The Only Thing That Matters

Philippians 1.12-20

I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death.

Hey, look, I’ll be the first to admit – the conditions… they’re not great. 

At first I thought, maybe they were sending me to one of those white-collar crime prisons. Do you know the ones I’m talking about? They’re the prisoners where they send rich people who stole money from other rich people, where you get to go outside and play tennis a few times a week, have cable television in your cell, and see your family on the weekend.

But, yeah, that’s not the type of prison I’m in.

I thought they’d send me to a nicer joint than this one because I didn’t really do much to get sent here in the first place.

It’s true enough that I was warned in plenty of towns to keep the chatter below the radar. And, to some degree, I understood the concerns. But it’s not like I was setting up insurrections, or inciting violence, or destroying public property.

I was merely story-telling. It’s just that some people didn’t like the stories I was telling.

At the right time, God came in flesh to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Living, breathing, eating, sleeping, teaching, healing, all the good stuff. 

And we hated it.

We hated the Good News because it ran counter to everything we’d been spoon-fed from birth. We thought we knew exactly what we would need to do, and then he shows up to tell us that he was doing it all for us, in spite of us.

Some of us responded by leaving it all behind to follow. Others, such as myself, became all the more zealous to stamp it out as quickly as possible.

But Jesus doesn’t quit.

He moved from town to town, giving people glimpses of a world they couldn’t even believe, and finally, when we’d grown tired of all his goodness, we decided to do something about it.

The whole, ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’ got under our skin and we couldn’t let him remain –  he threatened to disrupt all that we had grown so accustom to. So, we hung him up in a tree for all the world to see, and we killed him.

But, of course, this was to happen according to God’s strange workings in the world.

Because even though we killed God, God came back three days later, an empty tomb signified the flipping of the cosmos. And now we’re no longer in the world of our own design, but instead we’re living in the light and grace and mercy of God who destroyed death and canceled the power of sin. 

God, believe it or not, set us free.

Anyway, they eventually caught me and locked me up for being a “threat to society.”

And, as I previously mentioned, though I was hoping for some nicer digs, I’m currently being held in a horrifying dismal cell. And, to make matters worse, they decided to chain me up to a new guard each and every day so I don’t “get any wild ideas.”

Maybe they heard about what happened to me when I got locked up before and the earthquake allowed me to escape…

Nevertheless, here I am. And, believe it or not, what has happened has actually served to advance the Gospel. 

Now, I want to be clear: The fact that God brings good out of evil does not make evil good. The Lord works in mysterious ways, making evil to serve God’s purposes despite itself. In ways both small and large, in ways known and unknown, God has power over sin, evil, and death and is able to achieve God’s own purposes of grace and peace.

Think about it like the great reversal from Good Friday to Easter. That’s at the root of the whole Gospel story.

Jesus, hanging on a cross for the world to see, belittled and beaten and betrayed. There’s nothing good about crucifixion. And yet, God chose to use the sign of death to defeat death forever and ever. 

Because that cross now stands empty to the sky, reminding those of us who follow the Lord that the tomb could not contain him, that he is still contending against the powers and principalities of this life, and that, in the end, love wins.

This is the way God works, contrary to how we might do it were we in charge of the whole operation

The Lord dabbles in unexpected deliverances, in surprising turns of events, in providential happenstances. All of them are echoes of the great reversal that began that first Easter morning. They are foretaste of the world yet to come. They are the bread and the wine at the table, the undeserved invitation, the unmerited forgiveness.

They don’t always fit and fall when we want them to, but when God’s up to something, the best thing we can do is get out of the way and say “thanks.”

Consider my situation: Locked up for a minor offense, derided by some from the local community, and yet I still proclaim God’s grace and peace. Some might believe that my mission has stopped, or that no good can come from all this.

But whoever believes that has forgotten that God works in impossible possibilities – God makes a way where there is no way.

I want you to know that being here has actually helped spread the Good News, so much so that it has become known throughout the whole of the prison staff. And not only that, but my evangelism, that is sharing the Good News, in a place such as this has given others the boldness and the confidence to speak the Word wherever they may be.

Despite my chains, despite my present circumstances, the Gospel is spreading and I remain free as a slave to the Lord. My shackles have become yet another occasion for me to tell anyone with ears to hear about the differences between what the world does to us and what God has done for us.

I might be trapped in this place, but there is a joy in my heart – a joy that only comes from belonging to Jesus

Thanks be to God.

Now, as to how the Gospel has become known… Well, again, its partly a mystery.

I didn’t, contrary to what I’ve heard others do, frighten them with fire and brimstone. I didn’t tell them to shape up or ship out. I didn’t tell them that God will torture them forever and ever unless they confess Jesus as Lord.

There will always be those who proclaim Christ from different, and even wrong places. Some do so out of envy and rivalry while still yet other do so with the best intentions. There will come so-called evangelists who are only in it for themselves or their wallets and purses. And, finally, there will come some in the name of the Lord who want to make other believers suffer for their beliefs.

And in the end, what does it matter?

So long as Jesus is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, it makes little difference. In fact, if Jesus is proclaimed I will rejoice and I will continue to rejoice, because that’s the only thing that matters.

For what it’s worth: I happen to believe that the Good News should sound like Good News. 

So, the other day, when a guard was complaining next to me about his own circumstances (not enough food for his family, fears about not measuring up to his family’s hopes and dreams, worry he will be punished by the gods for his infidelity), I told him the truth. No matter the condition of his condition, One has already come to take away the burdens of this life. 

That, if his family is hungry, they might consider finding a local Ekklesia, that is, a gathering of those who follow Jesus, for they will give them food for nothing. 

Or, if he is worried about his worth, the Lord sees him as he really is, the good and the bad together, and already decided he was worth the cost of the cross.

Or, if the thought of torment for lapses in morality are keeping him awake at night, he need only consider the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, already took and nailed the sins of the world to the cross and left them there forever. 

But, I know other people in this line of work have other ideas about how to proclaim Jesus, and frankly some of them don’t like the way I do it at all. 

If I may be so candid – There are tensions that exist within our community of faith, whether its in your city or in any of the others. Perhaps you already know how hard it is for a group of people called disciples to get along. If someone ever sets out to put a collection of the Scriptures together one day (What if they put these letters in? That would be kind of cool…) you’ll see how quickly people disagree about what it all really means. 

I don’t want to make it seem as if everything is perfect all the time. And, if we don’t find a way to work together, some people in the future might get the bright idea to break up the church into denominations.

And even if all of that happens, if the church splinters, and arguments arise over the Word of God, all of that will still pale in comparison to what God has already done for you, me, and the world in the person of Jesus.

Nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. We can, of course, do everything in our power to squirm and complain and set up stumbling blocks for ourselves and others, and we can make a hell of a mess in the process. But God is the one who both makes us and reconciles us. That means there is no way, literally, on earth or in hell, that we will ever be outside God’s graceful work in reconstituting the cosmos.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus is truly proclaimed, what difference do our differences make?

There’s enough hardship and suffering in this world to argue over petty disagreements. 

The Lord came to save the world, not beat it down into submission for perfect obedience.

The Lord died and rose again that we might have life, and life abundant, not anxiety about who’s the best teacher and best apostle.

The Lord turned the world upside down, the only thing we need to do is live in it. 

So I rejoice, even behind these bars, and I will continue to rejoice! If I am delivered from this bondage, wonderful. But if not, I’ve already been freed from the greatest bondage of all – sin and death.

I thank you then for all your prayers and it is my eager hope and expectation that even through this Christ will be exalted now as always, whether I live or die. 

Sincerely, Paul.

Amen. 

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

The Story We Didn’t Choose

Acts 7.55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Something happened to Stephen.

What exactly? Well, scripture doesn’t give us much.

All we know is that he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to poorer members of the community in the earliest days of the church. He was full of the Spirit and, apparently, had the face of an angel, but he was eventually dragged before the council and accused of blasphemy.

His response to the accusation?

Stephen tells a story, in fact he tells the story of scripture from Abraham to Jesus.

And it gets him killed.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

The lectionary text for today doesn’t give us the whole speech from the first martyr, but the speech sealed his fate. Stephen repeats the history of God with God’s people and points them to the truth of Jesus’ lordship. But that is enough for those who gather. So much so, they cover their own ears and rush against him, drag him outside of the city, and stone him to death. 

Such is the fate of those who choose to speak the truth.

And the truth Stephen told was a story that he would not have picked on his own.

After all, why would anyone tell a story that would get them murdered?

Something happened to Stephen.

And the something that happened, was Jesus.

This is who Jesus is, Stephen tells the crowds, the long awaited and exalted Messiah who rules now and forever. Jesus Christ is Lord.

We call that a confession. For, to confess the Lordship of Christ is to affirm there is no other lord over our lives. It means that our allegiance is to Jesus and to no one else. It means we cannot remain as we are.

Which sounds good and fine until you consider the countless others that are constantly vying for our allegiance even today, and how stuck we are in our ways.

For instance, we like to talk about the Freedom of Religion in the US. It means we’re free to exercise our faith, so long as we do so within certain limits. It means that you and I can say and do and believe and act according to a tradition, and that we are somehow protected in our practice. 

And yet, this Freedom that we hold so dear has often resulted in religiosity being confused with national allegiance.

The terms “good American” and “good Christian” have become tied to one another without us having to consider whether or not those things have anything to do with each other.

Bible-and-Flag

Part of our presumed goodness, as Americans or Christians, has a lot to do with not upsetting the status quo; a certain delight in things remaining the same and never calling anything into question. Politeness and kindness and deference have become virtuous in a way that those behaviors are called upon to be emulated from the time we’re children whether its in a public school classroom, or tucked away in the furthest reaches of a Sunday school lesson. 

But this story of Stephen is an ever ringing reminder to us practitioners of polite and civil religion that once there were Christians who did things we would never imagine – who quite joyfully parted with possessions, their families and friends, and even their very lives in order to remain faithful.

There was a time when Christians spoke the truth.

But now we’re addicted to whatever lies disrupt our lives the least.

The vast majority of us live under the tyrannical presumption that each of us get to do pretty much whatever we want whenever we want to whomever we want. And we have the gall to call it the pursuit of happiness. 

In this distorted view of reality, every person gets to make up his or her mind based on the presumption that our choices are made free from the influence of others.

It doesn’t take long to look around and see how much we really are under the influence of other people and other things. Our diet of media consumption alone says a tremendous amount about what we think, believe, speak, and act. 

Christianity, on the other hand, reminds those of us with ears to hear that we don’t really have minds worth making up. Precisely because we regularly chose to do things we know we shouldn’t. 

And we do it all the time.

We struggle with the choices we make, and the stories we consume, and even more the stories we tell.

And it’s not just a matter of which grocery store to shop in and what television shows to watch. We’re talking about what’s good, and true, and beautiful.

But how in the world could we ever be expected to know what choices to make?

That’s, actually, kind of the point of the church. The church grabs hold of us and says, “Look, you don’t know what powers and stories have you under their control, so we’re going to make you part of this story instead, the story of Jesus.”

We might like to think that we had something to do with all of this, that we chose Jesus in our time of need. But the truth is, we don’t get to chose God, nor would we on our own.

I mean, why would anyone willingly sign up for turning the other cheek, and giving away 10% of their income, and reaching out to the last, least, lost, little, and dead?

God chooses us, in spite of us.

God happens to us.

Just like God happened to Stephen.

And we can read this story of his willingness to proclaim the truth, we can encounter the punishment that rained down upon him by the crowds, and we might feel tempted to just remove ourselves form the wider society. If people aren’t ready to hear about Jesus, why bother risking life and limb? And, without even realizing it, we find ourselves back in the position of doing whatever we can to maintain the status quo and to avoid upsetting the apple cart at all costs.

But, turning things upside down is what we do. 

Or, at the very least, it’s what Jesus does.

A Christian is someone who calls a thing what it is. Which is just another way of saying that Christians tell the truth.

And we don’t do much of that these days.

Instead, we want to hear about God’s love, and mercy, and grace.

Which is all true and good and beautiful.

But we often talk about those things at the expense of telling the truth.

We want everyone to be happy all the time.

But how in the world can anyone be happy in a world of such horrific and terrible violence? 

How can anyone be happy in a world in which an innocent black man can be murdered for no other reason than the color of his skin? How can anyone be happy knowing that what happened to Emmett Till is still happening even in 2020? How can anyone be happy when an indiscriminate virus is actually discriminately affecting certain people more than others?

As Christians, our call isn’t to happiness. Particularly when one’s happiness is usually achieved through someone else’s suffering. 

Our call is to a life of adventure. The Good News of Jesus Christ tells us again and again that we’ve been grafted into the strange new world of the Bible through the work and the life of Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, think about a time you received a gift you didn’t want. Perhaps you were hoping to get a new bicycle for your birthday but instead you got a book. Maybe you hated the book because you really really wanted that bike, but then one strange rainy afternoon you picked up the book and were immediately transported to another world. And, low and behold, you were trained to have wants you didn’t know you should have.

That what the church is all about – it’s an adventure we didn’t know we wanted to be on.

The adventure of Christianity is a life of truth telling.

We tell the truth and we have to the truth told to us.

That’s the name of the game. 

And, frankly, it’s not something we would really want on our own. It’s something that happens to us. It happened to Stephen all those centuries ago. It has happened to countless saints over the years who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, stood up and said things they never would’ve on their own. 

Without those who tell the truth, we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes over and over again.

It has been rightly said by many people in many places that America’s original sin is racism. 

This is the truth.

It has plagued every single moment and every single decision and ever single interaction. It festers in the foundation of all that we hold dear. And we still carry it with us in all of our comings and all of our goings even today. 

And rather than confronting the truth of the condition of our condition, we act like it’s not real.

But it is.

I alluded to it already, but a few months ago Ahmaud Arbery went for a jog one afternoon and it ended in his death. Two white men saw him run past their lawn and decided to chase him down with weapons in a truck. 

VFH6Y6GUCVAKLAWHA3OLJZOG6M

That’s racism.

That’s sin.

And it’s not some isolated incident that happened in some far away place.

That racism happens whenever someone locks their doors when driving in particular neighborhoods, whenever someone crosses the street because of someone walking toward them, whenever someone has a knee-jerk reaction to whatever they might classify as other.

And we, more often than not, cover our ears whenever the term racism is uttered. And, to be clear, when I say we in this instance I mean those of us who are white. It is precisely our white fragility, to use a term that has come into vogue as of recent, that results in black bodies being locked up in prison at a staggeringly disproportionate rate, punished in schools for lower offenses than their white peers, and buried in cemeteries for committing the crime of running while black.

Christians need to be judged for their complicity in systems that are racist. 

Christians need to speak the truth about what is right and wrong and good and evil in our society.

It will obviously create conflict and not everyone will be happy, but at least we’ll be talking about things that really matter.

Like Black Lives, for instance.

Because right now, black lives don’t seem to matter at all to those of us who are white.

Otherwise it wouldn’t have taken months of discourse and social media upheaval before Ahmaud Arbery’s attackers were arrested. 

Christianity isn’t a story we would choose on our own because it requires so much of us. It calls us to look into the mirror and realize that when we read a story like the one about the stoning of Stephen, we are less like Stephen and more like the crowds who covered their ears and rushed forward. Christianity forces us to come to grips with our own sinfulness and our inability to transform ourselves.

After all, that’s why we call Jesus our Savior. It implies our need to be saved, and in particular our need to be saved from ourselves.

But we don’t like the idea that there’s anything wrong with us. So instead we trade out the Gospel of Jesus for the Gospel of the status quo. We say pithy things like, “Jesus was killed because he wanted us to love each other.” 

But that’s crazy.

Jesus wasn’t killed because of his talk of love – Jesus was killed because he challenged the powers that be. He was killed for telling the truth.

That is the story given to us, a story that confronts us.

It’s what happened to Stephen

It’s what happens to us.

Whether we want it or not. So be it. Amen. 

A Sermon On A Sermon

Acts 2.14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea. 

Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.

But the stories? They’re pretty good.

Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things. 

In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.

Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.

Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.

There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”

The end.

jesus-christ-is-lord-by-thomas-hawk

That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.

Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.

Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.

Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.

Stories are powerful things.

But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.

I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.

And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time. 

Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode. 

When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.

But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!

And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.

In short, we’d love to hear a good story.

But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.

Do we really need pontificating and preaching?

Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.

The strange new world of the Bible.

We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.

That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.

But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair. 

Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.

Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?

That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine. 

But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.

They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.

His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.

That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News. 

And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.

Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.

Peter jumps right to the point.

“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”

That’s a sermon. 

Grace-is-Greater+4x8+Banner

The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.

How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.

This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.

But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?

In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?

And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost. 

This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.

It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.

When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.

It’s just grace.

It’s a story about what Jesus has done.

For us, and in spite of us.

Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news. 

When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already. 

When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive. 

Come in, and have some fun. Amen. 

Justice Is Blind

Luke 18.1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

The courtroom was eerily silent as everyone waited for the judge to enter. 

The jury had been through the wringer answering particular questions that would determine whether or not they were fit to serve.

The lawyers sat at their respective tables with their clients looking over all their prepared statements and pieces of evidence.

The stenographer even sat in raptured silence with her fingers hovering over the keys.

When the bailiff ordered the room to rise they responded accordingly as the judge, dressed in black, made his way to the highly raised chair at the front of the courtroom.

“What’s on the docket today?” He mumbled as everyone sat down again.

The clerk promptly carried over a stack of cases through which the judge began to scan, until he lifted his eyes above the rim of his glasses and looked at down at the plaintiff. She was sitting there in her Sunday best trying desperately to keep her smile as sincere as possible. 

And then the judge blurted out, “Weren’t you in here last week?”

She unfolded the hands in her lap and very calmly replied, “Indeed I was, and I’m still looking for justice.”

And with that the judge ordered her out of the room so that he could get on with the real work of justice.

The next day each of the common characters went through their repetitive routines until the judge ascended to his perch and was bewildered again to see the same woman, in the same spot as she was the day before.

“Ma’am, how many times will I have to kick you out of my courtroom before you learn your lesson.”

“As long as it takes to get my justice, your honor.”

For weeks they went through this new pattern every morning, and eventually it started to wear on the judge. At first he relished in his commands to the bailiff to remove the woman by any means necessary. But every day she came back, looking a little worse than the day before. 

He had no pity for her, he was still familiar with her case and he knew there was nothing to be done. And yet every night he lay awake in bed troubled by her bringing her troubles into his courtroom. The black robe felt heavier and heavier each time he put it on and he discovered that he was starting to develop an ulcer which he attributed to the woman.

But then one night, the judge came to himself and realized that if he just gave her what she wanted, she would stop bothering him and he could be done with the whole thing. So he gave her the justice she was hoping for.

The end.

Parables-of-Jesus

Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like the widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like the bailiff dutifully following orders. No even like the stenographer observing and recording every minute detail.

God is like the unjust judge.

So, I guess, it’s good to be bad?

Jesus, here, breaks a lot of common conventions, particularly when it comes to story telling or, dare I say, preaching. Jesus, unlike your esteemed pastor this morning, did not have the benefit of attending a highly regarded seminary in which he would’ve learned about the importance of using good examples of good people to show the goodness of God.

Instead, Jesus hands us this story in which God, as the unjust judge, is supposed to sound good.

I don’t envy the judge in the story, particularly when considering the fact that the judge ultimately takes on two subjects the rest of us find diametrically opposed to one another. The business of grace and the business of judgment. 

This is a tough dance for the church to do no matter what the circumstances are. 

We want to be able to hold these things at the same time when they seem to be completely opposed to one another – we want to be gracious toward all people but we also don’t want people getting away with everything under the sun – we want to tell people that God loves them no matter what but we also want to make sure they know there are certain behaviors that God, in fact, does not love.

And we know how the story is supposed to go. After all, the judge is in the business of the law and therefore should be just in his sentence. But in the end of Jesus’ tale, the judge breaks all the rules of his vocation and actually seems to put himself out of the judging business altogether.

The judge is bothered not by any normal character under the law, but specifically a widow. To our contemporary ears we can still imagine the plight of the widow in this circumstance, but in the time of Jesus to be a widow was to have no hope in the world whatsoever. For a woman to lose her husband was to become a complete and total loser – no social standing, no economic prosperity, no property period. And yet, this widow refuses to accept her deadness in life – she shows up at the courthouse looking for justice and the hope of discovering some kind of wealth in the midst of her total poverty.

She really is dead, at least according to the values of the world and she knows it. The widow knows, deep in her bones, that she has no hope in the world and knows that the judge will not give her the justice she wants, but she also has no other choice but to ask. 

And, for reasons that appear suspect and strange to us, the judge decides to change his mind regarding the plight of the widow. We would hope that the judge would be moved by pity, or hope, or even faith, but Jesus plainly declares those things have nothing to do with it. 

The judge changes his mind simply because it will make things more convenient for the judge. The judge is willing to be unjust just so he can have some peace of mind. 

Jesus then continues by telling those with ears to hear to listen to the unjust judge!

Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to be seen as bad, to let God’s justice be blind, for no other reason that the fact that it will get all of us off of his back. 

Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in our futile pursuits of moral, spiritual, financial, and all other forms of purity. 

In other words: While we were still yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

Grace-is-Greater+4x8+Banner

There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us! 

We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works. 

But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”

This is Good News because, like the parable of the lost sheep, God’s never going to give up on us. The problem that we don’t like to encounter is admitting that we are, in fact, lost.

Jesus jumps from the story to some sort of moral with the declaration that God delights in being merciful, whether we deserve it or not. And more than that, God will be merciful on God’s people soon.

This story is told as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. This is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you. 

It is the stuff of wonder and awe that God chose to drop dead to give all of us a break. Like the widow’s verdict, God was tired of the world turning to self-righteous competitions and judgments thinking it would lead to perfection. And while watching the world tear itself apart, God destroyed God’s self rather than letting us destroy ourselves. 

The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.

God hung up the black robe and the gavel the day his son hung on the cross. No one but an unjust judge could have ruled in our favor when we don’t deserve it. No one but a crazy God like ours could have been merciful to throw a party and invite the very people that we wouldn’t.

And yet, the parable is not over. It ends with a lingering question from the lips of Jesus: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

The implied answer, much to our disappointment and embarrassment, is no. This story prohibits us from believing that any of us is just enough for the judge. We struggle with faith. Not because we don’t know whether to believe God exists or not, but because we can’t believe that God would do for us what God did for us. Our faith trembles in the recognition that the us in that sentence is us. 

We worship a crucified God, a God who wins by losing, and that’s a hard thing for us to have faith in because we are part of a world that refuses to let go of our insatiable desire to win all the time.

And this really is the heart of Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge.

The confounding nature of God’s work has made this whole parable series difficult for me, as I imagine it has been difficult for many of you. The parables are challenging because Jesus’ stories run counter to just about everything we’ve been told over and over again.

We call the Good News good, but more often than not we preach it and receive it as bad news.

I can stand up here week after week and tell you that God is angry with our behavior. I can proclaim that God is so good that none of us will ever have a chance of getting close to God. I can spend all of my time convincing all of us to get our acts together in order to appease God.

I can even command you to fill the offering plates to the brim enough to get all of us into heaven.

But the one thing I can’t do, the thing we almost never do, is tell the truth that God cares not one bit for our guilt, or our good deeds, or even our tithes. We can’t rejoice in the ridiculous Good News that God has gotten rid of all the oppressive godly requirements we think are part of our ticket out of death. We can’t talk about those things because it sounds too good or too crazy.

And here’s the truth: God is indeed crazy, and so are we. 

God stays on the cross instead of coming down and punishing us until we behave properly.

God has already given us more than we could ever possibly earn or deserve.

And those two things are really unjust when you think about it. 

They are unjust because God, our God, chooses to be blind to who we are.

There’s no better news than that. Amen. 

Scandalous

Luke 15.11

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.”

The Bible is scandalous.

I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time completely naked until they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.

The patriarch of the faith, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.

And David, the one who brought down the mighty Goliath, killed 200 Philistine men just to procure their foreskins in order to present them as a dowry so that he could marry the daughter of King Saul.

Scandalous.

And that just three example from the Old Testament.

When Jesus shows up on the scene it gets even crazier.

He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people. 

For awhile, in the midst of his ministry, he attracts all kinds of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last. But at some point the crowds begin to change; they start leaning in a direction we might call undesirable.

All the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near to listen to him. The tax collectors were Jews who profited off of their fellow Jews. They took from the top and made little nest-eggs for themselves while their fellow countrymen suffered under the dictatorial rule of Rome. And the sinners, well, just imagine your favorite sinful behavior and you know who those people were.

And they are the ones gathering near.

Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have here at church. Not the folks who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe. Not the people who jockey to the highest positions in the community.

No, Jesus attracts the very people we would repel. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes, the good religious folk, (people like us), they were grumbling among themselves and saying, “This Jesus is bad news. He not only welcomes sinners into his midst, but he has the audacity to eat with them!”

So Jesus told them a story.

Parables-of-Jesus

If you don’t know this by now, well then let me tell you yet again, Jesus loves to tell stories. Everywhere he went, among all the different people, with all their different problems, he would bring his hand to his chin and triumphantly declare: “I’ve got a story for that.”

And this story, the one he tells to the grumbling religious authorities, the story that is probably best known among all the parables, is through which the whole of the gospel comes to light. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the most important parable Jesus ever told, and just about every time we retell it, we ruin it.

And it’s scandalous.

Listen: A man had two sons. And one day the younger son gets the bright idea to ask for his inheritance right then and there. He didn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to die before he received his due. And the father, inexplicably, agrees. He splits himself, turns it all over to his boys, he effectively ends his own life so that they can have what they would have had at his death.

To the older son, he gave the family business.

To the younger son, he cashed out his retirement package.

The older son remains at home, taking care of that which was entrusted to him, and the younger son, the one who demanded the inheritance, runs off in a fit of joy with his now deep deep deep pockets.

But it’s only a matter of time before the younger son has squandered his early inheritance. Maybe he blew it at the black jack table, maybe he threw it away in empty bottle after empty bottle, or maybe he spent it on women. Regardless it gets to the point that he is now far worse off than he was before he asked for the money – he steals food out of garbage cans at night, he sleeps under a tarp off in the woods, and he showers in the sinks at gas stations.

And then, one day, he arrives back to himself and realizes that he could return to his father and his brother, that they could give him a job and he could start over. So he begins to practice his confession and contrition: “Dad, I’m so sorry for what I did. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Would you please help me?”

He hitch-hikes home, all the while practicing his little speech under his breath, wondering if his father will buy it and welcome him home or slam the door in his face. He even practices making his face look properly repentant to help him with his cause.

The day of his hopeful reunion arrives and he paces around the block worrying about his words when all of the sudden someone tackles him from behind and it takes him a moment to realize that someone is kissing his hair and head and neck.

The younger son rolls his assailant over only to discover that it’s his father, crying profusely, with a giant smile on his face.

The son opens his mouth to begin his practiced speech and his father interrupts him: “I don’t want to hear a word of what you have to say. We need to throw a party.”

And with that the old man grabs his son by the collar yanks him up off the ground, and starts singing at the top his lungs out in the middle of the street. They stop by every convenience store on their way home picking up all the cold beer, ice, and hot dogs they can carry. And by the time they make it to the house a slew of text messages, emails, and tweets have gone out inviting the whole of the neighborhood over to celebrate the lost being found. 

Meanwhile, the older son (remember the older son), he’s out mowing the backyard at his Dad’s house. He’s got sweat dripping everywhere, and his mind is running over the list of all the other stuff he’s supposed to do, when he looks up and sees countless figures moving past the windows inside. And when he turns off the mower he can hear the music bumping and the people singing. 

He quickly makes his way up to the closest window, peers inside, and sees his father with his arms around his good-for-nothing younger brother, and the older son shuffles off it a fit of rage.

Hours pass before the father realizes his other son is missing the party. So he tries to call him, no answer. He tries to text him, no response. It gets to the point that the Dad gets in his car and shows up at his older son’s house and starts banging on the front door.

“Where have you been? You’re missing the party!”

“I’m missing the party? When did you ever throw me a party? I’ve been like a slave for you all these years, taking over your business, driving you to your doctor’s appointments, heck I was even mowing your yard this afternoon, and you’ve never done a thing for me. And yet my brother shows up, and you throw him a party and you invite the whole neighborhood?”

And before he can continue his litany of complaints the father smacks his older son across the face and shouts, “You idiot! I gave you all that you have. And what do you spend all your free time doing? Taking care of an old man like me and I never asked you to do any of that.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you interrupt me right now, this is important. All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you, you’re hardly alive at all. The only reason you didn’t come into the party after mowing the lawn is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectations that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time and you, you’re alive and miserable. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and just drop dead. Forget about your life and come have fun with us.”

The End.

That’s the whole story right there. 

Grace-is-Greater+4x8+Banner

And we know what we’re supposed to make of it. 

We know we’ve been like the younger brother, venturing off into the unknown world only to make stupid choices and hope that we will be received in our repentance.

We know we’ve been like the older brother, disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though they don’t deserve it.

Or we know we’ve been like the father, praying for a wayward child, or spouse, or family member, or friend to come to their senses and return home.

And just about every time we encounter this story, whether in a sermon, or Sunday school, or even in a book or movie, the same point is made – see yourself in the story and then act accordingly.

But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is really about Jesus.

If the story we’re about us then we would hear a fuller ending. We would learn whether or not the elder brother decided to ditch his self-righteousness and join the party. We would discover whether or not the younger brother truly repented and left his foolish life behind forever. We would even discover how the father attempted to reconcile his sons back together.

But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we might be hoping for. We don’t get to know what happens and to whom because that’s not the point.

Do you see it now? This is about as scandalous as it gets in the Bible because no one gets what they deserve, and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!

The father loses everything for his sons. He gives up his life simply to meet the demand of his younger son.

The older son loses out on all that he hopes for by doing all of the right things only to never be rewarded for it.

The younger son dies to his ridiculous extravagance and is thrown the party of all parties just for coming home.

In this story, straight from the lips of the Lord, we catch a glimpse of the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life to shower us with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the great party, save for ditching our snobbery.

This story, whether we like to admit it or not, ends before we want it to. We want to know what happens next, we want to know if the older brother goes into the party. We want to know if the younger brother stays on the right path. We want to see the father relaxing in his lazy boy knowing both of his kids are home.

But the fact that Jesus ends the story without an end shows that what’s most important has already happened. The fatted calf has been sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, and take off our shoes, and start dancing.

We were lost and we’ve been found.

That’s the only thing that matters. Amen. 

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.

17123251389_1881fb0ba2_k

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?!”

Parables-of-Jesus

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. 

Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

Weekly Devotional Image

There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

5da5f0bc6a13ce1746a543ab24496a47

And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

Back To The Middle

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

My college campus ministry was going nowhere. 

We had a solid band that played some of the newest Christian music.

We tried exciting and new initiatives to reach out to other students on campus in order to get them to join us for worship on Sunday evenings.

We even tried to create series around relevant topics like recent blockbusters or culturally important topics.

But we just had the same people showing up week after week.

We never had a real conversation about it, but there was a feeling in the air that if we weren’t growing, then we were failing. 

Every summer I’d go home to work at the church that raised me, and every fall I would return to school with new ideas about how we could get new people. 

And sometimes it worked. We’d be setting up for worship in one of the local United Methodist Churches that let us use their space for free, and a college student would walk in explaining that he/she wanted to check us out.

Our spirits would soar in joyful hope and anticipation, but then of course we would be incredibly nervous for the rest of the service hoping they’d come back next week.

But they almost never did.

During my final semester of undergrad we decided that the only way to really reach new people was to start over. 

Literally.

We scrapped everything and began with a clean slate. 

The ways we had been “doing church” no longer worked, so we decided it was time to make a new church.

The core group met over at a bagel place in town, and even though I was soon-to-graduate, I attended in order to offer my opinions about how the church might re-create itself.

Our leader pulled out a pad of paper and started by saying, “If we’re going to do this, we need to create a list of what we believe. We’ll put it all together, put it online, and that way people will know what to expect when they come join us.”

Perfect. Back to the basics.

So we went around the table and people started throwing out their ideas…

I believe that the church should welcome everyone no matter what.

I agree, but I also believe that the church should have expectations of what it means to live like a Christian.

I believe that the people who join us should agree to believe what we believe.

By the time it came to me to say something we already had three pages front in back with a list of our beliefs. 

And almost none of them had anything to do with God.

0e4152129_1428595080_2015-blog-whyhomosexualityisanissueoffirstimportance

Now I would remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the gospel that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

Christ died for our sins.

He was buried in the ground.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once. 

Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The least of the apostles.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not our behavior.

Not even a list of beliefs.

But a story.

The story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again.

And he appeared to the disciples.

Now, I know that if you’re like me, you’re heard this story a lot. So much so that we just accept it as is without giving it much thought. But, seriously, what was Jesus thinking?

He is resurrected and shows up for Peter! You know, the one who denied him!

Don’t you think Jesus would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective? For maximum results in spreading this new religion, you don’t waste your time talking to someone off the street, let alone a denier. You’ve got to go to the movers and shakers, the powers and the principalities. 

The ones who get things done.

If Jesus really wanted to shake up the world, why didn’t he go straight to the top?

Our Jesus, the one whom we love and adore, didn’t go to the emperor’s palace, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple waiting for crowds to gather in wonderment and awe.

The resurrected Jesus showed up right in front of the very people who abandoned him.

Think about it for just a moment – The most incredible thing in the history of history has taken place, and Jesus appears before the same ragtag group of would-be followers who misunderstood him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his very betrayers.

To us.

Of all the people, Peter and Paul are the ones to whom the resurrection is made as clear as day. Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer. A denier of the faith, and a killer of the faith.

It would have been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but the Good News is that he rose for them, and for us.

Churches are forever trying to figure out how to reach new people. They’ll take a good hard look in the mirror, and trim back the fat of whatever it is they were doing so that only the lean meat remains.

On Sundays the music is always easy to sing, everyone wears comfortable clothing, and the pastor will tell a story about how to find something better for your lives.

Not that far from us is a relatively new church that meets in a movie theater on Sunday mornings. They have a rock band that sets up by the front, and when the appointed time arrives they jam away for three to four songs while the words appear on the screen.

And when they finish a man will appear, not in person, but on the big screen as well and he will talk for 15-20 minutes about how God wants you to be the best you. 

The band will stand back up for one more song, and then its over.

And they are bursting at the seams.

Week after week more people show up wanting to know how they can make their lives better, and week after week more people have to sit in the aisles because they run out of space.

And the church should be doing what it can to reach new people, even those who are caught up in the never-ending desire to make their lives better.

Except that’s not really who we are, at least according to the Bible. The Gospel isn’t about how we can get better by getting closer to God, though it certainly doesn’t hurt.

The Gospel is about how groups of bad people come together to cope with their failure to be good.

But that doesn’t sell, and it doesn’t drive people in through the doors. It doesn’t ring well as a promotional slogan or fit nicely on a bumper sticker. It doesn’t compel people to go home and invite all of their neighbors back for next Sunday.

And yet the story of Jesus Christ doesn’t revolve around people trying to find God and find themselves along the way. 

Over and over again the Gospel is the truth that God keeps seeking us despite our worst, and even our best, intentions.

corinthian-series

God is the shepherd who doesn’t shrug his shoulder when one of the fold is missing – God goes out and does whatever it takes, risks everything if necessary, to find that missing sheep.

God is the father who does not sigh in disappointment about the wayward son. He reaches down into the muck and mire of life in order to grab the prodigal son so that he may rejoice with his father forever.

God is the sower, who regardless of how bad the weather looks or the soil appears, keeps tossing out seeds in the hopes that they will grow into new life.

We Christians might like to think that we’re good, and always getting better; that we have special access to something the world otherwise ignores. 

But at the heart of being a Christian is the recognition that something has happened to us, in spite of us. The risen Lord came back to us.

We might not be able to pinpoint it, or even describe it, but we are here simply because Jesus did not give up on us, nor did he abandon us. 

Jesus found us, grabbed us, and forgave us.

What is of first importance for Christ’s church? 

To the poor and wretched and struggling Corinthians, who were failing at being the church, arguing daily, and refusing to welcome the other as brother and stranger as sister, Paul takes them back to the middle – to the decisive and most important moment in the middle of history – Easter.

Paul reminds them, and us, that when the gathering of Christians happens the risen Christ finds them. Not the other way around.

If we are honest, a decisively difficult thing these days, we like Paul, are the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called apostles. 

In the last ten days, our state has seen its share of controversy. The governor’s medical school yearbook surfaced with a picture of a man in black face and a man wearing a KKK robe in hood all on his page.

The second in command, our Lieutenant Governor, has been hit with a number of credible accusations about sexual assault.

And the third in command, our Attorney General, also admitted to having worn blackface in the past.

That’s just Virginia, and it’s only the three most powerful political figures in Virginia, and that’s only in the last week and a half.

I could go on and on, and I have plenty of times, I love picking on politicians from the pulpit. It’s easy. And it’s easy because we so deify those who hold office. Governors, Representatives, Presidents, Senators, we hold them to a standard that we ourselves would not.

And then we are shocked to discover that they are flawed.

That they are like us.

And the great theological smack in the face, is that God died in Jesus Christ for them too. 

So we can do what we think we need to do. We can change what we do on Sunday mornings. We can make it more appealing (whatever that means). We can even blow up the church and start over from scratch. 

But of first importance, at the very heart of what it means to be who we are, is a story.

And not just a story, or even our story, but the story.

The story of God. 

Who came back for us. Amen. 

The Right Question – A Wedding Homily

Mark 8.34-37

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

IMG_4514

Stories are important. In life we use stories to teach children valuable lessons about what it means to be a person in the world. We are captivated by the narratives portrayed in both books and on the big screen. Stories can make us cry, they can make us laugh, they can take us out of ourselves, and they can teach us who we really are on the inside.

And, for better or worse, we are the stories we tell.

Your story, the one you two share, is a good one, and frankly one that I’ve found myself telling to other people recently. I mean, could it be any cuter to witness the marriage of a couple who met in the 2nd grade? Think about the Lifetime Movie Channel possibilities! Cameron and Victoria sitting across from one another at the table, helping one another with their reading or their spelling, only to now be standing across one another by the altar.

It’s a good story.

A relationship born out of childhood birthday parties in which the possibility of marriage was not even a twinkle in either of your eyes.

But then the story takes a turn, from the connection catalyzed in Featherstone Elementary School (just on the other side of the road from where we stand) to Victoria moving away.

The story then fast forwards to years and years later, in adulthood, when Victoria moved back into the area for family reasons. And what does she do? She takes the initiative and reaches out to the friend from elementary school. Why? Has she had a crush all of these years and she finally wants to bring it to fruition? Have they been sending love letters back and forth over the decade plus? No.

You were just friends, and friends spend time together.

And so you did. You reconnected and started telling each other stories of the lives you had lived in the time in between. You learned each other’s narratives, you discovered common interests, and varied perspectives.

And with more and more time passing, with more stories being told, you two spent enough time together than you started developing your own story. You went places together, you explored new adventures together, and you even went to parties together.

After one such party, or maybe it was before, (the story is debated), you two found yourselves in the car. All alone with your thoughts and your stories, when you, Cameron, inexplicably wondered, out loud, “Victoria, are we going to do this thing or not?”

That’s Cameron’s favorite story to tell. And though Victoria laughs and brushes it off, I think she secretly loves it. Because in that question the whole of you were, are, and will be was held in a moment of clarity. Cameron’s question was so much more than just the words he used…

Are we going to take the only logical steps in this budding relationship in which I am discovering the truth of myself in you?

Are we going to become the people God has called us to be, by being together?

Are we going to be in the relationship everyone already thinks we’re in?

Stories are important, they are at the very heart of who we are and who we can be. But for as much as stories are important, questions are too.

Jesus stood before the crowd including his disciples and he let them know what it would take to follow him, “Let anyone who wishes to follow me deny themselves and take up their cross. For those who want to save their life must lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, or for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

You can imagine the sounds of crickets chirping as the countless crowds wonder if they really want to follow this guy. I mean, who the hell wants to lose their life? And then he drops the question, a question filled with all sorts of other questions, a question upon which all of who we were, are, and will be is held in tension: “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life, indeed what can they give in return for their life?”

“Are we going to do this thing, or not?”

Cameron, please hear me when I say this, and please don’t let it go to your perfectly bearded head: Your question for Victoria is the same question placed before everyone who claims to follow Jesus. In that profoundly beautiful, and somewhat funny moment, you laid out all your cards for what would become this moment.

And when Jesus asked his version of your question, it paved the way for what would become the cross and the empty tomb.

I know that it might sound strange to be thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection at a wedding. You might prefer to hear about love, or beauty, or even faith. And even though marriage might have all those things, marriage is really more about commitment, and courage, and even crucifixion.

Victoria, I never learned exactly how you responded to Cameron’s question, whether it was an emphatic yes, of if you merely beamed. But regardless, your answer is what brought both of you here. Your answer led you to into a relationship that was forged in the fires of commitment and courage and a sacrifice all too similar to Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and resurrection. 

And your marriage will contain even more of it.

Marriage, the covenant in which you two are about to enter, is nothing more than the confusing claim and question Jesus offered the crowd. If you want to gain new life in your partner, if you want to step into this new reality, you’re going to have to deny something within you – a desire, a dream, a daring possibility. Because in just a moment, your lives will no longer be your own. They will become inextricably tied around and with the person standing before you, and as we say, for better or worse.

But the absolutely beautiful and breathtaking part of marriage is that those lives, those stories, never really belonged to you in the first place.

Cameron, you have an incredibly dedicated work ethic and you give every little bit of yourself to everything you do, to a fault. No matter what, you tend to put other’s needs first whether it means sacrificing something you want to do, or showing up for someone who might not show up for you. And you’re really funny, or at least you think you’re really funny.

But I, and Victoria, think that one of your greatest qualities is that you are remarkably even keeled even when it might feel like life is falling apart.

Victoria, you care about other people including Cameron more than just about anyone else. You embody what we in the church call discipled selflessness. You are definitely the planner in the relationship bringing a healthy dose of organization and purpose to all that you do. 

And, you are extremely punctual, which is made all the more perfect and beautiful since Cameron lives in his own time vortex.

You two are really similar in a lot of ways, and in particular with your commitment to other people. And yet, you are also very different. Frankly, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Cameron you are a hunter and the Victoria you are a crafter, and that you both have separate rooms at your house dedicated to these very different interests!

I keep waiting to hear about the mash-up of these things like Victoria taking the time to knit a camouflage scarf or Cameron building a tree stand with popsicle sticks and a hot glue gun.

When that inevitably strange compilation comes together, I want to see it!

You two are the stories you tell, varied and weaving stories that come together right here, and right now. But those stories never really belonged to you in the first place. 

To take up the marriage language again, we are the story God tells, for better of worse. We are the characters in the great novel of salvation, in which every chapter is better than the last, one that goes on forever and ever.

God, for some reason or another, wrote your lives in such a way that you would now prepare to enter into the new blank page of the greatest story ever told.

And lest you two fall prey to the temptation to believe that this was all up to you, and will be all up to you, I want you to turn around for just a moment, and soak up this view. Far too many weddings are focused in this direction alone, and we miss the beauty behind us; the profound wonder of a community of people who made a covenant to hold you accountable to your covenant. 

Your stories do not belong to you, because they also belong to all of these people, from and whom through God is penning this one.

When we met for pre-marital counseling, I asked you two to consider what marriage really is. Not according to the world, or your parents, or even a favorite movie – I wanted to hear what you think marriage is. And you said marriage is like having an extreme best friend, in which everything is out in the open. It is a strange and wonderful new beginning together.

And then you said that that getting married here, at this church, made perfect sense because we’re right across the street from where it all began.

How poetic is that? 

And so may the author of salvation, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit  – the beginning, middle, and end – bless you in your marriage so that you may continue to tell the story of you were, who you are, and who you will be.

So, are we going to do this thing or what?