We Are What We See

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” 

That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.

George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”

Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”

Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”

Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”

And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”

It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.

Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”

I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”

And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”

Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.

We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office. 

Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.

And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”

In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.

In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.

In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven. 

Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”

You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.

How could any of those people be blessed?

If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.

But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.

There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.

At least, not according to the world.

But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.

The kingdom of God.

And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.

We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.

I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community. 

But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.

Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.

The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.

Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.

Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is. 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.

The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal. 

John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away. 

Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.

Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.

This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.

On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.

But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this: 

John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.

There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!

We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.

God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.

All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours. 

Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

As the old prayer book put it, we are miserable offenders.

We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal. 

What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.

Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.

John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below. 

Believing is seeing. Amen. 

The End Has No End

Ezekiel 37.1-6

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Luke 23.32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.

It was awesome.

It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.

Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”

As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.

Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.

The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”

Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever. 

Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.

Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.

Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.

But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen. 

Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t. 

When we’re dead, we’re dead.

Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.

We say things like, “so and so passed away.”

What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body? 

We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”

Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.

After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.

I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”

“My daddy died” she interrupted.

“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”

“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”

Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.

What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.

Everything else is a mystery. 

And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture. 

St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.

So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?

What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.

Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others. 

Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.

It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.

When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.

And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise. 

There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV. 

Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.

Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.

That, Capon says, is heaven. 

Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.

Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.

And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.

We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.

Heaven, in short, is fun.

What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.

Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess. 

God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.

God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.

In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead. 

That’s not just great news, its Good News. Amen. 

How Can We Know The Way?

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.

During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.

Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.

It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing. 

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen

John 12.32

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.

But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.

Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”

Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith. 

For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.

We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.

God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.

John 13.34

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

On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting. 

Nine members of the church were killed.

The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.

He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”

So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.

A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”

So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.

There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.

And we wept.

And then we prayed some more.

How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today. 

Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.

So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.

We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices. 

And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church. 

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.

This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.

What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.

Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may.

And perhaps we must. Amen. 

The Death of Death

Revelation 21.1-6a

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

What frightens you more – the hospital or the cemetery?

We have an aversion to death in our culture. We take pills that promise to make us look, or feel, younger even though they don’t. We listen to doctors tell us about our need to reduce sodium or sugar but then we find ourselves coming out of the Drive Thru lane with a super sized soda and a mountain of French fries. We read the numbers and the statistics of those who die, but we assume that the same fate can’t, or won’t, befall us.

When death rears its ugly head, we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction. 

I meet with families to prepare a service of death and resurrection and I am told that they don’t children present for fear of frightening them about the finality of death. In the days before COVID, I would visit people in the hospital who told me how bad they wished others would come and sit with them, but they understood the reluctance – no one wants to get too close to the truth.

When I was in seminary, we were required to tour a funeral home in order to learn everything that happens to dead bodies from arrival until burial or cremation. We were escorted through the embalming process, shown the vast array of color coordinated coffins, and we were even shown the inner workings of the crematory which had to get hot enough to turn bones into ash.

And then, shortly before it was all over, we were shown the viewing room in which a recently dead woman lay in her coffin, ready to receive her friends and family that evening. We paid our respects, but more than a few of my peers stood frozen in their tracks – it was the first dead body many of them had ever seen, and it shocked them so much they couldn’t move.

Death has an ugly color. I have seen it more times than I can count. Rare are the calls to a pastor when something has gone well. I’m the one they call when death shows up. 

Why are we talking about such things today in church? Why are we talking about death?

Well, for one thing, today is Halloween. What better day could there be to talk of death? Tonight, scores of children will dress as super heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defenders of peace and justice from the Galactic Empire, and even extinct creatures that used to roam the earth. And, of course, there will be some who dress as more frightening figures, those who straddle the thin line between life and death.

Halloween forces us to confront death in an odd way – through children. I’ve come to rejoice in this strangest of holidays not only because I already get to dress up in somewhat of a costume every week in church, and not only because I have an unhealthy appetite for KitKats, but because it is a necessary opportunity for all of us to come close to an inconvenient truth – no one makes it out of this life alive.

And yet, this year, I’m not sure how badly we need the reminder… Every day we are bombarded with the statistics about COVID19 and its disregard for our pretensions, we are met with masks on the young and old alike making it impossible to deny the gravity of our situation. Even with the vaccine on the imminent horizon for 5-12 year olds, death keeps rearing it ugly head.

Church, oddly enough, is one of the few places where, even though the rest of the world actively engages in the denial of death, we stare into it week after week.

We put up crosses, we sing songs about those who from their labors rest, we even occasionally feast on the Lord. We are compelled to face the truth that we would rather avoid. 

Death is ugly. 

And it is here, squarely staring death in the face, do we dare to proclaim the Gospel of God:

There is a new heaven, and a new earth! A loud voice shouts from the throne, “See, the home of God is among the people! God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more! Mourning and crying and pain will be gone!” And the one seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new!”

Do you have goosebumps?

Did you hear the Good News?

In the end, death is no contest for the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Death is defeated by the King of kings who comes to die in our place. The death of death is made possible by the One who broke forth from the tomb in resurrection.

Revelation is a wild ride, one worthy of Halloween worship. The whole book contains these fantastical images and scenes that go beyond our ability to comprehend. They point to God’s cosmic victory over the cosmos. The vision granted to John boldly proclaims that no amount of pain, no number of graveyards, no heap of hospital hallways have the final word.

Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth – they might even derail everything we think we know to be true – but they are not the truth.

There’s a reason that this text, this vision, has been associated with Christian burials since the very beginning. There’s a reason that we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children. 

They are words of hope for a people who feel no hope in the world. Whether it was the earliest Christians suffering under the weight of the Roman Empire, or someone who just said their final goodbye, these words mean something.

These are the words that guide, shape, and nurture the saints.

Today, in addition to Halloween, is when we celebrate All Saints. We read and remember the names of those who have died in the last year. It is a somber and holy moment in which we pause to reflect on how God worked in and through those now dead. It is an opportunity to imagine what God might even be up to with us.

And the “all” in “All Saints” is important. Lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that saints are only those perfect Christians – Saints are just sinners in the hands of a loving God. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, it is merely the admission that we are not yet what we can be. It’s about coming to grips with the condition of our condition all while holding fast to the wonderful Good News that Jesus does his best work with people like us – Jesus deals in the realm of impossible possibility – Jesus is in the resurrection business.

John sees the New Heaven and the New Earth and notice, they are not replacements for the old ones. In our deaths we are not beamed away to some distant realm of existence. God does not reject the created order. The New Heaven and the New Earth are transfigurations of what we have right now – they are the created order raised and glorified.

Which means that wherever we find brokenness today – in our lives, in our families, in our institutions, God is actively working to rectify those wrongs right now. God calls us, even us, to live into the reality of all things being made new.

Do you see? What John sees has already happened, it is happening, and it will happen.

God made all things new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes all things new whenever one of us is in Christ (there is a new creation), and God will make all things new in the Eschaton.

All Saints, what we do today, allows us to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with the saints in our midst now, and strangely enough with the saints who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, past, present, and future.

The church is a peculiar thing – we move forward by looking back and we live now because of death. We are what we are because of what we’ve inherited, but we are also who we are because, in baptism, we’ve died with Christ in order that we might live, truly live.

There is, of course, a lingering question – How can we know this to be true?

None of us know the writers of the scriptures, we don’t know the authors of the hymns and songs we’re singing today, we don’t even know the names of the people who adorn our windows in this sanctuary.

We, I, can’t prove any of this. The resurrection of the dead, the communion of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, is not that kind of knowledge. It is a gift of faith, of trust.

I know it to be true because my grandmother told me its true. I know it to be true because I’ve had countless individuals, saints, who lived lives according to that truth, people who showed me the way. I trust the witnesses, because that’s what we all are, in the end. We testify and listen to those who testify to the truth. 

On this spookiest of holidays, as we prepare to look death squarely in its face, as we take time to give thanks for the saints, we do so in the light of this news, this truth:

Descending from the realm of light and life, invading the horrid darkness of the kingdom of Death and destroying it forever, comes One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. To us he speaks the enduring words of the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and I am life, whoever trusts in me shall live.” He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

To Hell And Back

Mark 9.38-50

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 

What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?

Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith! 

So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?

Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.

We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject. 

And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.

The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.” 

We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big   columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?

Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”

And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”

But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”

But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”

This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school. 

Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.

A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.

Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.

To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident. 

Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.

Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna. 

Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again. 

That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps. 

We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.

It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now. 

And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna. 

It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.

One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.

Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners. 

That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.

Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!

Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.

Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.

The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity. 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. 

And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.

Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins. 

Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.

Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.

Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.

We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.

The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.

But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do. 

But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.

All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition. 

Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.

In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.

Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.

Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.

That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.

Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.

Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen. 

The Kingdom of Judgment

Matthew 13.47-50

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We’ve come to the end.

Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.

The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.

This is a story about judgment.

And we don’t like judgement.

You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…

But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.

Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?

It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing. 

It is an ending about the end.

Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.

This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.

Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sounds like a party, right?

The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament. 

It’s very very rare.

Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.

It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.

It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.

And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items. 

This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles. 

Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”

Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.

Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.

The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.

Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.

This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.

There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.

But judgement, of course, is what we do best!

It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”

Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.

Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.

We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.

Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre. 

Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.

And what do we have to show for it?

Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.

And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!

We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.

But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?

Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.

Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?

Yeah, kind of. 

It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.

Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened. 

We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else. 

God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.

The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.

What happens next is entirely up to God.

And thats when the real judgement begins…

The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.

Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work. 

Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.

The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.

The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all. 

What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.

Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.

Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?

Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?

In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.

The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?

Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not. 

Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.

Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.

Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.

Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.

We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else. 

But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.

So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.

How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.

To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

But then how can some of them be judged as evil?

And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.

Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?

Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?

Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?

The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.

Even us.

Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.

There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.

There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen. 

Buying The Farm

Matthew 13.44-46

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 

When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand

Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand

Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band

Check into a swell hotel, ain’t the afterlife grand?

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale

Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long

I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl

‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town

Then as God as my witness, I’m gettin’ back in show business

I’m gonna open a nightclub and call it “The Tree of Forgiveness”

And forgive everybody ever done me any harm

Well, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics

Buy ‘em a pint of Smithwick’s and smother ‘em with my charm

Yeah when I get to heaven, I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm

What are you gonna do with time after you’ve bought the farm?

Those are some of the lyrics from John Prime’s last recorded song before his recent death. And, I haven’t been able to get them out of my head. For one, the chorus is pretty catchy and I feel just the right amount of naughty for singing about drinking Moscow Mules and smoking cigarettes. But mostly because of the bit about watches in heaven.

I mean, what good is knowing what time it is when you’ve already bought the farm?

Buying the farm, incidentally, is an expression that came into existence around the time of World War II during which the insurance payout on a soldier’s death often afforded the opportunity for a surviving widow to pay out the mortgage on the homestead – ie. Buying the farm.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and then subsequently hid again. Jesus, in all of his parabolically paradoxical wonder, does some of his best work in hiddenness, in the not-yet-to-be-understood. 

It’s why the parables leaves us scratching our heads instead of really understanding the subject at hand.

Even the earliest disciples struggled with the stories. After Jesus prophesied his death and resurrection for the third time, not the second nor the first, scripture tells us that the disciples did not understand any of these things, and they did not know what Jesus was talking about.

The mystery of the kingdom, even when its most literal details are all spelled out remains inaccessible to their understanding.

Which means we’re in good company with the disciples.

God is God and we are not.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

But Jesus is hellbent on bringing us closer to the hidden mystery, even if it means we’re none the wiser on the other side.

Ultimately, Jesus says, the mystery of the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field; it is something worth selling anything we must in order to enjoy having it at all.

Most of the time when we read these two brief parables in tandem with one another, the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, we think of them as proxies for our individual responses to Jesus’ kingdom. That is, each of us have the ability and the responsibility to go out seeking the kingdom and must be willing to pay whatever price for it. 

But, it’s more than that.

Because the two who are so willing to go and sell everything for the mystery is just as much about the whole church as it is about the individuals within in.

It’s about the church’s relationship to the world in which it finds itself, and how in the world they relate to one another.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic that is keeping us from gathering in-person with one another, the lines have become more blurred than ever about where the world ends and where the church begins.

And this is Good News.

What makes the advent of our current time such Good News for the church is the reminder that the church is not a club of insiders who happen to have a monopoly on the mystery that is the kingdom made incarnate in Jesus Christ. The church is not about our respective identities, or good behavior, or particular income brackets.

The church is a sign to the world of the mystery by which the light of the world has already shined upon all of creation.

Let me put it another way: For far too long the church has operated as if it’s this specific enclave that has access to salvation that the world does not, that people outside the church have to come inside and be just like us in order to have access to the one we call the Lord.

And there’s some truth to it – “there is no salvation outside the church” is a prevailing theological understanding across the church. But that language implies that everything is already perfect inside these walls and everything is damned outside. It leads churches to believing we are the paragons of virtue, the arbiters of everything that is good and right and true. And therefore we believe that evangelism, whatever it is, is all about making outsiders look like insiders – its all about getting people out there, in here, so that they can look, act, and speak like us.

What that ignores is the fact that the church isn’t full of perfect people – its full of sinners!

But that’s not how we act.

Instead we put up signs about how welcoming we are, and we’re only really welcoming so long as people start assimilating the moment they join the club we happen to call church.

Or we take the latest buzzwords and create slogans for our websites about tolerance, but we don’t tolerate anything outside what we consider worthy.

Or we invite people to church implicitly assuming that it’s our job to fix our friends/neighbors/co-workers so they can have perfect lives just like us!

All of that is false advertising.

It’s like putting a cake in the window of a running store – it only confuses people about what our business really does.

Similarly, whenever we market the church as a bunch of perfect people only getting more perfect, we deceive people as to what we are all about.

Notice – the discoverer of the treasure in the field goes and buys the whole thing. He doesn’t bury the treasure off in the best corner of the lot only to purchase that small portion. He buys the whole thing!

The church doesn’t exist as an a priori negation of the world, nor does it stand off as an exclusive country club for only the best of the best – the church is filled with the world whether we like it or not.

And the sooner we start liking it the better off we’ll be, because without it none of us would cut it.

The church is not perfection here on earth because its filled with a random sampling of all the broken people the world has to offer, the very people for whom Christ died, people wading through the waters of baptism to live in the light of the resurrection recognizing that we deserve not a single beam of it.

Rather than only procuring the best part of the field, the man buys the whole thing complete with sink holes, poison ivy, weeds, and thorny bushes. 

The same then holds true for the church – if we can’t bring ourselves to buy, that is: bring in, every different condition of our condition, the smart and the stupid, the good and the bad, the holy and the unholy, then we can’t even pretend we’re the church at all.

But why all this insistence of the all-ness of the mystery of the kingdom? Why isn’t it just for the choice and select few who maintain moral purity at all times?

Well, in addition to the totality of the field purchased by the parabolic figure, and the willingness of the merchant to sell all he had to buy the pearl, the power of the mystery is hidden in the most universal of all things: death. 

Now, bear with me for a moment: I know we don’t want to have to think about death any more than we already do. Though, I will note that just about every single product in the world is designed and advertised to make us think we can live forever.

But Jesus does his work, his best work, in the mystery of his own death, its in the darkness of a seed buried in the ground or treasure in a field or a man in the tomb, that the world is forever turned upside down. 

And, for what its worth, though Matthew tells us that man bought a field, there’s no reason to think the field wasn’t a farm. And, in the end, we all buy the farm.

Some of us get stupidly rich, some of us get horribly sick, some of us lose people we love, some of us write book, some of us teach others how to read or write books, some of us lose ourselves, and some of us throw it all away because of one foolish mistake, but every last one of us dies in the end.

Every single person, whether Christian or not, whether good or bad, will someday come into possession of the field of death in which Jesus has hidden the treasure of his salvific work.

As has been said from this pulpit on a number of occasions, the kingdom of Heaven will only and forever be populated by forgiven sinners. Hell, whatever it may be, exists only as a courtesy for those who want no part of forgiveness.

The entire world will buy the farm.

And the best news, the Good News, is that we are saved by meeting the Lord in his death. 

Some of us participate in Jesus’ death here and now in the deadening of ourselves in the waters of baptism, whereas others experience it only at the end of their days, but Jesus comes to raise the dead. That’s his mysterious work. And there’s nothing on this earth that can stop him from doing it.

But, that’s not how we often talk, as the church, as Jesus’ body, in the world right now. Instead, we take this profoundly powerful and mysterious Kingdom and make it out as if there are only two types of people in the world – the completely right and the dead wrong.

And, again, the purchaser doesn’t buy only the best looking parts of the field. He procures the whole thing!

Which leads us to the parable of the pearl of great price.

The merchant is looking for something and he knows not quite what he is looking for until he finds it.

Or, perhaps, it finds him.

All of us, in different ways, are merchants of our own desires – shopping day and night for that which we don’t quite know or even understand. 

We adopt the latest culturally relevant habit because we believe it will make us whole.

We go and buy the latest Apple product because we convince ourselves it will finally bring order to the chaos of our lives.

We look for the greener grass over the next hill because surely life must be better than whatever this is.

And then, if the miracle of miracles occurs and people stumble into the church (or online during a streamed service) looking for something, what does the church offer in turn?

Hey, um, here’s the mystery of Jesus Christ all wrapped up nice and neat for you, the in-dwelling or his kingdom, but… if you want any part of it, you’re gonna need to shape up. So, uh, write this down, you need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, love your neighbors, give more, complain less, make the world a better place, YOU DRINK TOO MUCH.

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

I mean, who the hell would sell everything to buy all of that?

That whole list is undoubtedly filled with good things, things that we should probably all work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations. He says, “Come to me all of you with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

The work of Christ, the hidden mystery of the kingdom, frees us from the sins that shackle us to a world in which we will never really feel home in.

Our home, instead, is in the kingdom. It is the kingdom – a kingdom built on love, freely offered and given to each and every single person past, present, and future, and the only thing anyone ever has to do to have it is buy the farm.

Because purchasing gladly at whatever cost is the heart of these two brief parables.

It is an utterly precious and priceless mystery – something to be enjoyed.

At the very least, there should be smiles in the church, not grimaces. We should be hearing Good News, not bad news. We should relish in our freedom, not in our burdens.

For, Jesus as the mysterious kingdom is already buried and hidden in the world. The church just as the good fortune of sharing that Good News with anyone and everyone whenever we can. Church, at its best, is nothing less that joyful discovering the truth that’s always been there, the truth that meets us where we are, that Jesus has already done for us far more than we could ever do for ourselves.

In the end we don’t have to sell everything we have for the field or for the pearl because, as the old hymn goes, Jesus paid it all.

Therefore, the grace of Jesus Christ is actually free. It’s not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

And that’s exactly what makes the Good News so good. Amen. 

The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

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On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

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The Game Is Over

Luke 16.19-31

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

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. His wife thought it was extravagant for them to have five cars to begin with, but now the jet skies and the boat were simply making things unmanageable. And though he was supposed to figure out whether or not they could grease the hands of the local government enough for another building permit to let him but yet another addition to the back of his house, his mind was consumed by a far more stressful matter.

Larry.

Larry stood outside his house everyday, walking back and forth over his grass – the grass he paid a small fortune to keep maintained. Larry had his little cardboard sign asking for money or for food and people would slow down and pass him a few dollars, or a spare muffin. And everyday Larry would return from sunup till sundown, and it was driving the rich man crazy. 

He had done everything he could think of – he called the police, but they explained the property upon which Larry walked actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about it – he proposed a new city ordinance banning the panhandlers like Larry from asking for money within the local municipality but all the local churches fought against it – he even tried playing extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive him off.

But nothing worked.

Day after day Larry showed up and the rich man couldn’t stand it.

And yet, one day, the man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry, the nearly permanent fixture out his window was gone. The man danced around in his kitchen sliding across the marble floors. He drank his imported coffee and was thrilled to discover that Larry’s obituary was in the newspaper. 

The rich man’s problems were over!

He was so excited that he ran through the kitchen to share the good news with his wife, but as he rounded the corner into his indoor movie theater he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell with flames of fire lapping all around him constantly. He even had to admit to himself that this torment was worse than seeing Larry outside all day. But then he strained his eyes and he saw Larry just on the other side of the fire, and he was standing there with what looked like an angel.

“Hey!” He shouted, “Send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting hot in here.”

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

The rich man promptly fell to his knees, “Please! Send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me in agony.”

The angel said, “They have the scriptures, they need only trust what they read.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t understand. That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel finally said, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Parables-of-Jesus

Thanks for this one Jesus. 

The wealthy and powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor might suffer now but will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can people – give away your wealth and life like Larry/Lazarus such that your reward really will be a reward. 

It’s easy for this scripture to become a lambasting sermon about the poverty of wealth and the riches of near-destitution. Plenty of pastors have stood in their pulpits and held this one over the heads of their people in order to pad the offering plates, or guilt people into signing up for different ministries, or embarrass the well to do for their ignorance about their impending flames.

And there’s some truth to it. It’s a challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not read it as an indictment against the wealthy. But, as usual, there’s more to the parable than the parable itself. 

Living well and accumulating lots of possessions and deep bank accounts might be the world’s most overpowering ideal lifestyle, but in the kingdom of God they matter little. We, wrongly, use those categories to describe both the saved and the lost, the winners and the losers. 

Winning equates to wealth and losing equates to poverty.

And yet in Jesus’ eyes its living badly – being poor, hungry, and covered in sores – that turns out to be the mechanism by which people are apparently saved. 

We can hardly blame ourselves for missing this divine reversal – we have it so repeated into our brains from our infancy even until this very moment that who we are is based on what we have earned. One need not flip through the channels on the television, or see the billboards covered in potential lottery earnings to have this proved over and over again. 

We elevate the powerful and the wealthy both purposefully and subconsciously. We like to elect politicians who have done well for themselves, we read the books from the self-made millionaires, and we look up to our wealthiest family members.

And here’s the kicker – for all of our fascination and worship of those with money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: if the world could’ve been fixed by what we might call good living and good earning – then we would’ve fixed everything by now. 

But we haven’t.

Instead, it’s the winners of this world who, more often than not, achieve their earnings off the backs of the least, last, lost, little, and dead. 

They are the ones thrown to the curb while new homes, with new families, and new cars fill the neighborhoods. 

But because we admire the wealthy and want to be like them, we blind ourselves from seeing how the ones with all the stuff use Jesus’ favorite people as the mechanisms through which they achieve and maintain all that they have. It has been their ignorance of the poor, their locking up of the marginalized, their segregating by skin tone, that has brought about a very particular end in which it sounds like good news to those on the top, to those who actually have something to lose.

And still, even with all their earning, and trying, and striving, and politicking, and maneuvering, the world is still a mess! The rich just keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer.

Here is where the parable stings the most – the rich man, with all that he has, his being first, most, found, big, and alive, he is not able to delay or avoid his death any more than Larry is with his lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness. 

The bell tolls for us all.

Do you see it now? When it comes to the Good News, success defined by the world merits us not one thing.

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The rich man might start out and seem like a real winner. But he can’t even see the truth in his death – he refuses to accept that he has died! He bargains with father Abraham to make the most of his situation and he loses.

It is because he was so convinced that good living, having all the right things, was the instrument of salvation that his death is simply unacceptable. And, to make matters worse, Father Abraham frightens all of us to death, pun intended, with his final declaration – not even seeing a dead person rise from the grave can change our minds.

We are quite stuck in this worldly worldview of ours.

However, lest we hear this story today and leave with the impression that we are being called to go out and live like Larry – hanging out by the gates of the rich until we develop sores all over our body – that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. 

This is not a story of imitation. It’s not a “go and do likewise.”

It is just a story of the truth.

And the truth is this: The game is over.

No one, certainly not God, is keeping score and tallying up all of our good works against our bad. There is not a divine ledger with little tallies every time we misstep or we bring about something good in the world. And there is definitely not a test by which the accumulation of our wealth will determine whether or not salvation is in fact ours.

The truth is a much harder pill to swallow precisely because everything else in the world tells us the contrary. 

Do all you can, earn all you can, achieve all you can, save all you can, invest all you can, those are all slogans of the world.

But the truth is that the game is over. We have nothing left to earn, really, because the cross comes to all of us and all of us die. 

And if we can accept that we are already dead, right here and right now, because of our baptisms, well then we can actually start living because we already have all we need.

Jesus came to raise the dead – nothing more, less, or else. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or to improve the improvable, or even convert the convertible. He came to raise the dead.

Heaven, whatever it may be, is not the home of the good, or the wealthy, or the powerful. It is simply the home of forgiven forgivers.

Hell, whatever it may be, contains only unpardoned unpardoners. 

Everyone in heaven has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong, whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.

And that’s precisely the rich man’s problem – he has been so conditioned and convinced that his earning should have earned him something that he can’t stop thinking about how he did everything right.

But who gets to define what, in fact, is right?

Notice, Jesus does not begin his story with a disclaimer that this is precisely what will happen to the rich and to the poor when they die, nor does he command the listeners to go and be like Lazarus in their living until the day they die. 

He simply tells a story – and a frightening one at that.

But in the end the parable tells us one thing – The game is over. 

Whatever we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already been done. All of our sins, those of the past, present, and future, are nailed to Jesus’ cross. 

The question isn’t “What do we need to do to get saved?”

The question is, “How are we going to start living knowing that we are already saved?” Amen. 

Dying To Live

Luke 10.25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

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Dear Logan,

When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.

For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.

But don’t blame me for your new life.

You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.

But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.

You don’t get a choice.

Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.

A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment. 

Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”

Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one. 

They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.

But instead, they trusted me.

So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.

Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.

One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.

Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”

The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.

Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.

And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.

baptism

It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.

This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created. 

What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.

Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.

But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it. 

At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.

Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less. 

Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.

It’s up to Jesus.

Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us. 

Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that. 

Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer. 

But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me. 

The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.

We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story. 

You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love. 

But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love. 

In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.

The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.

The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.

Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.

And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.

Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”

So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.