Archives For Parables

     The present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord, who is yet contending against the Principalities and Powers, should determine how we define the meaning of faith (pistis)

The pistis word group can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But if the stage we occupy in the Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then, as Matthew Bates argues in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the strongest and clearest definition of pistis is allegiance. 

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him; he cared whether they were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not affectation but allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

To be allegiant subjects of this King is not to coerce others into obedience but to conform ourselves in obedience to him, an obedience that might itself call out and invite others to become a part of his people. Added to the scandal of particularity is the scandal that what God has done through a particular crucified Jew is for all people. That Christ’s Lordship is a claim for and over all people; however, does not mean as his subjects we’re tasked with subjugating all people to that claim.

As John Howard Yoder says:

“Our faithfulness to Jesus the Lord entails becoming locally explicit about Jesus” not through Christendom coercion (or attractional manipulation that profits from the vestiges of Christendom) but through “the reign of God being concretely and locally visible in laces around the world.”

“The primary task and indeed mission of the church is its own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the epistles are written to that end. As such, however, the church as a converted and converting people is also itself a constant invitation and call to the citizens of the wider world to enter the life of the people of God.”

Put another way, Christians did not change Rome by attempting to change Rome. Christians changed Rome by living faithfully within Rome as subjects of a different Caesar.

Consider how our own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can be conveyed through the liturgy simply by retranslating pistis as allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed could be rephrased so it became more obvious what is at stake in the profession: “I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

And at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…” 

At the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis in alignment with our confession that Christ is Lord: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or this week’s lectionary Gospel: “Whoever has allegiance [to me] the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” That’s a mighty word when you remember Jesus has in mind King Herod who, at his despotic whim, had a mountain moved for his palace.

Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bulls@#$.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge and the power of the practices of the Church to call BS becomes more apparent when we translate faith in terms of allegiance.

 

Portrait Karl BarthI’m actually preaching last Sunday’s Jeremiah lection this weekend, but I did notice this Sunday’s Gospel lection is Luke 15.1-32, a trifecta of parables about lost objects and creatures ending with the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Or is it the Prodigal Son?

I can’t let the Luke 15 parable pass on the lectionary without mentioning what I take to the best interpretation of it from my Mt Rushmore theologian, Karl Barth.

Barth creatively tackles the parable in Part 2 of Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics, The Homecoming of the Son of Man. Already by the title you can that Barth is framing the parable in terms of atonement or what he terms the Doctrine of Reconciliation. Obviously, to make this parable a story of the homecoming of the “Son of Man” is contrary to how we often treat it, but Barth argued (both creatively and, I think, correctly) that every parable warrants a proper Christological exegesis; that is, every parable Jesus tells is on the first order self-revelation, making every parable about Jesus before it’s about God generically or any of his listeners.

Barth begins his interpretation of Luke 15 with John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”  Barth writes that the word “flesh” is a statement about God:

“We say – and in itself this constitutes the whole of what is said – that without ceasing to be true God, in the full possession and exercise of His true deity, God went into the far country by becoming [human] in His second person or mode of being as the Son – the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”

In other words, it is Jesus, who is and remains fully God, who goes into a ‘far away country’ by becoming fully human.

“Without ceasing to be man, but assumed and accepted in his creatureliness and corruption by the Son of God, humanity – this one Son of Man – returned home to where He belonged, to His place as true man…”

Says Barth, the atonement is where God in Christ “goes into a far country” and humanity in Christ “returns home” to the Father’s House. In other words, when Jesus is reconciled with God all of humanity is reconciled with God because Jesus, as ‘fully human,’ is “true humanity.”

David Fitch, in Prodigal Christianity, takes Barth another step by suggesting that Barth’s reading of Luke 15 provides us with a framework for what it means to be missional. Fitch believes that the point of the parable is that God radically sends God’s own Son into the far country to bring back all who are lost. The journey of the Son reveals the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world and that the Church are those sent out- prodigally- into world by the Spirit to join in the Son’s work of returning all that belongs to the Father to his feast.

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

lightstock_35237_small_user_274151710. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

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

Example:

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

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

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

Here it is:

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

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

Manager gets fired with cause.

Decides to save his own skin.

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

Jesus says: ‘Well done.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.