The 2nd Hardest Parable

Luke 16.19-31

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

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. Sometimes he thought it was all rather extravagant, the five cars, the jet skies, and now the boat. But, he admitted, it was fun having so many things to play with.

So it came to pass that the man stood in his yard, daydreaming about an expansion to his already expanded garage when he spied his tormentor.

Larry.

Larry stood outside the rich man’s property each and every day, walking back and forth on the grass at the edge of the yard, grass that the rich man paid a small fortune to keep the right length and the perfect shade of green. And there was Larry with his little cardboard sign pleading for money and food. And day after day, people would roll down the windows in their cars, and pass Larry a few dollars, or a spare half-eaten muffin. And it was driving the rich man crazy.

He did everything he could think of to rid himself of the parasitic Larry. He called the police, but they explained that the edge of the lawn actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about Larry’s presence. Then the rich man proposed a new city ordinance banning panhandlers like Larry from asking for assistance, even on public property, but too many do gooders railed against him. The rich man even tried blasting extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive Larry off, but nothing worked.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, Larry drove the rich man crazy.

Until, one day, the rich man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry was gone. His little spot on the corner of the lawn was vacant. The rich man was worried it was too good to be true until he flipped to the obituaries and saw Larry’s picture.

The man danced around his kitchen sliding across the marble floors.

His problem was finally over!

He was so excited, in fact, that he bounced down the hallways in his mcmansion and was about to run into his in-home movie theater to tell his wife the good news when he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell. The flames of fire were lapping all around him and there was nothing he could do to abate the pain. And yet, over the edge of the flame, if he strained his eyes just enough, he could see Larry and he seemed to be standing next to what looked like an angel. 

“Hey!” The rich man shouted while waving his arms, “Could you send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting a little hot!”

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

The rich man raised his voice, “Well, the least you could do is send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me.”

“Nope,” replied the angel, “They have the scriptures – they need only trust what they read.”

“You don’t understand!” The rich man screamed, “That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel replied with a rather matter-of-fact tone, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead.”

Here endeth the parable.

Thanks for this one Jesus – the second hardest parable.

The wealthy and the powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor now will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can while you can – Give away your wealth! And, in order to help you help yourselves, I’d like to invite the  ushers to come forward and receive our gifts!

Just kidding.

Sort of…

Plenty of pastors have stood in front of congregations like this and made that pitch/plea/proclamation. I’ve done it too. We’ll take the story of Lazarus and the rich man only to dangle it over the heads of our dozing congregations in order to fill up the offering plates a little more than the week before. And, sometimes, it works!

Guilt can be an incredible motivator.

So can fear.

And is there anything in this life that we are more afraid of, than the question of money, and whether we have enough of it?

For as much as we might like the idea of money never being addressed in church it is a great challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not walk away with the understanding that our relationship with and to money is at the heart of our discipleship.

Or, to be a little more on the nose about it: It seems that you can’t be wealthy and a Christian at the same time.

Listen – It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The rich young ruler asks Jesus what more he must do and the Lord replies, “Sell all you possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.” Jesus addresses the gathered crowds with, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

And yet, this parable, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, is is about more than mere money alone. Each and every one of us in this room came of age in a world in which those with the largest bank accounts are considered first, best, powerful, etc. And those with little to no wealth are tossed aside, belittled, or used as a warning to everyone else.

We use money to determine worth beyond money.

This is a parable about power and identity and wealth. 

Which runs counter to Jesus proclamation that the first are last and the last are first.

But that hasn’t stopped us, that is Christians, from leaving behind that particular proclamation all together.

We elevate the wealthy constantly – we are far more likely to elect wealthy politicians than poor politicians, we devour books from supposedly self-made millionaires in hope that the same will happen to us, and we fear offending those with more money than we do those who have the same as us.

And here’s the real kicker: For all of our fascination and obsession and even worship of those with lots of money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: If the world could’ve been fixed by good living and good earning, then everything would be perfect by now.

Or, consider this as an example: In most book stores the largest section is the collection of self-help books. And yet, if those books were true to their genre, we would no longer need them!

Instead of a world better off because of the wealthy, the wealthy achieve and maintain their wealth on the backs of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

In the name of progress, or at the very least “making things better,” the wealthy get and stay wealthy by shunning the sick, locking the poor in poverty, segregating according to skin tone, and we’re now stuck with a world in which the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.

Jesus starts his parable thusly: There was a rich man who dressed well and ate all the best foods. And at his gate lay a poor man, covered with wounds, who yearned to eat what the rich man threw away in his trash can.

Jesus told that story 2,000 years ago and he just as easily could’ve told it today about people in Roanoke, VA!

Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “Pastor Taylor, do you believe in hell?”

And I’ll say, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it!”

I’ve seen it.

Hell, according to Jesus, isn’t a place God’s sends people. Hell is us holding onto our freely chosen and false identities. 

Or, put another way, we spend so much time worrying about whether or not we’ll go to hell when we die that we’ve lost sight of how many people are living in hell right now, and that we can do something about it.

Ourselves included.

But, back to the parable… The rich man finds himself in hell, and he is tormented. But notice, when he first speaks, he doesn’t ask to get out of Hell, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t try to make amends. Instead he asks for Lazarus. Which means the rich man knows the poor man’s name! To the rich man Lazarus is not some nameless homeless and hungry beggar among other homeless and hungry beggars. He knows him by name. And that makes it even worse! Because even in Hell, the rich man doesn’t believe Lazarus is worth his time, or his wealth.

He says to the angel, “Send Lazarus over with some water.” The rich man treats Lazarus like an object, as a means to get something, as the means to better his life, or whatever is left of it. He wants to be served!

Even among the fires of Hell, the rich man can’t see past his own worked up version of himself. He still believes himself better than Lazarus, and more deserving.

Sadly, the rich man never comes to his senses. He expresses concern for his brothers, but it’s as if he’s so stuck in the materiality of things that he can’t fathom any other version of reality.

In short: he refuses to die to his backward notion of how things work according to the Lord.

And in the kingdom of God, the Gospel can only make alive those whom the law has killed. The little “l” laws that tell us who we are supposed to be and what we’re supposed to do and what we’re supposed to earn. Only when we die to the never-ending demands of the law, what the world tells us to be, can the Gospel set us free.

In the end, this is a scary parable, and it’s the 2nd hardest parable that Jesus tells. And sometimes it’s good to be frightened by God. And in this story what’s most terrifying isn’t the fire and the flame, it’s the way Jesus ends it. He ends it with a warning that we can believe more in the worth of material things than we believe in what God finds worth in.

Jesus suggests, through the parable, that we can get so caught up in ourselves, in the rat race of life, in our possessions and bank accounts and social media presence, that not even a message from someone who died and rose again will get us to change.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctible. Jesus came simply to be the resurrection and the life for those who need all the help they can get. Namely: all of us. 

Notice: Jesus does not begin the story with a disclaimer that this is exactly what will happen to every rich and every poor person, nor does he command the listeners to “go and be like Lazarus” as a conclusion.

Oddly enough, then, it seems as if Jesus is saying that it is possible to be wealthy and a Christian at the same time. However, if the pursuit of power and the accumulation of wealth is more important and constitutive of our identity than the free gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, then our lives are liable to be miserable.

There will always be more to earn, and enough will never ever be enough.

Some might even call that hell. 

But there is Good News. The Good News is that no matter what the world might tell us it takes to win, no matter what we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already done. All of our sins, past, present, future – they are nailed to Jesus cross and we bear them no more.

The only thing we *have* to do, is trust that it is true. Amen. 

The Hardest Parable

Luke 16.1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever if faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 

I would like to have a word with whomever decided this would be the text for today. It’s one thing to assign different, and even strange, texts to retired clergy filling in while a certain pastor was on paternity leave. But for that pastor to return after a month only to dust off the homiletical muscles with the hardest parable?

Who thought this would be a good idea?

Apparently I did months ago when I chose this text for this Sunday.

Some fools for Christ are just fools.

Even if you’ve only spent a little time reading the Bible, it is clear that some of the stories that Jesus tells are in need of an editor’s touch. Or, as we might say in this part of Virginia, they need fixin’.

Here are a few examples: The parable of the so-called Good Shepherd. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a shepherd who goes off in search of one lost sheep. A quaint little tale. We might even like it. We certainly enjoy telling it to children during Vacation Bible School. But do you know what happens when you leave behind the ninety nine in search for the one lost? Ninety nine more lost sheep. It’s not way to run a business!

Or, the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’d rather us call it the Dumb Samaritan. This fool comes across a beaten and bedraggled figure on the side of the road, and puts him up in the four seasons and leaves his Amex card behind for any additional charges. Bad idea!

And then there’s the creme de la creme – The Prodigal. A son commands his father to drop dead, runs off and ruins his inheritance, only to come home with a pitiful repentance worked up in his head and his aforementioned father throws him the greatest block party in history before the kid even gets a chance to apologize. 

And then Jesus does it again!

The Pharisees, good religious folk like us, heaven’t even had a chance to lift their jaws off the ground when Jesus tells another story. 

There was a man who worked for an investment bank. And, after a few ill advised stock purchases, the CEO marches into his office and says, “You’re fired. I want this office cleared by the end of the day and I’m taking a deeper look into all your recent trades.”

The money-manager finds himself going down the elevator with a cardboard box of office trinkets and thinks to himself, “What am I going to do? I’m too old to go back to school and I’m too proud to beg!” And then he gets an idea. He still has the company credit card in his wallet and he calls us some of his best clients and takes them out to lunch. In between appetizers, and glasses of wine, he pulls out his phone and starts typing away reducing the debt of his soon-to-be former clients knowing that even though he is no longer employed, it helps to have well connected people in your debt.

And then, Jesus says, the CEO calls up his the fired money manager and congratulates him: You have acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

That’s not a very responsible story Jesus! I don’t know if that’s the type of tale we want people hearing in church. Shouldn’t end more like this?

And the CEO calls up the fired money manager and rips into him yet again for being such a conniving no good dirty rotten scoundrel. And Jesus looks out at the crowds and commands them to live honest and virtuous lives. 

The great challenge of the parables, this one included, is that Jesus tells them because they are true, and not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommendations for imitation. Good Samaritans are often taken advantage of. Any shepherd who makes a practice of leaving the ninety-nine behind is quick to go out of the sheep-keeping business. Any Father who throws a party for a wayward child is rightly rebuked for encouraging bad behavior. And any money manager who swindles clients, or bosses, out of money will usually spend some time paying for their crime.

And yet, the parables are not stories about us. The parables are stories that Jesus tells about himself.

Which means, oddly enough, Jesus is the shepherd to risks it all on the one who is lost. Jesus is the Samaritan who lavishly helps those down in the ditch. Jesus is the Father who forgives before apologies are offered. And Jesus is the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, who fudges the account, our accounts, when we don’t deserve it.

Don’t get me wrong, this is, indeed, the hardest parable. For some strange reason the master in the story praises the shrewdness of the steward. In a matter of verses the master goes from wanting to ring his neck to congratulating him for his bizarre intellect. The master goes from being an insufferable ledger keeper to the strange celebrator of the Good News. 

And it doesn’t make any sense. Just like the shepherd, the samaritan, and the prodigal, these stories don’t make sense.

But this one really takes the cake. 

Even St. Augustine once said he refused to believe this story came from the lips of Jesus. 

And yet, here it is. And we all just said, “Thanks be to God” after it was read!

What makes this parable the hardest is the fact that no preacher can water it down or manipulate it enough to make it say something that it doesn’t. Perhaps it would make more sense if the dishonest manager was punished for his crimes, or, at the very least, the money he stole from his master was given away to the poor like a first century Robin Hood.

But instead, the unjust steward is a liar, a cheater, and a thief. And Jesus has him commended, rewarded even, for what he did. 

And yet the “what he did” in that sentence betrays the immensity of what transpires in the parable. You see, grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise.

And, just as sure as you and I are in this room, the unjust steward was dead. Dead as a doornail. While the nails are hammered into his vocational coffin, he makes life a little easier for others by wiping away their debt. But he is not the only one who dies. The master dies as well, he dies to his bookkeeping. 

This is such a strange and bizarre story that it should leave us scratching our heads, but perhaps it should make us laugh. Grace is the divine lark offered to a world so sin-sick with seriousness that it can even stop to enjoy the roses.

This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.

It is everything for nothing. It is Good News for a world drowning in bad news. It is life out of death.

What makes the parables true is that they describe who God is. Every single parable, from mustard seeds to wedding banquets to unjust stewards, are about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They describe in weird, wild, and wonderful ways how God is in the business of making something out of our nothing, of making the impossible possible, and making a way where there is no way.

Jesus is the unjust steward. The misguided money manger dies to his career and rises with forgiveness, just like Jesus. By his death and resurrection he resurrects others wiping away their debts, just like Jesus. But most of all, the dishonest manager is Jesus because he is a crook.

Christ the crook: words I never thought I’d say from the pulpit but here we are!

We often betray the reckless nature of the Messiah today with our songs and our paintings. We like our Jesus well manicured with perfect morality and good manners. 

But this parable, and all the rest of them for that matter, is a ringing reminder that grace cannot come through respectability or through achievement or through perfection. 

Grace comes only through losing. 

Grace works for losers and only losers, the only problem is that no one wants to hang out with losers.

No one, that is, except for Jesus. 

Jesus spent his life among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Jesus broke the Sabbath, consorted with criminals, supped with sinners, and he died the death of an insurrectionist. Jesus became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for is losers, and even dead for those of us who go around pretending we’ve got it all figured out when we don’t have much to show for our so-called lives. 

It’s almost as if, parable after parable, Jesus is begging us to see ourselves for who we really are. 

Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus says he came to seek and save sinners, we always imagine that Jesus is talking other people and not us?

Why is it that, when we encounter the truly Good News even in this parable, we are offended by it rather than rejoicing because of it?

Because when it comes to our accounts, our debt to sin is not something we can repay. Each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. And it’s hard to admit the truth of who we are. That’s why we bristle at the parables, not just because they tell us the truth of God, but because they also tell us the truth about ourselves.

Namely: we’re just a bunch of lost and wandering sheep, stuck in the ditches of our own making, constantly squandering the gifts of God, with no hope in the world unless the hope of the world decides to fudge the accounts in our favor.

In the words of Anne Lamott: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you and me than we would believe.

Which, oddly enough, is Good News. Really Good News. Because, in the end, Christ is not interested in role models, moral perfectionists, or those who have it all together. Jesus comes for people like us whose ledgers are brimming with failure, and those who can’t find a way out of the mess we’ve made, in order to set us free. 

It’s outrageous. And it just so happens to be the Gospel. Amen. 

The Presence Of God Is Awful

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dinosaurs in the New Creation, laughter, baptismal vows, Moana, Hildegard von Bingen, the power of words, divine fear, the jewishness of Jesus, acceptable worship, and true sabbath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Presence Of God Is Awful

Faith Doesn’t Paint Houses

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. 

We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.

Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.

Consider this church for a moment…

At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church. 

That had hope for things not yet seen.

They had hope for us.

Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.

I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.

Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.

We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.

And that’s faith.

Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.

But what is faith?

Better put, what makes faith faithful?

I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!

What is faith?

Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.

Faith is a possible wordle answer.

Faith is what keeps me going.

Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.

Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.

Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.

Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.

Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.

It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews. 

Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God. 

Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God. 

Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his. 

What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.

It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out. 

I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”

“What’s a church?”

And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”

And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”

From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.

Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears. 

We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.

It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.

It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.

It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.

And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in. 

Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”

There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.

I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.

Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.

The only thing you have to do, is receive it.

Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.

Faith is merely a way of being.

And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.

Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.

But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.

Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”

Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.

“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”

And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.

Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.

And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”

So what can you do?

You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.

So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.

But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.

Do you see? Faith doesn’t do anything.

Faith doesn’t paint houses. Painters do. Faith doesn’t fix the deck. Carpenters do.

Faith isn’t some special gadget that makes the impossible possible. Faith is just a trust in a person who can actually makes the impossible possible.

Faith doesn’t save us. Jesus does. Amen.

The Life Of The Party

Luke 12.35-36

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

We worship an odd God.

Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.

Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”

Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.

Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around.  The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.

Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.

Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.

It’s a strange parable. 

But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.

We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door. 

Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us. 

No wonder we call the Good News good. 

Law & Gospel

Exodus 20.1-19

Then God spoke all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath of that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I regret picking the text I picked for a Sunday morning. I will be in the middle of the week, staring at a blank work document on my computer, and I’ll wonder how God is going to show up and make something of my nothing.

Case in point, last Sunday we looked at and talked about Moses’ call from the burning bush. That would’ve been a great text for Vacation Bible School Sunday. It would’ve been fun and even easy to talk about how God shows up, and showed up, in unexpected ways and places. I could’ve pointed toward all these holy moments from the Food Truck Party and then wrapped it all up with a, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

But no. I decided that this was the Sunday to preach the Ten Commandments.

You shall not murder.

You shall not bear false witness.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.

On and on.

So I spent the early part of my week wracking my brain, praying for the Lord to give me something to say.

And then, on Monday night, I was sitting on the floor of one of our classrooms upstairs, with all our wonderful children and youth, trying my hardest to convey the story of God providing the manna in the wilderness. But, before jumping into the Bible, I wanted to get their little minds working so I asked each and every kid, “What’s your favorite breakfast?”

And I received some good answers: Pancakes, French Toast, Lucky Charms.

But then one of the kids said, “My favorite is waffles, but I hate it when my Dad makes me eat scrambled eggs.”

Alright, I thought, no need to get worked up about it.

And then another kid shouted, “Donuts!” To which another yelled, a few decibels louder, “I want her answer because I love donuts more than she does!”

And then another kid, under his breath, said, “I would give my life for a donut right now.”

Bewildered by the dramatic events unfolding before me, I took a breath, and happened to glance at the wall above their little heads and there, for everyone to see, was a poster with the ten commandments.

And I realized in that moment, the kids had broken three of the ten!

The Ten Commandments. 

You shall not you shall not you shall not.

Why do we hang them up in our churches and in our houses? Why do we ask children to memorize them in Sunday school? Why does God hand them down to Moses on Mount Sinai?

Remember: Moses makes good on the call from the burning bush and leads God’s people out of slavery and captivity in Egypt to a new and strange land. They wander physically and spiritually complaining about how good they had it back in Egypt when God delivers the aforementioned manna in the wilderness.

They continue to wander under the witness of Moses until the Lord’s offers the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.

And, for us today, we can certainly flip to Exodus 20 in our Bibles, or we can just look up to a cross-stitched rendering in someone’s living room or Sunday school class to know what they are.

But there’s a difference between what the Ten Commandments say, and their purpose.

Because, if you read the New Testament, Jesus and Paul decisively declare that they are not rules to regulate our behavior. They are not a weapon to wield over and against those who do not follow them. They are not a code of conduct.

The primary function of the Law is to do to us what I just did by telling the story of the kids in the classroom: to accuse us.

The Law reveals the truth of who we really are. Between the big L and little l laws, between thou shall not and it would be better if you did this or that, the law reminds us that, all things considered, none of us are how we ought to be.

And yet all of us are in the business of self-deception. We’re so good at rationalizing our wandering eyes, justifying our wandering hearts, and explaining away our wanton disregard for others. 

One of the more confounding parts of our behavior is our ability to know exactly what we should and shouldn’t do, from keeping up with the laundry to not looking at our phones while we drive, and we fail to do it. 

We don’t need someone like me to stand up in a place like this to tell us a whole bunch of stuff we already know: you need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using so much styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, take precautions on your dates, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.

We can have a preacher yell those things at us week after week, and we can put up the Ten Commandments all over the place, but we will still fail.

Listen: there’s another mountaintop moment in the Bible with a set of decrees. Instead of Moses this time, Jesus looks out at the gathered crowds and he says, “You have heard it said you shall not murder, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, even if you think about it, you’ve already guilty; unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, of the rule followers, then you will never enter Heaven.”

And then, at the end of ratcheting up the Ten Commandments, Jesus mic drops the final line: You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

Apparently, in the Kingdom of God there are no trophies for participation, no A’s for effort.

Therefore, if Moses’ and Jesus’ decrees are nothing more than lists of what we must and mustn’t do, then we’re all up the creek without a paddle. We’re a bunch of losers with no hope in the world.

Thanks be to God then, that the hope of the world comes to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

You see, the primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much about what we’re supposed to do.

The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is not a collection of principles on how to live an upright life.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law, from Sinai to the instagramifcation of all things, holds up a mirror to our truest selves so that we are downright forced to come to grips with who we really are, and what we’ve done, and what we’re left undone.

In short, the function of the Law is to get to see ourselves with enough honesty and clarity that we ask ourselves, “How could God love me?”

Because when we are able to ask that question, we are close to the Good News.

God speak to us in two words, Law & Gospel, and we tend to confuse the two all the time.

And without knowing which is which, we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Be perfect. Never stop forgiving. Love your enemies. Stop your jealousy. Give away your possessions. On an on.

A church of the Law alone creates and cultivates a bunch of self-righteous people who are angry, miserable, and are never invited to the fun stuff.

It results in a cacophony of almost-Christians who are, in the end, nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Have you ever noticed how the most judgmental people are usually the ones with the most problems?

And yet, without the word of the Law, the Gospel becomes an empty promise. It’s all good and well to come to a place like this and hear about how God loves us. I hope and pray that if you do hear anything in church, it is those words. 

But what makes those words so staggering isn’t that God loves, but that God loves us.

When push comes to shove, each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all avoid doing things we know we should do, and we all do things we know we shouldn’t.

Which is why, when Jesus riffs on the need to forgive 70 x 7 times, it’s to point us toward the witness of the God who continues to forgive us.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies not because it makes everything better, though it might, Jesus commands us to love our enemies because Jesus, himself, loves his enemies: us. 

Which means, in the end, we need Law & Gospel. We need both because the first word pushes us to the second.

The Good News is not a bait and switch offer, it is not an invitation with strings attached, it is not a gift with an expectation of reciprocation.

If we leave church with more burdens than when we arrived, then grace cannot be amazing.

God knows you and me better than we know ourselves. God knows our inner thoughts and our knee-jerk reactions and our internet search histories, and God is still for us.

How odd of God to love a bunch of people who do not deserve it at all.

Being pushed from the Law to the Gospel is a truly wild and wonderful thing to do. And it is often nothing more than accepting, trusting, the incomprehensible Good News that despite all the reasons we shouldn’t be, we are indeed loved and forgiven. We are already home. 

That’s the life of grace – there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our goodness was actually rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk us because our life doesn’t measure up to the Law.

The real truth, the scandal of the faith, is that we can fail, miserably, and still live the life of grace.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s grace and love. Not our faults, not our vices, not us being brats all the time about things that don’t even really matter. Not even our doubts. 

As the old hymn goes, my sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul. 

One of our vacation Bible School participants, after a week of digesting the Word, approach me on our final night and said:

“So God loves me when I’m good but God still loves me when I’m bad just like Jesus loved all the people he fed with the loaves and the fishes? And God forgives me even if I do something I shouldn’t just like Jesus forgave Peter?”

“Yep. That’s the Gospel.”

“Well I don’t know what that words means, but it feels amazing.” Amen.

Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus 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…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

Pray Like This…

Luke 11.1-4

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

When the disciples badger Jesus for a way to pray he responds, “When you pray, pray like this: Lord, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgive us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”

The Lord’s Prayer according to Luke is decisively different than the one recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. It’s shorter, it dispenses with some of the elevated liturgical language, and it cuts right to the heart of the matter.

And, even though Christians say the Lord’s prayer over and over again, we can’t help but scratch our heads with regard to how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when we consider how Jesus told the disciples this prayer after they requested something akin to what John gave to his disciples.

John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter what we might call “The Program of Salvation.” There are different stages and expectations of what it means to get from where you are to where you can be. You confess and repent of all your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.

In John’s “Program of Salvation,” redemption is all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, sees all things differently. He, himself, is the new thing that happens to, and for, everyone. There’s no “program” to get God to do anything.

Jesus doesn’t come to show the disciples, and us, how to get our lives in order in order to get good with God. Instead, Jesus is God who comes to us.

This, admittedly, can be frustrating for the many of us who would prefer it if Jesus were clearer about what we should and shouldn’t do. And yet, the proclamation of the Good News is, indeed, good news: Jesus saves us because we are in need of saving.

The challenges comes in admitting that we are not like what we ought to be. 

The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want salvation to be laid out nice and clear with regard to what we need to do, and say, and believe. We enjoy trite and memorable zingers of goodness like, be prepared or do a good turn daily. We love the idea of being reasonably good people getting better all the time. 

But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with one that runs against our notions of what it means to be faithful. Because, according to Jesus, to be faithful doesn’t require us to do much of anything. In fact, the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive. 

The Lord’s prayer (Matthew’s and Luke’s) rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that blanket our Sunday morning liturgies. It does not hint at ethical perfection, or dance around moral equivocation. It is just the bare necessities of keeping us together and fed so that we can finally start celebrating the wonderful and wild news that Jesus is for us, no matter what. 

Down In The Ditch

Luke 10.30

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

A few years ago, on July 5th, I was sitting in the church office when the church secretary called across the hallway:

“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in this morning?”

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.

The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”

“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them slowed down to see the scandalous scene. 

As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.

For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered my vocation so I said, “Can I help you?”

“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.

I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well, so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.

Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”

So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.

“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”

We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town. 

At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”

When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.” 

We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.

“So, are you a pastor or something?”

“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”

“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”

“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”

“All the time.”

And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in. 

And then I drove back to church.

For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. I had been the Good Samaritan. I only later realized that I never even bothered to ask for her name. 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?

The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return. 

Moreover, Samaritans are outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.

The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.

Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world that is obsessed with winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.

But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?

The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told, or ever preached, is not the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.

Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.

Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.

If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.

But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it: “The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstance imitate is the only thing that can save us.”

Jesus is the one down in the ditch. Jesus, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.

This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.

It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.

Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.

And that’s Good News. 

No Matter What

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” 

In the summer of 2007, having completed my first year of college, I volunteered to help lead a youth mission trip for my home church to New Orleans. It had been two years since the devastation of hurricane Katrina, and parts of the city were still in desperate need of help.

We spent our days in the sweltering heat exchanging crow bars and sledge hammers for demolition. Every house we approached had been boarded up since the storm, and we were tasked with removing everything we could so that city inspectors could deem whether or not the framing was safe for rehabilitation, or if they would have to tear the entire thing down to the foundation and start over.

The mildewed sheet rock was easy enough to pull down, as were the piles of clothing that remained stacked in various states of disarray. But the mangled children’s toys, and the warped family photo albums were another thing entirely.

Mission trips are often marked by laughter and singing and frivolity.

But not when we were in New Orleans.

What I remember most is the silence.

But that’s actually not true. There is something I remember more than the silence.

On our final day, shortly before we were scheduled to fly home, we were given the tour of the lower ninth ward. This was the spot hit hardest, and unlike our modest de-construction work on houses in other parts of the city, the lower ninth ward was devoid of everything. No trees. No bushes. No houses at all. The only evidence that anyone had ever lived there were rectangles of concrete organized in a grid pattern.

A tour guide was leading us through the neighborhood, pointing to memories of the past never to return again, and at some point he said, “The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.”

The hurricane was God’s judgment on this wicked place.

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to that. I know I heard it, in as many words, after hurricane Sandy in New York, I know I heard it after hurricane Harvey hit Houston. 

And, more often than not, it’s Christians who make those kinds of theological claims! 

And every time it makes me wonder if they’ve ever actually read the story of Noah and the Flood.

Listen:

Shortly after our first parents stumble out of the garden of Eden, never to return again, things go from bad to worse. Sin abounds on the earth, enmity between God’s creatures plagues the entirety of creation. By the 6th chapter of Genesis the state of things is so bad that God regrets creating creation.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of their hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to the heart.”

Things are so bad off that rather than try to rehabilitate the state of things, God decides to flush it all down the toilet and start over.

Except for Noah and his family and two of every kind of creature.

Why Noah?

Noah found favor with God and was a righteous man.

Therefore Noah receives his divine commission, specific instructions for a rather large nautical vessel, and prepares for the day of judgment.

It rains for forty days and forty nights.

Let us pause for a moment. 

This is a beloved tale in the church. We teach it to our children with flannel graphs and plastic toys. We act it out in vacation bible school and we sing songs about it.

I understand the sentimentality of the animals being something worthy of childlike reflection. But this is a horrifying story. 

Water is strange. Without it, we die. Too much of it, we die. We are surround by water prior to birth, but in life water is often an uncontrollable agent of chaos.

And in this story Noah and his family were spared, but literally everything else in creation is destroyed. What we often miss is that when the seas recede and the ark lands on solid ground, the Noahic family was surrounded by abject devastation.

I know of no children’s version of this story that contains this important and devastating detail. Save for the Brick Testament which, somehow, makes it even worse.

Moreover, according to the strange new world of the Bible, God floods the world not as an act of caprice, but out of a desire to cleanse creation from unrighteousness. It is not a random event in which God intervenes on behalf of Noah and his family.

The flood is willed by God.

The situation of creation could not be improved. The trajectory from the garden did not lead us to getting better all the time, but getting worse. And perhaps the most frightening part of the story isn’t even in the story. It’s how true it all still is today.

Try as we might, and we do try all the time, we can’t make ourselves righteous. 

We try to right ourselves in subtle ways, like how during the pandemic the ubiquity of Peloton’s (stationary bicycles) shot through the roof as people were spending more time at home and wanted to spend more time working on their health but a staggering number of the devices were purchased only to be used once or twice or not at all.

And sometimes we try to right ourselves, save ourselves, in some not so subtle ways. We give our lives over to busyness hoping that so long as we have something to show for our lives, our lives will live on after we’re gone, or we put our hope in political machinations that will surely make the world a better place.

But it doesn’t work that way – we can’t right ourselves. 

And yet, Noah, in the eyes of the Lord, is deemed righteous.

The Bible gives us zero examples of what that might mean or look like, though he does do what the Lord tells him so that’s got to count for something. The only thing we can say about Noah’s life, and his righteousness takes place after the flood.

You see, when we tell this story, and even when we read this story, it ends with the rainbow. The sign of God’s new covenant with creation. Which would be a fitting conclusion. But the story keeps going. And when the waters finally recede, the first thing Noah does is cultivate a vineyard and he gets good and drunk from his own wine, so much so that he shames himself in front of his children and he curses one of them.

So much for being righteous.

Which means, in the end, the flood is a failed new beginning, at least as far as humanity is concerned. We are not better off after it than we were before it. And the rest of the Bible keeps steering in this direction. 

In just a few chapters the descendants of Noah will get it in their thick skulls to build a giant tower so they can be just like God. Abram is called into a life of impossible possibility and continually pretends to be something he is not. Jacob is blessed only because he pulls one over on his father. Joseph sees the future and is literally sold into slavery by his brothers.

I could go on.

From Eden to Egypt, from progress to prophets, the people of God go from obedience to disobedience over and over again. We are miserable offenders who, when push comes to shove, look out for ourselves and only for ourselves.

But the story of the Bible isn’t a story about us, thanks be to God. The story of the Bible is the story of God.

The waters recede after the flood, Noah and his family wander among the graveyard of the Earth and God sets a rainbow in the sky. “I am making a new covenant,” says the Lord, “and this shall be a sign to you and to me.”

God reminds God’s self.

That’s a bit strange. 

But perhaps God needs the reminder of the promise because we fail to keep up our end of the bargain.

In most covenants, if one of the parties breaks the rules, the covenant is over. But this covenant, marked by the rainbow, unlike every earthly covenant, is not contingent on our obedience. That is: God remains steadfast even if we don’t, because we won’t.

God’s love and faith and grace always exceed what we can do.

We are absolutely addicted to keeping score in this life. I did this for you but you didn’t return the favor. We all have these little ledger books in our mind about what we have done and what has been done, or left undone, to us.

And yet, right here in Genesis 9, we catch a glimpse of how God has hung up the ledger book forever. God promises to never ever again cover the earth with the destructive powers of water as a judgment against us even though God has every right to judge us. We have failed to be an obedient church, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, on and on.

But instead of giving us what we deserve, God hangs up the bow.

God saves the world not from our brokenness, but instead in our brokenness. 

We don’t like that.

We never have.

It’s why we present these perfect version of ourselves in church, or at work, or at school, or online. We love the idea of getting better all the time. But God doesn’t meet us in our perfection. God meets us exactly as we are, wherever we are.

We can’t get back to Eden on our own. We certainly try, and usually make a heck of a mess while doing so. But instead of getting back to Eden, God brings it to us. That it has a name: Jesus. 

In the fullness of time, in the incarnation, God comes into the muck and mire of life, a life no better than it was before the flood, and becomes the living water for us, which makes a way where there is no way.

The whole crux of the Noah story is that, in the end, God hangs up the rainbow and says, “I’m never going to do that again.” That’s the promise. It’s the first covenant of grace and mercy. The rainbow is a reminder that God is for us, no matter what!

Listen – 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 or not we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates. Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to saves sinners and only sinners.”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults or our failures. Instead he says, “You are mine and I am thine. No matter what.” Amen.