Stanley Hauerwas likes to opine on what the church would look like if, when we take tows of membership, we also shared our previous tax returns.
That he likes to raise this idea is a reflection on both his desire to get a rise out of people and his commitment to calling into question our fabricated distinction of the public-private divide.
For, if we were so bold as to share our tax returns, perhaps we would be a little more willing to share our resources with those in need a la the church in Acts 2. Or, maybe we would actually know more about the people in the pews with us (or watching online these days) than merely who they are rooting for the NFL playoffs. Or, perhaps we would take seriously Paul’s notion that we are one body with many members rather that a bunch of individual bodies who happen to attend the same church.
Thoughts on the private vs. the public have been a sore spot in the church since the Enlightenment such that, now, it’s not uncommon to hear some nonsense like, “I believe in God, but that’s just my personal opinion.”
Confessing the lordship of Christ is not a personal opinion, but rather it is a decisive political claim that will result in different thoughts, hopes, and behaviors for the individual and the community.
Whereas believing that belief is a personal matter allows people to go to church on Sunday and then live Monday through Friday as if what happened in church made no difference at all.
But for Christians, Christ is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
And yet, many of us cringe at the thought of revealing our finances to our church. But what about revealing who we voted for? Or, how about sharing our internet search histories? Are all of those off limits as well?
Admittedly, I don’t know how healthy it would be for churches to have access to every single bit of information about their respective congregants (the slippery slope toward works-righteousness is ever present), yet the covenant God has made with God’s church makes it bewilderingly difficult to keep anything private.
The psalmist declares, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”
To God, nothing is private.
God knows our innermost thoughts and desires!
God knows our prejudices and our preconceived notions!
God knows our internet search histories!
God knows who we voted for!
Put simply, God knows us better than we know ourselves.
And how does God respond with the total knowledge of God’s creation? Does God punish us for our ridiculous Facebook posts? Does God rain down destruction on those who silently judge others from afar?
God responds by taking on flesh and dwelling among us, by taking on our very nature to save us from ourselves, by breaking forth from the grave so that we might no longer live under the reign of sin and death.
God responds to our shortcomings and sins before we even get a chance to come to grips with what our shortcomings and sins actually are!
Grace precedes all things because God knows all things.
But it is in the knowledge of grace, of knowing that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and won’t do for ourselves, that we begin to take steps toward a transfigured existence. When we see the lengths to which God was willing to go for us we can’t help ourselves from living in the light of his glory and grace.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the plant of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, my family and I loaded ourselves into the car to drive around and check out the early Christmas Lights. We figured that there would either be only a handful of houses with any indication of the Holiday spirit, or because this has been the craziest year in recent memory that we would luck out with some incredible displays.
So we drove and we drove, and we saw all the staples: The LED projection of green snowflakes frantically circling around on the siding of a house, the dangling and frenetically flashing bulbs adorning the lowest limbs of trees, and we even saw a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn.
But the best house, the Clark Griswold house, was only a block away. I passed it on a run earlier in the week and knew we had to see it in all its electric, and eclectic glory. For, unlike houses with similar color schemes or even thematic connections throughout the lawn, this house had a little bit of everything.
None of the light strands matched any of the others.
There were six different Santa Clauses of every shape, size, and variety.
An inflatable Snoopy was, apparently, keeping watch over the pre-lit reindeer.
And, to cap it all off, there was a blimp floating in mid-air with penguins parachuting to the ground like they were in the middle of a holiday invasion.
And yet, even with all its glory, I couldn’t help but wonder what Isaiah, or Luke, or even John the Baptist would make of all our holiday pageantry. Because, chances are they would be horrified to see the ways we’ve trivialized the turning of the cosmos.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh, I too have lights up on the house, with a Christmas tree standing in the front window with far too many presents already wrapped and under the tree.
But we need to know, all of us, that these things, with all of their safe and sanitized renderings, may actually prevent us from seeing, hearing, knowing, and believing what the Lord has come to do.
The audience for this Advent text from Isaiah are those forced to the margins of life, the last, least, lost, little, and dead. They are, strangely enough, words of hope for people who feel no hope. They are words meant to comfort a people who feel no comfort in the world.
Even all these centuries later, this proclamation is aimed toward the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the mourners.
From those locked up in physical prisons, to those who feel imprisoned by their situations, Isaiah speaks to those who know not what tomorrow will bring.
It might feel or even seem bizarre, but this passage is also meant for people like us, those who are willing to wake up and live-stream a worship service on their phones, iPads, and computers on a Sunday morning.
Most of us move through life without giving too much thought to whatever it is we are wading through. Worship, blessedly, offers us opportunities to reflect on the here and the now, and we are challenged to imagine the not yet, the more of God’s design.
And we do this because who among us is truly content with our current circumstances?
Right now we are seeing more and more people kicked out of their homes and apartments because they simply can’t put together the money necessary because the bottom third of our economy is crumbling.
Right now parents are preparing to wake up with their children on Christmas morning without a single present under the non-existent tree.
Right now we are being warned that gatherings of more than ten people will most likely result in the most devastating of Januarys in which we will be burying more people than any of us are used to – 5 of the top 10 most deadly days in American history have all happened within the last week.
And, in the midst of all of this, most of us flock to the sentimentalities that hopefully distract us from the truth.
But when has that ever worked?
Whether we like it or not, our lives are bombarded with calls of such frightening frequency to make the best with what we’ve got that we no longer know what it is to hope.
And thus speaks Isaiah: The spirit of God is with me and I’ve been commanded to bring good news to a people drowning in bad news, to announce freedom to those who are trapped, and to break down the walls of prisons, it’s time for jubilee. We shall comfort those who mourn and give them garlands instead of ashes. They will be like tall trees for the Lord, steadfast and glorious. All the ruins shall be remade and the devastations of previous generations will be rectified. For I the Lord love justice!
God, through Isaiah, speaks to those who live in the world wondering if it has anything more to offer. It is received by those in worship who don’t know whether or not to hope for more. And, it is also spoken to those (though we know not how they will hear) who stopped coming to church long ago because they’ve given up hoping for anything else.
Listen – God has arrived; God shows up. God has taken action in the world to bring about a reality that we could scarcely come up with in our wildest dreams. And God’s work in the world is downright political – prisoners are getting released, reparations are being made to those who have been wronged, justice is for all.
It’s the time for jubilee in which debts are forgiven, punishments are lifted, and rectification reigns supreme.
God has, and is, turning the world upside down such that all of the empty streets of our too-comfortable neighborhoods are being transfigured into festivals of joy.
We were slaves in Egypt but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from bondage into the Promised land. Sure, we were content with what we had back there, at least in slavery we got three meals a day and clean water to drink and it only cost us our first born children! But God said there was more for us than Egypt-land.
We were slaves to sin and death but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from our miserable estate into salvation. Sure, we were fine with the way things were, so much so that when Jesus started talking about the first being last and the last being first we nailed him to the cross. But God said there was more for us than all of this.
God is in the business of intervention – an intrusion that will bring forth new life and halt our relentless march toward dust.
There have been many divine interventions – Exodus, Calvary, The Upper Room, The Empty Tomb.
And without those interventions of the Lord there is no hope and there is no “more.”
But God is the God of impossible possibility, who makes a way where there is no way, who delights in bringing something out of nothing.
God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Even in circumstances of the worst imaginings, captivity and imprisonment and mourning, this is not the end; there will always be more.”
Do we deserve it?
Can we earn it?
In the end, the gospel isn’t about being good – it’s about being rescued. It’s not about being safe – it’s about being saved.
For, there is nothing safe about the Lord. Isaiah speaks a word beyond the present, beyond the status quo, where there is actual Good News, where there is true liberty, where we wear garlands instead of ashes.
And it’s downright dangerous.
Consider the vision the Isaiah proclaims: It truly is an inversion of the ways things are for the way things should be. A world without prisons or borders or hunger or suffering.
To many that sounds more like chaos than paradise.
But, in the church we call this apocalyptic – Bible talk about the more beyond the now.
Isaiah’s apocalyptic proclamation is what taught Mary, the mother of God, how to sing:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”
When we come to church (even online) and are exposed to the words of Isaiah and Mary and so many others we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability and into another world, a world of more, or risk, of gift.
In short, we’re given hope for things not yet seen.
And that hope, as noted, is a dangerous one, for good reason – just look at what happened to Jesus. Advent is the time between time in which we wait not only for the baby born in the manger, but also for the return of that baby-born-King who is the great I AM.
God is not done with this world and God is not done with us.
After all, these words of eschatological rendering don’t just describe the world – they re-create the world. It is a world made open in which the old foundations are destroyed in order for something new and something more to take their place.
Imagine – the lowliest of the low raised to the highest heights, the brokenhearted bound up in love, the captives set free, the prisoners released, no more debts, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death.
This is what God desires for us and for the world.
And, make no mistake, this is God’s work – the history of humanity has shown over and over again that we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the forces that weigh us down. The great Good News of Isaiah’s declaration is that God will set everything right once and for all. God will end war forever.
God will bring down the mighty and raise up the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
God will overthrow the pride of the smug and the arrogant.
God will engulf the cosmos in a blaze of righteousness that will consume everything in us that needs to be burned away.
God has more in store for us than all of this.
And yet, we go forth from church (or from our couches as the case may be) and there are the same arguments around the dinner table, the same anxieties about our ever-shrinking bank accounts, the same blue Mondays will break in the morning.
We are not the world of God’s more.
At least, not yet.
For we all still sit in the shadow of sin, of our choices that result in the world looking more like our kingdom and less like God’s kingdom. We are so captivated by the ways things have been that we can scarcely imagine what they could be. We assume the world runs by debt and punishment all while God exists to show grace and mercy.
In spite of the condition of our condition, Isaiah has given us the possibility to be aware of a new world with new hope and new possibilities and new dreams and new hunger for something else, something more.
The church gives us the vision to see how watered down our versions of the Kingdom have been and it gives us the thirst for the new wine that intoxicates us with grace.
The church opens us up to the strange new world of the Bible where God exists not only with us but for us.
The church envelops us into the body of Christ where we are bound to and with one another for the sake of the already but not yet.
In short: The church gives us the Gospel, the Good News.
The very best worship services are those from which we go forth not to more of the same, but to more of the name that is above all names: Jesus the Christ. For, in him, we begin to see that the Good News really is good
A number of years ago, a rather famous theologian was in the middle of a lecture about the early church when a bright eyed and bushy tailed student raised his hand and said, “Professor, I don’t understand. If the early Christians were suffering daily, why did they stay committed to the cause?”
The professor did not hesitate before answering, “They kept the faith because the Gospel is an adventure; the Gospel is fun.”
Advent is actually an adventure – it reminds us that we are caught up in God’s great story and we have the good fortune of being characters in the epic-tale. It is an adventure because it is still unfolding, it is not over, greater things are just on the horizon.
In the Kingdom of God that is the adventure without end, there is always more to come. Amen.
The Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18 years old.
Bernard was the ninth man killed by the federal government since July and he spent more than half of his life waiting on death row.
While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.
Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.
Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.
The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though it has only recently come back into practice by the Federal Government. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence others away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered.
There are roughly 2,620 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.
And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.
The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur, it is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the long term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death.
And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.
And even among these statistics and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.
Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.
Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.
The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.
And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.
We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.
We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with and rape his wife.
We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.
One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.
The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?
The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.
That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system.
For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when Brandon Bernard was killed yesterday, it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.
But we are murdering people for murder.
Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”
Violence only begets violence.
An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.
God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.
And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.
So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.
Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.
It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.
And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.
There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.
So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.
Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…
The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?
Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?
The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.
At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.
The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.
But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”
The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.
But there’s not enough to go around.
Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.
By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”
Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?
So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?
So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?
If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?
Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.
It’s an Advent story.
But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning.
All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.
They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.
Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.
What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.
Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.
And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.
After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing.
Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”
But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.
Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”
We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then.
As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are.
Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.
And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift.
That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.
And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.
But there is no space at the party for party poopers.
All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.
Which leads us back to the parable.
Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place.
Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.
Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”
Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross.
But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.
The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.
These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.
The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.
And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.
The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.
BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!
The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.
The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.
For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.
Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.
The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it.
In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.
The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.
The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness.
But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party.
And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.
God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust.
Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?
Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?
“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”
This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).
We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!
And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.
I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The day after the 2016 presidential election:
Thousands of angry citizens in California gather to protest against the election of Donald Trump. Though initially peaceful, the protest eventually turns violent as the crowds begin attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas is fired into the crowd, a chant starts to rise, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump!”
Meanwhile, a woman walks into a Wal-mart in the Midwest while wearing her religious hijab. She goes up and down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walks up, grabs her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab and says, “That would look a lot better around your neck! This is our country now!”
Meanwhile, a man is driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounds his car, pulls him from the vehicle, and drags him through the streets. They attack him because he has a Trump sticker on his bumper, and in the videos taken by on-lookers you can hear the young men shouting, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it!”
Meanwhile, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan form a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There are shouts of “go back to your country” and “we’re going to make America great again.”
Presidential elections tend to bring out the worst in us.
Or, to use Paul’s language, it’s times like these that we are reminded “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
Time after time, it seems this is our fate. We, that is Christians, are content to gather, whether online or in-person, with people of differing political persuasions so long as we never address those differences and then, after an election, we hope things will tone down and we can get back to living life.
And yet, as Christians, we are already living in the time after time. God in Christ made, and still makes, time for us and has quite literally changed time forever.
It’s just that sometimes we don’t act like its true.
Today Christians across the globe are gathering for All Saints. All Saints is a day set apart, a different time, in remembrance of the dead – it is an opportunity for the church to offer witness to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives.
It is a radical moment in terms of the liturgical calendar, rivaled only by the radical words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.
The so-called beatitudes have always been a source of comfort and hope for the people called church. Though, at times, we have inverted them to be descriptions of how we’re supposed to behave. We lift them up over the heads of dozing Christians and explain that if they want to join the community of saints, this is how you have to live.
But what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount, both in the beatitudes and in the descriptions of behavior following, like turning the other cheek and praying for one’s enemies, they don’t describe what “works.”
Seeking righteousness in a world full of self-righteousness, and praying for the person persecuting you, tends to lead to more self-righteousness and more harm.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t a to-do list to make the world a better place. Instead, it is a description of who God is.
The poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, they are blessed not because they’ve earned it or deserve it, but simply because it is God’s good pleasure to do so.
To put it simply, the idea behind this crazy thing called church is that we might worship the Lord as well as learn what it means to exist as a beatific community in exile where the mourning, the meek, and the merciful are blessed.
The people called church are in the world, but not of the world.
The people called church are constituted and bound not by political documents, but by the Lord of heaven and earth.
The people called church are a community that has learned that to live in a manner described by the Sermon on the Mount requires learning to trust others to help us live accordingly.
To put it even simpler terms: the object of Jesus’ words to the crowds that day, and to us today, is to create dependence – it is to force us to need one another.
But, most of us don’t want to need anyone else. We’ve been spoon fed a narrative of self-determination since birth and we can’t stand the idea of having to rely on others.
And this is why the beatitudes will never make sense to those outside the people called church. Jesus’ words are only intelligible, and therefore advisable, in light of the cross and the empty tomb.
Otherwise, they are garbage.
But in the church, we are reminded over and over again that we are dependent on one another and the Lord, and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can make it through this thing called life on our own.
The church is at her best when we can speak and hear the truth about the condition of our condition, that we are sinners in need of grace, that we are all in need of help and mercy, and that we all need one another far more than we think we do.
But that is not how we are used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we hear about it at all, it is usually a brief reflection about how there are merely suggestions for how we should live or they are only meant for the super faithful among us, the Mother Teresas and the Mister Rogerses.
In short, we’re told the Beatitudes describe the saints.
The challenge for us, unlike most sermons proclaimed and received today, is that we cannot divorce this message from the messenger. Because, unlike preachers today (myself included), Jesus did not just say these words about some group of people sometime in the future; he, in himself, is the inauguration of the new time.
Jesus is the Messiah of the beginning and the end. Through his death and resurrection he has made it possible for us to live according to these confounding words not by our own effort, but by the Spirit moving through us.
And, saints (that is: all disciples) are not those who are the super best Christians of all. Saints are simply those who have already died in baptism to be raised into a new life where the impossibility of Jesus’ words not only become possible, but become real.
Which is just another way of saying, we’re all in this crazy thing called church together.
Presidential elections may bring out the worst in us, but they also remind us of who we are: sinners in need of grace. Contrary to how the talking heads might want us to think, the world does not hinge on our elections. God has been God a whole lot longer than we’ve been picking and choosing leaders, and God will be God long after we cast our final votes.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is Lord – that means we believe that God is God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. And, pertinently, it means we believe God is calling us to live according the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which includes praying for our enemies.
Can you imagine? Christians praying for the people they disagree with?
Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow the Lord and it has been so absent during this election cycle, and the one before it, and the one before that one, and so on. Instead of praying for and loving our enemies, voters have been intimidated, people have been attacked, and families and churches have been divided.
And, perhaps we’d like to blame our politicians for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than those running, and selected, for office.
The problem is us.
Rather than seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve viewed each other through the names on our bumper stickers.
Rather than listening to and praying for those of different opinions, we’ve just shouted louder into the fray.
Rather than confessing Jesus as Lord and living accordingly, we’ve fallen prey to believing that what happens on Tuesday is more important than what happens on Sunday.
Our election of leaders will always pale in comparison to God’s election of us, precisely because we do not deserve it. We’ve been elected to salvation through Christ in spite of copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.
And Jesus calls us to a life of humility in which we pray for those whom we hate.
Jesus constitutes a people who are his body on earth to be for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, if we’re honest, we have no idea what we’re doing.
We don’t know how to be Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our Christian identities and political identities in tandem, and we do not know how to love the people we hate.
But we do know this: Jesus is Lord – and he won’t give up on us.
So today, in spite of the world spinning as it does with fightings and fears within and without, we give thanks to the Lord our God who makes a way where there is no way, who has created a new community of love in his only begotten Son, and who elected us to salvation. Amen.
“’Trump says all the things we’ve always wanted to say.’ Really? Then what does it say about us as Americans if Trump’s outer monologue is our inner monologue?”
The Crackers & Grape Juice crew got together (online) last week and we were fortunate to have a conversation with Gretchen Purser about the changes that have happened to the Republican Party throughout her career and how it has reshaped the way she understands her faith.
Gretchen spent 20 years in politics, raised ~1 billion dollars for the Republican Party, worked for the Christian Coalition, and retired from politics in 2009.
If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Not My Party
There are times when I don’t know what, or even how, to pray. I am therefore grateful for the saints of the past and present who make their prayers available as prayers we can pray. The following is one such prayer from Stanley Hauerwas…
Lord Jesus Christ, we live in a world without lords. We have presidents, but they rule with our consent – or at least this is the story we tell ourselves. We believe that just as we claim to govern, so we govern our own lives. We are not set up to use “Lord” language. So, do you mind if we call you “Mr. President,” Jesus? That, we confess, sounds strange. You did not and do not act like you are running for office. Driving money changers out of the temple seems a bit beyond the pale. What is worse, at the wedding at Cana you were a bit short with your mother, and it is even more troubling that you never married and spent most of your time with a bunch of guys. We worry a bit if you ever came to terms with your sexuality. When all is said and done, we do not think you are going to be elected for president.
So, what are we going to do with you, Lord Jesus Christ? We confess that we do not have the slightest idea. All we can do is pray that you will destroy our presumption that we are our own lords. We fear such destruction, sensing that it may have something to do with death, and as Yoder tells us, in the life and death of Jesus we find a reality and the possibility of all that your teachings say. It is possible to live that way if you are willing to die that way. Is that really part of what it means to call you Lord? I guess this means we have to get serious when we haven’t the slightest idea of what it might mean to get serious.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”
And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)
However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.
Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.
But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.
Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe.
This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.
Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)
The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.
Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).
This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.
This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds.
Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world.
There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.
As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.”
We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.
He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.
I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.
We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.
“So, how did God call you to all of this?”
It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer.
And I’ve heard them all.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.
Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.
I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.
Or, at least I thought I was.
Because he didn’t answer my question.
Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”
“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”
“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”
“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.”
“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”
Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.
He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”
“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”
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.”
Have you heard of it?
It’s falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with negative content, agitating oneself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep.
Basically, instead of retreating to the binge-worthy content of Netflix many of us are actually binge-watching the world flush down the drain.
We can’t unplug or disconnect ourselves from the headlines – COVID cases spiking across the country, a horrific blast rocking Beirut, social unrest resulting in broken buildings and broken people.
And, like slowing down on the interstate past a wreck, we can help ourselves from staring.
We’ve become addicted to the world of bad news so much so that a new word was created to help explain it – doomscrolling.
And it’s not just what we’re doing on social media – it’s how we’re having our conversations with friends, family, and even neighbors.
Did you see the latest numbers for the virus?
Can you believe he went golfing again during all of this?
What kind of idiot posts a video of a Corvette while preparing to run for president?
So it goes.
And, I must confess dear online worshippers, even I am not immune to the bizarre charms of doomscrolling. I find myself, at times, scrolling through the likes of Twitter and Facebook only to discover more and more bad news.
Last weekend the city of Staunton, on the other side of Virginia, experienced heavy rains in a very short period of time that resulted in horrific flooding. Restaurants, businesses, homes all filled with water that destroyed everything.
The videos and the pictures have been devastating. And they felt all the more pressing for me personally because Staunton is where I was first appointed before coming here. The restaurants and businesses were those that I frequented, and now they’re all navigating through a completely unknown future.
So I was scrolling through the videos and images, reading the comments from various community members offering support, and then I noticed a comment that seemed to keep cropping up on every different post. No matter how bad or grim the situation appeared, someone felt the need to write, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
It is my sincere hope and prayer that, in the midst of a moment of pain or fear or grief, no one has ever dismissively said to you, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
But chances are, someone has.
It is near the top of the list of Christian expressions used when we don’t know what else to say and, spoiler warning, it’s NOT in the Bible.
Sure, there are plenty of verses about how God will see us through to the other side, about how we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and so on. But the specificity of claiming that God won’t give us more than we can handle implies a whole lot about God that it absolutely shouldn’t.
To begin with, “God won’t give you…” immediately sets up a theological understanding that God, you know the author of salvation, gives every single little thing to us, on purpose; the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the love and the pain.
Which means, according to the expression, God sows our suffering.
As has been said from this place on a number of occasions, if God delights in our suffering, if God purposely sends bad things to happen to us in order to punish us or teach us a lesson or make us stronger, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
God, absolutely, rejoices with us when we rejoice and God, absolutely, weeps with us when we weep, but that’s not the same thing as God authoring and willing every little thing that happens to us.
God is not some sadist who rejoices in our tribulations.
God is not an architect of divine destruction.
God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what difficult things he should send for us to handle.
Let me put it this way: Can you imagine reaching out to a neighbor whose house just burned to the ground only to pithily remark, “God won’t give you more than you can handle?”
Maybe you can imagine it, maybe you’ve even said it to someone before. And, chances are, dear listeners, you’re pretty decent people, and if you ever said something like that you were only doing so because you wanted to cheer up the person suffering, or you wanted them to believe they could make it through, or you believe that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
And we should try to comfort those in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and grief.
We should help in ways both seen and unseen.
But the more we say things like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” the more we make God into monster and the more we place the burdens of the world entirely on one person’s shoulder.
Jesus has been doing his Jesus thing for a little bit. Been baptized by his cousin in the river Jordan, called some of the first disciples, and word has started to spread about this Messiah man.
Did you hear the he healed Peter’s mother-in-law?
What kind of Kingdom is he talking about all the time?
And have you seen his followers – what kind of Messiah enlists fishermen?
Jesus moves from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, preaching about a new age and healing the sick all while seeking the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
But Jesus needs some rest, so he returns to Capernaum for a spell.
He’s sitting in the house, kicking up his feet, when the whole town shows up at the door looking for a word, hoping to catch a glimpse of something they’ve longed for, yearning for someone to make something of their nothing.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, some friends are milling about, loitering their afternoon away, when word of the Messiah reaches their ears.
And, without taking much time to discuss their plan, they drop everything and run to their friend’s house. They find him like they always do, laying on a mat in the corner of the room, wasting away without the use of his legs.
He can’t even put up a word of protest before the friends are dragging him out of the house because, surely, if anyone can do something about the condition of his condition, Jesus can.
They carry him through the streets on a blanket, knocking people from side to side, but as they arrive in front of the house the crowds are so thick they can’t get any closer.
Ah, but these are no ordinary friends and this is no ordinary day – they take matters into their own hands.
They lift the paralyzed man up onto the closest rooftop, and they cross from house to house until they reach their destination. They dig a hole straight through the roof, and they lower their friend to the Lord.
Jesus, now interrupted from his sermon, looks up to see the spectacle above his head and smiles saying, “Good job! I’m impressed!”
And then he looks straight into the eyes of the paralytic, having witnessed the faith of his friends, and says, “You are forgiven.”
The strange new world of the Bible is indeed strange.
Notice: Jesus doesn’t berate them for destroying property in the midst of the reckless hope for healing and transformation. Jesus doesn’t wax lyrical about what is and isn’t possible in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus doesn’t interrogate the paralyzed man about his past and every choice he ever made.
Instead, Jesus offers forgiveness.
The rest of the story includes a rebuttal from the scribes accusing Jesus of blasphemy to which he memorably replied, “Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’? Or ‘Take up your mat and walk’? Well, to show you that I really mean business I’m going to say both. Hey formerly paralyzed man! Get outta here and go celebrate with your friends.”
It’s wild stuff.
Jesus delights not only in forgiving the man of his sins (what sins?) but he also restores him to wholeness.
And why does Jesus do this? Well, Jesus can do whatever Jesus wants, but scripture also dangles out this little thread of the faithfulness of the man’s friends.
Friends who, in the end, have such a profound hope in what Jesus can do they carry their friend, literally dig through a roof, just so something remarkable might happen.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think about pallbearers when I read this story – those who carry the dead into and out of the church.
I also can’t help myself from considering the many who have carried me during times when I needed it most. Friends, family, and even strangers who, when encountering the condition of my condition, said, “Okay, it’s our turn to carry you for a bit.”
Because whether it’s a friend in need, or a body being put into the ground, when we can’t handle what’s happening in our lives, we need others who can carry us, and who can carry us to Jesus.
Life tends to come at us pretty fast. These days all the more. We might’ve been fed the lie since birth that “we’re in control of our destinies” but a pandemic and economic instability is quick to remind us of the truth – all of us will face things that are more than we can handle, on our own.
So here’s a potential corrective to the statement in question today: It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle. But when life give you more than you can handle, God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.
This acknowledges that tribulations and hardships will occur and that when we go through the muck and mire of life, God will be there in the midst of it with us.
And when those time comes, because they will, it is good and right for us to admit, “You know, I can’t do this by myself – I need help.” There simply are times when we need a doctor, or a financial expert, or a pastor, or a therapist to help us through to the other die.
God does not give us what we can or can’t handle – but God does give us Jesus so that we can handle what life gives us.
There was a woman who, back in the 90’s, was struggling with a horrible drug addiction and was trying her best to kick the habit all while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. The new mother was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing that every day she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, or that her child would be taken away, or (most frighteningly) maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.
So one night, around 2 am, she was lying in the fetal position on the floor desperately trying to will herself into turning her life around. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that he mother had sent in the mail 4 years earlier, back when they were still talking.
The new mother didn’t know what to do, or where to turn, but she knew she couldn’t do it on her own so she grabbed the phone and dialed the number.
A man answered, and the woman blurted out, “I got this number from my mom, do you think maybe you could talk to me?”
She heard some shuffling around on the other line and then the man said, “Uh, yeah. What’s going on?”
She realized right then that she hadn’t told anyone the truth, not even herself, and without thinking much about it she said, “I’m not in a good place and I’m scared.” And she kept going, she told the man about her drug problem, and that she was worried about her baby, and on and on and on.
And the man, well, he listened.
He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.
They phone call lasted until the sun started to creep through the blinds and the woman, noticing how long she had been on the phone, said, “Thank you for staying with me, and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verses I should read or something?”
The man laughed, brushed her comment aside, and she interrupted by saying, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And he said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you to not hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but thanked him nonetheless and they talked until the conversation came to its natural conclusion. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know was possible. She said she discovered, for the first time, that there is love out in the world, some of it being unconditional, and some of it was meant for her.
After that, everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.
When she tell her story she always ends it with this: “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come right in.”
Today we live in a world under the shadow of fear. Between civil unrest, an infectious pandemic, and economic uncertainty, we’re all looking to put our hope somewhere. The world puts its hope in human strategies – the belief in progressivism is very tempting! But as Christians, we know that human strategies rarely, if ever, work.
But God is full of impossible possibility. God can make new what no one else can. God can make a way where there is no way.
In the end, that’s what God’s all about. God helps us handle what life gives us through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it’s through a wrong number.
Sometimes it’s through a group of friends willing to dig through a roof.
God won’t abandon us to our own device. God won’t leave us alone. God won’t let life get the better of us.
Because when life give us more than we handle, God will help us handle all that we’ve been given. Amen.