses the vocation of single Christians and adoptive Christian parents. Still, the command to create like our Creator is an important one for Christians to address.

I want to conclude by commenting briefly on this and bringing us back into the original frame of our conversation.

The command, so often thought to bear only on Adam and Eve, is really a creative command issued to all of creation for the sake of creation.  That is, the procreative act is a necessary byproduct of creation’s contingency, which is a fancy way of saying that creation, unlike its Creator, does not have itself as its foundation, and thus must have certain procreative capacities to ensure its continuity.  Moreover, the command to procreate comes after the declaration of everything as “very good,” which means that the diversity of the continuum of creation is imputed a goodness in its relation to God prior to any requisite necessities.  

What does that mean? 

It means that the inherent created “very goodness” of those who constitute a Christian marriage is not invalidated or insufficient by marriages which cannot have childrenor choose not to have children. Logically, this would apply to gay Christians every bit as much as it would apply to infertile Christians. 

Christian couples are required to welcome children into their marriage (should children come); they’re not required to have children. 

Further— and this is key for it’s oft forgotten— Christians believe the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is now a closed commandment. 

The fullness of creation, in terms of Christian doctrine, is fulfilled in its entirety in the coming of Christ. That is, as Paul declares in Galatians and Romans, Christ fills all commandments, including the procreative command. What’s more, the need to fill the earth is no longer necessary, for, as the Bible declares to us in Ephesians, the Fullness of Christ is a Fullness that already now fills all of creation precisely because it is God condescending into His creation itself.  The Creator enters creation, and in so doing, fills creation to its absolute core.  

The crucified and risen Christ is in all of creation; such that, all of creation is a sacrament, rendering the command in Genesis not just closed but obsolete.

Our discussions of sexuality, keeping within the interpretive frame set out above, must acknowledge the coming of the Creator as the fulfillment of the world, and with it, the final completeness of the creative act.  The love that inaugurated the world, the love that every Christian marriage has the capacity to reflect, was made flesh.  

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.

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.

           

Calvin said the human heart is an idol factory. Augustine said our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. DZ of Mockingbird Ministries and the author of the new book, Seculosity, says we’re more religious than ever before we’re church “in church” in different ways.

Love, politics, parenting, technology, fitness are not secular alternatives to religion. They are, says DZ, secular ways of being religious. We’re never not in church now says David, but because the Church of Politics or Soul Cycle are inherently religions of Law, we’re increasingly exhausted, self-righteous, and cruel. We’er searching for “enoughness” from gods that, without the promise of grace, cannot bestow it.

Check out his work at www.mbird.com and grab a copy of his book over at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

And after you do David a solid, pay it forward by helping us out at the podcast to keep delivering you conversations about faith without using stained-glass language. Go to our website (www.crackersandgrapejuice.com) and click on “Support the Show” to become a patreon for chump change.

Micro-Aggression

Jason Micheli —  March 18, 2019 — 1 Comment

Lent 2 — Romans 3.19-24

This is a while ago now—

I’d made a promise to Ali to take steps to save money. We’d talked about cutting costs, stopping the silly spending, and making an effort to be thrifty. 

“Are you on board?” she’d asked me. 

With this tongue, yours truly— a pastor, this professional Christian— said “I do.” 

As part of our mutual cost-cutting vow, Ali and I made the decision to liberate ourselves from the People’s Republic of Verizon. 

We decided to cut the cord and get rid of our cable so that, we would get zero channels on our television. Between Netflix and Tom Brady going to the Super Bowl every year what difference television does it make?

You can imagine how popular our decision was with our children (not). 

     Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our FIOS receiver in its box and shipped it back to Weimar Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision. 

     For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the People’s Republic of Verizon’s bill— I mean, do they think we live in aiport terminals with inflated prices like that? 

     For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want. We didn’t want them inundated with promise after promise after promise that this or that could solve all their problems. 

     Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband—me—is a complete sucker for informercials. 

      A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark. And it’s true. 

Make me a promise about giving me the power to unlock the better me inside me and I’m all yours faster than you can say shipping and handling not included.

     If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words “set it and forget it” fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens at one time. 

     If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine. 

     If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never “that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.”

     No, my first thought was always “that looks like something I need. That will solve all my problems.”

     So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition. There are advertisements and advice and promised solutions everywhere. 

     A couple of years ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish. 

     At that point, having cut the cord, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section? 

     Uh huh, a product demonstration. 

And— truth be told— I thought about my promise to Ali. And I’d meant it, I’d really meant it.

     The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s. 

For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which, let’s just say, got me to thinking of myself as Brad Pritt in some extended, unrated director’s cut scenes

     “Hey, let’s stick around and watch this” I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment. 

     In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call. 

     The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix. 

     Have you seen one? Do you own one?

     If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is the blender-equivalent of that new yacht recently purchased by Dan Synder. 

     Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick: 

“The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems. 

With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.”

     And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: “Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.”

     No, I was thinking…

     “This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.” 

     I looked to my side. Gabriel was transfixed too. 

     The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: “Who enjoys pesto?”

     And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘“I do. I am Italian after all.”

     And she smiled at me— only at at me— and she said: “I’ve always had a thing for Italians.”

     Aheh. 

“I went to Princeton,” I blurted out like we were speed-dating and the clock was about to sound.

     “Can you cook?” she asked me. And I nodded my head, like Fonzi, too cool for words. 

     “Even better” she purred. 

     And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew now she only cared about me. 

     “Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.” 

And all of us men, like mosquitos headed stubbornly towards the light that will be their demise, we nodded like Stepford Husbands. 

     “But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem worthy of declaring a national emergency) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?” 

     And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience. 

     Hypnotized, I said: “No, they won’t do” even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem. 

     She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or a Carl’s Jr commercial, and and then she said in her come-hither voice: 

“I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.”

     I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon. 

It was like I couldn’t help myself— like I was bound and determined to do the one thing I wanted not to do.

 

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This fall Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage in Cupertino to hawk the latest generation of Apple’s wearable technology. 

The series 4 Apple Watch was itself not really new or a noticeable upgrade over its precessors. 

What was new, what was distinct, was its promise in the sales pitch: 

“It’s all new. For a better you.”

The unveiling commercial at the showcase continued with the promise: 

“There is a better you in you.” 

There’s a better you in you and with this product you will have the freedom and power to unlock it. 

The new Apple Watch is but an overt example of the same promise pitched to us three-thousand times a day. 

St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the Law (what we ought to do, who we ought to be) is written not just on tablets of stone but on every single human heart, believer and unbeliever alike. 

Therefore, we’re hardwired to want to do and improve. 

You’re hard-wired to want to be a better you and to build a better world. 

Because the Law is written on your heart, you’re hard-wired to be a sucker for the promise of progress. 

You’re hard-wired by the Law on the your heart to be a sucker for the promise of a better you inside you. 

And so it’s not surprising that is the very same promise dangled in front of us three-thousand times a day. From our TV screens to our Facebook feeds, from our watches to our smartphone notifications, you and I are exposed to over three-thousand advertisements a day. 

Three-thousand per day. 

Every last single one of them relies upon the Law written on your heart. 

Three-thousand times a day— the same simple, seductive formula. They identify a problem— maybe a problem you didn’t know you had until they told you you had that problem. Then they make you a promise: With this product, you can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems) and unlock the better you inside you. 

Three-thousand times a day we’re promised what the Law on our hearts deceives us to believe. 

There’s a better you in you. 

What’s my point?

There’s a better you inside of you— very often, it’s the pitch Christians make too. 

Just invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll unlock the happier you inside of you.Your marriage will be healed. Your kids will stay the straight and narrow. You’ll feel fulfilled. 

Worship, pray, serve, give— and you can unlock the Jesus-version of you inside of you, the you who’s patient and kind and utters nary an angry word. 

With just three easy installments of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, you’ll live like Jesus, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy-times-seven, you’ll never commit adultery in your heart and the log in your eye— shazaam, never to return. 

Not only has my Apple Watch not liberated the better me inside me, it can’t even reliably distinguish between me sitting down and me standing up. 

It failed to wake me up on time this morning, and whenever I ask Siri to play Ryan Adams music (which I won’t be doing anymore) it always plays Summer of ‘69 instead. 

Likewise, what the Church often promises about faith being the key to unlock the better you inside you— to the buyer beware.  

————————

Here’s the lie behind all those promises we’re pitched. 

Here’s the lie the Law, written on our hearts, deceives us to believe.

Here’s the lie— the you inside you is not better. 

In fact, as Jesus teaches again and again, the problem out there in the world is what comes from inside of you.

The answer to what’s wrong in the world… is you, Jesus says.

As the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “…there is no health in us.”

That’s why, St. Paul tells us today, our justification comes completely by Grace, entirely apart from the Law— because we have nothing to contribute to our salvation save our sin.

The you inside you is not better. 

You’re not basically a good person who just requires a little bit of help from your friend Jesus so that you can unlock the better you inside you and live your best life now— no, that’s an ancient heresy called Pelagianism and, though it’s the most popular religion in America, it’s a lie. 

The you inside you is not better. 

The you inside you is bound. 

The you inside you is bound.

We forget— God’s grace, God’s One-Way Love, reveals not just the character of the Giver but the condition of the Receiver. 

The medicine should indicate the disease; the prescription should betray the diagnosis. You don’t require some advice or a nudge in the right direction; you require a savior.

That you require the liberating, unilateral, one-way love called Grace should tell you something about your predicament. 

As Paul Zahl says, the New Testament’s High Christology— it’s view of who Christ is and what Christ has done— comes with a correlative Low Anthropology— a dim view of who we are by nature and the good we’re capable of doing. 

Notice, today—

Paul announces the invasion (that’s the word Paul uses in Greek, apokalyptetai) of God’s grace in Jesus Christ without a single “if” here in chapter three. 

For almost three chapters, Paul’s been raising the stakes, tightening the screws, shining the light hotter and brighter on our sins, implicating each and every one of us. 

The first three chapters of Romans— it sounds like Paul’s whipping you up for an altar call until what you anticipate next from Paul is the word if. 

If you turn away from your sin…

If you turn towards God…

If you repent…

If you plead for God’s mercy…

If you believe THEN God will justify you. 

No— there’s no ifs there’s just this great big but, what Karl Barth says is the hinge of the Gospel, the turning of the ages: “But now, apart from the Law, apart from Religion, apart from anything we do, the righteousness of God has been revealed…” 

The grace of God has invaded our world without a single if, without a single condition demanded of you, without a single expectation for your cooperation.

Because, Paul’s already told you, you’re not capable of cooperating with a single one of those conditions. 

As Paul told us at the top of his argument in verse nine: All of us are under the Power of Sin. And the language the apostle uses there is the language of exodus. All of us are in bondage, Paul says, under the dominion— the lordship— of a Pharaoh called Sin. 

This is a Power from whom we’re never totally free this side of the grave. 

Don’t forget the Paul who celebrates the baptized walking in newness of life just after today’s text is the same Paul who laments (just after that) how the converted heart remains a heart divided against itself; such that, we all do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do. 

There is no health in us.

———————-

Here’s the dark but necessary underside to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love called Grace. And, brace yourselves, in our American culture with its high, optimistic anthropology, this is going to feel like a micro-aggression, so here it comes: 

You are not free.

I’m going to say it again because I know you don’t believe it: You are not free. 

You are not free. 

Your neighbor is not free. Your mother-in-law is not free. Your co-worker is not free. Your boss is not free. Your son? Your daughter? You might already suspect as much, neither is free. Your spouse— hell, every married person already knows this is true— is not free. 

Christianly-speaking, free will is a fantasy. 

Free will is a fiction. 

And that’s an assertion upon which traditional Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, concur. Christianly-speaking, your will is not free. 

Your will is bound. 

All those promises we’re sold three-thousand times a day— they’re pitched to prisonsers not to free people (that’s exactly why they work on us!). 

I realize this is the most un-American thing I could say but to speak the language of free will is not to speak Christian. Your will is not free. 

It’s right there in Romans, the book of the Bible that the Church Fathers put in the middle of your New Testament so that you would know its importance for our faith. 

Your will is not free. Your will is bound, doing the evil you want not to do and not doing the good you want to do. 

You will is not free. Your will is torn, between a Pharaoh called Sin and a Lord named Jesus Christ; such that, all of us who’ve been rescued by grace are like the Israelites in the wilderness. 

God has gotten us out of Egypt but we’ve still got Egypt in us. 

The shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One-Way Love is your bound, unfree will. 

Now don’t get your panties in a bunch, this doesn’t mean you’re a robot. It doesn’t mean that every moment of your life is pre-determined— the only thing predetermined in life is UVA Basketball’s disappointing play in March. 

It doesn’t mean you had no choice this morning between sausage or bacon, jeans or khakis. No, when Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it means that your will is not free to choose (reliably) that which is good. 

When Christianity teaches that your will is not free, it teaches that no one— because of our bondage to sin—by sheer force of will can reliably choose the right thing, which is God, for the right reason, which is selfless love. 

You might choose the good and godly thing, for example, but do you do so for the right reasons? And are those reasons even always evident to you? 

Our love compass is off—that’s what the Church means by the boundedness of your will. 

As John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it in Article X of the 39 Articles: “The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and God.” 

And if all of this sounds like so much theological hocus-pocus to you, consider that Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at UVA, writes that most of us only make free, rational decisions about 13% of time— a statistic that Pat Vaughn’s wife, Margaret, corroborates. 

Most of the time, Timothy Wilson argues, we’re exactly what St. Paul says we are. 

We’re strangers to ourselves. 

Our wills follow our hearts and our reason tags along behind. 

———————-

     

     I drove that Vitamix home from Whole Foods, and I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave. 

     And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because, as my wife pointed out, I already had a blender and a food processor. 

“Who convinced you to buy such ridiculous thing?” she asked me, and I quickly covered Gabriel’s mouth with my hand. 

I shrugged my shoulders. 

“I couldn’t help myself.”

And she smiled and shook her head at unfree me. 

“I know you couldn’t” she said, “I forgive you. Now go return it.”

———————-

For over six months now I’ve been preaching God’s grace to you, Sunday after Sunday. And some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to get around to giving you some advice. Some of you have been riding me about when I’m going to tell you what to do. 

And just so you know— I’ll stop preaching God’s grace just as soon as you actually start believing it. 

I’m not going to stop preaching to you God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean God’s grace isn’t practical for everyday life. 

It is practical for everyday life because everyday everywhere you go everyone you meet has a bound, unfree will. 

So here’s some advice, advice on how to see other humans in light of the Gospel. Your bound, unfree will is the necessary, shadow side to the Gospel of God’s One Way Love, but it is not bad news. 

It is the birth pangs of compassion. 

The moment you understand the Gospel’s implication that people are not as free as they think they are, you’re able to have compassion and tenderness for them. Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you can find sympathy for them. 

What the Gospel teaches us about the bound will is the grace-based way to mercy. 

It’s when you mistakenly think people are free, unbound, active agents of everything in their lives, choosing the terrible damaging decisions they make, that you get angry and impatient with them. 

It’s then that you judge them. 

And it’s then that you begin to confuse what they do for who they are. 

Just because Grace is a message about what God has done doesn’t mean it has no practical implications for what we do. 

Botton line—

Grace means we look at each other with the Savior’s eyes. 

Grace means we look upon each other as fellow captives. 

As those who never advance very far beyond needing Jesus’ final prayer: “Father forgive them, they still know not what they do.”

Exodus International

Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 

     Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

      In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice. 

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

Hi Folks, 

If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC. 

I understand.  

Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now. 

So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ. 

I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.

I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive. 

It’s free.

It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.

These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.

What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.

I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now. 

What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face: 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym. 

If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ. 

While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world. 

Bottom Line—

No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered. 

Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.

After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.

If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.

The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America. 

This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:

“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”

The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination. 

Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward. 

How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:

“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.” 

Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it. 

What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here? 

All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical. 

1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan. 

2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.

3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.

The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two. 

This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine. 

The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens. 

I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.

However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.

Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community. 

Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:

God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.  We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.

After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*. 

Jason

*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me. 

Marriage is for Sinners

Jason Micheli —  February 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

“For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” 

The marriage vows mark marriage out as an ascetic discipline. 

As the Wesley hymn explains:

“The Church’s one foundation/ Is Jesus Christ her Lord/ . . . From heaven he came and sought her/ To be his holy bride;/ With his own blood he bought her,/And for her life he died.” 

The controlling New Testament interpretation of marriage relies upon Genesis, yet— notice—Paul does not associate marriage with procreation or with complementarity, but with typology: with God’s plan to love and save his people, one God, one people. 

Same- and opposite-sex couples seek to participate not in something natural but in something unnatural— something known to us only by revelation— this typology of marriage. 

It belongs to the church’s mission to introduce them into that witness and discipline.

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges (this is why the language of “full inclusion” is insufficiently Christian language, I believe) but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

Because the marriage rite itself presumes that marriage is about sanctification, to deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. 

“It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing. Those couples who approach the church for marriage– and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace” (Eugene Rogers).

Couples who delay marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism.

They unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. Likewise, the Church which denies them marriage may be like the priest who fails to show up and offer them a saving rite.

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners.

 Only, how it is so.

The church must know how to respond both to couples who seek marriage and those who delay it. Among those who seek marriage are same-sex couples who offer their relationship in witness to and imitation of Christ’s love. Among those who delay are same-sex couples waiting for the church to discover and proclaim the significance of its marriage to Christ for their relationships. In both cases, the church faces a test of its understanding of atonement, posed in an immediate pastoral query. How will the church receive the couple that would approach the altar, and how will it suffer the couple that delays?

How the church marries couples shapes its witness to Christ’s atonement. Whom the church marries testifies to its understanding of its own sanctification. The church’s practice of marrying is an evangelical practice, proclaiming that the love of God for God’s people is real, that the atonement is real, that reconciliation is real, that salvation is real. The Spirit calls all Christians to witness to that reality, and the church offers practices for doing so.

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ.

James 3

Harrison Scott Key teaches writing at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. His memoir The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for Humor. Southern Living described Key as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Seinfeld. 

In a recent essay entitled Confessions of a Bad Christian, Harrison Scott Key fesses up:

“The rumors are true. I am a Christian. I go to church. There, I said it.

Let me begin this confession by apologizing to my godless friends: I know you’re worried about me. I know a respected atheist scholar who thinks I’m insane because I believe the Christmas story actually happened in space and time. 

I’ve known many young mothers who are virgins, [in the South] we call them “Baptists.” But I’m not here to preach the Virgin Birth or cite studies showing how weekly church attendance reduces gingivitis. I’m here to confess.

I may be a Christian, but I am a very bad one.

I’m not good at that honeysuckle sweet Christianity that treats Jesus like a baby kitten who says church is silly and all you need is to love your neighbor. I don’t love my neighbors. I can’t even tell you their names. 

One is named Janet or Joy or Cheryl, and she has two loud tiny dogs that I pray will soon die. She is too old to be cutting her grass, and I should volunteer to help her mow it, because one day she is going to die out there in the yard. But I don’t help, because she derives great pride from her independence, I internally surmise, based on absolutely zero evidence.

I’m not even good at the social justice Christianity that longs to affect change with protests and placards featuring clever genital puns. I don’t march in the Women’s March or the Pro-Life Parade or the Pro-Death Parade. I marched once in a Pirate Parade and instantly regretted it, and I am ashamed.

I am ashamed that I find it hard to hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus says I should. Remember everybody standing with Standing Rock? I envy people who cultivate informed, nuanced positions of righteous anger. I barely have time to mow my grass. I stand with a lawnmower, and I push it, after which I hunger and thirst for food and water.

If I find matters of social justice so boring, why do I persist in believing in a God who showed the greatest compassion for the downcast? Fair question. Pray for me. It will have to be you who does the praying. I start in praying about a friend’s fragile marriage and in a second or two, I’m wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult to return gifts.

I’m a bad Christian— we all are in various states of lapse and relapse.” 

————————-

If you were looking for reliably good Christians— if good Christian were even a coherent category— James’ congregation in Jerusalem should be ground zero for Christian perfection. 

Think about to whom James is writing. The church in Jerusalem, these were first generation Christians.

We know from the Book of Acts that James himself was the leader of the “Circumcision Party.” You think the Methodist cross-and-flame logo is a problematic image for a denomination that started in the 1960’s South? 

“Circumcision Party” has got to be the worst branding in the history of the Church. Still, it says more than a bit about their commitment. 

The Christians in this congregation in Jerusalem— their faith was so intense, their discipleship was so earnest that grownup Gentiles among them got circumcised for Jesus. Of all the possible places, you’d think you’d find “good Christians” here in James’ congregation. 

Don’t forget, they were ringside to redemption. The proof doubting Thomas had demanded in order to believe they all received. 

Like James, some of these Christians in Jerusalem had encountered the Risen Christ, face-to-face and hand-to-hole-in-the-hand. They’d eaten breakfast with the Risen Christ. 

If anything could get you to take the log out of your own eye, you’d think it would be the crucified Christ (who’s no longer dead) sitting across a fire from you and passing you sausages. 

These Christians— their faith was such that after Easter, almost overnight, they broke the greatest commandment and started to worship James’ brother as the Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

Blaspheming the sabbath had gotten Jesus strung up on a tree, but almost immediately after Easter these Christians wantonly violated the fourth commandment by worshipping Jesus not on the sabbath but on Sunday. 

I mean, they even pooled all their money together and shared it with one another— that’s not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; that’s the Book of Acts. 

You all don’t even like sharing your pew. 

These were not your lukewarm Christmas-and-Easter-only Christians. You’d expect them to be good Christians. They’d experienced Pentecost firsthand.  The Holy Spirit had fallen on them like tongues of fire, and yet their own tongues set blaze after consuming blaze.

James says today that we cannot do the one thing God in the Garden gave to us to do. In the beginning, God gave us to name every living creature, and then God gave us dominion over all of them and we did a pretty good job of it. 

We managed to tame every kind of beast and bird, every sort of sea creature and reptile. We have tamed every last creature except the beast inside of us. We can charm even a snake, but we cannot control our own forked tongues. 

“You bless God and you curse others with the same mouth, setting off fire after fire,” James judges the church. 

“Your tongue is a world of iniquity, James says, it stains the whole body.”

“This ought not to be so,” James concludes in verse ten. 

Notice—

James, who is a moralist, doesn’t lay down the Law. James doesn’t write: You ought not to be this way. James doesn’t offer: Here’s some advice to get your act together. He doesn’t give them 3 easy steps to tame their tongue. 

He just says: “This ought not to be so.” 

St. James here sounds like St. Paul when Paul describes the Christian life after baptism. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes after Romans 6, “the one thing I want to do is the very thing I do not do, and the very thing I do not want to do is what I do.” 

Both of them sound like Martin Luther describing the life of discipleship “The Law says ‘Do this,’ Luther says, “but it is never done.”

This ought not to be so, James says. 

As though to say: This will always be true of you. 

———————-

Harrison Scott Key, St. Paul, Martin Luther, the believers in James’ congregation— when it comes to being bad Christians, they’re in good company. 

In the days before indoor plumbing and cold showers, St. Francis of Assisi rolled naked in the snow to stave off his dirty, lusty thoughts— just imagine that as a statue in your garden. St. Mary of Egypt was a prostitute for 17 years. St. Bernard led the 2nd Crusade, which makes the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones seem Christian by comparison. 

My Mt. Rushmore hero, Karl Barth, had a live-in mistress his whole life— in addition to his wife. John Wesley preached about Christian perfection and growing in holiness, but even he never stopped being anxious about his salvation and in the name of piety left his family destitute when he died. 

This ought to be so. 

If you were searching for some good Christians, you’d start with saints like these, yet even the best Christians aren’t all that good. 

Mary Karr is another funny, Flannery O’Connor type writer. About her own conversion to Christianity, she writes:

“After years of being a Christian I realized one day I only wanted to kill some of the people on the subway in the morning; whereas, before I was a Christian I wanted to kill every single one of them.” 

What Mary Karr expresses there in her lessened inclination to murder is the Protestant doctrine simul iustus et peccator. Again, whenever the Church whips out its Latin you know it’s important so pay attention. 

Simul iustus et peccator is a fancy catchphrase meaning “at once justified and a sinner.” 

That is, we are always simultaneously (simul) sinful and yet justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. Simul iustus et peccator. 

As that black-and-white television gangster tells Kevin in HomeAlone: “We’re never no better than angels with dirty wings.” You dear faithful— though you are baptized believers, you do not ever advance appreciably beyond being what Harrison Scott Key calls “fools in varying states of lapse and relapse.” 

Simul iustus et peccator. 

To render the Latin into the language of everyday: even on your best Jesus day, you would simultaneously give David Pecker and the folks at AMI ample fodder for you to be found out as a hypocrite. 

Notice— 

This doesn’t make you a bad Christian. 

It makes you a Christian. 

———————-

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that the message of Christianity is foolishness to the Greeks— foolishness because they expected that the Gospel should give them what Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle had given them. 

Morality. Ethics. Teaching. 

Christianity was foolishness because they expected the Gospel to give them a philosophy, a manual, a way of life. Christianity was foolishness because they were looking to grow in goodness. 

In order to find happiness. 

In order to tame the tongue. 

In order to live your best life now. 

That last bit was Joel Osteen not Plato but the point still stands. 

Christianity was absolute foolishness to the Greeks because Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

I’m going to say that again because most Christians today are more Greek than a full house of John Stamoses, and this— though true— likely sounds foolish to you too. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people coping with their failures to be good.

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people holding on for dear life— literally, for life— to the promise that God in Jesus Christ has met you in your failures to be good. 

And God has forgiven you. 

Christianity is not about good people getting better. 

Christianity is about bad people proclaiming to other bad people that God has met you in your failures. 

God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself. God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.  God has met you in your failure to be a good mother, to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister, or a compassionate son, or a good boss, or an understanding daughter. 

God has met you in your failure to tame your two-faced tongue and God has said: “You know not what you’re doing. I forgive you.” 

I know what some of you are thinking: 

Christianity isn’t about good people getting better, it’s about bad people coping with their failures to be good— that can’t be all there is to being a Christian?! 

Even the Boy Scouts manage to make more sense. They’ve got “Do a Good Turn Daily” as their slogan. 

There’s got to be more to being a Christian, right? It can’t all be grace. It can’t be grace and nothing but grace— so help me, that would be foolishness. 

In order to be a good Christian, surely there’s stuff we should do. 

Of course, I’d argue that as soon as you attach a “should” to grace it’s no longer grace, but that’s a debate for another day. 

In the meantime, I’ll see your questions, and I’ll raise you. 

I’ll ask my own question:

Just how is it, do you think, that a religion based on acknowledging our own sins and faults and shortcomings has become (in America especially) virtually synonymous with judgmentalism and self-righteousness and hypocrisy? 

How is it that good news for sinners has become bad news for so many? How is it that what Jesus says is medicine for the sin-sick tastes like poison? How is it that his yoke feels hard and his burden heavy? How is it that the Great Physcian has gotten wrapped up in a Judge’s robe? 

Is it because when you circumscribe Christianity to a religion of good people getting better— or just people becoming good— it’s not long before you’re telling people to do better, be better, which inevitably sounds like “I’m better than you.” Or worse, “You’re not good enough.” 

Good enough for God. 

This isn’t an abstract issue. 

I’ve been a pastor for almost 20 years. You know how many atheists I’ve encountered who’ve told me “Oh Christianity, it’s just too merciful for me, too gracious?” 

Goose egg. 

You know how many I’ve met who’ve written us off because we’re the opposite? 

Too many to count. 

Christianity is endangered in our culture because of a self-inflicted wound. 

We’ve defined Christianity in terms of the Law and not the Gospel. 

And the Law, Paul says, is not only exhausting and futile, it’s a ministry of death.

It’s the Law that says “Do this.” It’s the Gospel that says “It’s all already done.” The Law is what God demands. The Gospel is what God gives. And God gives in the Gospel what God demands in the Law. 

But we’ve mucked it up and muddled it. 

And if you don’t believe me, notice. 

Notice how we distinguish good Christians from bad Christians based— not on their trust in the promise of the Gospel— but upon behavior, morality, deeds. And we do this on the Left and the Right, conservative and liberal alike. 

Notice how we define a good Christian versus a bad Christian based upon obedience to scripture’s commands or adherence to Christ’s teachings. 

In other words: to the Law. 

But the purpose of the Law, scripture says, is to shut our mouths up. 

In repentance and humility. 

No human can tame the tongue, scripture says. 

But the purpose of God’s Law— Old Testament and New— is to shut us up. 

The first step in being a good Christ-following Christian— and, for Greeks like you, it’ll likely take you a lifetime to learn— is knowing that Christ has to carry you most of the way. 

———————-

“I used to be a good Christian,” Harrison Scott Key writes in his Confessions of a Bad Christian. 

  In my boyhood, I was attentive in Sunday school and sang songs about the devil without irony. I was a good boy back then, and longed to be loved for my goodness. And then, around puberty, something happened to transform me into a bad Christian, in addition to puberty.”

  Harrison Scott Key was asked to help a little blind boy find his way to the sanctuary. He was so caught up in thoughts of his own goodness, he walked the blind boy face-first in the floor-mounted drinking fountain.

Key confesses:

“The experience permanently fractured my belief in the purity of my intentions. It would take me years to understand this fact, but the understanding commenced in that church hallway: that a good human being is a temporary and imaginary creature, that even the best of us can believe ourselves gods, and that we are all fools, in various states of lapse and relapse.

I am grateful to the thing we call God for that enduring awareness of my tendency to forget I am no god, not even close, which is what allows me, if not to do good in every moment and for the right end, at least to spot the good from far off and pray for the strength to walk in that direction.

If there’s one thing my long internship at Jesus Enterprises, LLC, has taught me, it’s that I should be much more watchful of what’s inside me than what’s inside you. That is where we have to start.”

The irony?

Just like the owners of those untamed tongues in James’ Church, the author of Confessions of a Bad Christian, he’s actually good one. 

This one is from our upaid contributor, colleague, and friend Rev. Drew Colby— 

Over the last month, with the Covenant Catholic boys’ debacle, and the Wall shutdown, and Northam, and Herring all in the background, I’ve been reading a book a church member gave me: No Future Without Forgiveness by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It’s his account of his time on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa.

By 1990 Black and Brown South Africans had experienced decades (in some ways centuries) of oppression based solely on skin color. The Afrikaans “pigmentocracy” in which Blacks were segregated, dehumanized, intentionally under-educated, and ultimately tortured and killed in droves through armed conflict, had just fallen, and the window for healing was open; but fleeting.

In what Tutu describes as a miracle, rather than inflict proportionate justice, or even pursuing the “Nuremberg Option” against the perpetrators of war crimes and state killings, the citizens chose to pursue reconciliation. The commission called for reports of abuse and crimes of apartheid. They received over 20,000.

Under the terms of the TRC, the criminals and human rights abusers named in such reports were not arrested, or hanged by an angry mob. Instead they were given a chance to apply for amnesty. Complete amnesty. No reprisals. No prosecutions. No fines. Amnesty. What Christians such as Tutu might call unmerited grace.

And what happened was a miracle upon a miracle, what the gospel of John refers to “as grace upon grace.” In the wake of profoundly evil oppression, the oppressors–racist murderers and rapists–came forward and offered the only thing they had: the truth. Victims were present to hear the story of how their loved ones were humiliated, or raped, or killed, shot in the back, burned alive. And the perpetrators then testified, having already been granted amnesty.

Notice this with me.

The victims consented to a process that would let their perpetrators go free in exchange for the truth.

The victims wrote their report with this understanding, then the perpetrators applied for amnesty, and then, once amnesty was already approved, they would be free to give their confession.

It was not the confession that was the pre-condition for their amnesty. It was their amnesty that made way for their confession. It was not repentance that merited grace. It was grace that illicited repentance. It was not their transformation that earned them forgiveness, it was their forgiveness that freed them for transformation.

Unmerited grace, the blotting out of their sins, liberated these Whites in a way that nothing else could.

And it paved a way for the national racial reconciliation and healing which, though ongoing, makes America’s attempts at reconciliation look like child’s play.

Obviously the American story is different. It’s a totally different context, and our “window” for such a process may be closed. The racism we live with now in America is generally more covert, even accidental. Much of the structural, institutionalized racism still exists but without a process like TRC, American racism has been permitted to go underground. There is likely not much hope for thorough reconciliation or restoration in our lives.

Nonetheless, in our current culture, I don’t see anyone coming close to trying. There have been attempts but they’ve been more like virtue signaling than creating space for the open, honest, confession of the sin of racism.

When White politicians or other leaders talk about racism, it’s usually to acknowledge the problems of our racist past. Acknowledgment of past mistakes is not confession of present sin. But, then again, can you blame them?

In our current national and social media discourse, what does anyone have to gain from confessing honestly and openly to inherent racism? What do we do when we find racism or any sin? We call it out and call for their resignation. We assassinate the character and end the career of the person in question.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. This response is largely justified. It may be that Northam must resign, and people have every reason to ask for it; but it is not a solution. It resolves nothing. Consequences make sense but they do not improve race relations.

Nevertheless, the telling of the honest truth is something that can bring resolution.Take it from Archbishop Tutu:

“We were seeing it unfolding there before our very eyes as we sat in the commission… Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves how they had abducted people, shot them and burned their bodies or thrown corpses into crocodile-infested rivers.”

This kind of amnesty for the sake of letting the truth out may not be available to us. It would be nice if we had an American Tutu ready to lead such a process for us. But, even if we had all that, and we could grant amnesty sufficiently so that the truth could be open enough for us to grow past it, there remains one more question.

Any understanding of justice that holds water would say that the history of both Apartheid South Africa the United States of America includes evils that deserve to be accounted for. Punished. To deny this is to leave the wound open.

Amnesty, forgiveness, mercy, grace, will always illicit repentance, but repentance is not atonement. That begs the question, if no one gets punished for these sins, then where have they gone and who will atone for them?

This is why what we say about atonement matters. And it’s why I’m coming to believe that substitutionary atonement is White Liberation Theology…

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. Once for all.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave, we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. Therefore— by your baptism— there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).  And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?

Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it. None of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

Holiness doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. Why would he?

The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there STILL IS CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

I don’t know what will come of the Special Sex Conference, and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us. Nonetheless, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back.