Scandalous

Luke 15.11

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

The Bible is scandalous.

I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time completely naked until they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.

The patriarch of the faith, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.

And David, the one who brought down the mighty Goliath, killed 200 Philistine men just to procure their foreskins in order to present them as a dowry so that he could marry the daughter of King Saul.

Scandalous.

And that just three example from the Old Testament.

When Jesus shows up on the scene it gets even crazier.

He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people. 

For awhile, in the midst of his ministry, he attracts all kinds of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last. But at some point the crowds begin to change; they start leaning in a direction we might call undesirable.

All the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near to listen to him. The tax collectors were Jews who profited off of their fellow Jews. They took from the top and made little nest-eggs for themselves while their fellow countrymen suffered under the dictatorial rule of Rome. And the sinners, well, just imagine your favorite sinful behavior and you know who those people were.

And they are the ones gathering near.

Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have here at church. Not the folks who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe. Not the people who jockey to the highest positions in the community.

No, Jesus attracts the very people we would repel. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes, the good religious folk, (people like us), they were grumbling among themselves and saying, “This Jesus is bad news. He not only welcomes sinners into his midst, but he has the audacity to eat with them!”

So Jesus told them a story.

Parables-of-Jesus

If you don’t know this by now, well then let me tell you yet again, Jesus loves to tell stories. Everywhere he went, among all the different people, with all their different problems, he would bring his hand to his chin and triumphantly declare: “I’ve got a story for that.”

And this story, the one he tells to the grumbling religious authorities, the story that is probably best known among all the parables, is through which the whole of the gospel comes to light. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important parable Jesus ever told, and just about every time we retell it, we ruin it.

And it’s scandalous.

Listen: A man had two sons. And one day the younger son gets the bright idea to ask for his inheritance right then and there. He didn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to die before he received his due. And the father, inexplicably, agrees. He splits himself, turns it all over to his boys, he effectively ends his own life so that they can have what they would have had at his death.

To the older son, he gave the family business.

To the younger son, he cashed out his retirement package.

The older son remains at home, taking care of that which was entrusted to him, and the younger son, the one who demanded the inheritance, runs off in a fit of joy with his now deep deep deep pockets.

But it’s only a matter of time before the younger son has squandered his early inheritance. Maybe he blew it at the black jack table, maybe he threw it away in empty bottle after empty bottle, or maybe he spent it on women. Regardless it gets to the point that he is now far worse off than he was before he asked for the money – he steals food out of garbage cans at night, he sleeps under a tarp off in the woods, and he showers in the sinks at gas stations.

And then, one day, he arrives back to himself and realizes that he could return to his father and his brother, that they could give him a job and he could start over. So he begins to practice his confession and contrition: “Dad, I’m so sorry for what I did. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Would you please help me?”

He hitch-hikes home, all the while practicing his little speech under his breath, wondering if his father will buy it and welcome him home or slam the door in his face. He even practices making his face look properly repentant to help him with his cause.

The day of his hopeful reunion arrives and he paces around the block worrying about his words when all of the sudden someone tackles him from behind and it takes him a moment to realize that someone is kissing his hair and head and neck.

The younger son rolls his assailant over only to discover that it’s his father, crying profusely, with a giant smile on his face.

The son opens his mouth to begin his practiced speech and his father interrupts him: “I don’t want to hear a word of what you have to say. We need to throw a party.”

And with that the old man grabs his son by the collar yanks him up off the ground, and starts singing at the top his lungs out in the middle of the street. They stop by every convenience store on their way home picking up all the cold beer, ice, and hot dogs they can carry. And by the time they make it to the house a slew of text messages, emails, and tweets have gone out inviting the whole of the neighborhood over to celebrate the lost being found. 

Meanwhile, the older son (remember the older son), he’s out mowing the backyard at his Dad’s house. He’s got sweat dripping everywhere, and his mind is running over the list of all the other stuff he’s supposed to do, when he looks up and sees countless figures moving past the windows inside. And when he turns off the mower he can hear the music bumping and the people singing. 

He quickly makes his way up to the closest window, peers inside, and sees his father with his arms around his good-for-nothing younger brother, and the older son shuffles off it a fit of rage.

Hours pass before the father realizes his other son is missing the party. So he tries to call him, no answer. He tries to text him, no response. It gets to the point that the Dad gets in his car and shows up at his older son’s house and starts banging on the front door.

“Where have you been? You’re missing the party!”

“I’m missing the party? When did you ever throw me a party? I’ve been like a slave for you all these years, taking over your business, driving you to your doctor’s appointments, heck I was even mowing your yard this afternoon, and you’ve never done a thing for me. And yet my brother shows up, and you throw him a party and you invite the whole neighborhood?”

And before he can continue his litany of complaints the father smacks his older son across the face and shouts, “You idiot! I gave you all that you have. And what do you spend all your free time doing? Taking care of an old man like me and I never asked you to do any of that.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you interrupt me right now, this is important. All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you, you’re hardly alive at all. The only reason you didn’t come into the party after mowing the lawn is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectations that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time and you, you’re alive and miserable. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and just drop dead. Forget about your life and come have fun with us.”

The End.

That’s the whole story right there. 

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And we know what we’re supposed to make of it. 

We know we’ve been like the younger brother, venturing off into the unknown world only to make stupid choices and hope that we will be received in our repentance.

We know we’ve been like the older brother, disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though they don’t deserve it.

Or we know we’ve been like the father, praying for a wayward child, or spouse, or family member, or friend to come to their senses and return home.

And just about every time we encounter this story, whether in a sermon, or Sunday school, or even in a book or movie, the same point is made – see yourself in the story and then act accordingly.

But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is really about Jesus.

If the story we’re about us then we would hear a fuller ending. We would learn whether or not the elder brother decided to ditch his self-righteousness and join the party. We would discover whether or not the younger brother truly repented and left his foolish life behind forever. We would even discover how the father attempted to reconcile his sons back together.

But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we might be hoping for. We don’t get to know what happens and to whom because that’s not the point.

Do you see it now? This is about as scandalous as it gets in the Bible because no one gets what they deserve, and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!

The father loses everything for his sons. He gives up his life simply to meet the demand of his younger son.

The older son loses out on all that he hopes for by doing all of the right things only to never be rewarded for it.

The younger son dies to his ridiculous extravagance and is thrown the party of all parties just for coming home.

In this story, straight from the lips of the Lord, we catch a glimpse of the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the great party, save for ditching our snobbery.

This story, whether we like to admit it or not, ends before we want it to. We want to know what happens next, we want to know if the older brother goes into the party. We want to know if the younger brother stays on the right path. We want to see the father relaxing in his lazy boy knowing both of his kids are home.

But the fact that Jesus ends the story without an end shows that what’s most important has already happened. The fatted calf has been sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, and take off our shoes, and start dancing.

We were lost and we’ve been found.

That’s the only thing that matters. Amen. 

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Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the salve said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

I wrote three versions of this sermon.

In the first version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as a party host. You worked diligently to prepare a feast, ordered the perfect set of invitations, and you even hired a wine sommelier just to make sure everything was in harmony. For months you laid awake at night not worrying about the extravaganza itself, but imagining all the profoundly kind compliments you were about to receive.

And then, as the day of the shindig got closer and closer, the RSVPs started to arrive and with every “No” your heart started to sink deeper and deeper until you realized that no one, not a single invitee, would be coming.

You fretted over what to do next. After all, you had spent a small fortune to set the whole thing up and you couldn’t just return everything. You began calling all your family members, and knocking on the doors of all your neighbors, but it still wasn’t enough. It got to the point that, like a crazy person, you started yelling at people on the street demanding that they come to your party.

But, it wasn’t a very good sermon. It wasn’t a very good sermon because it made all of you, the listeners, out to be like God. You became the divine party host and when no one showed up, it just left you with a bit of rage.

And where’s the Good News in that?

In the second version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as one of the invited guests. You received an invitation in the mail to a very posh party and though you were initially excited about the prospect of attending, you quickly realized that the celebration would be an impossibility.

You knew that it would not be responsible to accept such a grand invitation and you thought about how it was all really such a waste. You pictured in your mind all of the hungry children across the globe and you just shuddered with the thought of such delicious food in the midst of a broken world like ours.

So you came up with a list of reasons why you would not be attending. For some of you it was because of your spouse. For others you had responsibilities in the home that could not be overlooked. And still yet a few more of you simply lied because you had better things to do.

But that one wasn’t a very good sermon either. It wasn’t a good sermon because when all of you found out about the lengths the host went to to make sure the party was full in your absence, you weren’t really jealous. I mean, he invited all of the delinquents and riffraff from the community; who would want to go to a party with those people? You became satisfied by your excuses and patted yourselves on the back for a job well done.

And where’s the Good News in that?

The third version was my favorite. In it I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine that you had no business attending the party in the first place. You were down on your luck, worrying about how to pay your bills, fretting over your child’s grades, overwhelmed by domestic trivialities. And all the while you saw the host preparing for the party. You witnessed truck after truck bringing in the wine and beer, you saw the caterers lugging in all of their equipment, and when the day of the party arrived you could hear the live band playing all of your favorite songs and yet, you weren’t invited.

And then, miracle of miracles, the host came and knocked on your front door, grabbed you by the collar, and started dragging you to the party. And, because you were full of humility, you pleaded with the host to realize the mistake he was making. You didn’t deserve to be at the party, you would never be able to return the favor, and you really didn’t even have anything nice to wear.

To which the host simply waved his hand and told you to raid the closets at his house and take whatever clothes you wanted. The party simply must be full and he didn’t give a flip about who you were, he just wanted you to be there.

And so you went, and you had the time of your life. You ate, and drank, and danced. You fraternized with people who never would have give you the time of day. And the longer you partied, the more people started showing up. And they, like you, had sparkles in their eyes because something like this was beyond all of your wildest imaginations. 

And that sermon, that sermon was a good one. It was good because it spoke truly about the ridiculousness of grace, how unmerited it is, how we, even up to the moment we receive it, make excuses for why we shouldn’t be the ones to get it. And I almost preached that sermon – one long story about being dragged to a party that you didn’t deserve to attend – it was going to end with the host bringing out another case of wine as the sun rose in the east and everyone trotting back out onto the dance floor to do it all over again.

But I’m not preaching that sermon.

Nope.

I’m not preaching it because the Good News sounds too good.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

Jesus is still at the dinner table when our scripture for today begins. He has already healed a man much to the chagrin of everyone else at the party, he has called everyone out for wanting to sit in the best places, and he just commanded them to invite the wrong people to their own parties when someone inexplicably stands up to shout, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

The comment sounds like the man is mocking Jesus. As in, “No one is going to buy whatever you’re selling. Blessed would be anyone, and apparently everyone in your kingdom Jesus, but that ain’t the way it works.”

And Jesus won’t stand for it.

What the interrupting man doesn’t know, what he can’t know, is that the very kingdom of God he referenced was sitting right there at the table with him, and none of them want it. They don’t want to eat bread in the kingdom if it means what Jesus was describing. They had all worked too hard to get where they were, and it doesn’t sound like good news when the first are told that they are going to be last.

So Jesus jumps into another story. 

A man had invited many to his awesome party. Everyone had already responded to the card in the mail, but when the day of arrived, they were no-shows. Each of the guests, in their own way, said, “Hey Lord, I’ll spend time with you later. But right now, I’ve got other things to take care of.”

And all of the people at the table hearing Jesus’ story, are like the people in the parable with their excuses – they had pursed the sensible paths, they were what we could call successful, and Jesus tells them, to their faces, that it is precisely all their pursuing that keeps them from the party.

For this crazy Lord of ours, the one we worship and adore, he has no use for winners, people only concerned with their own definitions of what it means to do and to win in this life. So instead of bringing all of the right people to the party, the host, Jesus, goes out looking for all the wrong people. 

One way or another, the host will fill the tables – the food will be eaten – the drinks will be consumed – the band will be enjoyed. 

It sounds too good to be true but this is the gospel: the losers of life are the winners at God’s table. On a day when they woke up expecting nothing, or worse, they rise to a new way of being that surpasses even the people who first received their invitation. 

The last, least, lost, little, and dead never get invited to parties because they run counter to everything the world tells us to do.

But in the kingdom of God, lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness are all Jesus is looking for.

As Jesus has been saying again and again and again throughout all of these parables in different ways, shapes, and forms, you and I don’t get to earn our spot at the party. There’s no to-do list to get in. 

Parables-of-Jesus

In this particular parable none of the people who had a right to be at the party came, and all of the people who came had no right to be there. Nothing in the kingdom has anything to do with rights; God is going to deal with us in spite of our deservings, not according to them.

And that just gets under our skin, or, worse, we completely ignore it. We’re so accustom to a way of being about earning and rewarding that free grace sounds irresponsible or too good to be true. 

But hear this, hear it in all of its craziness and bizarreness: Grace works by raising the dead – not by rewarding the living. 

This story from the lips of Jesus is about liberty. Not liberty from monarchy like so many of us celebrated this week with our food and fun and fireworks. But a liberty from all of the labeling that comes about in this life. Liberty from the truest tyranny that the world has ever known – sin and death.

This party of Jesus’, the parable of the host dragging in people from the street, it shows us how God in Christ gives us liberty in death. It even shows us how free we really are right now for we have been baptized into Jesus’ death. 

Or, at least, it shows us how free we should be.

Because most of us aren’t, myself included. I too am shackled to the expectations of the world, of the need and the desire to appear first even when I am really last. The need and desire to appear wealthy even when I’m in debt. The need and desire to seem as if I’ve got it all figured out even when I really have no idea what I’m doing.

I want to be a winner, but Jesus saves losers.

I want to be first, but Jesus is for the last.

I want to be in control of my life, but Jesus wants me to die.

Jesus wants me and you and all of us to die to all of these overwhelming expectations we place on ourselves and on others. Jesus tells these stories to break down all of the labels we throw around and to show how salvation, our salvation, has already been figured out. 

Jesus turns things upside down. The whole gospel is one topsy turvy tumbling narrative. The chosen people of this world, the privileged, the powerful, the righteous, the religious, the pious, they will not be the ones filling up the dance floor because they often ignore the invitation.

But at God’s party, it’s those of us who’ve been crippled by our sin, blinded by our shame, and made lame by our guilt who eat, and drink, and dance. We do so precisely because we were a bunch of outsiders and nobodies who never thought we had a chance in the world.

God desires a full house – God wants the party to be bumpin’ – and we’re all invited. Amen. 

Freed For Slavery

Devotional:

Galatians 5.1a

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Weekly Devotional Image

“No one in the church is going to tell me who I’m allowed to love.” 

I heard the off-hand comment from a stranger in the convention center during the recent Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC. I only needed to take a look at his shirt, covered in rainbows, to get an idea of what he meant with his words. There were a lot of people like him this year, walking around making their thoughts/opinions/theologies known with clothing, words, and with particular votes. 

A friend of mine described it as the “height of tribalism” in the UMC in which we are all constantly trying to make sure everyone else knows how we feel about everything.

Or, to put it another way, we want everyone to know whose side we are on.

It was also during the recent Annual Conference that I happened upon what appeared to be the end of a fight. Two women, of similar ages, were vehemently arguing with one another in the middle of a hallway with lots of finger pointing and eye-rolling. I started walking toward them preparing myself to separate them or, at the very least, try to mediate but then one of the women said to the other. “You’re free to have your opinion, but so am I, and you’re wrong.” And with that she promptly turned around and walked away. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul. And we love our freedom. We love being able to say, do, and believe just about whatever we want without anyone interfering. We spend a lot of time talking about freedom whether its in the cultural ethos, Sunday worship, or in national holidays.

Freedom is who we are.

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And yet, freedom implies that we have been freed from something and for something.

In the US we talk about being freed from tyranny, or being freed from oppressive rules about religious observance or non-observance. And all of that is true. But that’s not necessarily the same kind of freedom that’s at the heart of the gospel. 

Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And in the next verse he continues his thought in a way that most of us would rather ignore: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

In the church today, we are so often obsessed with freedom that we forget that we’ve been freed from sin and death in order that we might become slaves to one another. And, at times, we are onboard with this theological project so long as we can be slaves to the people we like, or the people we agree with, and the people who look like us.

But what about the other people?

What about the people whose shirts, and bumper stickers, and votes go against our own?

Can we walk away from them or are we chained to them through the love of Christ?

Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

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One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

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Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

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The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.

We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.

However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.

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Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.

And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?

It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs. 

It said God Hates Fags. 

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A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing. 

And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.

That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.

Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree. 

Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.

It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.

And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles. 

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

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

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These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.

There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital. 

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.

And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions. 

And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.

Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.

In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son. 

The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. 

All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise. 

The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.

But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.

The cross with which we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump for us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.

It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.

Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us. 

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we are doing. 

For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.

But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.

We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”

Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen. 

Party Like Jesus or: Preaching to the Preacher

Luke 12.35-48

“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. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Peter said, “Lord, are you tell this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to him, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From every to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

The internet and social media have made us all hyper-aware of everything that is happening all the time. Because of these things we have in our pockets and purses we know what is happening, where it is happening, and before its over we can look through all of the comments about what happened and where.

Some of this is good. We are more connected with people all across the world than we have ever been. Because of the instantaneous nature of communication and information we have been able to help those in need, we’ve been able to prepare for things we never could’ve imagined, and there is an invisible thing uniting us in ways previously impossible.

But, of course, a lot of it is bad. 

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A teenager posts a picture and is bullied for the rest of her adolescence.

An adult is radicalized through forums to commit horrible acts of violence.

Older individuals are regularly belittled for not being up to date with everything that, by definition, is changing faster than we can keep up.

We create and consume so much information today that, regardless of our age, we can barely recite that which we have received.

And, in a strange way, we are made most aware of all that we are missing.

In some circles this is called the “instagramification” of all things. We flock to places of social media, more often than not, to show all that is right in our lives when so much is wrong. 

We gather the family together for a picture while on vacation and post it for everyone to know and believe that we have it all together, when in fact the family was screaming and pulling one another hairs just to get the picture taken moments before. 

And when we see these images of friends, or family, or even celebrities we can’t but help to judge and measure our lives against what we see on the screen.

Jesus, in his strangely parabolic way, has us imagine that we are waiting for our best friend to come from from a wedding. A wedding we weren’t invited to.

Weddings are all over the place in the Bible, and are particularly profound in the New Testament. Consider: Jesus’ first miracle is turning water into wine at a wedding, and one of the last images in the Book of Revelation is the marriage of the Lamb to his bride the New Jerusalem. 

Jesus, the master in the parable, the friend in ours, returns to us after a wedding. The story makes the claim that we are to be awake and welcome him in glory, and we will be blessed by his arrival because he brings the party with him. 

Whether its the master with his slaves, or the uninvited friends, it is particularly striking that the one who has no reason to do much of anything, desires first and foremost to sit down and hang out, with us.

Jesus is crazy. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our dying, is the only good news around. And to make matters even more confounding, according to the Lord the sooner we die the sooner we can celebrate.

Now, of course, the ways we speak about and even conceive of our own deaths is inherently problematized – and yet, as Christians, our deaths are particularly peculiar. For, we are already dead. At least, that what we claim in baptism – By Jesus’ death in ours, and ours in his, we have conquered the whole rotten game of the universe.

The sooner we can accept that our lives have already been changed, irrevocably, for good, the sooner the party arrives through the door. 

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Therefore, we needn’t even worry about being invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake festering over whether we’ve been good enough, or popular enough, or even faithful enough. Our salvation, the party itself, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

All we need to do is be like those who know the party is coming through the door.

It is the greatest thing in the world that our friend stumbles in to us in the middle of the night, perhaps in the greatest of moods a few sheets to the wind from the wedding reception. 

See it and believe it: He does not come with sober judgments about why we aren’t good enough, or with grim requirements about what we have to do or how we have to behave to get a ticket in. 

Instead he comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a nice bottle of red stashed under his arm that he clandestinely removed from the open bar, and before we can say much of anything he’s popped the bottle and is dolling out a full assortment of finger foods to quench every bit of our hunger.

It’s a strange story. One that we often ignore, overlook, or disregard.

But it is there and it is very much here.

We are blessed by the risen Lord, for he knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And this party is not far off and distant in both place and time from us, the party is here with us, right now. It’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice.

To return to our own parable, we’ve got our noses so stuck in our phones judging our lives against the lives of others that we can’t even here Jesus banging on the door.

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And then Peter perks up: “Lord, is this story for us, or is it for everyone?” A worthy question, for we should want to know who exactly is supposed to be around waiting for the Lord’s party to arrive. 

Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who is the manager that the master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their food at the proper time?

The previous parable is certainly for all, but now the Lord put some things into perspective; the disciples are given a job, and those who continue in that line of work, dare I say pastors, are supposed to know their job.

Now, before we continue, I must confess that we have arrived a strange precipice, one in which Jesus is telling the future clergy (in a way) what they are to do. And yet here I am, your appointed clergy, preaching about what God has told me to do.

So, bear with me for a moment.

Pastors, the disciples in charge of the slaves as it were, are commanded to trust. Nothing more, less, or else. Pastors are not called to know everything, or to be enigmatically clever all the time, or to be fully of energy, or even to be talented.

They are to trust that the truth is in fact the truth. The greatest truth of all being that salvation does not come from a particular way of living or being. Which is a good word to those of us living in a world while drowning in efforts toward whatever we think life is supposed to be. 

Contrary to what the televangelists proclaim,  and pastors of all shapes and sizes, and even this one in front of you at times, the church does not exist to tell people like you to engage in acts of superior morality with the expectation that salvation will be your reward.

The foolishness of God is wiser than that.

God, more often than not, chooses what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.

God, more often than not, uses fallible pastors to remind all of us that its the nobodies of the world, the last, least, lost, little, and dead who bring about anything we might call holy.

And so, as the only pastor in the room, I feel what can only be described as a sense of relief. After countless years in which people like me have been made to feel that forceful preaching, and masterful obedience, and perfect extraversion with just the right dash of introversion, is the name of the game – it’s nice to be reminded, here in this parable, that Jesus expects the preachers of the church to be nothing more than half decent cooks.

“Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”

Food at the proper time. And, to be clear, we clergy are not gourmet chefs or even casino buffet coordinators, but just some Gospel minded cooks who can rummage through the pantry of the Word to turn out a half decent and nourishing meal once a week.

And we then could turn to look at the meal of preaching, the Word made flesh in a certain way, every week. But it’s much better than that. Because the greatest meal of all offered by the church has almost nothing to do with the preaching. In communion we find the sustenance that goes beyond all imagining – clergy need only serve it to those who are hungry. 

So long as all of us, we who come to the table, get enough death and resurrection in our diet, so long as we are reminded with regularity that there is nothing we can do to earn it or lose it, then we will be, as the Bible says, filled.

And I wish we could end it there, but Jesus has more to say to Peter and the preachers…

“But if,” Jesus continues, “If the manager thinks the master is taking his sweet time in getting back, and therefore beats on the other slaves and get drunk, then the master will return and cut him into pieces.”

This is the moment that you can can offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that you’re not pastors.

To put Jesus final words another way: If the preachers decide to take matters into their own hands, if they make promises they can’t keep, if they abuse the weak in their midst, if they create systems in which people can earn anything for themselves in the realm of salvation, then they will be torn apart, from top to bottom, whether at the hand of God or by their own undoing.

Preachers, managers, cooks of the gospel, whatever we want to call them, are to do nothing more than sit at the foot of the cross with words of what God has already done. They are to share the meal waiting at the table, a meal prepared long before the preacher ever preached a sermon.

This whole parable, for the laity and clergy alike, comes down to trust.

Not a trust that God is going to come and sweep down and fill all the potholes in our lives, but a trust that God has already changed the game for good.

Trust.

And when we’ve learned to live a life of trust, whether we wear robes or not, then we are living the life of grace. And in the life of grace, one in which we know what has already been done – something that can never be taken away – no matter how many doubts we have, or waverings, or questions, no matter how happy or sad we may become, no matter how awfully we sin – we simply trust that someone else, namely Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, we can say thank you Lord and that’s enough.

Our whole lives, from beginning to end, the mess that we are, they’re leading to our own inevitable death. And it’s all okay, because we’ve already died. It is Jesus who is our life, he is the one who comes for us from the wedding feast, he is the one who comes to us with the celebration under his arm and wants nothing more than to party with us. Amen.

We’re All Little Narcissists

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including John Wick 3, theology by the pool, Pauline annoyance, the grammar of faith, Netflix’s Our Planet, the prevalence of idols, cosmic salvation, therapy sessions, and free grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We’re All Little Narcissists

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