A Sermon I Didn’t Preach (or: Hopes & Fears)

What makes a sermon, a sermon?

I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.

And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Advent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and never actually preached them. Oddly enough, I am grateful that I didn’t preach this sermon because Isaiah’s insistence on God’s people beating swords into ploughshares, and my take on what that might mean today, was sure to upset quite a few in the pews. And yet, if we believe the church lives according to God’s future in the present, then perhaps every Sunday is an opportunity to proclaim the radical audacity of our hope in the God “who shall come to judge between the nations.”

Anyway, here’s the text and “sermon”…

Isaiah 2.1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord form Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

We begin at the end.

7 centuries before the Advent of Christ, before the little town of Bethlehem hosted the heavenly host, before the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, the prophet Isaiah saw a word.

What an interesting turn of phrase.

The prophet doesn’t see a vision, he doesn’t hear a word, he sees the word.

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and all people will stream to it. A king will come and teach the ways of the Lord, the instruction will command the attention of the masses.

And what does this king teach?

An eye for an eye!

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

Life’s hard, get a helmet!

No.

The king will teach the way of peace. He will come to judge the living and the dead. And, in judgment, the people will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Their weapons of war will become instruments of agriculture.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Even if you’ve never read from the prophet Isaiah, you’ve probably heard these words before. Or, perhaps better put, you’ve seen them, or some version of them.

We’re familiar with these words because they have captivated the imaginations of the faithful for generations, just think of the famous images during protests against the Vietnam war and all the people who placed flowers inside the barrels of guns. 

And, interestingly, this prophetic proclamation from Isaiah is engraved in large letters on the wall directly across the street from the United Nations. There they rest, day after day, mocking our feeble attempts to make peace while we continue to lift up our swords against one another.

Kelly Latimore Icon

Isaiah sees the word about the days to come. He does not know when, or even how, these things will come to fruition, but the prophet catches a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and he seeds the end.

It’s a bit odd that we begin at the end. Today, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year and we start with the conclusion. But, then again, it’s only right for us to do so because we are Easter people, we’re stuck squarely between the already but the not yet. 

There’s a through line in the Gospels, frankly the whole of the strange new world of the Bible, about time. We sees these words about the past, the present, and the future, and it’s not altogether clear which ones are which. And yet, if there is a persistent proclamation, it is that we belong not to this age, but to the age to come. That’s why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

We are a people out of time. We live in the future because we know that the tomb is empty.

But the future we live in its not a future that we bring to fruition.

There’s a temptation, every time Advent rolls around, for us to feel like it’s our responsibility to make the world come out right; that its up to us to make the word Isaiah sees real. 

To use language from Stanley Hauerwas, we play at waiting this time of year. Advent, after all, is all about patience isn’t it. And yet, for us, it isn’t. We can’t help but make ourselves the main character of the story. We rejoice in this language of getting back to God, of climbing back up the mountain, of making the world a better place.

But, when was the last time we left church jazzed up to turn our swords into ploughshares, or transform our guns into garden shovels?

Did you know that there are more guns in this country than human beings?

The word Isaiah sees is not predicated on us finally getting everything good enough that we can be good enough for God. In fact, its quite the opposite. The end is made possible only as we come to grips with our badness and how badly we need someone to do for us, and to us, that which we cannot do on our own.

Isaiah sees swords turned into ploughshares, a people willing to relinquish their forms of control for forms of sustenance, a people of peace. The strange new world of the Bible is filled with impossible possibilities just like that. The Lord will bring the hills low, and raise the valleys up. The Lord will make the last first, and the first last. The Lord turns a sign of death (the cross), into the sign of life (salvation).

The end is not yet. We Easter people are oddly stuck living in the time of Advent. We exist in the time in between, the time being as Auden put it. We make it through this mortal life waiting and hoping for things not yet seen.

That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years. We know not all is as it should be, but we also know that the future is coming, and his name is Jesus. 

“Building a better future for our children.” I saw that on a sign recently. And I hear those kind of words all the time. Here at church. The PTA. On the news. And, it’s a worthy sentiment. What can we do now to ensure a better and brighter future for the coming generations?

The only problem is, we are not creating the future, and certainly not a better one.

We know what we should and shouldn’t do, and for some reason we refuse to change.

It’s been almost ten years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, plus 6 adults were murdered. I remember being glued to the television and feeling this raw hopelessness in my heart. And yet, I also remember thinking, “This is so bad, we’re definitely going to make sure these types of things will never happen again.”

But we didn’t.

In just the last two weeks we’re seen horrific shootings in Charlottesville and Colorado Springs. Awful. And we just keep going forward as if nothing happened. We’ve become numb to the violence that we are. 

And, sadly, I had to go back and edit this sermon because in between writing it, and preaching it this morning, there was another mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake.

These reports keep coming out, year after year, about how we have a problem with guns in this country. There are too many and the access is too easy. But we do nothing.

We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back, patiently waiting. Talking about living into the Advent season, waiting and waiting and waiting. And what is there to do when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office? You start reading all the random posters on the wall.

Here’s the proper amount of medicine for a 6 year old. Here’s an example of a healthy diet for a ten year old. On and on.

But then I saw a word, a poster on the wall that chilled me to my core:

“Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.”

We are not making a better future. 

But, thankfully, the future is coming to us. From God.

God is creating our future and that future is our only hope. If it were left up to us, we would continue on paths that lead to destruction. But it is not God’s will that anyone should perish. 

Isaiah sees a word that is staggering. Weapons turned into tools for food. People gathering at the mountain. And judgment.

We don’t do well with that word. It sits heavy on our hearts.

But the day of judgment that Isaiah sees is ultimately a day of hope, not of despair. It is a day of restoration, not doom. It is a day of judgment when sin will be no more. 

That’s why we pray to God for help.

We need help that is outside of us. We need something done to us. We need this because we’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ourselves, to make things better, and the world keeps going down the toilet.

No wonder God had to send God’s son into the world. We need all the help we can get.

God is in the business of making all things new; yesterday, today, and forever. And the church, as Christ’s body in the world, is not some social club or gathering that provides a distraction from all that is wrong in the world. Instead, the church exists to call a thing what it is. Or, in other words, the church exists to tell the truth. 

Advent starts in the dark. It always has and it always will. The texts, the hymns, the prayers, they all beckon our attention to the way things are knowing that that not all is as it should be. It is the season of honesty about who we are, but more importantly whose we are.

We are not making a better future but, as the church, we live according to God’s future in the present. We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales. 

The church is God’s weird and wild story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that runs completely counter to everything else in the world. 

One day God is going to get what God wants. Swords will be beat into plowshares, guns will be melted into garden shovels. Peace will reign. O church, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Handel’s Messiah, Chicago, Advent themes, the house of the Lord, church attendance, Fleming Rutledge, hopes and fears, worldly preferences, divine peace, Good Mythical Morning, progress, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

The First Word

Luke 23.33-43

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 handed there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you the 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 we indeed have been condemned just, 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.” 

“Jesus for President.”

That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.

I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.

I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?

I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand. 

We want everyone to know what side we’re on.

And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”

It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.

Jesus for President?

Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea. 

Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.

Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.

Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.

Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.

And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…

Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.” 

Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.

By us.

Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.

The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.

Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.

And he’s nailed to the cross.

Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?

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

How odd of God.

With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.” 

Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.

On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.

It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.

And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.

Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.

Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.

Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.

Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.

Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.

The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.

And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh. 

Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.

God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!

And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.

The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.

It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God. 

And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions. 

We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.

Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.

And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.

St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.” 

They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.

Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.

And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.

But the story isn’t over!

The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.

The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.

One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”

But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.

We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.

Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.

When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.

Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”

It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen. 

Remembered

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Sermons are strange things. 

Someone spends a week in prayer, pouring over the text, hoping against hope for something to say. Meanwhile, everyone else sits in the pews on a Sunday morning, waiting on a Word from the Lord.

It’s a bit odd that this is one of the ways God’s speaks to us. Most of us can understand, or at the very least appreciate, God speaking through scripture. Many of us are indeed moved by God speaking through music. 

But preaching?

The theologian Karl Barth famously noted that “preachers dare to talk about God.” Barth told his students that preaching is meant to be risky in order to ensure that it hasn’t lost its nerve. He dared his students to get out of the way so God could use their sermons to speak. 

For, it’s not a sermon until God shows up. 

Sermons come and go, some inspire and others bore, some give life while others kill. Preachers must be mindful of the words they use whenever they dare to talk about God.

Which is made all the more confounding when we jump into the strange new world of the Bible only to discover a sermon that God dares to preach about God!

Listen – shortly after choosing the 12 apostles, after word spread about his teachings and healings, Jesus stood on a level place among a great crowd and offered a Word:

“Blessed are those whose lives are an absolute mess, for God does God’s best with broken pieces. 

Blessed are the humiliated, for they have been relieved from the burden of self-righteousness. 

Blessed are the broken-hearted, for grace falls through the cracks. 

Blessed are those who grieve, for what is grief if not love persevering? 

Blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead, for to them the kingdom has been prepared. 

Blessed are the forgivers, for, at the end of the day, what else is there? 

And blessed are the forgiven, for they have nothing left to hide.”

“But woe to you who think salvation is yours to earn through power, wealth, and pride, you will be disappointed. 

Woe to the fat cats and the hedonists, there will come a time when you are empty. 

Woe to those who think life goes on forever and ever, for you will die.”

“Therefore, live wild and reckless lives, for in so doing you will inherit the kingdom of God. Love the unlovable. Forgive the unforgivable. If someone asks for food, invite them to your table. If someone is in need of clothing, give them the jacket off your back. None of it was ever yours in the first place.”

“Love others the way you would like to be loved.”

In the name of the Father, myself, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Upon first inspection, it might not seem like Jesus’ sermon dares to speak about God. In fact, it sounds a lot like it only deals with us. Blessed are you, woe to you, do this, do that, and so on.

And yet, the blessings, woes, do’s and don’ts are only made possible and intelligible by God in the flesh who proclaims these words. 

Today is All Saints’ Sunday – the blessed occasion to name and remember the saints in worship, to give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and to praise God for raising them up into the great cloud of witnesses. And yet, in so doing, we often paint pictures of the saints as being holy and perfect people.

The saints of God’s church are and were anything but perfect.

It’s all nice and fine to elevate biblical characters from the New Testament, but it’s important to remember that people like Peter and Paul were perjurers and murderers. And, for some strange reason, we can’t stop naming churches after them!

Or, to leave the Bible for a moment, do you know the story of St. Nicholas? Yes, that St. Nicholas, the one who famously provided gifts for children in the middle of the night. Well, the story goes that during the Council of Nicea in 325 a certain Christian named Arius was arguing that Jesus was not co-equal to the Father but was instead created by God. And, unable to restrain his disdain for such a theological back-step, St. Nicholas marched across the floor, and punched Arius in the face!

The saints, contrary to how we might like to imagine them, or hide them away in museum-like churches, are far more complicated, and therefore faithful, than our limited perspectives of perfection.

To put it another way, as Oscar Wilde said it, “The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Sermons, strange and daring as they are, give us the language to express the difference Jesus makes. For, we Christians are a threatening bunch to the order of things.

Just think about what Jesus preached! Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Turn the other cheek? Those proclamations run against everything we’re taught about what it means to exist in the world. 

And yet, Jesus proclaims this strange and even bizarre sermon not because these things work. Loving your enemies doesn’t make them disappear, just as turning the other cheek doesn’t stop us from getting hit. In fact, it usually guarantees it.

Saints exists because of a community we call church that nurtures and shapes people who, while often unfaithful, learn the story of God through Jesus’ preaching. 

Jesus preaches this sermon not because it works, but because it tells us who God is. 

And God changes everything.

In the book of Acts, those outside the church called the earliest followers of Jesus “world-turners” because they kept flipping things upside down. The first will be last, resurrection out of death, etc. But by the 2nd century, those outside the church described those who followed Jesus as a burial society.

Of course, the church is more than just a burial society, but we are also exactly that!

We are a burial society because we gather to mourn the dead, and yet we do so with hope because we know death is not the end! All of us experience death prior to our deaths because we are baptized. In baptism we are buried with Christ that we might rise with Christ.

How strange it is to be a Christian.

Week after week, we pull out this old book and find that it is alive and speaks into our existence here and now. We baptize the young and the old alike knowing that it incorporates us into something we might now have ever discovered on our own. We gather at the table and we are made participants in the communion of the saints. We hold fast to the truth of the gospel that only God can tell us who we are.

I remember coming forward for communion once when I was a kid. My hands were outstretched in line with everyone else. Right in front of me was an older man, and I could hear him crying as he walked forward. As soon as he stood in front of the table, our pastor looked on his tears and said, “Why are you crying?!”

And I heard him say, “I’ve been a bad man.”

And without missing a beat our preacher said, “As have we all! But take heart! You belong to God.”

Hear the Good News of the Gospel: God does not make anyone a saint who is not first a sinner, nor does God provide love to any but the wretched. God has mercy on none but the bad, and gives grace only to those who are in disgrace.

Which is why we can do the strange things we do in church. Whether its preaching, or baptizing, or serving. Whether its crying or laughing. We can even happily remember the saints, not as a denial of their deaths, but as a recognition that their deaths are not their ends.

Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates.

Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners.”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and failures.

Instead, Jesus says, “You are mine, and I am thine.”

On All Saints, we remember the Saints, all of them.

Notably, the “all” in “All Saints” is the acknowledgment by the church that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we are about to do: gather at the table of God. 

If sermons are strange, communion is even stranger. For, when we gather at the table, we commune not just with God, but we commune with all the saints who have come before us, those who surround us now, and those who will be here long after we’re gone. 

This feast stretches across time and is a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb when we will gather with those we have lost. 

Today, we bring all of our emotions to the table. The joy and gratitude for the saints, the grief and the pain that they are no longer here. And we can bring all of our feelings because Jesus says “Heaven belongs to those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to the saints, and to us. 

Thanks be to God. 

Jesus Changes Everything

Luke 20.38

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive. 

The Sadducees ask Jesus a question. If a woman remarries 7 times, to whom will she be married in the resurrection of the dead?

Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. 

1) He could pick 1 of the 7 husbands, perhaps the first, or the last, or one in the middle, to be her husband in heaven. But none of them make for a good answer since 6 of the former husbands would be left to inherit the wind.

2) He could admit that the Sadducees have a point – If she can’t be married to one of her husbands in the resurrection, then perhaps there is no promised resurrection.

But, of course, Jesus doesn’t go with either of those options. Instead, he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. Jesus simply asserts that the resurrection is an entirely new ballgame in which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. Additionally, he furthers his answer with the claim that the Torah proves the resurrection since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all of whom were not alive at the same time and if God is to be their God they all must be alive together in some other way

Jesus’ answer is less about the nuts and bolts of marriage, and more about how the kingdom of God works. He asserts, in just a few verses, that the people we marry and bury in this life don’t really belong to us.

And that’s Good News.

However, for some of this this might actually sound like radically bad news; we shudder to think of a time when we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life. We don’t want to imagine a moment in which someone wearing a ring is no longer bound by that ring.

But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is overturning.

It’s why we say, “‘Till death do us part.”

Jesus changes everything. The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord obliterates all of our previous notions of possession, particularly when it comes to people. Notably, the Sadducees held to a rigid understanding that women belonged to men as if property. But then Jesus stands and offers a truly radical witness to marriage: We aren’t lesser halves or better halves until (and after) we get married. We are fully and wonderfully made by God whether we get married or not. Marriage is something that happens in this life, but in the resurrection of the dead all notions of labels fade away as we gather at the Supper of the Lamb. 

It’s as if Jesus addresses the crowd and says, “Listen up! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, something beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant. In this world, your world, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the living God.”

On Sunday, Christians across the globe will gather to remember the saints (unless they did so already on Tuesday). It is an occasion for us to give thanks to God for those now dead while, at the same time, rejoicing with the knowledge that they now await us at the Supper of the Lamb. Oddly enough, we can happily remember the saints, even in our grief, because we worship the God of the living.

Nuts & Bolts

Mark 2.1-12

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hears? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

“They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” is a favorite line among clergy-types. When the pandemic came in earnest, I heard countless colleagues make that remark with regard to moving church online. It shows up turning denominational turns as we’re tasked with communicating bizarre elements of our polity with our laity. And it’s the go-to expression whenever something goes wrong with a church building and all the eyes turn the pastor for direction.

And yet, the irony is, there is no type of schooling that fully prepares someone for their vocation. Imagine how boring our lives would be if we knew everything we needed to know the day we graduated.

However, I must confess, the words “they didn’t teach me that in seminary” left my mouth the very first time I was tasked with a committal to the grave. 

Grief counseling? Services of Death and Resurrection? Theological proclamation in Bible study? No problem. But then, after my first funeral service, I found myself driving to the cemetery without knowing what I was supposed to do.

When we all arrived, we stood around the casket of the recently departed, and all the eyes turned to me. And then, because God provides, a story from the scriptures appeared in my mind.

Listen: Jesus returned to Capernaum shortly after calling the disciples to follow him. It was reported among the community that he was home and crowds began to gather. Rumor had it that this particular son of a carpenter could make the impossible possible. 

Soon, so many people arrived that they were spilling out onto the road, waiting for their turn.

And, it came to pass, that a group of friends caught word of the Word’s arrival and they put together a plan. Their friend was paralyzed, and so they carried him through the streets of Capernaum until they arrived at the house. Upon discovering the size of the crowd, the climbed up on top of the house, used shovels to dig through the roof, and they lowered their friend to the Lord.

When Jesus saw their faith… notice, not the faith of the paralytic… when he saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

If the story ended there, it would already be radical enough for the Gospel. It’s got all the markings of a remarkable tale: friendship, hope, overcoming adversity, and a delightful conclusion. And yet, Jesus forgives the man his sins. 

Isn’t that strange?

If this were a proper story, Jesus would’ve reached out to the man, and healed his legs. 

But instead, Jesus forgives his sins.

Of course, the story keeps going because some scribes were near by, the do-gooding religious types. Perhaps they couldn’t help but hope for a glimpse of heaven on earth, even if they didn’t really believe everything they heard. And they grumbled.

“Who does this guy think he is? It’s blasphemy I tell you! No one can forgive but God alone.”

And Jesus said, “Check this out: Which is easier, to tell him he’s forgiven or to tell him to walk. But so that you may know heaven is standing here right in front of you, I’m going to do both.”

He looked over at the forgiven paralytic and said, “Go home.” And the man stood up and left.

Everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

The family stood staring at me, pondering why this story, of all stories, was the one I proclaimed at the grave. And then I said, “Gathering here, we are like those friends who carry the one we love to Jesus. With our faith, we witness to the promised truth that this is not goodbye, this is, “until next time.” Until we gather together at the Supper of the Lamb that goes on without end. 

And then I reached down to the dirt, laid it on the casket, and I sang: Softly and Tenderly…

It is a strange thing to be a Christian. There was a time, of course, when it was expected or assumed that Christianity was a normative experience for people. But now, today, the church is a rather radical witness to the work of God in the world. In short, we approach the throne of God with a trembling hope because we know that we cannot take any of this for granted.

To be a Christian is to know that time is now fleeting the moments are passing. It is to know that we are defined not by our mistakes but by the grace of God. It is to know the great Good News that Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Those descriptors might not sound strange to our ears, but to the world they are as confounding as can be. The world tells us that, so long as we purchase certain products, and dress a particular way, that we can hang around forever. The world hangs our mistakes around our necks and compels us to carry them everywhere. And the world forces us to believe that we are completely alone and can only ever depend on ourselves.

To be a Christian is to be different. 

We worship a God who became one of us, who arrived in the muck and mire of our lives, to be the difference that makes us different! We follow the Lord Jesus who is not only capable of forgiving our sins, but also of raising the dead!

The fundamental difference between the world and the church, is that the world assumes we can earn or achieve everything we need, whereas the church reminds us that the everything we really need has already been finished for us in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the church exists to mediate Christ to us through sermon, song, and sacrament. The church teaches us who we are. The church proclaims the Good News to a world drowning in bad news. 

Notice, the friends from scripture today bring their friend to Jesus and they won’t let anything stand in their way. The do something wild and reckless: They trust that this 1st century rabbi can make a way where there is no way, and they’re willing to dig through a roof to see it happen!

And then, when Jesus does his Jesus thing, the crowds glorify God and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”

When the church is at her best, we all depart with those same words, either aloud or in our hearts, and we can’t help ourselves from living differently because of the Good News.

Today we’re talking about, and thinking about, witness, the final aspect of church membership. When someone joins a United Methodist Church they make a vow to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It’s all too easy to take the theme of witness and boil it down to something like a church growth strategy.

Put another way, we often confuse witness with evangelism. 

There’s a church, not too far from here, that is busting at the seams. Each week they have to pull out more and more folding chairs to make space for people. And, when the pastor was asked to what he could attribute the increase, he said, “It’s our iPad giveaway program.”

You see, at this particular church, they raffle off an iPad every single Sunday, and you receive more raffle tickets depending on the number of people you bring to church with you.

Those people are being converted to something, but I don’t think we can call it the kingdom of God. 

Notably, in our denominational neck of the woods, there’s a rather sobering statistic that haunts me: Today, the average United Methodist invites someone else to worship once every 38 years.

And even so, the location of the church today is a great gift! For, it gives us the space and opportunity to rediscover how unusual it is for us, Methodists of all people, to be the church of Jesus Christ. 

The early church grew, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have, not because they gave away tablets, or went door to door, or handed out tracks in downtown Corinth. 

The early church grew because the witness of Christ in the world was life-changing.

Rich Mullins, who I’ve been quoting a lot recently, once said, “I am a Christian, not because someone explained the buts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.”

In other words, people carried him to Jesus.

The God we worship is a healer of broken things. And yet, the brokenness that God heals is not just our broken bodies. God heals broken hearts, broken spirits, broken promises. 

In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we see how the one who said, “Your sins are forgiven,” had the power to do exactly that.

Notice, the paralytic did absolutely nothing to earn his forgiveness. Save for the fact that he had some good friends. And those good friends were already living according to the difference that Christ makes. 

All of us this morning are here, whether we know it or not, because someone or some people carried us to Jesus. We are products of those who made Jesus real for us, those who were willing to be nuts and bolts.

And, in the end, that exactly what it means to witness. It’s living according to the Good News of God in the world as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends we did not know we had. Friends who are possible only because Jesus has gathered us in for God’s great parable to the world we call the church. Friends who are willing to carry us to Jesus over and over again because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. Amen.

Lunch with Jesus

Luke 19.1-2

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 

We love the story of Zaccheaus. And by we, I mean the church. We tell Z’s story to children in Sunday school, we use it in VBS curricula, and we even have a nice little song that conveys the whole thing:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he / He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see / And as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree / And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.

The song, and the ways we tell the story, make Zaccheaus out to be this smaller than life character (pun intended) who just wanted to catch a glimpse of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation, particularly as it regards money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zaccheaus was. He was a tax collector, someone who stole from his fellow Israelites and kept a fat portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor to his people, and to his God, and he stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus.

And Jesus picks this no good dirty rotten scoundrel out from the tree and says, “Hey, let’s get something to eat.”

And, in a way that could only happen in the Gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even strange proclamation. After a couple sandwiches, and a glass of lemonade on the front porch, Zacchaeus says, “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four time over.”

And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks like! Let’s have a party!”

It’s a confounding story, and one that we often water down. Zacchaeus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God and God shows up for lunch. Zacchaeus has swindled countless people and Jesus has the gall to give him salvation.

And yet, his story is precisely why we can call the Good News good. 

We are happy with a Jesus who forgives the tame sins of the nearly righteous. We are content to hear about the need to love one another a little bit more. But it’s another thing entirely to encounter the radical nature of Jesus’ proclamation of grace. Jesus’ willingness to cancel sins, big sins, is downright scandalous.   

Which is why we sing of Zacchaeus but keep him at a distance. For, to approach the wee little man is to admit the truth of who we are and whose we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God. 

All of us are like Zacchaeus. We all hurt people close to us, we all ignore the needs of strangers, and we all focus on our wants, needs, and desires at the expense of others. We distance ourselves from true unabashed goodness, though we don’t mind taking a peek from the vantage point of a tree (or a pew). But be warned! All it takes is a glimpse for the Lord to see us and say, “Want to grab some lunch?”

And the rest, as they say, is Gospel. 

Grace Is Unfair

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…

There is a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He even tithes when the offering plate comes around on Sunday morning. He is good and faithful.

And there’s another man, a legal crook, who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the rest up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can’t even keep track of where he keeps all of them.

They both show up for worship one day. The good and faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the crook and, meanwhile, the crook asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

The parable of the publican and the pharisee. Jesus tells this tale to his disciples and then mic-drops the ending: “I tell you, this man (the crook) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It’s all wrong, right? This parable runs against the grain of how we think it’s all supposed to work.

Put another way: Which of the two would we prefer to see sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning? How would we feel if the crook was part of our church? What would we do if he took a little money out of the offering plate or showed up with a new woman on his arm every Sunday?

This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with a resounding conclusion, Jesus tells the disciples and all of us that the whole game is unfair.

Grace is unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and yet, instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”

Do you see what that means?

It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the Publican can kick him out. The whole point of the parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good works and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation. 

In short, they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what Jesus came to do. 

Fools!

Luke 12.13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures from themselves but are not rich towards God.”

Someone interrupted Jesus one day, “Lord, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance.”

The man probably has just cause for his request, even though the conventions of the day dictated that the eldest son would receive the inheritance. But, don’t we agree it would be a good thing for Jesus to make everything fair?

Jesus replies, “Hey, what’s the deal? Who made me a judge over all you people?”

Apparently, Jesus has more important things to deal with than the incidental patching up of a intra-family dispute over finances.

But then Jesus does what Jesus does best – he tells a story.

There was a man who had it all. At first, he used the excess cash to fill his house with all sorts of trinkets and wares that served only one purpose: showing others how wealthy he was. It started with some paintings, until he ran out of wall space. Next he redid his wardrobe, until his closet was full. And then he bought an extra luxury car, until he realized there wasn’t enough room in the garage.

What was he to do?

And then the man had a vision! Why not tear it all down, and build an even bigger house to fit even more stuff inside?

So that’s what he did.

And it came to pass, after months of deconstruction and reconstruction, of differing architectural bids and various contractors, he looked at all he had and he said to himself, “You’ve done well old boy! Time to eat, drink, and be merry!”

Suddenly a booming voice from the heavens shatters all the new glass in the windows: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you spent your life obsessing over, whose will they be?”

Jesus sure could tell a story.

And yet, I don’t know if this story has “worked.”

And by “worked” I mean, I don’t know if we’ve changed all that much in response to this particular parable.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus talked about money and possessions more than any other subject. And for good reason: we’re just as obsessed with what we have now as we were back then. Even a couple hundred years ago John Wesley was addressing wealth with the early Methodists: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

There’s a great irony with Jesus’ parable of the rich fool: We all know that it’s true, and yet we live as if it isn’t.

It’s a bonafide fact that we can’t take anything with us when we die, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. ($10,000 caskets…)

Everything in the world, and even the church at times, runs on avarice. Extreme greed for wealth and material goods. It’s the lie we were fed as children, and it’s the lie that we give to our children. It’s reinforced with every magazine cover, every instagram post, and every commercial we encounter.

Happiness is yours, if you can afford it!

And it’s all one big lie.

The world will tell us over and over and over again that we are defined by our bank accounts, and the clothes we wear, and the cars we drive. But in the kingdom of God it’s through poverty, not wealth, that God saves us.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though fully God, did not regard divinity as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, being born in human likeness, and was obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Why does God do this? Because we need all the help we can get.

Whether we’re rich or poor or somewhere in between, all of us are sin-sin with our insatiable desire for more.

And not just more, but more, more more!

We clutch at all that is around us rather than opening our hands to ever being open to anything else.

We’d rather receive than give.

We lay awake at night worrying about one thing and one thing only: money.

And then Jesus has the nerve to tell us this parable! 

Notice: the man in Jesus’ story does with his avarice what we all do: We congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.

The wealthy man sees only himself: “He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

He’s living in a monologue.

And yet, all of the things we have in this life, all of the things we think we’ve earned or deserved, every one of them is actually a gift. We are products of what is done for us more than by what we do for ourselves. 

Jesus sets up the man as the paradigm for everything we think is good, and right, and true in this life. He’s fiscally responsible after all. He’s earned his good fortune. And yet, the man is only a master of a life that is completely and radically out of his control – the rich man is nothing more than the captain of a ship that has been taking on water since it left the dock.

The man lives only for himself, talks only to himself, sees only himself, until the Lord knocks him to the ground for being a fool.

He is foolish because no matter how much he talks to himself, and congratulates himself, and rejoices in himself, he neglects to recognize that his crops, or his stock portfolio, or whatever the good thing is was always first a gift.

And gifts require givers.

The land that our food comes from, the institutions that give us the space and knowledge to grow, the families that provide our basic needs, the friends that support us in times of pain and grief, on and on and on.

And yet, we are far more possessed by what we think we possess. Our possessions possess us!

We keep acquiring more and more hoping we can control our lives or, at the very least, to make it appear like we have our lives together.

We spend most of our lives in pursuit of wealth, material and immaterial, only to come in the end to the greatest poverty of all: death.

Jesus’ parable ends with that frightening final note, one that lingers long after the Lord calls us fools: no matter how much we make, no matter how much we accumulate, we all die in the end.

John Ortberg tells this great story about how for years he and his grandmother played monopoly. She taught him the ins and the outs of the game, differing strategies, and she always always won. Until one day, after countless games, he finally beat her. And as he celebrated is victory, dancing across the living room, she said, “Don’t forget, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

All the money, property, houses, hotels, they never really belonged to him. They were in the box before he started and they returned when he finished. 

A challenging aspect of Christianity is our profound willingness to stare death in the face. It’s why we have crosses in our sanctuaries. We know, better than most, that time is now fleeting the moments are passing, passing from you and from me. And when the bells tolls for us, what will happen to all our stuff?

And yet, again, the “our” in “our” stuff betrays the Christian understanding that all of it, the money, possessions, talents, they are not “ours.” They are given to us by God who trust us to be good stewards of the gifts we’re given.

This church is a product of your stewardship, and the stewardship of those who came before us. Our sanctuary windows are marked with the names of those long gone who believed in God’s working in the world that they returned to God the gift they were given. 

Even today, your gifts are what makes this church possible. The gifts of your time, showing up for worship and prayer and study and service. The gifts of your talents that you share with God and with one another. And, of course, the gifts of your finances.

Giving is normative in discipleship. It’s how we live into God’s mission of transforming the world. 

But it’s also how we keep the lights on, and keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s how we are able to welcome and provide space for so many outside groups. It’s how we pay the salaries to support the livelihood of our staff and their families. It’s how we live into the strange and even foolish (at least according to the world) Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because, in the end, the parables are stories Jesus tells about himself and Jesus is the one who doesn’t store up his life on earth and, instead, freely gives it for you and me. Rather than clinging to his own life, Jesus mounts the hard wood of the cross for people undeserving, us. 

This parables stings, and it frightens, perfect for the month of October, even better for stewardship! But it is Good News!

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not our money or lack of it, not our possessions or our minimalism, not our goodness or our badness, not our lives and not even our deaths.

We might not see it, or even believe it, but there is greater wealth in the salvation of Christ than in every bank account in the world.

And it’s ours for free.

We can’t earn it.

We don’t deserve it.

It’s not cheap, nor is it expensive.

It’s free.

It’s free for you and me and every fool the world will ever see.

Wesley said, “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.” Thankfully, we worship the God who never stops giving. Which is why the psalmist can sing, “our cups runneth over.” The only question is, what are we going to do with what we’ve been given?

The Perfect Church

Luke 2.41-52

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem of rite festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I would like everyone to close your eyes for a moment, find a comfortable posture, and I would like you to imagine the perfect church…

What does it look like?

What kind of people are in it?

What are some of the things the church does?

It’s a little terrifying how easy it is to imagine “the perfect church” only to open our eyes and be stuck here with each other. It’s so easy to picture a particular church in our minds because that’s what life has conditioned us to do. We usually curate everything we can to benefit our own tastes, and leanings, and hopes, and dreams.

If we don’t agree with someone else on Facebook, we can just block and unfollow them.

If we start watching a movie and within ten minutes it’s boring we can push a few buttons and watch something else.

If we’re hungry for a particular meal, we need only open an app on our phones to have it delivered right to our door, despite all the food we might already have in the pantry.

Basically, we are consumers living in a consumable world. We choose exactly what we want, take what we want, and move on with unlimited choices and unlimited speed.

And, frankly, we bring this understanding of reality to the church as well. That’s why there’s every flavor of Christian denominationalism on Grandin Road. If you encounter a church that doesn’t give you what you want, there’s always another one to try. 

The only problem with that is the fact that what we want is not often what we need.

An example: We are blessed in this church to have visitors nearly every Sunday. That is something worthy celebrating, but a very strange phenomenon when taking in the scope of Christian history. Up until the last 100 years, you went to church where you could. Now we go to church where we want.

Anyway, we get a fair number of visitors here, those church shopping for a new church home. And, every once in a while, visitors come back again and again and I will meet with them to talk about what it might mean for them to join or become more involved. During that conversation I always ask about where they were attending church before. 

And, more often than not, someone will describe their last church, usually somewhat local, and how they attended for years until something particular happened. A too-political sermon. A unfortunate song choice on a Sunday morning. A stinging stewardship season. And that was enough to say goodbye.

According to the world this is a normal thing that happens. We can move on over and over again.

But in the realm of the church this is downright strange. 

Charles Spurgeon, 19th century preacher, put it this way:

“If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”

Strangely enough, the church is where we discover the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ that leads us to live uncomfortable lives for him. Uncomfortable because, living for Jesus means living for the people in the church around us too.

When someone joins a United Methodist Church they covenant to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. To support the church by presence is literally that, it means being present

Part of our discipleship is a willingness to be present with God and with one another. We gather week after week to remember the stories of God and to be re-membered into the body of Christ. We break bread with one another in worship, and during the Garden, as a recognition that the Christian life is one that is meant to be shared. We show up for Bible studies, and outreach programs, and all sorts of other things because, on some level, we understand that being present together is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus.

Luke’s Gospel has all the best stories. Mark is short and brief, Matthew is theological, John is all over the place, and Luke’s got the stories. And the story of Jesus at the temple is just so good.

It’s got drama and intrigue, family strife, and youthful rebellion.

And when we read it we tend to fixate on Jesus teaching the elders. He’s a 12 year old boy and everyone is amazed at his teaching. And so people like me stand up in a place like this and say things like, “Our youth are not the future of the church, they are the church right now.” And a 3.5 minute story will usually be shared about a youth and how they understand the kingdom better than we do. And so on.

And that’s all good and fine. 

Jesus does say that if we want to get into the kingdom of heaven we have to act like children.

And yet, I fear we miss something else in the story when we emphasize Jesus’ teaching in the temple alone. What we miss is the fact that this is also a story about horrible parenting!

Listen to it again: They traveled all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, a six days journey by foot, and when they were done they returned home Mary and Joseph did not know that they left their son behind.

What? How does that happen? It’s one thing to lose track of a wayward child in the grocery store, but leaving them behind in a foreign city? C’mon!

And that would be bad enough. But then it says they traveled a whole day before they noticed. AND THEN once they turned back it took them another 3 days to find him!

Jesus was in the Temple teaching and his parents were astonished and Mary said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Which is the Bible’s version of, “Boy, you had us worried sick! You are grounded from now until eternity!” 

And how does Jesus respond? “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Must is a strong word. In life all of our must and shoulds don’t muster up to much in the kingdom of God, but Jesus’ response is notable.

It is good and right to be in the house of God. Honor and keep the sabbath, that’s 1 of the 10 commandments. 

The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.”

To be in the house of God was as necessary to Jesus as it is to breathe.

And yet, there are a few more staggering details in this story that really bring it all home. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for Passover. Some 21 years later, on Passover in the same city, Jesus will take a loaf of bread and a glass of wine and share it with his friends. He will become the Passover Lamb for the them, the exodus for the rest of us.

Mary and Joseph abandon Jesus in the city, much like the aforementioned disciples will abandon him to the cross the day after Passover.

It take Mary and Joseph three days to find their son, much like Jesus sat in the tomb for three days before the resurrection.

And notably, after the family’s confrontation in the Temple, scripture says that Jesus returned home and was obedient to his parents and Mary treasured it in her heart. Which is another way of saying that Jesus forgave his parents for what they did to him, much like Jesus returns to his abandoning and denying disciples on the other side of Easter.

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the claim that salvation does not come to us by natural inclination, by birthright, by earning, or deserving. Salvation is a gift from God. And because it is a gift it can only be received on God’s terms, not ours. The church is the witness to the gift of salvation, reminding us time and time again what we have been given even though we deserve absolutely nothing.

That’s a hard truth to swallow, the “we deserve nothing.” But it’s true. We all do things we shouldn’t, we all avoid doing things we should. We are imperfect people. We might not be the type of people who forget our children back in Jerusalem and wander around for a few days before we find them, but we do have a lot more in common with Mary and Joseph than we let on. What’s more, even though we fail to be an obedient church, even though we fail to love God and one another, God offers us grace anyway. 

Therefore, the perfect church is actually an imperfect one, constantly reminding us of our imperfections and the great Good News that someone has come to help us. And that someone has a name: Jesus

Without the church how can we know that grace is given to us, how can we discover that we are caught up in Jesus’ story, how can we receive the sacraments?

We need one another, because you can’t baptize yourself no more than you can give communion to yourself. We need someone to give those gifts to us. We need the church to tell us again and again, “The world will only ever see you through your faults and failures, but God loves you.”

We need the church because it holds us together even when it feels like everything else is falling apart.

Rich Mullins once said, “Nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning. Every time we go to church we’re confessing again to ourselves, our families, to the person in the pew next to us, that we don’t have it all together. That we need direction, we need accountability, we need help.”

The reason for being present in church is the strange fact that this is the only community that is consciously formed, criticized, and sustained by the truth. Which is Good News for a world that runs by lies.

Church is the last vestige of place where we willfully gather with those who are not like us, this is the fellowship of differents. And though we are different, the truth that is Jesus Christ, somehow makes us one.

I often wonder why I kept going to church throughout my life. At first I was present in church because my parents made me – they couldn’t leave me home alone as a child even though Mary and Joseph clearly would have. 

But then, around my teenage years, I started running the sound system so I had to be present in church. And then I left for college, and there was a church that needed a drummer so I was still present in church. On and on and on.

And when I look back now, I know the answer to why I kept showing up for church: Jesus.

Jesus churched me. The church is how God dealt with me. I am who I am because of the church. Through sermons and sacraments, through friends and even foes, I was shaped into who I am.

God is in the business of remembering us. That is, God re-members us, puts us together, like pieces from a puzzle. And yet, have you ever pulled out a puzzle and worked away on a rainy day only to realize that one or two of the puzzle pieces we missing?

The picture isn’t complete.

The church is complete, the body of Christ is complete, when we are together. Your presence here makes the church the church. When we are present before God’s presence, we live God’s future in our present and it actually changes things. 

So welcome to the perfect church! It’s perfect because God does God’s best work with imperfect people like us. Amen.