Party Like Jesus or: Preaching to the Preacher

Luke 12.35-48

“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. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Peter said, “Lord, are you tell this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to him, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From every to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

The internet and social media have made us all hyper-aware of everything that is happening all the time. Because of these things we have in our pockets and purses we know what is happening, where it is happening, and before its over we can look through all of the comments about what happened and where.

Some of this is good. We are more connected with people all across the world than we have ever been. Because of the instantaneous nature of communication and information we have been able to help those in need, we’ve been able to prepare for things we never could’ve imagined, and there is an invisible thing uniting us in ways previously impossible.

But, of course, a lot of it is bad. 

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A teenager posts a picture and is bullied for the rest of her adolescence.

An adult is radicalized through forums to commit horrible acts of violence.

Older individuals are regularly belittled for not being up to date with everything that, by definition, is changing faster than we can keep up.

We create and consume so much information today that, regardless of our age, we can barely recite that which we have received.

And, in a strange way, we are made most aware of all that we are missing.

In some circles this is called the “instagramification” of all things. We flock to places of social media, more often than not, to show all that is right in our lives when so much is wrong. 

We gather the family together for a picture while on vacation and post it for everyone to know and believe that we have it all together, when in fact the family was screaming and pulling one another hairs just to get the picture taken moments before. 

And when we see these images of friends, or family, or even celebrities we can’t but help to judge and measure our lives against what we see on the screen.

Jesus, in his strangely parabolic way, has us imagine that we are waiting for our best friend to come from from a wedding. A wedding we weren’t invited to.

Weddings are all over the place in the Bible, and are particularly profound in the New Testament. Consider: Jesus’ first miracle is turning water into wine at a wedding, and one of the last images in the Book of Revelation is the marriage of the Lamb to his bride the New Jerusalem. 

Jesus, the master in the parable, the friend in ours, returns to us after a wedding. The story makes the claim that we are to be awake and welcome him in glory, and we will be blessed by his arrival because he brings the party with him. 

Whether its the master with his slaves, or the uninvited friends, it is particularly striking that the one who has no reason to do much of anything, desires first and foremost to sit down and hang out, with us.

Jesus is crazy. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our dying, is the only good news around. And to make matters even more confounding, according to the Lord the sooner we die the sooner we can celebrate.

Now, of course, the ways we speak about and even conceive of our own deaths is inherently problematized – and yet, as Christians, our deaths are particularly peculiar. For, we are already dead. At least, that what we claim in baptism – By Jesus’ death in ours, and ours in his, we have conquered the whole rotten game of the universe.

The sooner we can accept that our lives have already been changed, irrevocably, for good, the sooner the party arrives through the door. 

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Therefore, we needn’t even worry about being invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake festering over whether we’ve been good enough, or popular enough, or even faithful enough. Our salvation, the party itself, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

All we need to do is be like those who know the party is coming through the door.

It is the greatest thing in the world that our friend stumbles in to us in the middle of the night, perhaps in the greatest of moods a few sheets to the wind from the wedding reception. 

See it and believe it: He does not come with sober judgments about why we aren’t good enough, or with grim requirements about what we have to do or how we have to behave to get a ticket in. 

Instead he comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a nice bottle of red stashed under his arm that he clandestinely removed from the open bar, and before we can say much of anything he’s popped the bottle and is dolling out a full assortment of finger foods to quench every bit of our hunger.

It’s a strange story. One that we often ignore, overlook, or disregard.

But it is there and it is very much here.

We are blessed by the risen Lord, for he knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And this party is not far off and distant in both place and time from us, the party is here with us, right now. It’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice.

To return to our own parable, we’ve got our noses so stuck in our phones judging our lives against the lives of others that we can’t even here Jesus banging on the door.

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And then Peter perks up: “Lord, is this story for us, or is it for everyone?” A worthy question, for we should want to know who exactly is supposed to be around waiting for the Lord’s party to arrive. 

Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who is the manager that the master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their food at the proper time?

The previous parable is certainly for all, but now the Lord put some things into perspective; the disciples are given a job, and those who continue in that line of work, dare I say pastors, are supposed to know their job.

Now, before we continue, I must confess that we have arrived a strange precipice, one in which Jesus is telling the future clergy (in a way) what they are to do. And yet here I am, your appointed clergy, preaching about what God has told me to do.

So, bear with me for a moment.

Pastors, the disciples in charge of the slaves as it were, are commanded to trust. Nothing more, less, or else. Pastors are not called to know everything, or to be enigmatically clever all the time, or to be fully of energy, or even to be talented.

They are to trust that the truth is in fact the truth. The greatest truth of all being that salvation does not come from a particular way of living or being. Which is a good word to those of us living in a world while drowning in efforts toward whatever we think life is supposed to be. 

Contrary to what the televangelists proclaim,  and pastors of all shapes and sizes, and even this one in front of you at times, the church does not exist to tell people like you to engage in acts of superior morality with the expectation that salvation will be your reward.

The foolishness of God is wiser than that.

God, more often than not, chooses what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.

God, more often than not, uses fallible pastors to remind all of us that its the nobodies of the world, the last, least, lost, little, and dead who bring about anything we might call holy.

And so, as the only pastor in the room, I feel what can only be described as a sense of relief. After countless years in which people like me have been made to feel that forceful preaching, and masterful obedience, and perfect extraversion with just the right dash of introversion, is the name of the game – it’s nice to be reminded, here in this parable, that Jesus expects the preachers of the church to be nothing more than half decent cooks.

“Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”

Food at the proper time. And, to be clear, we clergy are not gourmet chefs or even casino buffet coordinators, but just some Gospel minded cooks who can rummage through the pantry of the Word to turn out a half decent and nourishing meal once a week.

And we then could turn to look at the meal of preaching, the Word made flesh in a certain way, every week. But it’s much better than that. Because the greatest meal of all offered by the church has almost nothing to do with the preaching. In communion we find the sustenance that goes beyond all imagining – clergy need only serve it to those who are hungry. 

So long as all of us, we who come to the table, get enough death and resurrection in our diet, so long as we are reminded with regularity that there is nothing we can do to earn it or lose it, then we will be, as the Bible says, filled.

And I wish we could end it there, but Jesus has more to say to Peter and the preachers…

“But if,” Jesus continues, “If the manager thinks the master is taking his sweet time in getting back, and therefore beats on the other slaves and get drunk, then the master will return and cut him into pieces.”

This is the moment that you can can offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that you’re not pastors.

To put Jesus final words another way: If the preachers decide to take matters into their own hands, if they make promises they can’t keep, if they abuse the weak in their midst, if they create systems in which people can earn anything for themselves in the realm of salvation, then they will be torn apart, from top to bottom, whether at the hand of God or by their own undoing.

Preachers, managers, cooks of the gospel, whatever we want to call them, are to do nothing more than sit at the foot of the cross with words of what God has already done. They are to share the meal waiting at the table, a meal prepared long before the preacher ever preached a sermon.

This whole parable, for the laity and clergy alike, comes down to trust.

Not a trust that God is going to come and sweep down and fill all the potholes in our lives, but a trust that God has already changed the game for good.

Trust.

And when we’ve learned to live a life of trust, whether we wear robes or not, then we are living the life of grace. And in the life of grace, one in which we know what has already been done – something that can never be taken away – no matter how many doubts we have, or waverings, or questions, no matter how happy or sad we may become, no matter how awfully we sin – we simply trust that someone else, namely Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, we can say thank you Lord and that’s enough.

Our whole lives, from beginning to end, the mess that we are, they’re leading to our own inevitable death. And it’s all okay, because we’ve already died. It is Jesus who is our life, he is the one who comes for us from the wedding feast, he is the one who comes to us with the celebration under his arm and wants nothing more than to party with us. Amen.

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Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.

Do Not Listen To Preachers (Including Me)

Jeremiah 23.23-29

Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? Says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

Pastor Holding Bible ca. 2000

 

A young preacher stands in the pulpit after a long week of parish ministry. The visits have all been made. A new budget for the coming year is finished and ready for approval. Plans for the Community Cook-Out came to fruition as people from all over the community gathered together.

The young preacher stands in the pulpit and looks out at the congregation. He sees couples that he has counseled; children that he has baptized; families that are struggling; individuals whose husbands or wives he has buried; and he even sees people he has never seen before. He looks over the bulletin one last time just to make sure that everything is listed the way it is supposed to be, and then he begins by saying, “This morning the sermon will be short and sweet”

“Hallelujah!” Someone shouts out from a pew.

“Is that for the short, or for the sweet?” says the preacher.

The congregation laughs.

The preacher sighs.

The art of preaching is a strange thing, but an even stranger thing when we consider that what we want from a sermon is something short and sweet. Some of you have been quick to say that you want a sermon that leaves you feeling good on your way out from the sanctuary. Others have said that you want a sermon that gives you something to think about during the week, or one that helps to remind you that God is love, or that Jesus wants the world to be a better place, etc.

I would classify myself as a short and sweet preacher. I fundamentally believe that if you cannot say what you’re trying to say in 15 minutes then you’re never going to say it. Additionally, I love pleasing all of you. I live for those moments in the receiving line following worship when some of you offer praise for what you heard through the sermon. I know I’m supposed to be humble, but it feels pretty good to be congratulated and praised for preaching.

In the last few years we’ve had an abundance of sweet sermons; times when I wanted all of you to leave with just one thought: “God loves you.” I’ve done my best to make you laugh and smile when thinking about the abundant glory of God’s grace. I’ve tried to cheer you up during times of domestic and international strife. I’ve worked to make this place as appealing as possible for as many people as possible.

And that is why you should not listen to preachers, including me.

“Am I close to you?” says the Lord. “Or am I far away? Who thinks they can hide in secret places so I cannot see them? I am the Lord! Do I not fill up heaven and earth? I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy in my name saying ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed! How long will they continue like this?”

The prophet Jeremiah lived during a time filled with false prophets, people who would ascend to places like this in front of a gathered people and make claims on behalf of the Lord. They would spout off about their visions of what the Lord was doing, and the more they said, the further they moved away from God.

God warns us against listening to false prophets, about succumbing to their visions, and about what happens when we trust them more than the Word.

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It would be easy today to make this whole sermon about the false prophets of our contemporary experience. We’ve got plenty of false prophets who use their skill to sell us on what they believe the future should hold. In fact this whole sermon could just be a warning against listening to the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

What kind of dreams are they selling?

“I have dreamed of a future where everyone can, and should go to college for free. Where healthcare will be free for everyone. We need to remember what made us great and start taking from the wealthy and giving it to the poor. It’s not about progress; it’s about fairness. We need to make America fair again.”

“I have dreamed of a wall unlike any other wall. This wall will fix all of our problems. It will bring wealth back to our country. We need to bomb the Middle East into oblivion to assert ourselves as the top of the world. We need to make America great again.”

Politicians have always been false prophets making promises that cannot be kept; selling a vision of the future that rarely comes to fruition. And we know this is true. That’s why we’ve grown so jaded by our political seasons and apathetic about whatever will happen.

But there are more false prophets out there than just politicians, and one of them is talking to you right now.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God warns us against listening to people like me, people who march up to the front of the gathered church and strive to proclaim God’s faithful word. For whenever we hear a preacher go on and on about the beauty and majesty of God’s Word, whenever the Lord is watered down to a spirit of love, whenever we hear more about the preacher’s dreams than God’s will, we need to be reminded that the Word of the Lord is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces.

Since we’ve been together in this strange thing called church, I’ve preached over 150 sermons. I’ve preached from Genesis to Revelation. I’ve mentioned the patriarchs and the prophets. I’ve proclaimed the possibilities of the psalms. I’ve proudly preached on the power of parables. I’ve done different series on “Why We Do What We Do” and “The Basics” and “New Beginnings” and “Strange Stories from Scripture.” I’ve even dressed up and preached not one, but TWO sermons from the perspective of a donkey.

And for what?

Has the preaching in this place challenged you to be a better disciple? And maybe not just from me, but have you ever left this church really feeling convicted by what you heard and wanted to live differently? Or has your experience been like most, and you leave feeling pretty good on Sunday afternoon?

We preachers are tempted by the practices of false prophecy. We like to be liked. We want to fill pews with people to boost our egos. We need to hear praise from lay people on their way out the door. We yearn for success. We, after years of sermon preparation and proclamation, fall prey to hearing our own voice so deeply that we no longer hear others, nor do we hear the Lord.

For the last three years I’ve had a dream about the future of this church. I have dreamed of Sunday mornings where so many people fill the pews of this sanctuary that I cannot know everyone’s names. I have imagined crowds gathered around the baptismal font in anticipation of bringing a new person into the life of our church. I have pictured people having to park on the front lawn because there are not enough spaces left in our parking lot.

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And because I had this dream, I preached and worked toward things like our Community Cook-Out. I implored our Church Council to use enough money to give away the food and the games and the fellowship all for free. I sent out hundreds and hundreds of post-cards to all of our neighbors so that they might join us on the front lawn.

I have dreamed, and I want the dream to become real. So I work week after week on ideas and programs and sermons that will draw people into this sanctuary on Sunday mornings until that dream becomes reality.

A couple weeks ago I was standing in our narthex right before our opening hymn. Most of you were sitting in the pews; our liturgist had gone through the pertinent announcements and necessary welcome. Rick was playing something melodic on the organ as we prepared our hearts and minds for worship when I stepped onto the carpet with our acolyte.

Without thinking much about it, I started to count the back of all your heads. I started with the front left and made my way toward the back, then my eyes moved to the front right and all the way toward the back. My lips must have been moving because our acolyte looked at me and said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m counting…” I said while trying to not lose track of the number.

And then he asked, “Why?”

Why?

In his question, in the simple raise of an eyebrow at my action, my heart caught on fire, it burned like a blaze, and I felt it crumble into ashes.

For how long have I deceived my own heart? For how long have I been so consumed by the number of people in our pews that I have forgotten the call to share the Good News? For how long have I proclaimed a God of love who is so loving that he does not expect us to live changed and transformed lives? For how long have all of us listened to false prophets who preached their own dream instead of speaking the Word of the Lord faithfully?

In his question I heard the Lord convict my heart because I have been caught up in church growth not for the sake of the kingdom, but for my own affirmation. I have wanted the front lawn to be packed with people from the community not for the sake of the kingdom, but for the pews to be filled in worship. I have preached sermons to make us feel better not for the sake of the kingdom, but for all of you to come back the next Sunday.

Sermons are a good and strange thing. After all they are the means by which the Word of the Lord is interpreted for our lives on a weekly basis. But they cannot be blindly accepted without challenge. For to only ever hear about God’s grace does a disservice to the Lord who is always calling us to live more like Christ. And, on the other hand, to only ever hear about how sinful we are neglects to reveal the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.

God cares more about spreading the Good News than about filling up the pews.

And sometimes that Good News is that we need to be better than we were when we arrived, that we are called to a life of discipleship that pins us against the world, that the Lord expects great things from us. The Good News is that God has not abandoned us to our sinful desires and devices, that God believes we can be better even if we don’t, and that we can transform the world but we first must transform ourselves.

We need good preachers, men and women who are willing to lay down their egos at the altar and faithfully proclaim God’s Word. And we need good lay people who are willing to crucify their fears and speak the truth in love toward the preachers who have fallen into the trap of false prophecy.

So, may the Word of the Lord be like a hammer that breaks our lives into pieces! Let it shatter our false identities and insecurities, let it break down all our preconceived notions and assumptions, and let it burn and blaze forever and ever. Amen.