The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

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On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

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Dying To Live

Luke 10.25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

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Dear Logan,

When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.

For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.

But don’t blame me for your new life.

You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.

But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.

You don’t get a choice.

Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.

A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment. 

Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”

Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one. 

They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.

But instead, they trusted me.

So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.

Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.

One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.

Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”

The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.

Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.

And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.

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It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.

This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created. 

What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.

Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.

But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it. 

At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.

Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less. 

Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.

It’s up to Jesus.

Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us. 

Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that. 

Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer. 

But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me. 

The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.

We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story. 

You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love. 

But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love. 

In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.

The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.

The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.

Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.

And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.

Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”

So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

Lettuce Sermons

Devotional:

Hebrews 10.14 

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 

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Every sermon runs the risk of becoming a “Lettuce” sermon. A “Lettuce” sermon is one that ends with a final, and resounding, paragraph about what we are now supposed to do:

“Let us (get it?) now go forth to collect as many jackets as possible to cloth everyone in our community.” // “Let us remember Jesus’ words about feeding the 5,000 as all of us register to serve at the soup kitchen this week.” // “Let us rejoice in the gifts we’ve been given by committing to tithe to the church for the next year.”

This temptation runs deep in the heart and soul of preachers because we too fall prey to the expectation that people come to church in order to “get something out of it.” And there is a fear that without providing some sort of assignment or expectation, people will receive nothing and are free to leave without any responsibility at all.

Now, to be clear, clothing others, and feeding the hungry, and tithing to the church are all good things – things that we should be doing in our community and in our church. However, ending the proclamation from the pulpit with a call to action implies that we are to act in order to earn our salvation or redeem the world.

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But the message of the gospel is that we have already been saved and that the world has already been redeemed!

Jesus as the single and perfect offering has perfected, for all time (!), those who are sanctified. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconciled all that was lost in the Garden such that we have been freed from our bondage to sin and death and have been freed for life and joy in the kingdom. 

The distinction that is often lost in the church today is that we do good and wonderful things for the people around us not because we have to, but because we want to. Clothing others, feeding the hungry, and giving money to the church doesn’t help us and it certainly doesn’t earn us anything. They are simply our natural responses when we encounter the immense generosity of the Lord who gave us the greatest gift of all: Jesus.

The (Christian) Problem With Elections

Devotional:

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

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We’re often told to not mix politics with religion – political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere and therefore they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.

It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday. 

However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.

We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.

But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?

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The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.

And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same. 

The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:

“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”

So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect. 

Instead, he elected us. 

We Really Need To Talk

Mark 10.17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these word. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brother and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” 

The old pastor had a reputation for turning church finances around. Every where he went he encountered the same sorts of stories: “we’ve lost some really big givers, we’ve had to cut corners, we just don’t know what to do.”

And it was his responsibility to preach fiery sermons about the virtues of generosity such that a church would receive the kind of cash flow that could bring resurrection out of financial doom.

He wasn’t really sure where he developed the aptitude for financial sermons, but people kept calling him to fill in from time to time, particularly when the offering plates started to feel a little light.

And so it came to pass that he received a phone call from a very wealthy member at a church on the other side of the state. It didn’t take long for the old pastor to discern some of the same problems he had heard before; The church was suffocating under horrible debt that had accrued over years of bad financial management. Finally, after describing all of the problems, the wealthy church member said, “When you come to preach you are welcome to stay at my country house, my town house, or my seaside cottage.”

To which the old pastor responded, “I’m not coming.”

The rich member was incredulous, “But you have to come, we need your help! How else can we pay off our debt?” 

The pastor said, “Sell one of your homes and pay the debt yourself.” And then he hung up.

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Woe to those who are rich! It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God!

Last week we spent the entire worship service addressing one of the topics Jesus spoke about all the time, a topic that for some reason we avoid in the church – divorce.

And as I stood up in this place and preached those words, I witnessed some pew squirming as the rigidity of Jesus’ proclamation landed upon our ears. Whether we’re divorced, or we know someone who is divorced, this was a place defined by a feeling of anxiety last week.

But now we have to talk about money. And if you thought people were uncomfortable last week, you should’ve seen how you all looked as the scripture today was being read!

Money! 

Presumably we all interact with money on a regular basis, and presumably most of us here wish we had more of it.

And perhaps some of us truly need more money – maybe we don’t have enough to pay our bills, or purchase groceries, or fill up our gas tanks. 

And maybe some of us have just enough – we’re able to make ends meet, save a little for the future, and splurge every once in awhile.

And still yet there may be some of us who have more than enough – we never have to think about bills because we know we have enough to cover them, we’ve can’t remember the last time we bought something used, and we are always the ones who reach for the check at the restaurant.

Money, whether we are poor or rich, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else. 

Jesus was about to set out on a journey when a man ran up and knelt before him. In the other gospels we learn a little bit more about this man, but in Mark’s version we don’t know anything about him except that he apparently kept all of the laws and that he had a bunch of stuff.

Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?

You know the commandments! Do them.

Of course I know them teacher, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth. 

And Jesus, looking at him with love, said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He wanted to know what he could do to inherit the kingdom of heaven. He had apparently done a lot already, even from the time he was young. And Jesus had the gall to look him in the eye and say, “That’s not enough.”

When Jesus invites people to follow him in the gospels, they almost always drop everything right then and there to do so – but not this guy. For some reason his wealth was such that it was not something he could walk away from – whether it was the materialism of it, or the power that it created, or the comfort that he appreciated – he, unlike almost everyone else, walked away from the kingdom with grief.

And, lest we skip over the detail that stands out with strange absurdity, Jesus’ response to them man was apparently born out of love!

What kind of love compels someone to say, “you know what… the only way you can do this kingdom thing is to do exactly the thing you are not going to do.”

This is painful stuff! This is the Messiah peering into the heart of the man and naming right then and there the sin that has wrapped itself around his heart.

And to make things worse, Jesus doesn’t even wait until the man is gone before he begins regaling the crowd!

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed, much like us.

So, some sermons would now logically shift into a “each of us can surely take look at our own lives…” And someone like me who ask people like you to imagine what in your life is keeping you from the kingdom – an attachment, a desire, a hope – something that acts more like a shackle holding you back than a spring that pushes you forward.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons like that, in fact I know I’ve even preached some sermons like that. A sermon where the final line is something like, “just let it go.”

But what if the point isn’t about what we must give up, but that we won’t be able to?

Jesus is clear with his disciples about the impossibility of the rich man’s salvation; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

And yet he also proclaims the Almighty power of God to make the impossible possible.

So… which is it?

In theological terms we call this divine tension, it is an impossible possibility. One cannot inherit eternal life in the sense that so long as you do this, this, and this it’s all yours. Time and time again the gospel, what we call the Good News, grace offered freely to us in spite of us, gets whittled down to a proposition. 

If you do this… then the kingdom is yours.

If you repent of your sins… if you pray everyday… if you sell all your possessions.

And when that becomes the defining message of the church the Good News is no longer good news. Instead, its just another version of the law whereby impossible tasks always remain impossible.

There is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom. 

And of course there are things in this life, sins and desires and temptations, that prevent us from being all that God would have us be. But when those very things become the lynchpin to everything we experience and know as disciples, then our lives will be little more than chaos.

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We really need to talk about money and our unhealthy obsessive attachment with it – but perhaps it’s more important for us to talk about the fallacy of earning the kingdom. 

This moment with the rich man reveals the kind of righteousness we think we require to acquire the kingdom of heaven. We make it out in our minds that its even more than following the laws, its more than checking off all the boxes. We take it to dimensions of frenetic fear and imply that to acquire the kingdom its all about who we are behind closed doors, who we are when no one else is around.

And then we boldly proclaim that Jesus is waiting in the wings to ask us to drop the very thing that we know we cannot. 

Why?

Perhaps Jesus wants to suck out all of our self-righteousness. Jesus asks the rich man a question, and vicariously asks all of us a question, as a reminder that we are no better than the people maligned in the media and the people dropped because of bad drama.

Maybe Jesus asks the question because he wants us to know that we really are sinners. That its not just a noun that we throw around all the time, but really, truly, deeply, who we are.

But where is the Good News in that?

The tension of the story, that pull from what we are asked to do to what we know that we cannot do, is at the very heart of Jesus’ message to the rich man and to people like you and me: We have a job to do, and we cannot save ourselves.

That is the uncomfortable comfort and the impossible possibility of our salvation – that we worship a God who, in spite of our best and worst intentions, desires our salvation even when we cling to the things we know we should not.

God, in the midst of our chaotic and frightening dispositions, waits for us to realize that it is because we are sinners, it is because we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved.

When we read the story of the rich man, and we make it into a call for better stewardship, then it appears that none of us, poor and rich alike, none of us will inherit the kingdom. When faced with our own version of the question, we would all grieve while looking back over our shoulders.

But friends, that’s kind of the whole point – inheriting the kingdom is not up to us!

If all the Christians we know make us feel like we’re not doing enough, if every sermon leaves us feeling guilty, then we cannot call it amazing grace. 

When the gospel becomes a commodity to be propositioned – Jesus did something for you and now you have to do something for Jesus, then the cross is foolishness.

We all, the rich and poor, fail to live according to the law. If any of us were there that day, Jesus would have given us our own impossible task. That’s why the passage ends with the terrifying list of things to be abandoned for the sake of the gospel – friends, family, property.

Sure, selling our possessions to help the poor is a great thing. But it doesn’t earn us a ticket to the kingdom.

Sure, confronting a family member for their bigotry and hatred is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t earn us a spot in the resurrection.

Sure, abandoning our sinful desires that prevent us from being who God wants us to be would be a smart idea. But it doesn’t procure us anything.

Were our salvation up to us, it would be impossible.

But nothing is impossible for God. Amen. 

The Cost of Victory

2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

Early in the morning on the 4th of July, a young woman and a group of friends made their way to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty looks out across the waters. Like countless people gathering to celebrate Independence Day, they looked like everybody else ready to enjoy the day. However, upon arrival, they quickly unfurled a banner over a railing near the base of the statue that said, “Abolish ICE!” and they boosted the young woman up onto the statue.

For nearly three hours she made her way around the statue while police attempted to bring her down. Whenever they got close she shouted out her intention, “I will stay here until all the children are released!”

But after three hours of evasion, the police eventually arrested her, and brought her down off of Lady Liberty.

A spokesperson for the protestors said the demonstration was thematically charged by the belief that Lady Liberty weeps over how the country is treating children and families at the border.

The main protestor, the young woman, was eventually identified and taken in to custody. She clearly violated a number of state and federal laws, and will be prosecuted in the not too distant future.

            So what will be the cost of her victory? Prison? Steep financial fines?

            And was she even victorious? What was she hoping to accomplish?

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All the tribes of Israel came together to speak with David. Echoing the profound words of their first ancestor “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” they said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. Saul was once king but you are the one who led Israel.” And they anointed David king. He was thirty years old.

After thirty years of serving the Lord, from striking down Goliath, to attending the needs of the mad king, to lamenting over his death, David finally became the king.

When you imagine David, what do you picture? Do you see the little shepherd boy with curly hair running through the fields? Do you think of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant with nothing but a loincloth? Do you see the humble king walking among the people of God?

David is the de facto king figure of scripture. From this point forward he, even more than Moses, is the archetype for what it means to lead God’s people. Solomon will ask God to make him a leader like his father David, the prophets will remember the faithful times of David’s reign when looking out at idolatry. Even during the days of Jesus, the people of God will look for a new David to lead the revolt against the imperial power of Rome.

And we might like the version of David often handed to us: the Goliath killer, the lute player, the psalm scribers, the king who united Israel. But it all came with a cost.

            Every great victory leaves a loser in the ditch, and David is no exception.

I’ve brought this up before, but it’s helpful to know that someone like me does not pick the scriptures we use on Sunday morning at random. Years ago a group of ecumenical Christians compiled a three-year cycle of four readings for every Sunday called the revised common lectionary. It was designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture without being constrained by the choice of the preacher.

Depending on the season we might spend weeks going through one of Paul’s letters, or we can jump around the psalter, or just follow the narrative of Jesus’ life from the gospel. Regardless of what we hear in church, it was almost always decided for us.

Today is no exception.

The Lectionary says that the Old Testament reading today should be 2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10. It’s a brilliant little vignette in David’s rise to the throne of Israel. But notice: there are three verses missing.

            Why?

Sometimes verses are omitted because we are brought to the conclusion of a story without being weighed down by superfluous details. Sometimes the narrative is interrupted and it makes logical sense to jump from one place to another.

But sometimes the lectionary omits verses because they are difficult to handle, they make people like you and me uncomfortable, and we don’t know what to do with them.

I don’t often ask you to do this, but I would like all of us to pick up a pew bible and turn to 2 Samuel 5 (OT page 218). We read earlier that all of the elders joined together, and they anointed David king. We read about how David was thirty years old when he began to reign. We read about how long he ruled. But before we jump to verse 9, where we learn he occupied Jerusalem, let’s read about what he had to do to achieve that victory…

6 – The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” – thinking, “David cannot come in here.”

7 – Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David.

8 – David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those who David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

The Lectionary, which thousands of churches follow, omits those three verses. And those three verses completely change the emotional impact of the story. Because without those three verses all we learn about is David becoming king. And with the three verses, we learn what kind of king David would be.

            Victory comes with a cost.

David sent his warriors on a surprise attack into the city through the water shaft. However, they would not only sneak through to shock the enemy combatants, but David also ordered the massacre of the blind and the lame.

And after the carnage, they occupied the stronghold and named the place the city of David. A great and decisive victory for the people of God, one in which even the blind and lame were left bloodied in the streets.

Scripture is no joke my friends. In this crazy and bewildering assortment of poetry, prose, and pragmatism, we discover the incredible mountaintop moments of God’s glory, and the deep valleys of humanity’s shame.

It is said that the winners write the history books, and this is true. Where might we find the details from the Jebusites perspective? Where can we read about the plight of the blind and lame left to die in the city of David?

We can’t, because they lost.

And yet when we look back on the life of David, we know and remember that his first act as king from taking the city of Jerusalem and uniting the people called Israel. But if we follow the lectionary, we lose sight of how far he was willing to go to do so.

On Wednesday morning my family and I piled up our supplies in our Radio Flyer wagon and we made our way down to our neighborhood’s 4th of July parade. We sat in the limited shade with great anticipation as we heard the sirens and marching bands in the distance. And for more than an hour we cheered and celebrated as all sorts of people from the community walked past us in celebration of our country’s independence.

Hours later, we gathered with neighbors for a backyard barbeque and watched as our children splashed around in a kiddie pool. We exchanged stories of 4th of Julys past, and offered thoughts about future celebrations.

In the evening, I rocked my son to sleep with the faint smell of gunpowder wafting up from his hair, still holding on to the firework displays in our front yard, and the distant pops of fireworks echoed in his room.

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It was a great day, one for which I am grateful. I love living in this place we call the United States, for the freedoms I experience to worship the God I love, and to gather with people like you to do so.

            But throughout the sea of red, white, and blue, between hot dogs and hamburgers, surrounding the bright colors in the sky was the constant and ringing reminder: What price did we pay for this?

            Or, better put, what price did others pay for this?

This country, and our love of it, flirts very closely with what Jesus called idolatry. When the country we live in becomes more important than the God who created us, when the lights in the sky on the 4th of July shine brighter than the bread and cup on this table, when we care more about what’s happening in Washington DC than what’s happening in our local community, then we have a problem.

And part of the problem is that, like David, we forget the tremendous cost of our victory.

We don’t take the time to repent for the millions of lives that have been taken in order for us to form a more perfect union. We ignore the stories and plights of the native peoples from whom we stole this land. We dismiss the broken systems of racial inequality that are still very much manifest in ways that began when black and brown bodies were stolen and forced into slave labor. We overlook how women were, and still are, mistreated and disrespected for no reason other than their difference in genitalia.

What we have here, it’s pretty good. Better than most places in the world, if not the best. But it all came with a cost.

People matter. Regardless of whether they are blind or lame, native or immigrant, black or white, male or female, people matter.

And for David, some people didn’t matter.

David occupied the city Jerusalem with the bodies of his own people, by showing up in flesh and blood and bone – By sneaking through the water shaft to kill the blind and the lame.

Centuries ago, this country was occupied with bodies by those who showed up in flesh and blood and bone – By stealing land from those who were here before, by breaking the bones of those forced to work the land, by belittling those who bore the next generations in their wombs.

David occupied Jerusalem with violence, with the threats against the blood and bones of others. So too, America is occupied with violence, with threat against the blood and the bones of others.

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That same violence was present in the city of Jerusalem centuries after David stormed through the city, when the gathered people shouted the name of a different shepherd boy, though this time they demanded for him to be crucified on a cross. With every hammer and nail through his bones and flesh, echoes of the past, present, and future rang for everyone to hear. With his cross hanging high in the sky, all of the bodies whose blood rolled through the streets of Jerusalem, and every broken body that would pave the way for this country were also held high for all to see.

In Jesus we discover the true victory, a triumph that came at the cost of God’s own life. At this meal, in this bread and cup, we find the peace of Jesus that occupies us when we feast. In these pews, in the space between us filled by the Spirit, we experience the beginning of a new reality in which victory is defined not by violence, but by grace.

David is a far more complex character than we ever give him credit for, and America is far more complicit with the violence and brokenness of the world than we often remember, but that does not mean that both of them should be dismissed or broken down. We can still rejoice in the shepherd boy who united Israel, and we can still celebrate the country in which we live. But we cannot forget the cost of their victories, nor can we forget the blood that has been spilled in both of their names.

Because in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection we encounter the end of sacrifices, the end of violence as a means by which we change the world. Jesus has already changed the world, Jesus occupied our place on the cross, and God is with us. Amen.