The 2nd Hardest Parable

Luke 16.19-31

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

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

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

Larry.

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

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

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

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

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

His problem was finally over!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth the parable.

Thanks for this one Jesus – the second hardest parable.

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

Just kidding.

Sort of…

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

Guilt can be an incredible motivator.

So can fear.

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

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

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

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

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

We use money to determine worth beyond money.

This is a parable about power and identity and wealth. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve seen it.

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

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

Ourselves included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some might even call that hell. 

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

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

The Hardest Parable

Luke 16.1-13

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

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

Who thought this would be a good idea?

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

Some fools for Christ are just fools.

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

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

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

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

And then Jesus does it again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this one really takes the cake. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This parable is outrageous, but so is the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace comes only through losing. 

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

No one, that is, except for Jesus. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope In A Warzone

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 16th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6.6-19, Luke 16.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including honest introductions, namesakes, book recommendations, divine real estate, arrogant hope, hymnody, perfect playlists, spiritual formation, Stanley Hauerwas, stewardship campaigns, and the parables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hope In A Warzone

The Life Of The Party

Luke 12.35-36

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

We worship an odd God.

Jesus, when the crowds push for proclamations about the kingdom, often resorts to the telling of a tale that pops every circuit breaker in the minds of those who hear what he has to say. Preachers like me, on the other hand, rejoice in providing “aha!” moments from the pulpit in which everything is tied neatly in a bow. But Jesus tells all sorts of parables that simply do not explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Jesus’ parables call attention to all the unsatisfactoriness of every previous explanation.

Listen to the so-called parable of the Watchful Servants: “Be dressed like those who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding, so that you may open the door for him as soon as he arrives. The master will have you sit down to eat, and he will come and serve you.”

Jesus asks us to imagine ourselves as those waiting for a master to return from a wedding that we weren’t invited to. Stay awake and welcome the Lord’s arrival because he, apparently, is bringing the party with him.

Jesus is wild. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our doing not much of anything, is the only good news around.  The sooner we accept that our lives are already changed in Jesus, forever, the sooner the party walks in through the door.

Therefore, we needn’t worry about whether or not we’re invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake night after night fearful if our popularity, goodness, or faith have been enough. Our salvation, the party incarnate, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

Jesus does not come to the door with sober judgments about what it takes to make it in this life and beyond, nor does Jesus come with grim requirements about what it means to make it past the bouncer at the party called the kingdom of heaven.

Instead, Jesus comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a few snacks and drinks hidden under the cover of his robe, and before we can say or do anything, he sets up the table and beckons us close.

It’s a strange parable. 

But it’s right there in the strange new world of the Bible, and it’s also right here right now.

We are blessed by the risen Lord who knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And, wildly enough, the party is not off in some different place or some different time. It is with us right now, it’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice. We, to take the language of the parable, are so consumed by the busyness of our lives that we can’t even hear Jesus banging on the door. 

Our whole lives, the mess of our busyness, lead only toward our deaths. And it’s all okay, because in baptism we’ve already died with Christ. It is Jesus who is our life. Jesus is the one who comes for us from the wedding feat – he comes to us with the celebration under his arm and he wants nothing more than to rejoice with us. 

No wonder we call the Good News good. 

Down In The Ditch

Luke 10.30

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

A few years ago, on July 5th, I was sitting in the church office when the church secretary called across the hallway:

“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in this morning?”

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.

The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”

“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them slowed down to see the scandalous scene. 

As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.

For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered my vocation so I said, “Can I help you?”

“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.

I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well, so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.

Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”

So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.

“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”

We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town. 

At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”

When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.” 

We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.

“So, are you a pastor or something?”

“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”

“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”

“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”

“All the time.”

And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in. 

And then I drove back to church.

For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. I had been the Good Samaritan. I only later realized that I never even bothered to ask for her name. 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?

The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return. 

Moreover, Samaritans are outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.

The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.

Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world that is obsessed with winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.

But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?

The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told, or ever preached, is not the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.

Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.

Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.

If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.

But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it: “The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstance imitate is the only thing that can save us.”

Jesus is the one down in the ditch. Jesus, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.

This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.

It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.

Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.

And that’s Good News. 

Welcome Home

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

The strange new world of the Bible is downright scandalous.

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

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

David, the handsome shepherd king who brings down the mighty Goliath, orders the death of one of his soldiers after an afternoon peeping session with the aforementioned solider’s wife.

And those are just the first three stories that popped in my mine.

When Jesus shows up on the scene, the scandalous nature of the Good News ramps up to eleven.

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

In the beginning, Jesus attracts all kids 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 along the way things start to change as do the people who find themselves listening to Jesus.

All the tax collectors and all the sinners come near to listen. The tax collectors are those who profit off their fellow Jews by upping their take for the empire’s pockets. And the sinners, well you can just imagine your favorite sinful behavior, and you can picture them near the Lord.

And so it is the last, least, lost, little, and nearly dead who hang on his every word. Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have at church. Not those who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe and secure. Not the people who have all the powers and principalities at their fingertips.

No. Jesus has all the gall to hang out with the sinners.

And the Pharisees, the good religious observers (people like us), are concerned about the behavior of this would-be Messiah, and so they try to dissuade the crowds: “This Jesus is nothing but bad news! He welcomes sinners into his midst, and not only that, he eats with them! Can you imagine? And he calls himself the Son of God!”

So Jesus does what Jesus does best, he tells them a story.

There’s a man with two sons. The family business has been good to the family. The little corner grocery store is a staple in the community and the family know the names of just about every person that walks through the door. 

And the father is a good father. He loves his sons.

But one day the younger son gets it into his head that he wants his inheritance right then and there. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to buy the farm so he marches into the back office and triumphantly declares, “Dad, I want my share of the inheritance now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.” 

And the father really is a good father, so he decides to divide his assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes out some investments and gives him his half in cold hard cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of his money in Atlantic City. At first he is careful, a few passes at the roulette wheel, a handful of bets at black jack. But the more he loses, the more he spends on booze, girls, and more gambling,

His fall from grace happens so fast that he walks up to the closest pit boss with empty pockets and begs for a job.

“Sure,” the man says, “we’ve got an opening in janitorial services and you can start right now.”

Days pass and the younger son cleans out the trashcans throughout the casino. He’s able to stave off the hunger at first, but he hasn’t eaten in days and one particular half-consumed doughnut at the bottom of the trash can starts to look remarkably appetizing.

And that’s when he comes to himself.

He realizes, there in that moment, that he made a tremendous mistake. Even the employees back at the family grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their heads.

He drops his janitorial supplies and beelines out of the casino while working on a speech in his head, “Dad, I really messed up. I am sorry and I am no longer worthy to be called you son. If you can give me a job at the store I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

He says the words over and over again in his head the whole way home, practicing the lines like his life depends on them.

Meanwhile, the father is sitting by the window at the front of the shop, lazily glancing over the newspaper’s depressing headlines. He can hear his elder son barking out orders to his former employees, and then he sees the silhouette of his younger son walking up the street.

He sprints out the front door, spilling his coffee and leaving a flying newspaper in his wake. He tackles his son to the ground, squeezes him like his life depends on it, and he keeps kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the son says, “Dad, I’m sorry.”

“Shut up boy,” the father roars, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party the likes of which this neighborhood has never seen!”

He yanks his prodigal son up from the asphalt, drags him back up the block, and pushes him in front of everyone in store.

“Murph,” he yells at a man with a broom standing at the end of an aisle, “Lock the front door and go find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got. We’ll start roasting it on the grill out back.”

“Hey Janine!” He yells at a woman behind the cash register, “Get on the PA system and call everyone to the front, and open up some beers while you’re at it. It’s time to party! This son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

And the beer caps start flying, and the radio in the corner gets turned up to eleven, and everyone starts celebrating in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and comparing figures to make sure that none of his employees are swindling him out of his money, and he hears a commotion going on down the hallway. He sees Murph run past the door with what looks like beer foam in his mustache, and what looks like a leg of lamb under his arm, and the elder son shouts, “What in the world is going on?”

Murph skids to a stop in the hallway and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home! And your father told us to party!” And with that he disappears around the corner to get the grill going.

The older brother’s fists tighten and he retreats back to his office chair and to his ledger books.

Try as he might he can’t focus on his work. All he can think about is his good for nothing brother and all of the frivolity going on mere feet away. His anger grows so rapidly that he grabs the closest stack of papers and flings them across the room.

And then he hears a knock at the door.

His father steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles, “Hey, what’re you doing back here? You’re missing all the fun!”

The older son is incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job! I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve been working like a slave for you and you never once threw me a party, you never told me I could go home early. And yet this prodigal son of yours has the nerve to come home, having wasted all your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father sobers up quickly, and maybe it’s the beer or maybe it’s is own frustration, that causes him to raise his voice toward his eldest son, “You big dumb idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve only been working for yourself. Last time I checked, it’s your name on the back of the door, not mine.”

The elder son stands in shock.

And the father continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him the inheritance? Well I trusted you with this, the family business. And what does your life have to show for it? You’re so consumed by numbers and figures, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, all the while you’re chasing some bizarre fantasy of a life that doesn’t exist.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you, ‘But Dad’ me right now, I’m on a roll. Listen! All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that your brother is finally alive again. But look at you! You’re hardly alive at all. There’s a party going on just down the hall and you can’t even bring yourself to have a good time. Well, remember son of mine, complain all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father makes to leave and rejoin the party, but he turns back one last time toward his elder son and says, “I think the only reason you’re not out there cutting up a rug with the rest of us is because you refuse to die to all your dumb rules about how your life is supposed to go. So, please, do yourself a favor, and drop dead. Forget about your life, and come have fun with us.”

The End.

And, of course, we know what we’re supposed to do with the story. 

At times we’re supposed to identify with the younger brother, having ventured off toward a handful of mistakes, and we need to repent of our wrong doings.

At times we supposed to identify with the father, with our own wayward child, or friend, or partner, and how we have to pray for them to come to their senses and receive them in love.

At times we’re supposed to identify with the elder brother, when we’re disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though their rotten.

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

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

If it were about us it would certainly have a better ending. We would find out from the Lord whether or not the elder brother decides to join the party, if the younger brother really kept to the straightened arrow, and if the father was able to get his sons to reconcile with one another.

But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we want. We don’t get an ending because that’s not the point.

The point is rather scandalous – no one gets what they deserve and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!

In Jesus’ parable we encounter the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies and is resurrected 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 with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteousness.

Contrary to how we might often imagine it, the whole ministry of the Lord isn’t about the importance of our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God have a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

That’s what grace is all about. It is the cosmic bash, the great celebration, that constantly hounds all the non-celebrants in the world. It begs the prodigals to come out and dance, and it begs the elder brothers to take their fingers out of their ears. The fatted calf is 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, take off our shoes, and start dancing. 

We were lost and we’ve been found. Welcome home. Amen.

Holy Fertilizer

Luke 13.1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Interior coffee shop: early morning.

Rain falls steadily against a window.

An assortment of customers in various states of caffeination are spread out among the tables and chairs.

A preacher sits alone in the corner. Computer and Bible are on the table, a subpar sermon is coming along splendidly.

He tries to focus on the matter at hand, but he can’t help but overhear a conversation from a nearby table. 

“Can you believe he cheated on her?”

“Oh honey, that’s not the half of it. I heard he’s been living two lives between two houses with two different families.”

The preacher knows better than to eavesdrop, so he goes back to the flashing cursor on his computer. He’s able to jot a few ideas down, none of which will actually make it into the sermon. When, a few minutes later, he catches bits of different conversation at a different table.

“You know, the Ukrainians, they’re getting what they deserve. They elected that Zelensky and his liberal agenda. I think we would do well to have a leader like Putin here, someone tough who isn’t going to let anything get in his way.”

The preacher closes his computer and decides to leave before he overhears even more sinners talking about other sinners and their sin.

There are times when I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the time of our Lord, that we’ve progressed from some of our wandering recklessness.

And then I am reminded that, all things considered, not much has changed.

Do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will die like them.

What a grace-filled and hopeful word from the Word!

Robert Farrar Capon wrote that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should behave like bad kids. We ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing congregations and steal all their bottles of religion pills, and spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.

Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. We’re addicted to the certainty that, as bad as we might be, at least we’re not as bad as those other people over there.

There’s a reason reality TV is still such a favorite past time within and among the wider culture. We feel better about ourselves when we get to see other people behaving badly. It’s also why we’re quick to post photos of our perfect little families, even though they acted like animals while we were trying to get that perfect photo, so that everyone else will know, with certainty, that we have it all together.

But the sad truth is none of us know what we’re doing – some of us are better at pretending we know what we’re doing. But at the end of the day we’re all making it up along the way.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferiority.

The crowds bring to Jesus their query; they want to know if people get punished for their sins – they want to know what it takes to be guilty.

And here’s the bottom line: if the God we worship punished us according to the sins we’ve already committed, the sins we’re currently committing, and even the sins we will commit in the future, then none of us would be around to worship in the first place.

Or, to put it another way: If every bad thing happens because God does it to punish us, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.

Over the centuries the church has been a place of guilt. Make em feel bad about their behavior, scare them about punishments in the hereafter, and they’ll show up in droves to hear about it all again next Sunday. And the same is true in our wider culture; we’re all keeping our little ledger books in our minds about who has done what to us.

But the strange new world of the Bible, the strange new world we talk about week after week, isn’t obsessed with guilt. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness!

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

What then, should we make of Jesus’ quip about repentance? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will die like them.”

Of course there should be repentance – a turning back, a return to the Lord. We’ve all wandered away from the Way. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, not a bargain chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.

Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.

We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, and maybe we should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, the more we lob on guilt, the more likely we are to keep sinning because of our guilt.

The only thing we can ever really do about our sins, is admit them. It’s a great challenge to be able to see ourselves for who we really are, sinners in the hands of a loving God, and then take a courageous step in the direction of repentance. But if we ever muster up the gumption to do so, it will be because we live in the light of grace.

Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family, perfect job, perfect paycheck, perfect morality, perfect theology earns us anything.

Grace is not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And, according to the wondrous weirdness of the Lord, grace is like manure.

Or, perhaps we should call it holy fertilizer.

This is classic Jesus here. The crowds approach with their question and his answer to their question is a story, a parable.

A man has a vineyard and in the middle of the vineyard he planted a fig tree. But for three years it produced not a single fig. So one day the vineyard owner says to the gardener, “I can’t take it anymore. This fig tree is wasting my good soil. Cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Why not give it another year? I’ll spread some manure on it this afternoon and maybe next year it will have some fruit.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned and yet, even in its simplicity there are a bunch of weird and notable details. 

For instance, why does the vineyard owner plant a fig trees among a bunch of grapes? Do you think he was trying to develop a new, and perhaps bizarre, variety of wine? Or maybe he was going to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

Strange. But perhaps nothing is stranger than the gardener. This gardener speaks in defense of a speechless fig tree.

And what does the gardener says, “Lord, let it alone for a year. Let me give it some manure.”

At least, that’s what it sort of says in our pew bibles.

But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN.”

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Lord, forgive it!

These might be some of the most striking for from the strange new world of the Bible both because they proclaim the forgiveness of the Lord for not reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

There’s a reason that, when we nail Jesus to the cross, he declares, “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what we are doing.”

Lent is the strange and blessed time to admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. That we are in need of all the grace and manure we can get.

The cross with this we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump because of us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.

It’s wild that Jesus has the gall to tell this story at all, and that the divine gardener offers to spread some holy fertilizer on the fig tree, on us.

Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, becomes the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be. 

God’s grace gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and get co-mingled in the soil of our souls. It is messy and even bizarre, but without it we are nothing.

Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we’re doing. 

For, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all the world problems by now. But we haven’t.

We are fruitless fig trees standing alone in the middle of God’s vineyard. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing. 

And yet (!) Jesus looks at our barren limbs, all of our fruitless works, our sin sick souls, and he says the three words we deserve not at all: “Lord, forgive them.”

On Friday afternoon, the aforementioned Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia during a rally that was celebrating the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. While Russian forces attacked Kyiv and blockaded civilians in other parts of Ukraine, Putin assured his people that Russia was forced into this war into to get the Ukrainian people out of their misery.

And then he said, “And this is where the words from the scriptures come to mind, ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’”

That a world leader used Jesus’ words to justify violence and bloodshed is not unusual. It’s been done again and again throughout the centuries. Even here in the US, it is a familiar refrain whenever violence is on the table. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton each used the quote at one point or another during their years in office. 

But Jesus spoke those words before mounting the hard wood of the cross, not before going to war. Jesus laid down his life for his so-called friends who betrayed him, denied him, and abandoned him.

Jesus laid down his life for us.

And even with a crown of thorns adorning his head, and the cross over his shoulder, he still says, “Lord, forgive them.” Amen. 

The Mystery of Christ

Ephesians 3.14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father.

For what reason, Paul?

This is one of the challenges with lifting up these discrete passages of scripture on Sunday mornings and declaring “The Word of God for the people of God… Thanks be to God.”

That’s all good and fine, but what’s the reason Paul feels compelled to his knees?

We can, of course, flip back in our Bibles to earlier parts of the letter to the Ephesians and we can read about God delighting in bringing those who were far and those who we near together through the blood of the Lamb, we can read about the riches of God’s mercy, we can even read about the proclamation of peace made possible in Christ, but here’s the real zinger: by grace you have been saved.

By grace you have been saved.

Paul calls this the mystery of Christ.

And what, exactly makes it so mysterious? That God, author of the cosmos, would come to dwell among us, to live, and die, and live again that we might do the same – that’s confounding stuff.

Notice, too, the language – by grace you have been saved – it’s done and decided, without us having to do much of anything save trusting that it is true.

That profound promise, that decisive declaration, is enough to get Paul down on his knees in humble adoration. He’s filled to the brim with joy and gratitude, his cup runneth over as it were, because God has done what we could not have even imagined.

That might be a little tough for us to come to grips with today, with 2,000 years of church history of knowing how the story ends. But during the time of Christ, no one expected the resurrection – not the crowds, not the religious elites, not even the disciples. And yet, Easter is the transformation of all things – death no longer has dominion over us.

By grace you have been saved.

Put simply – The work of God in Christ has made it such that there is no nation, clan, family, or even an individual who is beyond the love of God.

Or, in even simpler terms: even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

Now, I know that seems like an obvious thing for someone like me to say in a place like this, but it’s a rather inconvenient truth for us to swallow. For, it implies that we don’t deserve what we’ve received. And boy do we enjoy the language of fairness.

Well, for those of you unaccustomed, God is downright unfair.

God lifts up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

God has compassion for the poor and sends the rich away empty.

God takes brokenness and turns it in value.

God looks at sin and sees redemption.

And yet, God’s unfairness is riotously Good News! 

Listen – despite how well we might strive to appear on Sunday morning, each of us bring a myriad of secret hurts, private shames, and lost hopes to worship. Our exteriors may display something different, but on the inside we’re all struggling under the weight of the world, and the weight of expectations (those we place ourselves and those placed on us).

And yet, this is what God has to say today: By grace you have been saved! Bring your pain and your shame, bring your fears and your frustrations. By grace you have been saved! It’s not up to you to ascend the mountaintop of morality. It’s not up to you to earn your way through the pearly gates. By grace you have been saved! 

This is the whole of the Bible in a sentence. Whatever else we do, praying or singing, it’s all a response to this profound and mysterious word spoken to us by the Lord.

And in order to hear this Word, really hear it deep in every fiber of our being, we need what we call the church – the great company of those who are willing to listen together – to hear it and receive it. 

It’s not something we can just believe on our own – we need it spoken to us over and over again because, of course, it sounds too good to be true. 

And that’s exactly why we gather together, and pray together, and sing together, and laugh together, and weep together, it’s all so that we might hold fast to the only really Good News we can ever receive.

It’s therefore in the knowledge of the Good News that Paul is drawn to his knees in prayer – in prayer for us.

I pray that, according to the wonderful bounty of God’s glory, you may be strengthened with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being reminded of the love that meets you where you are. 

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth, and to know the love of Jesus that surpasses knowledge. 

And so to him, who is able to accomplish far more than we can ever ask for or imagine, to him be glory in the church forever and ever. 

Paul prays, across the generations of the church, that we might come to know the immense and bewildering and mysterious nature of God’s love for us.

Remember: the God we see revealed in Jesus is what God is really like, deep down, which is also to say that the God we see in Christ is what God has always been like and will always be like.

What better way can we know what God’s love is like, then, by listen to a story that Jesus tells about himself?

Listen – There was a man who had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family – the little grocery store was passed from generation to generation and the father worked hard for the store and for his sons.

And one day the younger son walks in the back office and says, “Dad, I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

And, strangely enough, the father responds by dividing up his assets between his boys: to the elder hegiras the property and the responsibility of the family business – to the younger he cashes in on some investments in order to hand over his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of the money in Atlantic City. The more he spent the more he lost and the more he lost the more he spent, on women, on booze, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happens so fast that he starts begging the casino owner for work.

“Sure,” the owner says, we’ve got an opening in janitorial services.

The younger son spends the days emptying trash can after trash can and even thinks about sneaking a few pieces of food from the bottom of the bags because he’s so hungry.

And eventually he comes to himself – he realizes that even the employees back at his father’s grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their head. So he packs up the little that he has, and he heads home.

The father is sitting by the front window in the grocery store, listening to his older son bark out orders to his former employees from the back room when, all of the sudden, he catches a glimpse of his younger son walking up the street. And he immediately runs out the door, tackles his boy to the ground, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy struggles to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Would you shut up!” The father yells, “We’re gonna close the store for the rest of the day and throw a party!”

He lifts his boy off the ground, pulls him into the store, and starts barking out orders of his own, “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “Hey Jim, do me a favor, find me the nicest rack of lam we’ve got and start roasting it out back” “Everyone, it’s time to celebrate, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”

The beer caps start flying, the radio in the corner gets turned all the way up, and everyone starts rejoicing in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and the payroll, when he starts to hear commotion down the hall. He looks up in the door frame and catches a glimpse of Jim with foamy beer stuck to his mustache while humming a tune and carrying what looks like a nice leg of lamb and the older brother shouts, “What is going on?”

Jim hiccups and says, “It’s your baby bro, he’s home, and your Dad’s throwing him a party.”

The older brothers fists tightens into a knot and he slams the door in Jim’s face.

With every passing minute his frustration and anger increases. He evens throws the older ledger book across the office, and then he hears a little knock on the door.

His dad steps into the office and says, “What are you doing back here? You’re missing the celebration!”

The older son is incredulous: “I’m doing my job Dad, in case you’ve forgotten. Look, I’ve been working like a slave for you and I’ve never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me! But this prodigal son of your returns home, having wasted all of your money, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

The father doe-eyed happiness disappears for a moment, he grabs his older son by the collar, and says, “You idiot. I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me. You’ve been working for yourself! I gave your brother cash and I gave you the family business and what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by doing what you think you’re supposed to do that you’ve lost sight of what matters.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now! I’m on a roll. Listen – all the matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And you? You’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the music! The only real reason you haven’t come to join us out front is because you refuse to die to all of these dumb expectation that you’ve placed on yourself. We’re all dead and having a great time, and you’re alive and miserable. Do yourself a favor, son of mine, forget about your so-called life, and come have some fun.”

The parable of the prodigal.

A story we might call unfair…

This story shows us the mystery of Christ – The father chooses to die for us, to give away his whole career and future in the parable, 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. And like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteous snobbery.

The mystery of Christ, contrary to how we often present it in church, is that Jesus came to save sinners.

And notice: Jesus didn’t say he came to judge sinners, or even turn them into non-sinners, he said he came to save us.

The whole of the New Testament, from the parables to the epistles, makes it abundantly clear that Jesus’ salvation work only by grace through faith – not by frightening people into getting their acts together.

If the Gospel is about anything – it is about how God meets us where we are, not where we ought to be.

In the end, it’s a mystery. It also happens to be the only Good News around. Amen.

We Know How The Story Ends

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including handsomeness, green thumbs, passages for pastors, election and rejection, enthusiasm for the future, idolatry, confidence, human points of view, parable prejudices, and impossible possibilities. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know How The Story Ends

Love Is All You Knead

Psalm 78.1-4

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. 

Matthew 13.33-35

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

To what may we compare the scriptures?

Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?

Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door. 

The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.

So it is with the scriptures.

They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.

This is a parable about parables.

Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form. 

Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.

Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.

This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go. 

So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.

And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables. 

That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.

And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.

We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”

Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”

The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them. 

Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.

But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!

The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.

The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions. 

Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.

But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.

All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom. 

The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.

No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish. 

And the mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil, not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in a tomb, was raised three days later.

But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.

In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.

But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?

Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?

For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.

God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.

Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.

That’s 128 cups of flour!

When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.

But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.

The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.

Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.

No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.

The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it. 

But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next. 

We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.

Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.

Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.

And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.

Frankly, all of baking is a miracle. 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.

And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe. 

The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.

Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.

Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.

Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.

Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.

In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.

Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.

Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.

The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.

Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.

The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen.