The Death Of The Party

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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Dis/grace

Devotional: 

Joshua 5.9

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. 

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Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Or do the saying goes.

The Israelites have wandered and wandered and they finally make it to the Promised Land. An entire generation has passed and even Moses himself is buried in the ground before God’s people make it to the land of milk and honey. Joshua, ever mindful of faithful leadership, marks the place of their transition from the past into a new future, and the Lord said, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.”

Not when the horse and the rider where overwhelmed by the rushing waters of the sea.

Not when the plagues rained down upon the Egyptians.

Not when Moses struck the rock in the wilderness and brought forth water.

The stone of disgrace is rolled away only when they finally make it to where they were going.

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And even in this powerful moment of newness, they are reminded of what took place back in Egypt. This is a reoccurring theme in the biblical witness, not just what happened in Egypt, but reminding God’s people what God did for them. 

We are tied to our histories whether we like it or not.

And in this moment God says, you are bound to your history, but you are not defined by it; today I roll away the disgrace.

Ten years before the Civil War took place in the US the Methodist Church split over differing theologies about slavery. Many/Most of the Methodist churches in the north believed that it was ungodly to maintain the institution of slavery where many/most of the Methodist churches in the south believe that slavery was instituted by God. 

The Methodist Church did not come back together until the 1930s.

That is part of the history of Methodism, a history that many of us would rather ignore or forget. Particularly in the state of Virginia, there are a good number of churches that were around when the split took place and they proudly display which version of the church they chose to identify with. 

We are bound to that history, but we are not defined by it. God is still pushing us into new places with new ideas and new theologies. Some of our Moseses will be buried in the past and new Joshuas will have to stand to lead us into places unknown. 

But we cannot forget who we were, otherwise we are doomed to return.

Another Way Forward or: Why Ordination Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

I was kneeling before the entire Annual Conference when the Bishop placed his hands on my head and ordained me in full connection. The moment was overwhelming – the culmination of 15 years aimed toward one particular goal. And when the stole was placed around my shoulders I felt the full weight of the responsibility.

I’ve known no life outside the United Methodist Church. I was baptized in a UMC when I was 19 days old, and spent nearly every Sunday of my life in that particular sanctuary. I was confirmed in that church, played drums for a worship service in that church, felt my call to ministry in that church, and even preached my first sermon in that church. Later I was married in that church and had my son baptized a few feet away from where I had been baptized in that church. 

When I first felt called I felt specifically called to serve the United Methodist Church. Partly because it was the only church I really knew, but also because I was entirely persuaded by our theological conviction of prevenient grace. The God I discovered in worship and in scripture and in community was absolutely the God who offers grace freely to all without any work on our part. I was so moved as a young person by the totality of grace preached in my local church and  that God works through Christ regardless of our morality, or our beliefs, or even our doubts.

It was more refreshing than I can describe particularly when I used to talk with friends at other churches in which everything was whittled down to whether they were doing enough for their faith.

And then when I was 15 years old, I felt pulled to my knees in prayer one night, and when I stood up I knew that I could do nothing else with my life but serve the UMC. I immediately told the pastors at my church and they handed me a snap shot of what the next decade of my life would look like: A Bachelors degree in religion, a Masters degree in divinity, and then at least three years of provisional membership before I could be ordained in full connection. So I finished high school, went to college, went to seminary, got approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, started serving my first church, and then was fully ordained. 

I am grateful for the journey, as so many of my clergy peers intoned as their mantra during the journey of ordination. And yet, I believe that a lot of the problems facing the UMC today are in large part due to the ways we ordain individuals for ministry.

During the recent Special General Conference I was able to sit down with Bishop Will Willimon and he put it this way: 

“The real trouble started when the General Conference started requiring Mdivs for Elders. It was around 1958. It’s been downhill ever since. As someone who produces Mdivs for a living now, this is a difficult thing. We started adding all these requirements for ministry, and ask any UMC what they’re looking for in a clergy person and, first of all they never mention anything about coitus, and secondly they don’t really care where or whether someone went to seminary.”

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Our ordination process (and it is a process) has become a bloated and institutional mess. It puts so much emphasis (and power) on the institution itself to make pastors rather than the local church.

When I told my pastors that I felt called their first response was, “Would you like to preach in six weeks?” They made sure I had every opportunity to discover what ordained ministry really looked like, they continuously checked in with me while I was in college and seminary, and my home church was constantly praying for me.

I now know that I was an exception to the rule.

In most churches, if someone expresses a call to ministry, they are given a book about ministry/calling and soon they are paired with a clergy mentor (from another church) and begin working with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. And, of course, the local church still has to recommend the individual to continue on the journey, but ultimately the individual is handed on to another group of people who now become responsible for the calling of the individual. 

I fully recognize the complicated nature of discerning a call, and the community’s responsibility for helping identify the call. Additionally, I completely agree with the work of discovering whether someone is theologically prepared for the difficult task of serving a local church. But passing someone along to another group (or to a school or seminary) continues to perpetuate the condition that we currently find ourselves in.

It denies the fundamental role of the local church and instead places even more emphasis on the structure instead of the Spirit.

I could elaborate on how the professionalization of clergy (and the requirement of a Masters degree) has stratified the ordained from the laity, and how the resentment between those two groups has grown and grown and grown. But I can’t argue against theological education – pastors do need to be theological informed, they need to have their thoughts, ideas, and convictions sharpened in order to serve the local church.

My bigger concern is not theological education itself, but the theology in which clergy are being educated. 

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At the real heart of the matter is the way in which the structures of the church whittle candidates for ministry down to a mosaic of arbitrary conditions.

Today, those who go before the board of ordained ministry have to demonstrate that they are prepared for ministry (at the beginning) or they are effective in ministry (after the provisional process). These are important frameworks for the work of ministry, but they also include interludes into whether or not individuals maintain certain moralities that largely deny the point of needing Jesus’ grace.

Which, to be clear, might be the most important theological claim we have to make at all.

And, for what its worth, this is no new thing. My CPE supervisor once told me that when he was attempting to get ordained (decades ago) he had to record himself preaching a sermon on a tape cassette, but was unable to do so in an actual church service so he recorded it while pacing back and forth in his basement. However, he grew anxious during the recording so he started smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. He sent the tape off to the conference and their only reply was that they could hear him smoking while preaching, and he would need to quit if he wanted to be approved for ordination. 

No comments about the substance of his sermon.

No questions about any of his theological claims.

Just a moral absolute about pastors not being able to smoke.

Fast forward to today and the Special General Conference just approved a new measure that would allow (and in fact require) boards of ordained ministry to look through an individual’s social media accounts to discern whether or not the person is part of the LGBTQIA community. (To be clear, the Judicial Council has yet to rule whether or not this will be constitutionally viable)

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We are now in a place where the process for ordination is far more focused on the model in which it takes place, and our flawed mission statement, than on the work of Jesus. Ordination, and the ways we preclude someone from it, denies the central proclamation of Word which is at the core of who we are supposed to be. 

I have met far too many people who were held back from ordained ministry for things like their obesity, or their divorce, or their timidity, which fundamentally ignores the God who calls people regardless of their circumstances. 

In light of GC2019, I appreciate Will Willimon’s comment that “God is going to continue calling gay people to ordained ministry whether we like it or not.”

In the UMC we are obsessed with making more disciples (as an end) and it has made it necessary to have clergy who resemble Jesus, rather than having clergy who can proclaim the passion with passion because they understand the truth of grace. All of our talk of perfection (for our sakes) prevents us from admitting that no one is good but God alone. 

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so eloquently wrote: 

“Alas, in the present panic over faddish clerical derelictions, the church can’t see [grace] for beans. Bad enough that its preachers think their sins make them unfit to preach forgiveness. Worse yet by far that the church itself chases offending preachers unceremoniously (and with precious little due process) off the farm… If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit  that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost – children who can accept their failure as children, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings – and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea.” (The Foolishness of Preaching)

Our current ordination process is incompatible with Christian teaching because it expects clergy to be the Jesus in their congregations rather than being the sinners in need of grace who can preach the passion with passion.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Change the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Place more power on the local church to not only equip individuals for ministry, but also to empower them to express their call in theologically substantive ways. 

Or, at the very least, stop using subjective moral claims as a way to preclude individuals from serving God as an ordained pastor. If the earliest disciples are any indication (Peter perjured and Paul murdered), immorality should be an expectation for ministry, not something that bars someone from it. 

Such a revision or our ordination process would retain the Spirit-driven and prevenient grace-filled faith that is part of our Wesleyan heritage and it would stop expecting pastors to stand on pedestals that always crumble.

The giant wheel of the UMC spins and spins because we have a process not unlike a factory model in which we expect that if we a bunch of different people in through the beginning, they will all come out the same on the other end. 

I suggest we consider the opposite – we take all these people who feel called to ministry and demonstrate to them that God will use their greatest weaknesses and all of their brokenness to express the kind of reckless grace that’s at the heart of the Gospel. We give people the freedom to see and believe that God calls whomever God wants regardless of our subjectivity. And that to deny someone the call that God has placed on their life because of whatever we might deem as incompatible only goes to show that the process has become incompatible with Christian teaching. 

A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

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Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

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We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith. 

The Difference That Makes The Difference

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference

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The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Luke 13.1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners that all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Jesus gets pushed into situations like this all the time in the gospels.

Hey Jesus, what do you think about this – What happens to the woman who remarries over and over, who will her husband be in heaven? Hey Jesus, is this kid suffering because of his own sins and or because of the sins of his parents? Hey Jesus, are those people over there the worst of the sinners?

And, frankly, the questions make sense. We happen to live in a really senseless world and it would be nice is Jesus could illuminate for us the truth of what’s going on. Behind all the questions, whether the questioners are trying to entrap Jesus or not, is this inquisitive nature that is so at the heart of who we are. 

And this particular scenario aimed toward the Messiah about the worst sinners – is just so human.

The delegates at the Special General Conference were given opportunities to stand and speak in favor or against particular motions regarding the church’s opinion about human sexuality. 

There were, of course, the classic arguments – God made us male and female for one another, citing Genesis. And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, citing Jesus. There were even appeals to cultural shifts and being obedient to God’s word. 

It went on for days.

But now, about a month later, there are a few moments that have really stuck with me. I’ve previously shared about the exact moment of reaction to the Traditional Plan vote in which some people fell to the ground in tears while others danced around in celebration, a moment I believe will haunt me and the church for the rest of our days. 

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But there were two speeches made prior to the vote that have been ringing in my mind.

Early in the debates a woman from Pennsylvania stood to speak in favor of the Traditional Plan. She used the same talking points as other people had, but as her time was winding down she ramped it up a degree. She said that Jesus was very clear that it would be better for someone if a millstone was hung around their neck and cast into the sea than to continue living in sin.

And then she sat down.

For a moment the entire convention center just sat in bored and passive observation, but then the wheels starting clicking. 

Was she just implying that the time had come to drown gay individuals?

Within thirty seconds the room, largely quiet until this point, increased in decibels as people called for her to apologize for saying what she said. 

Apparently, to the woman who spoke at the microphone, homosexuality warrants consideration for a death sentence.

Later, in a what felt like a different moment, though similar to a degree, a pastor from the Great Plains conference stood up at the microphone to speak against the Traditional Plan. He too relied on some of the same talking points as other people had, but then he ramped it up a degree as well. 

He said he wanted to talk about biblical interpretation – Paul, he mentioned, talks more about women keeping silent in church, praying with their heads covered, not teaching men, women submitting to men, and women not wearing jewelry than he does about same-sex relationships. 

And yet, he continued, the proponents of the Traditional Plan support women in ministry even though Paul commands them to remain silent. 

The room grew very quiet at this point. Was he implying that we should remove women from places of pastoral power?

But then he went on to say it was interesting that the highest priority for items to be discussed at the conference were the pensions, even higher than the Traditional Plan itself. Which, is even more interesting given that Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” And he ended with this: If you really believe the Bible is clear, then I invite you to turn in your pension funds before you do anything else.

Apparently, to the man who spoke at the microphone, hypocrisy warranted greater reflection than other sins.

I’ve thought about these two moments a lot because it seems that we haven’t moved very far since the time of Jesus.

Self-righteous anger was with us in the beginning, and is still very much with us today.

Lord, do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans?

No. But unless you repent, you will die like them.

What a graceful and hopeful word from the Lord!

Robert Farrar Capon says that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should be like bad kids. They ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing churches and steal all their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.

Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. And yet we don’t know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about good behavior because we constantly point at everyone else’s bad behavior.

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It’s why we are forever comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferior morality, ethics, and even theology. 

The crowd’s conversation with Jesus about the greater sins in others hints at our continued fascination and obsession with guilt. 

If the God we worship were to punish and reign judgment down upon us for the sins we’ve already committed, then few, if any of us, would be left to worship in the first place.

But guilt, whether we feel it or we want others to feel it is like an addiction. And we Christians think that is good and right for us to think about and talk about guilt. It’s how more than half of the Christian world works! Make people feel guilty enough for how bad they are, scare them enough about the punishment of hell, and they’ll show up in droves to church on Sunday morning.

Right?

But the Bible, you know this book we keep talking about, it’s not obsessed with guilt like we are. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

So what should we make of Jesus’ quip about the need for repentance? Of course there should be repentance. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, and not a bargaining chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us. 

Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.

God isn’t waiting somewhere far and beyond until we muster up the courage to fix all of the problems we’ve created. Instead, God meets us in our sins in the person of Jesus Christ. 

We seem to be stuck in a world in which we foolishly feel like we have to earn God’s love and mercy and grace. And, even worse, we do this in the most paradoxical of ways by pointing out the so-called greater sins in others. We want to blame everyone else for all of the ills in the world. It makes us feel superior. It makes us feel right.

And then comes one of the most confounding truths in the entirety of the Bible: God has consigned all to disobedience in order that God may be merciful to all.

We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, we probably should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, if feeling guilty does anything, it usually just leads to more sinning.

Attempting to overcome our sins, to leave them all behind, is a worthy goal but a far greater task than we ever really realize. 

The only thing we can really do with our sins that does anything, is admit them. Naming and claiming the truth of our condition is part of the necessary work of putting everything into perspective. When we can claim own our sins, when we can admit that we are no better than the crowds wanting to know who the worst sinners are, then we begin to see that we are all sinners and then we can celebrate knowing that those sins are nailed to the cross in Christ Jesus. 

Parading out the self-righteous judgments against others for their sins being worse than ours is to perpetuate a world in which the right get righter and the wrong get wronger. It leaves little to no room for reconciliation. And it is a complete denial of the good gift, the very best gift, that is God’s grace.

Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family or perfect job or perfect paycheck or perfect morality or perfect theology earns us anything. Grace is not expensive. Grace is not even cheap. It’s free.

And, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, grace is like manure.

It gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and gets all co-mingled in the soil of our souls. Manure is a messy and strange tool that is so completely necessary for our existence. Nothing is quite as ironic as knowing that another creature’s excrement is often required for us to eat. 

But, of course, we don’t like thinking about that. It’s why we so quickly identify with the man with the fig tree. What happens when something is no longer bearing fruit, whether it is a literal tree or not? We are quick to cut it down and replace it with something else.

And, assuming that we’re not growing all of our own food, we’ve grown remarkably comfortable with a world in which we don’t ever have to think about what was required for us to have food on our plates. We are either ignorant, or blissfully unaware, of the struggle that is at the heart of the production of our consumption. 

We don’t like thinking about manure being spread all over the ground so that we can have whatever we want in our kitchens. 

Its the same reason we like to think about Easter without having to confront the cross.

The cross is the manure of grace that is spread into and throughout our lives. It is a frightening thing that we’d rather ignore or dismiss, and yet without it we are nothing. 

And still, the manure that is grace is offered to our lives even when, and precisely because, we are not bearing fruit!

We worship a God of impossible possibilities, a God who offers more chances than we ever deserve, a God who willingly drops manure on our lives over and over again.

The cross is like manure; it is good and bad and ugly. 

But it is also our salvation. Amen. 

Thirsty

Devotional:

Psalm 63.1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 

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After preaching and leading worship for what felt like 4 of the more challenging weeks in my life, a youth from the church approached me after the service on Sunday. In his eyes I saw a the beginnings  of a question and I mentally prepared myself to respond. I have attempted to be as clear as possible about the situation the UMC finds itself in, and I have tried to preach faithfully in the midst of it, but the look on the young man’s face left me worried that I had been anything but clear.

Before he opened his mouth I said, “I can tell that you’ve got a question brewing. What is it?” 

He stared blankly at my face for a moment and then said, “Is there anything you wish you hadn’t packed in your bag when you went hiking at Philmont?”

I, constantly over thinking everything, made an assumption that he wanted to know more about the denomination’s stance on human sexuality, or where the UMC is heading, but what he really wanted was some advice as he prepares to journey to Philmont this summer with his Boy Scout Troop.

When I was the same as as the young man I was fortunate enough to travel to the Boy Scout ranch in northern New Mexico for what was one of the most formative experiences in my life. So, recalling those ten days and 102 miles, I told him about cutting down on unnecessary clothing, spreading communal gear across the whole crew, and making sure that he has enough bottles for enough water.

And ever since Sunday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about that last item a lot. And, to be honest, it has been a long time since I’ve given a lot of thought to the most basic and important element of our survival: water.

I can remember hiking out at Philmont nearly 15 years ago and not having enough water on a particularly brutal day. We started rationing it among the group as much as we could but at some point we ran out and we began panicking. With every mile we passed another dry creek bed and our lips continued to crack.

However, when we finally made it to the next campsite that afternoon, there were arrows pointing to a fresh spring that was producing water. It was hot and it was brackish, but it was the most delicious water I’ve ever tasted in my life!

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The psalmist writes, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The desire to know God and to feel God’s presence is likened to wandering around a dry land looking for water. And yet, how often do we long for God in that kind of way? Many of us make our way to church on Sunday mornings hoping for something, even yearning for something, but would we describe it like the thirst while looking for a spring in the midst of a drought?

Or perhaps the metaphor works differently. Maybe it’s not so much about our desire to be filled like a flowing stream, but the refined rarity of actually finding it. 

Today, many of us take for granted what has been made available to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We go about our Christian lives without having to think much about what we are doing. We enter church and see the cross but it doesn’t stand out to us in the stark way that it should. 

And yet, like water, without the cross and without Jesus we are nothing.