The First Resort

James 5.13-18

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.

I announced the final hymn and we all started singing. 

Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.

But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.

There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.

I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”

And so I did.

Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.

The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.

And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.

An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”

For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.

Going into the ministry only made it worse.

But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.

What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.

James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.

And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort. 

When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?

And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.

Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization. 

But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.

On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.

Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves. 

Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.

And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”

Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying. 

Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe. 

Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible. 

And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.

Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants. 

I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.

To me, this church is an answer to prayer…

The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church. 

But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?

In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.

As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.

Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment. 

Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.

The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…

The 2nd Hardest Parable

Luke 16.19-31

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. Sometimes he thought it was all rather extravagant, the five cars, the jet skies, and now the boat. But, he admitted, it was fun having so many things to play with.

So it came to pass that the man stood in his yard, daydreaming about an expansion to his already expanded garage when he spied his tormentor.

Larry.

Larry stood outside the rich man’s property each and every day, walking back and forth on the grass at the edge of the yard, grass that the rich man paid a small fortune to keep the right length and the perfect shade of green. And there was Larry with his little cardboard sign pleading for money and food. And day after day, people would roll down the windows in their cars, and pass Larry a few dollars, or a spare half-eaten muffin. And it was driving the rich man crazy.

He did everything he could think of to rid himself of the parasitic Larry. He called the police, but they explained that the edge of the lawn actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about Larry’s presence. Then the rich man proposed a new city ordinance banning panhandlers like Larry from asking for assistance, even on public property, but too many do gooders railed against him. The rich man even tried blasting extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive Larry off, but nothing worked.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, Larry drove the rich man crazy.

Until, one day, the rich man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry was gone. His little spot on the corner of the lawn was vacant. The rich man was worried it was too good to be true until he flipped to the obituaries and saw Larry’s picture.

The man danced around his kitchen sliding across the marble floors.

His problem was finally over!

He was so excited, in fact, that he bounced down the hallways in his mcmansion and was about to run into his in-home movie theater to tell his wife the good news when he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell. The flames of fire were lapping all around him and there was nothing he could do to abate the pain. And yet, over the edge of the flame, if he strained his eyes just enough, he could see Larry and he seemed to be standing next to what looked like an angel. 

“Hey!” The rich man shouted while waving his arms, “Could you send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting a little hot!”

The angel replied, “You had good things your whole life. And Larry here, Larry had nothing. Here he is comforted and you are in agony. Also – notice, you can’t come over to us and neither can we come over to you.”

The rich man raised his voice, “Well, the least you could do is send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me.”

“Nope,” replied the angel, “They have the scriptures – they need only trust what they read.”

“You don’t understand!” The rich man screamed, “That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel replied with a rather matter-of-fact tone, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead.”

Here endeth the parable.

Thanks for this one Jesus – the second hardest parable.

The wealthy and the powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor now will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can while you can – Give away your wealth! And, in order to help you help yourselves, I’d like to invite the  ushers to come forward and receive our gifts!

Just kidding.

Sort of…

Plenty of pastors have stood in front of congregations like this and made that pitch/plea/proclamation. I’ve done it too. We’ll take the story of Lazarus and the rich man only to dangle it over the heads of our dozing congregations in order to fill up the offering plates a little more than the week before. And, sometimes, it works!

Guilt can be an incredible motivator.

So can fear.

And is there anything in this life that we are more afraid of, than the question of money, and whether we have enough of it?

For as much as we might like the idea of money never being addressed in church it is a great challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not walk away with the understanding that our relationship with and to money is at the heart of our discipleship.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: It seems that you can’t be wealthy and a Christian at the same time.

Listen – It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The rich young ruler asks Jesus what more he must do and the Lord replies, “Sell all you possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.” Jesus addresses the gathered crowds with, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

And yet, this parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, is is about more than mere money alone. Each and every one of us in this room came of age in a world in which those with the largest bank accounts are considered first, best, powerful, etc. And those with little to no wealth are tossed aside, belittled, or used as a warning to everyone else.

We use money to determine worth beyond money.

This is a parable about power and identity and wealth. 

Which runs counter to Jesus proclamation that the first are last and the last are first.

But that hasn’t stopped us, that is Christians, from leaving behind that particular proclamation all together.

We elevate the wealthy constantly – we are far more likely to elect wealthy politicians than poor politicians, we devour books from supposedly self-made millionaires in hope that the same will happen to us, and we fear offending those with more money than we do those who have the same as us.

And here’s the real kicker: For all of our fascination and obsession and even worship of those with lots of money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: If the world could’ve been fixed by good living and good earning, then everything would be perfect by now.

Or, consider this as an example: In most book stores the largest section is the collection of self-help books. And yet, if those books were true to their genre, we would no longer need them!

Instead of a world better off because of the wealthy, the wealthy achieve and maintain their wealth on the backs of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

In the name of progress, or at the very least “making things better,” the wealthy get and stay wealthy by shunning the sick, locking the poor in poverty, segregating according to skin tone, and we’re now stuck with a world in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.

Jesus starts his parable thusly: There was a rich man who dressed well and ate all the best foods. And at his gate lay a poor man, covered with wounds, who yearned to eat what the rich man threw away in his trash can.

Jesus told that story 2,000 years ago and he just as easily could’ve told it today about people in Roanoke, VA!

Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “Pastor Taylor, do you believe in hell?”

And I’ll say, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it!”

I’ve seen it.

Hell, according to Jesus, isn’t a place God’s sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen and false identities. 

Or, put another way, we spend so much time worrying about whether or not we’ll go to hell when we die that we’ve lost sight of how many people are living in hell right now, and that we can do something about it.

Ourselves included.

But, back to the parable… The rich man finds himself in hell, and he is tormented. But notice, when he first speaks, he doesn’t ask to get out of Hell, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t try to make amends. Instead he asks for Lazarus. Which means the rich man knows the poor man’s name! To the rich man Lazarus is not some nameless homeless and hungry beggar among other homeless and hungry beggars. He knows him by name. And that makes it even worse! Because even in Hell, the rich man doesn’t believe Lazarus is worth his time, or his wealth.

He says to the angel, “Send Lazarus over with some water.” The rich man treats Lazarus like an object, as a means to get something, as the means to better his life, or whatever is left of it. He wants to be served!

Even among the fires of Hell, the rich man can’t see past his own worked up version of himself. He still believes himself better than Lazarus, and more deserving.

Sadly, the rich man never comes to his senses. He expresses concern for his brothers, but it’s as if he’s so stuck in the materiality of things that he can’t fathom any other version of reality.

In short: he refuses to die to his backward notion of how things work according to the Lord.

And in the kingdom of God, the Gospel can only make alive those whom the law has killed. The little “l” laws that tell us who we are supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do and what we’re supposed to earn. Only when we die to the never-ending demands of the law, what the world tells us to be, can the Gospel set us free.

In the end, this is a scary parable, and it’s the 2nd hardest parable that Jesus tells. And sometimes it’s good to be frightened by God. And in this story what’s most terrifying isn’t the fire and the flame, it’s the way Jesus ends it. He ends it with a warning that we can believe more in the worth of material things than we believe in what God finds worth in.

Jesus suggests, through the parable, that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the rat race of life, in our possessions and bank accounts and social media presence, that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctible. Jesus came simply to be the resurrection and the life for those who need all the help they can get. Namely: all of us. 

Notice: Jesus does not begin the story with a disclaimer that this is exactly what will happen to every rich and every poor person, nor does he command the listeners to “go and be like Lazarus” as a conclusion.

Oddly enough, then, it seems as if Jesus is saying that it is possible to be wealthy and a Christian at the same time. However, if the pursuit of power and the accumulation of wealth is more important and constitutive of our identity than the free gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, then our lives are liable to be miserable.

There will always be more to earn, and enough will never ever be enough.

Some might even call that hell. 

But there is Good News. The Good News is that no matter what the world might tell us it takes to win, no matter what we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already done. All of our sins, past, present, future – they are nailed to Jesus cross and we bear them no more.

The only thing we *have* to do, is trust that it is true. Amen. 

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. 

A Crucial Eccentricity

Psalm 113.2

Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

The writer, novelist, preacher, and theologian Frederick Buechner died on August 15th at the age of 96. His works attracted those inside and outside of the church and in the wake of his death countless tributes were made on his behalf. Among his remarkable books and witness to the faith, there is one longish quote that has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it: 

“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. But not so with grace for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace; there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life, you might never have been, but you are because the party would never have been complete without you. Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It is for you that I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch: like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

The passage has come to my mind a lot recently, not only because of Buechner’s death, and not only because “grace” really is such a unique word, but also because he describes grace as a good sleep and it’s been more than a month since I’ve had a good sleep! (I’ve been on paternity leave for a month; Phoebe Wren Mertins was born August 19th, 2022) Nevertheless, Buechner’s willingness to take a “stained glass word” and bring it down to earth is, I think, one of the most important hermeneutical tools in the church today. Therefore, I had decided to offer my own spin on the prompt “Grace is…”

Grace is driving to the hospital in the middle of the night while your wife is in labor, and every person goes out of their way to make sure she makes it straight to the delivery unit. It’s nurses telling us to stop apologizing for the things we need. It’s lactation consultants and pediatricians and doctors who bend over backward to show love and patience during a decisively impatient time. Grace is coming home from the hospital to countless cards and notes from friends and strangers alike rejoicing in the arrival of our daughter. It’s food being delivered to the door and dismissing hand movements every time we try to express our gratitude. Grace is the delivery of various gift cards to grocery stores and restaurants just to make the first few weeks a little easier. It’s the way grumpy old men make fools of themselves when they see you walking around the block with a newborn baby in your arms. It’s the curiosity of wide-eyed children leaving school seeing such a tiny little person and realizing, in some way, they used to be that tiny too. Grace is returning to work after a month with nothing but gratitude and excitement. Grace is waking up in the middle of the night over and over again for yet another diaper change, only to turn the lights on and see your daughter smiling at you. 

Grace is God’s disposition toward us and we cannot earn it or deserve it. The only thing we have to do is reach out and accept it. And once we do, it truly is the difference that makes all the difference. 

God Only Knows

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including baseball hats, Yellowstone, the theology of art, iconography, clay, patience, the posture of prayer, The Brothers Zahl, sacred worth, hymnody, familial hatred, and the depth of the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Only Knows

Faith Doesn’t Paint Houses

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. 

We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.

Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.

Consider this church for a moment…

At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church. 

That had hope for things not yet seen.

They had hope for us.

Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.

I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.

Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.

We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.

And that’s faith.

Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.

But what is faith?

Better put, what makes faith faithful?

I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!

What is faith?

Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.

Faith is a possible wordle answer.

Faith is what keeps me going.

Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.

Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.

Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.

Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.

Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.

It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews. 

Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God. 

Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. 

Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his. 

What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.

It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out. 

I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”

“What’s a church?”

And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”

And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”

From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.

Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears. 

We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.

It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.

It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.

And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in. 

Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”

There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.

I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.

Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.

The only thing you have to do, is receive it.

Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.

Faith is merely a way of being.

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.

Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.

But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.

Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”

Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.

“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”

And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.

Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.

And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”

So what can you do?

You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.

So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.

But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.

Do you see? Faith doesn’t do anything.

Faith doesn’t paint houses. Painters do. Faith doesn’t fix the deck. Carpenters do.

Faith isn’t some special gadget that makes the impossible possible. Faith is just a trust in a person who can actually makes the impossible possible.

Faith doesn’t save us. Jesus does. 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.

Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

The New Economy Of Grace

Genesis 37.1-8

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dream. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

It is a strange thing to share the dreams we dream with others. To us, they feel so very real even though, as soon as we wake, we know they aren’t. And yet, more often than not, moved by a particularly imaginative vision, we will tell others of what we have seen and experienced knowing full and well that, most of the time, it means absolutely nothing to the people we tell.

There’s a better than good chance that each of us here have had at least one dream that left us mad at someone because of what they did in our minds even though they did nothing in reality.

How odd.

And yet, how true to our human nature!

Listen – Jacob, Israel, settled in the land of his father, Isaac. Contrary to the controversial beginnings of his life, he eventually grew to have a large and prosperous family. Among his many children, Joseph was his very favorite, and Jospeh was a dreamer.

The parallels in scripture are often quite staggering. 

Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching into the heavens, a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. 

Joseph has a vision of his brothers bowing to him.

Jacob’s story culminates in his reconciliation with his brother Esau.

Joseph’s tale concludes with his brothers as well.

And yet these two biblical figures could not be more different. Jacob is selfish, Joseph is kind. Jacob runs away from his problems, Joseph walks straight into them. Jacob throws his life away, and Joseph, himself, is the one thrown away.

Joseph, baby of the family, dreams of sheaves in a field bowing to him, he has visions of his family relying on him for their deliverance. And it would be enough just to have these dreams, but Joseph has the bright idea to share his dreams with his brothers. His brothers already despise him because their father loves him most of all and even gives him the gift of a coat with long sleeves.

Why?

Scripture says that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, but we also know that Joseph is one of the only two children from Rachel, Jacob’s first love and second wife.

Notably, Jacob is one who has experienced the divine inversion that runs rampant in scripture as he was elevated over his brother Esau (by his own heel-grabbing tendencies). Jacob’s preference for Joseph runs against all propriety at the time, and against the established norms. His love upends everything the family thinks they know about how things are supposed to work, which is something God seems to do all the time.

This tale is a foretaste of how, throughout the rest of this strange book, God will often choose the youngest and weakest for honor and leadership. It is a strange and new economy of grace.

The brothers hear out their baby bro’s vision and they decide, with a solid eleven voting members, that they can no longer live with the dreamer. Ten of them want him dead, but the eldest, Reuben, convinces the others to merely throw him in a pit instead.

Reuben, inexplicably, leaves the scene and the remaining brothers spy an approaching caravan and the decide to sell Joseph into slavery. 

*Netflix*

This is a strange and bewildering tale, even among the wild new world of the Bible. The final quarter of Genesis is devoted to this one person and his tale. The themes that follow have been made manifest of countless other stories: exile, hiddenness, the hero’s journey, riches to rags and rags to riches, drama, mystery, and hope. 

As Joseph disappears into the horizon, his brothers take his aforementioned not actually technicolor dream coat, and they dip it in fresh blood to convince the rest of their family, and their father in particular, that Joseph is dead. 

And, to be frank, he might as well be dead. He is completely cut off from his family, from the land of his birth, and from the story of God’s people. He travels as a slave to be a stranger in a strange land without any hope in the world, without his father’s love, and without his special jacket.

Jacob responds to the news of his favorite son’s death by ripping his own coat and vows to live a life of mourning until the day that he, himself, dies.

So, why is it that Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit of enslavement? 

Those of us with brothers and sisters know, first hand, the strangeness of siblings. We know of the tensions and the pains and the jealously that can be all too present within a family. But, the kind of domestic squabbles we might be familiar with are a far cry from what happens here in Genesis.

Why is it that when God comes to dwell among us, we nail God to the cross?

Why is it that, when they hear of their brother’s dream, the sons of Jacob sell Joseph into slavery?

Joseph, now a slave, is sold to to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, a man named Potiphar. A truly wild narrative ensues that is worth its own sermon series, but for the sake of today it is enough to know that his time there ends with his arrest.

And, it comes to pass that while he is in prison, Pharaoh has a set of experiences that require someone who can interpret dreams. The dreamer from the shackles of slavery and imprisonment has earned a reputation for interpretation, and is called before the throne. Pharaoh shares his dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows but don’t grow in size, seven good ears of corn are consumed by seven withered ones. 

What does it mean Joseph?

The dreamer tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest and seven years of famine, therefore someone is needed who can store up a surplus during the good years and distribute it during the years of scarcity.

And who does Pharaoh call upon for this task?

Joseph.

The dreamer is freed from slavery, given a wife, and the total authority in Egypt. And, when the times comes, his interpretation is proven correct and he saves the nation into which he was sold as a slave.

There’s a version of this story that ends right here. From riches to rags and back again. This would be a good place for the credits to start to roll. But God has another ending in store.

The famine that strikes Egypt is so bad that even the surrounding areas are suffering. So much so that Joseph’s family is stuck in destitution and are in need of deliverance. The brothers are commanded by their father to seek out help in the foreign land and when they travel to Egypt they beg for food from their brother though they do not recognize him. 

Not only do they beg for compassion, they literally bow down to him, bringing his earlier dream to fruition. 

There is great tension in the ensuing narrative with Joseph going back and forth with requests and demands from his brothers who still do not know his true identity, and it all culminates during in a moment in which, scripture says, Joseph could no longer control himself, and he reveals the truth.

He weeps so loudly in the moment that everyone in the entire palace hear his cries. And his brothers are terrified. Rightly so.

They deserve judgment and they are about to get it. 

But instead of rejecting his brothers just as they rejected him, Joseph embraces them, he literally falls upon them and he covers them with tears and kisses. The scene is staggering. They offer to become his slaves for what they had done, but instead Joseph forgives his brothers, he loves them, and he urges them not to be angry with themselves. 

They are invited to live in Egypt and even Jacob travels to the strange land where the entire family is reunited and reconciled. 

Joseph does for his brothers what they don’t deserve at all. They come to Egypt with no hope in the world, and the only one who can do anything for them is the one they did everything to. They offer to becomes slaves to the one enslaved and he, instead, offers them a freedom they never could have imagined. Not only are they free to thrive and eat and live, they are freed from the shame and guilt of what they had done.

In short, they are given grace.

I arrived at Alta Mons this week tasked with being the chaplain for all of the campers and all of the counselors. After breakfast we would gather for morning watch during which we would sing songs together and talk about how to keep an eye out for what God might be up to during the day and after dinner we would gather around a campfire for worship during which we would talk about how we had experienced God during the day.

Throughout the week we covered themes like the body of Christ and how each of us are a part of it, the new beloved community, and grace. Asking the kids to define grace was delightful. One of them told me, “grace is what you do before you’re allowed to eat,” and another said, “I don’t know what it is but I do know that it’s amazing,” and still yet another said, “grace is loving someone even if they don’t deserve it.”

And when I asked why God offers us grace, the young theologian Caleb Anderson replied, “God’s built different, that’s straight facts.” 

The first night of camp, the kids all sat and stood awkwardly around one another as they navigated the strangeness of being forced to hang out with a bunch of relative strangers in the woods for a week. And over the following days I witnessed joy and laughter and the bonds of new friendship but I also saw disagreements, and frustrations, and deep sighs and hair flips. 

But on our final night, as we sat around the campfire and I told them about Jesus’s final night, as I prayed over the bread and the cup and we all shared communion with one another, I saw tears and hugs. I watched and listened to kids sing songs about Jesus, a few of whom who have never darkened the doors of a church. I experienced campers giving love and receiving love without expectation of reciprocation.

In short, I saw grace.

On the day of Easter, resurrected from the grave, still bearing the marks of the cross, Jesus returns not to the best and the brightest and the most faithful. Instead, he returns to those who abandoned him. He loves them, even to the end. 

In the kingdom of God the new economy of grace is weird. It is everything for nothing. It is forgiveness, and mercy, and love. It is Good News for people drowning in bad news.

If Joseph was willing to forgive his brothers after all they had done, if Jesus was willing to return to his disciples who abandoned him and denied him, just imagine what we can do with the new economy of grace. 

It could be amazing. Amen.

What’s In A Name?

Genesis 32.22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

The strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, quite strange.

It constantly subverts our expectations, no matter how many times we come to it. It reveals things about ourselves that we didn’t even know about ourselves. And it points to an ever-present reality that runs counter to how we think the world works.

Listen – Jacob is the worst.

We all know that plenty of figures from the scriptures have problems – nobody’s perfect. But Jacob? Jacob is a loser.

Prior to his birth Jacob wrestles his twin brother Esau in the womb, a perfect foreshadowing of his life to come. 

And when Esau is born, he comes out with his twin brother grabbing at his leg, so his parents name the second-born Jacob, which means heel-grabber. 

What kind of name is heel-grabber?

Jacob, hustler, scoundrel, liar, cheat, fool, faithless son of Isaac and Rebekah.

Long story short:

Two decades before the infamous battle royal on the banks of the Jabbok river, Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright. 

Esau comes in from the field, having hunted and collected food for the rest of the family, and with hunger he asks his brother for some red stew from the stove. Does Jacob willingly hand it over to his twin brother knowing full and well that the firstborn contributes more to his wellbeing than the other way around? No. 

Jacob prepares the plate, lets the scent waft in front of his brother’s nose, and says, “I’ll give you this only if you give me your birthright in return.”

And Esau, famished from working for the family, willingly agrees. After all, what good is a birthright in comparison with the deep hunger of your belly?

But it doesn’t stop there.

Later, Isaac in his old age, eyes weary and poor of sight, near death, asks for Esau to come and to receive his blessing, AKA his inheritance. Isaac wants to pass on all of his wealth to his eldest twin son. 

Esau, come bring me some of my favorite food that I might hand over the goods.

But the heel-grabber is quick to act. 

He walks in with the aforementioned food, and boldly lies to his father. He covers himself in fur to appear harrier like his brother. He leans forward to receive the kiss that conveys it all, and takes it without remorse.

For what it’s worth, that’s three of the ten commandments broken in as many verses.

Esau’s fury in response to his heel-grabbing brother heel-grabbing his blessing leads Jacob to flee for his life. 

Jacob becomes a stranger in a strange land, wandering about, and during this time he has a dream, a dream from God. In the dream there is a ladder stretching up into the heavens, angels are going up and down, and the Lord says, “Jacob, know that I am with you and I will never leave you.”

Which, considering what happened and what’s about to happen sounds more like a threat than a promise.

When Jacob wakes from the dream he sets up an altar to the Lord and he is afraid. 

His fear leads him to prayer. Does he pray for forgiveness? Does he offer the Lord a contrite heart?

No. He bargains with the divine: “Lord, if you will stay with me, and keep me, and make sure that I have food to eat and clothing to wear, then you can be my God.”

Jacob encounters the divine through the dramatic vision of the ladder, is still no better than he was before! 

Soon, Jacob has nowhere left to go. Esau’s fury remains on the back horizon. So he reaches out to his uncle, Laban, who takes him in, provides the food and shelter that Jacob demanded from God. Jacob meets Rachel, bargains with Laban to marry her, works seven years, and then, on his wedding night, is duped by his uncle into consummating the relationship with Leah, Rachel’s sister.

More bargaining ensues, and with another 7 years of labor he is finally granted the wife he wanted from the beginning.

Soap operas aren’t even this good. But wait, there’s more!

After 14 years of labor, and after receiving untold wealth and wives, Jacob returns the hospitality of his uncle turned father-in-law by cheating him out of his wealth hiding away the best of the livestock for himself.

Again, not to make too fine a point of it, that’s a few more commandments broken.

Jacob is a no good dirty rotten scoundrel. He runs from all his problems all while making more problems for himself and his family. He’s a liar, and a thief, and a cheat. There’s nothing holy about this heel grabbing son of a, Isaac. 

Why then do we read of this man and his wandering heart? Why do we lift these verses from the strange new world of the Bible and say, “Thanks be to God”? Why does God promise to remain with Jacob even though he has nothing to show for his so-called life?

Because Jacob isn’t his real name.

On the run from his mistakes, from his failures, and perhaps even from himself, Jacob catches wind that Esau is looking for him. So he divides up his family and all of his possessions, assuming that at least half will make it to safety. And, all alone, he sleeps by the bank of the Jabbok river.

A strange figure appears in the middle of the night. Perhaps the consequences of his actions made manifest in the flesh. They wrestle until the sun begins to rise. The stranger knocks Jacob on the hip, dislocating it forever, and demands for the fight to end. Jacob refuses, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Still looking for blessings.

“Who are you?” The figure asks.

“My name is Jacob.”

“No it’s not,” the stranger replies, “Your name is Israel because you have striven with God and humans and you’ve made it to the other side.”

Israel then returns the same question to the nighttime wrestler, “Who are you?”

But he receives no answer. And as mysteriously as the figure arrives, he disappears. 

Israel names the place Peniel, which means the face of God, because in the wrestler he met the divine.

The morning comes and Israel sees Esau coming, with four hundred men flanking him on the right and left. Israel goes ahead and bows to the ground seven times until he stands before his brother.

And Esau runs forward and tackles his good for nothing brother to the ground and finally exacts his revenge. And yet, instead of pummeling him with punches, Esau embraces his twin brother and covers him with kisses and tears. 

The end.

What a strange tale.

Jacob, Israel, is deeply flawed learns nothing except for the fact that he deserves nothing and receives everything. We read his story, we can call it Good News, because grace prevails! 

His actions catch up with him, all of the hurt and all of the pain. He is caught and there is no escape. And only then is he known fully for the first time, and is loved. 

Here, at the end, after a life of failure and betrayal, vulnerable and at his brother’s mercy, he discovers an acceptance which he never could have earned or deserved.

Which leads us backward, slightly. Decades before the battle royal at the river, long before he had a taste of forgiveness, Israel had a vision, a dream, of a ladder extending into the heavens. Israel knows, after all is said and done, that God is indeed at the end of that ladder, but more importantly he knows that the Good News, the gospel, is not that God is up there waiting for him to journey up – instead God comes down to meet him where he is.

And he has the scars to prove it.

The Good News of the Gospel for Israel, for each and everyone of us, is that God meets us in the midst of our sins, not our successes.

For some reason we’ve got it stuck in our heads that, like Jacob, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game we call life. We’ll deceive our parents, lie to our spouses, betray our families. We’ll dig deep pits from which we can’t escape all while thinking we’re getting better and better and better. We’ll make horrible decisions and choices all in the name of progress.

But the life of faith isn’t about how we need to get good for God.

It’s about how God comes to us.

And God’s been doing it since the beginning.

From “Adam, Adam, where are you?” To a midnight brawl at the river to the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, God comes to us.

And when God comes to us and we expect to be clobbered with guilt, we actually get clobbered by grace.

Years ago, at a different church, I was sitting in my office one day, day dreaming about a sermon, when an older parishioner barged in through the door. She was older and getting on in years, but she had this youthful glow that I had never seen.

She shouted, “Preacher you are never going to believe what happened to me.”

My favorite stories always start like that.

So without saying a word I mentioned for her to continue.

“Well you know how you keep preaching about forgiveness? Well, I don’t know what came over me, but I finally decided to tell my husband that I cheated on him.”

“What?” I blurted out as I fell out of my chair.

“It was 30 years ago, and it was only once, but I never told anybody. So after we drove home from church last Sunday and as soon as we walked into the house I told him the truth about what I’d done and with whom and when.”

“What does this have to do with forgiveness?”

“That’s just the thing! I told him all I had done and I waited for him to start hooting and hollering and raising hell. All he said was, ‘I know you cheated on me, and I forgave you a long time ago.’ The nerve of that man. Here I am, carrying this guilt around all these years, and he forgave me long ago. Can you believe it?”

Can you believe it?

This story captivates our hearts and minds because it doesn’t end according to the way it is supposed to. Any good consumer of tales knows that Jacob is supposed to get his comeuppance; whether by violent revenge from Esau, or judgment from God almighty. He is nothing but a loser through and through.

But grace works for losers and only losers.

You know, people like us.

No matter how hard we try, and try hard we do, we can’t save ourselves, we can’t make ourselves right. We can try, and we can make a heck of a mess along the way, but the Lord has a way of reminding us, all of us, that we are not as we ought to be, that we’re up the creek without a paddle. We do nothing and we deserve nothing, and yet God forgives us anyway. Can you believe it?

The story of Israel, of the forgiven heel-grabber, reminds us that God comes to us in our weariness and woundedness. God, ultimately, rules not from a throne of glory, but from the arms of the cross. God’s power is revealed in the weakness of Christ, and God’s grace comes to us in our weakness. 

We don’t have the strength, nor do we have the power, to save ourselves. We are as helpless as Jacob, hobbling around with our hips out of joint. We can run away as far as we can for as long as we can, but one day God will catch up with us. God will grab hold of us. And God will tell us who we really are.

What kind of name is Israel? It means we have striven with God and one another and we’ve made it to the other side. Amen.