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. 

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 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 River

Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

It happens, every so often, that someone reaches out with an inquiry about baptism.

A couple has a baby and they call the church office to ask if it would be possible for their newborn to be baptized. A stranger stumbles into church on a Sunday morning, is moved by the power of the Spirit, and approaches me afterward to discuss the holy waters. A long time church members sees someone else being baptized and, for the first time, desires to receive the promise of the covenant made by water and the spirit.

And, inevitably, we come to a moment when I ask THE question as it pertains to baptism: “Why?” 

One of my professors once said that the most faithful churches are those who won’t marry or baptize anyone off the street. That is, if a random couple asks to be married, it would be better for them to get married by the justice of the peace. The covenant of marriage, at least as understood by the church, is only possible within a community who will help hold the couple accountable to the promises they make.

And the same holds true for baptism.

Should you grow weary or bored at any point in the next ten to fifteen minutes, you can look at the liturgies in the hymnal or google online and you will discover that the questions and promises of marriage and baptism are remarkably similar.

What makes them similar is the outward nature of a promise, that neither of the them should be entered lightly, and they are only possible within the connection of a community we call church.

A few years back I was serving a church with a preschool and I made it a point to hang out among the students and their families as much as possible. I was at the door nearly every morning welcoming them into our building, I led chapel time once a week in the sanctuary, and after a while I started getting invited to a lot of 4 year old birthday parties.

And I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way we had three different families represented in the preschool who each had a parent in ministry. 

Let me tell you, teaching preschoolers about the Bible is hard enough, but it takes on a whole new dimension when a few of those children would return home week after week to tell their pastor-parent what this pastor said.

Anyway, it came to pass that, one year, two brothers from the preschool asked if I would baptize them. And, of course, their mother was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church on the other side of town. So we decided to baptize the boys together.

But this was not to be an ordinary baptism. No, we did not schedule it to take place once picturesque Sunday morning in a sanctuary, we didn’t even consider baptizing them in the preschool where they learned of the faith. The boys wanted to be baptized in living water, a river or a lake or a stream.

It happened on a cold early May day, where we gather on the banks of, I kid you not, Whiskey Creek in Churchville, VA. I knew well enough to bring my fishing waiters because the water was liable to be cold. And it was frigid.

So we said all the things we normally say, I prayed with the boys by the creek’s edge, and then, because it was so cold, I had to literally carry the younger brother out into the middle of the creek, and his mother and I rapidly dunked him under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When he burst forth from the water on the final dunking, he screamed bloody murder, tears were streaming down his face. He hit me in the face and declared for everyone to hear, “I hate you Pastor Taylor!”

And then I had to go get his brother and do the same thing to him. 

John the Revelator sees what we cannot, at least not yet. From the vantage point of a high and holy mountain, he takes in the New Jerusalem, the great rectification of all things. And, oddly enough, there is no church in the city, no place of worship. How can it be that, when God comes to dwell among us, there is no place to gather such as this?

There is no temple because God is the temple. 

There is no darkness because God is the light.

There is no gate because God is the host.

Nothing unclean will enter this holiest of places, and neither will those who practice abomination or falsehood.

And there, in the center of it all, is the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

This water, and more importantly from whom it flows, makes all things new, all things holy, all things clean.

There has long been an understanding of John’s vision as a prophecy. That is: it tells us about what will come to pass at some point in the future. Christian types will then hold these images over the heads of their dozing congregations and point to connective images in our surrounding culture as signs that the times have come. They do so as a warning about getting clean for the king, repenting in dust and ashes, so that, when the time comes, they will do what is necessary to make it through the gate.

And all of that might be right. But if that’s all that this is, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Big trouble because, none of us will make the cut. Abomination sounds like a big and scary thing, and yet all of us practice abominations on a regular basis. An abomination is anything that causes distrust or hatred – and we live in a world that runs on distrust and hatred! We are defined, so often, not by what we love but by what we hate. And that’s not even mentioning those who deal in falsehoods, namely all of us.

For as much as this is an image of something that will come to pass, it is also, at the same time, very much a description of how things are right now. Revelation is a timeless book not because it stands the test of time, but because it rejects all notions of temporal categories. It is beyond time. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. But, for creaturely creatures like ourselves, we can scarcely wrap our heads around it.

But John’s sees something that speaks into who we are and whose we are in present, past, and future. John sees the river. The river of the water of life.

Water runs through the strange new world of the Bible. In the beginning God swept across the waters and brought forth order out of chaos. In the days of Noah God set forth a rainbow in the sky. When God saw God’s people as slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through the sea, and eventually through the Jordan to the land that was promised. 

In the fullness of time God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a woman and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Jesus called his disciples to share in his baptism of death and resurrection and to spread to the Good News to all who will hear it. 

The water that flows through the middle of the street of the city in John’s vision is the water through which we are delivered to a strange new land where even people like us are made holy.

Nothing unclean can enter the city and we can’t make ourselves clean. No amount of goodness, no down-on-our-knees prayers of repentance, no righteous acts of piety or mercy can wash away our sins. 

The old hymn is right: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Therefore, I can understand the hatred that came from the boy I baptized in Whiskey Creek. To be made clean implies there is a need to be made clean. And no one likes to admit there is something wrong with them. Moreover, baptism is the beginning of a journey into discipleship and following Jesus isn’t easy! I mean, look at who he decided to gather together as a church! Us! We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not! 

Now, could that boy articulate his hatred in the river with such theological insights? Probably not. But his emotional response to the cold waters of his baptism is a truth we often forget. Baptism changes everything. 

The blood of the Lamb, who comes to take away the sins of the world, flows forth from the throne and makes a way where there is no way. It is the great cleansing flood that makes the impossible possible. Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us when God has no good reason to say yes at all. 

I, myself, was baptized at 19 days old. I had no choice. It was done to me. 

But those who were gathered in the church 34 years ago took seriously the vows they made to raise me in the faith, with God’s help. So much so that I wound up going into the ministry.

Beware of baptizing your child! You never know what God might call them to do!

Anyway, when I was 25 and about to start serving in my first appointment, I had the opportunity to return to my home church and preach one last time as a layperson. I preached on the power of baptism and how I was a product of their promises. 

After the service ended, and I was shaking hands in the narthex, a woman I had known my whole life approached me with a well worn Bible in her hand. She opened it up to the inside front cover and I saw names and dates covering every available inch. And with her index finger she moved across the name until she came to mine and she said, “Whenever we have a baptism I write down the name and date of the person and I pray for each of them every morning. Which means, I’ve prayed for you almost every single day of your life.”

I don’t know “why” my parents had me baptized. I’m not sure they were ever asked, or if they even gave it much thought. But that conversation with that woman in the narthex of the church is the beginning of an answer to the question.

The boys I baptized in Whiskey Creek, one of whom socked me in the face right after, that moment started a journey that is the adventure of faith. Each and every day they are learning more about what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us in the water, right where we are.

The radical nature of the sacrament is made manifest insofar as our baptismal identities are more determinative than any other part of who we are. The waters of baptism wash away any notion of our being defined by our faults and our failures. Each drop of baptismal water contains an ocean of grace and mercy and love deep and wide enough to engulf the entirety of everything that ever was or will be.

In baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the past, present, and future are confused in the best possible way, and the Lord declares, “you are my child.”

And we are who God’s says we are. Amen. 

The Business of Forgiveness

There’s a lot of talk about acceptance/tolerance in the church today. We ask people to be more understanding of others, we create curricula of theological teachings that are so watered down so as to say not much of anything, and we assume that being Christians is the same thing as being nice.

But how would you like to be the one tolerated

Tolerance is always a position for those who are in power. And the kind of power we have in the church is best exemplified in the One whose arms were outstretched on the hard wood of the cross. Put another way: We Christians do well to remember that we worship the crucified God.

Tolerance, therefore, is not something we should be in the business of. If the church is in the business of anything, it is the Jesus business.

And the Jesus business is run by forgiveness.

Hymn 560 in the United Methodist Hymnal is titled “Help Us Accept Each Other.” It is a catchy little tune of self-congratulation that is indicative of a church that no longer has anything left to say. If Jesus came so that we would merely accept each other, then there’s no good reason for him to die on a cross. You only kill someone when their very being in the world threatens to upend everything you think you know about the world. 

Jesus died on a cross because his existence in the world called into question the powers and principalities that produce a vision of tolerance rather than an ethic of sacrificial love. 

At the heart of Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus loves us even though Jesus shouldn’t love us. We all do things we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we should do. 

The “church of acceptance” leads to the fundamentally unchristian sentiment of “Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin.” We all know we’re supposed to love sinners, that’s what Jesus did. And yet, Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

The distinction is important. “Loving sinners” places us in the position of power in regard to others whereas “loving neighbors” reminds us that we, ourselves, are also sinners.

In the lexicon of the church this is made manifest whenever we gather at the table and hear: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

While we were yet sinners. Not before and not after. But right smack dab in the midst of our sins, God in Christ loves us and forgives us.

That’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we simply don’t deserve it.

Consider the parables: More often than not they end with someone throwing our the ledger book, or offering mercy before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.

Or consider Jesus’ life: He pronounces forgiveness from the cross, reconciles with the abandoning disciples in the upper room, chooses the murderous Paul to be the CEO (chief evangelist officer) of the first century. 

Jesus knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and the ones we’re proud of), Jesus knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, Jesus knows our self-centeredness, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus has seen all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, Jesus witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, Jesus is aware of our internet search histories, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Jesus is there with us in the comments we leave on Facebook, Jesus hears us when we scream in the car hoping no one else can hear us, Jesus knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”

Perhaps, then, we should change the words to the aforementioned tepid tune in the church:

Help us forgive each other as Christ forgives us; 

Teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. 

Be present, Lord, among us, and bring us to believe

We are ourselves forgiven and meant to love and live.

On Thinking Theologically

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.

In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.

And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”

It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.

On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country. 

Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)

The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.

He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.” 

I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.

We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc. 

And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place). 

The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.

We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end. 

It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.  

A Hermeneutic Of Inversion

Luke 13.31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent, the season in which we are called to lament and repent. In the scriptures we continue to confront the condition of our condition and the tones of abject disappointment from the Lord as the cross grows clearer on the horizon.

Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to return home.

Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time to spare for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do.

Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one we adorn our sanctuary with.

As Jesus’ ministry progresses, his lamentations increase just as the obstacles standing in his way increase.

For some reason the political and religious establishments are threatened by the poor and wandering rabbi with his messages of the Kingdom of God. They are threatened because talk of the meek inheriting the earth calls into question all of the power and prestige they have acquired.

Which makes the beginning of this scripture all the more strange. It is rather peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.

“Get out of here Jesus! Herod wants to kill you!”

And Jesus brushes the threat aside, “You tell that dirty rotten scoundrel that I’ve got work to do and places to be.”

During Lent the strange new world of the Bible keeps pointing to the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end.

And Jesus loves Jerusalem.

But it is a strange love.

Jesus describes his own love for the city as a mother hen who endeavors to wrap her wings around her helpless chicks.

And yet, Jerusalem has responded to God’s love and mercy with rebellion, with selfish ambition, with violence.

Jesus loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.

And though it pains us to admit, the same is true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our sin-sick souls, it such that it leads to his end. 

There are some texts in the holy scriptures that seem to be nothing but trouble. Jesus, here, complains about the wandering hearts of Jerusalem, and how they fail to see the truth right in front of their faces. “See your house is left to you,” sounds like a threat from the Lord.

And yet, biblically speaking, whenever trouble is present, grace isn’t far away.

There is a divine inversion between what is good and bad, in and out, elect and reject.

Cain kills Abel and though God sets Cain to wander the earth for the rest of his days, he is also marked so that no one will bring the same fate that he brought to his brother.

Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of the inheritance and is confronted with an angel of the Lord who knocks his hip out of joint for the rest of the days shortly before he reconciles with his brother.

The favor and blessing of the Lord moves from Saul to David, and yet David commands the people of Israel to weep upon the death of their former king.

Whenever we encounter someone or a group who appears to be rejected by God, there is also some sense of election. 

Grace, what we talk about all the time, isn’t so amazing unless there’s a reason for it. Put another way – the law of God is given in order that grace might be sought, and the grace of God is given in order that the law might be fulfilled.

We need rejection and election.

We need law and gospel.

Because that’s what life is like. 

Karl Barth put it this way: “There is no light which does not also know darkness, no joy which does not have within it sorrow; but the converse is also true; no fear, no rage, which does not have, far or near, peace at its side. No laughter without tears, no weeping without laughter!”

John Wesley once said that every law contains a hidden promise.

Grace abounds.

In theological speak we might call it a hermeneutic of inversion – an understanding of things being flipped upside down.

In our passage, Herod wants to kill Jesus. And yet, at the same time, Jesus wants to save Herod.

Jerusalem will bring about Jesus’ death. And yet, at the same time, Jesus’ death will bring about Jerusalem’s salvation.

There is always more to the story than the story itself.

As I said last week, try as we might to move through the motions of Lent, at some point or another we will raise the question that Christians have been asking since the beginning: Who in the world is this Jesus we worship?

I mean, why is Jesus so upset about Jerusalem? Why does he lament what they have done and what they will do? In another part of scripture Jesus will command the disciples to brush the dust off their feet when they encounter a town that does not receive them. Why then does Jesus desire to gather the wayward city under the loving care of a mother hen’s wings?

Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But Matthew does.

And it’s rather revealing.

I did a funeral once for a man whose daughter had not one kind thing to say about her Dad. He was awful to her, he did truly despicable things. It was a miracle she even showed up for the service. And after we put him in the ground, she couldn’t stop crying. And when I asked her why she was crying all she could say was, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

What good is it to lament the bad?

The target is on Jesus’ back, Herod wants him dead. And Jesus brushes away the threat of the Pharisees like it’s nothing.

And then he laments. Not over his life shortly coming to an end. But over Jerusalem, the killer of prophets.

He laments, he grieves, he weeps.

Lent, for us, is the season that provides a chance to lament. Whereas the world always wants to drag us from one thing to the next, Lent compels us to pause. It is a time to sit and grieve and acknowledge that all is not right with the world.

Nor with us.

We’ve behaved badly.

We have done things we ought not to have done.

We have left far too many things undone.

And yet, when it comes to lament, we are far more inclined to lament what happened to and with other people and other places.

It’s not hard for us to imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem, because we can just as easily picture him weeping over Russia.

O Russia, O Russia. Look at what you’re doing to the people of Ukraine! You’re dropping bombs on maternity wards, displacing children from their parents, you’re destroying your own souls! O how I have longed to hold you within my lovingly embrace! Look at what you’ve become!

And yet, the inconvenient truth of the Gospel is that for as much as Jesus weeps over the state of other places and other people, Jesus also laments over us.

I wonder, how Jesus would react to us today? What would happen if Jesus looked down upon us from the top of Mill Mountain. Would Jesus cry?

Would he lament?

This is what prophets do: they call into question the powers and principalities regarding all their power and prestige. Prophets point right smack dab at our hearts and our desires and our sins and our shortcomings, they hold up a mirror to who we are, and they beg us to see the truth.

No wonder prophets live such short lives – no one likes being told the truth.

Will Willimon tells a story about how, when he was younger and living in Greenville, South Carolina, the whole place was abuzz with the news that Billy Graham was coming to town. There was going to be a revival. All the churches made plans for the special occasion and even the most ardently unChristian folks were still hoping to hear a word from the evangelist.

And, at Will’s church, they had a meeting about whether or not their church would participate in the revival. The pastor stood before the gathered body and made an impassioned plea – Graham is setting souls on fire, he is winning people for Christ, what a remarkable opportunity for our town, for our church.

And then someone else chimed in, “I’m not so sure pastor. Billy Graham seems charismatic and all, but did you hear that he lets black folk and white folk sit in the same section during his revivals? I don’t think we should be involved with someone who supports integration.”

And that’s all it took. The board voted right then and there to protect the church from Billy Graham’s sinful racial mixing.

After the meeting, Will says that he walked through the church to leave, but forgot something in the social hall so as he turned around in a hallway he heard the sound of sobbing. He crept down the hall. And there was the pastor’s door left slightly ajar. Will peeked inside and he saw his pastor, kneeling on the floor, holding his head in his hands, weeping.

There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, the sign and marker of our delivery from Sin and Death. But, in the cross, we discover our reckless rebellion from the one who came to live, die, and live again, for us.

Jesus laments the city of Jerusalem. He weeps with the knowledge of his desire to gather the people in love and their constant refusal. And he declares the house is left to them.

To us. 

When the house is left to us we like to decide who is in and who is out. We like to formulate our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is rejected and who is elected.

And so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God.

Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.

God in Christ desperately desires to gather us in, the lost and forsaken, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we refuse. 

So Jesus leaves the house to us.

But not forever.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “ you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Those are the words sung by the crowds while waving their palm branches as Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. 

Those are the same words that we, ourselves, will be singing in a few weeks.

You see, the Good News is that Jesus, in fact, does not abandon us to our own devices nor does Jesus leave us to our own houses. Instead, he arrives in the strangest of ways, banging on the doors of our own creation and says, through death and resurrection, this is my Father’s house.

Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is like us and so unlike us. He weeps and laments and loves precisely in our undeserving. He desires to gather us even when we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing full and well that, when push comes to shoves, our Hosannas will turn to Crucify in the blink of an eye. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we put him there.

Jesus says to us, even today, look at who you are, and look at what you’re doing! Jesus still laments and cries, even for us. 

Keeping up with the disruptive and demanding movements of a Holy and righteous God, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s enough to make you cry. Amen.

The Devil Is In The Details

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices. 

It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.

The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.

We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”

It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.

But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.

And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.

Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.

Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”

“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”

“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”

And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”

And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.

That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.

As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.

And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness. 

But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.

Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.

Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.

But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.

Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations. 

This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.

Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles

And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!

Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”

But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.

Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.

Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.

For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.

And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.

And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?

The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.

What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.

But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.

We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.

We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.

We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.

We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.

In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.

In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.

And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.

We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.

But it never does.

If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.

Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.

The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.

The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.

Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.

But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.

Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”

And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

Clobbered By Grace

Psalm 78.18-19

They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all is said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – “You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.”

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that’s who Jesus is.

Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – “You didn’t listen in the wilderness!” “You haven’t loved your neighbors enough!” – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, in-person or online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Beauty In Brokenness

Psalm 51.1-17

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”

There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.

But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.

Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly. 

Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.

We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.

The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.

And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.

That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.

They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.

And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.

There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.

A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness. 

On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.

Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.

In church speak we call it redemption.

Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.

It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.

But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.

Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.

The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.

That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.

Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty: 

We are dust and to dust we shall return.

We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.

We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.

Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?

I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?

You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen.