The Culture of Now

Proverbs 13.11

Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!

Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.

Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue! 

So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.

On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.

And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.

Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.

Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.

But, and this is a really big but, for many of us the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare.

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Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.

There was a recent study that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances, more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.

Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.

$9,000! 

If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!

That’s craziness. 

The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Again and again and again.

Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.

Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can. 

It’s a lot easier to say than to do.

And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice. 

Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul. 

Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.

But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments. 

It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else. 

Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING. 

Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”

As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods. 

But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God. 

That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”

The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen. 

God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.

But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained. 

The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

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That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.

For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now. 

The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford. 

Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term. 

Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist. 

Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.

Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%. 

This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income. 

What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. 

There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs. 

And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?

But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.

And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM. 

But saving is God’s cup of tea.

Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.

God is all about the long-game.

Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence. 

God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks. 

But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is. 

For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.

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The One Thing Needful

Proverbs 3.13-14

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 

This is not a sermon I wanted to write, nor is it one I wanted to preach. 

I’ve been doing this pastor thing for a good while now and, full disclosure, I’ve only preached from Proverbs once and it wasn’t very good. Proverbs is one of those overlooked and forgotten books in the Bible filled with nothing but short and brief aphorisms that sound like something your great-uncle muttered under his breath while getting his third helping of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving.

“Listen to your father’s instruction; don’t neglect your mother’s teaching.”

“Listen to me and do not deviate from the words of my mouth.”

“Happy are those who keep to my ways!”

“If you stop listening to discipline, you will wander away from words of wisdom.”

That’s all in Proverbs.

And they’re good and fine. There are plenty of times that I’d like to just look someone in the eye and say, “If you would just do what I’m telling you to do, you’d be fine.” But that’s not really the way it works.

And then we lift up this collection of sayings from the middle of the Bible and assume they can speak something new and fresh into our lives about what it means to be followers of Jesus.

I was heard someone describe Proverbs like this: “Reading from the Book of Proverbs is like being stuck on a long road trip with no one but your mother-in-law.”

The Word of God for the People of God all right.

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.

Years ago, when I was in my first month of ministry, hot off the heels of receiving my degree, soon after arriving at my first church, I reached out to a number of other clergy people in my community. I figured, at the time, I was only 25 years old and I could use all the advice and wisdom and help I could get, and why not receive some of it from those who had been doing it as long as I had been alive.

So I drove around town and started knocking on the doors of the churches. I spoke with pastor after pastor and invited them to join me for breakfast the following week. Nothing more, less, or else. And sure enough, the next week I found myself sitting around a table with 7 other pastors, representing a variety of denominations.

At first we exchanged pleasantries, we talked about seminaries and recent sermons, I learned about different ordination procedures and different clergy robes. And eventually I got to ask the question resting most on my heart: “I am about to embark upon a lifetime of ministry and I want to know what advice you would offered to yourselves when you were my age if you could go back in time. If you could go back, what would you say?”

For a while none of them said anything. They scratched beards, and twirled hair, they furrowed brows and considered the ceiling. And then one of them said, “If I could go back and tell myself anything it would be this: start saving money.”

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And immediately the entire table erupted in affirmation exclaiming they all agreed with that pastor’s advice.

Maybe it was my naiveté in the moment but I assumed they would have offered me wisdom about what book from the Bible to avoid, or how to properly pray for those who were sick, or even what kind of hymns to sing at particular moments. But I was wrong. This ragtag group of pastors had only one piece of sage-like wisdom they wanted to offer: Start saving money.

I’m fairly certain that if any of us here were to encounter a genie in this life, one (if not all) of our wishes would be for more money, for gold or silver. And there’s good reason for that – economic prosperity is at the heart of the American Dream, it’s what motivates us to wake up early every morning to go to jobs we don’t really care about, it’s what keeps us awake at night as we worry about having enough of it. 

It is so dominating in fact, that I read an article recently that claimed a significant portion of younger people in this country associate George Washington first with being on the one dollar bill and only secondarily with being the first President of the United States.

I mean, for crying out loud, my three year old has a piggy bank in our house and he LOVES to put coins in it. What in the world is he going to do with 78 cents?

Money is at the heart of just about everything we do. 

On any given week we will receive upwards of 40 calls here at the church from people in our local community who are looking for only one thing: money.

I’ve counseled couples who brought unfathomable amounts of debt into the marriage without telling the other person and now they are fighting about one thing: money.

I’ve prayed with more people than I can count who have racked up so much credit card debt that they have to start making decisions about what pills and doctors they can afford all because of one thing: money. 

And then scripture has the gall to tell us that wisdom and knowledge are far greater than any measurement of wealth in this life.

Now, that’s not to say that money or wealth are inherently bad. However, the love of money really is at the root of evil and those to whom much is given, much will be expected. So, you know, be careful what you wish for. 

Which makes the Biblical witness all the more interesting because Jesus has a whole lot to say about money and its almost always bad. Which is not at all how we talk about it today. Money and Finances and Economics are all things that dominate our daily living and they are, at the same time, all but absent in church. Sure, I might stand up here week after week asking for you to consider offering more of your wealth to church, but other than that, it’s almost like we pretend money doesn’t exist when we’re in this place.

This might sounds like we’re in an unprecedented place, but we’re not really. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that eventually led to a church like this, was deeply concerned with the theology of money and what it meant for Christians to consider economic gains. 

The 18th century was a time of major economic and social change in England. The economic inequality between the comfortably wealthy and the poverty-stricken lower classes was growing larger and more tenuous. The well to do had nothing to worry about the poor had nothing but worries. The political class was dictating all of the rules and all of the power dynamics while the rest of the people were just worried about how they were going to make it to next week.

Sound familiar?

And then the very first Methodists started popping up with this crazy proclamation about God’s grace being sufficient to upend and reorient one’s life. John Wesley himself practiced a number of methodical disciplines (which is where the name Methodist came from) and he taught those who were economically desperate about what it would look like to become more responsible, better educated, and eventually prosperous. 

And it worked, so much so that John Wesley inevitably had to preach a sermon specifically about money in order to help the people called Methodist figure out what it would mean to be a people who lived under the rule of God in a world ruled by money.

He said that the right use of money is an excellent branch of Christian wisdom. It grieved him that money was a subject talked about in the world all the time, but not discussed by those whom God had called. 

And yet there are times we discuss money in church, but when we do it is almost under the auspices of another fundraiser, or helping the church meet her budget. However, for Wesley, this was not the case. His concern was not to raise more money for Methodists, but to equip the people called Methodists to manage and use their money in fruitful and effective ways. 

Wesley broke it down as simply as a Proverb: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. 

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If, Wesley said, if we can adopt a three-fold approach to money by gaining, saving, and giving we then will approach a Godly and faithful way of handling our finances. 

Which is an ominous and precarious place to be in the middle of a sermon. I mean, when was the last time you heard a preacher talk about money by first saying that you, the people, need to gain all you can? Doesn’t that go against the parable of the man who gained and gained so much that he had to build extra store houses for all his grain only to have it all taken away from him in the middle of the night?

This is a three-fold call but you cannot have one without the others. Earning all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not saved. And saving all you can will mean nothing if some of it is not given. And giving it all will mean nothing if you haven’t earned anything to give in the first place.

In order to approach and adopt this kind of theological discipline, we need wisdom more than anything else.

And where does wisdom come from?

Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but Wisdom will, more often than not, show up when we least expect it in our daily lives. Wisdom appears in the busy streets, in the public squares, and in the bustling intersections. Wisdom arrives in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance. And, very rarely, wisdom can even come in a sermon.

As I look back on that moment in the earliest days of my ministry, when those pastors told me the greatest piece of advice was to save money, I am grateful for their witness as I started saving from my very first paycheck, but I’ve also thought a lot about what wisdom in the church really looks like. Sure, a good piece of Wesleyan wisdom is to earn all you can, and save all you can, and give all you can. But wisdom is about more than just what we do with our money!

Wisdom is knowing what really matters in this life. Wisdom is someone thirty years ago looking out on our community and saying, “I think we need to start a weekly Flea Market.”

Wisdom is taking stock of our own life and our own gifts and starting to consider how we might use those things to better the lives of other people.

Wisdom is knowing that despite what the cultural narrative tells us, we cannot lift ourselves by our bootstraps because we have all been blessed because someone else chose to help lift us up.

Wisdom is being able to look at the situations of our life and knowing when to stay and when to leave.

Wisdom is believing that no matter how many mistakes we make and how many sins we commit that God will never ever abandon us.

Wisdom, ultimately, is not something we arrive at on our own. Wisdom is a gift from God. Much like the gift of God’s Son. It comes to a people undeserving, in strange ways both seen and unseen. It can completely upend our lives in ways we care scarily imagine. But in the end, its the only thing that really makes a difference. 

Wisdom, much like Jesus, is the only thing we really need. Amen. 

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Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.17-18

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

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My family, like a lot of others, grew up watching Disney movies. To this day I have the entirety of the Lion King memorized, I can whistle along to all of the songs from the Little Mermaid, and I still laugh at all the bits from Robin Williams in Aladdin.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I owe a great deal of ice breakers to that movie. For, whenever a conversation is in need of beginning, or restarting, one of the easiest questions to ask is as follows: “If you had a magic genie, what would your three wishes be?”

There’s something quaint about the idea. It’s not just one stand alone thing you could want, and the availability of wishes don’t go on forever either – it forces the person answering to really consider what he or she would ask for. And other the years I’ve asked that very question A LOT and I can say with assurance that the majority of answers have been about money, comfort, and fame.

All of those things smack us across the face with our relentless pursuit of happiness. We open up Instagram to discover perfect looking people with their perfect lives and their perfect homes and their perfect possessions. We pass by the magazine rack at the grocery store, we turn on the television, and it goes on and on and on.

It seems that the American Dream, however we might define it, has been commoditized to consist of wealth and possessions with a profound emphasis on the idea of more. Without thinking much about what we are doing, we work more hours and we pour out more effort into a never-ending desire for more money, more success, more comfort, and more of anything that money can buy.

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I’ve heard it thousands of times that “money can’t buy happiness” but rich people seem to look pretty happy!

And then we read from Paul’s first letter to Timothy and things take on an ominous tone: As for those who are rich, command them to stop pursuing their wealth and instead focus on the Lord – the rich are supposed to do good, to be generous, and to share what they have with others. 

It’s right there in scripture and yet when we think about or talk about money it is almost always in the sense of accumulating more for ourselves, even at the expense of others. 

A friend of mine from seminary recently started his own church in North Carolina and part of their whole ethos is, of course, worshipping the living God but by doing so through paying off the debts of the congregation collectively. 

And, to be clear, not the church’s debts! The people who participate in the church willfully contribute money each and every week dedicated to the sole purpose of paying off one person/family’s debts at a time. 

And when the church’s program was announced it was ridiculed by people from other Christian communities as being antithetical to the American Dream.

Which leaves me wondering: When did the American Dream become more important that God’s Dream?

Thinking In Hymns

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with T. Bryson Smith about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6.6-19, Luke 16.19-31). Bryson serves at Good Shepherd UMC in Richmond, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ministry mistakes, wrestling references, theological mortgages, singing our faith, unknown words, deliverance, using the right tenses, cultivating community, ridiculous love, money, and the end of the game. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Thinking In Hymns

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I Pity The Fool

Luke 12.13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or an arbiter over you?” And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Weddings are important, and because they are important I want couple to grasp how crazy of a thing it is to get married in the first place.

I get asked to do a fair amount of weddings and I will agree to participate so long as I can engage in at least a handful of premarital counseling sessions. Part of this is born out of a desire to know the couple well enough to actually stand before them, their friends, and their families to peach about the bizarreness of marriage, but it also my attempt to help prevent the hoped for marriage from falling apart in the future.

On more than one occasion I have shared that the first question I ask any couple wanting to get married is, “Can you tell me about your last fight?”

Its a great ice-breaker and within a few minutes I have a pretty good idea what the rest of our conversations will be like.

And yet, I know, that answering that particular question is uncomfortable. I’ve watched countless couples squirm in the chairs wondering who was going to bring up the proper location for dishes in the dishwasher, or who was going to raise the complaints about the over-bearing mother-in-law, or who would mention the frivolous spending from the bank account.

And sure enough, someone always caves and we can begin the good and difficult work of approaching marriage from a theological perspective.

But that’s not the only question that makes couples uncomfortable – no we quickly move to the subjects of sex and children, are you having it and are you wanting any respectively. And the individuals slink deeper into their chairs and their cheeks get redder and redder.

But of all the questions I ask, and all the things we discuss, there is one subject that rules them all: money.

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And, as should be expected, money is usually the most discussed topic during pre-marital counseling because it is at the heart of the majority of divorces in our country. I gently encourage couples to share with me how they currently handle their finances and how they hope to handle them on the other side of “I do.” We then discuss habits and practices that can prevent the kind of deception that tends to rip couples apart around bank accounts and credit cards.

And then I get to ask a question that stops everyone dead in their tracks (Pun intended).

“How much money is enough money?”

Eyeballs always stare back at me with confusion or disbelief. So I have to elaborate: “Is there an amount of money that, should you be able to achieve it one day, you won’t want anymore?” Or “Have you considered a top salary that once you earn more than it you’ll give the rest away?”

“How much money is enough money?”

Someone in the crowd interrupted Jesus one day, “Lord, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance with me.”

The man probably has just cause even though the conventions of the day dictated that the oldest son would receive the inheritance. Who wouldn’t want the Lord to decree that things must be divided evenly particular when it comes to money?

And Jesus snaps right back, “Hey, who made me a judge or a divider over all you people?”

Apparently, Jesus’ work is bigger than the incidental patching up of family problems and financial squabbles. 

But then Jesus does what Jesus does best; he tells a story.

There was a man who was doing well with his career. At first, he used the excess cash to fill his house with all sorts of trinkets and wares designed to show other people how wealthy he was. First it started with some original paintings, but then he ran out of wall space. Next he redid his entire wardrobe, but then his closet was full. And lastly he decided to buy an extra car, but there was no room in the garage. 

What was the man to do?

And he had a vision… Why not tear it all down and build a bigger house to fit all of his stuff inside?

And thats what he did.

In the midst of the plans for reconstruction, while laying out ideas of what would go where, he said to himself, “You’ve done good old boy. Time to eat, drink, and be merry.”

When suddenly a booming voice shatters all the new windows, “You fool! This night they are demanding your life, and whose will they be?!”

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Much to our chagrin, the line between evil and foolishness is frighteningly thin. Up to this point in the gospel story Jesus has been using those qualifiers interchangeably when denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, he has used both word for the powers and the principalities. But now they get turned against us.

Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, because our lives are about more than what we have. 

But Jesus, what about my 401k?

But Jesus, what about my nest egg?

But Jesus, what about all that stuff I’ve accumulated to show people who I really am? 

All of that stuff, all of that money, they are the hopes of the well off and the envy of the poor who will never have them, nothing more nothing less and nothing else.

Our world, all of this, even in the church (sadly), it’s all run on avarice. Extreme greed for wealth or material goods. It’s the lie we were fed as children, and it’s the lie that we feed to our children. It is reinforced on every magazine cover, on every instagram post, and with every commercial on TV.

Happiness is yours if you acquire this thing.

And it’s all a lie.

Because contrary to that false narrative, something hammered home relentlessly, we are not defined by our bank accounts or by what we hang on our walls or by what kind of car we drive. Its poverty, not wealth; its death, not life – that are the ways by which God saves us.

Regardless of whether we’re wealthy, poor, or somewhere in-between, all of us in Jesus’ eyes are people who are sin-sick with our insatiable desire for more.

And not just more, but more more more!

We clutch at all that is around us rather than opening our palms to ever be open to anything else. 

We’d rather receive than give.

Earn all you can, and save all you can, because its an eat or be eaten world out there, right?

I don’t know about you but this parable stings. It just won’t leave me alone. It confronts and convicts me.

Jesus tells a story in which a man does what all of us do with our avarice, with our greed: We congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.

You graduated with that GPA? Wow, you definitely deserve to do whatever you want this summer.

Your grandchildren really are adorable, and their parents are paying for your next vacation? Sounds like it’s time to relax and start enjoying your well deserved retirement.

You just got that promotion you’ve been gunning for? Wonderful, you definitely have this whole adulting thing figured out!

And I have this job, it’s a great job. My marriage is beautiful, I have a son who brings smiles to the faces of all with eyes to see. Good job Taylor! Relax, eat, drink, be merry!

But here’s the really interesting thing about all of that stuff – from the GPA to the kids to the promotion to the bank accounts – we think we earn them or at the least we deserve them, when in fact each and every one of those things is a gift. They are good only because someone, or something, was good to us. 

Jesus sets up the man as a paradigm of everything we think to be good, and right, and true. He’s fiscally responsible after all. He’s earned it. And yet, the man is only a master of a life that is completely and radically out of his control – he is nothing but the captain of a ship that has been taking on water since it left the dock.

You see, Jesus builds up the man as the pinnacle on financial responsibility only to knock him straight down to the ground: “You fool! This night they are demanding your life, and then whose will they be?”

Up until the Lord’s interruption in his life, the fool has been living in monologue. The whole parable is just him talking to himself, congratulating himself, rejoicing in and with himself. All the while forgetting that his good crops, or his stock portfolio, or whatever the thing is, was always first a gift. 

And gifts require givers.

Or, to put it another way, isn’t is such great and sweet irony that the man who had it all discovers that his things had him?

And they do have us, don’t they? We lay awake at night thinking not upon all the good that we have, not giving thanks to the Lord above and to the people around us who make our lives possible, but with worry. 

And not just worry for the sake or worrying – we worry about our stuff. 

Was that the right investment?

Am I going to be able to afford that new cable plan?

Was I foolish to buy that extra TV?

And yet, we keep acquiring new things and we try to control them. Or, at the very least, we try to control our lives with the accumulation of things such that it makes us appear as if we have our lives together. 

We want to be rich, or we want to appear rich.

However, unlike Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the only truly rich person in the world in Jesus.

You and me, we spend our whole lives in the pursuit of wealth (both material and immaterial) only to come in the end to the greatest poverty of all: death.

This is the frightening and final tone of the parable, the one that lingers long after even being called a fool: no matter how much we make and no matter how much we accumulate, we all die in the end.

I pity the fool, particularly because the fool is me. 

The fool is all of us.

We all live in these self-satisfied, fat, and ignorant monologues about all that is good in our lives and we forget, mostly because we avoid it, that we all die in the end.

But in Jesus, the one who tells this story precisely because it frightens us to death, all is turned upside down. The Lord offers grace to both the wicked in their moral poverty and to the rich in the death of all their stuff. Jesus becomes a new way in which all of our pointless pursuing and all of our foolish incomprehension becomes something we can call good.

We can call it good because Jesus is there for us in our deaths.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not our money or lack or it, not our stuff or lack of it, not our lives and not even our deaths.

We might not see it, and we might not believe it, but there is greater wealth in the salvation of Christ than in every bank in the world.

And it is ours for free.

We can’t earn it.

We don’t deserve it.

It’s not cheap.

It’s not even expensive.

It’s free.

It’s free for you and me and every fool the world will ever see. Amen. 

Unforgivingness

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

It’s hard to talk about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a difficult subject because there are always two sides to forgiveness: The one offering it and the one receiving it.

We, as the beautifully flawed people we are, are uncomfortable with the subject knowing that we have done things that require someone else forgiving us, and we have encountered people who have wronged us to such a degree that we have not offered them forgiveness.

Which means that no matter how we come to the subject, it leaves us squirming in our pews.

It’s one thing to offer forgiveness – it gives us all the power in the world. We can draw out the pardon until our transgressor begs and pleads. We can lord it over our spouses, or our children, or our co-workers, or even our fellow church goers with a vindictive hand.

Receiving forgiveness it a whole other thing entirely. Even if the action is genuine, we can be left feeling as if the scales will never be even again, and we can walk through the rest of our lives with a shackle to a mistake from the past. 

But we’re the church! Forgiveness is supposed to be easy, right?

Hey Lord, um, suppose someone in the church sins against me. Let’s say they talk about me behind my back and spread a vicious and totally untrue rumor. How many times should I forgive them? Does seven times suffice?

Hey Pete, seven is a good number, but why stop there? You should forgive seventy seven times.

I don’t know about you, but I can jump on board with a lot of this Christianity stuff. I’m all about the taking care of the last, least, and lost. I believe, with every fiber of my being that Jesus was raised from the dead. 

But forgiving someone seventy seven times? 

C’mon Jesus.

But, of course, forgiveness is not some moral requirement hanging out in the middle of nowhere. Forgiveness is all sorts of confused and tied up with the raising of the dead. Otherwise, forgiveness is just crazy. 

It goes against just about everything we stand for in every other part of our lives.

There are just some things that are right and some things that are wrong. If someone does something wrong well then they have to do something right to make everything good again.

But forgiveness, at least the kind that Jesus talks about, is a gift offered to the foolish and the undeserving, not a reward bestowed upon the perfect. 

Take the crucifixion… 

God asks for no response to the cross, there’s no moment when Jesus is hanging by the nails and says, “So long as all of you get all your lives together, I will raise from the dead for you.”

There’s nothing we have to do before God offers an unwavering and totally covering pardon. 

But, this doesn’t really jive with our sense of fairness and justice and yet, according to God’s mercy, the only thing necessary for our forgiveness is the death that sin has caused in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection contain all the power necessary for the strange thing we call the church.

And, for some reason, forgiveness is one of the most difficult things to talk about even though it is at the heart of what it means to be the church.

The emphasis from Jesus in this little prelude to the parable with Peter is that forgiveness is unlimited. 77, for lots of biblical reasons, is as close to infinity as we can get theologically.

But who really wants to forgive something or someone infinitely?

Which bring us to the parable. 

Parables-of-Jesus

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay the king back, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold away to the next highest bidder.

Jesus, ever the good teacher, starts the story with the law. There are some rules that people have to follow, because life has to be fair. The king is a bookkeeper, like the rest of us. He knows and remembers who has wronged him and to what degree. If you play by the kings rules, if you follow his directions, all will be well.

But if you break the rules… well, we all know what happens if we break the rules.

And then the slave speaks, having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.

And we already have questions. How could a slave possibly pay back that amount of money? Why would the king ever let him accrue such a debt like that in the first place? But the Bible doesn’t respond to our queries, the story is all we’ve got.

So how does the king respond? Having just ordered him to be sold along with everything else in his life, having just responded to sin with sin, he simply waves his hand and the slave disappears into his own suffering oblivion.

Or, at least, that’s how the story is supposed to go. We’re supposed to imagine the king as a tyrant smiling diabolically as the slave is dragged out kicking and screaming.

But that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Instead, the king takes pity, releases the man, AND forgives all his debts!

The servant has done nothing more than ask for grace, and grace is what he receives. But it is a grace greater than he ever could have imagined. His slate has been wiped clean, for good. He has been freed from every shackle around his ankle, from the fear that has kept him awake at night, from everything.

That alone would be enough for an incredible parable, a profound witness to grace and mercy. But, of course, that’s not the end.

And before we get to namesake of the story, we are compelled to pause on the action of the king. He offers this incredible forgiveness without much thought. He doesn’t retreat into his antechamber to weigh out the profit/loss margins about the debt, he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisors, he just forgives the debt, and not only that, he leaves the book-keeping business forever. 

The king chooses to die to forgive the man.

Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the story – to forgive a debt as great as the slave’s is not just a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving that money back the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would be destroyed. 

The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift, it’s a radically changed life through death. 

The king chooses to die to what he knew and believed and lived for his slave.

And the slave leaves the presence of the king, still on cloud nine, only to encounter a fellow slave who owed him some money, and when the other slave asks for the same mercy the unforgiving servant throws him into prison until he could pay off the debt.

We might imagine the unforgiving servant as a Bond-movie villain, the worst of the worst. Surely, no one would be so dumb as to receive such incredible forgiveness only to lord a debt over someone else.

But, in reality, the man is exactly what all of us are, people who are unwilling to let go of the old to embrace something radically new.

When the king catches word of what the first slave did, he summons him back before the throne. “What’s wrong with you? Have you no mercy?” And he hands the man over to be tortured until he could repay his whole debt that was previously forgiven. 

Forgive-Me

The king chooses to die. Perhaps not literally, but the king certainly embraces a death to the way things were, for something new and bewildering. The unforgiving servant, on the other hand, receives the greatest gift in the world, but he refuses to die. He refuses to let go of the book-keeping that dominated his life.

To be sure, should this kind of radical forgiveness be instituted across the world, the world would be flipped upside down. Our federal government, our banking systems, just about everything that spins the world would implode upon themselves.

It is so shocking to think about this kind of forgiveness that we can scarcely even imagine it ever happening.

And yet, it already has!

Jesus is setting Peter up with this story, and all of us reading it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world by dying. 

He will destroy death by dying on the cross.

He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.

It’s like Jesus is shouting at Peter as loud as he possible can, “Unless you die to yourself, unless you die to your insatiable desire for payback, then you might as well live into the torturous existence of the unforgiving servant.”

Or, to put it another way, we will never ever be able to enjoy the gift of the resurrection, a gift handed to us for nothing, if we cannot face the absurdity of our own forgiveness. 

For it is in facing what we have already received that we cannot help but change the way we see everything else.

The king says, “You idiot! I died for you! But you were so busy making plans to collect for yourself that you didn’t even notice!”

And the end of the story is frightening, we cannot sweep it away. The king doesn’t just accost the man for what he did with words; he hands him over to a life of self-inflicted misery.

This parable contains as much mercy as it does judgment.

We, like the unforgiving servant, have received an irrational pardon. We have been forgiven from all that we have done, all that we are doing, and strangest of all, from all that we will do. 

But to live in the light of that kind of forgiveness, to see how God died for us without dying to ourselves to those former lives, will result in a miserable existence.

Out thirst for repayment and retribution will always go unquenched and it will drive us mad.

Without responding to our forgiveness with forgiveness, whatever our lives look like will far more resemble hell than they will heaven. 

There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true; if there was a limit to the forgiveness, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.

Jesus’ interaction with Peter, and the parable he tells to bring the whole matter home, demands that we become a people who can forgive each other. But that presupposes that we know we are a people who have first been forgiven. 

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Amen.

Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

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

The church is weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parables-of-Jesus

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

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

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

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

Peter replied, “From other people.”

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

What?!

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

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

He was weird.

stay-weird-wallpaper-design-608x380

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

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

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

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

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

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

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

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

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

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

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

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

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

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

But that’s not what’s going on here.

Parable Definition

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

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

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

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

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

He is free among the dead.

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

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

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

The children are free.

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

The children are free.

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

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

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

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

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

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

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

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

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen.