The First Resort

James 5.13-18

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.

I announced the final hymn and we all started singing. 

Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.

But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.

There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.

I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”

And so I did.

Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.

The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.

And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.

An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”

For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.

Going into the ministry only made it worse.

But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.

What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.

James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.

And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort. 

When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?

And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.

Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization. 

But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.

On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.

Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves. 

Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.

And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”

Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying. 

Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe. 

Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible. 

And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.

Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants. 

I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.

To me, this church is an answer to prayer…

The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church. 

But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?

In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.

As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.

Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment. 

Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.

The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…

The 2nd Hardest Parable

Luke 16.19-31

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

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

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

Larry.

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

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

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

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

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

His problem was finally over!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth the parable.

Thanks for this one Jesus – the second hardest parable.

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

Just kidding.

Sort of…

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

Guilt can be an incredible motivator.

So can fear.

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

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

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

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

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

We use money to determine worth beyond money.

This is a parable about power and identity and wealth. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve seen it.

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

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

Ourselves included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some might even call that hell. 

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

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

The Hardest Parable

Luke 16.1-13

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

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

Who thought this would be a good idea?

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

Some fools for Christ are just fools.

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

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

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

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

And then Jesus does it again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this one really takes the cake. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace comes only through losing. 

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

No one, that is, except for Jesus. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Crucial Eccentricity

Psalm 113.2

Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore.

The writer, novelist, preacher, and theologian Frederick Buechner died on August 15th at the age of 96. His works attracted those inside and outside of the church and in the wake of his death countless tributes were made on his behalf. Among his remarkable books and witness to the faith, there is one longish quote that has stayed with me ever since I first encountered it: 

“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. But not so with grace for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody? A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace; there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do, there’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life, you might never have been, but you are because the party would never have been complete without you. Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It is for you that I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch: like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

The passage has come to my mind a lot recently, not only because of Buechner’s death, and not only because “grace” really is such a unique word, but also because he describes grace as a good sleep and it’s been more than a month since I’ve had a good sleep! (I’ve been on paternity leave for a month; Phoebe Wren Mertins was born August 19th, 2022) Nevertheless, Buechner’s willingness to take a “stained glass word” and bring it down to earth is, I think, one of the most important hermeneutical tools in the church today. Therefore, I had decided to offer my own spin on the prompt “Grace is…”

Grace is driving to the hospital in the middle of the night while your wife is in labor, and every person goes out of their way to make sure she makes it straight to the delivery unit. It’s nurses telling us to stop apologizing for the things we need. It’s lactation consultants and pediatricians and doctors who bend over backward to show love and patience during a decisively impatient time. Grace is coming home from the hospital to countless cards and notes from friends and strangers alike rejoicing in the arrival of our daughter. It’s food being delivered to the door and dismissing hand movements every time we try to express our gratitude. Grace is the delivery of various gift cards to grocery stores and restaurants just to make the first few weeks a little easier. It’s the way grumpy old men make fools of themselves when they see you walking around the block with a newborn baby in your arms. It’s the curiosity of wide-eyed children leaving school seeing such a tiny little person and realizing, in some way, they used to be that tiny too. Grace is returning to work after a month with nothing but gratitude and excitement. Grace is waking up in the middle of the night over and over again for yet another diaper change, only to turn the lights on and see your daughter smiling at you. 

Grace is God’s disposition toward us and we cannot earn it or deserve it. The only thing we have to do is reach out and accept it. And once we do, it truly is the difference that makes all the difference. 

The New Economy Of Grace

Genesis 37.1-8

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dream. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

It is a strange thing to share the dreams we dream with others. To us, they feel so very real even though, as soon as we wake, we know they aren’t. And yet, more often than not, moved by a particularly imaginative vision, we will tell others of what we have seen and experienced knowing full and well that, most of the time, it means absolutely nothing to the people we tell.

There’s a better than good chance that each of us here have had at least one dream that left us mad at someone because of what they did in our minds even though they did nothing in reality.

How odd.

And yet, how true to our human nature!

Listen – Jacob, Israel, settled in the land of his father, Isaac. Contrary to the controversial beginnings of his life, he eventually grew to have a large and prosperous family. Among his many children, Joseph was his very favorite, and Jospeh was a dreamer.

The parallels in scripture are often quite staggering. 

Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching into the heavens, a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend. 

Joseph has a vision of his brothers bowing to him.

Jacob’s story culminates in his reconciliation with his brother Esau.

Joseph’s tale concludes with his brothers as well.

And yet these two biblical figures could not be more different. Jacob is selfish, Joseph is kind. Jacob runs away from his problems, Joseph walks straight into them. Jacob throws his life away, and Joseph, himself, is the one thrown away.

Joseph, baby of the family, dreams of sheaves in a field bowing to him, he has visions of his family relying on him for their deliverance. And it would be enough just to have these dreams, but Joseph has the bright idea to share his dreams with his brothers. His brothers already despise him because their father loves him most of all and even gives him the gift of a coat with long sleeves.

Why?

Scripture says that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s old age, but we also know that Joseph is one of the only two children from Rachel, Jacob’s first love and second wife.

Notably, Jacob is one who has experienced the divine inversion that runs rampant in scripture as he was elevated over his brother Esau (by his own heel-grabbing tendencies). Jacob’s preference for Joseph runs against all propriety at the time, and against the established norms. His love upends everything the family thinks they know about how things are supposed to work, which is something God seems to do all the time.

This tale is a foretaste of how, throughout the rest of this strange book, God will often choose the youngest and weakest for honor and leadership. It is a strange and new economy of grace.

The brothers hear out their baby bro’s vision and they decide, with a solid eleven voting members, that they can no longer live with the dreamer. Ten of them want him dead, but the eldest, Reuben, convinces the others to merely throw him in a pit instead.

Reuben, inexplicably, leaves the scene and the remaining brothers spy an approaching caravan and the decide to sell Joseph into slavery. 

*Netflix*

This is a strange and bewildering tale, even among the wild new world of the Bible. The final quarter of Genesis is devoted to this one person and his tale. The themes that follow have been made manifest of countless other stories: exile, hiddenness, the hero’s journey, riches to rags and rags to riches, drama, mystery, and hope. 

As Joseph disappears into the horizon, his brothers take his aforementioned not actually technicolor dream coat, and they dip it in fresh blood to convince the rest of their family, and their father in particular, that Joseph is dead. 

And, to be frank, he might as well be dead. He is completely cut off from his family, from the land of his birth, and from the story of God’s people. He travels as a slave to be a stranger in a strange land without any hope in the world, without his father’s love, and without his special jacket.

Jacob responds to the news of his favorite son’s death by ripping his own coat and vows to live a life of mourning until the day that he, himself, dies.

So, why is it that Joseph’s brothers throw him into the pit of enslavement? 

Those of us with brothers and sisters know, first hand, the strangeness of siblings. We know of the tensions and the pains and the jealously that can be all too present within a family. But, the kind of domestic squabbles we might be familiar with are a far cry from what happens here in Genesis.

Why is it that when God comes to dwell among us, we nail God to the cross?

Why is it that, when they hear of their brother’s dream, the sons of Jacob sell Joseph into slavery?

Joseph, now a slave, is sold to to the captain of Pharaoh’s guard in Egypt, a man named Potiphar. A truly wild narrative ensues that is worth its own sermon series, but for the sake of today it is enough to know that his time there ends with his arrest.

And, it comes to pass that while he is in prison, Pharaoh has a set of experiences that require someone who can interpret dreams. The dreamer from the shackles of slavery and imprisonment has earned a reputation for interpretation, and is called before the throne. Pharaoh shares his dreams of seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows but don’t grow in size, seven good ears of corn are consumed by seven withered ones. 

What does it mean Joseph?

The dreamer tells Pharaoh that Egypt will have seven good years of harvest and seven years of famine, therefore someone is needed who can store up a surplus during the good years and distribute it during the years of scarcity.

And who does Pharaoh call upon for this task?

Joseph.

The dreamer is freed from slavery, given a wife, and the total authority in Egypt. And, when the times comes, his interpretation is proven correct and he saves the nation into which he was sold as a slave.

There’s a version of this story that ends right here. From riches to rags and back again. This would be a good place for the credits to start to roll. But God has another ending in store.

The famine that strikes Egypt is so bad that even the surrounding areas are suffering. So much so that Joseph’s family is stuck in destitution and are in need of deliverance. The brothers are commanded by their father to seek out help in the foreign land and when they travel to Egypt they beg for food from their brother though they do not recognize him. 

Not only do they beg for compassion, they literally bow down to him, bringing his earlier dream to fruition. 

There is great tension in the ensuing narrative with Joseph going back and forth with requests and demands from his brothers who still do not know his true identity, and it all culminates during in a moment in which, scripture says, Joseph could no longer control himself, and he reveals the truth.

He weeps so loudly in the moment that everyone in the entire palace hear his cries. And his brothers are terrified. Rightly so.

They deserve judgment and they are about to get it. 

But instead of rejecting his brothers just as they rejected him, Joseph embraces them, he literally falls upon them and he covers them with tears and kisses. The scene is staggering. They offer to become his slaves for what they had done, but instead Joseph forgives his brothers, he loves them, and he urges them not to be angry with themselves. 

They are invited to live in Egypt and even Jacob travels to the strange land where the entire family is reunited and reconciled. 

Joseph does for his brothers what they don’t deserve at all. They come to Egypt with no hope in the world, and the only one who can do anything for them is the one they did everything to. They offer to becomes slaves to the one enslaved and he, instead, offers them a freedom they never could have imagined. Not only are they free to thrive and eat and live, they are freed from the shame and guilt of what they had done.

In short, they are given grace.

I arrived at Alta Mons this week tasked with being the chaplain for all of the campers and all of the counselors. After breakfast we would gather for morning watch during which we would sing songs together and talk about how to keep an eye out for what God might be up to during the day and after dinner we would gather around a campfire for worship during which we would talk about how we had experienced God during the day.

Throughout the week we covered themes like the body of Christ and how each of us are a part of it, the new beloved community, and grace. Asking the kids to define grace was delightful. One of them told me, “grace is what you do before you’re allowed to eat,” and another said, “I don’t know what it is but I do know that it’s amazing,” and still yet another said, “grace is loving someone even if they don’t deserve it.”

And when I asked why God offers us grace, the young theologian Caleb Anderson replied, “God’s built different, that’s straight facts.” 

The first night of camp, the kids all sat and stood awkwardly around one another as they navigated the strangeness of being forced to hang out with a bunch of relative strangers in the woods for a week. And over the following days I witnessed joy and laughter and the bonds of new friendship but I also saw disagreements, and frustrations, and deep sighs and hair flips. 

But on our final night, as we sat around the campfire and I told them about Jesus’s final night, as I prayed over the bread and the cup and we all shared communion with one another, I saw tears and hugs. I watched and listened to kids sing songs about Jesus, a few of whom who have never darkened the doors of a church. I experienced campers giving love and receiving love without expectation of reciprocation.

In short, I saw grace.

On the day of Easter, resurrected from the grave, still bearing the marks of the cross, Jesus returns not to the best and the brightest and the most faithful. Instead, he returns to those who abandoned him. He loves them, even to the end. 

In the kingdom of God the new economy of grace is weird. It is everything for nothing. It is forgiveness, and mercy, and love. It is Good News for people drowning in bad news.

If Joseph was willing to forgive his brothers after all they had done, if Jesus was willing to return to his disciples who abandoned him and denied him, just imagine what we can do with the new economy of grace. 

It could be amazing. Amen.

Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

The Scandal Of Grace

Romans 5.1-2

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

We’re all constantly caught up in the business of self-justification. It happens in ways big and small and in ways seen and unseen. We self-justify grabbing that one extra cookie (or drink) because we had a tough day at work. We self-justify our imperfect families with perfectly coordinated family portraits on Instagram. On and on and on.

Everyone is trying to earn their salvation with what we in the church call works-righteousness. Whenever we face a dose of the truth about who we are, we desperately desire to make it right. The problem lies in the fact that no matter what good we do, we can’t actually justify (make right) who we are. Every person knows (at least in some way) what he or she should do, from keeping up with the dishes to not having an affair, and we fail to do it.

A long time ago there was this really great guy who was a model citizen, he worshiped regularly, and he followed all the rules. His rule-following was such that, whenever he encountered those who broke the law, he put them in their place. And then, one day, he was traveling to a nearby town to continue a campaign against a new, irreverent, and even dangerous religious sect, when he was encountered by its founder and blinded for his inability to see the truth right in front of him.

His name was Paul.

After a particularly moving moment with a man named Ananias who, through the power of the Spirit, restored Paul’s sight, Paul was set on a trajectory that changed everything.

He met with other Christians, was compelled to spread the Good News, and eventually helped to start Christian communities across the Mediterranean. Through prayer, the Spirit, and perhaps a love of the scriptures, Paul discerned a few things about the faith: The message of the Gospel is meant for all people, our sins really are forgiven by the only One who can forgive them, and we have new lives to live because we have been set free from all sorts of things including self-mastery, moralism, and even death.

The majority of the New Testament is, in fact, Paul’s letters written to the early Christian communities outlining what this faith is all about. However, it is always worth nothing that Paul is not Jesus. And yet, perhaps it is helpful to note that Paul taught what Jesus did.

Therefore, we hold the example of Christ’s life and ministry in the Gospels with Paul’s epistles so that we might begin to understand how the Gospel is, oddly enough, a person.

In his epistle to the church in Rome, Paul spends the first four chapters outlining the human condition and our need for God’s divine grace in the person of Jesus Christ. And then, right at the beginning of chapter five, he drops the hammer of the Gospel: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

It’s a scandalous proclamation.

What makes it scandalous is that the Gospel has nothing to do with our morality or our goodness or our virtue. Paul shouts across the centuries that the Gospel, Jesus, is something that is done to us. But, for people who live and breathe in a world run by meritocracy, we scarcely know what it means to receive something like grace. That’s why the parables always pop the circuit breakers of our brains.

Grace really is scandalous because it, to use Jesus’ words, pays the early bird just as much as the perennially late fool. Grace runs into the streets of life toward every prodigal reeking of their mistakes and throws a party no matter what. Grace is the terrible shepherd who leaves behind the well-behaved and good-listening ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who got lost. 

We stand in scandalous grace not because we earn it or deserve it but because God delights in giving it to us. It is one hilarious gift that we can never ever repay, and it also happens to be the reason we can call the Good News good. 

Or, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it: “The Law says ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this’ and everything is already finished.”

The Language Of Faith

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

Dear Paige, Maggie, Keeli, Braelyn, Liam, Emma, and Sophia,

On this, the day of your confirmation, I have decided to write a letter instead of a sermon. Though, for what it’s worth, most sermons are like letters anyway. And, because this is the occasion of your confirmation, it is also a letter for all who call this church home for, God is confirming their faith just as much as yours.

Therefore, let me begin in a scriptural way: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

There is no way that you can possibility comprehend what is about to happen to you. Part of the life of faith is coming to grips with an adventure that, though we know not where we are going, we at least know who is with us along the way: That who has a name: Jesus.

50 days after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, after Easter, the disciples were all in one place together. They had recently witnessed their Lord ascend to rule at the right hand of the Father, and were rebuked for keeping their eyes in the sky. And without knowing what would happen next, they were confronted by the wild and reckless Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is all about the unknowability of God. Whenever we think we know what’s going to happen, whenever we congratulate ourselves for finally figuring out the divine, God pulls one over on us and we’re left scratching our heads. 

The sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the disciples – divided tongues as of fire appear among them and they were able to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

Fun fact, the story gets even better, because when they busted out of their gathering place the crowds who encounter the disciples accuse them of being drunk even though it’s only 9 in the morning. They are accused of being drunk because they are stumbling around into a new strange world that they can scarcely wrap their heads around. 

I hope that, in some way, you leave from church today staggering around like those first disciples. In fact, I hope that happens every Sunday, because when the Spirit encounters us, we can’t help but walk away altered. 

Those early disciples, the ones who walked the roads of Galilee with Jesus, the ones who spoke with tongues of fire, they were compelled to tell the Good News to all who would hear it, because, it was the difference that made all the difference.

Through your confirmation we have bombarded you with all sorts of things – scripture, creeds, tradition, prayer, denominationalism, sacraments, mission. You’ve been exposed to all the parts that make the church the church. But above all, in confirmation you have been taught the faith. But this is only the beginning.

Learning the faith is like learning to speak a new language. You can read all the books in the world about it, but you can’t do it until you do it. And, just like a language, you can’t learn it without others and without practice. 

A few months back one of you asked, “How can you tell the difference between God speaking, and your gut?”

That is easily one of the all time best questions asked of a preacher. It’s a great question because all of us have that question, and because the answer is right in front of us every Sunday. 

Whatever it means to be Christian, it at least involves the discovery of friends we did not know that we had. You see, church is the last vestige of a place where people willfully gather together with people who think, speak, and act differently than themselves.

None of you go to school together. Think about that for a moment. Whereas most friendships are born out of commonalities like schools, or extracurricular actives, you only know each other because of Jesus.

And that’s true for the rest of us as well! 

The only real thing we have in common is Jesus.

That’s important. For, the only way any of us can ever hold fast to the promises of scripture is through the community we call church. In order to hear the promises of God we need others to declare those promises to us over and over again, particularly when we feel like we can’t believe them or that they’re no longer true.

But God really does love you, in spite of all the reasons that God shouldn’t. 

The noise of the world will be deafening at times, trying to tell you what to think and what to believe. But it can never compete with the wild rushing wind of the Spirit, the various languages that rose up for the Gospel, because those words reveal who we are and whose we are. 

In life we are habituated by many languages. Like the language of literature, the language of baseball, the language of dance, the language of music, they all form us and shape us in ways seen and unseen. But today, on Pentecost, we are reminded that our first language is the language of faith and that before we are anything we are Jesus people.

The only way we can tell the difference between whether God is speaking to us or we’re listening to our gut, is by sharing it with others and having it confirmed by them. 

We told you over and over again during this season of confirmation that: Baptism is God’s way of saying ‘yes’ to us, and confirmation is our way of saying ‘yes’ to God. 

The simplicity of that sentence betrays the confounding nature of confirmation. Saying ‘yes’ to God means being caught up in God’s story in the world, it means receiving friends you never knew you had, it means fumbling out into the world not knowing exactly what the Spirit is up to.

And even though you will be confirmed individually, confirmation can only take place with and by others. The same is true of the sacraments. You can’t baptize yourself, and you can’t give communion to yourself. It is something done to us within the community of faith by others. 

We only learn what it means to be Christians by watching other Christians within the church and doing what they do. To be Christian means being together. Which, of course, isn’t easy. Particularly because we believe in telling the truth, even to those we love.

But, as Tom Holland of Spider-man fame put it, “I personally think if something’s not a challenge, there’s no point doing it, because you’re not gonna learn much.” (That’s for you Sophia).

Being a Christian might be the greatest challenge of your life. Not because it comes with all sorts of rules and requirements, but because it runs so counter to the rest of the world. 

The world worships the first, the greatest, the found, the big, and the alive.

But God comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

The world runs by deception and destruction.

The Kingdom of God runs by mercy.

The world is full to the brim with bad news.

Jesus comes to bring Good News.

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on all flesh, the tall and the small, the old and the young, the good and the bad. It’s not because we earned it. It’s not because Jesus was finally pleased with all of our faith. It’s because we needed it.

And we still do. 

It is my hope and prayer that, throughout your lives, you will hear the Good News: You are part of an adventure that is made possible by God’s relentless grace. You have a place in God’s church no matter what you do or leave undone. You are loved by God and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. You are forgiven.

When we went on our confirmation retreat to Alta Mons there was a considerable amount of content we had to cover. We had to explore the theological proclamation of the Trinity, we had to tell the whole story of the Bible, we had much to do.

And chances are, you won’t remember any of it. And that’s okay. The life of faith takes a lifetime. But, even though you won’t remember most of that content, I do hope you remember the feeling of being together, of going on a walk as the sun went down and being silent with God, of laughing hysterically at the dinner table with every new revelation about the people sitting next to you, of singing songs by the campfire, of sharing bread and cup by the waterfall.

You see, those are the real marks of a Christian. Not a list of good deeds to make us feel better about ourselves. Not perfect attendance in church every single Sunday.

Being together is what makes possible being Christian.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen: On the day of Pentecost, one of those seemingly drunk disciples got up to preach and afterward 3,000 people welcomed the message and joined the way. Scripture says they responded to God’s Spirit by devoting themselves to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.

People often assume that the church’s primary business is to get people out of their badness and into a life of goodness. But it isn’t. If that happens, well then that’s wonderful. But the primary mission of the church is to proclaim grace, to tell the story, to share the invitation to the cosmic bash we call the kingdom of God. 

God’s love does not depend of what we do or what we’re like.

There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, we can do to make God love us any more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve. 

God is a shepherd who never gives up searching of the one lost sheep, a parent who is always looking down the road for the prodigal and any excuse to throw a party, a sower who keeps scattering seed no matter the cost.

I hope you see and know and believe that the language of faith is surprising. You might even come to a time in your life when you find yourself surprised that you are, indeed, a Christian. But you need not be surprised. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is full of surprises. Just look around. Amen. 

The Politics of Pentecost

Acts 2.17-18

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old mens shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 

When I first started in ministry I received my first office visitor before I preached my first sermon. There were still boxes upon boxes of books scattered across the floor when a well dressed gentleman gently knocked on the door. I remember being lost in thought about what to say from the pulpit on my introductory Sunday when the man offered his hand and said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leads I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”

I was flabbergasted. What a remarkably kind and thoughtful thing to do! Here I was, a 25 year old freshly graduated seminarian and he took the time to find me and welcome me. 

We talked for a few minutes about the town before he announced that he needed to return to his own office. I thanked him profusely for the visit and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word from the pulpit if you know what I mean.”

And with that he walked away.

Here in the United States we operate under the auspices of the (so-called) separation of church and state. It is certainly a worthy goal, but it is not necessarily present in reality; the church and the state are forever getting intertwined.

In most communities church fellowship halls are voting locations, political candidates are often quick to share their religious affiliations, and we put all sorts of theological language on political items like currency, legislature, and judicial proceedings (to name a few).

Even though the country was founded on a separation of church and state, Christians in the US have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between the country and the Lord, something that scripture (and Jesus) calls idolatry.

We might not like to think about the church as a political entity, and we might even lament those moments when the church hedges a little too close to the supposed line, but the church is a politic. And it’s Jesus’ fault.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he has the gall to say, “This scripture is being fulfilled in me.”

This first century wandering rabbi starts it all off with promises about prison reform, political liberation, and economic redistribution!

Later, Jesus enters the holiest of cities on the back of a donkey like a revolutionary. The crowds welcome the King of kings with songs and shouts of resistance to the powers that be, expecting him to lead an armed rebellion against the empire. 

The following day Jesus strolls through the temple courts and drives out the merchants for their economic chicanery. Next he condemns the tax system, ridicules the abuses of the religious authorities, and predicts the destruction of the indestructible temple. 

For this, and more, he is arrested, condemned, and executed by the religious authorities and the political authorities together. Moreover, the sign adorned on the cross, Jesus’ instrument of capital punishment, reads: “This is the King of the Jews.”

And then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh filling the people of God with a bold and wondrous hope for things not yet seen: a strange new world. A strange new world in which slaves are set free, outcasts are summoned home, and everything is turned upside down. 

It might seem banal to confess Jesus as Lord, but it is not just a personal opinion. Confessing the lordship of Christ is quite possibly the most political statement a Christian can ever make. For, if Jesus is lord then no one else is.

Every year we mark the occasion of Pentecost in worship because the political ramifications are still echoing across the centuries. The same Spirit poured out on Pentecost fills us today with the strength and the wisdom and the grace to be God’s people in the world. Without the church, the world cannot know how beautiful things could be

On Pentecost we are reminded that before we are anything else, we are Jesus people. No matter how much we think we are bonded by the names on our bumper stickers or by the animals  (elephants and donkeys) of our political persuasions, nothing can hold a flame to the bonds formed in the waters of baptism and by the most political animal of all: the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Which is all just another way of saying: On Pentecost things get political, and it’s all Jesus’ fault.

So That

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including earthquakes, real prayers, freedom, hardhats, believing on Jesus, mountain melting, the idolatry of image, Christian hatred, the alphabet of faith, Between Two Ferns, unity, and love. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: So That