Beginning Again

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.

It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.

I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.

Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”

I was hooked.

“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”

“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”

Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?

We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.

We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.

And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.

Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means. 

Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.

God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.

Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.

This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.

And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!

Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.

Put simply: It’s all about God.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.

Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.

We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them. 

We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”

If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.

To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith. 

Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.

Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”

That’s some pretty good theology!

And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”

You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.

It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.

We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. 

But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.

That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own. 

God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.

Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.

Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.

Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.

And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free. 

God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”

The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.

The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!

For us, by the cross.

And through us, by the Spirit. 

In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.

If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.

Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.

And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.

There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand. 

Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.

Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.

He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.

I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.

And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.

In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.

And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.

The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”

“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”

“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”

“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”

“Well, that’s certainly one way…”

“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”

“Uhh, that might’ve been…”

“Well then so be it!”

And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.

Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense. 

But that’s why God is God, and we are not. 

We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.

The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.

Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things. 

Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”

That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things. 

Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Good Theology

Psalm 24.1

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

I stood up on Sunday morning and led worship for a new church. At least, it’s a new church for me. Methodists are, usually, used to pastors moving around to serve different appointments, but it’s always a little jarring going from one pastor to another in the matter of a week. 

When the service was over we all milled about on the front lawn sharing lemonade and I received my first round of Sunday morning comments: “We’ve got some great weather today!” “Got any plans for the afternoon?” and so on.

But there was one comment that really stood out. A woman old enough to be my grandmother waited patiently for an opportunity to step forward, she grabbed me by the hand, and said, “It’s nice to know that God is still God no matter who stands in our pulpit.”

That’s some good theology.

While certain United Methodists are starting over because of new pastoral appointments, we’re all in the process of starting over because, in ways big and small, we’re transitioning to a time called life after Covid. It means we have to relearn what it means to be in physical spaces with one another. It means we have to be cognizant of those who are not ready to return to the way things were. It means the church has the challenge and the opportunity to be the church in a time that is so unknown.

But we’re also all in the process of starting over because that’s what the liturgy does to us. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God speaks truthful words through our worship about who we are and whose we are. 

On Sunday, I got to look out at an entirely different congregation than the one the week before and yet I was able to say, with assurance, the same thing: “Now hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” 

Forgiveness is the beginning to which we return to over and over again and it’s what makes the life of faith so exciting in the first place.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to start over:

Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is a song made for couples along the road of a relationship. The singer-songwriter’s baritone is met, beautifully, by his wife’s accompanying harmonies as they proclaim a beautiful chorus about holding on to something while everything else seems to change.

Lucy Dacus’ music haunts me. Her voice sounds like she just consumed a cup of cream and her lyricism paints these landscapes of memory. “VBS” is her reflection on growing up in the church and coming to grips now with what it all meant. If nothing else, stick around for the face-melting guitar riff near the end of the song.

Life After Easter

John 20.19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

He boarded the plain, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. He was a pastor and professor of theology, and was returning from a conference on the other side of the country and was looking forward to going home.

He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat, and reluctantly squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seat on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.

The two men fumbled over one another and conversation, as it always does on planes, began awkwardly.

The second man began, “So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his seat partner declared, a little too loudly, “I’m not a believer!”

“That’s fine,” he replied, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference – Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The preacher kept his mouth shut after that, and thought about catching some Zs as they made their way to cruising altitude, but the other man started talking. First it was just the usual flying next to a stranger chit chat, but then it turned serious, the man started talking about Vietnam.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now tried to pretend like it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually, he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed?! I ain’t confessing!”

“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done. That’s the lot of em.”

And suddenly he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the sear and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign binged from above and the closest steward came over and ordered the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, and instead he placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh yes I did, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”

And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears and wept all over himself like a child.

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening. 

After the plane landed, the man leaned over the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he couldn’t get enough of the good news, so that preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh. 

He said, “Hell, if what you said it true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed too, and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

I’ve told that story from this pulpit before. It bears repeating, like all good stories, because it’s just so good.

Notice, the preacher didn’t just sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave the man the Gospel.

On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples were hiding and cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.

For years Jesus had prepared them for this most momentous occasion and it, apparently, didn’t make a beans worth of a difference.

They betrayed him.

They abandoned him.

They denied him.

Consider these would-be disciples. Terrified and alone. Apparently they didn’t really believe Jesus would do all that he said he would do. I mean, he only predicted his passion and resurrection three different times. He only told them parables about the upturning of the cosmos ever chance he got. He only promised that this is exactly what would happen.

And yet, today, whenever we think of the disciples, if we do at all, we usually imagine them as the paragons of morality, faith, and virtue. We see them as those who were willing to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. But here, in this story, they’ve left everything, namely Jesus, behind just to shake in terror.

The disciples are not the perfect Christians we often imagine them to be.

They are, in fact, just like us.

Sinners without a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes back from the dead.

And it’s to these fools, these faithless so-called followers, that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter evening!

And not only just Jesus encounter them, he made his way throughout locked doors to find them! He breathed upon them. He commissioned them to get out and to share the Good News.

You and me and everybody else, we are constantly falling short of Jesus’ hopes and expectations. We lock our doors, we turn our gaze away, we put up walls of separation, and Jesus keeps showing up! Walking through our doors, redirecting our attention, and toppling down our walls. 

This story of Jesus appear to the disciples falls of the 2nd Sunday of Easter every single year, if we follow the lectionary. It’s like God wants to remind us over and over again right here, just on the other side of the resurrection, that Jesus ain’t done with us yet and we’ve got a job to do.

Jesus is going to get through whatever barriers and locked doors and walls we’ve erected.

Jesus is going to keep showing up to offer us words of grace even when we know we don’t deserve them.

Jesus is going to appear to the sinners and the doubters and everyone in between because that’s what Jesus does.

The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus never ever shied away from sinners and doubters. Even though, in the church, we often ostracize those very people to the margins of the community. Jesus does his best work, frankly his only work, with the kind of people hiding in the upper room.

Listen – Jesus rewrote and reknit the fabric of reality and then told a bunch of losers to spread the word.

I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. For, it means that even on my worst days, Jesus is still for me. It means that even in the midst of my sins and my questions, Jesus has a word to share. It means that nothing, not life, death, nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate me, you, and anyone else from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The world is going down the drain, but we’ve got a Savior who works at the bottom of the drain and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.

And what is the anything our savior does? 

He forgives!

He forgives the abandoning, denying, and betraying disciples.

He forgives you.

Life after Easter is defined and made possible by Christ’s rather reckless forgiveness. It is reckless because it runs counter to how we believe the world is supposed to work – namely an eye for an eye. The problem with “an eye for an eye” is that it leaves everyone blind.

Jesus, however, offers a bewildering alternative – a life of mercy, peace, and forgiveness.

Whenever we read about life after Easter, those days between the empty tomb and the Ascension, we tend to focus on the disciples and their reactions. Which means we usually do so at the expense of sitting in the strange news that Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the people who deserve him the least.

Jesus chooses the unworthy ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging around for three years as the people through whom he would changed the world.

On Easter, Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.

And notice: Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them, or judge them, or even damn them. He offers them peace, and commands them to do the same for others.

When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.

Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.

Lost in exile? God brings the people home.

Dead in sins? God sets us free.

The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their holy experience. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed his card over to the man and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do trust it.”

The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. When later asked why he kept answering the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. 

Believe it or not, it’s true, and Jesus is going to keep showing up to remind you. Amen. 

On Breaking The Rules

Matthew 18.21-22

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Jesus loved to speak in parables.

Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.

Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.

Summary: Don’t break the rules.

But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.

The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.

Because this king is a fool.

He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.

Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death. 

Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.

He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. 

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. 

If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.

Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness. 

In The Weeds

Matthew 13.34-43

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parables of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Contrary to how we often talk about, or even display, Jesus – He was pretty feisty. 

Sure, he sat with the crowds and multiplied the loaves and fishes – He calmed the storm while the disciples cowered in fear – He cured the sick, elevated the marginalized, and sought out the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

But that doesn’t negate how contentious he was.

The Gospels paint a picture of the Messiah man such that we can see how he was eventually done in by the hostility that surrounded him.

It’s all good and well that you fed the crowds Jesus, but why didn’t you rain down manna from heaven for the rest of us?

Thanks for calming the storm out on the sea Jesus, but what about all the other hurricanes and typhoons?

I’m all for making the last first Jesus, but if I’m in a position of power right now you’re not going to take it away from me, are you?

It’s amazing to take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible every once in a while to think about how enthusiastic the crowds were for Jesus. Free meals not withstanding. The parables, what we’ve been focusing on here for the last few weeks, they’re downright confounding, they’re anything but clear, and they don’t paint the prettiest picture of the Kingdom.

And, apparently, this wasn’t anything new, at least according to the Lord.

Matthew tells us here that Jesus spoke in parables, and without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables and I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is how the Lord works, in mysterious, confusing, and scratch-your-head kind of ways. With stories about a sower scattering seeds, a Father who throws a party for his wayward son, and a field with weeds and wheat.

All of the parables, whether they’re parables of grace or judgment, they all point to God’s strange proclamation that the kingdom is already here, existing under the banners of judgement and grace. It’s not something off in the distant future that we have to wait for or work for. Rather, it’s among us in this present moment, and has been with us, mysteriously, since the foundation of the world.

Of course, the mystery of the kingdom throughout history is the whole point. For, since those days back in the Garden with Adam and Eve, the kingdom has been hidden and only signs of it have broken through (the people Israel, Jesus, the Church, etc.). But it has only been hidden, not absent. 

It is not, “yet to come.”

It is already here in strange and mysterious ways. 

Which leads us, bewilderingly enough, back to the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat.

A brief refresher: A man plants good seeds in his field. But one night, while everyone’s dreaming of sugarplums, an enemy comes and plants weeds among the wheat. When the plants start to grow the servants of the man notice the weeds and ask if they should remove them. But the man says, “Nope, if you take out the weeds you’ll only ruin the wheat. Just wait for the harvest and we’ll get it all sorted out.”

That didn’t sit well enough with the disciples, and perhaps even with some of us today, so only after leaving the crowds and retiring to the house do the disciples pick up the previous, and unending, line of inquiry. “Lord,” they say, “You’ve got some explaining to do. Tell us what the parable of the Weeds really means…

“Fine,” Jesus seems to say. “The story I told wasn’t good enough for you eh? Well how about I explain every little part so it loses its excitement and you all can rest easy. But I should warn you, the more you know, the more you know. And you might not like what you come to know.

“Okay,” Jesus begins, “Check this out: I’m the guy sowing all the good seeds. The field is the whole cosmos, and the good seeds are the people of the kingdom. But the weeds, they are from the evil one, and the evil one is, well, evil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. I will send out the angels, and they will collect out of the kingdom all the stumbling blocks and all the indwellers with sin, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire! Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom. Did you get all of that? Are you happy with the explanation O disciples of mine?”

Are we happy with it?

Maybe we are. We’re pretty decent people after all. Heck, we’re watching a worship service online for God’s sake. We’re not terribly worried about being considered among the weeds. And, frankly, we know so disreputable types who might deserve the furnace.

Or maybe, this doesn’t sit too well with us. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we’re not as good as other people think we are and that, if we were to identify ourselves in the parable, we have more in common with the weeds than the wheat. Does that mean Jesus is going to send the angels to toss us into the fiery abyss?

It’s notable that, having listened to the Lord wax lyrical for an afternoon about sowers, wheat fields, mustard seeds, and yeast, the disciples gather in the house with Jesus and they demand to have the “parable of the weeds” explained to them.

Of all they heard, that’s what they wanted unpacked. And even the way they frame the inquiry, they have managed to turn the parable into something else. No mention of the divine farmer who delights in letting things grow together, no questions about where the farmer sows the wheat, they don’t even ask about the servants and their response to the growing field.

All they heard was a story about weeds.

Jesus delighted in giving those disciples a tale about the confounding relationship between good and evil from the vantage point of the Lord, but all they received was a pigeon-holed story about evil, and only evil. 

Perhaps we should give the disciples some credit. Rather than slinking down in their seats pretending to know exactly what was going on, they had the gall to raise their hands with an, “Excuse me Jesus, I don’t get it.

I like to imagine that when questioned about his parabolic utterances, Jesus responded first to the disciples by saying, “Yep, you really don’t get it.

But that’s not in scripture.

What is in scripture, on the other hand, is Jesus’ apparent willingness to unpack all that he had laid before them, one detail after another. 

Even today, we struggle like those disciples. We don’t understand the church’s relationship to the world, we don’t understand the complex dance between good and evil, we don’t understand what it means to be the wheat anymore than what it means to be the weeds. And if, and that’s a big if, we ever do start to see behind the curtain, if things start to fall into place, it’s a journey toward understanding and never an end in itself.

But it is a tremendous gift to be part of that journey. For, the parables of the kingdom make it rather clear that heaven is not “up there somewhere” but rather it is a kingdom that creates time and takes up space here and now. Jesus speaks through these strange and wild and wonderful stories so that we, those who receive them, might be for the world the reality of the kingdom. 

Sometimes we forget that in Jesus we get to see and hear what countless people had longed to see and hear.

The Lord made flesh, dwelling among us, telling stories about what reality really looks like.

And yet, the reality of Jesus’ explanation still hangs before us, a dreaded fiery catastrophe for those whom the harvesters gather together.

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire,” Jesus says, “so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks and doers of iniquity.”

And that is what God will do. The New Jerusalem, the Supper of the Lamb, would be pretty weak if the Lord allowed such stumbling blocks to remain. Evil will be dealt with. It will be vanquished forever and ever. 

The disciples, like us, can’t help but assume that’s their job right here and right now. “Forget letting the angels divide up the weeds in the wheat Jesus! We can start right now! Give us a list of all the unforgivable sins and we’ll sort everyone out for you!”

And, as I’ve said before, we’ve done that kind of work since since the beginning of time an we’re still doing it today. We are quick to find a sin, whatever sin we want, and hold it over one another as the sign of someone’s outside-ness to our inside-ness. We fight to have the Ten Commandments hung in court houses, we keep locking people up for every crime under the sun, we keep putting people on death row, and what have we got to show for it?

When are we finally going to make the world a better place?

Jesus says, in his explanation of the parable, this work doesn’t belong to us. It’s up to him. And for that we should be remarkably thankful. Because not a one of us would cut it as a wheat in the kingdom of heaven. “No one is righteous, no not one,” to steal an expression of Paul’s. There is only one who has lived a life without sin, and he became sin in order that we might be freed from it. He went ahead and nailed every last one of our sins to the cross, past, present, and future. He forgave us from the cross for the worst sin of them all, for trying to kill God.

We, whether we like to admit it or not, are in the weeds – we deserve the furnace. 

I know that sounds a little too fire and brimstone for those of us who are Methodists. After all, we believe we have open hearts, minds, and doors even if everything about our lives scream the contrary.

But we can’t ignore Jesus’ explanation. I mean, we asked for it. 

And the angels will throw them into the furnace of fire. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

The furnace of fire. That quite an image that Jesus chose. Interestingly, furnace is not a word that occurs in scripture all that much. In fact, it’s rather rare. Jesus uses it here, and he will use it again seven verses from now, and it also shows up, unsurprisingly, in the Book of Revelation.

But there’s one other, very notable, use of the word furnace in the Bible. It happens in Daniel chapter 3. 

Let take a very abbreviated trip into the Old Testament for a moment – The people Israel are living in exile in Babylon having been taken from the Promised Land. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians catches word that three men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) are refusing to worship the gods of Babylon and the king orders them to be thrown into the furnace of fire. Where, miracles of miracles, nothing happens to them. 

Moreover, when Nebuchadnezzar looks inside he see another mysterious figure with the three men. The King orders them to be removed from the fiery furnace and he blesses the God of the men he had previous condemned to death.

They are delivered from the fiery furnace and they stand as the righteous in a land of iniquity. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture them glowing from their fiery ordeal standing as a testament to the power of the Lord for salvation.

Jesus says that the weeds will be tossed into the furnace of fire and then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Lord. 

In the end, the Kingdom will be populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. That is, all of us. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who don’t want any part of forgiveness. The fire of refining that comes at the end of the age will burn away all the stumbling blocks to the kingdom, it will burn away all iniquity, and the only thing left will be forgiven sinners. Nothing more, less, or else. 

Amen. 

Too Good To Be True

Acts 2.14a, 36-41

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcome his message we baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

Think and Let Think · Too Good To Be True

He got onto the plane, carrying around all his extra girth, hoping for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. A pastor and professor of theology during the day, he was tired having just finished giving yet another presentation on the other side of the country and was looking forward to just going home.

He loaded his bag above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat in front of him, and reluctantly sat down. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large sat down next to him, and might as well have been right on top of him.

Like in most plane riding adventures, conversation was bound to start between them, even more so because they couldn’t figure out where one seat belt began and the other one ended.

At first it was just general chit chat about the airport and the size of airline seats. But eventually the second passenger asked the pastor what he did for a living. 

He said, “I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth his seat partner declared, “I’m not a believer.”

The preacher didn’t push, but once they got to a cruising altitude the man started asking all sorts of questions about what it was like to be a pastor. And every so often, during the conversation, the man referred back to his prior declaration, “I’m not a believer.”

So the preacher finally said, “That’s fine. Frankly, it doesn’t change anything. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”

The man next to him went quiet for awhile, staring absent-mindedly down the aisle, but then he started talking again, only this time he began talking about something different – The Vietnam War.

He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now often pretended like it it never happened.

The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”

And the preacher leaned over, just as they were preparing to make their descent, and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

“What do you mean confessed? I’ve never confessed!”

“You’ve been confessing to me the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, if you have any more burdening you, now’s the time to hand them over.”

The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”

But then he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”

The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the seat and said, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says that it’s what inside of you that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside of them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another creature. So I’m going to speak faith into you.”

The fasten seat belt sign promptly turned on and the closest steward noticed this bizarre scene taking place and order the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.

“Oh I did, and I must, and I’ll keep on doing it over and over again.”

So he did what he said he would do, this time louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears, weeping all over himself like a little child. 

The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent and they knew something more important was happening in front of them. Whether they could articulate it or not, they were catching a glimpse of grace, something that truly turns everything upside down.

After the plane landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the news, so the preacher did it one more time and eventually the man started wiping away his tears and then he laughed. Finally, he said, “Gosh, if what you said is true, then its the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”

And the preacher laughed and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”

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That’s a true story of a preacher named Jim from many years ago.

And, I love that story.

I love that story because Jim did what so many of us neglect to do when we encounter the sins of another.

Notice, Jim didn’t sit back and just merely listen. He didn’t fill the void of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or “I know what you’re going through.” He didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.

Instead he offered absolution.

He gave him the Good News.

The crowds listened to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost – they were hit with the bad news of their sinfulness and, as Acts puts it, “they were cut to the heart.” And they respond with a question, “What should we do?”

Repent and be baptized.

Turn and join us. 

Your sins are forgiven.

Peter proclaims the Good News and we encounter this a rather staggering metric at the end of the passage- that day three thousand persons were added.

It must’ve been one hell of a sermon.

Last week I said that we are the stores we tell. I say that a lot in sermons. Another way of saying that is saying this – what we say determines the kind of world we live in.

Peter speaks to the crowds and tells them the story of Jesus. He does so in a way that they are cut to the heart.

But why? What about the story hits them so hard? What cuts any of us to the heart?

Perhaps it’s the truth: We’re all sinners.

That’s not a very popular thing to say at any time, let alone on a Sunday morning while dressed like this hoping that people are actually tuning in.

Telling people they’re sinners is what the Westboro Baptist crowd is supposed to do, not well-meaning mainline protestants!

But, sin isn’t just something we do when others aren’t looking. And sin isn’t just the horrible things done to us by others. Sin is very much who we are – we all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

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And for some reason, sin is something we’ve largely stopped talking about in the church completely. 

Can you blame the church? We want the church to be all things for all people! We want to be inclusive! You know… open hearts, minds, and doors! We want to affirm the sacred worth of all people.

Curiously enough though, in spite of all our attempts to avoid offense and all our constant talk of God loving us just the way we are, nothing seems to change. 

We speak affirmation, but we experience less and less of it. 

We speak support, but others appear too busy to pay us any attention. 

We speak of self-steen building with genteel aphorisms, but more and more of us seem to think that all the problems in the world can be blamed on other people.

In short, we no longer call sin, sin.

And the more we do this, the more we keep pretending like we’re all fine and there’s nothing wrong within us, the church becomes yet another support group rather than the body of Christ where the cross is proclaimed and heard.

Or, to put it another way, we’re not a bunch of good people getting better. We’re actually just a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

But today, that doesn’t sell well. It doesn’t drive people to their devices on Sunday morning to tune into live worship. That’s not something we want to push the “Share” button for.

And yet, it’s true.

We’re all sinners.

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There was, of course, a time when the only thing the church talked about was sin. And, in particular, making people like you feel guilty about your sins, so much so that it would hopefully frighten people like you to shape up and start behaving yourselves. 

Preacher types like me would stand up in a place like this and say, “You all write this down, this is important. This week, I want you to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, enthnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH, do a good deed daily, love your neighbor as yourself, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.”

You notice anything missing in all of that?

Maybe God?

Come back next Sunday and you know what you can look forward to? Another list of things to do to fix yourselves and the world around you. 

Peter could’ve looked out at the crowds at the end of his Pentecost sermon and he could’ve told them to stopping sinning so much, to cure themselves of their incurable disease, to start behaving themselves.

But he doesn’t. He tells them, instead, to repent. Which, to be clear, means nothing but turn. It doesn’t mean right every wrong you’ve committed, it doesn’t mean go and reconcile with every person, it doesn’t mean make the world a better place. 

Perhaps Peter was wise enough (or maybe it was just the power of the Spirit) to know that telling someone to stop sinning doesn’t work. In fact, if it does anything, it usually makes matters worse. 

When we’re confronted with the condition of our condition, it usually leads us to doing more of what got our conditions there in the first place.

Instead of all that, Peter says, “Turn and join us.” Get baptized and become part of our community. We’re a bunch of sinners failing in our sins. That’s it. We’re a crew of people who get together week after week to confess the truth of who we are and to receive some good news. God is the one who saves us. We are more than our mistakes.

We’re forgiven. 

If the only thing the church ever offers us is the command to fix ourselves it will never happen. Grace, on the other hand, says, “Trust this,” and everything is already done.

Everyone in the crowd that day with Peter, everyone listening and watching this sermon, and even the preacher himself is part of the, as scripture puts it, corrupt generation. Much as we’d like to believe the contrary, we haven’t progressed much over the centuries. We still treat certain people like garbage, we’re drunk on petroleum watching the planet burn, and when we come to events like the current pandemic we look out for ourselves without even taking a moment to think about how its affecting everyone else.

We are just as corrupt as the crowds were that day with Peter. And, in God’s confounding and infinite wisdom, the Spirit was received by them and us anyway through the proclaimed Word. 

While many of you may be rightly dubious of whatever it is you receive from preacher types on Sunday mornings, there is something rather majestic here in Acts that points to a great and wonderful truth. St Paul puts it this way, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”

Jim, the preacher from the airplane, walked through the airport with his seat partner after their experience. Right before they made an awkward goodbye, Jim handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do, you really do, trust it.”

The next day the man called the Jim, and he called the Jim everyday thereafter just to hear him declare the Gospel. In fact, he called the Jim once a day until the day he died. When asked later why he kept answering the phone Jim said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”

Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Amen. 

The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

Advent-2017

I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen. 

Inescapable

Luke 17.1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

I don’t like that this is true, but people are more often drawn to church out of problems than out of successes. People don’t usually wake up the morning after receiving a raise to think, “You know what, I’m gonna swing by the church today.” No, people usually come by when they find out they’re being fired. 

Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. After all, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. It is here at church that we can finally dispense with all of the pretending and can admit the condition of our condition.

And our condition is bad.

Here’s just a sample of some of the headlines this week: 

“One In Ten Older Adults Binge Drink Regularly”

“Father Forgets Twins In Hot Car For Eight Hours Resulting In Their Death.”

“Two American Mass Shootings In 24 Hours And The Third In A Week.”

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And we need not even look in the newspapers or on our favorite channels at night to see how messed up this world is; how messed up we are. Just take a drive down Route 1 for a little while and take in what you can see. We are stumbling and in our stumbling we are causing others to stumble.

So what should we do about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking, and it’s by no means an easy to handle solution, but I think it will largely take care of our problems. I’ve lined the back of our sanctuary with dozens of metal buckets, and with each bucket you can find a bag of quick dry cement. After the benediction at the end of the service, we’re each going to take a bucket with cement down to the river, and we are going to make sure that none of us cause anyone else to stumble ever again.

Amen?

Now, before you start throwing your tomatoes, I stole that idea from Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

So who’s ready to head down to the water with me?

Jesus is right. It is inevitable that scandals will come. 

I know that sounds different than “occasions for stumbling” because it is different. But in Greek the word is our word for scandal. And the words we use are important.

Throughout the New Testament “scandal” is used when referring to something that occasions sins or temptation. But it is also used in reference to the cross of Christ. As in, to the weakness and foolishness of the method of salvation at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is absolutely a scandal to cause someone else to sin in their life. But it also absolutely a scandal that God chose to come into the world and die in order that we might live.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – What kind of scandal are we really talking about?

I mean, if you are want to take Jesus literally here, while recognizing that each of us in ways both small and large have caused others to sin, then we can all throw ourselves into the Occoquan, but that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like the worst news.

Let us, then, at least entertain the thought that the scandal mentioned here by Jesus isn’t as we’ve so often heard it. Instead, perhaps the scandal that causes us and other to stumble isn’t our own sin, though it certainly can, but the greatest scandal of all is the scandal of the cross.

Our sins are absolutely inescapable in this life, at least that the way we act regarding our sin. We label people by their faults and failure and those labels follow those people until the end of their days. But, in the same way, the cross of Christ is inescapable as well. 

We then could read the verse in question differently: It would be better for someone to meet a violent end than to make someone else believe in a grace that requires them to do something to earn grace. 

The cross stands as an uncomfortable and unwavering reminder that you and I don’t need to do a thing for it. And yet so much of what we do as a culture, and heaven forbid as a church, tells people there is always more for them to do in order to get God to do anything.

And that might be the greatest stumbling block of all.

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Jesus, of course, doesn’t leave it all right there and begins to teach the disciples about real and unending forgiveness. 

The disciples, bless their little hearts, are just like us and when they hear the Lord tell them to practice this kind of forgiveness it cuts against everything they, and we, have ever heard. It is bad advice, according to the world, to continue to forgive people who keep wronging us. But in the kingdom, the truth is that only those willing to lose can ever really win. 

If we insist on being right and being perfect and only surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, we will be out of luck regarding salvation. Moreover, our lives will be downright boring if that all we hope and yearn for.

The disciples, in this circumstance, hear the word from their Lord and recognize they haven’t got nearly the right amount of spiritual resources to keep forgiving people so they naturally ask for the thing they need most: Lord, increase our faith.

And the way we often treat their request is to assume that we need to ask for the very same thing. If we only had a little more faith then we could do the kind of forgiving work Jesus was talking about, if we only had a little more faith then we wouldn’t cause other people to stumble. And when Jesus responds to their request with talk of mustard seeds we hear that as an approval to start small.

But, that feels like we’re actually going backwards. Notice – they ask for more faith, and Jesus tell them if they had even less faith than they currently have, a mustard size faith isn’t much faith at all, the preposterous and impossible would seem reasonable and true.

In other words, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers, looks at each and every one of us, and declares for the thousandth time, that even when it comes to faith we don’t have to be winners.

And that sounds like much better news than marching down to the water!

It can be downright exhausting to be told over and over again that we just need to have more faith. Lost your job? You need more faith! Can’t get a date? You need more faith! Worried about the bills? You need more faith! Blah blah blah. 

Faith is not faith if it needs to be stronger, purer, or greater.

Somewhere along the line we crossed our wires and we haven’t really figured out how to put them back. We have these absurd notions, even in the church, that we’ve got these little faith meters attached to our brains, and that after a lifetime of accumulating more and more faith, that we get to go on to our heavenly reward.

But the truth of the gospel is that we cannot be saved by our faith anymore than by our measurements of mortality or supplements of spirituality. All of our talk of self-improvement amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which in the New Testament, is rejected over and over and over again. 

It is a crying shame that we have fallen into the trap of thinking “more” means salvation.

Which makes the mustard seed actually crazier when we take it in light of Jesus’ words and work. Maybe faith isn’t even essential in terms of salvation at all. 

I mean, what does a mustard seed have to do to do anything? Be buried in the ground and die. So, perhaps even if we have no faith, really, even if we say no to Jesus again and again, we still die and out of our death Jesus still raises us. 

I know that sounds crazy but Jesus is pretty crazy. Over and over Jesus speaks of the all of salvation, the all of the cross, and its we who put numbers and figures on the all. 

Now, of course we won’t be able to enjoy the Supper of the Lamb and we won’t throw ourselves into the music on the dance floor unless we say yes to it. But Jesus’ party is inescapable. Even if we don’t want it, as crazy as that sounds, Jesus’ nagging invitation to the celebration will never ever stop. Not now. Not ever.

Which leads us to the final movement in the scripture, the last part of the parable – the returning servant. Friends, we can and have really messed this part up. We’ve read this as a call for there to be certain kinds of people with certain kinds of rolls in the world. In fact, slaveowners used to use these last lines to keep their slaves in their places, but Jesus is far craftier than that.

Do you thank your slaves for doing the work they were commanded? No, of course not. They are your slaves and they have a job to do.

Coming in the wake of the scandal of the cross, and unending forgiveness, and limited faith, the final movement here sounds like Jesus knocking the disciples over the head with the gospel truth one final time.

Remember the unthanked and the unrewarded slave the next time you expect God to delight in any of your little good deeds. We followers of Jesus have only got one real job to do that’s worth anything at all and that’s to die. Die to ways we think the world works, and in the end die to the life we so desperately cling to. Because in the end, that all God’s needs from us. Everything else that needs doing will be, and have already been, done by God.

I know it stings, but I also know it stings far less than thinking about cementing our feet into buckets. I know we don’t like to hear it, but I also know that if we were honest with ourselves all of us know, deep down, that we could never earn the salvation from God we so desire. 

No matter how good any of us are, no matter what kind of list of good deeds we could present at the end of our days, it would never ever compare with what God’s doing and done for us. 

The greatest scandal over which we stumble is the cross, because it shines like a beacon for all of us to see that we don’t deserve it, but that God did it all anyway. 

My sin, oh, the bless of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part by the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. Amen.

God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

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

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

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

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

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

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

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

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

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

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

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

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

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

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

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

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

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

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

It said God Hates Fags. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

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

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

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

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

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

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

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

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

Unforgivingness

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

It’s hard to talk about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a difficult subject because there are always two sides to forgiveness: The one offering it and the one receiving it.

We, as the beautifully flawed people we are, are uncomfortable with the subject knowing that we have done things that require someone else forgiving us, and we have encountered people who have wronged us to such a degree that we have not offered them forgiveness.

Which means that no matter how we come to the subject, it leaves us squirming in our pews.

It’s one thing to offer forgiveness – it gives us all the power in the world. We can draw out the pardon until our transgressor begs and pleads. We can lord it over our spouses, or our children, or our co-workers, or even our fellow church goers with a vindictive hand.

Receiving forgiveness it a whole other thing entirely. Even if the action is genuine, we can be left feeling as if the scales will never be even again, and we can walk through the rest of our lives with a shackle to a mistake from the past. 

But we’re the church! Forgiveness is supposed to be easy, right?

Hey Lord, um, suppose someone in the church sins against me. Let’s say they talk about me behind my back and spread a vicious and totally untrue rumor. How many times should I forgive them? Does seven times suffice?

Hey Pete, seven is a good number, but why stop there? You should forgive seventy seven times.

I don’t know about you, but I can jump on board with a lot of this Christianity stuff. I’m all about the taking care of the last, least, and lost. I believe, with every fiber of my being that Jesus was raised from the dead. 

But forgiving someone seventy seven times? 

C’mon Jesus.

But, of course, forgiveness is not some moral requirement hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Forgiveness is all sorts of confused and tied up with the raising of the dead. Otherwise, forgiveness is just crazy. 

It goes against just about everything we stand for in every other part of our lives.

There are just some things that are right and some things that are wrong. If someone does something wrong well then they have to do something right to make everything good again.

But forgiveness, at least the kind that Jesus talks about, is a gift offered to the foolish and the undeserving, not a reward bestowed upon the perfect. 

Take the crucifixion… 

God asks for no response to the cross, there’s no moment when Jesus is hanging by the nails and says, “So long as all of you get all your lives together, I will raise from the dead for you.”

There’s nothing we have to do before God offers an unwavering and totally covering pardon. 

But, this doesn’t really jive with our sense of fairness and justice and yet, according to God’s mercy, the only thing necessary for our forgiveness is the death that sin has caused in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection contain all the power necessary for the strange thing we call the church.

And, for some reason, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to talk about even though it is at the heart of what it means to be the church.

The emphasis from Jesus in this little prelude to the parable with Peter is that forgiveness is unlimited. 77, for lots of biblical reasons, is as close to infinity as we can get theologically.

But who really wants to forgive something or someone infinitely?

Which bring us to the parable. 

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The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay the king back, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold away to the next highest bidder.

Jesus, ever the good teacher, starts the story with the law. There are some rules that people have to follow, because life has to be fair. The king is a bookkeeper, like the rest of us. He knows and remembers who has wronged him and to what degree. If you play by the kings rules, if you follow his directions, all will be well.

But if you break the rules… well, we all know what happens if we break the rules.

And then the slave speaks, having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

And we already have questions. How could a slave possibly pay back that amount of money? Why would the king ever let him accrue such a debt like that in the first place? But the Bible doesn’t respond to our queries, the story is all we’ve got.

So how does the king respond? Having just ordered him to be sold along with everything else in his life, having just responded to sin with sin, he simply waves his hand and the slave disappears into his own suffering oblivion.

Or, at least, that’s how the story is supposed to go. We’re supposed to imagine the king as a tyrant smiling diabolically as the slave is dragged out kicking and screaming.

But that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Instead, the king takes pity, releases the man, AND forgives all his debts!

The servant has done nothing more than ask for grace, and grace is what he receives. But it is a grace greater than he ever could have imagined. His slate has been wiped clean, for good. He has been freed from every shackle around his ankle, from the fear that has kept him awake at night, from everything.

That alone would be enough for an incredible parable, a profound witness to grace and mercy. But, of course, that’s not the end.

And before we get to namesake of the story, we are compelled to pause on the action of the king. He offers this incredible forgiveness without much thought. He doesn’t retreat into his antechamber to weigh out the profit/loss margins about the debt, he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisors, he just forgives the debt, and not only that, he leaves the book-keeping business forever. 

The king chooses to die to forgive the man.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the story – to forgive a debt as great as the slave’s is not just a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving that money back the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would be destroyed. 

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift, it’s a radically changed life through death. 

The king chooses to die to what he knew and believed and lived for his slave.

And the slave leaves the presence of the king, still on cloud nine, only to encounter a fellow slave who owed him some money, and when the other slave asks for the same mercy the unforgiving servant throws him into prison until he could pay off the debt.

We might imagine the unforgiving servant as a Bond-movie villain, the worst of the worst. Surely, no one would be so dumb as to receive such incredible forgiveness only to lord a debt over someone else.

But, in reality, the man is exactly what all of us are, people who are unwilling to let go of the old to embrace something radically new.

When the king catches word of what the first slave did, he summons him back before the throne. “What’s wrong with you? Have you no mercy?” And he hands the man over to be tortured until he could repay his whole debt that was previously forgiven. 

Forgive-Me

The king chooses to die. Perhaps not literally, but the king certainly embraces a death to the way things were, for something new and bewildering. The unforgiving servant, on the other hand, receives the greatest gift in the world, but he refuses to die. He refuses to let go of the book-keeping that dominated his life.

To be sure, should this kind of radical forgiveness be instituted across the world, the world would be flipped upside down. Our federal government, our banking systems, just about everything that spins the world would implode upon themselves.

It is so shocking to think about this kind of forgiveness that we can scarcely even imagine it ever happening.

And yet, it already has!

Jesus is setting Peter up with this story, and all of us reading it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world by dying. 

He will destroy death by dying on the cross.

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

It’s like Jesus is shouting at Peter as loud as he possible can, “Unless you die to yourself, unless you die to your insatiable desire for payback, then you might as well live into the torturous existence of the unforgiving servant.”

Or, to put it another way, we will never ever be able to enjoy the gift of the resurrection, a gift handed to us for nothing, if we cannot face the absurdity of our own forgiveness. 

For it is in facing what we have already received that we cannot help but change the way we see everything else.

The king says, “You idiot! I died for you! But you were so busy making plans to collect for yourself that you didn’t even notice!”

And the end of the story is frightening, we cannot sweep it away. The king doesn’t just accost the man for what he did with words; he hands him over to a life of self-inflicted misery.

This parable contains as much mercy as it does judgment.

We, like the unforgiving servant, have received an irrational pardon. We have been forgiven from all that we have done, all that we are doing, and strangest of all, from all that we will do. 

But to live in the light of that kind of forgiveness, to see how God died for us without dying to ourselves to those former lives, will result in a miserable existence.

Out thirst for repayment and retribution will always go unquenched and it will drive us mad.

Without responding to our forgiveness with forgiveness, whatever our lives look like will far more resemble hell than they will heaven. 

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true; if there was a limit to the forgiveness, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus’ interaction with Peter, and the parable he tells to bring the whole matter home, demands that we become a people who can forgive each other. But that presupposes that we know we are a people who have first been forgiven. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Amen.