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?”
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.
I announced the final hymn and we all started singing.
Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.
But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.
There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.
I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”
And so I did.
Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.
The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.
And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.
An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”
For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.
Going into the ministry only made it worse.
But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.
What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.
James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.
And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort.
When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?
And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.
Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization.
But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.
On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.
Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves.
Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.
And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”
Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying.
Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe.
Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible.
And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.
Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants.
I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.
To me, this church is an answer to prayer…
The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church.
But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?
In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.
As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.
Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment.
Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.
The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.
I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Lamentations 1.1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1.1-14, Luke 17.5-10). Sara and Teer both serve Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including boldness, the transformation of the church, ecclesial lament, The Melodians, honesty, The Brothers Zahl, rekindled gifts, shame, increased faith, the business of forgiveness, and mustard seeds. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Too Blessed To Be Stressed
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever if faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
I would like to have a word with whomever decided this would be the text for today. It’s one thing to assign different, and even strange, texts to retired clergy filling in while a certain pastor was on paternity leave. But for that pastor to return after a month only to dust off the homiletical muscles with the hardest parable?
Who thought this would be a good idea?
Apparently I did months ago when I chose this text for this Sunday.
Some fools for Christ are just fools.
Even if you’ve only spent a little time reading the Bible, it is clear that some of the stories that Jesus tells are in need of an editor’s touch. Or, as we might say in this part of Virginia, they need fixin’.
Here are a few examples: The parable of the so-called Good Shepherd. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a shepherd who goes off in search of one lost sheep. A quaint little tale. We might even like it. We certainly enjoy telling it to children during Vacation Bible School. But do you know what happens when you leave behind the ninety nine in search for the one lost? Ninety nine more lost sheep. It’s not way to run a business!
Or, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’d rather us call it the Dumb Samaritan. This fool comes across a beaten and bedraggled figure on the side of the road, and puts him up in the four seasons and leaves his Amex card behind for any additional charges. Bad idea!
And then there’s the creme de la creme – The Prodigal. A son commands his father to drop dead, runs off and ruins his inheritance, only to come home with a pitiful repentance worked up in his head and his aforementioned father throws him the greatest block party in history before the kid even gets a chance to apologize.
And then Jesus does it again!
The Pharisees, good religious folk like us, heaven’t even had a chance to lift their jaws off the ground when Jesus tells another story.
There was a man who worked for an investment bank. And, after a few ill advised stock purchases, the CEO marches into his office and says, “You’re fired. I want this office cleared by the end of the day and I’m taking a deeper look into all your recent trades.”
The money-manager finds himself going down the elevator with a cardboard box of office trinkets and thinks to himself, “What am I going to do? I’m too old to go back to school and I’m too proud to beg!” And then he gets an idea. He still has the company credit card in his wallet and he calls us some of his best clients and takes them out to lunch. In between appetizers, and glasses of wine, he pulls out his phone and starts typing away reducing the debt of his soon-to-be former clients knowing that even though he is no longer employed, it helps to have well connected people in your debt.
And then, Jesus says, the CEO calls up his the fired money manager and congratulates him: You have acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
That’s not a very responsible story Jesus! I don’t know if that’s the type of tale we want people hearing in church. Shouldn’t end more like this?
And the CEO calls up the fired money manager and rips into him yet again for being such a conniving no good dirty rotten scoundrel. And Jesus looks out at the crowds and commands them to live honest and virtuous lives.
The great challenge of the parables, this one included, is that Jesus tells them because they are true, and not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommendations for imitation. Good Samaritans are often taken advantage of. Any shepherd who makes a practice of leaving the ninety-nine behind is quick to go out of the sheep-keeping business. Any Father who throws a party for a wayward child is rightly rebuked for encouraging bad behavior. And any money manager who swindles clients, or bosses, out of money will usually spend some time paying for their crime.
And yet, the parables are not stories about us. The parables are stories that Jesus tells about himself.
Which means, oddly enough, Jesus is the shepherd to risks it all on the one who is lost. Jesus is the Samaritan who lavishly helps those down in the ditch. Jesus is the Father who forgives before apologies are offered. And Jesus is the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, who fudges the account, our accounts, when we don’t deserve it.
Don’t get me wrong, this is, indeed, the hardest parable. For some strange reason the master in the story praises the shrewdness of the steward. In a matter of verses the master goes from wanting to ring his neck to congratulating him for his bizarre intellect. The master goes from being an insufferable ledger keeper to the strange celebrator of the Good News.
And it doesn’t make any sense. Just like the shepherd, the samaritan, and the prodigal, these stories don’t make sense.
But this one really takes the cake.
Even St. Augustine once said he refused to believe this story came from the lips of Jesus.
And yet, here it is. And we all just said, “Thanks be to God” after it was read!
What makes this parable the hardest is the fact that no preacher can water it down or manipulate it enough to make it say something that it doesn’t. Perhaps it would make more sense if the dishonest manager was punished for his crimes, or, at the very least, the money he stole from his master was given away to the poor like a first century Robin Hood.
But instead, the unjust steward is a liar, a cheater, and a thief. And Jesus has him commended, rewarded even, for what he did.
And yet the “what he did” in that sentence betrays the immensity of what transpires in the parable. You see, grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise.
And, just as sure as you and I are in this room, the unjust steward was dead. Dead as a doornail. While the nails are hammered into his vocational coffin, he makes life a little easier for others by wiping away their debt. But he is not the only one who dies. The master dies as well, he dies to his bookkeeping.
This is such a strange and bizarre story that it should leave us scratching our heads, but perhaps it should make us laugh. Grace is the divine lark offered to a world so sin-sick with seriousness that it can even stop to enjoy the roses.
This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.
It is everything for nothing. It is Good News for a world drowning in bad news. It is life out of death.
What makes the parables true is that they describe who God is. Every single parable, from mustard seeds to wedding banquets to unjust stewards, are about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They describe in weird, wild, and wonderful ways how God is in the business of making something out of our nothing, of making the impossible possible, and making a way where there is no way.
Jesus is the unjust steward. The misguided money manger dies to his career and rises with forgiveness, just like Jesus. By his death and resurrection he resurrects others wiping away their debts, just like Jesus. But most of all, the dishonest manager is Jesus because he is a crook.
Christ the crook: words I never thought I’d say from the pulpit but here we are!
We often betray the reckless nature of the Messiah today with our songs and our paintings. We like our Jesus well manicured with perfect morality and good manners.
But this parable, and all the rest of them for that matter, is a ringing reminder that grace cannot come through respectability or through achievement or through perfection.
Grace comes only through losing.
Grace works for losers and only losers, the only problem is that no one wants to hang out with losers.
No one, that is, except for Jesus.
Jesus spent his life among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Jesus broke the Sabbath, consorted with criminals, supped with sinners, and he died the death of an insurrectionist. Jesus became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for is losers, and even dead for those of us who go around pretending we’ve got it all figured out when we don’t have much to show for our so-called lives.
It’s almost as if, parable after parable, Jesus is begging us to see ourselves for who we really are.
Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus says he came to seek and save sinners, we always imagine that Jesus is talking other people and not us?
Why is it that, when we encounter the truly Good News even in this parable, we are offended by it rather than rejoicing because of it?
Because when it comes to our accounts, our debt to sin is not something we can repay. Each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. And it’s hard to admit the truth of who we are. That’s why we bristle at the parables, not just because they tell us the truth of God, but because they also tell us the truth about ourselves.
Namely: we’re just a bunch of lost and wandering sheep, stuck in the ditches of our own making, constantly squandering the gifts of God, with no hope in the world unless the hope of the world decides to fudge the accounts in our favor.
In the words of Anne Lamott: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you and me than we would believe.
Which, oddly enough, is Good News. Really Good News. Because, in the end, Christ is not interested in role models, moral perfectionists, or those who have it all together. Jesus comes for people like us whose ledgers are brimming with failure, and those who can’t find a way out of the mess we’ve made, in order to set us free.
It’s outrageous. And it just so happens to be the Gospel. Amen.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.
Miracles do happen after all.
No thank you.
We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.
And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!
Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word.
But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.
Do you know her story?
Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.
I wonder why they went there…
Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.
“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”
Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”
She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.
So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.
And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!
It’s downright astonishing!
But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.
Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future.
The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.
But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness.
We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago.
Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.
In short: you and me, we’re not alone.
We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.
What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.
Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.
And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.
Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality.
What we might call, the church of tomorrow.
Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.
The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”
To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now.
Put simply: we’re different.
We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.
We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing.
We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.
It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world.
We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.
We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.
We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s parable for the world.
We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.
The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone.
The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.
The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!”
I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.
The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.
You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference.
Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.
Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.
Consider this church for a moment…
At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church.
That had hope for things not yet seen.
They had hope for us.
Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.
I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.
Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.
We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.
And that’s faith.
Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.
But what is faith?
Better put, what makes faith faithful?
I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!
What is faith?
Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.
Faith is a possible wordle answer.
Faith is what keeps me going.
Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.
Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.
Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.
Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.
Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.
It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews.
Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God.
Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God.
Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his.
What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.
It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out.
I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”
“What’s a church?”
And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”
And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”
From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.
Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears.
We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.
It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.
It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.
And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in.
Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”
There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.
I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.
Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.
The only thing you have to do, is receive it.
Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.
Faith is merely a way of being.
And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.
Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.
But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.
Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”
Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.
“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”
And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.
Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.
And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”
So what can you do?
You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.
So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.
But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Hosea 11.1-11, Psalm 107.1-9, 43, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including foolishness, church cohorts, robe wearing, books, fear, the redeemed, old sermons, the already but not yet, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, the grammar of faith, and identity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Good News Of Being A Burden
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including earthquakes, real prayers, freedom, hardhats, believing on Jesus, mountain melting, the idolatry of image, Christian hatred, the alphabet of faith, Between Two Ferns, unity, and love. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: So That
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.
And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”
It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.
On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country.
Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)
The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.
He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.”
I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.
We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc.
And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place).
The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.
We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end.
It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.
But it usually went poorly.
On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.
But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!”
The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.
I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.
But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.
And so it is with us.
For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.