Empty Cups

Proverbs 11.25

A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives water will get water.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. I would be attending my first seminary class the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on what would become my theological journey.

So I looked up United Methodist Churches on google and went to the one that was closest to my apartment. 

I meandered through the open front doors, collected a copy of the bulletin from a distracted usher, and walked into the sanctuary hoping to find an empty pew. It was only a few minutes before the top of the hour and I was perplexed to discover an entirely empty sanctuary.

No preacher.

No choir.

There wasn’t even a wayward acolyte wandering down the aisle.

I only stood for a moment before the aforementioned usher walked up behind me and said, “Son, you must be new here. We’re having worship this morning down in the fellowship hall.”

So I turned my back to the beautiful stained glass windows and the exposed organ pipes and descended into the dark and dismal basement.

After navigating a few frightening corridors and passing long-forgotten Sunday schools rooms, I heard a scattering of voices and followed them until I entered the space for holy worship. The room was sparse with only a handful of folding chairs set-up in a haphazard semi-circle around a podium and a make-shift altar. 

By the time I grabbed an empty chair the preacher was standing behind the improvised pulpit encouraging us to stand and sing our opening hymn, which we did.

“Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.”

The next forty five minutes the collection of Christians in the basement listened to the preacher go on and on about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to the Lord what was first given to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we continue to worship in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

When the service was over, I made for a quick exit out of the basement when the preacher grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced himself all the while apologizing that I had to hear all of that on my first Sunday at the church. He said, “I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.” I’m sure I made some sort of positive comment hoping to make him feel a little bit better when a tiny older woman walked up and triumphantly declared, “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church nearly every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

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Today, we live in a world surrounded by a culture that is constantly encouraging us to live beyond our means. Our collective credit card, medical, and student loan debts are the highest they have ever been with no slow down in sight. And I think the reason why so many of us buy a whole bunch of things we don’t need, is that in the back of our heads we hope that the things we buy will be with us forever – which isn’t possible.

In some way, shape, or form, we all go out hoping that the things we purchase will make our lives better now and forever, and even though it never really works we keep doing it anyway!

When confronted by the strange spending habits of the early Methodists, John Wesley put it this way: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

We’ve been talking this month about Wesley’s teaching regarding money: Gain all you can – Save all you can – Give all you can. And for a lot of us the first two sound really nice. Wouldn’t things in our lives be better if we could just bring in a little more money? Wouldn’t the future feel a little more secure if we were able to increase our portfolios accordingly? 

But then we come to the third and final aspect and we’re not sure how we feel about it. Why give away that which we have worked so hard to earn and to save?

If all we do is gain and we can and save all we can and stop there, then it would all be for nothing. We may as throw our money into the fire. Not to use it faithfully and prayerfully is effectively to throw it away. 

It may sound strange to our compulsively capitalist ears, but giving away all we can is what makes intelligible the calls to gain and to save.

There is a story from the Bible that we, for some reason, love to throw into VBS curricula  and it is easily summarized in a short song: 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 often tell the story make Zacchaeus out to be this smaller than life character who just wanted a little vision of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation regarding money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zacchaeus was. He was a tax collector, a man who stole from his fellow Israelites whatever he wanted and kept a fair portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor and stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus. And Jesus picks this little good-for-nothing-horrible-excuse-for-a-man out from the tree and says, “Hey, lets eat.”

And in a way that could only happen in the gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even stranger proclamation. “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 times over.” And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks life! Lets have a party!”

It’s a strange story, and one that we often water down its strangeness. Zaccheaus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God. He has swindled good people out of their good money, and then Jesus rewards him with salvation? I mean seriously, what in the world?

But that’s kind of the whole thing. 

Salvation, the end all be all, is the way God transforms every area of our lives so that we become a part of God’s work in the world. Salvation changes everything by changing our hearts and the orientation of every part of our lives, including how we use our money. Salvation sets us free from the bondage to our own narrow self-interests and opens us up to the movements of the Spirit in the world.

Many of us today want a version of Christianity that doesn’t want anything from us. Like another notch in the long list of commodified aspects of life, we show up and leave with thoughts about what we got out of it, without ever daring to wonder what God got out of us. Which is strange. Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, put it this way: “There are three conversions necessary in the Christian life – a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind, and a conversion of the wallet.”

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Oh how we wish it were only the first two!

When Zaccheaus was met with the radical nature of God’s grace in the person of Jesus, he experienced a profound conversion – he was no longer the person who climbed up in the tree. His heart was converted in the realization that the Son of God could make something of his nothing. His mind was converted over a dinner table conversation about what really had value in this life. And his wallet was converted when he saw what he had and make the decision to give it away. 

But let us pause for a moment to get something crystal clear – Zaccheaus did not earn his salvation by giving all he gave with his newfound generosity. His generosity was simply a response to the extravagant generosity of God. 

God cares not at all how much money we put in the offering plate or how much money we send to our favorite charity or how much money we make every two weeks or how much money we have saved away for a rainy day. God cares only that we see and know and taste and touch the wondrous gift already given to us in Jesus. What happens next is a matter of faith.

And, lest the call to faithful giving and the witness of the theology of generosity isn’t enough, neuroscientists have proven over and over again that our brains get a happiness boost, we release endorphins, when we give and help other people. Doing good is a good deal for us.

We can give all we want if it makes us feel better, but ultimately as Christians we give because God first gave. The little jolt of happiness is just an awesome byproduct along the way. 

During the earliest days of Methodist, John Wesley desired to lead the people in his care to a healthier, more productive, and more deeply Christ-centered life. He did so by offering practical wisdom about the relationship between money and finances. The end goal of all of this stuff isn’t to make sure the church has more money, though that wouldn’t hurt, the whole thing is about becoming more like Jesus in every part of our lives but particularly in the way we handle our finances. 

In terms of faithful giving whether its to the church or to community projects or any other numbers of places, most of us follow a trajectory. We start off as tossers – we toss our gifts (however big they may be) into the offering plate or the salvation army bucket without giving much thought to what we are doing and we don’t necessarily even feel it when we do it.

Then, at some point, we might enter into the realm of what we might call tryers. Tryers are those among us who have a plan of moving from where they are to where they believe God would like them to be in terms of giving. Going from not giving at all, or even tossing, straight to tithing is a remarkably difficult venture. Our own current financial situations or debts make it very difficult to jump right into the deep end of the pool.

And then there are the tithers – those among us who see their 10% given to God as the baseline of a disciple’s stewardship. Many tithers can’t imagine a life without tithing because it has become completely connected with their way of being. Giving 10% back to God is a practice rooted in scripture, a call to return the first fruits back to the Lord. But tithing is not a duty nor is it an obligation – it is simply a gift given out of sheer gratitude for what God has given.

For me, the journey toward tithing was not one that happened over night and is still one that I struggle with and our family struggles with. I constantly have thoughts about other things I could be doing with the money I give to the church, I think about gifts I could buy for my son, or the dates I could take my wife on, or the frivolous material items I could buy for myself. I do this in my mind because I too fall prey to the insipid temptations of the world around me. I, just like anyone else, want to keep up with the Joneses. I, just like anyone else, want what I wear and what I drive to communicate something about my worth. 

And all of that stuff can’t hold a match to the fire that is God’s grace. 

It has been an act of faith to continually give back to God and it has been an act of trust. Regardless of the amount, whether we’re tossers, tryers, or tithers, putting something in the plate is a profound form of trust. It’s saying, with our wallets, that we believe God can do something incredible with what we give and we get to be part of it all.

Because, at the end of day, we give all we can because God gives all God can. God gives us more than we deserve and more than we realize. God gives us God’s Son every time we gather at the table as a reminder that God is in control. Our cups, whether we respond with generous hearts or not, will never really be empty because God will never stop giving. Ever. Amen. 

The Culture of Now

Proverbs 13.11

Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!

Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.

Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue! 

So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.

On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.

And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.

Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.

Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.

But, and this is a really big but, for many of us the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare.

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Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.

There was a recent study that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances, more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.

Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.

$9,000! 

If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!

That’s craziness. 

The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Again and again and again.

Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.

Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can. 

It’s a lot easier to say than to do.

And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice. 

Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul. 

Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.

But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments. 

It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else. 

Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING. 

Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”

As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods. 

But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God. 

That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”

The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen. 

God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.

But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained. 

The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

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That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.

For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now. 

The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford. 

Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term. 

Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist. 

Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.

Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%. 

This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income. 

What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. 

There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs. 

And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?

But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.

And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM. 

But saving is God’s cup of tea.

Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.

God is all about the long-game.

Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence. 

God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks. 

But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is. 

For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.

Unfair

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man 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.” 

60 years.

That’s a long time.

Basically double my life.

It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive. 

However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.

But here we are!

And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.

Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.

A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!

We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.

However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.

In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.

I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.

60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.

But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.

That world is long gone.

Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.

The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.

Listen: There’s 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 evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector. 

The tax collector is 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 money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.

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

And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.

Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?

It’s all wrong, right?

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 resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair. 

Grace is completely 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 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 tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead. 

And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.

We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.

And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough. 

And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!

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We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most. 

We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.

And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling. 

God is unfair – It’s true. 

But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.

Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?

Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.

Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews. 

It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church. 

The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector. 

You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son. 

That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death. 

In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen. 

Justice Is Blind

Luke 18.1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The courtroom was eerily silent as everyone waited for the judge to enter. 

The jury had been through the wringer answering particular questions that would determine whether or not they were fit to serve.

The lawyers sat at their respective tables with their clients looking over all their prepared statements and pieces of evidence.

The stenographer even sat in raptured silence with her fingers hovering over the keys.

When the bailiff ordered the room to rise they responded accordingly as the judge, dressed in black, made his way to the highly raised chair at the front of the courtroom.

“What’s on the docket today?” He mumbled as everyone sat down again.

The clerk promptly carried over a stack of cases through which the judge began to scan, until he lifted his eyes above the rim of his glasses and looked at down at the plaintiff. She was sitting there in her Sunday best trying desperately to keep her smile as sincere as possible. 

And then the judge blurted out, “Weren’t you in here last week?”

She unfolded the hands in her lap and very calmly replied, “Indeed I was, and I’m still looking for justice.”

And with that the judge ordered her out of the room so that he could get on with the real work of justice.

The next day each of the common characters went through their repetitive routines until the judge ascended to his perch and was bewildered again to see the same woman, in the same spot as she was the day before.

“Ma’am, how many times will I have to kick you out of my courtroom before you learn your lesson.”

“As long as it takes to get my justice, your honor.”

For weeks they went through this new pattern every morning, and eventually it started to wear on the judge. At first he relished in his commands to the bailiff to remove the woman by any means necessary. But every day she came back, looking a little worse than the day before. 

He had no pity for her, he was still familiar with her case and he knew there was nothing to be done. And yet every night he lay awake in bed troubled by her bringing her troubles into his courtroom. The black robe felt heavier and heavier each time he put it on and he discovered that he was starting to develop an ulcer which he attributed to the woman.

But then one night, the judge came to himself and realized that if he just gave her what she wanted, she would stop bothering him and he could be done with the whole thing. So he gave her the justice she was hoping for.

The end.

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Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like the widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like the bailiff dutifully following orders. No even like the stenographer observing and recording every minute detail.

God is like the unjust judge.

So, I guess, it’s good to be bad?

Jesus, here, breaks a lot of common conventions, particularly when it comes to story telling or, dare I say, preaching. Jesus, unlike your esteemed pastor this morning, did not have the benefit of attending a highly regarded seminary in which he would’ve learned about the importance of using good examples of good people to show the goodness of God.

Instead, Jesus hands us this story in which God, as the unjust judge, is supposed to sound good.

I don’t envy the judge in the story, particularly when considering the fact that the judge ultimately takes on two subjects the rest of us find diametrically opposed to one another. The business of grace and the business of judgment. 

This is a tough dance for the church to do no matter what the circumstances are. 

We want to be able to hold these things at the same time when they seem to be completely opposed to one another – we want to be gracious toward all people but we also don’t want people getting away with everything under the sun – we want to tell people that God loves them no matter what but we also want to make sure they know there are certain behaviors that God, in fact, does not love.

And we know how the story is supposed to go. After all, the judge is in the business of the law and therefore should be just in his sentence. But in the end of Jesus’ tale, the judge breaks all the rules of his vocation and actually seems to put himself out of the judging business altogether.

The judge is bothered not by any normal character under the law, but specifically a widow. To our contemporary ears we can still imagine the plight of the widow in this circumstance, but in the time of Jesus to be a widow was to have no hope in the world whatsoever. For a woman to lose her husband was to become a complete and total loser – no social standing, no economic prosperity, no property period. And yet, this widow refuses to accept her deadness in life – she shows up at the courthouse looking for justice and the hope of discovering some kind of wealth in the midst of her total poverty.

She really is dead, at least according to the values of the world and she knows it. The widow knows, deep in her bones, that she has no hope in the world and knows that the judge will not give her the justice she wants, but she also has no other choice but to ask. 

And, for reasons that appear suspect and strange to us, the judge decides to change his mind regarding the plight of the widow. We would hope that the judge would be moved by pity, or hope, or even faith, but Jesus plainly declares those things have nothing to do with it. 

The judge changes his mind simply because it will make things more convenient for the judge. The judge is willing to be unjust just so he can have some peace of mind. 

Jesus then continues by telling those with ears to hear to listen to the unjust judge!

Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to be seen as bad, to let God’s justice be blind, for no other reason that the fact that it will get all of us off of his back. 

Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in our futile pursuits of moral, spiritual, financial, and all other forms of purity. 

In other words: While we were still yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

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There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us! 

We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works. 

But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”

This is Good News because, like the parable of the lost sheep, God’s never going to give up on us. The problem that we don’t like to encounter is admitting that we are, in fact, lost.

Jesus jumps from the story to some sort of moral with the declaration that God delights in being merciful, whether we deserve it or not. And more than that, God will be merciful on God’s people soon.

This story is told as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. This is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you. 

It is the stuff of wonder and awe that God chose to drop dead to give all of us a break. Like the widow’s verdict, God was tired of the world turning to self-righteous competitions and judgments thinking it would lead to perfection. And while watching the world tear itself apart, God destroyed God’s self rather than letting us destroy ourselves. 

The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.

God hung up the black robe and the gavel the day his son hung on the cross. No one but an unjust judge could have ruled in our favor when we don’t deserve it. No one but a crazy God like ours could have been merciful to throw a party and invite the very people that we wouldn’t.

And yet, the parable is not over. It ends with a lingering question from the lips of Jesus: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

The implied answer, much to our disappointment and embarrassment, is no. This story prohibits us from believing that any of us is just enough for the judge. We struggle with faith. Not because we don’t know whether to believe God exists or not, but because we can’t believe that God would do for us what God did for us. Our faith trembles in the recognition that the us in that sentence is us. 

We worship a crucified God, a God who wins by losing, and that’s a hard thing for us to have faith in because we are part of a world that refuses to let go of our insatiable desire to win all the time.

And this really is the heart of Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge.

The confounding nature of God’s work has made this whole parable series difficult for me, as I imagine it has been difficult for many of you. The parables are challenging because Jesus’ stories run counter to just about everything we’ve been told over and over again.

We call the Good News good, but more often than not we preach it and receive it as bad news.

I can stand up here week after week and tell you that God is angry with our behavior. I can proclaim that God is so good that none of us will ever have a chance of getting close to God. I can spend all of my time convincing all of us to get our acts together in order to appease God.

I can even command you to fill the offering plates to the brim enough to get all of us into heaven.

But the one thing I can’t do, the thing we almost never do, is tell the truth that God cares not one bit for our guilt, or our good deeds, or even our tithes. We can’t rejoice in the ridiculous Good News that God has gotten rid of all the oppressive godly requirements we think are part of our ticket out of death. We can’t talk about those things because it sounds too good or too crazy.

And here’s the truth: God is indeed crazy, and so are we. 

God stays on the cross instead of coming down and punishing us until we behave properly.

God has already given us more than we could ever possibly earn or deserve.

And those two things are really unjust when you think about it. 

They are unjust because God, our God, chooses to be blind to who we are.

There’s no better news than that. Amen. 

Blinded By The Light

Luke 17.20-37

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his say. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them – it will be like that on they that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone of the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lost it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Jesus was doing his Jesus thing when yet another group of Pharisees showed up and started badgering him with questions. They were mystified by all the mysteries, non-plussed with all the parables, and they just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Enough is enough Jesus. When is all of this actually going to happen? And, for once, could you just give us a straight answer?”

“You and your friends all want one thing: a sign. You want some big demonstration that what I’ve been talking about is getting set into motion. You flock to Twitter and assume that with every new major scandal or devastation that it’s a sign of something greater happening. Yeah, I see what you all do on the Internet, I know you inner monologues of conspiracy theories – I’ve even eavesdropped on some of those mid-afternoon gossip sessions you’ve been having.

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But if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been saying, the more you go looking for the kingdom somewhere else, the more you will miss it. Because the kingdom, my kingdom, as I’ve been trying to knock it into your brains, is already here. Seriously. It is among you, hell it’s even within you. Perhaps it’s best if I put it like this: It’s lost in you and only when you admit that you are lost as well will you actually start to see it.”

“C’mon Jesus, what in the world are you talking about? We don’t want some sort of mystical kingdom. We want you to overthrow the powerful and the wealthy. We thought you were going to take the throne and let us reign over the earth. How can your kingdom be among us when the world still feel like garbage – better yet, how can the kingdom be in me when I feel like garbage?

“I know I know. You all can’t stand the stuff I’m bringing, but I’m bringing it anyway. I know all of you well enough to know that even my talking about it as clearly as I am right now won’t leave you feeling like its all settled.”

“You think you’re being clear right now? For God’s sake Jesus just tell us something true!”

“All of you will point to things as if I have some master trick up my sleeve, as if I’m working behind the curtains and pulling all of the strings. You will pick and choose the signs that match most with your own sensibilities, you’ll probably even lord them over other people and tell them that this was my work or that I have something to do with the craziness that’s going on in the world. And all of that squabbling and pontificating and gesturing will be for nothing because it will be a denial of everything I’ve already done for you.

“I believe you Lord, I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Peter, such a good boy. Maybe you’re good with everything I’m saying, though when push comes to shove you’ll deny it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No matter how all of you feel about this stuff, there will be others who point at the craziness. They’ll say that mass shootings are my way of getting you back to prayer. They’ll say that locking up immigrants is a sign of holy justice. They’ll point and point and point and say my name. For God’s sake, literally, don’t go running after all that nonsense and don’t you dare follow their examples. Those people haven’t a clue in the world.

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“When I come in glory it won’t be in a particular place or through a particular people. When I show up in glory it’s going to be like lightning – all over the place and all at once showing the truth to everyone and everything.

“But before being blinded by my light, the Son of man will have to endure suffering and be rejected by those in power.”

“Of course you will Jesus, no one is going to buy anything you’re selling.”

But don’t you see? I’m not selling anything – I’m giving it all away. It will be just like during the days of Noah. Remember him? He was in on the whole mystery of death and resurrection before just about anyone else, but even he didn’t really know it at the time. He was a sign that the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that God had plans to use death to save the world. But everyone during the time of Noah ignored it, they wouldn’t think about anything except their precious little lives. They had dinner parties to go to, vacations to plan, tennis matches to watch. And they went right on doing all those things until the very end when Noah packed up his Ark while the rest of the world drowned.

Are you starting to get it now? The message I’m giving you to share with the world is that even in death you will be fine because death is my cup of tea. The problem isn’t death – its with all the people who are so committed to their version of whatever they think living is that they can’t let go. When I come in glory its the people obsessed with holding onto their lives that aren’t going to be very happy.

“Imagine your neighbor being up on his roof replacing a wonky gutter and he sees me risen from the dead. What good would it do him to go into the house to grab his wallet and check his hair before joining me in glory? 

“Picture someone mowing the lawn. Do you think they should go inside to finish filing their tax return before joining me in the blinding light?

“Do you remember the story of Lots’ wife? When everything was finally out in the open, God had done a strange and new thing, and it was time for her to go with God’s flow, she decided to have a nostalgia binge and look back to her old life in Sodom. And you know what happened to her? She turned into a pillar of salt!

Plenty of you are going to try to save your lives like that, and you’re going to lose it all. You’re so obsessed with what you’ve done, and what you’ve earned, and what you’ve accomplished that you can’t see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. And, I can’t blame you, we’ve all been conditioned to hold onto our lives with every fiber of our being so losing that control will literally feel like losing our lives.

“I know this kingdom stuff isn’t easy to digest because everything and everyone else will try to sell you a different story. That’s called idolatry. Whenever you feel compelled to worship something else whether it’s a person or an institution or heaven forbid a political party, those things can’t give you life. In fact, they suck away the marrow of your life. They portend to tell you what to do, and what is important, and what is good and true and beautiful. And those things aren’t necessarily bad, they might even be significant, they make differences in the ways we live and move, but they aren’t the difference that makes the difference – that’s me.

“And believe you me, things are going to get worse before they get better. You will pit yourselves against each other over the dumbest things, you will reject one another because of a wayward comment or a foolish story, and at some point you’re going to look back at your life and wonder where everyone went. 

“But when it comes to my kingdom, remember the one that’s already around you, it’s going to be even more confusing. Some people are going to accept it and others won’t. You’ll see two friends out in a boat fishing and one of them will say yes to my death and resurrection and the other will say no. You’ll see friends on a trip to the market and one will go for the deal and the other will say they need to think about it, forever.”

“Enough Jesus! Where is this going to happen? Just cut the small talk about about the mystery and give us something real.”

Where the corpse is, that’s where the vultures will gather… Oh, you don’t like that? Are you feeling uncomfortable? It’s all about death! Haven’t you been listening to any of the stories I’ve been telling you? I know that death is the one thing you all choose to avoid more than anything else, not just your literal deaths but even talk about death, and yet death is the one thing you don’t need to worry about. Because you can put the dead anywhere and the vultures will find the bodies – that’s what they’re good at.

“Don’t you see it now? I’m in the death and resurrection business, that’s what I’m good at. I will come and find you wherever you may be. So forget all of your anxiety about the question of ‘where?’ And, while you’re at it, get rid of you ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ as well. The only thing that matters is you trust me to do what I say I’m going to do, and then get out there and tell other people to trust me too – because in the end that’s all you can really do – I’m going to take care of everything else.

“Stop worrying about where you are or who you’re with – I’m with you.” Amen

Inescapable

Luke 17.1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

I don’t like that this is true, but people are more often drawn to church out of problems than out of successes. People don’t usually wake up the morning after receiving a raise to think, “You know what, I’m gonna swing by the church today.” No, people usually come by when they find out they’re being fired. 

Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. After all, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. It is here at church that we can finally dispense with all of the pretending and can admit the condition of our condition.

And our condition is bad.

Here’s just a sample of some of the headlines this week: 

“One In Ten Older Adults Binge Drink Regularly”

“Father Forgets Twins In Hot Car For Eight Hours Resulting In Their Death.”

“Two American Mass Shootings In 24 Hours And The Third In A Week.”

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And we need not even look in the newspapers or on our favorite channels at night to see how messed up this world is; how messed up we are. Just take a drive down Route 1 for a little while and take in what you can see. We are stumbling and in our stumbling we are causing others to stumble.

So what should we do about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking, and it’s by no means an easy to handle solution, but I think it will largely take care of our problems. I’ve lined the back of our sanctuary with dozens of metal buckets, and with each bucket you can find a bag of quick dry cement. After the benediction at the end of the service, we’re each going to take a bucket with cement down to the river, and we are going to make sure that none of us cause anyone else to stumble ever again.

Amen?

Now, before you start throwing your tomatoes, I stole that idea from Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

So who’s ready to head down to the water with me?

Jesus is right. It is inevitable that scandals will come. 

I know that sounds different than “occasions for stumbling” because it is different. But in Greek the word is our word for scandal. And the words we use are important.

Throughout the New Testament “scandal” is used when referring to something that occasions sins or temptation. But it is also used in reference to the cross of Christ. As in, to the weakness and foolishness of the method of salvation at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is absolutely a scandal to cause someone else to sin in their life. But it also absolutely a scandal that God chose to come into the world and die in order that we might live.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – What kind of scandal are we really talking about?

I mean, if you are want to take Jesus literally here, while recognizing that each of us in ways both small and large have caused others to sin, then we can all throw ourselves into the Occoquan, but that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like the worst news.

Let us, then, at least entertain the thought that the scandal mentioned here by Jesus isn’t as we’ve so often heard it. Instead, perhaps the scandal that causes us and other to stumble isn’t our own sin, though it certainly can, but the greatest scandal of all is the scandal of the cross.

Our sins are absolutely inescapable in this life, at least that the way we act regarding our sin. We label people by their faults and failure and those labels follow those people until the end of their days. But, in the same way, the cross of Christ is inescapable as well. 

We then could read the verse in question differently: It would be better for someone to meet a violent end than to make someone else believe in a grace that requires them to do something to earn grace. 

The cross stands as an uncomfortable and unwavering reminder that you and I don’t need to do a thing for it. And yet so much of what we do as a culture, and heaven forbid as a church, tells people there is always more for them to do in order to get God to do anything.

And that might be the greatest stumbling block of all.

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Jesus, of course, doesn’t leave it all right there and begins to teach the disciples about real and unending forgiveness. 

The disciples, bless their little hearts, are just like us and when they hear the Lord tell them to practice this kind of forgiveness it cuts against everything they, and we, have ever heard. It is bad advice, according to the world, to continue to forgive people who keep wronging us. But in the kingdom, the truth is that only those willing to lose can ever really win. 

If we insist on being right and being perfect and only surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, we will be out of luck regarding salvation. Moreover, our lives will be downright boring if that all we hope and yearn for.

The disciples, in this circumstance, hear the word from their Lord and recognize they haven’t got nearly the right amount of spiritual resources to keep forgiving people so they naturally ask for the thing they need most: Lord, increase our faith.

And the way we often treat their request is to assume that we need to ask for the very same thing. If we only had a little more faith then we could do the kind of forgiving work Jesus was talking about, if we only had a little more faith then we wouldn’t cause other people to stumble. And when Jesus responds to their request with talk of mustard seeds we hear that as an approval to start small.

But, that feels like we’re actually going backwards. Notice – they ask for more faith, and Jesus tell them if they had even less faith than they currently have, a mustard size faith isn’t much faith at all, the preposterous and impossible would seem reasonable and true.

In other words, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers, looks at each and every one of us, and declares for the thousandth time, that even when it comes to faith we don’t have to be winners.

And that sounds like much better news than marching down to the water!

It can be downright exhausting to be told over and over again that we just need to have more faith. Lost your job? You need more faith! Can’t get a date? You need more faith! Worried about the bills? You need more faith! Blah blah blah. 

Faith is not faith if it needs to be stronger, purer, or greater.

Somewhere along the line we crossed our wires and we haven’t really figured out how to put them back. We have these absurd notions, even in the church, that we’ve got these little faith meters attached to our brains, and that after a lifetime of accumulating more and more faith, that we get to go on to our heavenly reward.

But the truth of the gospel is that we cannot be saved by our faith anymore than by our measurements of mortality or supplements of spirituality. All of our talk of self-improvement amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which in the New Testament, is rejected over and over and over again. 

It is a crying shame that we have fallen into the trap of thinking “more” means salvation.

Which makes the mustard seed actually crazier when we take it in light of Jesus’ words and work. Maybe faith isn’t even essential in terms of salvation at all. 

I mean, what does a mustard seed have to do to do anything? Be buried in the ground and die. So, perhaps even if we have no faith, really, even if we say no to Jesus again and again, we still die and out of our death Jesus still raises us. 

I know that sounds crazy but Jesus is pretty crazy. Over and over Jesus speaks of the all of salvation, the all of the cross, and its we who put numbers and figures on the all. 

Now, of course we won’t be able to enjoy the Supper of the Lamb and we won’t throw ourselves into the music on the dance floor unless we say yes to it. But Jesus’ party is inescapable. Even if we don’t want it, as crazy as that sounds, Jesus’ nagging invitation to the celebration will never ever stop. Not now. Not ever.

Which leads us to the final movement in the scripture, the last part of the parable – the returning servant. Friends, we can and have really messed this part up. We’ve read this as a call for there to be certain kinds of people with certain kinds of rolls in the world. In fact, slaveowners used to use these last lines to keep their slaves in their places, but Jesus is far craftier than that.

Do you thank your slaves for doing the work they were commanded? No, of course not. They are your slaves and they have a job to do.

Coming in the wake of the scandal of the cross, and unending forgiveness, and limited faith, the final movement here sounds like Jesus knocking the disciples over the head with the gospel truth one final time.

Remember the unthanked and the unrewarded slave the next time you expect God to delight in any of your little good deeds. We followers of Jesus have only got one real job to do that’s worth anything at all and that’s to die. Die to ways we think the world works, and in the end die to the life we so desperately cling to. Because in the end, that all God’s needs from us. Everything else that needs doing will be, and have already been, done by God.

I know it stings, but I also know it stings far less than thinking about cementing our feet into buckets. I know we don’t like to hear it, but I also know that if we were honest with ourselves all of us know, deep down, that we could never earn the salvation from God we so desire. 

No matter how good any of us are, no matter what kind of list of good deeds we could present at the end of our days, it would never ever compare with what God’s doing and done for us. 

The greatest scandal over which we stumble is the cross, because it shines like a beacon for all of us to see that we don’t deserve it, but that God did it all anyway. 

My sin, oh, the bless of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part by the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. Amen.

The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

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Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.