Archives For Parables

Every Last Loser

Jason Micheli —  August 25, 2019 — 1 Comment

Matthew 20.1-16

I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that Jesus should mind his own business and stay out of the public square. 

“I don’t want to hear about politics at church!” 

It’s maybe the only surviving bipartisan sentiment. Church folks always want the Church to stay out of politics, which for most of us— let’s be honest now— usually means we don’t want the Church to challenge our particular hue of politics. 

I remember—

One Sunday back in my very first church just outside of Princeton, after I preached an allegedly “political” sermon against state-sponsored torture, which both of America’s political parties supported at the time (this was right after September 11), this ruddy-faced church member assaulted me in the narthex and, sticking his finger in my chest, hollored at me, “Just where do you get off preaching like that, preacher?!”

I stammered. 

So he pressed me.

“If Jesus were still alive, do you honestly think he’d having anything to say about torture and the government?!”

“Um, well, uh…I mean, he was crucified, I think…um…maybe he would have…” I started to say.

He shook his head and waved me off.

“Jesus would be rolling over in his grave if knew you’d brought politics into our church!”

Of course, that’s the rub. 

It’s not our church. It’s not my church. It’s not your church. It’s not our church. It’s his Church. We can insist that the Church keep out of politics— that’s fine, I’m not a sadist. It makes my life easier— but notice how such insistence assumes that we’re in charge of the Church. 

Though we spent three long years plotting to kill him, unfortunately for us Jesus Christ is not dead. 

With Gestapo officers standing in the back of his lecture hall, spying on him, Karl Barth said: 

“If Jesus Christ is only a pleasing religious memory, there will be nothing left of the church but a human community which is puffed up with the illusion that it has inherited the kingdom task all to itself—an illusion that works its own revenge upon the church.” 

Most of the time, there, I think Barth’s describing the United Methodist Church, but Barth’s point is that Jesus Christ— God’s only chosen one— is not dead. 

And the God we serve is Living God, a God who speaks and acts, a God who calls and conscripts. The God we serve is a Living God, a God on the move, a God who is able— able to do more than answer the items on your prayer list. 

The God we serve is a Living God who is able to push and pull and prod and provoke his Church to go where it wants not to go.

In our sin, we can do our damnedest to keep politics out of the church, but can we, in our finitude, keep the Living God from dropping politics into our laps if God so elects? Are we able to resist the Risen Lord who persists in recruiting undeserving sinners like us into his labor?

———————-

I’m not being speculative here. 

Having returned from vacation last Sunday, I arrived here at church on Tuesday morning, bright and early, with a long To Do list and my whole work week meticulously laid out. 

Then our Lord, as he’s wont to do, messed up all my preconceived plans. He dragged politics into his church, and he strong-armed us into doing his work. 

We were in the middle of a staff meeting. 

A visitor buzzed the security intercom at Door #2. 

“I need help,” she shouted into the speaker in hesitant, broken English. 

Dottie, our secretary, buzzed her inside and showed her to my office to wait while we finished our work at the staff meeting. I figured if her request was illegitimate then she’d grow impatient with waiting and would move on to the next easy mark. 

When we were finished with our work, I walked back to my office and discovered a woman about my age, neatly but simply dressed, with her black hair pulled back taut. Three children sat across the same sofa as her. 

Their names, she told me, were Scarlett, Edward, and Denis— 6, 12, and 14 years old respectively. 

I offered her my hand and introduced myself in my broken Spanish. 

She introduced herself as Carolina. 

“I was a teacher,” she said out of the blue and looking like she was struggling to get the English right. 

I must’ve looked confused because she went on to explain, and what she told me wasn’t what I was expecting nor was it what I wanted to hear with such a busy week before me.

“We just arrived here,” she said, “last night. From Nicaragua.”

I still wasn’t processing her situation and it must’ve showed because she quickly added: “We left Nicaragua fifty days ago.”

“Porque?”

“My community very dangerous,” she said and wiped away tears, “I left— my home, my work— for them, for my children.” 

And then, as best as she could, she told me about their journey, first by bus, then on foot, and finally stowed away in the back of a delivery truck. 

Seeking asylum, they’d been separated and detained at the border and then eventually reunited and released on her own recognizance to report back at a later date. 

She pulled a cell phone out of her back pocket and showed me the documents that corraborated her story, the first one stamped with her mug shot. 

They arrived here on Monday and are now living in the basement of an acquaintance less than a minute’s walk from here. 

Literally, a stone’s throw. 

God apparently isn’t all that concerned with our concerns about keeping politics out of his Church. 

“Do you have any food?” I asked her. 

“No.”

“Do you have a job lined up?”

“No.”

“Do you have a lawyer— an abogado?”

“No.”

“What about your children— are they registered for school?”

She shook her head and appeared overwhelmed.

“What are you going to do?”

This time she had an answer. 

“I prayed and I prayed all last night,” she said, and she’d suddenly stopped crying and looked both serious and euphoric. “I prayed and finally God spoke. He answered me, and God said to me to come here.”

“Here?”

She nodded. 

“God said to me that he’d make you help us.”

“He did, did he?”

And she smiled and shook her head and said “Yes.” 

She said “Yes” emphatically, like she’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Isn’t that just like God,” I muttered under my breath, “he knows I don’t have time for one more thing and so he sends you my way.”

“Como?” she asked, confused by my mumbling to myself. 

“Nevermind,” I said, “it sounds like Jesus is determined for us to help you so what choice do I have?”

“None,” she said matter-of-factly, “no choice,” like it had been a serious question. 

As though God had made me her hired hand. 

———————-

Check out this parable. 

Jesus would’ve known it. It was taught by the ancient rabbis before getting recorded and canonized in the Jewish Talmud. 

“A king had a vineyard for which he engaged many laborers, one of whom was especially apt and skillful. What did the king do? He took his laborer from his work, and walked through the garden conversing with him. 

When the laborers came for their wage in the evening, the skillful laborer also appeared among them and received a full day’s wage from the king. The other laborers were angry at this and said, “We have toiled all day long while this man has worked but two hours; why does the king give him the full wage even as to us?” 

The king said to them: “Why are you angry? Through his skill he has produced more in two hours than all of you have done all the day long.”

Notice—

In the Jewish Talmudic parable, the emphasis falls on the exceptional worker’s economic productivity, but in Jesus’ remix of the parable, the stress is not on the laborer but on the landowner.

The focus is not on the worker’s activity but the owner’s activity, going out, again and again, seeking and summoning. The focus isn’t on the laborer’s contributions but on the landowner’s character, “Are you envious because I am generous?” 

Actually, in Matthew’s Greek, the landowner asks the grumbling laborers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” 

Because I am good— that’s the money line; that’s the clue.

Right before Jesus spins his version of this parable, Jesus chastises a wealthy honor roll student for calling him good. “Good teacher,” the rich young man says to Jesus, “what must I do to have salvation?” 

And rather than answer him outright, Jesus takes him to task for his salutation. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” 

No one is good, Jesus has just said, but God.

If you want salvation, Jesus then tells him, you’ve got to be free for it. Freed for it. Go, offload all your stuff on Craigslist and then come follow me. 

In other words, whatever that word salvation includes it cannot exclude following and obeying Jesus Christ. 

Follow me, Jesus invites the rich kid with the perfect resume. 

But, Matthew reports (this was centuries before Marie Kondo), the rich young man had too much stuff in the way of following after Jesus so he turns around and turns away from Jesus and returns home. 

He is the only person recorded in the Gospels who’s invited by Jesus to become a disciple but refuses. 

And looking on the rich kid walking back home, Jesus says, “It’s hard for rich folks like him to follow me, about as hard as camel squeeing its humps and luggage through the eye of a needle.”

And the disciples, knowing they have more in common with the overachieving do-gooder than with the unemployed, homeless carpenter from Nazareth, throw up their hands, chagrined. 

“Then there’s no hope for any of us!” they gripe, “If a success story like him can’t follow you and following you is salvation, then who can be saved?”

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it’s impossible. But for God, all things are possible,” which offends Peter, who gave up his fishing business— all on his own— to come work for the Lord and here Jesus is saying “Well, God will get even losers like this rich guy to ‘Yes.’ Watch, God will make followers of them too.”

“That’s not fair” Peter grumbles, and I get it. Trust me, no one has a beef with Christ’s poor taste in Christians quite like a pastor.

“That’s not fair,” Peter gripes. 

So then Jesus doubles down with a redacted version of a familiar parable. 

———————-

The denarius, which the landowner pays all the laborers, was the daily subsistence pay required by the Torah. 

It’s prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. It’s minimum wage. It’s the equivalent of pulling a shift at Wendy’s. So the workers who show up just before quitting time— their pay is unearned, yes, but its not extravagant by any means. It’s not gratuitous; it’s what the Law requires.

This is not a parable of God’s grace as opposed to our works. 

This is a parable about God’s gracious and determined work to enlist every last loser to his work. Like alot of the parables, this one is misnamed. 

It’s not the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Heck, the laborers don’t do any labor onstage that we see at all. The laborers don’t so much as speak until they grumble at the very end. 

No, this is the Parable of the Land Owner and his prodigal labor of summoning workers to his vineyard. 

Nearly all the verbs in the story belong to him. He goes out— five times he goes out; he even goes out after there’s hardly anything left to be done— seeking laborers for his vineyard. 

Jesus tells you the takeaway at the very top of the story. 

“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a landowner who went out to find laborers…”

For his what?

For his vineyard.

Jesus assumes you know the Book of Isaiah where God’s self-chosen image for Israel and her vocation— her vocation to be a light to the world, to be a peculiar, set-apart, pilgrim people, to be a holy people, to be a nation within and among the nations, to be a people who embody— unlike the nations— God’s justice and righteousness— God’s image for his elect People and their vocation in the world is a vineyard. 

It’s Isaiah chapter five. 

God is the landowner who labors in this parable. 

It’s about God’s work to find workers. 

The primary difference between a Living God and a dead god, an idol, is that the latter will never shock or surprise you, never offend you or inconvenience you, and never call you to do something you wouldn’t have done apart from conversion and worship.

This parable—

It’s about this vocative God of ours. 

This God who refuses to accomodate our apathy and functional atheism by remaining comfortably distant and idle but is instead always on the move, going out, inviting and enlisting, calling and conscripting, seeking and finding and arm-twisting Kingdom accomplices in a world that knows not that Jesus is Lord. 

We can argue whether or not there’s any work we must do as Christians who are justified by grace alone, but the reality is that Jesus Christ is not dead and if he’s got a work for you to do, by God, he’s going to give it to you and he’s going to get you to do it.

———————-

I remember—

There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was Ann. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. 

She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldnʼt have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.

Instead Ann threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they wanted, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.

I only found out about this when Annʼs mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her daughter’s head. 

Red-faced and furious, she said: “Preacher, youʼve got to talk to her. Youʼve got to convince her to change her mind. Youʼve got to show her sheʼs throwing her life away.”

Ever the obedient minister, I met with Ann and communicated all her motherʼs fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldnʼt jeopardize her career. 

The Gospel’s about grace not works, I told her.

Ann looked back at me liked Iʼd disappointed her in some way. “Didnʼt Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?” she asked.

“Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…Jewish hyperbole and all…he couldnʼt have been serious…that wouldʼve been irresponsible. At least tell me why youʼre doing this.”

“Why do you think?” she asked like there could be only possible answer and it should be obvious. “Jesus sorta came to me and he spoke to me and he told me to go and do it.”

“He did, did he?”

And her eyes narrowed, like she was about lay a straight flush down on the table. 

“Are you telling me, pastor, that I should listen to you instead of him.”

“Um, uh…okay, I think we’re done here. Just leave me out of it when you talk to your parents.”

————————

I know you want to keep politics out of the Church. 

I get it.

But the problem is, it’s not your Church and the Risen Christ, the Living God, he’s on the move. He’s always going out, calling and conscripting.

And he is free to drop whatever work he chooses into your lap whether or not it obeys our boundaries of what’s acceptable. 

The Lord is no respecter of propiety. With pictures of asylum seekers all over the newspapers, God this week brought politics in to his church here. 

And just like that, God got us to working. 

Meredith, our Children’s Director, found games to occupy the kids while they waited. Peter put down what he was doing and left to stuff his trunk with food for them. And I stared at the fourteen items I had on my To Do list for the day as I waited on hold, making calls all day long for Carlina, connecting her with the county, finding her a lawyer, locating services, resourcing her three kids.

When we drove them home later, I carried bags of food inside and I gave her my cell number and I told her that if there was anything else she needed to call me. It was the sort of compassionate gesture you make to someone when you don’t really expect them to take you up on the offer. 

Later that night I got a text from a number I didn’t recognize. 

“This is Carolina,” it said, “thank you to you and your church.”

“De nada.”

And then I watched the text bubbles roll up and down as she texted another message. “The school say I need to go to Central Office to register my children.” 

“How are you going to get there?” I texted back. 

“I prayed,” she replied, “and God said you should take me.”

“He did, did he?”

“Si.”

And then the next text quickly followed.

“God say to tell you that I’m baptized. You have an obligation to me. As a brother. In Christ.” 

“That’s the annoying inconvenience of worshipping a Living God,” I typed but didn’t send. 

And so, thanks to Jesus, I spent most of the next day driving her and her children to Merrifield to get her kids registered and tested and immunized. And then the next day, Jesus apparently summoned my wife and son to go purchase school supplies for all of them. 

———————-

At the end of the week, I mentioned all the details to Dottie, our secretary and she replied, “In order to be a pastor, you must have to really enjoy helping people in need.” 

“Enjoy?” I asked, “Do you know many people in need? Most of them aren’t that enjoyable.” 

“Then why did you choose to do it?” 

“Choose? I didn’t choose it at all. I got summoned.”

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 18.9-14 — The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

At the first unsuspecting church on which a bishop foisted me— we staged a Christmas pageant during the season of Advent. 

During dress rehearsal that final Sunday morning before the performance, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. 

When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first-grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds—both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men— started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son upside the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

Truth be told, the little church had neither the numbers nor the talent to man a lemonade stand much less mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better— and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman— I said yes.

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. 

At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: “Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings as though he were wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

Because, of course, he was wondering where he was and how he’d gotten there. 

For some reason, be it haste, laziness, or a dare involving some sum of cash, the mother-in-charge of the pageant had made the magi responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. 

Another wise man was dressed like the former WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik. 

And the third wise man wore a gray and green Philadelphia Eagles bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white fur-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, King Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself a question you all cause me to ask from time to time too. 

Why didn’t I go to law school?

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: “The Gift of Christmas.”

On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me.

His name was Mike. He was an insurance adjustor with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes. He led a Bible Study on Wednesday mornings that met at the diner. He delivered Meals on Wheels. He chaired the church council. He supervised the coat closet. He mentored kids caughgt in the juvenile justice system. He was the little church’s most generous donor. 

And he was more than little officious in his righteousness.

Mike never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. 

Of all the nerve.

I knew immediately what he was implying or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman— a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

The Holy Mother of God was being portrayed by a homewrecker. 

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business to fund his gambling habit. Another wise man was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel— he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. 

His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played by a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

The man playing the role of Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and father of Jesus’ cousin John, owned a construction company and had been accused of and charged for fraud by several customers in town, including a couple in the congregation. 

He’d bilked them out of thousands and thousands of dollars.

Zechariah— his name was Bill— every first Sunday of the month, Bill began to cry, tears streaming down his sunburnt carpenter’s cheeks, whenever I placed a piece of bread in his rough, calloused hands and promised him, “This is the Body of Christ broken for you.” 

Maybe more than anyone in that little church, he depended on the promise that when Christ says “This is my Body broken for you” you means me, too.

“There’s no conditions,” I’d told him once after the you-know-what with his business hit the fan. 

“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. For all of us, that you means me. The forgiveness— it’s for you. You’ve got to take Christ at his absolving word or you’re calling God a liar, which is alot worse of a sin than any you’ve committed. The truth about you is never what you see in the mirror— good or bad— the truth about you is always found in the broken piece of bread placed in your hand. You’re no different than anyone else here.”

Mike, the insurance adjuster, held the program in his hands and read the cast members’ names under his breath. 

Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:    

“Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?’

And because I’m not a brave man (and because I didn’t much like her) I pointed at the mother-in-charge. 

“She did. She cast them all. Blame her.”     

He shook his head in disgust and then he gestured towards Zechariah, pretending now to be struck mute, and he said: “It’s one thing for him to even show his face here Sunday after Sunday without mending his ways but…this?! Do you really think he’s the sort of person who should be sharing this story with our church and our community? What in the hell have you been preaching to him, pastor? Go and sin some more?!”

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary. 

She hadn’t had the energy for any of the rehearsals. She just showed up at the worship service when it was time to perform the pageant pushing a walker, from which hung a black and green oxygen tank.

Mary was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. 

She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his makeshift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod, Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

With the walker resting next to the pulpit, the tube to her oxygen was pulled almost taut. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone.

With her hands bruised from blood thinner, she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but again I was terrified of the mother-in-charge. 

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air: “She shall bear a son…(breath)…and you are to name him Jesus…(breath)…for he will save people from their sins…(breath)…”

Except—

That morning Mary didn’t start by narrating the Christmas story. 

She went off script. 

I don’t know if she went off script because she hadn’t been at the rehearsals or if in her old age she was confused and rambling, or maybe she was just filling time while she tried to locate her spot in the script. 

I like to think she’d heard the scuttlebutt about Mike and his righteous indignation over the likes of the people who populated the parish’s pageant. 

She began by introducing the passage. 

“The Bible tells us about God being born as Jesus,” Mary said, “only after a long list of begats.” And she took a breath from her oxygen mask. “Emmanuel…God-with-us…(breath) comes from a family tree every bit as knotted as ours (breath) a family of scoundrels and unbelievers (breath) rapists and hookers (breath) cheats and those consumed by their resentment over being cheated upon (breath) all the way back to Abraham (breath) who wasn’t righteous (breath) but was reckoned so on the only basis any of us are so counted, faith, alone (breath). Christ comes from a family just like us,” she said and took a breath.  

“He comes from sinners for sinners.”

And I looked over at Mike, who’d been standing in the narthex passing out programs. In addition to everything else, Mike was the head usher too. 

When the pageant began, Mike’s ears had been beat red and the vein in his forehead throbbing so outraged and incredulous was he that we were “telling the story of our savior with those kinds of people,” but, hearing that tiny little women with her Gospel promise, he suddenly hung his head. 

He looked embarrassed— as though, God the Holy Spirit had just smacked him upside the head. 

Humility is only ever something we discover because humility is something done to us.

Katie in the heavenly host nearly made it through the Christmas pageant in the clear, but when the wise men showed up delivering their gift-wrapped boxes she ran to the trash can in the choir loft to deliver into it the last of her breakfast. 

Mary never made it to the next Christmas. She died that spring clutching the same promise she’d preached to us that Sunday in Advent. 

Zechariah left the church shortly after I did, and he became a preacher in a storefront start-up church, preaching the promise that whether we mend our ways or not, when it comes us,  God never mends his ways. No matter what, God will deal with you tomorrow exactly as God dealt with you yesterday, by grace. 

Turns out, he was a good preacher too— only those who know they’re not good realize that the promise is too good not to believe.

After the worship service that Sunday in Advent finished, I stood outside near the front door to the sanctuary, shaking hands as the bell rang and the organ groaned out the last notes of the postlude. Mike was one of the last to leave. In addition to everything else, he always cleaned up the pews after worship and vacuumed up the communion crumbs from the floor. 

His hand felt hot and sweaty in the December air, like he’d been wringing his hands in consternation. 

“We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God, but I guess that doesn’t stop us from measuring distances does it?” 

But I didn’t catch his meaning because as he started to walk home down the sidewalk, I thought to myself (and remember, this is a long time ago in a county far far away, back in my pre-sanctified days): 

“Thank God, I’m not a self-righteous, holier-than-thou, bookkeeping hypocrite like him.” 

  Two men went up to the temple to pray one Advent Sunday morning, the first a Methodist preacher— a professional Christian— the second a modern day Pharisee named Mike. 

The latter, not the former, went back down to his house justified. 

———————-

But on some other Sunday?

You know as well as I do. 

Under a different set of circumstances, it could just as easily be the former not the latter. Come next Sunday it could just as easily be the tax collector ubering home whilst congratulating himself that he really gets how God’s grace works unlike that holy-rolling bookkeeper who makes himself the subject of all his prayers and gets caught red-handed in his self-righteousness.

All of us— we’re always, if not simultaneously then from one Sunday to the next, at once, sinners and saints. We leave church tax collectors enjoying our forgiveness, yet as soon as we get into the fellowship hall or log into Facebook we’re back to being Pharisees. 

They’re two different characters in the parable, but they’re both in us. 

No matter how hard you try, you will go and sin some more.

That’s why (this might sound obvious to some of you, but I promise you it’s not self-evident to many) the Gospel is for Christians. 

The Gospel is even for Christians. 

The Gospel is especially for Christians. 

We tend to think of the Gospel (the promise that while you were yet hostile to God, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification)— as though it’s for non-Christians. 

Street-corner evangelists stand on street-corners not in church parking lots.

We tend to think of the Gospel of grace as a doorway through which we pass to get into the household of God; so that, we can then get on with the real business of living like Christ and doing as Christ for our neighbors. 

But thinking of the Gospel as prologue to your Christian life, nothing could be more unbiblical. 

The Bible teaches that Christ comes to dwell in our hearts by what exactly? 

By faith. 

And the Bible teaches that the faith by which Christ gives himself to us comes to us how?

Not by doing. 

By hearing. 

Christ gives himself to us by faith that comes to us by hearing the word. 

And not just any word, the Bible teaches, a specific word. 

The promise of grace. 

The Gospel word. 

The Gospel gives Christ himself to us the way a wedding vow gives a bride her groom. 

The Gospel, therefore, is for Christians too not just potential converts. 

The Gospel is for Christians especially because the Gospel that gives you Christ, the Bible teaches, is the same Gospel that grows Christ in you. 

The way to grow in grace is to cling to the promise of it, to return to it over and again. 

Living a grace-filled life is like learning a song by heart— this song.

Because we don’t ever stop being a tax collector one Sunday and a Pharisee the next, we don’t ever stop, we don’t ever advance past, we don’t ever level up beyond needing to the hear the Gospel. 

This good word, the Gospel of Christ— just as Jesus said— it’s the Living Water without which first we get thirsty and then we get exhausted before finally our faith dries up, and we die in our sins. 

The Gospel word that gives Christ to you is the Bread of Life that keeps on feeding Christ to you— that’s what he means by calling himself Manna. 

The Gospel is the Bread of Life, and we’re always one meal away from starving.

And, without that meal, without the Gospel, we have nothing to offer our neighbor, we have nothing to offer the poor and the oppressed, we have nothing to offer them other than what the world already offers them and how the world offers it. 

Which is to say, thank God. 

God has not made us like other people. 

God has made us Christians. 

We are different from other people. 

We are the particular people God has put into the world who’ve been set free by the Gospel to admit that we’re just like other people. We’re publicans and Pharisees all. We’re worse than our worst enemy thinks of us, yet we’re loved to the grave and back.

Thank God, we’re not like other people. 

We’re different in that we have this Gospel that frees to confess that we’re no different. 

And that difference—

A people set freed to know and own that we’re no different than other people…

That difference is the difference Christ makes in a world of Us vs. Them.  

God Gone Wild

Jason Micheli —  June 16, 2019 — Leave a comment

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued with Jesus’ macabre little drama in Matthew 22.1-14

Last week, some of your lay leaders and I were emailing each other back and forth regarding what we should do about a homeless, undocumented man who’s been sleeping outside near the trash bins at our mission center on Heritage Drive. 

“You should see how he’s dressed— the custodians are creeped out by him.”

And so we exchanged emails, weighing the merits of shelters and county services against our concerns about safety and liability on the one hand and the police and ICE on the other hand. 

At some point during the Reply All email thread, Eldon Hillenbrandt, who— if you don’t know him— is a wonderful, earnest, sincere man without a sarcastic or cynical bone in his body (in other words, he’s everything I’m not) replied with a wonderfully earnest and sincere question. He asked us: “What do you think Jesus would do?” 

WWJD— what would Jesus do?

Totally sincere question, not cynical or sarcastic in any way. 

And probably Eldon had in mind a parable like the sheep and the goats. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. What would Jesus do about the stranger sleeping against the dumpster in his stinking, shabby clothes? 

And because I’m the way my Maker made me, when it came to Eldon’s completely earnest and sincere question I couldn’t help myself. 

Like those salmon who swim upstream in order to mate even though doing the deed will be the death of them, I couldn’t help myself. 

Just as some artists work in oil or watercolors, I work in saracasm and middle school boy bathroom humor. 

I couldn’t resist typing in reply: “WWJD? Cuff him! Hand and foot! Torture him! Kill him! Throw him in Hell!” 

Fortunately, as I gazed upon my computer screen, the cursor still blinking at the end of my adolescent quip, I suddenly had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity and thought better about sending it.

In case you haven’t met her, I call that moment of clarity, Ali. 

So I deleted the comment and instead sent out some prosaic pastor-speak.

But the problem is— 

We can’t backspace our way away from the Jesus who tells this parable today.

———————-

As liberal mainline Protestants, we’ve all been conditioned into believing that Christianity boils down to being nice and doing nice; therefore, if we have any religious convictions at all it’s that God is nice too. And maybe at first you thought that’s where Jesus’ story was headed. 

An evite goes out for a great extravagant party, but those in the VIP queue— the fat cats and country club set, the season ticket holders and the keto dieters, the cronies of the rich man— mark the invitation read and forget all about it. 

So the rich man says, “Hey, I’ve already paid the photographer. I’ve got a Costco’s worth of beef tenderloin under the broiler, and the DJ’s already started playing the Electric Slide. Go out beyond the suburbs and bring in the folks from the Halfway House— and don’t forget those guys who loiter around the 7-Eleven too. Let them come into my party. The 1% don’t deserve my generosity.” 

Probably as Jesus’ story was being read at first you thought you liked it. You like the idea of God going out like Bernie Sanders to the marginalized and the poor and the dispossessed and inviting them to a fine china, cloth napkin, open bar party. 

It’s a nice thought.

And it would be nice if Jesus just left it alone right there, which is sort of the way Jesus tells it in Luke’s Gospel.

But Matthew? 

I mean— all this festival of death needs to be more terrifying are creepy twin girls, an elevator full of blood, and Jesus with a hatchet saying “Here’s Johnny.” 

And maybe a ginger kid too— a ginger would make it scarier. 

What gets you about Jesus’ story in Matthew is not the graciousness of the King esteeming the lowly onto his guest list, as in Luke. 

What gets you is this King’s totally inappropriate and excessive behavior. 

“Oh, the A-Listers couldn’t be bothered to open the Paperless Post? Some clicked ‘Maybe?’ Really? Well then, I’ll tell you what, Alfred. I want you get some of the hired help and I want you to cross them off the guest list permanently, if you know what I mean. No, that’s right, you heard me correctly, hand and foot. Send them to a place worse than Cleveland! They’ll regret sending their regrets when I get through with them!”

Then, as if the body count wasn’t already high enough, in a flourish only House Lanister could love, there’s Jesus’ finale. Among the good and bad gathered into the King’s party, this panhandling vagrant off Braddock Road makes it past the maitre’d only to get himself shipped off to one of Dick Cheney’s black sites allbecause of the way he’s dressed. 

“You there— yeah you.” 

Actually, the word the King uses in Greek is hetaire, which means, basically, “Buster.” 

“Hey how’d you get in here dressed like that? We’ve got beluga on ice and Chateau Branaire-Ducru uncorked. This party is black tie and tails only, buster.”

“Well, sir, I was sleeping outside next to the Mission Center trash bins only an hour ago, and they don’t stock formal wear in the church’s coat closet.” 

And the “gracious” King responds: “Really? Well then…Bind him, hand and foot! Throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

———————-

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible…

———————-

I know you—

It really bothers you that the formerly sweet baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers would tell a story like this to nice, well-mannered people like you. It bothers you to hear the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world roaring like a lion at…

At what exactly? 

Failure to RSVP? 

A party foul?

What gives?

Admit it—

We all want a God who says of our flagged but unopened evites, “Oh, your kids have a soccer game? You were up late last night? You can catch it online? That’s okay, I know you’re busy. We’ll miss you at the party but no biggie. Raincheck?”

We want a God who is as cool and dispassionate about us as we are about him.

We don’t want this irrational, incongruous God. 

We don’t want this God gone wild. 

We don’t want this King who is ferociously determined to celebrate his free party. 

No matter the costs. 

I mean— that much is obvious, right? 

As much as it tightens our sphincters and gives nice types like us acid reflux, for his macabe little drama Jesus rudely casts his Heavenly Father as this bezerk, damn-the-torpedoes, party-or-bust King. 

Which puts us where in the story?

———————-

Who are we supposed to be at this party?

The A-list?

Does Jesus mean for you to identify with those at the top of the King’s guest list? The ones who for whatever reason (or none at all) don’t accept the King’s invitation? Actually, the Greek in verse three isn’t as neutral as it sounds. The word is amelsantes, and it means literally, “They didn’t give a damn.”

“The King sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the party, but they didn’t give a rip,” Jesus says.

Maybe that is who Jesus means us to be in the story because he conjugates the VIPs’ apathy in the imperfect tense. 

It’s: “They were not giving a rip…” 

That is, these A-Listers’ snubbing of the King’s call is an ongoing rejection; as if to say, the world will always be full of idiots who refuse to trust and enjoy a good thing when they hear it. 

Free grace, dying love, unqualified acceptance, and unconditional forgiveness for you— it might as well be a prostrate exam given the way some of us respond to it. 

Is that us?

Obviously, you all give a rip. 

You wouldn’t have dragged yourself out of bed, showered, and shown up this morning for a subpar sermon if you didn’t care. 

But maybe like that first group of invitees, you make your way in life assuming that God’s good, gracious nature means you’re free to ignore his call upon your life until after you’re finished with all your better plans. 

Maybe that’s why Jesus repeats the word call every other verse, from the top of his story to the bottom. 

As though the King’s call is a countdown. 

Going once. 

Going twice…tick tock.

What about that second batch of evites? 

The King sends out his servants a second time to those on the guest list. And they deliver the message: Look this party is off the hook! The oxen and the fatted calves (plural!) have been in the smoker since last night. The keg is tapped. Come on already! 

Notice—

It’s not that those guests can’t be bothered. 

It’s that they’re too busy. 

Some, Jesus says, are too busy with their farms to celebrate the King’s party. 

Others, Jesus says, are too tied up at the office to join the King’s party. 

It’s not that they don’t give a rip. 

It’s that they give too many. 

Farming, business— those are vocations, good works God gives to us for our neighbors.

These guests are so wrapped up in the good work God has given them to do for others that they ignore the King’s individual invitation to them. 

They’re so focused on doing good works for their neighbor that they’ve neglected, and thus put at risk, their personal relationship with the King— the very relationship to which their good works were meant to be a sign not a substitute. 

Their busyness lulled them into forgetting that their personal yes to the King’s invitation is an urgent eternal matter of life and death. We can be so bent over busy in our religious, deed-doing lives that we lose them. 

And maybe they don’t answer the King’s invite because they assume they can get past the bouncers at a date they name later, on the merits of all their hard work and not on the King’s gratuity. 

Perhaps that’s who Jesus means us to be in the story. 

Or what about that poor bastard who’s caught without a cumberbund and patent leather shoes? Does Jesus mean for us to be the guy dragged off by the King’s SWAT team because of a wardrobe malfunction? I mean, even Janet Jackson got a second chance. 

Is that who we are in the story?

Are you supposed to hear this parable and worry?

Worry that, yes, all are invited to the party of salvation, gratis, but if you don’t meet the dress code? It’s outer darkness for you. 

In other words: yes, yes grace, but…

Yes, salvation is by grace. 

But, your faith better bring something to show for it when you get to the party. 

Yes, all are invited, gratis.

But, only some get to stay. You better show up wearing your three-piece suit of obedience, your gem-covered gown of holiness, or your mink of compassion. 

Yes, yes grace, but…

Nevermind for a moment the not minor point that as soon as you attach a but to grace, it’s no longer grace, such a worrisome takeaway ignores the fact that whatever fancy duds these riffraff at the party are wearing, they’re clothes the King has given to them. 

Free of charge. 

Upon arrival not prior to departure.

So their ability to remain at the party is not conditioned upon the presence or absence of anything they brought with them— not their closet full of loving works and not their suitcase holy living.

The King gave them their garments upon arrival. So for whatever reason, this eyesoar who’s still in his streetclothes and bound for darkness, he didn’t put on the bow tie and tux given out to all the other guests who got there on the same free ticket as him. 

This guy didn’t change his clothes. 

He refused to change. 

Is that it?

If he’s who Jesus means us to be, then is the takeaway for us that, yes, we’re invited but once there we better change and get our act together?

That might be one way to interpret Jesus’ story if Jesus’ story were told by someone other than Jesus, and if Jesus told this story at some point other than three days before he died not to improve the improveable or reform the reformable but to raise the dead in their sins. 

And the only thing the dead do is stink. 

So the takeaway today can’t be that we need first to apply deodorant before we’re allowed onto the dance floor. 

The Cross is Exhibit A.

Jesus saves us in our failures not just in spite of them. 

“The gifts and invitation of God,” the Apostle Paul says, “are irrevocable.”

And the word Paul uses there is repentance. 

The gifts and invitiation of God are without repentance.

Therefore, the moral of this parable is not that God invites us to the party called salvation but we better shape up or we’ll get shipped off. 

No, the parable doesn’t have a moral because it’s a parable. 

It’s not about you. 

It’s about God— that’s why the King and his staff get all the verbs in the story. 

Notice— no one else in the story even speaks.

You can’t ask of a parable, “WWJD?”

You can only ask, “Who is this God who does to us in Jesus Christ?”

But that still doesn’t answer where are we in this parable?

———————-

Last week the Atlantic Magazine published an article entitled Parents Gone Wild: Drama Inside D.C.’s Most Elite Private School. The story’s about Sidwell Friends School, the Harvard of DC private schools whose Quaker motto is “Let the light shine out from all.” 

Bright lights sometimes illuminate the worst in people. The article details the shocking and over-the-top behavior of some of the school’s parents, which has led to 2/3 of the school’s counselors leaving their jobs. Attempting to help their children get a leg up in the college admissions competition, parents at Sidwell Friends School have engaged in what the school’s headmaster calls “offensive conduct.” 

Among the excessive behaviors, parents have verbally assaulted school employees, secretly recorded conversations with teachers, made badgering phone calls to counselors from blocked phone numbers. Some parents have even circulated damaging rumors about other parents’ children in order to give their own children an advantage over their peers. 

As one college dean of admissions explained it: 

“When you’re talking about the love a parent has for their son or daughter, the plan they have for their child and all the work they’ve done towards that plan— it can lead to some pretty wild and inappropriate behavior. You could choose to focus in on the crazy behavior, or you could choose to see the parent’s love behind it all. Either way, if you get in the way of that kind of love, if you get in the way of what a parent has planned for the child they love without condition, watch out.”

———————-

If you get in the way of what the Father has planned for the Son…

That’s it. 

You and I— the baptized— we’re not in this parable. 

We’re not.

We’re so hard-wired to turn the good news of grace into the grim pills of religion that we go to Jesus’ parables asking what we must do, or we leave Jesus’ parables worrying about we’re not doing. In doing so, we turn the Gospel into the Law; such that we miss completely the fact that, according to Jesus himself, we’re not in the parable. 

Yet. 

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

Jesus told us at the top of the story. In response to the chief priests and the Pharisees who begrudge his relationship with the Father— his relationship with the Father— Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like…what? 

The Kingdom of God is like a King who gave not just a party but a wedding banquet. 

A wedding feast for his Son. 

His Son to be married to whom?

We’re not in the parable— yet. 

You and I, and all baptized believers, we’re still waiting in the wings, offstage. 

We’re not in the parable. 

We’re in the parlor. 

A friend’s putting a finishing gloss on our fingernails while the curling iron gets hot and the string quartet warms up and the photographer shoots some candids of everyone getting ready and the white dress hangs uncovered from the curtain rod. 

This isn’t a horror story about what God will do to you if you don’t get your act together and get your ass to his party. 

No, for you— this is an absurd romantic comedy about the wildly excessive, inapprorpriate lengths the Loving Father will go to have every last detail of the party perfect, every seat filled, and everyone dressed to the nines with the custom-tailored clothes he’s given away to every undeserving guest to celebrate his Son’s marriage. 

To you.

All are invited, but not all will accept the invitation— the whole world is invited to celebrate at Chez Yahweh, celebrate the Father’s Son’s marriage.

To you. 

No wonder he acts so bezerk. 

This parent has planned this party for his Son since before the foundation of the world, the Bible says. 

Watch out if you frustrate this Father’s feast-going. 

He’s not going to let anything get in the way of a five star celebration for his Son’s marriage to you. 

Jesus left it assumed and unsaid in this story because he’s already said it. 

I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am you will be also, Jesus already promised. That’s wedding language.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions, Jesus promises. That’s wedding language.

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me— that’s wedding language too. 

Not to mention, the word Jesus uses today for wedding banquet, gamos, guess the other place in the New Testaments it gets used— the freaking climax of the Bible, at the very end of the Book of Revelation where the angel declares “the marriage supper of the Lamb has been made ready” and Christ comes back to his Church who is prepared for him as what?

As a bride for her bridegroom.

———————-

So Eldon, I don’t know if you’re here today or not, but What Would Jesus Do?

Welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry— that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. 

Because Jesus the Bridegroom would take his hand and pick him up and carry him across the threshold and say “My Beloved, let’s dance.”

———————-

Hear the good news—

You’re not the one who blows off the party. 

You’re not the do-gooder who’s too busy to attend the party

You’re not the eyesore who wears the wrong garment to the party. 

Though at times you might resemble all of the above, you’re not any of them.

Because the party’s for you. 

By your baptism—

A promise signed by the Father and sealed in the Son’s blood and delivered to you by water through the Holy Spirit, you are the betrothed. 

You are free to do the things that Jesus did and you are free not to worry about how little you’re doing or how much you’re leaving undone. 

Because what God has joined together no one— not even you in your pathetic every day run-of-the-mills sins— can tear asunder. 

No, you are his. 

And with all that he is and all that he has, for better, for worse, no matter if your faith feels rich or if it is poor, he will cherish you. 

This is his solemn vow.

(Un)Like a Virgin

Jason Micheli —  June 12, 2019 — Leave a comment

We continued our summer sermon series through the parables with Matthew’s story of the ten virgins, preached by the summer minion, David King.

The Bridegroom Cometh,” but that came too late.  Better than coming too early, I guess.   

The parables are stories Jesus tells about himself. That is, the parables make no sense apart from who Jesus is and what God does through Jesus on the cross.  So, you can imagine my surprise when Jason told me last week that I was preaching on the parable of the 10 virgins.  

I mean, talk about a first impression.

In all seriousness though, if the parables are stories that both are made sense of through the cross and shed light on the mystery of the cross, then the story we have in today’s scripture presents a difficult passage to make sense of.  

Like last week’s scripture, this parable is categorized as a parable of judgment.  And, on the face of it, the parable reeks of an inhospitable bridegroom shutting the door in the face of the virgins.  In fact, the story tells of all doors being shut to the foolish virgins.  And before we start associating ourselves with the wise virgins, remember to whom and for what purpose Jesus tells this parable.  Jesus tells it to the disciples, knowing full well that they will fall asleep when he asks them to stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, just a chapter later in Matthew’s narrative.  

The parable of judgment – this parable of the kingdom – it presupposes the disciples unfaithfulness to Christ.  

Why, then, do we so often read the parables of judgment as parables of condemnation, as verses and stories declaring the sorting out of the faithful from the unbelievers that we think will happen at the end of days, that great and glorious time when we can whet our tongues with the wine of heaven while all the non-Christians weep and gnash their teeth?  

Stories, parables like these, we so often read them to satiate our need for validation of our faith in a world that often feels hostile to it.  However, the image of the virgins, the fact that there are ten of them, indicates to us that the people being judged are members of the church.  Their virginity is symbolic: it indicates their preparedness to be married to the bridegroom who is Christ.  As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”  

Already, then, the popular interpretation of this as a judgment levied against non-believers is moot.  The virgins are united in a community called ‘Church,’ their virginity imputed to them as a symbol of grace.  

Further, what this shows to us is that this parable of judgment, it needs to be read through a frame, a lens, that presupposes the gift of grace.  We read the parables of judgment not with condemnation in mind, but with, as Robert Capon insists, a hermeneutic of inclusion-before-exclusion.

This is all the more important since the parable begins with the ever important word, “then.”  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom using the phrase, “The Kingdom will be like” x, y, z.  But here, Jesus begins by using the word “then,” indicating to the disciples that this is not a parable of judgment preceding the cross.  Jesus is speaking of what the kingdom in the wake of the cross is like.  

The wedding has happened – the grace has been offered.  The virgins are preparing to celebrate their marriage.  

What, then, is all the fuss about the oil?  Fleming Rutledge, who I will only mention once since she’s really Jason’s gal, asks the pertinent question: what really is in those lamps?  

Before I answer that question, I must admit that one of my guilty pleasures is listening to bad Christian talk radio.  You know, the all love but no Jesus kind of Christian talk radio.  You know, the kind that prides itself in its acceptance of saints but rejects the sinner.  The kind of Christian talk radio that will couch an hour long sermon on judgment in between two hours of financial planning “from a biblical perspective.”  I love that stuff.  

So, as I was driving in to work here this week, listening to Christian talk radio, learning about how I can plan my retirement in accordance with biblical standards of stewardship and bookkeeping, the oil and the lamps finally made sense to me.  

St. Augustine, in his sermon on Matthew 25, notes that “the foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, wish to please by that abstinence of theirs by which they are called virgins, and by their good works, when they seem to carry lamps.  But wishing to please human spectators, doing praiseworthy works, they forget to carry with them the necessary oil.” 

That is, the parable, the oil stored up by the wise virgins, it can’t be good works because, as Augustine sees, that would make their entrance to the wedding celebration a matter of payment, a payment that no sum of works can make.  It is for this reason that the foolish virgins fear for their selves.  They ask the wise virgins for the oil, saying, “give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”  They fear, that is, that their works will be insufficient, and rightly so! For they think that the oil the wise carry is something that can be transferred, something that can be given or earned.  

You see, the foolish virgins misunderstand the purpose of the oil.  They misunderstand its nature, and in so doing, represent for us the fundamental misconception we so often make when it comes to the Gospel: that anything besides the grace of God could possibly give us entrance on the final day of judgment.  They misunderstand what the wise get right: that the oil is their sin, transformed by the grace of the cross and not by their works.  Truly, then, the oil is non-transferable, nor is it refundable.  The oil is that which can be taken up by one person: Christ the bridegroom.  

Notice, too, what the text says: “but while they went to buy the oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet, and the door was shut.”  Matthew does not say that the wise virgins go in with the bridegroom because they had extra oil, nor does he say they go in because their lamps are lit.  Matthew does not accredit their entrance to any act that they participated in to distinguish them from the foolish virgins.  

Matthew tells us that the wise virgins enter in strictly because they were ready. The readiness of the wise virgins is qualified not by their own glorification or righteousness, but by their readiness to lay their sin, their oil, before the bridegroom who is Christ.  Their readiness is the posture of the Church in light of the cross.  

The foolish virgins rightly feared, for they misunderstood the nature of the oil.  They did not bring extra oil precisely because they thought they had enough of the oil of good works.  The wise, however, brought extra, because they knew that the preparedness for the wedding celebration, the celebration of the already-given grace of the cross, required but one thing: their sin, laid at the foot of the cross, given to the bridegroom.  

The foolish, however, bring what they think is enough oil to get to the door, the gate of judgment.  But they despair and fear for when the bridegroom arrives, and indeed they flee to seek extra things, to buy their way in. And in doing so, they miss his arrival.  They leave the place already prepared for them, exemplifying the misconceived notion that they could in any way seek elsewhere, and merit, their ticket to the celebration.  

The oil we anoint babies with in their baptism – it is an oil not of our works but of the work of God in Christ.  The oil represents not what we can do, but the forgiveness of sins which can never be merited.  The oil is the blood of Christ that has cleansed our sins. The oil the virgins bring is the oil with which we are baptized: the oil that is the blood of the lamb, the ointment for the disease we are born into and cannot escape.  

You see, the bad Christian talk radio made the parable clear: it matters not if you state the name of Christ at the beginning of your designated radio hour if what follows is not a message proceeding from the grace given in the cross.  To declare one’s belief in Christ, and to immediately follow that with all the requisites for one’s own sanctification, is to go only halfway in believing the good news embedded in His name.  

This is what makes sense of the judgment cast on the foolish virgins.  The foolish virgins, returning in the dark to the door of the party, having found no works to pay their entrance, encounter a Lord who claims not to know them.  They call his name, “Lord, Lord!” and he responds with “truly I tell you, I do not know you.”  

The word for knowledge used in the Greek is “οἶδα.”  It is a word that comes from the root of the verb that means, “to see.”  The bridegroom, we ought to note, literally says he cannot see them.  They, the foolish virgins, have sought the light of grace where it could not be found, and in so doing, miss the very point of the message. 

Notice, again, that the text never tells us that the extra oil is used.  The wise bring the extra oil, but we are never told if it is used.  The bridegroom comes, not when the extra oil has been used, but when the ones who think can be bought have left.  

That is, the judgment levied, the door closed, is against those who obscure the judgment of the cross, the judgment of God on God’s self, for the sake of all humanity.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.  

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another question—

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

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

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

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

Except for the fear.

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

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

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

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

When they weren’t—

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

First, God sent them prophets. 

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

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

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

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

A final prophet. 

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

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

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

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

His own disciples—

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

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

But no—

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

“Peace,” he says. 

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

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

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

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

Three times. 

A do-over:

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

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

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

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

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

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

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

They receive what only he deserves.

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

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

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

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

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

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

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

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

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

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

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

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

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t care.

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

———————-

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

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

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

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

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

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

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

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

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

He’s talking about the cross. 

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

The cross is our judgment. 

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it. 

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

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

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

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

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

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

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

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

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

There is therefore now no judgment.

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

Forsaken. 

For you. 

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

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

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

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

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

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

 

     

 

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

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

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

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

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

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

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

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

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

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

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

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

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

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

She nodded.  

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

“What was that?” 

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

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

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

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

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

Just kidding. 

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

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

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

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

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

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

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

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

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it—

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

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

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

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

Ten thousand talents worth. 

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

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

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

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

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

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

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

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

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

     Ten thousand talents. 

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

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

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

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

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

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

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

Remember the amount. 

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

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

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

     But notice. 

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

     Who’s still keeping score?

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

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

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

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

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

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

———————-

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

     I sipped my coffee. 

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

She smiled and nodded.

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

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

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

She bit her lip. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

Admit it—

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

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

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

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

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

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

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

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

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

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

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

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

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

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

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

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

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

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

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

           

     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.’

Untitled4

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.