This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lenten practices, the frustration of Facebook, dismantling the patriarchy, obedience, cosmic plans, one man to ruin them all, death’s dominion, funeral feelings, and the futility of resistance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eve Was Framed!
I’m not a fan of “Ashes To Go” and when I wrote about it here on the blog last year it received a lot of backlash.
And I get it.
I understand the desire to take the church outside of its walls to meet people where they are. I understand wanting to keep up with a trendy expression of Christian community. I understand how turning a practice upside down can reinvigorate it for people in an exciting way.
But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the people called church do together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year communally.
As the popularity of something like “Ashes To Go” continues to rise, we lose a connection with the ecclesial and liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.
In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon that “Ashes To Go” has become, it usually looks something like this:
On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective church and a drive thru line will form such that people in their cars will wait their respective turn for a ten second interaction with ashes that are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or a fast-food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes To Go.” Lines will develop during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.
To be fair, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. Many of us are running around through the frenetic habits of our lives without time to do much of anything, let alone corporate worship. 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 a clanging cymbal (to steal an expression from Paul).
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 loads of stories about the beauty of meeting people in the midst of life and the possibilities of evangelism that can take place 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.
Fleming Rutledge has this to say about the practice:
“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 isn’t 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 id 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 ashes across on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”
I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a corporate liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the whole thing is about.
Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient – that’s the whole point.
It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world hell bent on convincing us we’re going to live forever. And, because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of worship in which we can begin to scratch at the surface of what we are doing and why we are doing it.
And I use the word “we” specifically. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection.
It is a practice of the community we call church.
This year (like most) the United Methodist Church is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of last year’s Special General Conference that resulted in the doubling down of the so-called incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, the denomination is currently debating the values of separating over our differing theologies. Therefore, I think there is no better time for the church, while it’s still together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”
On Ash Wednesday we have the opportunity (read: privilege) to be marked with ashes as a sign that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.
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 live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive. And, to make it even worse, 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 terms of the world, the individual reigns supreme. 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.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Tate about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including relational leadership, Advent Hymns, highlighting tension, tempering the holidays, divine reversal, the Bible on a bumper sticker, opening prisons, The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, burning Christmas trees, and churchy expectations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Advent Is A Little Lent
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered 74 years ago today.
Many Christians know of his life and work, particularly his outspoken preaching against the nationalistic leanings of Germany that led to the rise and power of Adolf Hitler. Many Christians know that he was arrested for his work and was executed one month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. And because Christians know of his harrowing bravery and conviction his life is often displayed as this quasi unattainable example.
The challenges faced by Bonhoeffer are very different from those faced by Christians today. The primary conflict upon which Bonhoeffer worked was against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine such a profoundly clear example of evil. It was dangerous to speak against the status quo in his home country, so dangerous that it got him killed, but as a Christian Bonhoeffer had little choice but to say and do what he said and did.
Today we live in a very different world and we are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have one.
Everything is far more complicated.
During Bonhoeffer’s life, part of the problem stemmed from the church’s desire to be everywhere which led to it being nowhere. It stretched itself so thin and became so common place that it no longer stood for anything. Moreover, the desire for the church to be everywhere led the church in Germany to turn into the world without the world looking more like the church.
Which is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the only German pastors who spoke out against what was happening – the church was so intricately tied together with the nation-state in which it found itself that the two largely became one.
In August of 1933, 12 years before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his grandmother. In it he opined that the church was changing so rapidly that it could no longer be reconciled with Christianity. He then suggested to her that “we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”
When the crowds cheered for Jesus during his entry in Jerusalem the Pharisees begged him to quiet them down. To which Jesus memorably replied, “Even if they were silenced, the stones would shout out.”
At the heart of Christianity is a willingness to speak, and in particular to speak about Jesus.
So too, in Bonhoeffer’s life he reminded those who follow Jesus again and again that the preaching of Christ and the celebration of his crucifixion and resurrection makes possible lives that can point out and identify the the lies that threaten our lives.
One of the greatest temptations in Christianity today (particularly in America) is the desire to appear nice. We avoid saying anything of real consequence out of fear that too many feathers will be ruffled – such that we are stretching ourselves so thin that we’re no longer know what we stand for.
So perhaps as we prepare to follow Jesus’ on his way into Jerusalem, it is good for us to be reminded that Jesus wasn’t killed for being nice, and neither was Bonhoeffer.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Joanna serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciations, BBT’s Leaving Church, debates about Passion Sunday vs. Palm Sunday, the spiderweb of the Bible, the craziness of faith, joyful obedience, giving palms to children, being an ass in church, King Jesus, and scaring people for the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: There’s Nothing Sexy About Palm Sunday
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep if for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
“How are you?”
A rather innocuous question and one that we drop all the time. So much so that we aren’t really asking because we want an answer, but because it has become a filler.
We ask the question and we are asked the question in the grocery store line, while we’re sitting in the waiting room, and even when we’re passing the peace on Sunday morning.
And how do we usually answer the question?
“I’m fine.” “I’m good.” And the best of all, “I’m busy.”
“I’m busy.” It’s almost as if it’s become a reflex these days to respond with our busyness. And it’s not untrue.
Take one of my day’s this week as an example. Woke up early to get breakfast and coffee ready, rushed out the door with my kid in tow to get him to preschool on time. Drove straight to church to start going over financial documents, sermon prep, phone calls, emails, and then had to leave to get home in time to get my kid to soccer practice, which went late, we didn’t have time to cook dinner so we had to grab something on our way home, just to get him to bed late knowing that it would be another crazy day tomorrow.
So, if you had asked me how I was doing this week, I’m sure that I would have made a comment about how busy I am.
And then I picked up a copy of David Zahl’s new book Seculosity.
In it he writes about how our busyness has become a new religion. “To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and therefore, enoughness. Busy is not how how we are but who we are – or who we’d like to be.”
When we feel busy, we make connections between what we do with who we are. Which, of course, is a problem.
And today, many of us cannot imagine who we are outside of what we do. So we build these ladders out of whatever we have around and construct scoreboards of our own design measuring everything we do against everyone and everything else.
And we never feel like we have, or have done, enough.
We chase after the elusive “enough” when in our heart of hearts we know that we will never really have enough. The perfect meal leaves us hungry mere hours later, the perfect spouses ages with time and knows how to cut through our armor, the perfect children grow up and rebel against our wishes, the perfect church gets a pastor or a program or a piety that rubs us the wrong way, and on and on and on.
We just can’t shake the feeling that there’s always more for us to do.
In the prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party and the disciples gather around the table to kick up their feet. The food is brought out, and probably some wine, when Mary walks over with a pound of Chanel No.5 and pours the entire bottle out on Jesus’ feet and she wipes them with her hair.
And then Judas jumps up from his seat and screams for everyone to hear, “Woman! What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you sell this perfume for a year’s worth of salary and give the proceeds away to the poor?”
Jesus, ever calm, merely replies, “Judas, leave her alone. She bought it so that she could use it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”
What a story and the details are incredible. But perhaps most interesting of all is how some of the details just sit there without elaboration or explanation.
The home of Lazarus is casually mentioned, you know the guy who Jesus raised from the dead! I don’t know about you but I have a hard time imagining a guy once dead just merely sitting around at the dinner table – the miracle made possible for him through Jesus seems to demand more demonstration than hosting a dinner party.
Martha served the food. Apparently Martha hadn’t quite learned her lesson as the constant busybody from a previous interaction with Jesus and continues to preoccupied with the comings and goings in the kitchen.
And then Mary takes a pound of perfume. A whole pound (!) and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet. Today, perfumes and colognes are often contained in tiny one ounce bottles, so we have to broaden our minds to a pound of this stuff being poured out.
In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story the woman anoints Jesus’ head, a prophetic witness to his the truth that he is the King and Messiah in the midst of the empire ruled by Caesar.
But here in John’s version, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet – another kind of prophetic act. Though in this scene, it points to his imminent death, as he is anointed ahead of his burial.
Mary, unlike the inner circle of the disciples and unlike the rest of the crowd who have been following him, sees Jesus for who he is. She comprehends and accepts what others can not – Jesus will die.
But then Judas goes off the rails.
You know, the one about to betray Jesus!
Why are you wasting that perfume when we could’ve sold it to help the poor?! And he drops the fact that they could’ve sold that pound of perfume for 300 denarii, which roughly equates to a year’s worth of wages.
Which, alone, begs our consideration.
How in the world did Mary procure such an expensive quantity of perfume? Where did the money come from? How long had she been holding on to it?
And, of course, scripture doesn’t provide us any more details than the ones on the page. We are left with a scene of a wasteful woman and a nonchalant Jesus.
Judas, for good reason, gets a bad rap in the Bible. After all, he is the one who ultimately hands Jesus over to the authorities. But can we but not sympathize with him in this moment? He’s certainly not wrong, they could’ve sold that perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.
John, makes sure that we know what Judas was really up to with the narrative interruption: He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.
Even still Mary seems to be wasting what she had, and it could’ve been used in a different way, perhaps an even better way…
Throughout the gospel according to John, Jesus regularly provides blessed abundance. When he and the disciples arrives in Cana he creates 18 gallons of new wine to keep the wedding party going. By the Sea of Galilee Jesus produces enough food to feed the 5,000 with plenty of leftovers. After fishing all night without anything to show for it, Jesus instructs Peter to put his nets in one more time and he pulls up such a haul that the boat begins to sink.
The abundance made possible in Christ is offered to those in need. Whether its food, or wine, or companionship, Jesus provides. But at this particularly weird dinner party, the abundance is reversed.
It is a prelude to the passion. Mary anoints him ahead of time for the burial he is to receive.
Again and again people ask something of Jesus: Lord, give us a sign, heal my daughter, feed the hungry crowds. And Jesus obliges over and over.
But here, less than a week away from the moment of his crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus turns his attention to different direction: the cross.
Much of religion today focuses on that which is useful, practical, and cost-effective. We spend most our time thinking about and planning upon what we should do in order to achieve what we want to do.
This type of fanatical religious observance has been on display in the last week, though not inside the church – it has been in the frightening dedication of wealthy parents who bought their children spaces in elite colleges.
Have you heard about this? An agency, for a steep price, could procure a diagnosis from a psychologist that would enable your child to take the SATs over two days rather than a few hours. And a hired proctor would be provided to either help guide the students to the right answers, or simply fill out the test on their behalf.
For another fee, the agency would hire someone to take online high school classes under the name of student in order to boost their grade point average.
And still yet for another fee, coaches at elite universities would take a bribe to say that they needed a particular individual for their team, regardless of whether the high schooler had ever played the sport or not.
The news broke through a number of arrests and articles and the overwhelming response wasn’t one of shock and awe but one of, “meh, sounds about right.”
I mean, who are we to blame those ultra wealthy parents for doing everything in their disposal to help their children? (sarcasm)
But they, and we, suffer from the Judas-like fixation that enough is never enough. We move to a particular neighborhood only to start planning out the finances required to move to an even better neighborhood. We enroll our children in after-school programs and we aren’t content with their participation until it garners them a spot on the best team, in the best social group, or at the best school. We work until we are able to retire and then spend most of our retirement wondering is we really saved enough.
The frightening truth that Judas hints at with his question is that there will always more work to be done. The question isn’t what needs to be done, but whether we know what enough looks like.
Now, this is not as some churches have foolishly used as a claim that frees us from caring for the last, least, and lost. We don’t have to help the poor, and we aren’t freed from helping the poor, we get to free the poor because of what happens to and through Jesus.
The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a recognition that the week will end with those feet being nailed to the cross. In that most of God’s triumphant condescension, Jesus does for us what we could not. Jesus is sent into a world that did not request him and yet acts entirely for the world’s benefit. Were it up to us alone, even with our best intentions, the poor would get poorer and the rich would get richer, the hungry would starve and the filled would bloat.
Enough would never feel like enough.
But Jesus lays down his life for God’s people not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself for us.
We can, of course, initiate new programs to fee the hungry in the community. We should do that work. We can also give away clothing to those in need, or start offering micro-loans to small local businesses, or help teach individuals and families how to budget their money.
The list could go on and on and on.
And it would never be enough.
There will always be more for us to do, but the one thing we could never do has already been done for us. The work of Christ, life-death-resurrection, provides all the enoughness we could ever really hope for. It is the sign that though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy, though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon, though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.
Because Christ is enough. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Luke for Lent, preaching patterns, being bored to death, the Bible in a sentence, divine reversal, perfection, abandoning self-righteousness, the myth of progress, and Jesus Christ Superstar. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We’re All Living In Paul’s World
Luke 15.1-3, 11b
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”
There was a man that had two sons.
The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors.
The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.
“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”
In other words, “Drop dead.”
The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.
Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.
His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work.
“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”
Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.
And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms.
And finally he came to himself.
He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads.
In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.”
So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.
And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?
He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.
“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.”
He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”
And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”
George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.
The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.
And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.
And that’s when he hears a knock at the door.
His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”
But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”
And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”
The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.
And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”
“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”
The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”
This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.
So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.
Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.
Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession.
In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.
Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying.
This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.
But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work.
He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.
But we all deserve nothing.
Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.
But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us.
And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners that all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 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.’”
Jesus gets pushed into situations like this all the time in the gospels.
Hey Jesus, what do you think about this – What happens to the woman who remarries over and over, who will her husband be in heaven? Hey Jesus, is this kid suffering because of his own sins and or because of the sins of his parents? Hey Jesus, are those people over there the worst of the sinners?
And, frankly, the questions make sense. We happen to live in a really senseless world and it would be nice is Jesus could illuminate for us the truth of what’s going on. Behind all the questions, whether the questioners are trying to entrap Jesus or not, is this inquisitive nature that is so at the heart of who we are.
And this particular scenario aimed toward the Messiah about the worst sinners – is just so human.
The delegates at the Special General Conference were given opportunities to stand and speak in favor or against particular motions regarding the church’s opinion about human sexuality.
There were, of course, the classic arguments – God made us male and female for one another, citing Genesis. And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, citing Jesus. There were even appeals to cultural shifts and being obedient to God’s word.
It went on for days.
But now, about a month later, there are a few moments that have really stuck with me. I’ve previously shared about the exact moment of reaction to the Traditional Plan vote in which some people fell to the ground in tears while others danced around in celebration, a moment I believe will haunt me and the church for the rest of our days.
But there were two speeches made prior to the vote that have been ringing in my mind.
Early in the debates a woman from Pennsylvania stood to speak in favor of the Traditional Plan. She used the same talking points as other people had, but as her time was winding down she ramped it up a degree. She said that Jesus was very clear that it would be better for someone if a millstone was hung around their neck and cast into the sea than to continue living in sin.
And then she sat down.
For a moment the entire convention center just sat in bored and passive observation, but then the wheels starting clicking.
Was she just implying that the time had come to drown gay individuals?
Within thirty seconds the room, largely quiet until this point, increased in decibels as people called for her to apologize for saying what she said.
Apparently, to the woman who spoke at the microphone, homosexuality warrants consideration for a death sentence.
Later, in a what felt like a different moment, though similar to a degree, a pastor from the Great Plains conference stood up at the microphone to speak against the Traditional Plan. He too relied on some of the same talking points as other people had, but then he ramped it up a degree as well.
He said he wanted to talk about biblical interpretation – Paul, he mentioned, talks more about women keeping silent in church, praying with their heads covered, not teaching men, women submitting to men, and women not wearing jewelry than he does about same-sex relationships.
And yet, he continued, the proponents of the Traditional Plan support women in ministry even though Paul commands them to remain silent.
The room grew very quiet at this point. Was he implying that we should remove women from places of pastoral power?
But then he went on to say it was interesting that the highest priority for items to be discussed at the conference were the pensions, even higher than the Traditional Plan itself. Which, is even more interesting given that Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” And he ended with this: If you really believe the Bible is clear, then I invite you to turn in your pension funds before you do anything else.
Apparently, to the man who spoke at the microphone, hypocrisy warranted greater reflection than other sins.
I’ve thought about these two moments a lot because it seems that we haven’t moved very far since the time of Jesus.
Self-righteous anger was with us in the beginning, and is still very much with us today.
Lord, do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans?
No. But unless you repent, you will die like them.
What a graceful and hopeful word from the Lord!
Robert Farrar Capon says that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should be like bad kids. They ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing churches and steal all their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.
Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. And yet we don’t know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about good behavior because we constantly point at everyone else’s bad behavior.
It’s why we are forever comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferior morality, ethics, and even theology.
The crowd’s conversation with Jesus about the greater sins in others hints at our continued fascination and obsession with guilt.
If the God we worship were to punish and reign judgment down upon us for the sins we’ve already committed, then few, if any of us, would be left to worship in the first place.
But guilt, whether we feel it or we want others to feel it is like an addiction. And we Christians think that is good and right for us to think about and talk about guilt. It’s how more than half of the Christian world works! Make people feel guilty enough for how bad they are, scare them enough about the punishment of hell, and they’ll show up in droves to church on Sunday morning.
But the Bible, you know this book we keep talking about, it’s not obsessed with guilt like we are. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness.
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
So what should we make of Jesus’ quip about the need for repentance? Of course there should be repentance. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, and not a bargaining chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.
Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.
God isn’t waiting somewhere far and beyond until we muster up the courage to fix all of the problems we’ve created. Instead, God meets us in our sins in the person of Jesus Christ.
We seem to be stuck in a world in which we foolishly feel like we have to earn God’s love and mercy and grace. And, even worse, we do this in the most paradoxical of ways by pointing out the so-called greater sins in others. We want to blame everyone else for all of the ills in the world. It makes us feel superior. It makes us feel right.
And then comes one of the most confounding truths in the entirety of the Bible: God has consigned all to disobedience in order that God may be merciful to all.
We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, we probably should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, if feeling guilty does anything, it usually just leads to more sinning.
Attempting to overcome our sins, to leave them all behind, is a worthy goal but a far greater task than we ever really realize.
The only thing we can really do with our sins that does anything, is admit them. Naming and claiming the truth of our condition is part of the necessary work of putting everything into perspective. When we can claim own our sins, when we can admit that we are no better than the crowds wanting to know who the worst sinners are, then we begin to see that we are all sinners and then we can celebrate knowing that those sins are nailed to the cross in Christ Jesus.
Parading out the self-righteous judgments against others for their sins being worse than ours is to perpetuate a world in which the right get righter and the wrong get wronger. It leaves little to no room for reconciliation. And it is a complete denial of the good gift, the very best gift, that is God’s grace.
Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family or perfect job or perfect paycheck or perfect morality or perfect theology earns us anything. Grace is not expensive. Grace is not even cheap. It’s free.
And, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, grace is like manure.
It gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and gets all co-mingled in the soil of our souls. Manure is a messy and strange tool that is so completely necessary for our existence. Nothing is quite as ironic as knowing that another creature’s excrement is often required for us to eat.
But, of course, we don’t like thinking about that. It’s why we so quickly identify with the man with the fig tree. What happens when something is no longer bearing fruit, whether it is a literal tree or not? We are quick to cut it down and replace it with something else.
And, assuming that we’re not growing all of our own food, we’ve grown remarkably comfortable with a world in which we don’t ever have to think about what was required for us to have food on our plates. We are either ignorant, or blissfully unaware, of the struggle that is at the heart of the production of our consumption.
We don’t like thinking about manure being spread all over the ground so that we can have whatever we want in our kitchens.
Its the same reason we like to think about Easter without having to confront the cross.
The cross is the manure of grace that is spread into and throughout our lives. It is a frightening thing that we’d rather ignore or dismiss, and yet without it we are nothing.
And still, the manure that is grace is offered to our lives even when, and precisely because, we are not bearing fruit!
We worship a God of impossible possibilities, a God who offers more chances than we ever deserve, a God who willingly drops manure on our lives over and over again.
The cross is like manure; it is good and bad and ugly.
But it is also our salvation. Amen.