The Hardest Parable

Luke 16.1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever if faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 

I would like to have a word with whomever decided this would be the text for today. It’s one thing to assign different, and even strange, texts to retired clergy filling in while a certain pastor was on paternity leave. But for that pastor to return after a month only to dust off the homiletical muscles with the hardest parable?

Who thought this would be a good idea?

Apparently I did months ago when I chose this text for this Sunday.

Some fools for Christ are just fools.

Even if you’ve only spent a little time reading the Bible, it is clear that some of the stories that Jesus tells are in need of an editor’s touch. Or, as we might say in this part of Virginia, they need fixin’.

Here are a few examples: The parable of the so-called Good Shepherd. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a shepherd who goes off in search of one lost sheep. A quaint little tale. We might even like it. We certainly enjoy telling it to children during Vacation Bible School. But do you know what happens when you leave behind the ninety nine in search for the one lost? Ninety nine more lost sheep. It’s not way to run a business!

Or, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’d rather us call it the Dumb Samaritan. This fool comes across a beaten and bedraggled figure on the side of the road, and puts him up in the four seasons and leaves his Amex card behind for any additional charges. Bad idea!

And then there’s the creme de la creme – The Prodigal. A son commands his father to drop dead, runs off and ruins his inheritance, only to come home with a pitiful repentance worked up in his head and his aforementioned father throws him the greatest block party in history before the kid even gets a chance to apologize. 

And then Jesus does it again!

The Pharisees, good religious folk like us, heaven’t even had a chance to lift their jaws off the ground when Jesus tells another story. 

There was a man who worked for an investment bank. And, after a few ill advised stock purchases, the CEO marches into his office and says, “You’re fired. I want this office cleared by the end of the day and I’m taking a deeper look into all your recent trades.”

The money-manager finds himself going down the elevator with a cardboard box of office trinkets and thinks to himself, “What am I going to do? I’m too old to go back to school and I’m too proud to beg!” And then he gets an idea. He still has the company credit card in his wallet and he calls us some of his best clients and takes them out to lunch. In between appetizers, and glasses of wine, he pulls out his phone and starts typing away reducing the debt of his soon-to-be former clients knowing that even though he is no longer employed, it helps to have well connected people in your debt.

And then, Jesus says, the CEO calls up his the fired money manager and congratulates him: You have acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

That’s not a very responsible story Jesus! I don’t know if that’s the type of tale we want people hearing in church. Shouldn’t end more like this?

And the CEO calls up the fired money manager and rips into him yet again for being such a conniving no good dirty rotten scoundrel. And Jesus looks out at the crowds and commands them to live honest and virtuous lives. 

The great challenge of the parables, this one included, is that Jesus tells them because they are true, and not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommendations for imitation. Good Samaritans are often taken advantage of. Any shepherd who makes a practice of leaving the ninety-nine behind is quick to go out of the sheep-keeping business. Any Father who throws a party for a wayward child is rightly rebuked for encouraging bad behavior. And any money manager who swindles clients, or bosses, out of money will usually spend some time paying for their crime.

And yet, the parables are not stories about us. The parables are stories that Jesus tells about himself.

Which means, oddly enough, Jesus is the shepherd to risks it all on the one who is lost. Jesus is the Samaritan who lavishly helps those down in the ditch. Jesus is the Father who forgives before apologies are offered. And Jesus is the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, who fudges the account, our accounts, when we don’t deserve it.

Don’t get me wrong, this is, indeed, the hardest parable. For some strange reason the master in the story praises the shrewdness of the steward. In a matter of verses the master goes from wanting to ring his neck to congratulating him for his bizarre intellect. The master goes from being an insufferable ledger keeper to the strange celebrator of the Good News. 

And it doesn’t make any sense. Just like the shepherd, the samaritan, and the prodigal, these stories don’t make sense.

But this one really takes the cake. 

Even St. Augustine once said he refused to believe this story came from the lips of Jesus. 

And yet, here it is. And we all just said, “Thanks be to God” after it was read!

What makes this parable the hardest is the fact that no preacher can water it down or manipulate it enough to make it say something that it doesn’t. Perhaps it would make more sense if the dishonest manager was punished for his crimes, or, at the very least, the money he stole from his master was given away to the poor like a first century Robin Hood.

But instead, the unjust steward is a liar, a cheater, and a thief. And Jesus has him commended, rewarded even, for what he did. 

And yet the “what he did” in that sentence betrays the immensity of what transpires in the parable. You see, grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise.

And, just as sure as you and I are in this room, the unjust steward was dead. Dead as a doornail. While the nails are hammered into his vocational coffin, he makes life a little easier for others by wiping away their debt. But he is not the only one who dies. The master dies as well, he dies to his bookkeeping. 

This is such a strange and bizarre story that it should leave us scratching our heads, but perhaps it should make us laugh. Grace is the divine lark offered to a world so sin-sick with seriousness that it can even stop to enjoy the roses.

This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.

It is everything for nothing. It is Good News for a world drowning in bad news. It is life out of death.

What makes the parables true is that they describe who God is. Every single parable, from mustard seeds to wedding banquets to unjust stewards, are about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They describe in weird, wild, and wonderful ways how God is in the business of making something out of our nothing, of making the impossible possible, and making a way where there is no way.

Jesus is the unjust steward. The misguided money manger dies to his career and rises with forgiveness, just like Jesus. By his death and resurrection he resurrects others wiping away their debts, just like Jesus. But most of all, the dishonest manager is Jesus because he is a crook.

Christ the crook: words I never thought I’d say from the pulpit but here we are!

We often betray the reckless nature of the Messiah today with our songs and our paintings. We like our Jesus well manicured with perfect morality and good manners. 

But this parable, and all the rest of them for that matter, is a ringing reminder that grace cannot come through respectability or through achievement or through perfection. 

Grace comes only through losing. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, the only problem is that no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus. 

Jesus spent his life among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Jesus broke the Sabbath, consorted with criminals, supped with sinners, and he died the death of an insurrectionist. Jesus became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for is losers, and even dead for those of us who go around pretending we’ve got it all figured out when we don’t have much to show for our so-called lives. 

It’s almost as if, parable after parable, Jesus is begging us to see ourselves for who we really are. 

Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus says he came to seek and save sinners, we always imagine that Jesus is talking other people and not us?

Why is it that, when we encounter the truly Good News even in this parable, we are offended by it rather than rejoicing because of it?

Because when it comes to our accounts, our debt to sin is not something we can repay. Each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. And it’s hard to admit the truth of who we are. That’s why we bristle at the parables, not just because they tell us the truth of God, but because they also tell us the truth about ourselves.

Namely: we’re just a bunch of lost and wandering sheep, stuck in the ditches of our own making, constantly squandering the gifts of God, with no hope in the world unless the hope of the world decides to fudge the accounts in our favor.

In the words of Anne Lamott: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you and me than we would believe.

Which, oddly enough, is Good News. Really Good News. Because, in the end, Christ is not interested in role models, moral perfectionists, or those who have it all together. Jesus comes for people like us whose ledgers are brimming with failure, and those who can’t find a way out of the mess we’ve made, in order to set us free. 

It’s outrageous. And it just so happens to be the Gospel. Amen. 

Law & Gospel

Exodus 20.1-19

Then God spoke all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath of that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I regret picking the text I picked for a Sunday morning. I will be in the middle of the week, staring at a blank work document on my computer, and I’ll wonder how God is going to show up and make something of my nothing.

Case in point, last Sunday we looked at and talked about Moses’ call from the burning bush. That would’ve been a great text for Vacation Bible School Sunday. It would’ve been fun and even easy to talk about how God shows up, and showed up, in unexpected ways and places. I could’ve pointed toward all these holy moments from the Food Truck Party and then wrapped it all up with a, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

But no. I decided that this was the Sunday to preach the Ten Commandments.

You shall not murder.

You shall not bear false witness.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.

On and on.

So I spent the early part of my week wracking my brain, praying for the Lord to give me something to say.

And then, on Monday night, I was sitting on the floor of one of our classrooms upstairs, with all our wonderful children and youth, trying my hardest to convey the story of God providing the manna in the wilderness. But, before jumping into the Bible, I wanted to get their little minds working so I asked each and every kid, “What’s your favorite breakfast?”

And I received some good answers: Pancakes, French Toast, Lucky Charms.

But then one of the kids said, “My favorite is waffles, but I hate it when my Dad makes me eat scrambled eggs.”

Alright, I thought, no need to get worked up about it.

And then another kid shouted, “Donuts!” To which another yelled, a few decibels louder, “I want her answer because I love donuts more than she does!”

And then another kid, under his breath, said, “I would give my life for a donut right now.”

Bewildered by the dramatic events unfolding before me, I took a breath, and happened to glance at the wall above their little heads and there, for everyone to see, was a poster with the ten commandments.

And I realized in that moment, the kids had broken three of the ten!

The Ten Commandments. 

You shall not you shall not you shall not.

Why do we hang them up in our churches and in our houses? Why do we ask children to memorize them in Sunday school? Why does God hand them down to Moses on Mount Sinai?

Remember: Moses makes good on the call from the burning bush and leads God’s people out of slavery and captivity in Egypt to a new and strange land. They wander physically and spiritually complaining about how good they had it back in Egypt when God delivers the aforementioned manna in the wilderness.

They continue to wander under the witness of Moses until the Lord’s offers the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

And, for us today, we can certainly flip to Exodus 20 in our Bibles, or we can just look up to a cross-stitched rendering in someone’s living room or Sunday school class to know what they are.

But there’s a difference between what the Ten Commandments say, and their purpose.

Because, if you read the New Testament, Jesus and Paul decisively declare that they are not rules to regulate our behavior. They are not a weapon to wield over and against those who do not follow them. They are not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law is to do to us what I just did by telling the story of the kids in the classroom: to accuse us.

The Law reveals the truth of who we really are. Between the big L and little l laws, between thou shall not and it would be better if you did this or that, the law reminds us that, all things considered, none of us are how we ought to be.

And yet all of us are in the business of self-deception. We’re so good at rationalizing our wandering eyes, justifying our wandering hearts, and explaining away our wanton disregard for others. 

One of the more confounding parts of our behavior is our ability to know exactly what we should and shouldn’t do, from keeping up with the laundry to not looking at our phones while we drive, and we fail to do it. 

We don’t need someone like me to stand up in a place like this to tell us a whole bunch of stuff we already know: you need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using so much styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, take precautions on your dates, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.

We can have a preacher yell those things at us week after week, and we can put up the Ten Commandments all over the place, but we will still fail.

Listen: there’s another mountaintop moment in the Bible with a set of decrees. Instead of Moses this time, Jesus looks out at the gathered crowds and he says, “You have heard it said you shall not murder, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, even if you think about it, you’ve already guilty; unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, of the rule followers, then you will never enter Heaven.”

And then, at the end of ratcheting up the Ten Commandments, Jesus mic drops the final line: You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

Apparently, in the Kingdom of God there are no trophies for participation, no A’s for effort.

Therefore, if Moses’ and Jesus’ decrees are nothing more than lists of what we must and mustn’t do, then we’re all up the creek without a paddle. We’re a bunch of losers with no hope in the world.

Thanks be to God then, that the hope of the world comes to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

You see, the primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much about what we’re supposed to do.

The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is not a collection of principles on how to live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law, from Sinai to the instagramifcation of all things, holds up a mirror to our truest selves so that we are downright forced to come to grips with who we really are, and what we’ve done, and what we’re left undone.

In short, the function of the Law is to get to see ourselves with enough honesty and clarity that we ask ourselves, “How could God love me?”

Because when we are able to ask that question, we are close to the Good News.

God speak to us in two words, Law & Gospel, and we tend to confuse the two all the time.

And without knowing which is which, we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Be perfect. Never stop forgiving. Love your enemies. Stop your jealousy. Give away your possessions. On an on.

A church of the Law alone creates and cultivates a bunch of self-righteous people who are angry, miserable, and are never invited to the fun stuff.

It results in a cacophony of almost-Christians who are, in the end, nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Have you ever noticed how the most judgmental people are usually the ones with the most problems?

And yet, without the word of the Law, the Gospel becomes an empty promise. It’s all good and well to come to a place like this and hear about how God loves us. I hope and pray that if you do hear anything in church, it is those words. 

But what makes those words so staggering isn’t that God loves, but that God loves us.

When push comes to shove, each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all avoid doing things we know we should do, and we all do things we know we shouldn’t.

Which is why, when Jesus riffs on the need to forgive 70 x 7 times, it’s to point us toward the witness of the God who continues to forgive us.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies not because it makes everything better, though it might, Jesus commands us to love our enemies because Jesus, himself, loves his enemies: us. 

Which means, in the end, we need Law & Gospel. We need both because the first word pushes us to the second.

The Good News is not a bait and switch offer, it is not an invitation with strings attached, it is not a gift with an expectation of reciprocation.

If we leave church with more burdens than when we arrived, then grace cannot be amazing.

God knows you and me better than we know ourselves. God knows our inner thoughts and our knee-jerk reactions and our internet search histories, and God is still for us.

How odd of God to love a bunch of people who do not deserve it at all.

Being pushed from the Law to the Gospel is a truly wild and wonderful thing to do. And it is often nothing more than accepting, trusting, the incomprehensible Good News that despite all the reasons we shouldn’t be, we are indeed loved and forgiven. We are already home. 

That’s the life of grace – there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our goodness was actually rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk us because our life doesn’t measure up to the Law.

The real truth, the scandal of the faith, is that we can fail, miserably, and still live the life of grace.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s grace and love. Not our faults, not our vices, not us being brats all the time about things that don’t even really matter. Not even our doubts. 

As the old hymn goes, my sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul. 

One of our vacation Bible School participants, after a week of digesting the Word, approach me on our final night and said:

“So God loves me when I’m good but God still loves me when I’m bad just like Jesus loved all the people he fed with the loaves and the fishes? And God forgives me even if I do something I shouldn’t just like Jesus forgave Peter?”

“Yep. That’s the Gospel.”

“Well I don’t know what that words means, but it feels amazing.” Amen.

Consequence Culture

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 5.1-14, Psalm 30, Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11, 16-20). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including subtitles, Andy Root, sacramental theology, unnamed characters, healing, airplane confessions, inadequate prayers, poetry and prose, American Beauty, weddings, karma, James Joyce, boasting, ordination, and leadership. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Consequence Culture

The Freedom Of The Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the location of the Lord, mantle-passing, lament, the divine reality, Herbert McCabe, freedom, the fruit of the Spirit, Gilmore Girls, hellfire, and the seriousness of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Freedom Of The Christian

Strangely Warmed

John 17.23

I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Why the United Methodist Church?

This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”

For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.

I follow Jesus, not John Wesley. 

And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on. 

There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738

What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!

I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things. 

While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference. 

If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.

A Dangerous Adventure

John 14.27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“Christians are people who tell the truth. And, if we cannot tell the truth, then at least we should not lie.” I have those sentences scratched in a notebook that I carried with me during seminary. And, if my notes are correct, I heard those words from a professor named Stanley Hauerwas during a hallway conversation after morning prayer.

His conviction about our truthfulness is nothing new. Martin Luther famously said that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil whereas a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Translation: tell the truth.

But telling the truth is no easy endeavor, particularly because we live in a world that runs on lies. Every ad we consume presents a false vision of reality so long as we purchase a particular product. The nightly news is designed to terrify us so that we will keep watching until we know what side we are supposed to be on for every subject. And even in our domestic dramas we often lie because we are trying to be good: we don’t want to tell our spouses how we really feel, we don’t want to upset the applecart at a family get together, we’d rather brush something under the rug than bring it to the surface. 

All the while, as Christians, we worship the one who not only tells the truth, but is, himself, truth incarnate.

When Pontius Pilate was told that Jesus was the one who had come into the world to testify to the truth, he asked, “What is truth?” Jesus gave no response because Pilate was literally looking at the answer to his question. Therefore, should we truly desire to be a community of the truth and by the truth then we need not look further than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The “and him crucified” is crucial. For, truth-telling is a dangerous adventure. But without an example of a truth telling community, the world has no alternative but to continue to run by lies.

Jesus leaves peace with his disciples and the peace Jesus leaves runs counter to the peace of the world. The peace of the world is achieved, kept, and maintained by violence. Whereas the peace of Jesus comes through vulnerability, sacrifice, and even suffering. 

Part of the hard truth that the church has to speak into the world today is this: we have a problem with violence.

Mass shootings have become so commonplace that it’s hard to keep track of what happened and where. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can simply avoid going to churches, malls, supermarkets, concerts, cinemas, parks, pre-schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college campuses, mass transportations, and any other place where a mass shooting has taken place.

We’ve become so accustomed to the war torn images of Ukraine (and war in general) that it leaves us feeling apathetic. And yet we, as Christians, can advocate for a new peace, a peace given to us by Jesus, a peace that means we have to fundamentally reshape how we understand what it means to be in the world. Or, we can let things continue on their merry way while more and more people are displaced, separated, and killed.

Speaking truth to power is no easy thing. But until we’re willing to call a thing what it is, we are doomed to call evil good and good evil. Or, put simply, the beginning of a faithful imagination comes with telling the truth. 

What’s Wrong With The World?

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

In 1905 the Daily News in London published a piece titled, “What’s Wrong With The World?” and they asked for answers to their query. Hundreds of individuals responded with hundreds of examples. GK Chesterton, writer and theologian, simply responded with two words: “I am.”

There are many versions of Christianity in the world. And not just the different denominations you can find throughout your neighborhood like Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Catholics, etc. Even within “one” church like the United Methodist Church there is a great diversity of opinion about what it means to be a United Methodist. 

But the one thing that might unite all churches, even more than our commitment to baptism or communion, is a desire to appear as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website, or a front lawn marquee, and you can find a self-imposed description that says something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming church. 

In the UMC we like to say that we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

What a righteous slogan.

The only problem is the fact that we regularly close off our affections toward certain people, we are clearly cemented in “the ways things were” rather than the way things can be, and more often than not the doors to the church are locked.

Inclusivity is the buzzword among most, if not all, churches these days. Though, we are not altogether clear about what it really means to be inclusive. True inclusivity, after all, is not just a matter of having different kinds of people sitting in the pews on Sunday morning; true inclusivity means a total and unwavering commitment to something that is frankly impossible for us: love.

I know that might sound strange: the impossibility of love in the church. But it is, in fact, against our nature. We can’t, or at the very least don’t, love everyone.

It’s like those churches with signs on the front lawn proudly claiming: “Hate Has No Place Here.”

That’s a worthy hope, but it isn’t true.

All of us have hate in us whether we like to admit it or not. And, to make matters worse, saying that hate has no place in church affirms that the church hates people who hate!

It is true that we are commanded, by God, to love one another just as Christ loved us. And yet, sometimes, I fear we confuse the two. That is: we assume that we have to love one another in order to get God to love us. When, in fact, the opposite is true: God loves us, and when we come to grips with how strange it is to be loved by God, we are then freed to love one another with the same reckless abandon that God loves us.

Notably, Jesus commands the disciples to love one another (as Jesus loves them) right after the foot washing. It’s this remarkable moment that encapsulates the humility (read: humanity) of God). And then, shortly thereafter, the disciples betray, deny, and abandon God to the cross. 

If the story ended with the cross, none of us would have ever heard about Jesus. But the cross is just the beginning because three days later Jesus is raised from the dead. And not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he returns to the same disciples who failed to respond to the commandment of love!

We worship an odd God. Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of unloving disciples to be the people through whom the world is turned upside down. In short: there is nothing that can ever stop God from loving us.

Therefore, if there is anything truly inclusive about the church it is not our love for one another, but God’s love for us. It is the triune God who opens up the floodgates of grace to wash away our sins. It is the triune God who opens up our eyes to view others in ways we never have before. It is God who opens up the doors of the church to be a new community where strangers now are friends.

The proclamation of the Gospel is that God loves us even though we are what’s wrong with the world. But, at the same time, the Gospel is an adventure in which God’s love actually changes us so that we might begin to love one another. 

Years ago I was asked to preside over the funeral for a man who drove me crazy. He was older than dirt and he treated people like dirt and just about once a week someone from the church would wander into my office in tears because of what the man had said to them.

And then he died.

In the days leading up to his service of death and resurrection I lamented the fact that hardly anyone would be coming. Even though he pushed all my buttons, 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 in my robe ready to begin the service for a small scattering of people when, all the sudden, cars started streaming into the parking lot. One by one church members who had been so wronged by the man during his life paraded into the sanctuary for worship. 

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

To which she replied, “Preacher, don’t we worship the God who commands us to love our enemies? Didn’t you say, just last week, that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died? Don’t the scriptures remind us there is nothing that can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus? Then so be it!”

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

Love one another just as I have loved you – easier said than done. But without love, we have nothing. 

The Living Daylights

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting not he right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

I hid in the tomb for what felt like hours but was only 30 minutes. It was Easter Sunday half of my life ago, and I had been volunteered to participate in the sunrise service. Out on the front lawn was a fake tomb and a fake stone that we set up every year. The idea was that, on Holy Saturday, you would drive by and see the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and then, on Easter Sunday, you would arrive at church to see the stone rolled away like all those centuries ago.

But this particular year the associate pastor had a plan to give the people an Easter they’d never forget. He conscripted me to arrive before everyone else, don an angelic costume, and wait inside the tomb with a fog machine until the perfect moment to proclaim the resurrection. 

So I sat crumpled up in the corner with my cherubic wings folding in on themselves. Neither of us had anticipated how cramped the space would be, not did we think about how difficult it would be to hear my cue from inside the tomb.

Therefore, after the congregation arrived, and the service began, and I heard what I thought was my first cue, I turned on the fog machine and waited to make my dramatic entrance.

But the space filled with the smoke very quickly and I couldn’t see or hear anything. 

I began coughing in the tight space and tried my best to stay hidden until I could no longer stand it and I kicked down the papermache stone and stumbled onto the front lawn.

As the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. Genteel Christian folks were arranged in a semi-circle of fold up camping chairs, the pastor was standing by a podium no doubt only halfway through his sermon, and everyone was starring at me.

I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I certainly looked more like someone who accidentally slept in the tomb overnight than I did an angelic messenger of the Lord.

For the briefest of moments I panicked, unsure of what to say or do. I had memorized a monologue to proclaim but it completely evaporated from my mind. Instead, I shouted “The Lord is risen!” And I ran for my life.

To this day I don’t know what everyone made of that moment. We tacitly agreed to never speak of it, though I’m sure more than a few walked away that Easter afraid.

Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear that first Easter morn. Some say that Mark did not intend to end the gospel in such a way, that perhaps he died mid sentence, or the earliest manuscript was torn in that exact spot, on and on the speculations run wild.

We don’t why Mark ends the Gospel this way, only that the first of us to experience the resurrection walked, actually ran, away from it with fear.

I’ve always found that detail to be rather staggering every time the liturgical calendar comes around. For, in a few hours, most of us will be inside our actual churches with lilies, and pastelcolor outfits, and peppy hymns, and smiling congregants.

Nothing about Easter screams fear.

Except for the strange new world of the Bible. 

It is good and right for us to be here in worship in a cemetery. It’s the same kind of place where the first Easter happened, and it reminds us of the stark promise of salvation. That is, no one ever goes to a cemetery expecting to encounter a resurrection.

We go to cemeteries to commune among the dead.

It’s also good to be here this early, because Easter, resurrection, it happened in the dark.

New life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

In addition to the dead, and the darkness, I think the other reason is is good to be afraid on Easter is because it has little, if anything to do with us.

We aren’t the ones who makes Easter possible. God is the one who makes a way where there is no way, God is the God of impossible possibility, God is the God of resurrection.

It’s why we can call the Good News good.

But if the Good News is in fact, good news, then why do the women run in fear? 

All life ends in death, the bell will toll for us all. How else, then, could anyone respond if the one certainty in life was no longer certain?

Easter confronts us with the scary reality that we aren’t in control, because God is.

That’s a frightening thing to accept because God truth means our obsession with earthly things really amount to nothing. All of the things we fret over most, life, beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, property, even our families cannot hold a flame to the promise of the resurrection. 

Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing God to the cross. And, three days later, he is resurrected.

You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.

Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.

The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining it, it is everything for nothing.

And it just might scare the living daylights out of us.

Easter isn’t perfect. For some it creates more questions than answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and a bit bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. And thats because is shatter all of our expectations about how the world is supposed to work. Easter means everything is changed forever.

The end of Mark’s gospel, this weird and wonderful detail about the women running away in fear, it’s no ending at all. It is the great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women at the tomb, all of us in this cemetery, we are now caught up in God’s great story of salvation. We are here not because of what we’ve done or left undone, but because something was done to us. That something has a name: Jesus Christ.

Hear the Good News: The end has no end.

He is risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed! Amen.

Beauty Will Not Save The World

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Lent is such a strange time in the life of the church. 

Yes, during Advent we re-await the baby born King in Bethlehem, which is bizarre in its own right. The author of the cosmos condescends to dwell among us through the least likely of people in the least likely of places.

But Lent? During Lent we hear about sin and shame – the need to lament and repent. We sing songs about death and crucifixion, we gaze inwardly at our wanton disregard for the good, the true, and the beautiful. 

But Lent, contrary to how we might convey it or even embody it, isn’t really about sin and it definitely isn’t about punishment. It is a time set a part to behold God, so that we might see ourselves and all in things in light of God’s devotion to us. 

In other words, Lent is a strange time of good news because in confronting the truth we are able to do away with falsehoods and trivialities. Looking at the cross, and our complicity in it, gives us the space to admit that nothing is as it should be. 

Just here in our local community we’ve seen, over the last week, an entire apartment complex being forced to vacate into a market where there are no available rentals, a student fired a gun inside a middle school bathroom, and a campsite for homeless people caught fire.

Each of these incidents, sadly, can be attributed to our own sinfulness and selfishness. When we care more about our wealth, our freedom, and our clean streets, than the wellbeing of others, we only further prove that we have behaved badly.

And it’s not even just the headlines that we can read in the paper. Lent, oddly, forces us to come to grips with the fact that even Beauty is not as it should be. 

Beauty cannot save the world, at least not in the ways we want it to be saved. 

Our cultural achievements, our aesthetic sophistications, our programs of spectacular morality cannot deliver us from the evil at work without or within us. 

It’s notable how often the strange new world of the Bible and the tradition of the church warns us about the dangers of beauty; beauty tricks us into believing that all is well when, in fact, all is hell.

Beauty is fleeting and finite, and no matter how hard we try and how much effort we put into things, they cannot save the world.

On Tuesday there was a benefit concert that featured the music of Ed Sheehan, Camila Cabello, and other artists that raised over 21 million dollars for Ukrainian refugees. It was a two-hour live streamed collection of performances during which the myriad array of musicians pleaded for an end to the war in Ukraine waged by Russia. 

21 million dollars is no small feat.

But you know what happened in Ukraine? Nothing.

The bombs kept falling. Cities continued to crumble. And families fled out of fear for their lives.

In Jesus’ prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, he arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party for the Lord and while their kicking back over appetizers, Mary bends down to the floor with a pound of Chanel No.5, pours it out on Jesus feet, and then she wipes them with her hair.

Judas, of course, jumps up from his seat and puts her in her place, “Woman, what’s wrong with you? That perfume is worth $50,000, why didn’t you see it and give the proceeds to the poor?”

Jesus, ever calm, responds to his soon-to-be-betrayer, “Leave her alone. She bought it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”

Its Lent which means, hopefully, we’re all in a space to admit that we agree with Judas. We know we’re not supposed to identify with him, he is after all the one who gives up his Lord, but he has a point. It’s such a waste to pour out the perfume on Jesus feet when it could’ve been used to make the world a better place.

And Jesus’ words are downright offensive, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

C’mon Jesus! Don’t you know being a Christian is about transforming the world? What a waste! Think about what we could’ve done with all that cash!

It’s embarrassing to hear the Lord speak in such a way.

And perhaps embarrassing isn’t the right word. It’s threatening to hear Jesus talk in such a way. His proclamation here to Judas threatens to upend everything we think we know. 

Our world is built on the assumption that whatever ails us can be fixed by us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is good and right for us to dig deep into our wallets and purses to help those in need. We do have an obligation to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. We need to believe in a better world. We need hope.

But we aren’t the hope of the world. If we were then we would not longer need newspapers to tell us what’s wrong in the world because there wouldn’t be anything wrong in the world. 

Remember: some of the most horrific events in human history were done in the name of progress.

Transcendent hope, real hope for things not yet seen, can’t come from us, it has to be done to us. And that kind of hope has a name: Jesus.

The extravagant gift of the perfume poured out by Mary reveals to us that, unlike Judas, she knows that Jesus in the only hope in the world that we’ve got. She, therefore, can do something wild and reckless because she’s recognizes the wonder of the cosmos sitting at her table. She knows that true gifts, like the perfume and the incarnate One, cannot be controlled.

And, though we can’t help ourselves but agree with Judas, we also know (in some way, shape, or form) that Mary is right. We all encounter extravagant gifts that can disappear just as soon as they arrive.

A choir works for hours and hours only to stand up, sing for 4 minutes, and then it’s gone never to be heard again, at least not in that way.

A teacher does the same thing with every lesson just as a preacher does with every sermon.

Flowers are given in honor, love, memory, and respect only to die and wither shortly thereafter.

People like you and me put our money into offering plates week after week.

Even Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to die again in the future.

Why?

Well, love is a strange thing. As is hope. But without them, we are nothing.

Judas rebukes Mary for her waste because she could’ve help the poor. And yet, Judas lacks the vision to see that Mary is helping the poor. She pours out the extravagant perfume on the poorest of all: God in the flesh who condescends to dwell among us. She gives value and worth to the very people that Judas is advocating for.

But Judas has his mind stuck on earthly things – he believes that the only real and important changes can come out of his own goodness and charity. 

Mary, however, has her mind on the divine, she perceives, somehow, that the One sitting at the table is the only One who can ever really make something of our nothing.

Does this mean that we are no bear responsibility for the last, least, lost, little, and dead? On the contrary, this dinner party disagreement is a profound declaration about the role of the church in the world. The world is an absolute mess and yet the church is a constant witness to the value and the worth of those the world throws away like trash. 

Lazarus was dead, wrapped up in a tomb. And Jesus brings him back.

The 5,000 have nothing to show for their faithfulness except the hunger in their bellies and Jesus feeds them.

The 12 disciples abandon, deny, and betray Jesus and he still breaks bread with them and returns to them on Easter.

Wherever the world sees failure and brokenness, Jesus sees value and beauty.

And beauty is a fickle thing. It is often fleeting and wasted. And it will not save the world. But it might make the world a little more bearable. 

Only the world that cannot save itself will be saved by God. And only the beauty that cannot save the world is worth saving at all.

Do you see? In God’s weird and wondrous way, Jesus himself is the nard purchased at a great price, to lavish upon the dying world. As Christ’s body in the world we are called to be symbols of broken beauty for a world that cannot and will not save itself.

We have hope because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet. Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness. Were it up to us alone the world would never ever change. But it’s not up to us – Jesus is the hope of the world.

The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a reminder that, by the end of the week, those feet will be nailed to the cross. Jesus comes into a world that does not request him, nor even want him, because when push comes to shove we’d rather take matters into our own hands.

Or, put another way, when Jesus arrives with proclamations of grace and mercy and forgiveness, with announcements about a new age called the kingdom of God, we nail him to the cross. 

Things are not as they should be. 

No matter how hard we try there will always be more to do. But here’s the Good News: the one thing that needs to be done is already finished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy. Though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon. Though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.

We are freed from the burden of being God. We, like Mary, can do wild and reckless things because Christ is the hope of the world, not us. 

There is nothing beautiful about the cross. It is a sign of torture and death. And yet, for God, it is our salvation. Beauty will not save the world, but God does. Amen.

Welcome Home

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

The strange new world of the Bible is downright scandalous.

I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time in their birthdays suits before they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.

The patriarch of the covenant, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.

David, the handsome shepherd king who brings down the mighty Goliath, orders the death of one of his soldiers after an afternoon peeping session with the aforementioned solider’s wife.

And those are just the first three stories that popped in my mine.

When Jesus shows up on the scene, the scandalous nature of the Good News ramps up to eleven.

He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people. 

In the beginning, Jesus attracts all kids of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last.

But at some point along the way things start to change as do the people who find themselves listening to Jesus.

All the tax collectors and all the sinners come near to listen. The tax collectors are those who profit off their fellow Jews by upping their take for the empire’s pockets. And the sinners, well you can just imagine your favorite sinful behavior, and you can picture them near the Lord.

And so it is the last, least, lost, little, and nearly dead who hang on his every word. Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have at church. Not those who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe and secure. Not the people who have all the powers and principalities at their fingertips.

No. Jesus has all the gall to hang out with the sinners.

And the Pharisees, the good religious observers (people like us), are concerned about the behavior of this would-be Messiah, and so they try to dissuade the crowds: “This Jesus is nothing but bad news! He welcomes sinners into his midst, and not only that, he eats with them! Can you imagine? And he calls himself the Son of God!”

So Jesus does what Jesus does best, he tells them a story.

There’s a man with two sons. The family business has been good to the family. The little corner grocery store is a staple in the community and the family know the names of just about every person that walks through the door. 

And the father is a good father. He loves his sons.

But one day the younger son gets it into his head that he wants his inheritance right then and there. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to buy the farm so he marches into the back office and triumphantly declares, “Dad, I want my share of the inheritance now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.” 

And the father really is a good father, so he decides to divide his assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes out some investments and gives him his half in cold hard cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of his money in Atlantic City. At first he is careful, a few passes at the roulette wheel, a handful of bets at black jack. But the more he loses, the more he spends on booze, girls, and more gambling,

His fall from grace happens so fast that he walks up to the closest pit boss with empty pockets and begs for a job.

“Sure,” the man says, “we’ve got an opening in janitorial services and you can start right now.”

Days pass and the younger son cleans out the trashcans throughout the casino. He’s able to stave off the hunger at first, but he hasn’t eaten in days and one particular half-consumed doughnut at the bottom of the trash can starts to look remarkably appetizing.

And that’s when he comes to himself.

He realizes, there in that moment, that he made a tremendous mistake. Even the employees back at the family grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their heads.

He drops his janitorial supplies and beelines out of the casino while working on a speech in his head, “Dad, I really messed up. I am sorry and I am no longer worthy to be called you son. If you can give me a job at the store I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

He says the words over and over again in his head the whole way home, practicing the lines like his life depends on them.

Meanwhile, the father is sitting by the window at the front of the shop, lazily glancing over the newspaper’s depressing headlines. He can hear his elder son barking out orders to his former employees, and then he sees the silhouette of his younger son walking up the street.

He sprints out the front door, spilling his coffee and leaving a flying newspaper in his wake. He tackles his son to the ground, squeezes him like his life depends on it, and he keeps kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the son says, “Dad, I’m sorry.”

“Shut up boy,” the father roars, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party the likes of which this neighborhood has never seen!”

He yanks his prodigal son up from the asphalt, drags him back up the block, and pushes him in front of everyone in store.

“Murph,” he yells at a man with a broom standing at the end of an aisle, “Lock the front door and go find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got. We’ll start roasting it on the grill out back.”

“Hey Janine!” He yells at a woman behind the cash register, “Get on the PA system and call everyone to the front, and open up some beers while you’re at it. It’s time to party! This son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

And the beer caps start flying, and the radio in the corner gets turned up to eleven, and everyone starts celebrating in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and comparing figures to make sure that none of his employees are swindling him out of his money, and he hears a commotion going on down the hallway. He sees Murph run past the door with what looks like beer foam in his mustache, and what looks like a leg of lamb under his arm, and the elder son shouts, “What in the world is going on?”

Murph skids to a stop in the hallway and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home! And your father told us to party!” And with that he disappears around the corner to get the grill going.

The older brother’s fists tighten and he retreats back to his office chair and to his ledger books.

Try as he might he can’t focus on his work. All he can think about is his good for nothing brother and all of the frivolity going on mere feet away. His anger grows so rapidly that he grabs the closest stack of papers and flings them across the room.

And then he hears a knock at the door.

His father steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles, “Hey, what’re you doing back here? You’re missing all the fun!”

The older son is incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job! I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve been working like a slave for you and you never once threw me a party, you never told me I could go home early. And yet this prodigal son of yours has the nerve to come home, having wasted all your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father sobers up quickly, and maybe it’s the beer or maybe it’s is own frustration, that causes him to raise his voice toward his eldest son, “You big dumb idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve only been working for yourself. Last time I checked, it’s your name on the back of the door, not mine.”

The elder son stands in shock.

And the father continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him the inheritance? Well I trusted you with this, the family business. And what does your life have to show for it? You’re so consumed by numbers and figures, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, all the while you’re chasing some bizarre fantasy of a life that doesn’t exist.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you, ‘But Dad’ me right now, I’m on a roll. Listen! All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that your brother is finally alive again. But look at you! You’re hardly alive at all. There’s a party going on just down the hall and you can’t even bring yourself to have a good time. Well, remember son of mine, complain all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father makes to leave and rejoin the party, but he turns back one last time toward his elder son and says, “I think the only reason you’re not out there cutting up a rug with the rest of us is because you refuse to die to all your dumb rules about how your life is supposed to go. So, please, do yourself a favor, and drop dead. Forget about your life, and come have fun with us.”

The End.

And, of course, we know what we’re supposed to do with the story. 

At times we’re supposed to identify with the younger brother, having ventured off toward a handful of mistakes, and we need to repent of our wrong doings.

At times we supposed to identify with the father, with our own wayward child, or friend, or partner, and how we have to pray for them to come to their senses and receive them in love.

At times we’re supposed to identify with the elder brother, when we’re disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though their rotten.

And just about every time we encounter this parable, whether in worship, Sunday school, or even a book or movie, the same point is made – find yourself in the story and act accordingly.

But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is actually about Jesus.

If it were about us it would certainly have a better ending. We would find out from the Lord whether or not the elder brother decides to join the party, if the younger brother really kept to the straightened arrow, and if the father was able to get his sons to reconcile with one another.

But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we want. We don’t get an ending because that’s not the point.

The point is rather scandalous – no one gets what they deserve and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!

In Jesus’ parable we encounter the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies and is resurrected for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son, we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteousness.

Contrary to how we might often imagine it, the whole ministry of the Lord isn’t about the importance of our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God have a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

That’s what grace is all about. It is the cosmic bash, the great celebration, that constantly hounds all the non-celebrants in the world. It begs the prodigals to come out and dance, and it begs the elder brothers to take their fingers out of their ears. The fatted calf is sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, take off our shoes, and start dancing. 

We were lost and we’ve been found. Welcome home. Amen.