The 2nd Hardest Parable

Luke 16.19-31

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. Sometimes he thought it was all rather extravagant, the five cars, the jet skies, and now the boat. But, he admitted, it was fun having so many things to play with.

So it came to pass that the man stood in his yard, daydreaming about an expansion to his already expanded garage when he spied his tormentor.

Larry.

Larry stood outside the rich man’s property each and every day, walking back and forth on the grass at the edge of the yard, grass that the rich man paid a small fortune to keep the right length and the perfect shade of green. And there was Larry with his little cardboard sign pleading for money and food. And day after day, people would roll down the windows in their cars, and pass Larry a few dollars, or a spare half-eaten muffin. And it was driving the rich man crazy.

He did everything he could think of to rid himself of the parasitic Larry. He called the police, but they explained that the edge of the lawn actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about Larry’s presence. Then the rich man proposed a new city ordinance banning panhandlers like Larry from asking for assistance, even on public property, but too many do gooders railed against him. The rich man even tried blasting extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive Larry off, but nothing worked.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, Larry drove the rich man crazy.

Until, one day, the rich man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry was gone. His little spot on the corner of the lawn was vacant. The rich man was worried it was too good to be true until he flipped to the obituaries and saw Larry’s picture.

The man danced around his kitchen sliding across the marble floors.

His problem was finally over!

He was so excited, in fact, that he bounced down the hallways in his mcmansion and was about to run into his in-home movie theater to tell his wife the good news when he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell. The flames of fire were lapping all around him and there was nothing he could do to abate the pain. And yet, over the edge of the flame, if he strained his eyes just enough, he could see Larry and he seemed to be standing next to what looked like an angel. 

“Hey!” The rich man shouted while waving his arms, “Could you send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting a little hot!”

The angel replied, “You had good things your whole life. And Larry here, Larry had nothing. Here he is comforted and you are in agony. Also – notice, you can’t come over to us and neither can we come over to you.”

The rich man raised his voice, “Well, the least you could do is send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me.”

“Nope,” replied the angel, “They have the scriptures – they need only trust what they read.”

“You don’t understand!” The rich man screamed, “That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel replied with a rather matter-of-fact tone, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead.”

Here endeth the parable.

Thanks for this one Jesus – the second hardest parable.

The wealthy and the powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor now will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can while you can – Give away your wealth! And, in order to help you help yourselves, I’d like to invite the  ushers to come forward and receive our gifts!

Just kidding.

Sort of…

Plenty of pastors have stood in front of congregations like this and made that pitch/plea/proclamation. I’ve done it too. We’ll take the story of Lazarus and the rich man only to dangle it over the heads of our dozing congregations in order to fill up the offering plates a little more than the week before. And, sometimes, it works!

Guilt can be an incredible motivator.

So can fear.

And is there anything in this life that we are more afraid of, than the question of money, and whether we have enough of it?

For as much as we might like the idea of money never being addressed in church it is a great challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not walk away with the understanding that our relationship with and to money is at the heart of our discipleship.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: It seems that you can’t be wealthy and a Christian at the same time.

Listen – It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The rich young ruler asks Jesus what more he must do and the Lord replies, “Sell all you possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.” Jesus addresses the gathered crowds with, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

And yet, this parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, is is about more than mere money alone. Each and every one of us in this room came of age in a world in which those with the largest bank accounts are considered first, best, powerful, etc. And those with little to no wealth are tossed aside, belittled, or used as a warning to everyone else.

We use money to determine worth beyond money.

This is a parable about power and identity and wealth. 

Which runs counter to Jesus proclamation that the first are last and the last are first.

But that hasn’t stopped us, that is Christians, from leaving behind that particular proclamation all together.

We elevate the wealthy constantly – we are far more likely to elect wealthy politicians than poor politicians, we devour books from supposedly self-made millionaires in hope that the same will happen to us, and we fear offending those with more money than we do those who have the same as us.

And here’s the real kicker: For all of our fascination and obsession and even worship of those with lots of money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: If the world could’ve been fixed by good living and good earning, then everything would be perfect by now.

Or, consider this as an example: In most book stores the largest section is the collection of self-help books. And yet, if those books were true to their genre, we would no longer need them!

Instead of a world better off because of the wealthy, the wealthy achieve and maintain their wealth on the backs of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

In the name of progress, or at the very least “making things better,” the wealthy get and stay wealthy by shunning the sick, locking the poor in poverty, segregating according to skin tone, and we’re now stuck with a world in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.

Jesus starts his parable thusly: There was a rich man who dressed well and ate all the best foods. And at his gate lay a poor man, covered with wounds, who yearned to eat what the rich man threw away in his trash can.

Jesus told that story 2,000 years ago and he just as easily could’ve told it today about people in Roanoke, VA!

Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “Pastor Taylor, do you believe in hell?”

And I’ll say, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it!”

I’ve seen it.

Hell, according to Jesus, isn’t a place God’s sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen and false identities. 

Or, put another way, we spend so much time worrying about whether or not we’ll go to hell when we die that we’ve lost sight of how many people are living in hell right now, and that we can do something about it.

Ourselves included.

But, back to the parable… The rich man finds himself in hell, and he is tormented. But notice, when he first speaks, he doesn’t ask to get out of Hell, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t try to make amends. Instead he asks for Lazarus. Which means the rich man knows the poor man’s name! To the rich man Lazarus is not some nameless homeless and hungry beggar among other homeless and hungry beggars. He knows him by name. And that makes it even worse! Because even in Hell, the rich man doesn’t believe Lazarus is worth his time, or his wealth.

He says to the angel, “Send Lazarus over with some water.” The rich man treats Lazarus like an object, as a means to get something, as the means to better his life, or whatever is left of it. He wants to be served!

Even among the fires of Hell, the rich man can’t see past his own worked up version of himself. He still believes himself better than Lazarus, and more deserving.

Sadly, the rich man never comes to his senses. He expresses concern for his brothers, but it’s as if he’s so stuck in the materiality of things that he can’t fathom any other version of reality.

In short: he refuses to die to his backward notion of how things work according to the Lord.

And in the kingdom of God, the Gospel can only make alive those whom the law has killed. The little “l” laws that tell us who we are supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do and what we’re supposed to earn. Only when we die to the never-ending demands of the law, what the world tells us to be, can the Gospel set us free.

In the end, this is a scary parable, and it’s the 2nd hardest parable that Jesus tells. And sometimes it’s good to be frightened by God. And in this story what’s most terrifying isn’t the fire and the flame, it’s the way Jesus ends it. He ends it with a warning that we can believe more in the worth of material things than we believe in what God finds worth in.

Jesus suggests, through the parable, that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the rat race of life, in our possessions and bank accounts and social media presence, that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctible. Jesus came simply to be the resurrection and the life for those who need all the help they can get. Namely: all of us. 

Notice: Jesus does not begin the story with a disclaimer that this is exactly what will happen to every rich and every poor person, nor does he command the listeners to “go and be like Lazarus” as a conclusion.

Oddly enough, then, it seems as if Jesus is saying that it is possible to be wealthy and a Christian at the same time. However, if the pursuit of power and the accumulation of wealth is more important and constitutive of our identity than the free gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, then our lives are liable to be miserable.

There will always be more to earn, and enough will never ever be enough.

Some might even call that hell. 

But there is Good News. The Good News is that no matter what the world might tell us it takes to win, no matter what we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already done. All of our sins, past, present, future – they are nailed to Jesus cross and we bear them no more.

The only thing we *have* to do, is trust that it is true. Amen. 

Too Blessed To Be Stressed

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Lamentations 1.1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1.1-14, Luke 17.5-10). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including boldness, the transformation of the church, ecclesial lament, The Melodians, honesty, The Brothers Zahl, rekindled gifts, shame, increased faith, the business of forgiveness, and mustard seeds. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Too Blessed To Be Stressed

When Is Enough, Enough?

1 Timothy 6.6-9

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and fearful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 

A recent study noted that at least 80% of Americans experience daily stress regarding the economy and their personal finances. More than 50% are worried about being able to provide for their families basic needs. 56% are fearful about job security. And 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: $$$

Admittedly, those statistics probably aren’t that shocking considering how much of our daily lives revolve around our wallets. With the ubiquity of online banking we can figure out exactly how much, or how little, we have at any given moment. 

And yet, the “we have” in that sentence betrays the basic Christian conviction that our money doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to God.

A professor of mine once opined about how different the church would be if, when individuals took vows of membership, they read their tax return aloud from the year before. Can you imagine the fervor that would follow if the church announced personal financial disclosures as new membership requirements? And yet, to do so would be faithful! 

Jesus talks about money/possessions, and the use of them for others, almost more than any other single subject in the New Testament, and yet (outside a stewardship campaign) we rarely talk about them in church.

Instead, wealth is something so privatized that we can scarcely imagine what it would mean to share it with others, let alone the church. We hoard it, like the man with his store houses in one of Jesus’ parables. Or, we spend it with such reckless abandon that we go into a debt we have no hope of ever repaying.

A relevant question for anyone, particularly those who are part of a faith community, is: when is enough, enough?

The gifted preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of a time when he and his wife had a guest in their home who was spending the night. As Craddock read from the newspaper in the corner of the room, consumed by the movement of the Market, the guest was rolling around on the floor with Craddock’s kids teaching them a new game. And Craddock thought to himself, “How long has it been since I came home from work, got down on the floor, and had fun with my kids?”

Later, after dinner, the guest declared, “That’s just about one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.” And Craddock thought to himself, “When was the last time I thanked my wife for our dinner?”

Craddock was merely going through the familiar patterns of life, keeping up with the rat race of all things: coming home from work, reading the paper, eating dinner. And then, through the guest, everything started to look different. Craddock said to himself, “Where in the world have I been?”

God has richly blessed each and every single one of us in a variety of ways. From the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the friends we love.

Sometimes it takes a guest in our home, or a particularly striking passage from scripture, for us to finally ask ourselves the same question, “Where in the world have I been?” Which is just another version of, “When is enough, enough?”

The Hardest Parable

Luke 16.1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting 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. Whoever if faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave 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. 

I would like to have a word with whomever decided this would be the text for today. It’s one thing to assign different, and even strange, texts to retired clergy filling in while a certain pastor was on paternity leave. But for that pastor to return after a month only to dust off the homiletical muscles with the hardest parable?

Who thought this would be a good idea?

Apparently I did months ago when I chose this text for this Sunday.

Some fools for Christ are just fools.

Even if you’ve only spent a little time reading the Bible, it is clear that some of the stories that Jesus tells are in need of an editor’s touch. Or, as we might say in this part of Virginia, they need fixin’.

Here are a few examples: The parable of the so-called Good Shepherd. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a shepherd who goes off in search of one lost sheep. A quaint little tale. We might even like it. We certainly enjoy telling it to children during Vacation Bible School. But do you know what happens when you leave behind the ninety nine in search for the one lost? Ninety nine more lost sheep. It’s not way to run a business!

Or, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’d rather us call it the Dumb Samaritan. This fool comes across a beaten and bedraggled figure on the side of the road, and puts him up in the four seasons and leaves his Amex card behind for any additional charges. Bad idea!

And then there’s the creme de la creme – The Prodigal. A son commands his father to drop dead, runs off and ruins his inheritance, only to come home with a pitiful repentance worked up in his head and his aforementioned father throws him the greatest block party in history before the kid even gets a chance to apologize. 

And then Jesus does it again!

The Pharisees, good religious folk like us, heaven’t even had a chance to lift their jaws off the ground when Jesus tells another story. 

There was a man who worked for an investment bank. And, after a few ill advised stock purchases, the CEO marches into his office and says, “You’re fired. I want this office cleared by the end of the day and I’m taking a deeper look into all your recent trades.”

The money-manager finds himself going down the elevator with a cardboard box of office trinkets and thinks to himself, “What am I going to do? I’m too old to go back to school and I’m too proud to beg!” And then he gets an idea. He still has the company credit card in his wallet and he calls us some of his best clients and takes them out to lunch. In between appetizers, and glasses of wine, he pulls out his phone and starts typing away reducing the debt of his soon-to-be former clients knowing that even though he is no longer employed, it helps to have well connected people in your debt.

And then, Jesus says, the CEO calls up his the fired money manager and congratulates him: You have acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

That’s not a very responsible story Jesus! I don’t know if that’s the type of tale we want people hearing in church. Shouldn’t end more like this?

And the CEO calls up the fired money manager and rips into him yet again for being such a conniving no good dirty rotten scoundrel. And Jesus looks out at the crowds and commands them to live honest and virtuous lives. 

The great challenge of the parables, this one included, is that Jesus tells them because they are true, and not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommendations for imitation. Good Samaritans are often taken advantage of. Any shepherd who makes a practice of leaving the ninety-nine behind is quick to go out of the sheep-keeping business. Any Father who throws a party for a wayward child is rightly rebuked for encouraging bad behavior. And any money manager who swindles clients, or bosses, out of money will usually spend some time paying for their crime.

And yet, the parables are not stories about us. The parables are stories that Jesus tells about himself.

Which means, oddly enough, Jesus is the shepherd to risks it all on the one who is lost. Jesus is the Samaritan who lavishly helps those down in the ditch. Jesus is the Father who forgives before apologies are offered. And Jesus is the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, who fudges the account, our accounts, when we don’t deserve it.

Don’t get me wrong, this is, indeed, the hardest parable. For some strange reason the master in the story praises the shrewdness of the steward. In a matter of verses the master goes from wanting to ring his neck to congratulating him for his bizarre intellect. The master goes from being an insufferable ledger keeper to the strange celebrator of the Good News. 

And it doesn’t make any sense. Just like the shepherd, the samaritan, and the prodigal, these stories don’t make sense.

But this one really takes the cake. 

Even St. Augustine once said he refused to believe this story came from the lips of Jesus. 

And yet, here it is. And we all just said, “Thanks be to God” after it was read!

What makes this parable the hardest is the fact that no preacher can water it down or manipulate it enough to make it say something that it doesn’t. Perhaps it would make more sense if the dishonest manager was punished for his crimes, or, at the very least, the money he stole from his master was given away to the poor like a first century Robin Hood.

But instead, the unjust steward is a liar, a cheater, and a thief. And Jesus has him commended, rewarded even, for what he did. 

And yet the “what he did” in that sentence betrays the immensity of what transpires in the parable. You see, grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise.

And, just as sure as you and I are in this room, the unjust steward was dead. Dead as a doornail. While the nails are hammered into his vocational coffin, he makes life a little easier for others by wiping away their debt. But he is not the only one who dies. The master dies as well, he dies to his bookkeeping. 

This is such a strange and bizarre story that it should leave us scratching our heads, but perhaps it should make us laugh. Grace is the divine lark offered to a world so sin-sick with seriousness that it can even stop to enjoy the roses.

This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.

It is everything for nothing. It is Good News for a world drowning in bad news. It is life out of death.

What makes the parables true is that they describe who God is. Every single parable, from mustard seeds to wedding banquets to unjust stewards, are about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They describe in weird, wild, and wonderful ways how God is in the business of making something out of our nothing, of making the impossible possible, and making a way where there is no way.

Jesus is the unjust steward. The misguided money manger dies to his career and rises with forgiveness, just like Jesus. By his death and resurrection he resurrects others wiping away their debts, just like Jesus. But most of all, the dishonest manager is Jesus because he is a crook.

Christ the crook: words I never thought I’d say from the pulpit but here we are!

We often betray the reckless nature of the Messiah today with our songs and our paintings. We like our Jesus well manicured with perfect morality and good manners. 

But this parable, and all the rest of them for that matter, is a ringing reminder that grace cannot come through respectability or through achievement or through perfection. 

Grace comes only through losing. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, the only problem is that no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus. 

Jesus spent his life among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Jesus broke the Sabbath, consorted with criminals, supped with sinners, and he died the death of an insurrectionist. Jesus became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for is losers, and even dead for those of us who go around pretending we’ve got it all figured out when we don’t have much to show for our so-called lives. 

It’s almost as if, parable after parable, Jesus is begging us to see ourselves for who we really are. 

Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus says he came to seek and save sinners, we always imagine that Jesus is talking other people and not us?

Why is it that, when we encounter the truly Good News even in this parable, we are offended by it rather than rejoicing because of it?

Because when it comes to our accounts, our debt to sin is not something we can repay. Each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. And it’s hard to admit the truth of who we are. That’s why we bristle at the parables, not just because they tell us the truth of God, but because they also tell us the truth about ourselves.

Namely: we’re just a bunch of lost and wandering sheep, stuck in the ditches of our own making, constantly squandering the gifts of God, with no hope in the world unless the hope of the world decides to fudge the accounts in our favor.

In the words of Anne Lamott: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you and me than we would believe.

Which, oddly enough, is Good News. Really Good News. Because, in the end, Christ is not interested in role models, moral perfectionists, or those who have it all together. Jesus comes for people like us whose ledgers are brimming with failure, and those who can’t find a way out of the mess we’ve made, in order to set us free. 

It’s outrageous. And it just so happens to be the Gospel. Amen. 

Hope In A Warzone

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6.6-19, Luke 16.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including honest introductions, namesakes, book recommendations, divine real estate, arrogant hope, hymnody, perfect playlists, spiritual formation, Stanley Hauerwas, stewardship campaigns, and the parables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hope In A Warzone

A Crucial Eccentricity

Psalm 113.2

Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

The writer, novelist, preacher, and theologian Frederick Buechner died on August 15th at the age of 96. His works attracted those inside and outside of the church and in the wake of his death countless tributes were made on his behalf. Among his remarkable books and witness to the faith, there is one longish quote that has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it: 

“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. But not so with grace for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace; there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life, you might never have been, but you are because the party would never have been complete without you. Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It is for you that I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch: like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

The passage has come to my mind a lot recently, not only because of Buechner’s death, and not only because “grace” really is such a unique word, but also because he describes grace as a good sleep and it’s been more than a month since I’ve had a good sleep! (I’ve been on paternity leave for a month; Phoebe Wren Mertins was born August 19th, 2022) Nevertheless, Buechner’s willingness to take a “stained glass word” and bring it down to earth is, I think, one of the most important hermeneutical tools in the church today. Therefore, I had decided to offer my own spin on the prompt “Grace is…”

Grace is driving to the hospital in the middle of the night while your wife is in labor, and every person goes out of their way to make sure she makes it straight to the delivery unit. It’s nurses telling us to stop apologizing for the things we need. It’s lactation consultants and pediatricians and doctors who bend over backward to show love and patience during a decisively impatient time. Grace is coming home from the hospital to countless cards and notes from friends and strangers alike rejoicing in the arrival of our daughter. It’s food being delivered to the door and dismissing hand movements every time we try to express our gratitude. Grace is the delivery of various gift cards to grocery stores and restaurants just to make the first few weeks a little easier. It’s the way grumpy old men make fools of themselves when they see you walking around the block with a newborn baby in your arms. It’s the curiosity of wide-eyed children leaving school seeing such a tiny little person and realizing, in some way, they used to be that tiny too. Grace is returning to work after a month with nothing but gratitude and excitement. Grace is waking up in the middle of the night over and over again for yet another diaper change, only to turn the lights on and see your daughter smiling at you. 

Grace is God’s disposition toward us and we cannot earn it or deserve it. The only thing we have to do is reach out and accept it. And once we do, it truly is the difference that makes all the difference. 

God Only Knows

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including baseball hats, Yellowstone, the theology of art, iconography, clay, patience, the posture of prayer, The Brothers Zahl, sacred worth, hymnody, familial hatred, and the depth of the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Only Knows

The Doom Won’t Last Forever

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 2.4-13, Psalm 81.1, 10-16, Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, Luke 14.1, 7-14). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cafeteria tables, podcast listeners, satisfaction, the matter of words, the intersection between art and theology, daily psalms, strange hospitality, marriage, books on the parables, and the Supper of the Lamb. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Doom Won’t Last Forever

The Presence Of God Is Awful

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dinosaurs in the New Creation, laughter, baptismal vows, Moana, Hildegard von Bingen, the power of words, divine fear, the jewishness of Jesus, acceptable worship, and true sabbath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Presence Of God Is Awful

The Church Of Tomorrow

Hebrews 11.29-12.2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.

Miracles do happen after all.

But astonishment?

No thank you.

We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.

And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?

“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”

How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!

Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word. 

But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.

But Rahab?

Do you know her story?

Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.

I wonder why they went there…

Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.

“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”

Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”

She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.

So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.

And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!

It’s downright astonishing!

But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.

Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future. 

The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.

But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness. 

We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me. 

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago. 

Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.

In short: you and me, we’re not alone.

We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. 

All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.

What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.

Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.

And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.

Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality. 

What we might call, the church of tomorrow.

Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.

The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”

To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now. 

Put simply: we’re different.

We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.

We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing. 

We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.

It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world. 

We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.

We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.

We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.

The church is God’s parable for the world.

We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.

The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone. 

The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.

The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!” 

I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.

The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.

You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen.