Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The church is weird.

It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.

The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.

Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”

And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.

As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.

But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.

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This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.

Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…

A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”

But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?” 

Peter replied, “From other people.”

So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”

What?!

This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth? 

Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.

He was weird.

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The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection. 

The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.

Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.

The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was. 

“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”

Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.

And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”

Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power. 

The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.

The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

Parable Definition

Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!

But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes. 

Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”

Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.

And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit? 

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.

And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.

He is free among the dead.

He is bound to the last, least, and lost.

The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities. 

It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”

The children are free.

Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The children are free.

The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.

But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.

Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.

The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.

Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.

After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.

And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.

The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!

Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen. 

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A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jonathan Page about the readings for the Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Jonathan serves as the pastor of Herndon UMC in Herndon, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bidding farewell to Year B, the particularity of liturgical days, the Christian version of the 4th of July, the end of metaphors, generational evangelism, rebelling against the kingdom, flags in the sanctuary, and the power of lingering questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To Jesus Christ

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We Really Need To Talk

Mark 10.17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these word. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brother and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

The old pastor had a reputation for turning church finances around. Every where he went he encountered the same sorts of stories: “we’ve lost some really big givers, we’ve had to cut corners, we just don’t know what to do.”

And it was his responsibility to preach fiery sermons about the virtues of generosity such that a church would receive the kind of cash flow that could bring resurrection out of financial doom.

He wasn’t really sure where he developed the aptitude for financial sermons, but people kept calling him to fill in from time to time, particularly when the offering plates started to feel a little light.

And so it came to pass that he received a phone call from a very wealthy member at a church on the other side of the state. It didn’t take long for the old pastor to discern some of the same problems he had heard before; The church was suffocating under horrible debt that had accrued over years of bad financial management. Finally, after describing all of the problems, the wealthy church member said, “When you come to preach you are welcome to stay at my country house, my town house, or my seaside cottage.”

To which the old pastor responded, “I’m not coming.”

The rich member was incredulous, “But you have to come, we need your help! How else can we pay off our debt?” 

The pastor said, “Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself.” And then he hung up.

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Woe to those who are rich! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!

Last week we spent the entire worship service addressing one of the topics Jesus spoke about all the time, a topic that for some reason we avoid in the church – divorce.

And as I stood up in this place and preached those words, I witnessed some pew squirming as the rigidity of Jesus’ proclamation landed upon our ears. Whether we’re divorced, or we know someone who is divorced, this was a place defined by a feeling of anxiety last week.

But now we have to talk about money. And if you thought people were uncomfortable last week, you should’ve seen how you all looked as the scripture today was being read!

Money! 

Presumably we all interact with money on a regular basis, and presumably most of us here wish we had more of it.

And perhaps some of us truly need more money – maybe we don’t have enough to pay our bills, or purchase groceries, or fill up our gas tanks. 

And maybe some of us have just enough – we’re able to make ends meet, save a little for the future, and splurge every once in awhile.

And still yet there may be some of us who have more than enough – we never have to think about bills because we know we have enough to cover them, we’ve can’t remember the last time we bought something used, and we are always the ones who reach for the check at the restaurant.

Money, whether we are poor or rich, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else. 

Jesus was about to set out on a journey when a man ran up and knelt before him. In the other gospels we learn a little bit more about this man, but in Mark’s version we don’t know anything about him except that he apparently kept all of the laws and that he had a bunch of stuff.

Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?

You know the commandments! Do them.

Of course I know them teacher, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth. 

And Jesus, looking at him with love, said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He wanted to know what he could do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He had apparently done a lot already, even from the time he was young. And Jesus had the gall to look him in the eye and say, “That’s not enough.”

When Jesus invites people to follow him in the gospels, they almost always drop everything right then and there to do so – but not this guy. For some reason his wealth was such that it was not something he could walk away from – whether it was the materialism of it, or the power that it created, or the comfort that he appreciated – he, unlike almost everyone else, walked away from the kingdom with grief.

And, lest we skip over the detail that stands out with strange absurdity, Jesus’ response to them man was apparently born out of love!

What kind of love compels someone to say, “you know what… the only way you can do this kingdom thing is to do exactly the thing you are not going to do.”

This is painful stuff! This is the Messiah peering into the heart of the man and naming right then and there the sin that has wrapped itself around his heart.

And to make things worse, Jesus doesn’t even wait until the man is gone before he begins regaling the crowd!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed, much like us.

So, some sermons would now logically shift into a “each of us can surely take look at our own lives…” And someone like me who ask people like you to imagine what in your life is keeping you from the kingdom – an attachment, a desire, a hope – something that acts more like a shackle holding you back than a spring that pushes you forward.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons like that, in fact I know I’ve even preached some sermons like that. A sermon where the final line is something like, “just let it go.”

But what if the point isn’t about what we must give up, but that we won’t be able to?

Jesus is clear with his disciples about the impossibility of the rich man’s salvation; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

And yet he also proclaims the Almighty power of God to make the impossible possible.

So… which is it?

In theological terms we call this divine tension, it is an impossible possibility. One cannot inherit eternal life in the sense that so long as you do this, this, and this it’s all yours. Time and time again the gospel, what we call the Good News, grace offered freely to us in spite of us, gets whittled down to a proposition. 

If you do this… then the kingdom is yours.

If you repent of your sins… if you pray everyday… if you sell all your possessions.

And when that becomes the defining message of the church the Good News is no longer good news. Instead, its just another version of the law whereby impossible tasks always remain impossible.

There is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom. 

And of course there are things in this life, sins and desires and temptations, that prevent us from being all that God would have us be. But when those very things become the lynchpin to everything we experience and know as disciples, then our lives will be little more than chaos.

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We really need to talk about money and our unhealthy obsessive attachment with it – but perhaps it’s more important for us to talk about the fallacy of earning the kingdom. 

This moment with the rich man reveals the kind of righteousness we think we require to acquire the kingdom of heaven. We make it out in our minds that its even more than following the laws, its more than checking off all the boxes. We take it to dimensions of frenetic fear and imply that to acquire the kingdom its all about who we are behind closed doors, who we are when no one else is around.

And then we boldly proclaim that Jesus is waiting in the wings to ask us to drop the very thing that we know we cannot. 

Why?

Perhaps Jesus wants to suck out all of our self-righteousness. Jesus asks the rich man a question, and vicariously asks all of us a question, as a reminder that we are no better than the people maligned in the media and the people dropped because of bad drama.

Maybe Jesus asks the question because he wants us to know that we really are sinners. That its not just a noun that we throw around all the time, but really, truly, deeply, who we are.

But where is the Good News in that?

The tension of the story, that pull from what we are asked to do to what we know that we cannot do, is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the rich man and to people like you and me: We have a job to do, and we cannot save ourselves.

That is the uncomfortable comfort and the impossible possibility of our salvation – that we worship a God who, in spite of our best and worst intentions, desires our salvation even when we cling to the things we know we should not.

God, in the midst of our chaotic and frightening dispositions, waits for us to realize that it is because we are sinners, it is because we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved.

When we read the story of the rich man, and we make it into a call for better stewardship, then it appears that none of us, poor and rich alike, none of us will inherit the kingdom. When faced with our own version of the question, we would all grieve while looking back over our shoulders.

But friends, that’s kind of the whole point – inheriting the kingdom is not up to us!

If all the Christians we know make us feel like we’re not doing enough, if every sermon leaves us feeling guilty, then we cannot call it amazing grace. 

When the gospel becomes a commodity to be propositioned – Jesus did something for you and now you have to do something for Jesus, then the cross is foolishness.

We all, the rich and poor, fail to live according to the law. If any of us were there that day, Jesus would have given us our own impossible task. That’s why the passage ends with the terrifying list of things to be abandoned for the sake of the gospel – friends, family, property.

Sure, selling our possessions to help the poor is a great thing. But it doesn’t earn us a ticket to the kingdom.

Sure, confronting a family member for their bigotry and hatred is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t earn us a spot in the resurrection.

Sure, abandoning our sinful desires that prevent us from being who God wants us to be would be a smart idea. But it doesn’t procure us anything.

Were our salvation up to us, it would be impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God. Amen. 

Equity and Equality

Psalm 45.6

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity. 

Weekly Devotional Image

There are some images that stay with us long after we see them for the first time. For instance, someone only needs to mention the man and the tank and we might immediately conjure in our minds the defiant Chinese man who stood solitarily in front of a column of tanks immediately after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Or someone might mention something about a solider in love and we’ll see the black and white photo of the sailor kissing a woman in the middle of Time’s Square after the end of World War II. Or still yet we might overhear a conversation about the Great Depression and we’ll remember the young woman staring off into the distance with her children crying into her shoulder.

There are just some images that remain fixed in our minds.

For me, one of those memorable images is a cartoon depicting the differences between equality and equity. In the first panel there are three figures attempting to watch a baseball game over a fence. One is tall, one is of average height, and the last is small. The panel is labeled “EQUALITY” and all of the figures have been given the same size box on which they can stand to watch the game. However, because their heights are so varied, only the tallest and average size figures can see anything.

The second panel contains the same three figures, only in this one we see the label “EQUITY” and each figure has been given a box appropriately sized so that all the figures can watch the game.

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I can’t remember when I came across the image for the first time, but it has been stuck in my head ever since. It highlights the often ignored side of equality that still leaves some people forgotten, while also addressing the difficult truth of equity that some require more than others for true equality to be present.

One of the most prevailing motifs in scripture is that God is a God of leveling. God will bring the mountain down and raise the valley up; God will make the last first and the first last. And part of God’s desire for equity is one in which the kingdom God rules provides ways and means for all to participate in this new reality. 

That can be hard to swallow for those of us who already have so much, but it truly is Good News for those who cannot “watch the game.” It means that some of us will be called to forfeit our privileges so that others can stand shoulder to shoulder with us. It means that God is working in and through people like you and me to make leveling realities. And it means that one day all of us will stand before the Lord with the same equity. 

We Are Not David

1 Samuel 17.32-49

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried to walk in vain, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give into our hand.” When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.”

This story, right smack dab in the middle of 1 Samuel, might be the most well-known and retold story in the bible. It is simple, direct, playful, and full of enough action to please any audience.

While all the armies of Israel tremble before the giant Goliath, a little boy named David takes runs quickly, slings a stone, and strikes Goliath in the forehead.

Goliath is dead.

            Israel triumphs.

            Then end.

But the writer, the teller of the tale, fills it with far more details than that.

The Philistines gathered their armies for battle, a terrible sight to imagine for the fledgling Hebrew people. And there came from the camp a champion named Goliath, who was about ten feet tall, with a helmet of bronze, and his armor weighed 150 pounds.

Goliath is huge. It is abundantly clear that there is no one else like him. And he demands the Israelites send out a champion to fight, the winner will bring the great victory to their entire people.

And up pops David. Goliath demanded a worthy warrior, and he got a little shepherd boy. David was only at the battlefield bringing his older brothers something to eat. The king, Saul, is paralyzed with fear, and David offers to fight the giant Goliath.

Saul is incredulous, “You are you to fight this Goliath? You’re nothing but a little boy!” And thus God pops into the story for the first time when David responds: “The Lord who saved me from the lion and the bear will save me from the Philistine.”

David has nothing but a sling, a few rocks, and hope in the Lord. Saul tries to give him armor and weapons, but they only hold him back, so David rejects the tools of the trade and places his trust in the Lord.

With God’s help, David took the shepherd’s sling and one smooth stone and brought Goliath to the point of death.

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This little story is, I am convinced, the beloved story of all middle school age boys. I have yet to encounter a 13-year-old boy who did not believe this was the most important story in the bible. Perhaps middle school boys love this story because it is the beginning of bullying and they feel like they have to stand up against their own Goliaths every day. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that girls often hit puberty faster and therefore tower over their male counterparts to the point that they appear like mighty Goliaths.

But, if we’re honest, it’s not just a story for boys with BO and zits and cracking voices. This is the paradigm for so many beloved stories. It is THE underdog story.

            David defeating Goliath.

            Rocky. Remember the Titans. Rudy. The Karate Kid. Hoosiers. The Mighty Ducks. Slumbog Millionaire. Tin Cup. Cool Runnings. Revenge of the Nerds. I could go on and on and on. And those are just the movies!

We are beyond fascinated with underdog stories, with the Davids who defeat their Goliaths. We love rooting for the hero who appears to have no chance of winning. Maybe there is something in our humanity that bends toward the least likely victor who triumphs over evil.

And when this story is preached, when someone like me ascends to the promenade of the pulpit, the sermon is almost always about encountering our own giants. Preachers like me will look out at people like you and say things like: “We all face our own Goliaths. For some of us it’s depression, or debt, or directionlessness. And, like David, we just have to have faith that God will be with us, and that we will win.”

There are so many sermons exactly like that… So many, in fact, that when I went looking for a sermon with a different angle, I couldn’t find one. And then I grabbed the texts books from seminary and the countless commentaries I have organized around my office, and all of them had the same thing to say: When we face our Goliaths, God will give us the strength to persevere.

But here’s the thing: We are not David.

Most of us here today are not even like the Israelites cowering on the corner of the battlefield wondering about their future. Most of us have never experienced a moment of fragility such that everything would be decided in a single stroke, by the least likely of people. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to put our whole trust and faith into something we don’t know.

If we’re anyone in this story, we’re Goliath.

Now, I know, this isn’t good news. We don’t go to the movies to root for the bad guy! We don’t like coming to church and hearing about how bad we are! But, and this is hard, when we encounter the strangeness of this story, when we start identifying ourselves with particular characters, we have to be honest with ourselves.

            We are not David.

A foreign country full of might and power is about to change the stage for the entire world. The Philistines have the army, they’re got the right weapons and armor, they even have a Goliath.

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The Israelites have nothing. They are a ragtag group of would-be followers of Yahweh with a king who can’t even must the courage to walk out onto the battlefield, with no hope except for the hopeless shepherd boy David.

We are like the Philistines. Most people in the world either fear us, or want to be like us. We hold all the cards, we’ve got the greatest military, and we hold a promise for anyone of a better life. We not only stand like a beacon on a hill for everyone else to see, we WANT to be the beacon that everyone else can see!

It’s been a strange week in our country. While I was spending time last weekend at Annual Conference with all of the other Methodist pastors and lay leaders in Virginia, the first images, videos, and sounds were released from the detention centers near the border with Mexico. Hundreds of children could be seen in cages made of metal with scattered bottles of water, bags of chips, and metallic blankets thrown randomly about.

But the audio clips somehow made it worse.

Recordings came to the surface of children screaming for their parents, some of whom were forcibly taken away while breast feeding, others were told that they were going to get a nice warm bath and never returned.

As more and more reporting came out, and more and more churches spoke out, the administration eventually ended their policy of separating families as a deterrent for illegal immigration.

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            And we still think we’re David.

But we are not David. We are Goliath. We look down at those who flee from absolute terror and say, “Come to us, and we will break your families into oblivion, we will treat you like the animals we think you are.”

And just as every Goliath does, we need our David. We need our defeater. We need to be struck dead in the forehead about our frivolity and foolishness. We need to be taken down a peg or two. We need the mirror that shows us who we truly are. For as much as we like to think we are not like the politicians who pursued a policy of family separation, this is very much who we are.

And, to be clear, this isn’t about who sits in the oval office, or what political animal is ruling the country; it’s about recognizing who we really are in the story, and not passing responsibility on to somebody else.

So we need a David. But we don’t need THE David, we don’t need the handsome shepherd boy of Jesse. No, we need the new David. We need Jesus.

            We need Jesus to smack us across the head not with smooth stones from the wadi but with the hard wood of the cross. We need to be brought low to the ground before we can be raised high. We need to be defeated in order to be redeemed.

The story of David and Goliath is so beloved because we inherently love seeing good win-out. We love it when the tables are unexpectedly turned. We love believing in impossible possibilities.

And there are times when we will feel like David. We will experience things like depression, and debt, and directionlessness, and they will feel like mighty Goliaths blocking out the sun. And, at those moments, we do need to keep hope in the Lord that we will prevail, not because of our own doing, but because God is with us.

But one of the things we never talk about, at least anymore, is how much we are actually like Goliath – the ways we Lord ourselves over others whether it’s a different race, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or socio-economic status – the ways we dismiss those at the border, or in another country, or in another community – the ways we demean those we deem unworthy.

So, for as much as the story of David and Goliath is a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our Goliaths, it is also a story about what happens to Goliath, what happens to us! God will not leave us to break down the oppressed and reject the weak. God delivers to us a little shepherd boy, born among the animals, to bring us down from the towers of power we have constructed for ourselves.

Jesus, thanks be to God, runs out to the battlefield of our lives and says, “No more!” Jesus grabs us by the collar and delivers the truth, the hard truth, “You are Goliath! But you don’t have to be.”

There is a way, a better way, the way.

The Lord does not save by sword and spear, the Lord does not redeem the world with giants and Goliaths.

The Lord sustains with water and Word, the Lord redeems us through a shepherd named Jesus.

And in God’s kingdom, even Goliaths get saved. Amen.

The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

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 alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship 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 of 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, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

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Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.

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We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.