Beginning Again

Mark 1.1-3

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

In Advent, we begin again. 

It’s notably strange that we, Christians, continue to repeat ourselves year after year with this bewildering season. We pull out the purple paraments, we decorate our Advent wreaths, and we start singing tunes about “ransoming captive Israel.” Advent, for better or worse, is a season all about waiting – waiting for the birth of Jesus in the manger AND waiting for his return at the end of all things. 

And, every year, we spend this season living into the tension of the already but not yet. 

It’s just the best.

And yet, Advent can feel like a drag. We hear, week after week, about preparation, but it’s not altogether clear what we are preparing for. Sure, we’ve got to get the lights up on the house and purchase all the perfect presents and send out the color-coordinated family picture, but what does any of that have to do with Jesus?

The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with the beginning. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He, prophetically, points to the sinfulness within each of us to make sure we know what it is that Jesus is showing up for. He calls us to look into the darkness inside of us, and then points us toward the One who will rectify the cosmos, including us. 

This is no easy task.

Therefore, Advent can be a little frightening as we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the One who shows up to cancel out our sins. But Advent is equally a time for celebration! We celebrate because Jesus has already done the good work of rewriting reality, and we now simply wait for his return and the knitting of the new heaven and the new earth. 

Advent is a time in which we balance out both the beginning and the end all while looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn will break from on high. Advent is both convicting and celebratory. It is the church at her very best.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: 

Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers…What we are watching [waiting] for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether he wedding present-china has been chipped. God is, instead, the funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch [wait] for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun!” – (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)

So here’s to the season of repentance and celebration where we begin, again! Amen. 

Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including beginning again, Lauren Winner, comforting in chaos, divine reversal, unpacking peace, worship at war, Dr. Who, slowing down, divine grammar, and embodying Advent. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey

People Look East!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lauren Lobenhofer about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [B] (Isaiah 64.1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Mark 13.24-37). Lauren serves as the senior pastor at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent(ures), the Theotokos, liturgical purity, parental love, divine ceramics, repetitive prayers, the audience of worship, the Flying V, spiritual gifts, eschatological contemplation, and Wendell Berry. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Look East!

King Jesus

Matthew 25.31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!

Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday. 

Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.

It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.

In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.

But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.

What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.

He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.

Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.

And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.

He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.

Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.

He’s the King.

And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.

It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.

Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.

Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.

Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.

Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.

Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.

These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”

Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.

And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!

On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord. 

Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently. 

If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.

And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.

There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication. 

Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors. 

The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good. 

For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.

The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. 

And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.

Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.

What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”

That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.

It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.

For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation. 

The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.

Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.

Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.

And he leaves those sins there forever.

No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.

You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.

And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize. 

And he also happens to be our King. Amen. 

I Pledge Allegiance To The Lord

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for Christ The King Sunday [A] (Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1.15-23, Matthew 25.31-46). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including eschatology, RBG, liturgical history, preludes to Advent, stubborn creatures, joyful noises, John Wesley’s preaching, hope at the end of the year, and the King of the least. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To The Lord

How Odd Of God

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the one talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

A businessman decides it’s high time for a vacation so goes down to the bank, takes out all his assets and calls three of his employees to a meeting.

Look,” he says, “I’m getting out of town for a bit. Hawaii should be nice this time of year. And while I’m gone, I’m entrusting all that I have to the three of you.” 

He drops a overstuffed duffel bag in the lap of employee number one and says, “There should be roughly five million dollars in there.” He tosses a briefcase to employee number two while saying, “two million.” And to employee number three, he slides a manilla envelope across the table and says, “one million.”

Before walking out the door with his Hawaiian shirt tucked under his arm and thoughts of strawberry daiquiris dancing in his head he says, “Now remember, that’s all that I have. See you when I get back.

Immediately employees one and two start wheeling and dealing. They’re sending email after email, scanning through the Wall Street Journal, and can barely keep track of who they’re on the phone with. 

Employee number three, however, does the prudent thing, the smart thing. He gets into his car, checks his rearview mirror constantly, and heads for the woods. He pulls off on the side of the road, noting a particularly funky looking tree that will help him find the spot in the future, trudges off into the woods, digs a big hole, and buries the envelope. 

Eventually the businessman returns home with a nice tan and a few extra pounds around his waistline. He calls the employees to a meeting. 

Employee number one arrives with a few extra duffle bags, employee number two has upgraded from a briefcase to a duffel bag, and employee number three shows up covered in mud, with a shovel over his shoulder, and the same (albeit dirty) manilla envelope.

The boss kicks his flip flopped covered feet up onto the conference table and opens his hands as if to say, “So how’d it go?

Employee number one steps forward and says, “Boss, I took the five million you gave me, I invested some of it in highly volatile markets, purchased some real estate, started a few local business, and today I am proud to say that I was able to double what you gave me into ten million dollars.”

“Hot tamales!” the boss exclaims. “Well done! Well done! You’ve been very faithful, so I’m giving you a promotion and the fancy office at the end of the hallway! And tonight, we’re going out to celebrate!

Employee number two steps forward. “Boss, I took the two million you gave me and I called up my bookie and made some bets. At first, things didn’t look so good, I had a great feeling about this one horse race and nearly lost it all. But then I wisened up, made some smaller bets on some different races and sure enough I was able to double what you gave me, so here’s four million dollars.”

“Yahtzee!” the boss bellows. “Awesome sauce! You’ve been faithful like you’re co-worker, so I’m giving you a promotion as well. You’re now the head of your department, and you can take my old office. Oh, and you can join us tonight for some celebratory drinks. And, if we’re having a particularly good time, maybe you can call up your bookie and we can make some bets together.”

And then employee number three steps up. “Hey boss,” he says sheepishly, “Here you go. I kept your one million safe – so safe that I buried it in a field and it never saw the light of day. To be clear – I did this because I know you. I’ve been working here for twenty years and I know that you can be one tough cookie. I know that you take over departments that are underperforming and you box out other local businesses. So I thought it would be wise to play it safe. Because if you’re the kind of boss that I know you to be, then I knew you would go one quite a tare if I lost what belongs to you. And so, dear boss, I am returning what you gave to me just as you gave it to me.

And he drops the dirty envelope on the table.

No,” the boss begins, “No, no, no, no, no. You just ruined the buzz of my vacation! If you knew I was supposedly so though, that I take what doesn’t belong to me, that I expect a lot from those who have received a lot, why didn’t you at least put the money in a Savings Account? A measly 4% interest is still better than 0%! Now you’ve got me all fired up. But do you know what really grinds my gears? I invited you into a relationship with me, a relationship you didn’t deserve one bit. A million dollars is a lot of money! But I trusted you with it. It was one remarkable gift. But what did you do with my gift? You decided to be more afraid of me than the risks. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And now, instead of being entrusted with more responsibilities around here, you’re stuck with what you started with.”

The boss stands up and starts pacing around the room.

It’s silent for the briefest of moments as the employees’ eyes follow their boss back and forth.

Then he says, “Because I am crazy with grace, with trust, I’m taking the one million away from you and giving it to the guy you made ten million. I’m doing this to remind you, and everyone else who works here, that it was never about the results. Don’t you see? It was all about the gift. All that matters was that you use it, not that you use it well or poorly. You could’ve made another million with what I gave you, or even two cents. Hell, you could’ve blown all of it on one stupid bet for all I care; at least that way you would’ve been a gambler after my own heart. But you just came in here, telling me that I couldn’t be trusted with whatever you came up with, and now you have to deal with the consequences. If you can’t live with my generosity then you can get out of here. Pack up your office, because you’re fired.

This is a story for the end of the Christian year. 

We rebel against the trends of the world and the supposed signs of the times, because God has remade time in his Son, Jesus Christ. We’re not quite to Advent, but the scripture readings from All Saints until Christ the King start to really hit home a message that, if we’re honest, we’re not quite sure how to feel about. There is a sense of urgency with the 5 bridesmaids stuck outside the wedding feast (last week) to the one talented man kicked out into the outer darkness (today). 

It takes a certain amount of Christian fortitude to face the revealed Word in the Strange New World of the Bible, because we’re all ready to sing about the most wonderful time of the year, but what’s so wonderful about the parable of the talents?

We don’t like this parable. That we don’t like it is indicative of the fact that we, mostly, identify with the third servant (or employee in my version). 

He’s the little guy. He’s practical and prudent. He’s smart to take care of the enormity of what was handed to him.

And for all of that, he gets thrown into the outer darkness.

This, then, is not a beloved parable.

In other places, Jesus told much nicer stories.

You know, like the one about the father who rushes out into the street to welcome home his wayward son, of the one where a poor little widow is praise more than all the rich people in worship, or even the one where, in order to pay some taxes, Jesus tells the disciples that they can find a coin in a fish’s mouth.

We like those stories because the last, least, and lost become first, best, and found.

But we certainly don’t like this one with the man trembling in fear with his one talent in his hand only to have the master take it from him and kick him out the door.

So, what do we think of this master?

After all, that’s the question that lingers upon completing the story. Sure, we might wonder about what happens to the servant stuck in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it certainly isn’t going to be Good News. But what about the master? Who is he to make such crazy decisions?

Is the master a hard-hearted miserable old miser who truly reaps where he doesn’t sow?

Or, is he an extravagant, albeit reckless, boss whose faith in his servants is exceeded only by his ridiculous generosity?

He gave them all he had.

Is it really so strange that he expected them to be just as reckless with his money as he was?

Notably, the master of the servants/slaves/employees praises the first two precisely for their faith and the doubling of their talents seems to have more to do with the talents themselves than with the efforts of the two who put them to use.

I embellished in my own retelling of the story, but in the strange new world of the Bible all we learn is that they “went off and traded.”

Without having received all that money in the first place, they wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything.

And then the master has the gall to say it would’ve been better for the talent in the ground to have been put in a savings account to make a fraction of a percent.

Which, taking the parable seriously, implies that the master, our Lord, isn’t some bookkeeper looking for the most productive results, but rather he rejoices in the giving of the gifts. 

As has been said many times, the parables are less about us and more about the one telling the parables in the first place.

And this parable tells us that, in Jesus Christ, grace will always do its job so long as we trust it.

But the one with the talent in the ground doesn’t trust himself, and he certainly doesn’t trust the master.

He, to put it pointedly, has no faith at all.

On the other side, the master is foolishly full with faith – giving all his money away for nothing just for the sheer joy of giving it away. 

And, in the end, that’s what all the parables are all about – the reckless and wondrous gift of God in Christ Jesus. 

It’s the party that’s always waiting to pop off, the one to which we’ve been invited for no good reason.

It’s the fatted calf out on the grill waiting to be consumed by the prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith.

It’s the champagne and the caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but put on the robes handed to them by their host.

It’s the full pay for next to no work at all to tomato pickers who just said yes to a ridiculous promise.

It’s the lost sheep found at the edge of a cliff who was found in its lastness, leastness, lostness, and nearly deadness. 

But this is a parable of judgment. However, the only reason that judgment comes at all is the sad fact that there will always be fools who refuse to trust a good thing even when it is handed to them on a silver platter.

The final servant, covered in dirt from digging up the buried talent is afraid of his master. But we need’t fear God – In Christ Jesus we discover that there are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove to us that there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us.

There’s no reason to fear God, unless we’re afraid of having a good time.

Jesus had some strange ideas about how to run things. He delighted in stories of employers who gave unfair wages, farmers who scattered seeds indiscriminately and all over the place, and parents who forgave their undeserving children.

And in this parable, the master delights in giving it all away just to see what the servants come up with through a ridiculous gift.

In the end, the master is the God we worship.

This is who God is. 

How odd. Amen.

The Complimented Community

1 Thessalonians 5.11 

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

“What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?”

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but it’s one I ask people all the time. Before the pandemic it was one that I would drop on a crowded table at a dinner party, and now it is one that I offer up during Zoom sessions. And people have a hard time answering the question. That people struggle to answer the question points to two things: 1) We are (often) uncomfortable with speaking positively about ourselves and; 2) We live in a world filled with criticism which leaves little room for encouragement.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, on the other side of a vitriolic presidential election, it is essential to make more time to be present with others even though it is complicated by our current situation. Moreover, supporting others with our presence and our encouragement  is crucial at a moment like this because so many of us derive our meaning and value through what we do and we no longer know who we are outside of what we do. 

For me, personally, it’s been a joy (and somewhat overwhelming) to get on my computer every Sunday morning because so many of my closest friends are pastors. Therefore, when I scroll through Facebook and Twitter I am bombarded with all sorts of different churches and all sorts of different preachers. The joy comes in knowing that I get to experience other churches in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

And so, while preparing for my own online worship, I will take time each Sunday to scroll around on social media and listen for a few minutes to a number of different preachers and then I will send each of them a few sentences about what I enjoyed or appreciated or valued from their particular proclamation.

This has become an important habit of mine throughout the pandemic and it has been extremely disheartening to hear back from people who have received my encouragement with words like, “You’re the only person who has sent me anything positive about what I’ve been doing.”

I recognize that this is a particularly pastoral experience, but I can’t help but imagine how much this kind of environment is also present in those who live and work outside the church.

And it’s led me to wonder about what would happen if the countless laypeople and the countless pastors across the land gave time every day to the good work of building one another up particularly during a time such as this. 

When St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica he encouraged the people called church to encourage one another and build up each other. This was not simply a good community building exercise – it rests at the heart of what it means to be the body of Christ for one another and for the world. We, the church, are at our best when we are doing the work of complimenting one another so that we can begin to see ourselves the way God sees us!

So, this week, I encourage you to encourage someone else (or multiple people) – offer unsolicited compliments simply for the sake of the Gospel. 

After all, one quick note of encouragement or compliment could be the difference that makes all the difference. 

Like A Thief In The Night

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including talented theology, judging Judges, transformed leadership, reoriented posture, Advent all the time, problematic language, ecclesial encouragement, paradoxical parables, and justice in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Like A Thief In The Night

The Waiting Game

Matthew 25.1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.

Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.

It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.

And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.

There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.

So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.

Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…

The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?

Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?

The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.

At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.

The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.

But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”

The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.

But there’s not enough to go around.

Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.

By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”

Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.

So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?

So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?

So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?

If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?

Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.

It’s an Advent story.

But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning. 

All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.

They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.

Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.

What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.

Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.

And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.

After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing. 

Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”

But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.

Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”

We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then. 

As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are. 

Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.

And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift. 

That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.

And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.

But there is no space at the party for party poopers.

All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.

Which leads us back to the parable.

Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place. 

Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.

Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross. 

But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.

The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.

These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.

The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.

And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.

The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.

BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!

The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.

The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.

For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.

Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.

The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it. 

In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.

The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.

The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness. 

But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party. 

And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.

God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust. 

Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?

Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?

“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”

This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).

We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!

And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.

I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”

Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen. 

Deadly Serious

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, Matthew 25.1-13). Sara serves as the lead pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Podcast lies, Hamilton hype, new covenants, idolatry, political identities, strange lands, wisdom from Narnia, unknowing our knowing, death and dying, foolish bridesmaids, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Deadly Serious