The Dinner Party

Luke 14.7-14

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When he was invited to the dinner party he knew it was a mistake. To begin with, he had never been to a dinner party before and this one was being hosted by all the religious big-wigs in the area. 

But the invitation had come nonetheless, and the host wanted him to be there.

He mulled over the possibility of going for a few days, weighing out the pros and cons. From what he could tell, it would be a boring evening. These weren’t really the type of people known for being fun. But they were the people with power, and he apparently had a place at the table. So he decided to go.

When he got to the house he was immediately overwhelmed with the opulence. It was as if it had been taken right out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and he was worried about touching anything and everything. 

He had spent hours fretting over what to wear, and even though he settled on jeans and a button up shirt, he was clearly underdressed. The men were in suits and the women were in long flowing dresses.

Nevertheless, he politely tiptoed through room after room, with the occasional nod toward one of the other guests until he heard a simple bell ringing from the other side of the house, and assumed the time had come for the dinner party to begin.

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He entered the dining room and was bombarded by the bartender who wanted to know his order.

“Got any wine?” He asked.

“Why sir, we have the cave filled to the brim with a great variety of years and regions! Shall I make a recommendation?”

“How about you bring me a glass of the stuff that you can’t get rid of, that’ll be fine.”

And with that the bartender started off in a fit of rage.

The man then turned toward the dining room table and took in its perfection. The settings were beautiful and the napkins looked as if a professional origami artist had spent hours creating unique folds for each plate. He felt all of the eyes in the room on him as he made his way over to the table, but before he could pull out a chair, the man next to him winced and reached for his lower back.

“Something wrong?” He asked.

The man was doubled over now and said, “I threw my back out this morning and I thought I had worked it out but now I feel like I can’t move.”

So he took the man by the hand, led him over to the table, pushed some of the plates and cups and cutlery out of the way, and laid the man down. He fussed around for a few minutes poking here and there while muttering a few things under his breath and immediately everyone gathered around in a tight circle with their jaws on the floor.

“Has he no decency?

“Where are his manners?”

And finally, the host entered only to exclaim, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

The man looked up from his make shift examining table and simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it was your kid, or your spouse, who was hurting, wouldn’t you drop everything to do something about it?”

And no one said a word.

The man with the back problem promptly got off the table, now fit as a fiddle, and the hired help rushed in to put everything back in its proper place.

With a wave of the hand the host encouraged everyone to find their seats so the feast could begin.

And yet the man, who had already offended everyone in the room, noticed that all the guests rushed to get to the seats as close to the host as possible.

He stood there in silence, observing the frantic frenzy of power dynamics, and contended himself to remain silent until they noticed that he had not taken the remaining seat.

And so it was in the midst of a profoundly uncomfortable silence that all the eyes fell upon him once again.

“Hey, the next time any of you go to a party, don’t sit in the best places. Someone more important than you might’ve been invited, and then you’re going to have to give up your seat to go sit in the last place. So, don’t you think it would be better to start off at the end, and that way the host can come and raise you up to a better place?”

Again, no one said a word.

The man took it as a sign that he should keep going. 

“Where has all the humility gone? There is a great and wonderful joy, known only to a few, that comes with humility. It comes not because humility earns you anything, but it brings a newfound sense of joy from not having to be in control of every little thing. You can finally enjoy the party instead of trying to be responsible for it.”

The other guests started to fidget uncomfortably in the chairs.

“Look at yourselves. If you keep showing up at these things and only choose the best seats, you’re going to cut yourselves off from all the other places and all the other people at the table, who, in my experience, are the ones who have the most fun. I know some of you would rather die that have sit in the back, but dying to all of this is the best thing you could ever do.”

The man started to really feel the words bubbling up within him and he began swinging his arms with ferocity spilling wine all over the oriental rug.

He stared deeply into the eyes of everyone around the table, all of the winners of the community, people who were so self-satisfied with all they had done and earned, and he began to pity them. He instantly knew that, to them, this was the most important moment of their week – sitting around a table, jockeying for power, doing everything they could to impress the person to their left and right. 

So he continued, “Just go ahead and die to everything you think you’ve done and earned for yourself. None of you are as good as you think you are anyway. And if, only if, you’re able to die to that, maybe you can actually start enjoying yourself.”

And he sat down.

Over the next hour the guests ate in silence as the courses of food were brought out in proper order. They were either so moved by his words or infuriated by them that they did not know what to do or what to say. 

The evening quickly came to its inevitable conclusion and the guests began to express their gratitude to the host, promising to return the favor by having the host come to their respective places, and the man felt another rally coming.

“You need to throw away the book.”

“What did you say?”

“You need to toss it out to the trash and leave it there forever.”

“What book?”

“The one you’ve been keeping in your head about who owes you what. You’re so stupidly stuck in your bookkeeping that you’re trying to keep the world together and you can’t even see how quickly its ripping at the seams. Why don’t you just let it all go? I mean, what good does it do you to climb the social ladder by inviting people just to have them invite you back. You already have all of this. Next time, try inviting the wrong people. Think about how much fun you could have at the table surrounded by the last, least, lost, little, and dead. I promise you this: you will never really be happy until the bookkeeping stops, until you learn how to let go of your clenched hand, so that someone else can grab hold and bring you onto the dance floor of life.”

The guests, again, looked upon the scene with disbelief at a man with no sense of manners at all and they, along with the host, fumed.

“Anyway,” he began, “Thanks for the evening I guess. The wine was okay, the food was good, and the conversation was to die for.” And with that he left.

It was only then that one of the guests worked up the courage to ask the host a question: “Who was that guy?”

And the host replied, “His name is Jesus. And I could just kill him for everything he did and said tonight.”

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If we want to take Jesus’ words from the parable at the dinner party literally, that’s fine, but it’s a quick recipe for a ruined evening. If we invite the wrong people over, they’re not going to invite us to their houses, nor would we really want to go to theirs in the first place. But, again, these parables aren’t here for us to understand how we are supposed to be living, but they function to show how God lives for us.

Jesus destroys the exceptions of the dinner party crowd and he does it throughout his ministry. He is a critical Lord, though we often forget that part of him. He’s critical because he wants to destroy all of our favorite and foolish expectations. Being first, found, big, important, and alive matter little in the kingdom of God. They matter little because Jesus didn’t come to make the first firster, or the found founder, or the important importanter, or the alive aliver. He came to raise the dead.

And we can die, we can die to the desire to sit at the best places, we can die to the bookkeeping that keeps us awake at night. We really can die to all of that because Jesus already has. 

Look: It’s as if Jesus is sneaking into the dinner parties of our lives, seeing our jockeying and our comparing and our bookkeeping, just to whisper into our ears: “Why are you doing all of this when I already threw out the book on you? Why are you keeping score when God doesn’t? God already nailed all of your sins to my cross, past-present-future. Go ahead and die to all of that so you can finally start having some fun.”

So hear Jesus today, hear him through scripture and song and silence and sermon, hear him through the sacrament to which we are invited at the table. For as much as we would like to argue against it, we are the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind. We are the ones invited to Christ’s dinner party, an invitation we cannot repay, and he wants us to have fun. Amen.

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Freed For Slavery

Devotional:

Galatians 5.1a

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Weekly Devotional Image

“No one in the church is going to tell me who I’m allowed to love.” 

I heard the off-hand comment from a stranger in the convention center during the recent Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC. I only needed to take a look at his shirt, covered in rainbows, to get an idea of what he meant with his words. There were a lot of people like him this year, walking around making their thoughts/opinions/theologies known with clothing, words, and with particular votes. 

A friend of mine described it as the “height of tribalism” in the UMC in which we are all constantly trying to make sure everyone else knows how we feel about everything.

Or, to put it another way, we want everyone to know whose side we are on.

It was also during the recent Annual Conference that I happened upon what appeared to be the end of a fight. Two women, of similar ages, were vehemently arguing with one another in the middle of a hallway with lots of finger pointing and eye-rolling. I started walking toward them preparing myself to separate them or, at the very least, try to mediate but then one of the women said to the other. “You’re free to have your opinion, but so am I, and you’re wrong.” And with that she promptly turned around and walked away. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul. And we love our freedom. We love being able to say, do, and believe just about whatever we want without anyone interfering. We spend a lot of time talking about freedom whether its in the cultural ethos, Sunday worship, or in national holidays.

Freedom is who we are.

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And yet, freedom implies that we have been freed from something and for something.

In the US we talk about being freed from tyranny, or being freed from oppressive rules about religious observance or non-observance. And all of that is true. But that’s not necessarily the same kind of freedom that’s at the heart of the gospel. 

Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And in the next verse he continues his thought in a way that most of us would rather ignore: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

In the church today, we are so often obsessed with freedom that we forget that we’ve been freed from sin and death in order that we might become slaves to one another. And, at times, we are onboard with this theological project so long as we can be slaves to the people we like, or the people we agree with, and the people who look like us.

But what about the other people?

What about the people whose shirts, and bumper stickers, and votes go against our own?

Can we walk away from them or are we chained to them through the love of Christ?

Slaves To Freedom

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the Sunday school class at Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to have a crazy pastor, Cub Scouts, proper preparation, being delivered through water, cutting down trees, feeling freedom, patience, and God’s sense of humor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Slaves To Freedom

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Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

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One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

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Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

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The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.

It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:

“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.

And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.

I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.

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Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices. 

There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.

When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.

When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.

But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church. 

For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.

Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.

Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?

Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started. 

So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing – 

Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?

And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.

Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny. 

My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way. 

If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.

I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go. 

We Are Not The Plan

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42-43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Josh is a regular contributor to Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the humanity of Elijah, being found in scripture, following the rules, HBO’s Chernobyl, the twisting of sin, angry prayers, a church full of strangers, the too good Good News, feeling bad for pigs, and social healing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are Not The Plan

The-Plan

God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

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.’”

It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.

We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.

However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.

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Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.

And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?

It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs. 

It said God Hates Fags. 

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A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing. 

And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.

That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.

Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree. 

Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.

It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.

And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles. 

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

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These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.

There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital. 

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.

And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions. 

And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.

Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.

In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son. 

The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. 

All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise. 

The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.

But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.

The cross with which we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump for us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.

It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.

Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us. 

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we are doing. 

For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.

But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.

We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”

Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen.