Unfair

Luke 18.9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” 

60 years.

That’s a long time.

Basically double my life.

It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive. 

However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.

But here we are!

And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.

Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.

A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!

We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.

However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.

In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.

I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.

60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.

But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.

That world is long gone.

Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

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I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.

The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.

Listen: There’s a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector. 

The tax collector is a legal crook who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.

They both show up for worship. The good faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the tax-collector and the tax collector asks for God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.

Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?

It’s all wrong, right?

This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair. 

Grace is completely unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”

Do you see what that means? It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead. 

And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.

We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.

And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough. 

And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!

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We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most. 

We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.

And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling. 

God is unfair – It’s true. 

But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.

Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?

Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.

Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews. 

It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church. 

The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector. 

You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son. 

That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death. 

In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen. 

Justice Is Blind

Luke 18.1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

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

God is like the unjust judge.

So, I guess, it’s good to be bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no better news than that. Amen. 

Blinded By The Light

Luke 17.20-37

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his say. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them – it will be like that on they that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone of the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lost it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

Jesus was doing his Jesus thing when yet another group of Pharisees showed up and started badgering him with questions. They were mystified by all the mysteries, non-plussed with all the parables, and they just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Enough is enough Jesus. When is all of this actually going to happen? And, for once, could you just give us a straight answer?”

“You and your friends all want one thing: a sign. You want some big demonstration that what I’ve been talking about is getting set into motion. You flock to Twitter and assume that with every new major scandal or devastation that it’s a sign of something greater happening. Yeah, I see what you all do on the Internet, I know you inner monologues of conspiracy theories – I’ve even eavesdropped on some of those mid-afternoon gossip sessions you’ve been having.

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But if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been saying, the more you go looking for the kingdom somewhere else, the more you will miss it. Because the kingdom, my kingdom, as I’ve been trying to knock it into your brains, is already here. Seriously. It is among you, hell it’s even within you. Perhaps it’s best if I put it like this: It’s lost in you and only when you admit that you are lost as well will you actually start to see it.”

“C’mon Jesus, what in the world are you talking about? We don’t want some sort of mystical kingdom. We want you to overthrow the powerful and the wealthy. We thought you were going to take the throne and let us reign over the earth. How can your kingdom be among us when the world still feel like garbage – better yet, how can the kingdom be in me when I feel like garbage?

“I know I know. You all can’t stand the stuff I’m bringing, but I’m bringing it anyway. I know all of you well enough to know that even my talking about it as clearly as I am right now won’t leave you feeling like its all settled.”

“You think you’re being clear right now? For God’s sake Jesus just tell us something true!”

“All of you will point to things as if I have some master trick up my sleeve, as if I’m working behind the curtains and pulling all of the strings. You will pick and choose the signs that match most with your own sensibilities, you’ll probably even lord them over other people and tell them that this was my work or that I have something to do with the craziness that’s going on in the world. And all of that squabbling and pontificating and gesturing will be for nothing because it will be a denial of everything I’ve already done for you.

“I believe you Lord, I know you’re telling the truth.”

“Peter, such a good boy. Maybe you’re good with everything I’m saying, though when push comes to shove you’ll deny it, but I’m getting ahead of myself. No matter how all of you feel about this stuff, there will be others who point at the craziness. They’ll say that mass shootings are my way of getting you back to prayer. They’ll say that locking up immigrants is a sign of holy justice. They’ll point and point and point and say my name. For God’s sake, literally, don’t go running after all that nonsense and don’t you dare follow their examples. Those people haven’t a clue in the world.

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“When I come in glory it won’t be in a particular place or through a particular people. When I show up in glory it’s going to be like lightning – all over the place and all at once showing the truth to everyone and everything.

“But before being blinded by my light, the Son of man will have to endure suffering and be rejected by those in power.”

“Of course you will Jesus, no one is going to buy anything you’re selling.”

But don’t you see? I’m not selling anything – I’m giving it all away. It will be just like during the days of Noah. Remember him? He was in on the whole mystery of death and resurrection before just about anyone else, but even he didn’t really know it at the time. He was a sign that the whole world was going to hell in a hand-basket and that God had plans to use death to save the world. But everyone during the time of Noah ignored it, they wouldn’t think about anything except their precious little lives. They had dinner parties to go to, vacations to plan, tennis matches to watch. And they went right on doing all those things until the very end when Noah packed up his Ark while the rest of the world drowned.

Are you starting to get it now? The message I’m giving you to share with the world is that even in death you will be fine because death is my cup of tea. The problem isn’t death – its with all the people who are so committed to their version of whatever they think living is that they can’t let go. When I come in glory its the people obsessed with holding onto their lives that aren’t going to be very happy.

“Imagine your neighbor being up on his roof replacing a wonky gutter and he sees me risen from the dead. What good would it do him to go into the house to grab his wallet and check his hair before joining me in glory? 

“Picture someone mowing the lawn. Do you think they should go inside to finish filing their tax return before joining me in the blinding light?

“Do you remember the story of Lots’ wife? When everything was finally out in the open, God had done a strange and new thing, and it was time for her to go with God’s flow, she decided to have a nostalgia binge and look back to her old life in Sodom. And you know what happened to her? She turned into a pillar of salt!

Plenty of you are going to try to save your lives like that, and you’re going to lose it all. You’re so obsessed with what you’ve done, and what you’ve earned, and what you’ve accomplished that you can’t see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. And, I can’t blame you, we’ve all been conditioned to hold onto our lives with every fiber of our being so losing that control will literally feel like losing our lives.

“I know this kingdom stuff isn’t easy to digest because everything and everyone else will try to sell you a different story. That’s called idolatry. Whenever you feel compelled to worship something else whether it’s a person or an institution or heaven forbid a political party, those things can’t give you life. In fact, they suck away the marrow of your life. They portend to tell you what to do, and what is important, and what is good and true and beautiful. And those things aren’t necessarily bad, they might even be significant, they make differences in the ways we live and move, but they aren’t the difference that makes the difference – that’s me.

“And believe you me, things are going to get worse before they get better. You will pit yourselves against each other over the dumbest things, you will reject one another because of a wayward comment or a foolish story, and at some point you’re going to look back at your life and wonder where everyone went. 

“But when it comes to my kingdom, remember the one that’s already around you, it’s going to be even more confusing. Some people are going to accept it and others won’t. You’ll see two friends out in a boat fishing and one of them will say yes to my death and resurrection and the other will say no. You’ll see friends on a trip to the market and one will go for the deal and the other will say they need to think about it, forever.”

“Enough Jesus! Where is this going to happen? Just cut the small talk about about the mystery and give us something real.”

Where the corpse is, that’s where the vultures will gather… Oh, you don’t like that? Are you feeling uncomfortable? It’s all about death! Haven’t you been listening to any of the stories I’ve been telling you? I know that death is the one thing you all choose to avoid more than anything else, not just your literal deaths but even talk about death, and yet death is the one thing you don’t need to worry about. Because you can put the dead anywhere and the vultures will find the bodies – that’s what they’re good at.

“Don’t you see it now? I’m in the death and resurrection business, that’s what I’m good at. I will come and find you wherever you may be. So forget all of your anxiety about the question of ‘where?’ And, while you’re at it, get rid of you ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ as well. The only thing that matters is you trust me to do what I say I’m going to do, and then get out there and tell other people to trust me too – because in the end that’s all you can really do – I’m going to take care of everything else.

“Stop worrying about where you are or who you’re with – I’m with you.” Amen

Inescapable

Luke 17.1-10

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

I don’t like that this is true, but people are more often drawn to church out of problems than out of successes. People don’t usually wake up the morning after receiving a raise to think, “You know what, I’m gonna swing by the church today.” No, people usually come by when they find out they’re being fired. 

Which, to be honest, is probably a good thing. After all, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners. It is here at church that we can finally dispense with all of the pretending and can admit the condition of our condition.

And our condition is bad.

Here’s just a sample of some of the headlines this week: 

“One In Ten Older Adults Binge Drink Regularly”

“Father Forgets Twins In Hot Car For Eight Hours Resulting In Their Death.”

“Two American Mass Shootings In 24 Hours And The Third In A Week.”

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And we need not even look in the newspapers or on our favorite channels at night to see how messed up this world is; how messed up we are. Just take a drive down Route 1 for a little while and take in what you can see. We are stumbling and in our stumbling we are causing others to stumble.

So what should we do about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking, and it’s by no means an easy to handle solution, but I think it will largely take care of our problems. I’ve lined the back of our sanctuary with dozens of metal buckets, and with each bucket you can find a bag of quick dry cement. After the benediction at the end of the service, we’re each going to take a bucket with cement down to the river, and we are going to make sure that none of us cause anyone else to stumble ever again.

Amen?

Now, before you start throwing your tomatoes, I stole that idea from Jesus. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

So who’s ready to head down to the water with me?

Jesus is right. It is inevitable that scandals will come. 

I know that sounds different than “occasions for stumbling” because it is different. But in Greek the word is our word for scandal. And the words we use are important.

Throughout the New Testament “scandal” is used when referring to something that occasions sins or temptation. But it is also used in reference to the cross of Christ. As in, to the weakness and foolishness of the method of salvation at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is absolutely a scandal to cause someone else to sin in their life. But it also absolutely a scandal that God chose to come into the world and die in order that we might live.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – What kind of scandal are we really talking about?

I mean, if you are want to take Jesus literally here, while recognizing that each of us in ways both small and large have caused others to sin, then we can all throw ourselves into the Occoquan, but that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like the worst news.

Let us, then, at least entertain the thought that the scandal mentioned here by Jesus isn’t as we’ve so often heard it. Instead, perhaps the scandal that causes us and other to stumble isn’t our own sin, though it certainly can, but the greatest scandal of all is the scandal of the cross.

Our sins are absolutely inescapable in this life, at least that the way we act regarding our sin. We label people by their faults and failure and those labels follow those people until the end of their days. But, in the same way, the cross of Christ is inescapable as well. 

We then could read the verse in question differently: It would be better for someone to meet a violent end than to make someone else believe in a grace that requires them to do something to earn grace. 

The cross stands as an uncomfortable and unwavering reminder that you and I don’t need to do a thing for it. And yet so much of what we do as a culture, and heaven forbid as a church, tells people there is always more for them to do in order to get God to do anything.

And that might be the greatest stumbling block of all.

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Jesus, of course, doesn’t leave it all right there and begins to teach the disciples about real and unending forgiveness. 

The disciples, bless their little hearts, are just like us and when they hear the Lord tell them to practice this kind of forgiveness it cuts against everything they, and we, have ever heard. It is bad advice, according to the world, to continue to forgive people who keep wronging us. But in the kingdom, the truth is that only those willing to lose can ever really win. 

If we insist on being right and being perfect and only surrounding ourselves with right and perfect people then, according to the Lord, we will be out of luck regarding salvation. Moreover, our lives will be downright boring if that all we hope and yearn for.

The disciples, in this circumstance, hear the word from their Lord and recognize they haven’t got nearly the right amount of spiritual resources to keep forgiving people so they naturally ask for the thing they need most: Lord, increase our faith.

And the way we often treat their request is to assume that we need to ask for the very same thing. If we only had a little more faith then we could do the kind of forgiving work Jesus was talking about, if we only had a little more faith then we wouldn’t cause other people to stumble. And when Jesus responds to their request with talk of mustard seeds we hear that as an approval to start small.

But, that feels like we’re actually going backwards. Notice – they ask for more faith, and Jesus tell them if they had even less faith than they currently have, a mustard size faith isn’t much faith at all, the preposterous and impossible would seem reasonable and true.

In other words, Jesus looks at his ragtag group of followers, looks at each and every one of us, and declares for the thousandth time, that even when it comes to faith we don’t have to be winners.

And that sounds like much better news than marching down to the water!

It can be downright exhausting to be told over and over again that we just need to have more faith. Lost your job? You need more faith! Can’t get a date? You need more faith! Worried about the bills? You need more faith! Blah blah blah. 

Faith is not faith if it needs to be stronger, purer, or greater.

Somewhere along the line we crossed our wires and we haven’t really figured out how to put them back. We have these absurd notions, even in the church, that we’ve got these little faith meters attached to our brains, and that after a lifetime of accumulating more and more faith, that we get to go on to our heavenly reward.

But the truth of the gospel is that we cannot be saved by our faith anymore than by our measurements of mortality or supplements of spirituality. All of our talk of self-improvement amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which in the New Testament, is rejected over and over and over again. 

It is a crying shame that we have fallen into the trap of thinking “more” means salvation.

Which makes the mustard seed actually crazier when we take it in light of Jesus’ words and work. Maybe faith isn’t even essential in terms of salvation at all. 

I mean, what does a mustard seed have to do to do anything? Be buried in the ground and die. So, perhaps even if we have no faith, really, even if we say no to Jesus again and again, we still die and out of our death Jesus still raises us. 

I know that sounds crazy but Jesus is pretty crazy. Over and over Jesus speaks of the all of salvation, the all of the cross, and its we who put numbers and figures on the all. 

Now, of course we won’t be able to enjoy the Supper of the Lamb and we won’t throw ourselves into the music on the dance floor unless we say yes to it. But Jesus’ party is inescapable. Even if we don’t want it, as crazy as that sounds, Jesus’ nagging invitation to the celebration will never ever stop. Not now. Not ever.

Which leads us to the final movement in the scripture, the last part of the parable – the returning servant. Friends, we can and have really messed this part up. We’ve read this as a call for there to be certain kinds of people with certain kinds of rolls in the world. In fact, slaveowners used to use these last lines to keep their slaves in their places, but Jesus is far craftier than that.

Do you thank your slaves for doing the work they were commanded? No, of course not. They are your slaves and they have a job to do.

Coming in the wake of the scandal of the cross, and unending forgiveness, and limited faith, the final movement here sounds like Jesus knocking the disciples over the head with the gospel truth one final time.

Remember the unthanked and the unrewarded slave the next time you expect God to delight in any of your little good deeds. We followers of Jesus have only got one real job to do that’s worth anything at all and that’s to die. Die to ways we think the world works, and in the end die to the life we so desperately cling to. Because in the end, that all God’s needs from us. Everything else that needs doing will be, and have already been, done by God.

I know it stings, but I also know it stings far less than thinking about cementing our feet into buckets. I know we don’t like to hear it, but I also know that if we were honest with ourselves all of us know, deep down, that we could never earn the salvation from God we so desire. 

No matter how good any of us are, no matter what kind of list of good deeds we could present at the end of our days, it would never ever compare with what God’s doing and done for us. 

The greatest scandal over which we stumble is the cross, because it shines like a beacon for all of us to see that we don’t deserve it, but that God did it all anyway. 

My sin, oh, the bless of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part by the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. Amen.

The Game Is Over

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 tips 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 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. His wife thought it was extravagant for them to have five cars to begin with, but now the jet skies and the boat were simply making things unmanageable. And though he was supposed to figure out whether or not they could grease the hands of the local government enough for another building permit to let him but yet another addition to the back of his house, his mind was consumed by a far more stressful matter.

Larry.

Larry stood outside his house everyday, walking back and forth over his grass – the grass he paid a small fortune to keep maintained. Larry had his little cardboard sign asking for money or for food and people would slow down and pass him a few dollars, or a spare muffin. And everyday Larry would return from sunup till sundown, and it was driving the rich man crazy. 

He had done everything he could think of – he called the police, but they explained the property upon which Larry walked actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about it – he proposed a new city ordinance banning the panhandlers like Larry from asking for money within the local municipality but all the local churches fought against it – he even tried playing extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive him off.

But nothing worked.

Day after day Larry showed up and the rich man couldn’t stand it.

And yet, one day, the man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry, the nearly permanent fixture out his window was gone. The man danced around in his kitchen sliding across the marble floors. He drank his imported coffee and was thrilled to discover that Larry’s obituary was in the newspaper. 

The rich man’s problems were over!

He was so excited that he ran through the kitchen to share the good news with his wife, but as he rounded the corner into his indoor movie theater 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 with flames of fire lapping all around him constantly. He even had to admit to himself that this torment was worse than seeing Larry outside all day. But then he strained his eyes and he saw Larry just on the other side of the fire, and he was standing there with what looked like an angel.

“Hey!” He shouted, “Send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting hot in here.”

To which 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 promptly fell to his knees, “Please! Send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me in agony.”

The angel said, “They have the scriptures, they need only trust what they read.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t understand. That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel finally said, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

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Thanks for this one Jesus. 

The wealthy and powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor might suffer now but will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can people – give away your wealth and life like Larry/Lazarus such that your reward really will be a reward. 

It’s easy for this scripture to become a lambasting sermon about the poverty of wealth and the riches of near-destitution. Plenty of pastors have stood in their pulpits and held this one over the heads of their people in order to pad the offering plates, or guilt people into signing up for different ministries, or embarrass the well to do for their ignorance about their impending flames.

And there’s some truth to it. It’s a challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not read it as an indictment against the wealthy. But, as usual, there’s more to the parable than the parable itself. 

Living well and accumulating lots of possessions and deep bank accounts might be the world’s most overpowering ideal lifestyle, but in the kingdom of God they matter little. We, wrongly, use those categories to describe both the saved and the lost, the winners and the losers. 

Winning equates to wealth and losing equates to poverty.

And yet in Jesus’ eyes its living badly – being poor, hungry, and covered in sores – that turns out to be the mechanism by which people are apparently saved. 

We can hardly blame ourselves for missing this divine reversal – we have it so repeated into our brains from our infancy even until this very moment that who we are is based on what we have earned. One need not flip through the channels on the television, or see the billboards covered in potential lottery earnings to have this proved over and over again. 

We elevate the powerful and the wealthy both purposefully and subconsciously. We like to elect politicians who have done well for themselves, we read the books from the self-made millionaires, and we look up to our wealthiest family members.

And here’s the kicker – for all of our fascination and worship of those with money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: if the world could’ve been fixed by what we might call good living and good earning – then we would’ve fixed everything by now. 

But we haven’t.

Instead, it’s the winners of this world who, more often than not, achieve their earnings off the backs of the least, last, lost, little, and dead. 

They are the ones thrown to the curb while new homes, with new families, and new cars fill the neighborhoods. 

But because we admire the wealthy and want to be like them, we blind ourselves from seeing how the ones with all the stuff use Jesus’ favorite people as the mechanisms through which they achieve and maintain all that they have. It has been their ignorance of the poor, their locking up of the marginalized, their segregating by skin tone, that has brought about a very particular end in which it sounds like good news to those on the top, to those who actually have something to lose.

And still, even with all their earning, and trying, and striving, and politicking, and maneuvering, the world is still a mess! The rich just keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer.

Here is where the parable stings the most – the rich man, with all that he has, his being first, most, found, big, and alive, he is not able to delay or avoid his death any more than Larry is with his lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness. 

The bell tolls for us all.

Do you see it now? When it comes to the Good News, success defined by the world merits us not one thing.

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The rich man might start out and seem like a real winner. But he can’t even see the truth in his death – he refuses to accept that he has died! He bargains with father Abraham to make the most of his situation and he loses.

It is because he was so convinced that good living, having all the right things, was the instrument of salvation that his death is simply unacceptable. And, to make matters worse, Father Abraham frightens all of us to death, pun intended, with his final declaration – not even seeing a dead person rise from the grave can change our minds.

We are quite stuck in this worldly worldview of ours.

However, lest we hear this story today and leave with the impression that we are being called to go out and live like Larry – hanging out by the gates of the rich until we develop sores all over our body – that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. 

This is not a story of imitation. It’s not a “go and do likewise.”

It is just a story of the truth.

And the truth is this: The game is over.

No one, certainly not God, is keeping score and tallying up all of our good works against our bad. There is not a divine ledger with little tallies every time we misstep or we bring about something good in the world. And there is definitely not a test by which the accumulation of our wealth will determine whether or not salvation is in fact ours.

The truth is a much harder pill to swallow precisely because everything else in the world tells us the contrary. 

Do all you can, earn all you can, achieve all you can, save all you can, invest all you can, those are all slogans of the world.

But the truth is that the game is over. We have nothing left to earn, really, because the cross comes to all of us and all of us die. 

And if we can accept that we are already dead, right here and right now, because of our baptisms, well then we can actually start living because we already have all we need.

Jesus came to raise the dead – nothing more, less, or else. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or to improve the improvable, or even convert the convertible. He came to raise the dead.

Heaven, whatever it may be, is not the home of the good, or the wealthy, or the powerful. It is simply the home of forgiven forgivers.

Hell, whatever it may be, contains only unpardoned unpardoners. 

Everyone in heaven has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong, whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.

And that’s precisely the rich man’s problem – he has been so conditioned and convinced that his earning should have earned him something that he can’t stop thinking about how he did everything right.

But who gets to define what, in fact, is right?

Notice, Jesus does not begin his story with a disclaimer that this is precisely what will happen to the rich and to the poor when they die, nor does he command the listeners to go and be like Lazarus in their living until the day they die. 

He simply tells a story – and a frightening one at that.

But in the end the parable tells us one thing – The game is over. 

Whatever we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already been done. All of our sins, those of the past, present, and future, are nailed to Jesus’ cross. 

The question isn’t “What do we need to do to get saved?”

The question is, “How are we going to start living knowing that we are already saved?” Amen. 

Scandalous

Luke 15.11

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

The Bible is scandalous.

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

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

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

Scandalous.

And that just three example from the Old Testament.

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

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

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

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

And they are the ones gathering near.

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

No, Jesus attracts the very people we would repel. 

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

So Jesus told them a story.

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

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

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

And it’s scandalous.

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

To the older son, he gave the family business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But Dad…”

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

The End.

That’s the whole story right there. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were lost and we’ve been found.

That’s the only thing that matters. Amen. 

Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the salve said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

I wrote three versions of this sermon.

In the first version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as a party host. You worked diligently to prepare a feast, ordered the perfect set of invitations, and you even hired a wine sommelier just to make sure everything was in harmony. For months you laid awake at night not worrying about the extravaganza itself, but imagining all the profoundly kind compliments you were about to receive.

And then, as the day of the shindig got closer and closer, the RSVPs started to arrive and with every “No” your heart started to sink deeper and deeper until you realized that no one, not a single invitee, would be coming.

You fretted over what to do next. After all, you had spent a small fortune to set the whole thing up and you couldn’t just return everything. You began calling all your family members, and knocking on the doors of all your neighbors, but it still wasn’t enough. It got to the point that, like a crazy person, you started yelling at people on the street demanding that they come to your party.

But, it wasn’t a very good sermon. It wasn’t a very good sermon because it made all of you, the listeners, out to be like God. You became the divine party host and when no one showed up, it just left you with a bit of rage.

And where’s the Good News in that?

In the second version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as one of the invited guests. You received an invitation in the mail to a very posh party and though you were initially excited about the prospect of attending, you quickly realized that the celebration would be an impossibility.

You knew that it would not be responsible to accept such a grand invitation and you thought about how it was all really such a waste. You pictured in your mind all of the hungry children across the globe and you just shuddered with the thought of such delicious food in the midst of a broken world like ours.

So you came up with a list of reasons why you would not be attending. For some of you it was because of your spouse. For others you had responsibilities in the home that could not be overlooked. And still yet a few more of you simply lied because you had better things to do.

But that one wasn’t a very good sermon either. It wasn’t a good sermon because when all of you found out about the lengths the host went to to make sure the party was full in your absence, you weren’t really jealous. I mean, he invited all of the delinquents and riffraff from the community; who would want to go to a party with those people? You became satisfied by your excuses and patted yourselves on the back for a job well done.

And where’s the Good News in that?

The third version was my favorite. In it I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine that you had no business attending the party in the first place. You were down on your luck, worrying about how to pay your bills, fretting over your child’s grades, overwhelmed by domestic trivialities. And all the while you saw the host preparing for the party. You witnessed truck after truck bringing in the wine and beer, you saw the caterers lugging in all of their equipment, and when the day of the party arrived you could hear the live band playing all of your favorite songs and yet, you weren’t invited.

And then, miracle of miracles, the host came and knocked on your front door, grabbed you by the collar, and started dragging you to the party. And, because you were full of humility, you pleaded with the host to realize the mistake he was making. You didn’t deserve to be at the party, you would never be able to return the favor, and you really didn’t even have anything nice to wear.

To which the host simply waved his hand and told you to raid the closets at his house and take whatever clothes you wanted. The party simply must be full and he didn’t give a flip about who you were, he just wanted you to be there.

And so you went, and you had the time of your life. You ate, and drank, and danced. You fraternized with people who never would have give you the time of day. And the longer you partied, the more people started showing up. And they, like you, had sparkles in their eyes because something like this was beyond all of your wildest imaginations. 

And that sermon, that sermon was a good one. It was good because it spoke truly about the ridiculousness of grace, how unmerited it is, how we, even up to the moment we receive it, make excuses for why we shouldn’t be the ones to get it. And I almost preached that sermon – one long story about being dragged to a party that you didn’t deserve to attend – it was going to end with the host bringing out another case of wine as the sun rose in the east and everyone trotting back out onto the dance floor to do it all over again.

But I’m not preaching that sermon.

Nope.

I’m not preaching it because the Good News sounds too good.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

Jesus is still at the dinner table when our scripture for today begins. He has already healed a man much to the chagrin of everyone else at the party, he has called everyone out for wanting to sit in the best places, and he just commanded them to invite the wrong people to their own parties when someone inexplicably stands up to shout, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

The comment sounds like the man is mocking Jesus. As in, “No one is going to buy whatever you’re selling. Blessed would be anyone, and apparently everyone in your kingdom Jesus, but that ain’t the way it works.”

And Jesus won’t stand for it.

What the interrupting man doesn’t know, what he can’t know, is that the very kingdom of God he referenced was sitting right there at the table with him, and none of them want it. They don’t want to eat bread in the kingdom if it means what Jesus was describing. They had all worked too hard to get where they were, and it doesn’t sound like good news when the first are told that they are going to be last.

So Jesus jumps into another story. 

A man had invited many to his awesome party. Everyone had already responded to the card in the mail, but when the day of arrived, they were no-shows. Each of the guests, in their own way, said, “Hey Lord, I’ll spend time with you later. But right now, I’ve got other things to take care of.”

And all of the people at the table hearing Jesus’ story, are like the people in the parable with their excuses – they had pursed the sensible paths, they were what we could call successful, and Jesus tells them, to their faces, that it is precisely all their pursuing that keeps them from the party.

For this crazy Lord of ours, the one we worship and adore, he has no use for winners, people only concerned with their own definitions of what it means to do and to win in this life. So instead of bringing all of the right people to the party, the host, Jesus, goes out looking for all the wrong people. 

One way or another, the host will fill the tables – the food will be eaten – the drinks will be consumed – the band will be enjoyed. 

It sounds too good to be true but this is the gospel: the losers of life are the winners at God’s table. On a day when they woke up expecting nothing, or worse, they rise to a new way of being that surpasses even the people who first received their invitation. 

The last, least, lost, little, and dead never get invited to parties because they run counter to everything the world tells us to do.

But in the kingdom of God, lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness are all Jesus is looking for.

As Jesus has been saying again and again and again throughout all of these parables in different ways, shapes, and forms, you and I don’t get to earn our spot at the party. There’s no to-do list to get in. 

Parables-of-Jesus

In this particular parable none of the people who had a right to be at the party came, and all of the people who came had no right to be there. Nothing in the kingdom has anything to do with rights; God is going to deal with us in spite of our deservings, not according to them.

And that just gets under our skin, or, worse, we completely ignore it. We’re so accustom to a way of being about earning and rewarding that free grace sounds irresponsible or too good to be true. 

But hear this, hear it in all of its craziness and bizarreness: Grace works by raising the dead – not by rewarding the living. 

This story from the lips of Jesus is about liberty. Not liberty from monarchy like so many of us celebrated this week with our food and fun and fireworks. But a liberty from all of the labeling that comes about in this life. Liberty from the truest tyranny that the world has ever known – sin and death.

This party of Jesus’, the parable of the host dragging in people from the street, it shows us how God in Christ gives us liberty in death. It even shows us how free we really are right now for we have been baptized into Jesus’ death. 

Or, at least, it shows us how free we should be.

Because most of us aren’t, myself included. I too am shackled to the expectations of the world, of the need and the desire to appear first even when I am really last. The need and desire to appear wealthy even when I’m in debt. The need and desire to seem as if I’ve got it all figured out even when I really have no idea what I’m doing.

I want to be a winner, but Jesus saves losers.

I want to be first, but Jesus is for the last.

I want to be in control of my life, but Jesus wants me to die.

Jesus wants me and you and all of us to die to all of these overwhelming expectations we place on ourselves and on others. Jesus tells these stories to break down all of the labels we throw around and to show how salvation, our salvation, has already been figured out. 

Jesus turns things upside down. The whole gospel is one topsy turvy tumbling narrative. The chosen people of this world, the privileged, the powerful, the righteous, the religious, the pious, they will not be the ones filling up the dance floor because they often ignore the invitation.

But at God’s party, it’s those of us who’ve been crippled by our sin, blinded by our shame, and made lame by our guilt who eat, and drink, and dance. We do so precisely because we were a bunch of outsiders and nobodies who never thought we had a chance in the world.

God desires a full house – God wants the party to be bumpin’ – and we’re all invited. Amen.