The Main Thing

John 10.11-18

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will life to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

I was on vacation with my extended family and decided that, as a pastor, I should still probably go to church on Sunday morning. I googled “nearby United Methodist Churches,” picked the one with the least bad website, and announced my intention to the family. When Sunday morning arrived, the only takers I had for church were my sister, my son, and myself.

So we loaded into the car and left everyone to sleep in on Sunday morning as we prepared to worship the Lord in glory and splendor.

The church was beautiful, situated right in the middle of town (a town that will remain unnamed for reasons soon to be proclaimed), and when we pulled into the parking lot we were immediately greeted by a cheerful older couple dressed in their Sunday best.

Our little trio ascended the stairs leading into the sanctuary and were immediately bombarded by two things: an oppressive wave of heat wafting from the chancel area, and a slew of congregants who could sense fresh blood in the water.

Regarding the former: the AC had apparently died and the design of the sanctuary trapped  the summer heat inside and we were to be treated to a sauna-like atmosphere for the service.

Regarding the latter: I couldn’t blame the church folk. Here we were looking like a new little family in town and they were all so happy to see people they’d never seen before.

And in that briefest of moments I had a choice. Well, I had a few. I could’ve grabbed my son and sister and made for the nearest exit so that we could find a church that had their air conditioning running. But seeing as I am a pastor, I felt that a tad impolite. Which brings me to the main choice I had: To share, or not to share, my vocation.

There’s something that happens when a pastor attends another church – people become, as my grandmother says, beside themselves. They want to pull out all the stops, and find you the best pew in the house, and they want to be their very best.

Why?

I’m not sure.

It’s not as if, as a pastor, I would ever come back on another Sunday. I have a job that requires me to be in a particular place at a particular time nearly every Sunday of my adult life.

Nevertheless, I had to choose. And, seeing as I was on vacation, I decided to truly rest, and allow the congregation to rest, and when the first person stepped forward to shake my hand, he sure enough asked what I did for a living. I opened my mouth to say something about being a librarian, or construction worker, or being a mid-tier manager at a sufficiently boring data company when my son, all of three years old at the time, stepped right in front of me and yelled, “I’m Elijah and this is my dad. He’s a pastor!”

And so it began.

15 minutes later, having received a tour that included a forgotten church library, three sets of bathrooms, and a hallway filled with more pamphlets than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, I found myself sitting in what I was assured to be the best pew in the sanctuary, next to my sister and son and the three of us were completely drenched in sweat.

We stood for the appropriate hymns, we bowed for the requisite prayers, and finally we sat back for the sermon.

I love listening to other people preach. It is so much of what I do after all, and I don’t get to hear a lot of preaching, so I settled in to hear what God had to say through this particular preacher.

The text was John 10 – I am the good shepherd.

The preacher wax eloquently about John’s gospel in general, and the importance of the various I am statements (I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the way, the truth, and the life). The preacher made various allusions to Exodus 3 when Moses encountered God as the burning bush who declared I Am Who I Am.

It was all well and good, until it wasn’t.

The preacher was wrapping up the homiletical insights and ended with this: “Jesus is the good shepherd who watches out for the sheep. All of you out there are the sheep. You don’t know what to do and what not to do which is why you need Jesus. But I am neither shepherd nor sheep. I, as the pastor, am the sheep dog. Now I know that John doesn’t mentioned the sheep dog but I’m sure that he just forgot to write that part down. As the sheep dog my primary responsibility is to keep all of you in line. I will nip at your legs to make sure you know what you can and can’t do, where you can and you can’t go. So let me do my job.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen?

The church universal has traditionally observed this, the 4th Sunday of Easter, as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, four different texts assigned for each Sunday, today is all about shepherds and sheep from both the Old and New Testaments.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the perfect “life after Easter” message – Jesus returns to us, Jesus finds us, and Jesus will never let us go.

We are given an assurance from the Good Shepherd, just on the other side of rejection and resurrection, that we are loved, that we are cared for, that we matter not based on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does for us. 

Which, to be clear, is rather counter to what I heard on vacation.

Consider the sheep: The sheep cannot do much of anything for themselves or their situations. The only thing sheep can do, really, is follow. And even that can be a trying endeavor. And when a sheep is lost, it is, for all practical purposes, a dead sheep. The only hope a lost sheep has is being found by the shepherd.

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tell us exactly what he will do, how far he will go, to save a bunch of dumb sheep who can’t do anything for themselves. 

Jesus, to put it simply, does it all.

Jesus gets all the good verbs in scripture and yet, in Christian preaching, he often feels like an after-thought. But Jesus, even here, warns us about that possible proclamation! The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away! Jesus is rebuking religious leaders then, and now, who neglect the people of God. 

Do you see? Discipleship is all about the admission of our condition – we’re sheep; we are dead in our sins. It is all about coming to grips with the fact that we have no power to save ourselves or to convince anyone that we are worth saving.

Consider – More than 18 million children in the US live in food insecure homes. 

For the first time since the 1960’s life expectancy in the US has gone down. 

And, while people celebrated (or lamented) the conviction of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd last year, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a 16 year old girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.

I could go on and on.

We truly are sheep without a hope in the world unless we have a shepherd who is willing to do for us that which we cannot do on our own. 

Thankfully, that’s exactly what we get in Christ Jesus.

God in Christ finds us in the desert of death, not in the garden of progress. God meets us right smack dab in the middle of our sins, not in the triumph of our accomplishments. 

The life of faith is predicated on recognizing how lost we are, how our lives really are out of our hands, how if we will ever really live again it will entirely be the gift of some gracious shepherd who delights in putting us on his shoulders and carries us home.

We can call the Good Shepherd a good shepherd because while the hired hands run away at the first sign of danger, or puts all sorts of unhelpful (and unattainable) expectations on us, Jesus remains steadfast. And (!) Jesus does not merely care for the sheep within reach, but also gathers the whole flock together! 

For all of the talk in the church today about inclusion (open hearts, minds, doors), the most inclusive claim of the Gospel is that Jesus came to save sinners, which includes each and every single one of us!

And that’s the most important part of whatever this thing is that we call church – its about proclaiming God’s grace imputed to sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. If that’s not the beginning, middle, and end of everything we do, then we’re not really doing anything.

But, instead of making that profound proclamation, we are far more likely to be consumed by sheep dogs nipping at our legs both inside, and outside, the church. We hear it from pastors, politicians, pundits, and everyone in between. Things like: You need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, thinking globally, don’t drink so much, practice mindfulness, inclusiveness, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, on and on and on.

And, all of things are good and fine, we probably should start doing that stuff – but they are not where we begin. If those things are anything, they are a response to what God has already done. 

A Bishop, from another denomination (thankfully), used to be in charge of recruiting for a seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to lead the church and he would end every single interview the same way, with a role play. He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now, tell me why I should go to church…”

Every single person, throughout the years, would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.” Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. But the Bishop would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.” Then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

He recruited for years and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the musical prodigies. Church may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus.

For the church today, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. We might think the main thing is convincing other people to adopt our positions on social issues. We might think the main thing is making sure that everyone falls asleep at night with a full belly. We might think the main thing is putting on the greatest performance in the world every single Sunday. But those are not the main thing.

The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified. The main thing is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, born to dwell among us. The main thing is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who never ever stops tending to the sheep.

Friends, the only thing we’ve got that other group don’t, is Jesus Christ and him crucified, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; for us! 

People can get everything they need, except Jesus, from other places and other people. And they might even be better at that stuff than we are. 

But we’re in the Jesus business. That is: we are here to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all that we’ve wronged, that we are love in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be loved, and that, and the end of all things, we know how the story ends because we know Jesus Christ. Amen. 

To The End

Psalm 41.4-10

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them. 

John 13.1, 12-20

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.

And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either. 

So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.

We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”

In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.

Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”

All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.

When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.

The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.

John, however, takes the scene a little bit further. 

While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist. 

Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:

“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”

Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable. 

Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another. 

And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us

We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first. 

We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.

Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”

In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.

This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.

Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.

And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.

Including Judas.

Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.

But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday. 

Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.

A Hoped For Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope

Psalm Sunday

Psalm 118.20-25

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Mark 11.9-11

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads on Sunday morning, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in coughing fits among the people of God.

Or, the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal who carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received the best comment of all time: “You’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.” Only the person used a different word for donkey…

Or, there was the one Palm Sunday when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches singing their “hosannas” only to begin smacking each other in the faces until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and then muttered a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these children.”

And I think preachers like me enjoy re-telling those stories because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather perplexing. 

To put it another way: It’s easier to tell a cute or funny little story than it is to come to grips with the Lord of lords entering into the city that will ultimately hang him on a cross.

Or still yet, to put it another way: We’d rather hear something about ourselves when Jesus crosses the threshold to the seat of empire instead of admitting that this story has little, if anything, to do with us.

Of course, it’s only natural to present Christianity as a way to help people obtain whatever it is they think that need to have in order to make their lives more livable. 

Feeling afraid? Come to our church and listen to our sermon series on handling anxiety.

Lonely? You’ll discover that we’re just the friendliest church in town.

Hurt by the church? Don’t worry, we practice open hearts, minds, and doors here!

All of that centers around attraction and it’s how we advertise the church. Just scroll through Facebook, or drive around town, and you are liable to see those very slogans adorning what we call God’s holy church.

And, to be clear, they are true.

There is something about the church that is designed to comfort the afflicted, to give us the words and phrases and images to make sense of so many senseless things.

There is something about the church that is designed to rid the world of the insipid disease of loneliness – we are a community of people who share one thing in common, namely Jesus Christ.

There is something about the church that is designed to rectify the wrongs of the past while casting visions of a new and a different future.

Those things are all true, but they’re only true to a point.

Because, when all is said and done, friendliness, peace, hospitality, they are not the chief reasons for the church.

The church is the body of Christ in motion. The Church is Jesus’ presence in the world. And Jesus belongs to himself, not to us.

Let me put it this way: We don’t lead the church – we follow Jesus.

Now, I don’t know what you know about Jesus, or how he’s met you along the road of life and opened your eyes to things you never saw before, or how he found you when you needed him most. But I do hope you know how much Jesus delights in calling losers and failures to be the instruments of his mercy and grace. 

The great gift of the church is that God in Christ makes our lives far more interesting than they deserve to be.

You see, Christianity is neither a religion nor a club nor a civic organization – Christianity is an adventure.

It gives us a story when we had no story, it breaks us free from the monotony of life, and, perhaps most importantly, it proclaims to us the truth:

At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly – while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Which in the end, is what makes church so exciting. Like with Jesus, we never know what’s going to happen next. The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, directing our attention toward that which we usually miss, kicking us into gear when the appointed time arrives. 

We are given a gift, the greatest gift in the history of the cosmos, completely and utterly for free – we have been freed from the chains of sin and death and we didn’t do anything to deserve it. 

The God we worship, the One who brings life to the dead and calls into existence things that do no exist, is very loquacious – God creates and God reveals God’s self through speech.

And, notably in our text for today, Jesus (God in the flesh) says, well, nothing.

Put that on a banner and see how many people log-in for the online worship service!

Listen: 

Two of Jesus’ craftiest disciples procure a donkey for their Lord and he mounts the dirty animal in order to enter the holy city. 

The closer the crew get to Jerusalem, the larger the crowds become with people rushing forward to catch a glimpse of the Messiah, the Promised One, in the flesh.

On either side, both in front and behind, the people are shouting and singing, “Save us! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Save us here and now!”

Then Jesus, riding on the donkey, crosses into Jerusalem proper and goes to the temple. He takes a good gander at everything within his frame of vision, but, noticing the lateness of the hour, he departs for Bethany with his twelve disciples.

That’s it.

What started in Galilee is now coming to fruition in Jerusalem. 

A carpenter turned rabbi fished out some fishermen and conscripted them for kingdom work. He went about from town to town, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, all while telling the more bizarre and perplexing stories about scattered seeds, wayward sons, and never ending wedding feasts.

At first, Jesus didn’t look or sound much like a Messiah. Sure, he could do some incredible things and told some wonderful stories, but the predominant question among the crowds was, “Where did he get this authority?”

You see, there were messianic expectations. The Messiah was supposed to say and do certain things. And Jesus did and said some of them, even entering into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was part of what had been prophesied.

But there will always be a profound difference between what we expect of Jesus and what Jesus does for us.

By the time he hits the holy city with his parade of palm branch wavers, he’s become quite popular. Tell a bunch of people stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-political ladder that they will be first in the new kingdom and you’re liable to have a pretty sizable crowd show up.

But, perhaps part of Jesus popularity also came from being, shall we say, misunderstood.

After all, the last being first sounds nice, but who willingly signs up to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile, and pray for their enemies?

Who wants to hate their mother and father for the sake of God’s glory?

Who jumps on the bandwagon of carrying their own crosses, the very method used to murder enemies of the state?

People had, and people still have, their expectations of Jesus.

On that day by the outskirts of Jerusalem so long ago, the people with their palm branches had their own idea about who this Messiah was and what he was going to do. Consider: What are they shouting along the road? Hosanna! Which, if we’re not careful, just becomes another word muttered by Christian-types without proper reflection. 

Hosanna literally means “save us.”

Save us from what?

Jerusalem was occupied, the Roman garrison was entering the holy city on the other side, displaying their power, force, and empiric rule. The people of God were living as strangers in a strange land in the very land that God promised to them long ago. Forced to adopt customs and even use currency that ran counter to their faith. Forced to provide economic security for the very powers and principalities that threatened their lives.

And then comes Jesus, a new David, come to take back the power and give it to the people! No wonder the crowds called their “Hosannas!” when they saw him entering on a donkey! Jesus was going to put them back on top!

The crowds take from Psalm 118 the cry for deliverance, “Save us!” and they put that expectation squarely on Jesus. 

Perhaps, then, we should call Palm Sunday, Psalm Sunday…

But what happens when this Messiah doesn’t arm the common people with weapons to prepare for insurrection? What happens when this Messiah doesn’t even stop to address the people when he enters the city?

Well, by the end of the week, the people who started with “Hosannas” move to “Crucify.”

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into roles of our own choosing. 

It’s like second nature to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We still would like to see him parade into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and our dreams and to disrupt and frustrate the designs of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He doesn’t enter Jerusalem to establish yet another political machine that results in one group lording it over everyone else.

Jesus comes to do for us and for the world what we could never do on our own.

Jesus, knowing full and well that we put our own expectations on him, still chooses to die and rise for us in spite of us.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, mounts the hard wood of the cross and pronounces a decree of forgiveness for people who deserve no mercy.

That is the central affirmation of the adventure we call Christianity. God, creator of all things, lays aside almightiness to comes to us, to dwell among us in the muck and the mire of life, to be one of us. 

God chooses to take on vulnerability and human frailty just to rectify all of our wrongs.

It’s one of the great ironies that despite the cross resting at the center of this adventure, we have such an aversion to it. Did you know that in some of the fastest growing churches in the country there are no crosses whatsoever?

The cross doesn’t sell. It’s a sign of death. Even though we hang them up in our living rooms and wear them around our necks – we often forget that a cross is something you die on.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, much like his ministry, is a parable. Parables, after all, are stories about who God is, and they are only secondarily about us. The palm waving crowds remind us of the wonderful foolishness by which God does what God does. The people that day play no role other than showing how they haven’t quite seen the whole picture. They shout, as we would, for Jesus to save them. 

And, here’s the Good News, that’s exactly what Jesus will do by the end of the week. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sola Gratia

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia

Write This Down

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the pros and cons of clergy couples, connect ministries, rule following, divine jealousy, the freedom of the Law, Thomas Merton, the foolishness of the cross, the S word, musical instruments, and the Temple tantrum. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Write This Down

The Elected Rejected

Isaiah 43.1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Election is, often, a dirty word in the church. In our particularly problematic political times we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and partisan ideologies. We encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions in regard to such matters. 

However, even more divisive than American electoral politics is the church’s struggle to respond to the Doctrine of Election.

Put simply – The Doctrine of Election (attempts) to explain the lengths of God’s sovereignty. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is a theological way to respond to questions like “Why did God allow this/that to happen?”

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We, of course, don’t care much for mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions. We like things being neat and orderly. However, God often hands us the complete opposite.

And so, because we like to make order out of chaos, we have disagreed throughout the history of the church about God’s electing work and we now have the great mosaic of denominations rather than “dwelling together in unity.”

Enter Karl Barth. [Barth was a very significant Christian theologian in the middle of the 20th century.]

In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth sets out to define what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer about how election is not something to be earned or deserved, but simply is the way that it is. But then, in a profound and rather long excursus, Barth compares the elected and the rejected characters throughout the Old Testament in order to bring home exactly what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ.

Cain and Abel – The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision on God’s behalf concerning them. However, even though Abel is clearly favored and Cain is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain. Notably, even though Cain killed his brother, God promises to protect Cain’s life.

Jacob and Esau – Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the little heel grabber) who ultimately receives the birthright and the blessing. However, God does not abandon either of them to their own devices, but promises to bless the world through their offspring.

Rachel and Leah – Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. However, God does not reject Rachel and she, eventually, gives birth to Joseph.

Joseph and his brothers – Joseph is rejected by his brothers and self off into slavery. However, Joseph is instrumental in the deliverance of God’s people from famine who are then brought into the land of Egypt.

On and on we could go. Barth’s central point is that even though certain figures appear rejected by God, they are, in fact, blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus

Without them the great narrative simply isn’t possible.

And then, in Jesus, we discover both the elect and the reject. The Elect Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us. 

He is regaled by the crowds and dismissed by the religious authorities. 

He is celebrated by the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to be chased out of town for preaching a sermon about himself. 

He is surrounded by followers who hang on his every word only to be abandoned by all of them when he, himself, hung on the cross. 

And yet, how does Jesus choose to use some of his final earthly breaths?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

We, all of us, deserve rejection. We all choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. That, in a sense, is what Lent is all about. This liturgical season is focused on considering the condition of our condition. 

To borrow an expression of Paul’s: There is nothing good in us. 

We, to put it another way, are up the creek without a paddle.   

And yet, strangely enough, the elected rejected Jesus Christ takes all of our sins, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever. Thanks be to God. 

Infinite Mercy

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.

The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”

Most of them were asleep.

Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.

It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.

She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged. 

She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”

“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”

She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”

“I guess so.”

“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”

We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”

“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”

I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”

“My turn to do what?” I asked.

“To confess your sins to me.”

So I did.

Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.

And that is astonishing.

Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.

But the psalmist sees it different. 

The psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.  

The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us. 

The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.

Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.

After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!

Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own. 

That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.

But Lent is also a time for honesty.

Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own. 

Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are. 

We are dead in our sins. 

And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen. 

Jesus Saves

Psalm 110

The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountain. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head. 

Luke 20.41-47

Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

A political movement turned radically violent.

The mob stormed gates, climbed walls, destroyed doors, and they shattered any assumptions of safety and sanctity. 

Anyone who stood in their way was attacked, beaten to the ground, and left behind. The insurrectionists used whatever they could to turn their feelings into signs of force, from flags to banners to fists.

Once inside, they searched methodically for those who represented what they came to destroy. They obliterated images and symbols that for centuries stood the test of time. 

And outside, while the crowds chanted with frightening vigor, a sign was held high above for all to see: 

“Jesus Saves”

Sadly, what took place in and around the Capitol at the beginning of January was not as unprecedented as some have claimed. Throughout history there have been countless examples of those who took matters into their own hands and did whatever they thought necessary to bring about a change. 

And, even sadder, has been the use of Christian images/words/symbols to encourage such destruction. 

Before they started throwing objects through windows, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, kneeled in the streets to pray in the name of Jesus.

Contemporary Christian music was played and performed in order to give a righteous feeling to a wholly unrighteous display of aggression.

Among the signs and shirts and slogans from the likes of QAnon, and the Confederate Flag, and Anti-Semitic fervor, there were an equal number of “Jesus 2020” and “The Armor of God” among the rioters. 

Even pastors were present in the crowd, yelling into bullhorns about the mission to “save the republic for Christ” all while the throngs screamed in response: “Jesus is Lord!”

The great cacophony of Christianity contains multitudes. There’s a reason there are more Christian denominations than we can keep track of because we cannot agree on what it means to keep the main thing, the main thing.

Part of this challenge stems from the fact that the Bible, what we take as an authority over what it means to follow Jesus, is so wild. 

Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from all sorts of different places: from Galilee to Galatia, Antioch to Rome, from tiny towns and massive metropolises, rural farms and seaside ports, prisons and palaces, and all from a wide range of times – 1,500 years!

The Bible contains just about every literary genre from law codes to genealogies to parables to poems, and it was put together by people we don’t know anything about!

And yet, despite all of that, we lift up this bewildering book and confess it to be God’s word for us. 

So we take it up and read. We open it right to the middle and come across a Psalm, and we find these words: “The Lord says my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sent out from Zion your mighty scepter… The Lord is at your right hand; he will scatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.”

Now, some Christians will respond to these words by taking up matters into their own hands to make their enemies their footstool. They will claim that God is on their side, and they are the righteous messengers of God’s judgment and justice.

Others, of course, will dismiss such a Psalm as being connected to the so-called “violent God of the Old Testament.” They will insist that their God just wants everybody to get along, and to let love rule.

But here’s the thing: The strange new world of the Bible tells the story of the God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bonds of creation in order to get what God wants.

And it’s not always pretty:

The God of scripture sends a flood to wipe out every living being (except for a few who fortunately catch a ride in a very large boat). God breaks down a tower in order to confuse the our speech and scatters humanity across the earth. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to then cast him and his riders into the sea. 

I could go on.

Thus, for centuries, people have embraced the violence of God for their own purposes, or they have rejected “that God” in order to embrace something they believe they can find in the hippy dippy lovely dovey God of the New Testament. 

But thats not actually how scripture works. 

For as righteously angry as God gets in the Old Testament, God is equally ridiculous in loving a people undeserving – God rains down manna from heaven to feed those who complain about God, God brings back a idolatrous nation after years in captivity, God remains faithful to the covenant that God’s people fail, again and again, to hold up.

And, for as much as God is love (revealed in Jesus) in the New Testament, God is equally filled with bitterness.

“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

“You have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers,” Jesus says after going off the deep end with his Temple tantrum.

“If any of you cause someone else to stumble,” Jesus says, “it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were dumped you into the ocean.”

Are we sure we want to worship this Jesus?

  Truthfully, though we confess Jesus as Lord with our lips, most of us live as if we are the lords of our lives. We do this because, whether we could articulate it or not, we generally believe that history is developing in an ongoing process of progress. That is, the world is better now than it once was and that we are all responsible for making it better for future generations. 

We believe in the power of humanity! With all of our enlightened sensibilities, we assume, sooner or later, we will finally get the chaos of the cosmos under control and we will set everything as it should be.

Which is why so many sermons end with a “lettuce” statement – let us now go forth to make the world a better place, or, frighteningly, let us go and save the republic for Christ.

But here’s the thing: if we could’ve made the world a better place, or even the best place, we would’ve done it long ago.

The challenge for those who wish to follow Jesus is the confession that even though certain things might appear to be better (whatever that might mean) we are still very much who we are: sinners in need of grace.

The question/answer period of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem ends after a whole bunch of controversy regarding authority with Jesus asking his own question. There is disagreement among the religious leaders about this would-be carpenter-Messiah who claims to be from the line of David. At the time, David-like dimensions of Messianic expectation were a dime a dozen – every time a new political leader garnered some power, it was assumed that, like David, he (because it was always a he) would take back the throne in Jerusalem. 

The Messiah, to the religious authorities, would be the one to save the people Israel through a new military regime that put the people of God back on top.

And for Jesus, this was not acceptable.

Therefore, being a good teacher, Jesus uses scripture to interpret the present circumstances. “How can it be,” Jesus asks, “for the Messiah to be David’s son? Don’t you all remember what David wrote in the psalms? ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ If David called him Lord, than how can he be David’s son?”

This might seem a trivial point of order, but for Jesus, on the basis of the Psalm, the Messiah is not merely from the line of David. In fact, the Messiah is the Lord of David. 

Jesus is then not just another revolutionary come to set the people free from tyrannical oppression, Jesus is God in the flesh come to dwell among the very people who will, in the end, betray him.

“Jesus is Lord” has been a confession of faith since the very beginning. Today, we Christian types often take that confession to mean something to the effect of Jesus being the Lord of my life. And, even though that’s true, it’s also so much more. For, to confess Jesus as Lord is also to confess that Jesus is God.

And Jesus, as God, is going to get what Jesus wants. Jesus will make his enemies his footstool, whether we like it or not.

Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus announces the imminent implementation of a new regime, but it’s not one the people of God were prepared for. 

They assumed a military victory, parades of power, and a new throne.

Instead, the were told about a kingdom in which the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be free, the blind would see, and the lame would walk.

Which, all things considered, wasn’t anything new! Those words come from the prophet Isaiah!

Do you see? God doesn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. There’s not some God of the Old Testament and a different God in the New. They are one and the same. They are Trinity. 

God, in Christ, puts the enemies of sin and death, the powers and the principles, squarely under the heel of the divine. 

But, of course, it happens not in the way anyone could’ve imagined.

A suffering Messiah who is enthroned at the right hand of God? The incarnate Lord dies on the cross only to be raised again? No one expected such a thing to happen.

A Lord who calls his followers to pray for their enemies, to sell their possessions in order to help the poor, to lose their lives in order to save them? Who wants to worship such a reckless God?

The Messiah, the Anointed One, God in the flesh, is always more than we think. In our limited and finite (and frankly foolish) notions of how things work, we assume that power is demonstrated in strength. But Jesus comes to show us how real power comes in weakness. 

We assume that our job is to make the world look more like us. But Jesus comes to conquer and overcome the world.

We assume that if we just work hard enough, we can set everything the way it is supposed to be. But then Jesus shows up to remind us that we are sinners, all of us.

Jesus is not just some ethical teacher who wants us to behave ourselves.

Jesus is not some political revolutionary whose words we can cherry pick to suit our needs.

Jesus is not a new David come to elevate us to the places of power and prestige.

Jesus is God!

In himself he is the new creation.

When we open up the strange new world of the Bible, when we read about the Lord in the Psalms, the Lord who brings victory, we are reading about Jesus. But his victory comes not how we or anyone could’ve predicted. Jesus takes our sins and our misery upon himself and away from us. He is able to do this because he is not only the Messiah, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you better than we know ourselves. 

Jesus brings the victory. 

Not you.

Not me.

Only Jesus saves. Amen.

Help!

Psalm 118.21-25

I thank you that you have answered and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Luke 20.9-19

He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and the chief priest realized that he had told this parables against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

Listen.

There was a man who planted a great vineyard. But it was too big for him to manage it all by himself so he leased it out to tenants and then decided to go on a little vacation. 

When the appointed season came, the landowner sent someone to the tenants in order to receive his share of the harvest.

But the tenants, they beat him up, insulted him, and sent him away with nothing.

The landowner, not one to give in easily, sent someone else, but this one was also wounded and tossed to the dirt. 

This pattern kept repeating itself until the landowner decided to send his son, his beloved son, the one with whom he was well pleased, but when the son arrived the tenants decided to murder him where he stood in order that they might receive his inheritance.

What do you think the landowner will do next?

Jesus’s parabolic stories are, as Robert Farrar Capon puts it, used not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings. 

This story, this parable of the so-called “wicked tenants” is, as we like to call it in the church, a parable of judgment. However, the parables of judgment don’t often function the way we think they’re supposed to work. Judgment, after all, is supposed to come down on all the evil-doers and the sinners and the riffraff with swift condemnation. 

And yet, Jesus presents divine judgment in all sorts of stories against the backdrop of an all-inclusive grace. That is, characters are completely included far before they are excluded – they are accepted before they are judged. 

Grace and mercy, rather than punishment and retribution, are the starting points.

Contrary to how the church so often functions, Jesus isn’t really trying to convince us, or the crowds, of anything. He simply stands to deliver story after story giving us glimpses behind the curtain of the cosmos and dares us to do nothing more than believe.

But, of course, that sounds too good to be true.

No matter how much we talk about God’s mercy, no matter how many times we talk about God as love, no matter how many times we sing Amazing Grace, we don’t really like it. Because, taken seriously, God’s grace is far too available. It throws parties for prodigal sons, it drags in undeserving people right off the street, it makes space for the last, least, lost, little, and dead and it doesn’t have much of anything to do for those who consider themselves “good” people. 

Therefore, the hearers of Jesus’ parables of judgment, including us, are those in need of help. We, too often, forget about God’s mercy for sinners. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that, by and large, we’re all perfectly fine (thank you very much). 

No need for forgiveness if you haven’t made any mistakes.

No need for absolution when you haven’t sinned.

The only problem with all this is the fact that we’re all sinners!

We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

But we like the church, part of God’s incarnate Kingdom, to be a little more orderly. 

We can take it from here God! We don’t need You mucking up our good thing. 

We assure people that God loves them, but we make it clear that they all need to fit into a certain mold before they will fit in with the rest of us. We want the kingdom of our own making rather than the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

And for that, we stand accused. 

But, it’s precisely here that the Gospel really comes into its own. Because, as the accused, we haven’t a change in hell of making an argument for ourselves. But then, wonder of wonders, Jesus as the judge and the jury stands not only to defend us, but also to take our sentence upon himself, seeing us free for no good reason except the Gospel!

Listen – Jesus’ authority has been called into question, yet again, and he responds with a parable: A man planted a vineyard. Vineyards, notably, are a favorite setting of Jesus’ and they echo throughout the scripture from Genesis, to Isaiah, to Jesus’ favorite playlist of all, the Psalms.

The man plants the vineyard and leases it out to tenants. But when he sends a messenger to collect his portion of the harvest, the tenants beat him and send him away. 

Jesus, throughout his ministry, tells a whole lot of strange tales, and this one is no different in it’s bizarreness. 

Consider – There is no good reason for the landowner to expect that the wicked tenants will do anything but murder his son just as they had done horrible things to his previous messengers. 

Equally crazy is the tenants thinking that by murdering the heir of the vineyard they, themselves, will inherit it. The only thing they’ll inherit is the unquenchable wrath of the landowner who will now bring down the hammer of righteousness. 

In the end, the problem with the tenants (in addition to their violent and murderous rampage) is that they, simply, can’t and don’t trust the landowner. Who, by the way, gave them land to till that they never would have had were it not for the landowner’s generosity!

The tenants trust only in themselves and look where it gets them.

Having thus parabolically flipped things on their head, Jesus dangles a question and answer for the authorities who called into question his authority – What will the landowner do next? He will come and destroy the tenants and give their land to other people.

“Heaven forbid!” they reply.

And then Jesus ties it all up with, of all things, a reference to the Psalms: “What do you think it means that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone?” 

“Don’t you see?” Jesus seems to say, “All of this is exactly what God has promised from long ago. The Messiah is not like you have imagined, the Messiah is not like the tenants who take matters into their own hands and use violence as the means by which they accomplish their goals. The Messiah is going to be rejected, murdered, and abandoned.”

The stone will be rejected by the builders, and will still become the chief cornerstone of God’s cosmic victory! 

It is precisely in rejection, in unacceptability, that the Messiah brings salvation. 

The world, in the end, isn’t saved through works, or in goodness, or in any other of our machinations – the world is, instead, saved through the rejection of the Jesus, in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

Now, that all sounds good, but in our heart of hearts we mutter, along with the authorities of Jesus’ day, “Heaven forbid!” 

We don’t really want the landowner’s son to come up to us and say that all has been forgiven. We think of ourselves as generally good people who do good things – for what then would we need forgiveness?

We don’t really like to consider the ramifications of the Good News and what it means for all of us. Because if the Good News is really for everyone, then God’s inviting to his party a whole lot of people we wouldn’t be caught dead with. 

We don’t really want this to be true, because we’ve been spoon fed a version of faith in which we think being well behaved, or pious, or holy, is more important than trusting God to do what God said God would do.

In the end, we want to be the ones in control. We, like the foolish tenants in the story, we try to stop the paradoxical power of grace that alone can save us, and instead we take refuge in a who lot of nonsense that only insures we will lose in the end.

We flock to the likes of Facebook and Twitter assuming that our self-righteousness will be enough to correct all the problems with other people.

We assume that if we just elect the right politicians everything will be perfect. 

We take matters into our own hands whenever possible believing we know what’s best for ourselves and for the world.

But, and here’s the truly Good News, we can’t stop the paradoxical power of grace that is Jesus Christ! Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him, even for the sin of believing in ourselves more than in the One who has come to save us.

For as bizarre as the parables are, perhaps the most confounding part of Jesus’ stories is that, having told all of them, he then goes and acts out what he’s been talking about from the beginning. Like the psalm pointing ahead to the rejection of the stone that will become the cornerstone, it’s in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that he makes manifest the mystery of the kingdom in which no one has to do anything to be saved except truth that someone has done it all for us. 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.