This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for All Saints’ Sunday [C] (Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1.11-23, Luke 6.20-31). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciation, perseverance, communal reading, saintliness, the difference Christ makes, directions for singing, courage, blessings and woes, sermon introductions, and Kingdom work. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Praying Our Goodbyes
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hears? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
“They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” is a favorite line among clergy-types. When the pandemic came in earnest, I heard countless colleagues make that remark with regard to moving church online. It shows up turning denominational turns as we’re tasked with communicating bizarre elements of our polity with our laity. And it’s the go-to expression whenever something goes wrong with a church building and all the eyes turn the pastor for direction.
And yet, the irony is, there is no type of schooling that fully prepares someone for their vocation. Imagine how boring our lives would be if we knew everything we needed to know the day we graduated.
However, I must confess, the words “they didn’t teach me that in seminary” left my mouth the very first time I was tasked with a committal to the grave.
Grief counseling? Services of Death and Resurrection? Theological proclamation in Bible study? No problem. But then, after my first funeral service, I found myself driving to the cemetery without knowing what I was supposed to do.
When we all arrived, we stood around the casket of the recently departed, and all the eyes turned to me. And then, because God provides, a story from the scriptures appeared in my mind.
Listen: Jesus returned to Capernaum shortly after calling the disciples to follow him. It was reported among the community that he was home and crowds began to gather. Rumor had it that this particular son of a carpenter could make the impossible possible.
Soon, so many people arrived that they were spilling out onto the road, waiting for their turn.
And, it came to pass, that a group of friends caught word of the Word’s arrival and they put together a plan. Their friend was paralyzed, and so they carried him through the streets of Capernaum until they arrived at the house. Upon discovering the size of the crowd, the climbed up on top of the house, used shovels to dig through the roof, and they lowered their friend to the Lord.
When Jesus saw their faith… notice, not the faith of the paralytic… when he saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
If the story ended there, it would already be radical enough for the Gospel. It’s got all the markings of a remarkable tale: friendship, hope, overcoming adversity, and a delightful conclusion. And yet, Jesus forgives the man his sins.
Isn’t that strange?
If this were a proper story, Jesus would’ve reached out to the man, and healed his legs.
But instead, Jesus forgives his sins.
Of course, the story keeps going because some scribes were near by, the do-gooding religious types. Perhaps they couldn’t help but hope for a glimpse of heaven on earth, even if they didn’t really believe everything they heard. And they grumbled.
“Who does this guy think he is? It’s blasphemy I tell you! No one can forgive but God alone.”
And Jesus said, “Check this out: Which is easier, to tell him he’s forgiven or to tell him to walk. But so that you may know heaven is standing here right in front of you, I’m going to do both.”
He looked over at the forgiven paralytic and said, “Go home.” And the man stood up and left.
Everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
The family stood staring at me, pondering why this story, of all stories, was the one I proclaimed at the grave. And then I said, “Gathering here, we are like those friends who carry the one we love to Jesus. With our faith, we witness to the promised truth that this is not goodbye, this is, “until next time.” Until we gather together at the Supper of the Lamb that goes on without end.
And then I reached down to the dirt, laid it on the casket, and I sang: Softly and Tenderly…
It is a strange thing to be a Christian. There was a time, of course, when it was expected or assumed that Christianity was a normative experience for people. But now, today, the church is a rather radical witness to the work of God in the world. In short, we approach the throne of God with a trembling hope because we know that we cannot take any of this for granted.
To be a Christian is to know that time is now fleeting the moments are passing. It is to know that we are defined not by our mistakes but by the grace of God. It is to know the great Good News that Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Those descriptors might not sound strange to our ears, but to the world they are as confounding as can be. The world tells us that, so long as we purchase certain products, and dress a particular way, that we can hang around forever. The world hangs our mistakes around our necks and compels us to carry them everywhere. And the world forces us to believe that we are completely alone and can only ever depend on ourselves.
To be a Christian is to be different.
We worship a God who became one of us, who arrived in the muck and mire of our lives, to be the difference that makes us different! We follow the Lord Jesus who is not only capable of forgiving our sins, but also of raising the dead!
The fundamental difference between the world and the church, is that the world assumes we can earn or achieve everything we need, whereas the church reminds us that the everything we really need has already been finished for us in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the church exists to mediate Christ to us through sermon, song, and sacrament. The church teaches us who we are. The church proclaims the Good News to a world drowning in bad news.
Notice, the friends from scripture today bring their friend to Jesus and they won’t let anything stand in their way. The do something wild and reckless: They trust that this 1st century rabbi can make a way where there is no way, and they’re willing to dig through a roof to see it happen!
And then, when Jesus does his Jesus thing, the crowds glorify God and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”
When the church is at her best, we all depart with those same words, either aloud or in our hearts, and we can’t help ourselves from living differently because of the Good News.
Today we’re talking about, and thinking about, witness, the final aspect of church membership. When someone joins a United Methodist Church they make a vow to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It’s all too easy to take the theme of witness and boil it down to something like a church growth strategy.
Put another way, we often confuse witness with evangelism.
There’s a church, not too far from here, that is busting at the seams. Each week they have to pull out more and more folding chairs to make space for people. And, when the pastor was asked to what he could attribute the increase, he said, “It’s our iPad giveaway program.”
You see, at this particular church, they raffle off an iPad every single Sunday, and you receive more raffle tickets depending on the number of people you bring to church with you.
Those people are being converted to something, but I don’t think we can call it the kingdom of God.
Notably, in our denominational neck of the woods, there’s a rather sobering statistic that haunts me: Today, the average United Methodist invites someone else to worship once every 38 years.
And even so, the location of the church today is a great gift! For, it gives us the space and opportunity to rediscover how unusual it is for us, Methodists of all people, to be the church of Jesus Christ.
The early church grew, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have, not because they gave away tablets, or went door to door, or handed out tracks in downtown Corinth.
The early church grew because the witness of Christ in the world was life-changing.
Rich Mullins, who I’ve been quoting a lot recently, once said, “I am a Christian, not because someone explained the buts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.”
In other words, people carried him to Jesus.
The God we worship is a healer of broken things. And yet, the brokenness that God heals is not just our broken bodies. God heals broken hearts, broken spirits, broken promises.
In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we see how the one who said, “Your sins are forgiven,” had the power to do exactly that.
Notice, the paralytic did absolutely nothing to earn his forgiveness. Save for the fact that he had some good friends. And those good friends were already living according to the difference that Christ makes.
All of us this morning are here, whether we know it or not, because someone or some people carried us to Jesus. We are products of those who made Jesus real for us, those who were willing to be nuts and bolts.
And, in the end, that exactly what it means to witness. It’s living according to the Good News of God in the world as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends we did not know we had. Friends who are possible only because Jesus has gathered us in for God’s great parable to the world we call the church. Friends who are willing to carry us to Jesus over and over again because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. Amen.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
We love the story of Zaccheaus. And by we, I mean the church. We tell Z’s story to children in Sunday school, we use it in VBS curricula, and we even have a nice little song that conveys the whole thing:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he / He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see / And as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree / And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.
The song, and the ways we tell the story, make Zaccheaus out to be this smaller than life character (pun intended) who just wanted to catch a glimpse of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation, particularly as it regards money.
But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zaccheaus was. He was a tax collector, someone who stole from his fellow Israelites and kept a fat portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor to his people, and to his God, and he stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus.
And Jesus picks this no good dirty rotten scoundrel out from the tree and says, “Hey, let’s get something to eat.”
And, in a way that could only happen in the Gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even strange proclamation. After a couple sandwiches, and a glass of lemonade on the front porch, Zacchaeus says, “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four time over.”
And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks like! Let’s have a party!”
It’s a confounding story, and one that we often water down. Zacchaeus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God and God shows up for lunch. Zacchaeus has swindled countless people and Jesus has the gall to give him salvation.
And yet, his story is precisely why we can call the Good News good.
We are happy with a Jesus who forgives the tame sins of the nearly righteous. We are content to hear about the need to love one another a little bit more. But it’s another thing entirely to encounter the radical nature of Jesus’ proclamation of grace. Jesus’ willingness to cancel sins, big sins, is downright scandalous.
Which is why we sing of Zacchaeus but keep him at a distance. For, to approach the wee little man is to admit the truth of who we are and whose we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God.
All of us are like Zacchaeus. We all hurt people close to us, we all ignore the needs of strangers, and we all focus on our wants, needs, and desires at the expense of others. We distance ourselves from true unabashed goodness, though we don’t mind taking a peek from the vantage point of a tree (or a pew). But be warned! All it takes is a glimpse for the Lord to see us and say, “Want to grab some lunch?”
And the rest, as they say, is Gospel.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4, Psalm 119.137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12, Luke 19.1-10). Jason is the senior pastor at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including staying interested in ministry, God’s timing problem, the folly of pride, answering questions with questions, Godfather responsibilities, comedy in subtitles, VBS curricula, colluding with empire, and the unjust justice of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Folly of Pride
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hands and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
“Love” has got to be one of the most overused and therefore underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. What was once reserved for the intimate connection between individuals, and for the divine, is now the word we use to describe any affection toward anything.
I tried to keep track this week of how many times I heard the word and I lost count rather quickly. I heard of the love of our fall weather, the love of a certain gritty Star Wars Disney + series, and even, I kid you not, the love of Taco Bell.
Even in the church, we drop the “l” word all the time. We talk about loving God and loving neighbor, we sing of the gift of love, we participate in missional work in the name of love.
To quote a popular movie from a season that is just around the corner, “Love actually is all around.”
And yet, if love is actually all around, what difference does it make?
Notably, according to the strange new world of the Bible, love is not found in affection, or hallmark cards, or Romantic Comedies. Instead, love is found in service.
I love the thunder brothers: James and John. Peter is often seen as our proxy in the New Testament, always rushing in and saying more than he knows, but the thunder brothers are the perfect paragons of pathetic performance.
Jesus teaches his disciples about the mysteries of the Gospel, he offers them miraculous food when they see nothing but scarcity, he even spells out the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can, and the thunder brothers still don’t get it.
They approach Jesus and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom of God.
They want power while God in the flesh has just told them, moments before, that glory comes in weakness. For the third time.
Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe, confronted with bad news, you know the whole “the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests, he will be condemned to death, and they will murder him” thing, maybe the thunder brothers would prefer to stay on the sunny side of things.
“Excuse us Jesus, it’s all nice to hear all about the Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over and you’re finally in charge? We have some ideas we’d like to share with you. We think we’d be good for positions in upper management. What do you think?”
And Jesus, ever the good rabbi, answers their question with his own:
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!
“Okay, okay, you don’t need to sing it. But let’s be sure we’re all on the same page. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, literally, pay attention as I say this one more time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to great, you have to be the least. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Got it?”
Are you able? Are we able?
It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, and no.
We are able to follow the Lord, but we do not know where following the Lord will take us.
The thunder brothers want glory, power, prestige. In short, they want what we all want. They want the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance.
But glory, real faithful glory, isn’t what we often imagine it to be. We might picture the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right colleges, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.
But this is how Jesus describes glory: service.
And Jesus serves the sinful who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons. You know, people like us.
Discipleship, which is just another word for following Jesus, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we really have no idea where we’re going, and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the ride.
Contrary to how we might imagine the faith, it is not made up of theological propositions or lists of righteous behaviors. The marks of the Christian can actually be summed up rather simply: Are we following Jesus or not?
And yet, the simplicity of that question betrays the magnitude of discipleship.
Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. In the end, discipleship is often nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the roads of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the knowledge that Jesus is leading the way.
Which means, oddly enough, we never really choose to be Christians.
Discipleship is something done to us.
I’ve never not been a Christian, I’ve only known this life. Credit to my parents, church has always been part of my reality. But even to those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by choice. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually finds ourselves in a place like this.
That something is named Jesus Christ.
Jesus gathers people like us in on a journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own, and Jesus drags us places we might not have ever discovered on our own.
And, more often than not, service is the crucible of discipleship.
Put another way, following Jesus eventually brings us toward opportunities to serve, and to be served.
However, serving others, putting the needs of others before our own, doesn’t actually make us righteous. Service is not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. No amount of good works can make up for our lack of goodness. The only thing service does is rightly orders our disordered lives.
Rich Mullins poignantly put it this way: “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect family and your perfect little house where you never encounter anyone with any problems. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”
Jesus says to his disciples, then and now, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And Jesus spends his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Notice, Jesus rightly rebukes the thunder brothers and their request. Even after all the miracles and the parables and the public displays of religious affection, they still don’t get it. And yet, Jesus also makes them a promise in this moment! Jesus’ promises them, and all of us, that we need not live in fear, we need not worry about what tomorrow might bring, we need not even scheme to accrue as much power as possible. Jesus doesn’t promise protection, safety, or power. Jesus promises us the cross!
Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was not about power, or at least not about power as defined by the world. Again and again throughout the gospels we are bombarded by Jesus’ work of bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.
Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”
Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then Jesus takes us somewhere else.
That journey might look like spending a week helping out with Vacation Bible School showing love and grace to kids who might not know what those words even mean. Or it might look like working hard in the kitchen week after week to make sure bellies are full here at the church and in the community, particularly for those who do not know what it feels like to have a full belly. Or it might look like serving in worship whether singing, or reading, or praying, helping others experience God’s profound mercy. Or it might look like contributing to the financial aspects of the church, making a way for ministries where there is no way.
Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved with mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some part of the journey we call discipleship.
To love is to serve. To serve is to love.
And yet, at the same time, to receive love is to receive service.
This is often an under-discussed part of our faith. It’s all good and fine to talk about all the things we can do, all the differing ways we can serve the needs of our community, and so forth. It’s another thing entirely to put ourselves in the position of receiving service. Of mustering of the humility to recognize that we, ourselves, need help.
But we do. All of us. No matter how much we like to pretend we have it all figured out, the truth is we’re all making it up as we go and we can all use all the help we can get.
Thankfully, God chooses to become weak in order to dwell among us, God chooses to serve a people undeserving, and God gives God’s life as a random for many, including us.
If, and when, we serve, it is only ever because God first served us.
Put another way: we love because God first loved us.
Discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do and more to receive. Which, in the end, it what makes it so much fun. Amen.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…
There is a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He even tithes when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning. He is good and faithful.
And there’s another man, a legal crook, who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the rest up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can’t even keep track of where he keeps all of them.
They both show up for worship one day. The good and faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the crook and, meanwhile, the crook asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
The parable of the publican and the pharisee. Jesus tells this tale to his disciples and then mic-drops the ending: “I tell you, this man (the crook) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s all wrong, right? This parable runs against the grain of how we think it’s all supposed to work.
Put another way: Which of the two would we prefer to see sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning? How would we feel if the crook was part of our church? What would we do if he took a little money out of the offering plate or showed up with a new woman on his arm every Sunday?
This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with a resounding conclusion, Jesus tells the disciples and all of us that the whole game is unfair.
Grace is unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and yet, instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”
Do you see what that means?
It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the Publican can kick him out. The whole point of the parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good works and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation.
In short, they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Gospel according to Paul (McCartney), restoration, patient prayers, honesty, reading backwards, scriptural sommeliers, the Gospel diet, agency, the crown of righteousness, and the most important parable. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Startling Nature of Scripture
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures from themselves but are not rich towards God.”
Someone interrupted Jesus one day, “Lord, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance.”
The man probably has just cause for his request, even though the conventions of the day dictated that the eldest son would receive the inheritance. But, don’t we agree it would be a good thing for Jesus to make everything fair?
Jesus replies, “Hey, what’s the deal? Who made me a judge over all you people?”
Apparently, Jesus has more important things to deal with than the incidental patching up of a intra-family dispute over finances.
But then Jesus does what Jesus does best – he tells a story.
There was a man who had it all. At first, he used the excess cash to fill his house with all sorts of trinkets and wares that served only one purpose: showing others how wealthy he was. It started with some paintings, until he ran out of wall space. Next he redid his wardrobe, until his closet was full. And then he bought an extra luxury car, until he realized there wasn’t enough room in the garage.
What was he to do?
And then the man had a vision! Why not tear it all down, and build an even bigger house to fit even more stuff inside?
So that’s what he did.
And it came to pass, after months of deconstruction and reconstruction, of differing architectural bids and various contractors, he looked at all he had and he said to himself, “You’ve done well old boy! Time to eat, drink, and be merry!”
Suddenly a booming voice from the heavens shatters all the new glass in the windows: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you spent your life obsessing over, whose will they be?”
Jesus sure could tell a story.
And yet, I don’t know if this story has “worked.”
And by “worked” I mean, I don’t know if we’ve changed all that much in response to this particular parable.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus talked about money and possessions more than any other subject. And for good reason: we’re just as obsessed with what we have now as we were back then. Even a couple hundred years ago John Wesley was addressing wealth with the early Methodists: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”
There’s a great irony with Jesus’ parable of the rich fool: We all know that it’s true, and yet we live as if it isn’t.
It’s a bonafide fact that we can’t take anything with us when we die, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. ($10,000 caskets…)
Everything in the world, and even the church at times, runs on avarice. Extreme greed for wealth and material goods. It’s the lie we were fed as children, and it’s the lie that we give to our children. It’s reinforced with every magazine cover, every instagram post, and every commercial we encounter.
Happiness is yours, if you can afford it!
And it’s all one big lie.
The world will tell us over and over and over again that we are defined by our bank accounts, and the clothes we wear, and the cars we drive. But in the kingdom of God it’s through poverty, not wealth, that God saves us.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though fully God, did not regard divinity as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, being born in human likeness, and was obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Why does God do this? Because we need all the help we can get.
Whether we’re rich or poor or somewhere in between, all of us are sin-sin with our insatiable desire for more.
And not just more, but more, more more!
We clutch at all that is around us rather than opening our hands to ever being open to anything else.
We’d rather receive than give.
We lay awake at night worrying about one thing and one thing only: money.
And then Jesus has the nerve to tell us this parable!
Notice: the man in Jesus’ story does with his avarice what we all do: We congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.
The wealthy man sees only himself: “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
He’s living in a monologue.
And yet, all of the things we have in this life, all of the things we think we’ve earned or deserved, every one of them is actually a gift. We are products of what is done for us more than by what we do for ourselves.
Jesus sets up the man as the paradigm for everything we think is good, and right, and true in this life. He’s fiscally responsible after all. He’s earned his good fortune. And yet, the man is only a master of a life that is completely and radically out of his control – the rich man is nothing more than the captain of a ship that has been taking on water since it left the dock.
The man lives only for himself, talks only to himself, sees only himself, until the Lord knocks him to the ground for being a fool.
He is foolish because no matter how much he talks to himself, and congratulates himself, and rejoices in himself, he neglects to recognize that his crops, or his stock portfolio, or whatever the good thing is was always first a gift.
And gifts require givers.
The land that our food comes from, the institutions that give us the space and knowledge to grow, the families that provide our basic needs, the friends that support us in times of pain and grief, on and on and on.
And yet, we are far more possessed by what we think we possess. Our possessions possess us!
We keep acquiring more and more hoping we can control our lives or, at the very least, to make it appear like we have our lives together.
We spend most of our lives in pursuit of wealth, material and immaterial, only to come in the end to the greatest poverty of all: death.
Jesus’ parable ends with that frightening final note, one that lingers long after the Lord calls us fools: no matter how much we make, no matter how much we accumulate, we all die in the end.
John Ortberg tells this great story about how for years he and his grandmother played monopoly. She taught him the ins and the outs of the game, differing strategies, and she always always won. Until one day, after countless games, he finally beat her. And as he celebrated is victory, dancing across the living room, she said, “Don’t forget, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”
All the money, property, houses, hotels, they never really belonged to him. They were in the box before he started and they returned when he finished.
A challenging aspect of Christianity is our profound willingness to stare death in the face. It’s why we have crosses in our sanctuaries. We know, better than most, that time is now fleeting the moments are passing, passing from you and from me. And when the bells tolls for us, what will happen to all our stuff?
And yet, again, the “our” in “our” stuff betrays the Christian understanding that all of it, the money, possessions, talents, they are not “ours.” They are given to us by God who trust us to be good stewards of the gifts we’re given.
This church is a product of your stewardship, and the stewardship of those who came before us. Our sanctuary windows are marked with the names of those long gone who believed in God’s working in the world that they returned to God the gift they were given.
Even today, your gifts are what makes this church possible. The gifts of your time, showing up for worship and prayer and study and service. The gifts of your talents that you share with God and with one another. And, of course, the gifts of your finances.
Giving is normative in discipleship. It’s how we live into God’s mission of transforming the world.
But it’s also how we keep the lights on, and keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s how we are able to welcome and provide space for so many outside groups. It’s how we pay the salaries to support the livelihood of our staff and their families. It’s how we live into the strange and even foolish (at least according to the world) Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because, in the end, the parables are stories Jesus tells about himself and Jesus is the one who doesn’t store up his life on earth and, instead, freely gives it for you and me. Rather than clinging to his own life, Jesus mounts the hard wood of the cross for people undeserving, us.
This parables stings, and it frightens, perfect for the month of October, even better for stewardship! But it is Good News!
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not our money or lack of it, not our possessions or our minimalism, not our goodness or our badness, not our lives and not even our deaths.
We might not see it, or even believe it, but there is greater wealth in the salvation of Christ than in every bank account in the world.
And it’s ours for free.
We can’t earn it.
We don’t deserve it.
It’s not cheap, nor is it expensive.
It’s free for you and me and every fool the world will ever see.
Wesley said, “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.” Thankfully, we worship the God who never stops giving. Which is why the psalmist can sing, “our cups runneth over.” The only question is, what are we going to do with what we’ve been given?
Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”
Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like a widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like a bailiff dutifully following orders. Not even like a stenographer observing and recording every little detail of a trial.
God is like the unjust judge.
Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to do for us what we need for no other reason than the fact that it will get all of us off of God’s back.
Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in the midst of it.
In other words: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us!
We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works.
But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least bit of difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”
Jesus tells this parable as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. The cross is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you.
The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.
The old hymn has it right: “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine; alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine, bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own!”
Thanks be to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 19th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 31.27-34, Psalm 119.97-104, 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5, Luke 18.1-8). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, OK. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the transformation of judgment, nationalism, prophetic voices, new covenants, the function of the Law, the local Gospel, self-help books, the narrative scope of scripture, baldness, evangelism, and the unjust judge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Courtroom