God Hates Figs

Luke 13.6-9

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

It was brutally cold in the middle of February as we lugged our recording equipment up to the arena in St. Louis, Missouri. We had somehow hoodwinked the powers-that-be at the General Conference that we were a reputable media organization, and they happily provided us with press passes. So my buddies and I parked as close as we could, but we had to get all of our podcast equipment to the designated Media Area.

We were all shivering, having not packed enough winter clothing, while waiting for the light to change in the sparsely populated downtown streets. Over chattering teeth we opined about what and who we might encounter at the General Conference, and we even wondered whether they’d actually let us in or not.

However, by the time the arena came into view none of us were talking. Instead we were gobsmacked by the presence of representatives from Westboro Baptist Church picketing in response to our called General Conference.

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Our denomination was meeting to discern the future for LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion, and mere feet away from the main entrance were a handful of demonstrators who, by the signs and shouting, let everyone know how they felt about the whole thing.

NO WOMEN PREACHERS!

I thought, “They’re going to be really disappointed when they realize that women preachers were the first to tell the disciples about the resurrection.”

DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, AND GAY MARRIAGE ARE ALL SIN!

I thought, “They’re not necessarily wrong, but so is eating shellfish and working on the Sabbath so…”

BELIEVE ON JESUS THE DESTROYER OF SODOM!

I thought, “Wait a minute, Jesus was born centuries after Sodom was destroyed.”

YOUR PASTORS ARE LIARS!

I thought, “Yep. Just like everyone else.”

AMERICA IS DOOMED!

I thought, “Huh, maybe they’re on to something…”

And the last sign – GOD HATES FIGS

Honestly, even with what felt like subzero temperatures, I started laughing right there in the middle of the street. God hates figs! These people really do read their bibles. Jesus rebukes a fig tree and curses it to never grow fruit ever again, and he tells a parable about a fig tree in which the owner of the fig tree can’t stand its inability to do what he wants it to do.

And so I entertained the thought of crossing the line to the dark side to congratulate the protestors for their astute reading of God’s Holy Word. I mean, I had problems with some of their claims, I could have pulled out the Bible from my bag and showed chapter and verse to contradict their signs. But GOD HATES FIGS? How can you argue with that?

It was only as we got closer, and the yelling through the megaphone grew greater in decibels did I realize how I misread the sign. It didn’t say God Hates Figs. 

It said God Hates Fags. 

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A man had a vineyard and in the vineyard he planted a fig tree. For three years he would wander out to his field of grapes to check on the prayed for figs, only to return to the chateau empty handed. So one day he says to the gardener, “I just can’t take it anymore. This fig tree has been wasting my soil for three years. I want you to cut it down.”

But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Give it another year. I’ll spread some manure on it later today. If it bears fruit next year, all the better. But if not, then you can do whatever you want with it.”

Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned. Unlike my parable of walking to the entrance at General Conference there are no superfluous details, nothing to distract the listener from what the story is saying, and the main thing stays the main thing. 

And yet, even for its simplicity and brevity, there are a lot of weird and notable details in the parable. So many, in fact, that I preached on this exact passage a mere three months ago and there’s still more to say about it. Honestly, I had to look up my sermon because I couldn’t even remember what I said about it three months ago.

That’s the enduring and endearing beauty of God’s Word – it is a never-ending mine of glory from which we can glean again and again and again.

Ah, but back to the matter at hand: Why does the vineyard owner plant a fig tree among all his grapes? Don’t you think he would be worried about an outside plant vying for the nutrients in the ground? Or was he just a sucker for a dry fig every once in awhile? Or what if he was planning to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?

We don’t know. All we know is that the owner of the vineyard delighted in planting a fig tree among his grapes. Maybe its a sign to us that God, as the vineyard owner, rejoices in us, his fig tree, but that we are also not his chief concern. We are not his bread and butter as it were. If that’s true, its all good and well, but it has the rotten luck of showing all of us how we are not nearly as important as we think we are.

But there are still more details – enter the gardener.

In terms of storytelling, it is notable that the gardener, not the vineyard owner, is the one who ultimately displays and offers grace to the fig tree. 

Jesus could’ve told another quick and easy story in which the vineyard owner himself offers grace to the inexplicable fig tree among the grape vines. But that’s not the story Jesus tells. Instead it is the owner himself who can no longer wait idly by with patience hoping for the blasted tree to grow some fruit. He wants to tear the thing down.

It is the gardener who speaks in defense of the speechless tree.

And what does the gardener say? “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.” At least, that what it says in our pew Bibles. 

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

Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”

Sound familiar?

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

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These might be some of the most striking words from the Bible both because they proclaim the apparent forgiveness of the Lord for no reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.

Three years ago this week a gay night club in Orlando, Florida was hosting a “Latin Night.” There were about 300 people dancing in the club when the announcement went out for last call around 2am. And shortly after the crowds made their way to the bar for their final drink of the evening, a man walked into the club and started shooting indiscriminately.

There was the initial barrage of gun fire, a hostage situation in one of the bathrooms, and eventually a SWAT team entered the building to eliminate the shooter. By the end 50 were dead, including the shooter, and another 53 were in the hospital. 

At the time it was the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in US history, only to be eclipsed by the Las Vegas shooter a year later. But it still remains the deadliest incidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the history of our country.

And, tragically, this is nothing new to an entire community of people. Nearly a quarter of all hate crimes in the US are committed against LGBTQ people and the number of incidents have increased every year since 2005. Many of those perpetrating the violence regularly cite religious convictions to defend their actions. 

And just this week, a Sheriff’s Deputy in Tennessee implored the members in his church to call upon the federal government to round up and execute members of the LGBTQ community. 

Sometimes it takes decades of hearing a preacher belittle and ridicule people for their sexual orientation, and sometimes all it takes is seeing a protestor with a sign with three terrible words, and then someone can assault two men walking down the street hand in hand, or walk into a night club and shoot into the darkness simply because women were dancing with women and men were dancing with men.

Sometimes it takes a sentence in a book about incompatibility that becomes a shackle around the ankle of a church, a shackle that it is forced to carry ad infinitum.

In Jesus’ parable, there are only two characters and Jesus paints them vividly for us – the vineyard owner, God the Father, and the gardener, God the Son. 

The gardener, as Christ, invites the owner of the vineyard into forgiving the fig tree and to live according to the light of grace. His words here, as we’re already noted, are the very same words from the cross. Words that, if we’re honest, haunt us.

Lord, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. 

All of us, whether we like it or not, live under the decisive reign of forgiveness. And yet, the world usually thinks and is hellbent on acting otherwise. 

The world thinks it lives and spins by merit and reward. The world produces people who can wave signs and sing slogans that, at times, result in people being buried simply because of who they love. The world likes to imagine that salvation comes from a God who rewards individuals for their righteousness, whether its biblical or not.

But the foolishness of God, the one who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us, is smarter than that.

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

Is there anything more striking in the story than the fact that the gardener offers to dump manure all over the fig tree, all over us? Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, become the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.

It is the horrific nature of the cross, Jesus’ profound death for all eyes to see, from which Jesus returns to us. And he returns marked by the grave and the journey to it – he comes with holes in his hands and feet, bringing along all of the nutrients our roots could possibly need, and he brings them for free.

Jesus does not wait around for our fruit before offering the manure we so desperately need, he doesn’t wait until we master the art of morality. He returns, and he dumps the dung right on top of us. 

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

For if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all of the world’s problems by now. We wouldn’t have to worry about a young girl being ostracized in middle school for dressing like a boy. We wouldn’t have to worry about the safety of people dancing in a nightclub simply because of who they might be dancing with. We wouldn’t have to worry about a person contemplating ending their life because of what a preacher said in a sermon about who they are and their incompatibility.

But we do have to worry about these things. Because this is the world we live in. We turn on the news reluctantly knowing that we are about to be bombarded not by the joys in the community but by devastation. We see images of violence so often that we become numb to how broken this world is. We hear people shouting from the streets of life about what they believe and we walk idly by not thinking about the repercussions of what they are saying.

We are a fruitless fig tree standing alone in the middle of God’s garden. 

We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.

And yet, and yet (!), Jesus looks at our barren limbs and is moved to say the three words we deserve the least, “Lord, forgive them.”

Which is why we come to the table, again and again, knowing that this simple meal is anything but simple – it is, believe it or not, the manure for our soil – it is, believe it or not, our forgiveness – a forgiveness we need because we have no idea what we’re doing. Amen. 

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Wisdom Is Foolishness

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the Trinity Sunday [C] (Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15). Josh is a regular contributor to Mockingbird. Our conversation covers a range of topics including tough Trinity talk, Twitter as Nazareth, painful proverbs, God’s wisdom, faithful humility, boasting in suffering, masks in church, praying for people, Hunting The Divine Fox, knowing what we don’t know, and staying on the bus. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Wisdom Is Foolishness

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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.

All Sin Is Unbelief

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17 (25-27)). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The World’s Largest Man, chronicling The Chronicles of Narnia, church birthday parties, the Nicene Creed, good harmonies, inheriting death, the unchurched, drunk disciples, and being convicted by the Spirit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All Sin Is Unbelief

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I Pity The Fool

Luke 12.13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or an arbiter over you?” And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Weddings are important, and because they are important I want couple to grasp how crazy of a thing it is to get married in the first place.

I get asked to do a fair amount of weddings and I will agree to participate so long as I can engage in at least a handful of premarital counseling sessions. Part of this is born out of a desire to know the couple well enough to actually stand before them, their friends, and their families to peach about the bizarreness of marriage, but it also my attempt to help prevent the hoped for marriage from falling apart in the future.

On more than one occasion I have shared that the first question I ask any couple wanting to get married is, “Can you tell me about your last fight?”

Its a great ice-breaker and within a few minutes I have a pretty good idea what the rest of our conversations will be like.

And yet, I know, that answering that particular question is uncomfortable. I’ve watched countless couples squirm in the chairs wondering who was going to bring up the proper location for dishes in the dishwasher, or who was going to raise the complaints about the over-bearing mother-in-law, or who would mention the frivolous spending from the bank account.

And sure enough, someone always caves and we can begin the good and difficult work of approaching marriage from a theological perspective.

But that’s not the only question that makes couples uncomfortable – no we quickly move to the subjects of sex and children, are you having it and are you wanting any respectively. And the individuals slink deeper into their chairs and their cheeks get redder and redder.

But of all the questions I ask, and all the things we discuss, there is one subject that rules them all: money.

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And, as should be expected, money is usually the most discussed topic during pre-marital counseling because it is at the heart of the majority of divorces in our country. I gently encourage couples to share with me how they currently handle their finances and how they hope to handle them on the other side of “I do.” We then discuss habits and practices that can prevent the kind of deception that tends to rip couples apart around bank accounts and credit cards.

And then I get to ask a question that stops everyone dead in their tracks (Pun intended).

“How much money is enough money?”

Eyeballs always stare back at me with confusion or disbelief. So I have to elaborate: “Is there an amount of money that, should you be able to achieve it one day, you won’t want anymore?” Or “Have you considered a top salary that once you earn more than it you’ll give the rest away?”

“How much money is enough money?”

Someone in the crowd interrupted Jesus one day, “Lord, tell my brother to divide up the family inheritance with me.”

The man probably has just cause even though the conventions of the day dictated that the oldest son would receive the inheritance. Who wouldn’t want the Lord to decree that things must be divided evenly particular when it comes to money?

And Jesus snaps right back, “Hey, who made me a judge or a divider over all you people?”

Apparently, Jesus’ work is bigger than the incidental patching up of family problems and financial squabbles. 

But then Jesus does what Jesus does best; he tells a story.

There was a man who was doing well with his career. At first, he used the excess cash to fill his house with all sorts of trinkets and wares designed to show other people how wealthy he was. First it started with some original paintings, but then he ran out of wall space. Next he redid his entire wardrobe, but then his closet was full. And lastly he decided to buy an extra car, but there was no room in the garage. 

What was the man to do?

And he had a vision… Why not tear it all down and build a bigger house to fit all of his stuff inside?

And thats what he did.

In the midst of the plans for reconstruction, while laying out ideas of what would go where, he said to himself, “You’ve done good old boy. Time to eat, drink, and be merry.”

When suddenly a booming voice shatters all the new windows, “You fool! This night they are demanding your life, and whose will they be?!”

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Much to our chagrin, the line between evil and foolishness is frighteningly thin. Up to this point in the gospel story Jesus has been using those qualifiers interchangeably when denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, he has used both word for the powers and the principalities. But now they get turned against us.

Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, because our lives are about more than what we have. 

But Jesus, what about my 401k?

But Jesus, what about my nest egg?

But Jesus, what about all that stuff I’ve accumulated to show people who I really am? 

All of that stuff, all of that money, they are the hopes of the well off and the envy of the poor who will never have them, nothing more nothing less and nothing else.

Our world, all of this, even in the church (sadly), it’s all run on avarice. Extreme greed for wealth or material goods. It’s the lie we were fed as children, and it’s the lie that we feed to our children. It is reinforced on every magazine cover, on every instagram post, and with every commercial on TV.

Happiness is yours if you acquire this thing.

And it’s all a lie.

Because contrary to that false narrative, something hammered home relentlessly, we are not defined by our bank accounts or by what we hang on our walls or by what kind of car we drive. Its poverty, not wealth; its death, not life – that are the ways by which God saves us.

Regardless of whether we’re wealthy, poor, or somewhere in-between, all of us in Jesus’ eyes are people who are sin-sick with our insatiable desire for more.

And not just more, but more more more!

We clutch at all that is around us rather than opening our palms to ever be open to anything else. 

We’d rather receive than give.

Earn all you can, and save all you can, because its an eat or be eaten world out there, right?

I don’t know about you but this parable stings. It just won’t leave me alone. It confronts and convicts me.

Jesus tells a story in which a man does what all of us do with our avarice, with our greed: We congratulate ourselves on all we have accomplished.

You graduated with that GPA? Wow, you definitely deserve to do whatever you want this summer.

Your grandchildren really are adorable, and their parents are paying for your next vacation? Sounds like it’s time to relax and start enjoying your well deserved retirement.

You just got that promotion you’ve been gunning for? Wonderful, you definitely have this whole adulting thing figured out!

And I have this job, it’s a great job. My marriage is beautiful, I have a son who brings smiles to the faces of all with eyes to see. Good job Taylor! Relax, eat, drink, be merry!

But here’s the really interesting thing about all of that stuff – from the GPA to the kids to the promotion to the bank accounts – we think we earn them or at the least we deserve them, when in fact each and every one of those things is a gift. They are good only because someone, or something, was good to us. 

Jesus sets up the man as a paradigm of everything we think to be good, and right, and true. He’s fiscally responsible after all. He’s earned it. And yet, the man is only a master of a life that is completely and radically out of his control – he is nothing but the captain of a ship that has been taking on water since it left the dock.

You see, Jesus builds up the man as the pinnacle on financial responsibility only to knock him straight down to the ground: “You fool! This night they are demanding your life, and then whose will they be?”

Up until the Lord’s interruption in his life, the fool has been living in monologue. The whole parable is just him talking to himself, congratulating himself, rejoicing in and with himself. All the while forgetting that his good crops, or his stock portfolio, or whatever the thing is, was always first a gift. 

And gifts require givers.

Or, to put it another way, isn’t is such great and sweet irony that the man who had it all discovers that his things had him?

And they do have us, don’t they? We lay awake at night thinking not upon all the good that we have, not giving thanks to the Lord above and to the people around us who make our lives possible, but with worry. 

And not just worry for the sake or worrying – we worry about our stuff. 

Was that the right investment?

Am I going to be able to afford that new cable plan?

Was I foolish to buy that extra TV?

And yet, we keep acquiring new things and we try to control them. Or, at the very least, we try to control our lives with the accumulation of things such that it makes us appear as if we have our lives together. 

We want to be rich, or we want to appear rich.

However, unlike Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the only truly rich person in the world in Jesus.

You and me, we spend our whole lives in the pursuit of wealth (both material and immaterial) only to come in the end to the greatest poverty of all: death.

This is the frightening and final tone of the parable, the one that lingers long after even being called a fool: no matter how much we make and no matter how much we accumulate, we all die in the end.

I pity the fool, particularly because the fool is me. 

The fool is all of us.

We all live in these self-satisfied, fat, and ignorant monologues about all that is good in our lives and we forget, mostly because we avoid it, that we all die in the end.

But in Jesus, the one who tells this story precisely because it frightens us to death, all is turned upside down. The Lord offers grace to both the wicked in their moral poverty and to the rich in the death of all their stuff. Jesus becomes a new way in which all of our pointless pursuing and all of our foolish incomprehension becomes something we can call good.

We can call it good because Jesus is there for us in our deaths.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not our money or lack or it, not our stuff or lack of it, not our lives and not even our deaths.

We might not see it, and we might not believe it, but there is greater wealth in the salvation of Christ than in every bank in the world.

And it is ours for free.

We can’t earn it.

We don’t deserve it.

It’s not cheap.

It’s not even expensive.

It’s free.

It’s free for you and me and every fool the world will ever see. Amen. 

We’re All Little Narcissists

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Jason and Teer are both United Methodist Pastor and part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including John Wick 3, theology by the pool, Pauline annoyance, the grammar of faith, Netflix’s Our Planet, the prevalence of idols, cosmic salvation, therapy sessions, and free grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We’re All Little Narcissists

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Be Unprepared

Luke 11.1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Be prepared.

It’s the Boy Scout motto, drilled into my brain over years of camping trips, patrol meetings, merit badge requirements.

I loved being a Boy Scout. I joined as a Tiger Cub when I was in Kindergarten and I continued all the way through until I earned my Eagle Scout. To this day I can still recite the Boy Scout Law and Oath, I can remember how to tie countless knots, and I still hear that incessant reminder in my head all the time: Be prepared.

When I was 13 years old we met at the church to organize our caravan before heading off into the woods for two nights of camping. We had meticulously gone through all of our gear to make sure we had everything we needed, we had checked the weather forecast in order to bring the appropriate clothing, and we had even planned out all of the activities we would be doing until it was time to return home.

By the time we got to our campsite that night it was dark. But we were prepared for that eventuality and we hung up our flashlights in order to tie down the tarp and pull out the camping stove. The adults were always very good about giving the boys their space as we navigated the necessary survival techniques, and when we went to open the cooler to begin cooking dinner, we were glad that they were far away.

We were glad because the one boy who was responsible for bringing all of our food that weekend had forgotten that it was his responsibility.

We were prepared for everything, except for not having food. 

So we did what any reasonable scouts would do, we kept the information to ourselves and went without food the entire weekend.

It was only on the ride home, when one of the boy let it slip how absolutely famished he was that the driver of our vehicle, our scout master, said, “I hope you boys learned your lesson.” We all grumbled about how we knew we were supposed to be prepared. And he waved that off and said, “No. We all could tell that you forgot to bring food and we had plenty to share, we were only waiting for you to come ask for help. I hope you learned that you can’t be prepared for everything, but that you can always ask for help.” 

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“Hey Jesus!” shouts one of the disciples. “When are you going to teach us to pray like John taught his followers?”

Jesus, reluctantly says, “When you pray, pray like this: Father, you are great. Do what you need to do. Give us some bread. Forgives us, because we are trying to forgive everyone indebted to us. And keep us away from evil.”

Hopefully, the first thing you noticed as the scripture was being read this morning was how similar it sounded, but maybe not too similar. It’s familiarity stems precisely from the fact that this is Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer – the prayer we pray every week in this place.

And, if you recognized it, then you no doubt noticed it’s quite a bit shorter than Matthew’s version, the one we pray in church. In fact, it dispenses with some of the elevated language that we so often use and instead cuts right to the heart of the matter.

No fuss, no muss.

And even though we say something close to it every week we can’t help but wrestle with how strange of a prayer it really is. Particularly when considering this is how Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in response to them wanting to be educated in the way John the Baptist educated his disciples.

John, unlike Jesus, was living by a different paradigm, one in which people could enter into what we might call the program of salvation. You start here, and make your way here, and eventually you get over there. You confess and repent of your sins, you start engaging in works of piety and social justice, and then you earn your heavenly reward.

In John’s worldview, redemption was all about having the right ethical, religious, moral, and political beliefs in order to make something new happen in the world.

Jesus, on the other hand, sees things differently. In fact, to the Lord of lords, the new thing has already happened in him, and it has happened for everyone. There’s no 12 step program to get God to do anything.

Jesus doesn’t come just to show the disciples, and us, a new way of life but is, himself, the new way.

This can be rather frustrating for the many of us who want Jesus to just be clear about what we should and shouldn’t do. Contrary to what we often hear from the church, Jesus does not call for perfect lives, but simply says the time has come for us to recognize how last, lost, least, little, and dead we all are.

And we are, all of us. Make no mistake: even those of us who look perfectly beautiful and wonderful and happy right now are but shells of people whose real lives are actually pulling at the seams.

The disciples, people like us, we want a program. We want it to be laid out nice and clear as to what we are supposed to do, say, and believe. We like little trite and memorable zingers like, do a good turn daily, or be prepared. 

But then Jesus responds to the disciples’ request for a prayer with something that’s so simple, perhaps too simple, that it’s a prayer in which we don’t have to do much of anything. In fact the only thing we can do, according to the prayer, is forgive. Which, as we have said in nearly every week of this parable series, it intricately connected with our own willingness to die.

From the king forgiving the debt of his servant, to the father forgiving the prodigal son, to cancel someone’s debt, to really forgive, is only possible for someone who dies to their own version of what life could’ve been.

This so-called Lord’s Prayer rejects all of our contemporary understandings of what it means to pray. It does not contain giant and lofty ideals that are often present in our own prayers. There’s not even a hint of ethical perfection, or moral equivocation. It just about the bare necessities to keep us together and fed so that we can get to the best part of life which comes through the realization that we have already died with Christ.

And we haven’t even gotten to the parable yet.

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Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, and without being asked he starts rambling on with another one of his crazy stories.

Imagine you have a friend who is at home in bed at midnight, and you go knocking on her door because someone just showed up at your house and you don’t have anything to offer them. You aren’t prepared. And when you start banging on the door, she says, “Leave me alone!” However, even though she brushes you aside, you know that she will eventually give you what you need.

What kind of story is that?

Jesus has his friends imagine that God is like a sleepy friend. Someone who experiences the closest thing to death while we are still alive, sleep. And then Jesus has them picture this whole scene in which they break in upon the drowsy God with a battering ram of requests.

In other words, “I need you to wake up for me.”

We could, of course, explore why we/the disciples don’t have anything to entertain our untimely friends in the first place, but we will get there in due time.

First, Jesus calls the disciples to see that the sleeping friend is their only hope. That they are a people in need and the only one who can provide is the one who has something better to do.

And, to make matters all the more complicated, the figure of God in the story gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, “Let me sleep!”

This is not the God we are often called to imagine in our minds. Don’t we all think and believe that God will drop everything for us should we only must the courage to knock on the door and ask?

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It is certainly strange, but part of the parable functions in such a way to tell us, particularly with the language of sleeping and rising, that God rises to our prayers out of death.

But if we were good people, if we were prepared for friends showing up at strange times, we would never need to intrude upon the privacy of someone else in the middle of night. Many of us would never dare dream of knocking on a friend’s door let alone and neighbor in the middle of night. And why not? Because if we did so, it would show how in need we are of other people.

And we hate the idea of needing other people.

We hate that idea because we have all been fed a lie since the time we were kids that we have to get through whatever our lives are on our own – that we can’t trust or expect anyone to do anything for us. Otherwise we come off looking like beggars who haven’t worked hard enough to figure out our lives.

And yet, if we were dead to those judgments (most of the time self-inflicted), then we could show up at a friend’s house in the dark of the night with nothing more than a confession of our unpreparedness, and it would be the beautiful admission of our inability to be what we thought we were supposed to be, namely perfect.

Being unprepared, therefore, would raise us out of that death into something far greater than we can even imagine.

And yet, today, more often than not, this prayer and parable from Jesus get whittled down to some version of “you have to be persistent in prayer.” Which is another way of saying, “If we nag God enough, God will come through with what we need.”

When all of us know that’s simply untrue.

Of course we should be relentless with our prayers, with our needs, but if that’s all Jesus is saying with the parable then all of us will eventually be disappointed. 

We will be disappointed because God does not answer our prayers the more we ask them. Far too often people (like me) tell people (like you) that if your prayers are unanswered then its because you don’t have enough faith.

Which is terrible.

Tell that to the mother whose child stops responding to the chemotherapy.

Tell that to the husband who has to make the decision about unplugging his wife from the respirator.

Tell that to the son who studies night after night only to bring in Ds and Fs.

This might be the most confounding thing about the parable – God rises from death, awakens from sleep, not to satisfy our requests, reasonable or unreasonable, but to raise us from our own deaths.

Therefore, if we walk away from today thinking that we can keep praying until we can con God into giving us something we really want or even need, then we have failed to see the gospel for what it really is. However, if we can take the story in all of its weirdness for what it is really saying, then we can constantly bring our death to the death bed of the Lord and rejoice.

Jesus concludes this particular parabolic encounter with a statement that we might rather ignore, but we are compelled to approach it head on. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

We don’t like being called evil. 

It’s as if Jesus is saying, you, who can never seem to do enough, who avoids doing the right thing, who hangs your head among all the wrong things, who turns a blind eye toward the relentless injustices of the world, who believes that things will always get better if you just try harder, who struggles to be prepared for a world of unpredictability, if even you know what a good gift is, then how much more will God give to you!

Thanks be to God that the Lord will resurrect us from the death of our own foolishness.

There is no greater gift than this. 

We can’t make it through life on our own – and that, dear friends, is why we pray. Not to get some things done for us, but to celebrate the greatest work of all that has already been done for us, in spite of us.

We can rejoice knowing that we have a friend at midnight and that, even in our death, that friend is there for us no matter what. 

We can’t be prepared for everything, but we can always ask for help. In fact, it is the asking that sets us free. Amen.