Seeking Welfare

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the difference between lepers and leopards, Halloween costumes, The Christian Imagination, communion vs. colonialism, joyful hymns, Being Disciples, remembering Christ, going to the cross, preaching the whole Bible, and joining the party. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Seeking Welfare

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The Undeserving Leader

A few months ago one of my church members approached me after worship and said, “I think I need to preach a sermon.” I know from experience that if someone feels the Spirit moving, the best thing to do is get out of the way and let it happen so I responded by saying, “What Sunday works for you?” It also helps that I said basically the same thing to my home pastor when I was 16 years old and it played a pivotal role in my own call.

On Sunday, Andrew Kucharuk, a 23 year-old recent graduate of James Madison University, stood before the people of Cokesbury Church and offered this sermon:

Good morning my brothers and sisters in Christ. If you don’t know who I am, it is because at this time of the morning I am normally just now getting up on the weekends as I normally go to the 11am service. My name is Andrew Kucharuk and I have been attending Cokesbury since I was in the 3rd grade… I am now 23 and like Pastor Taylor I also graduated from James Madison University. 

Some of you may be a little bit more familiar with my father Bob Kucharuk, who is fairly active in the church, but if you don’t, that’s okay. Anyways, if you haven’t noticed, this Sunday will be a little different because although Taylor is here today, he is not going to be delivering today’s sermon. Yes, your guest preacher is standing right here in front of you. And while this may be somewhat questionable or maybe concerning, I’m here to assure you that this is not my first rodeo. In fact about 10 years ago, when Pastor Russ was here. I actually had agreed to lead a youth service with the guidance of Robin B. Miller. And yes, I delivered sermon and while it might not have been the greatest, I’m proud to say that I have indeed done one in the past. 

So I hope you all enjoy the message that I have prepared for you all this morning. However, you all may be wondering how exactly I ended up being in this position today and let me tell you, I’m still trying to figure that out myself too! Strangely enough, it feels like just last week when I asked Taylor if I could stand here and deliver a sermon for the congregation. Except it wasn’t! It was about 2 months or a month and a half ago, one day after service I had approached Taylor and I asked him if I could to give a sermon one Sunday. And while he looked at me very calm, cool, and collective pastor-like way and told me yes, I know that deep down inside that he was jumping for joy and screaming hallelujah in his head that one of us from the congregation was willing to take some of the pressure off his shoulders for a week. I mean let’s be honest here, when we were little we all dreaded doing chores and if someone tells you that they want to wash the dishes or that they want to do another chore, you’re not going to tell them no. 

Anyways, I have developed two theories as to what could have inspired me. The first one is definitely a little bit more acceptable and easier to believe as one Sunday, Taylor delivered the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard and I felt the Holy Spirit move me to ask Taylor to do this today. Or on the other hand, Taylor delivered a sermon that just had me shaking my head, leading me to believe that I would do better! Whichever the reason it is, you can keep that your own little secret and I’ll tell you here now that it worked. And in these past two weeks, I have learned a lot. Most importantly, I have learned that leading a church is a not an easy task whatsoever. So with this being said I’d like to take a moment before I deliver my sermon today to thank each and every single person that helps this amazing church amazing, and each and every single one of you that is here today. And now I guess the time I have been waiting for has finally come.

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Initially, when I had accepted this opportunity to preach, I was elated and extremely excited to speak in front of all of you today. Let me tell you it is quite surreal to go from sitting in the pews where you all are sitting to go up here and to be blessed to have all your attention fixated on me. And before I make myself blush, I thought about this Sunday non-stop each and every night past two weeks. I was excited, impatient, and eager as I thought of all the possible messages that I could deliver to you all on this day. However, as I thought about preaching for you all more and more, and the days got closer, I began to become anxious and worried of what exactly I was going to do and what exactly I was going to say. And as I thought about it more and more, I began to doubt myself and my ability to speak and entice my audience. 

Every day when I went to work it was all that was on my mind, as I asked myself what exactly did I sign myself up for? I thought to myself that there was no possible way that I could deliver a sermon. I mean look at me. I am arguably one of the youngest members of this church, I don’t have the wisdom that Taylor or you all possess, I have fallen in and out of my relationship with God more times that I can remember, and most importantly I am an immature as a person and in my faith. And dating to about a month ago, I sat at my desk each day at work as I drafted an email that I was hesitant to send. I drafted an email with some fabricated lie, but in reality and in essence said this: “I’m sorry Taylor I can’t deliver the sermon today because I’m unworthy to this church and I’m undeserving to lead and speak about God’s grace.” 

I had left this in my drafts box of email for about 2 weeks, which was about a month out from this Sunday. Finally, on a Monday morning, I decided I would send the email. Although I would have to live in the guilt and shame of telling a tremendous lie to a Pastor, I was fixated on the idea of being liberated from the shackles of this pressuring responsibility. Unfortunately for me and ironically enough, right before I sent that email… I received an email from Taylor a few hours before thanking me and informing me of passages that I could preach on today. Originally, what Taylor had planned to be preaching on this day was Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28. And I want to quickly read that scripture for you all today.

4:11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow (win-O) or cleanse–

4:12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

4:22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”

4:23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.

4:24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.

4:25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.

4:26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

4:27 For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

4:28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

And boy, let me tell you, after I read this, my stomach dropped as I thought to myself there was no possible way that I could deliver a sermon on this scripture. After I read that scripture from Jeremiah, I was more than sure that I was going to lie to Pastor Taylor and accept that guilt I mentioned before. 

Foolishly enough, I replied and told Taylor, that basically I did not like the message of that scripture; I said this in order to ease him into the lie I was going to tell. Nevertheless, Taylor replied and basically said “no worries, I got some other scriptures for you.” And in a follow-up email, he sent me a list of different scriptures that I could preach on today. And by grace of God, out of all the passages that were presented to me in that list, there was one passage that completely changed my mindset coming into this Sunday, and I hope it can change yours too.

After confirming with Taylor that I wanted to preach my sermon today on 1 Timothy 1:12-17, I began studying and seeking advice from any sources that I believed could help me in my leadership this morning. One of my sources, was an old friend of mine that I met at Ashbury United Church in Harrisonburg, VA during my time at JMU. Anyways, he provided me a book that he thought would be helpful, a book that he had received from another Presbyterian pastor that was given to him when he sought the same advice as me when he too gave a guest sermon. I didn’t really ask too many questions as I thought I needed all the help I could get. Thus, I kindly accepted the book and took it home with me. 

And later that same day I received the book, I opened the book and read the foreword to get an idea of what I was going to get myself into and examine how exactly this book would help me. And in the foreword of this book was an applicable message that I want to read for you all today. The book is titled From Strength to Weakness by Scott Sauls, however the foreword is written by Joni Eareckson Tada. The excerpt reads:

“Now, if I were God, I would do it differently. I’d pick the smartest men and women to be on my strategy team. I’d draft the world’s sharpest millionaires to finance the operation. My public relations people would be the most effective communicators anywhere. Weak people need not apply. Those with physical defects? Forget it. People who might slow down my progress? Never. Thank the Lord that I am not running the world. He’s in charge. And he opens his arms to the weak and ungifted, the unlovely and unlikely. He opens his arms to sinners. It’s because of his great love. It’s also because this is the way God does things to bring maximum glory to himself.” 

After reading this part alone, I shut the book and returned it to my friend. Why? Because I knew that this was all that I needed besides my Bible. When you think about it, this excerpt is very accurate. When you think about all the leaders that are listed in the Bible except for Jesus Christ, there are many who may fit the mold of being a leader by default, but the majority of these leaders were weak and ungifted, unlovely and unlikely, and undeserving of grace in one way or another. And while I thought about focusing the core message around the young Pastor Timothy who I found many similarities with, there was another undeserving leader in the Bible who does not fit the traditional mold of a leader, but fulfills the intentions of God and is saved by His grace. This leader that I am speaking of is the Apostle Paul himself. 

Why focus on the Apostle Paul? Well to give some biblical context to this scripture, 1 Timothy is one of the three last letters that the Apostle Paul wrote… These letters include 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Together, these three letters are known as the Pastoral Epistles in Christianity, as Paul writes these letters to instruct Timothy and Titus in their journey in missionary. 

In 1 Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy as he is given the delegation to correct the false teachers in the city Ephesus. However, if you reread today’s scripture, you will realize that Paul’s message was a self-reflection of encouragement. A self-reflection of encouragement not just written to Timothy but to all of us. Paul in the Bible is a sinner, we know this as he describes himself as a blasphemer and a persecutor in verse 13. This is something that he references over and over as he has not forgotten the actions of his past, persecuting God’s people and resisting God’s will. And when you summarize all this, his following statement in verse 15 makes sense: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost… notice that he does not say I was, but rather I am… and that he remains a sinner before God. That he is chief and guilty of the worst sins.

And while Paul writes and describes himself in this undeserving fashion, there remains this controversy in the New Testament between how Luke describes Paul in the book of Acts and how Paul describes himself in his epistles. Luke writes and portrays this picture that Paul is a man who is highly educated, a man who is comfortable with all different kinds of people, a man who is confident in himself, and most importantly a man who is highly successful. However, if you compare these statements to Paul’s writings mentioned before, you will see another version, a version which is far less than what Luke portrays Paul to be. 

In Paul’s writings, he describes himself to be unsure at times and not always victorious as he struggles with the decisions he makes internally. And although some Christians and/or scholars say that this is a discrepancy… maybe it really isn’t, maybe all it really is, is a matter of perspective. While Luke describes Paul to be this hero and how others see Paul to be this Christ-like figure, Paul describes what he sees when he looks in front of a mirror; a sinner of whom he is foremost. 

Does this sound familiar? It’s like when someone gives you an award that you don’t feel you deserve or when maybe you’ve been recognized for something you didn’t really do. Just like Paul, Paul vividly remembers the harsh reality of his past and realizes that in comparison to God’s greatness and purity, he is nowhere even close; he is imperfect and ultimately he is sinner. 

However, fortunately for Paul, fortunately for myself, and fortunately for each and every single one of you, the story does not end here. Although Paul was a sinner, Paul was a sinner saved by grace. Paul was a sinner saved by grace. Paul does not write this as a person who detached or distant from the faith of the lord, but rather in personal manner. As he states in verse 14 that the grace of our Lord overflowed for me. 

This grace is abundantly poured out for him like the wine in the cup and blood that was shed for not only for him but for us. And even in the previous verse he writes his message in a passive tone that he received mercy. And why is this important? This passive tone implies that Paul wrote this letter knowing he is not the focal point, but rather of how Christ is at work in him and how he is a product of God and grace that saved him. 

Paul did not earn grace nor did he create it. He received in abundance like we all do. It is through this grace, that we can serve no matter how undeserving we may feel, it is through this grace that we are saved, it is through this grace that we can learn to love one another, it is through this grace that we can find the life everlasting. And it was through this grace that I found the courage to speak to you this morning as undeserving as I may be. Amen. 

Grace Is Messy

Jeremiah 18.1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.  

Metaphors can be messy.

And don’t get me wrong, metaphors make the world go round. We use them ALL THE TIME, even without realizing it. Some are obvious, like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And “He has a heart of gold.” We say those thing to imply something about the nature of something using words or descriptions that aren’t real or even possible.

When a big cloud rolls overhead we know that domesticated animals are not going to fall down upon us and we know that if we looked inside the chest of even a truly decent person we’ll find blood and muscle and sinew, not one of the most valuable substances on the planet.

And yet we grow comfortable with metaphors because we use them all the time. But every metaphor has a limit and every metaphor can be messy.

Jeremiah speaks of a vision and moment given to him by the Lord about the potter and the clay. This has been a beloved scriptural metaphor for millennia and communicates a lot about who God is and what God does. Like a potter with clay God knows God’s creation intimately, gently, and purposefully. God desires the best result from the work put in. God shapes and molds exactly the way God wants to.

It’s a good and fine metaphor. Like all metaphors it expresses something with words that help bring about a different or perhaps fuller understanding.

But this metaphor is really messy, in more ways than one.

Here’s the good: God as the potter harkens back to some of the earliest verses in scripture about God forming Adam out of the earth, out of dirt, perhaps even out of clay. We, as the creation of God, are formed and shaped in the image of God to live freely and fully on the earth. 

And, like clay, God’s fingers can smooth out any and all of our imperfections such that by the end of our formation, we are exactly as God intended us to be.

Moreover, God never gives up on God’s art. No matter how much we resist the shaping, God can always leave us out to dry if we are too wet, or add a little more water if we are too dry. God can even smash the clay back into a ball and start all over again if God wants.

But our God, the divine potter, will make beauty of our brokenness.

Sounds good right? 

Well, here’s the bad: God as the potter implies a total control over creation such that if there is something wrong with the world we’re left with a question: Why didn’t God fix it? We, the creation of God, formed and shaped according to God’s purposes, do all kinds of bad and horrible stuff on the regular. And even if we are met with moments of malleability, most of us continue to do things we know we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we know we should. Which means that either God isn’t a very good potter, or God desires us to be bad.

Moreover, the Jeremiah texts makes it abundantly clear that God looks specifically at our wrongness and threatens to bring evil upon us unless we amend our ways. God therefore stops seeming like a potter and instead appears like the divine torturer waiting to bring down punishments until we get in line. 

Metaphors are messy. And every metaphor has a limit. But this is the one communicated to Jeremiah by God, and by Jeremiah to us.

When we read these words, when we imagine God sitting down at the wheel fashioning each of us in our own unique way, it’s hard not to feel like we all need to shape up. The potter has seen our messed up characteristics, our choices, decisions, words, and is going to do whatever the potter can to get something out of our nothing. Which, though it sounds hopeful, is also kind of terrifying. 

It’s terrifying because the potter can destroy the clay whenever the potter wants. So, friends, we need to start behaving ourselves and hopefully prevent the destruction that God is holding over our heads.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, if we don’t fix what’s broken in us, God is going to smash us into oblivion.

Today, if we think about potters, we usually conjure them up in our minds as pensive, kind, and gentle people. My sister is a ceramicist and in her daily life she is nice and loving, but when she sits down at her pottery wheel, she is anything but. She becomes her own force of nature, throwing her whole body weight into the machine and into the clay until something comes out of all the effort. Clay splatters everywhere and she had to construct a make shift wall around the wheel just to make sure clay didn’t fly all over the room.

Working with clay is an inherently messy endeavor. You’ve got to get not just your fingers but your arms and whole body into it. And one false move can bring the whole thing down. If the clay is too dry it won’t move under your fingers, if the clay is too wet the clay won’t hold its shape, if the wheel spins too fast the structure will fall in on itself, if the wheel spins too slow it won’t remain symmetrical. 

And Jeremiah, with this metaphor, speaks to the people of God a word about their clay – they need to fix themselves. And not just themselves as individuals, but as a community. God desires the reshaping of the community such that the community can serve God’s purposes in social, political, and even economic ways. 

And God is gonna get what God wants. God means to shape us in ways that we can barely even imagine and definitely in ways that go way beyond what we typically think about in terms of church maintenance. I mean, does God care about the fact that we just celebrated 60 years as a church? Probably. But does God care about the ways we interact with the community such that everyone can hear the Good News? Definitely.

God works in our lives all the time, drying us out when we’re so soggy with our own self-centeredness, dropping the water of compassion on us whenever we feel alone, or hurt, or afraid. God even uses people like us to be the drying or watering agents for the people around us, both familiar and strange. 

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And God has to do this work over and over again because there is something fundamentally wrong with our clay, with us. We can call it sin, or selfishness, or any other number of things. In this text Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that our clay is messed up because we can resist the hand of our potter. We can choose to align with God’s purposes or we can go against them.

But if you’ve noticed, I’ve already started to shift the metaphor around a little bit. That’s why its so messy. You see, Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, through the threats of destruction, that we’ve got to change the condition of our condition. Jeremiah speaks about the choices being made that affect not only the present but choices that will have consequence in the far and distant future. 

The difference is this: Who is ultimately responsible for shaping the clay? Is it the clay itself, or is it the potter?

Because here’s where the metaphor gets the messiest. If the responsibility is solely on the clay, well then friends, prepare yourselves for destruction. Sure, we can make little changes in our lives, we can try to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body, we can try to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can put a little more money in the offering plate than we did the week before. We can reach out to our literal neighbors and invite them over for dinner. We can volunteer at the local homeless shelter. We can donate canned goods to local food pantries. We can do all sorts of stuff, stuff that will make the world better around us. But at the end of the day, we’re still the same clay.

We will always be sinners in need of God’s grace because that’s who we are. God, in ways that are confounding, chose to make us free. Free to act with God or against God. It is a beautiful and messy gift but one that make life all the more interesting and exciting. We are not puppets being pulled along by some puppeteer up in the sky (another messy metaphor). 

We are dirt. Dirt that has been given life by God.

Should we try to be better and do all sorts of good things? Absolutely. The world would do well to have some more decent acting people in it. But, at the end of the day, we can’t change our clay. Only God can do that. And that’s where the metaphor of the messy potter with the messy clay comes into its fullest. 

God is determined to shape communities whose ways of worship and prayer and life-living bear witness to the redemptive and graceful purposes of God. This isn’t something we can, or have to, do on our own. God is God because God is the one who can always make something of our nothing. God can raise new and beautiful things even out of our ruinous self-indulgent and indifferent practices. 

It’s not up to us on our own, but it’s God who works in and through us to reshape the world around us. God speaks to us through the words of scripture, or a song, or a stranger so that we can start to imagine a new and different world. God uses people and places and things to dry us out or wet us down until we start to spin smoothly on the wheel of the potter. 

Working with clay is messy. If you’re not careful, and frankly even if you are, clay can get everywhere and into everything. It is messy. And so is grace.

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As the unmerited gift of God, grace is given to all regardless of earning or deserving. Which means that grace is there for the best of us and for the worst of us. That’s a ridiculously messy theological proposition! In just about every other part of our lives we make it all about what we’ve done or deserved. We judge people on what job they have or what school they went to or where they go on vacation or what kind of clothes they wear. But in the reality of God’s kingdom, none of those things matter. Grace is given regardless of circumstances. It is not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

At the end of the day, a potter will step away from the wheel covered in the art that was used in creation. Even in the world of messy metaphors there is something beautiful and strange in the knowledge that our divine potter became clay for us in the person of Jesus Christ. 

God was willing to take on exactly what makes us what we are so that the artist and the art would become inextricably tied up with each other, forever.

It doesn’t get messier than that. Amen. 

Church People Are Gonna Church People

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

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Grace Is For Losers

It started out innocently enough – the Tamed Cynic posted a meme with a quote from someone named Robert Farrar Capon: “God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.” I thought it was good and witty, but forgot about it with my continued scrolling through the strange wonders of the interwebs.

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But then I came across his name again, this time being quoted by my friend Joshua Retterer for an episode of Strangely Warmed. I was content to leave Capon among the great list of “Theologians I Know But Don’t Read” but Josh had the nerve to send me not just one of Capon’s book in the mail, but three.

And when I reluctantly opened to the introduction to “The Romance of the Word” I couldn’t put it down.

Fast-forward through the last six months and I’ve read nearly everything Capon published and it has completely ruined my ministry. His absolute insistence on the unwavering commitment to God’s unending and irrevocable grace has sunk deep into the marrow of my belief and I can’t kick it. Try as I might to end my sermons now with a “how to put this belief into practice moment” I can’t get out of my mind Capon’s fundamental claim that “good preachers ought to be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal all their bottles of religion and morality pills, and flush them down the toilet.” Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than all of our preachments, and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is precisely our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place.

And so my preaching has changed, and it has ruined my ministry. It is ruined because all of the cheap moves I made to get people more involved (or worse: feeling guilty about lack of involvement), can no longer stand up to the unwavering claim of the cross.

I’ve been navigating these new waters for the last few months, and I thought I owed it to Jason and Josh to both thank them and castigate them for introducing me to Robert Farrar Capon. And I decided to record the conversation for an episode of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast. If you would like to listen to the episode you can do so here: Grace Is For Losers

And, if you don’t want to listen to the three of us talk about Capon, you can just listen to the first part of the episode and hear the man himself preaching at Duke Chapel in 1988.

We’re All Little Narcissists

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including John Wick 3, theology by the pool, Pauline annoyance, the grammar of faith, Netflix’s Our Planet, the prevalence of idols, cosmic salvation, therapy sessions, and free grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We’re All Little Narcissists

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The Death Of The Party

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…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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