Married and Buried

Luke 20.27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

The family gathers around the casket, muttering prayers under their breath imploring the Lord to keep the rain clouds at bay. The new widow is dressed appropriately in all black, her mascara is flowing down her cheeks, and she is clutching at the chest of her dearly departed husband’s brother. 

Like anyone else, the family isn’t sure what to do with their grief. Some of them forcefully push their hands into their pockets, others try desperately to hold back tears, and still yet others stand stoically as if nothing happened.

But, none of them, not the mother nor the father, not the cousins or the nieces or nephews bat an eye as the widow drives off in the limo nestled a little too closely with her brother-in-law.

2 years later the same family, though a little grayer than before, gathers in the same cemetery only a few paces from where they were last time and the scene feels eerily familiar. So much so that a few of the guests note how the pastor inexplicably uses the same homily as he did the last time around. The widow is now widowed twice, with two dead brothers buried by the old oak tree. This time the family wonders which brother will step up to the plate, and sure enough before the occasion ends she is driving off in another limo with another brother.

A decade later the woman runs out of tears for all of her dead husbands. She went from one brother to another, all seven in fact, and not a one of them had given her the baby she so desperately craved. The waning and remaining family members try their best to show signs of grief and sadness, but the scene has become so familiar that they were kind of looking forward to it. These funerals had replaced the Thanksgiving table as the occasion for family catch-ups and story-telling.

The priest is now feeble and old, and he had taken on an apprentice in the last few years hoping he would be the one to replace him. The two with their black robes and white collars politely shake hands with the family and make their way back up to the country church. The older priest struggles up the hill and sighs before noting that the next funeral will probably be for the woman, suspecting her of an imminent death caused by a broken heart. To which the younger priest wonders aloud, “Father, to which husband will the woman belong in heaven?”

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There’s no telling how many times I’ve read this story or heard this story. It’s a powerful moment in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees try to beat Jesus at his own game by sharing their own little parable. They are but another drop in the ocean of those who questioned the audaciousness of Jesus’ claims about the kingdom of God, the totality of grace, and the resurrection of the dead. 

And for as many times as I’ve heard the story and even told the story in moments of worship and even counseling, there is a detail that has bothered me to no end.

I mean, I understand what the Sadducees are trying to do with the question, they want to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. And okay, the woman seems to have some rotten luck. But no one seems to want to point out the obvious! Are we sure she’s not a murderer?!

Seven men marry her and seven men die! Those are pretty bad odds! The Sadducees are consumed by this idea of who she’ll be married to in the resurrection and I’m over here far more concerned with whether or not she was a serial killer!

And yet, its a story meant to point at something else. Like any parable it takes on these larger that life characteristics that intend to point us as something bigger. The story might as well have been that a woman married one man, who then died, and then married the man’s brother who also happened to die, who then would she be married to in the end? But that’s not nearly juicy enough! Particularly not when you’re trying to take down the guy who had the gall to tell stories about a prodigal son and a faithful shepherd and a good samaritan.

Questions are important things. And, sadly, we often limit their importance to the answers they provide. But questions contain their own answers. To ask a question is to reveal, to disclose something about the person asking the question. There is no such thing as a question that is morally and intellectually or even politically neutral. 

Imagine a spouse returns home from work a little later than usual and their partner asks, “Did you get the groceries?” Behind that question are a bunch of assumptions, perhaps the person forgot or has forgotten them before. Maybe the question is really pushing toward why the spouse was late. And so on.

Or imagine a kid returns home from school with a tear in his eye and asks his mother, “Why are Johnny’s parents getting divorced?” Of course, there is an obvious nature to the question, but behind the question there is perhaps the fear of his own parents getting divorced, or it happening to him in the future, or what’s going to happen to his friend. And on and on. 

Questions have agendas whether we like to think they do or not. Questions, before they are even answered, imply something about what is important, what is true, and they are all full of assumptions.

Jesus is asked a question. To whom will the woman be married to in the Resurrection? The implication, the question behind the question, is that these people do not believe in the possibility of any resurrection and they want to trap Jesus in his places. 

Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. His first option would be to pick or specify which of the seven brothers would be the partner in the great beyond. Jesus could pick her first husband, or her last husband, or the one right in the middle of the whole thing. But none of them make particularly good sense because ultimately, 6 of the former husbands would be left hanging in the wind. 

And then there’s option number 2: Jesus could admit that the Sadducees have a good point – they might be on to something with the inherent assumption in their question. The woman can’t be the wife of any of the brothers in the resurrection so therefore there must not be a resurrection!

But Jesus doesn’t go with either of those – instead he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. He simply asserts the resurrection is a whole new ballgame to which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. And he doesn’t stop there, he takes is a step further to claim that even the Torah proves the resurrection. You see, since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were not all alive at the same time, and for God to be their God they must all be alive together in some other-than-earthly state, it means that the resurrection is real, and its real even for them. 

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For Jesus, the whole focus here is to build up anticipation of his passion, his own death and resurrection. He’s not trying to paint a picture about whose still with who on the other side of death. Instead, he’s merely asserting a radically powerful truth, the people we marry and bury in this life don’t belong to us in the resurrection.

And that’s Good News.

However, for some of us this might, in fact, sound like bad news. We shudder to think of a time where we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life – we don’t want to imagine a moment in which the person wearing the ring is no longer bound by that ring. 

But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is trying to overturn. 

Its why we say, “Till death do us part.”

The Sadducees, in their question, held desperately tight to a understanding of relationships such that women literally belong to men as a wife would belong to her husband. They understood women as property, something to be traded and treated as such. I mean, their question about marriage in heaven might as well have been about who a cow would belonged to in heaven having been sold over and over again in this life. 

Jesus said, “In this age people are married and are given in marriage. But I tell you in the age to come this woman with be equal with even the angels, she will be a beloved daughter of God – nothing more, less, or else.” 

What a Word! Just mull on that for a moment! Imagine what it would’ve been like for the woman in the story to have heard those words of the lips of Jesus, hell imagine any woman today in an oppressive or overwhelming relationship. She would have known that in the age to come, in the kingdom Jesus’ inaugurates, she would not be defined by the man she married, she would no longer be defined by anything other than the fact that she was a child of God.

Friends, there are people, great numbers of people who need to hear what Jesus has to say. This little nugget of the gospel could bring them a remarkable sense of peace. 

Jesus changes everything. This is the story I want to tell people when I hear them talk about their better half, or their lesser half. No one becomes less of a person when they get married. Or at least they shouldn’t. We are unique and beautiful and wondrous because that’s exactly who God created us to be. And yet, of course, we were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean we lose part of who we are by being connected with other people. If anything, the point of connection is to give us the freedom and the strength to flourish as God made us.

The Sadducees carry their own assumption. Whoever this Jesus guy is, he’s just bringing more of the same. He’s coming in here with his promises of a different world and a different future. But they can only see that in the terms already dictated by the world.

And then Jesus walks up, listens to their question that’s really an accusation, and says, “Excuse me! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, a thing beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, the world of the here and the now, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant! In this world, right now, people are owned, people are belittled, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the Living God.”

Jesus sees more than we can. He knows that the cross is waiting for him and he knows that the tomb won’t hold him. He knows that we are far too content with the status quo and that we still treat people as if they are less than whole. And so he says, “Come to my table. Take some bread and wine. See in this meal how the labels we place on ourselves and others start to disappear. This is the beginning of the end. But of course there really is no end. Because God is the God of the living. And whether you are married or buried, to God you are alive.” Amen. 

Radical

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a lot of churches around here. I’ve mentioned before that, depending on which way I go, I can pass by 15 other churches on my way from my house to this church. All kinds of churches – big churches and little churches, protestant churches and catholic churches (well, only one of those). And they’re all different. On Sundays they are filled with different people listening to different pastors preached about different subjects. 

I wish there was only one church, a united single church within which all Christians across the globe could call home. But it doesn’t exist.

Instead we disagree on an almost limitless number of things such that new kinds of churches are sprouting up every day.

In fact there are so many different versions of church out there that we have something in the modern parlance called “church shopping.” If you simply don’t like what you hear on a Sunday morning you can try out a different church next Sunday and the one after that and the one after that until you find the perfect church.

I’m assuming that most of you are here because this church is as close as you’ve found to perfection.

And even though there is no one real thing that unites the multiplicity of churches, except for maybe Jesus, there is something around here that seems to bind them all together: Harvest Parties.

Have you seen the signs recently? Have you been invited by your neighbors? I haven’t been able to drive anywhere without big and bold letters letting me know that some Christian group is having a harvest party – and they’ve all been scheduled for the same weekend. This weekend!

So why are churches hosting harvest parties? I don’t know.

My best guess is it seems like a whole bunch of churches want to have Halloween parties without calling them Halloween parties. 

Perhaps they don’t like the idea of kids in costumes, or free candy, and putting the word “harvest” on a celebration makes it feel more wholesome.

And the problem with all of that is the fact that Halloween is a Christian holiday!

Halloween comes from All Hallows’ Eve – a liturgical service in the midst of the Christian year. And All Hallows’ Ever is just an older English way of saying All Saints’ Eve.

It occurs the evening before the first of November, and it is a time marked by Christians across the globe by giving thanks to God for the departed saints who came before us. In other churches this took place on Friday, but we’re celebrating All Saints’ today. And because it is fundamentally a remembrance of the dead and anticipating their resurrection, it’s obvious how it connects with the habits and practice of what we call Halloween.

When Christians get afraid of consumes and the candy, or try to move it or tame it or water it down, it just reinforces our greatest fear the we try to deny with every waking breath – the inevitability of death.

But Halloween, All Saints, they are prime opportunities for us to dance with death, not in a way that worships the darkness that frightens us, but to shout with a resounding voice that death will not win. We Christians are the ones who laugh at death’s power in this world, not because it doesn’t sting, but because we have already died with Christ that he might raise us into new life. 

Halloween is therefore one of the most Christian days of the year because our God is in the business of raising the dead!

Our God is a radical God!

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On All Saints the church witnesses to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives who are no longer alive. We read their names and offer time for reflective and prayerful silence. And we do all of that because in ways both big and small, the saints we remember today joined in the unending chorus of laughter in the face of death’s dark rays.

It is one of the more radical moments in the liturgical year.

Matched only by the radical words from the lips of Jesus read for us already.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

This topsy turvy announcement about the power of God’s grace contains tremendous blessings: If you are weeping now you God will turn it around to bring forth laughter – if you are suffering now for the Son of Man you will jump in joy for your reward is great in heaven.

But for as much as it presents a rose tinted view of a time not yet seen, Jesus continues the reversal. 

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

The poor and hungry will have their fortunes reversed – that sounds like good news. But for those us us who are sitting well in our finances and happy with full bellies – its not so good. The rich, the powerful, the well regarded, their fortunes are going to be reversed as well. 

In this mini sermon from the gospel of Luke, Jesus overturns all of our previous misconceptions about the way the world works: The poor become rich, the rich become poor, the outcasts are brought in, and the powerful are cast out. We might struggle with these words, or perhaps we might consider them unfair, but God isn’t fair. For if God were fair, none of us would be good enough. 

God is inherently unfair – God is in the business of righting wrongs and even wronging rights – God raises the dead.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus lives according to the words of this sermon by going to those on the margins, consistently challenging the status quo, and convicting those who feel too certain they are right. Likewise, saints are those whose lives demonstrated a care for those on the margins, or standing up for those forced to the ground, and speaking for those whose voice were taken away. 

But, lest we leave today under the impression that saints are very, very holy people, a people whose lives cannot be matched, saints really are just like us. Again and again in Paul’s letter, he addresses the people as the saints who are in Christ Jesus. For Paul, being a Christian and being a saint were one in the same. The assumption being that to be a Christian meant you were ready to die for your faith. 

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The earliest saints, in fact, were the earliest Christian martyrs – people literally killed because of what they believed. And here we come to another often forgotten or disregarded piece of discipleship: Christianity is about more than being nice to people. Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another and the early Christians weren’t martyred for suggesting we all just get along with each other.

They were killed for being radical. 

They were killed for saying things like the first will be last and the last will be first. 

They were killed because they believed in worshipping God rather than Caesar, rather than the King, rather than the President. 

And that’s not every getting into all the stuff about how we are supposed to relate to one another: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

And that comes into direct conflict with the powers and the principalities. To say those things aren’t the end all be all is to start carrying our own crosses up to Golgotha. 

Whether its Rome, or America, or our bosses, or our spouses, or whoever – we are forever being told who we are. We define ourselves by the definitions given to us by others, and more often than not from the others with power. When we look in the mirror we see not what we see but we see what we’ve been told.

But for Christians, none of us know who we really are until God tells us.

And that kind of behavior drives the powers and principalities crazy! As those who follow Jesus we refused to be defined by others. We are more than the people we vote for, or the team we cheer on, or the embarrassing story that stayed with us for years. We are not those things. We are who we are because of God. 

Being a saint, then, is really nothing more than confessing we have been saved by the One who made us part of an extraordinary community that refuses to let others tell us who we are.

All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to celebrate the lives and the deaths of those who were here before us. It is not an accident the the text assigned for today ultimately has to do with death. Living according to the words of Jesus is a radical thing. It is also a total thing.

The “All” in “All Saints’” is powerful. It is the church’s proclamation that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we do as a church. You don’t have to have lived the perfect life at the perfect church to be a saint. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, its the admission that we are far from perfect. But Christ isn’t done with us yet. 

Chances are, none of us here will ever be killed for our faith. Part of that stems from the fact that our nation and our faith are tied up with each other, contrary to the obsession with the separation of church and state. And another part of it stems from the fact that when we read these challenging words from Jesus we imagine them as some hopeful future instead of them being a command. 

Because if we really lived according to these words, people would try to kill us.

Thanks be to God then, that all of us here have already died. The waters of baptism brought us into the very heart of Jesus’ crucifixion that we might come out on the other side of the tomb with him. 

As the culture around us starts to turn toward Thanksgiving and an overly commodified version of Christmas, today we are reminded that those who are looking for happiness in a bigger house or a larger paycheck or a better spouse will discover that those things will never make us happy. There will always be a bigger house, more lucrative jobs, and people with power. 

On All Saints’ we cannot ignore the great cloud of witnesses who have pointed us to a different way, The Way we call Jesus. We know not what tomorrow will bring but we do know that God in Christ is in the business of making all things new, of raising the dead, and only God can tell us us who we are. Amen. 

Empty Cups

Proverbs 11.25

A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives water will get water.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. I would be attending my first seminary class the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on what would become my theological journey.

So I looked up United Methodist Churches on google and went to the one that was closest to my apartment. 

I meandered through the open front doors, collected a copy of the bulletin from a distracted usher, and walked into the sanctuary hoping to find an empty pew. It was only a few minutes before the top of the hour and I was perplexed to discover an entirely empty sanctuary.

No preacher.

No choir.

There wasn’t even a wayward acolyte wandering down the aisle.

I only stood for a moment before the aforementioned usher walked up behind me and said, “Son, you must be new here. We’re having worship this morning down in the fellowship hall.”

So I turned my back to the beautiful stained glass windows and the exposed organ pipes and descended into the dark and dismal basement.

After navigating a few frightening corridors and passing long-forgotten Sunday schools rooms, I heard a scattering of voices and followed them until I entered the space for holy worship. The room was sparse with only a handful of folding chairs set-up in a haphazard semi-circle around a podium and a make-shift altar. 

By the time I grabbed an empty chair the preacher was standing behind the improvised pulpit encouraging us to stand and sing our opening hymn, which we did.

“Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.”

The next forty five minutes the collection of Christians in the basement listened to the preacher go on and on about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to the Lord what was first given to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we continue to worship in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

When the service was over, I made for a quick exit out of the basement when the preacher grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced himself all the while apologizing that I had to hear all of that on my first Sunday at the church. He said, “I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.” I’m sure I made some sort of positive comment hoping to make him feel a little bit better when a tiny older woman walked up and triumphantly declared, “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church nearly every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

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Today, we live in a world surrounded by a culture that is constantly encouraging us to live beyond our means. Our collective credit card, medical, and student loan debts are the highest they have ever been with no slow down in sight. And I think the reason why so many of us buy a whole bunch of things we don’t need, is that in the back of our heads we hope that the things we buy will be with us forever – which isn’t possible.

In some way, shape, or form, we all go out hoping that the things we purchase will make our lives better now and forever, and even though it never really works we keep doing it anyway!

When confronted by the strange spending habits of the early Methodists, John Wesley put it this way: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

We’ve been talking this month about Wesley’s teaching regarding money: Gain all you can – Save all you can – Give all you can. And for a lot of us the first two sound really nice. Wouldn’t things in our lives be better if we could just bring in a little more money? Wouldn’t the future feel a little more secure if we were able to increase our portfolios accordingly? 

But then we come to the third and final aspect and we’re not sure how we feel about it. Why give away that which we have worked so hard to earn and to save?

If all we do is gain and we can and save all we can and stop there, then it would all be for nothing. We may as throw our money into the fire. Not to use it faithfully and prayerfully is effectively to throw it away. 

It may sound strange to our compulsively capitalist ears, but giving away all we can is what makes intelligible the calls to gain and to save.

There is a story from the Bible that we, for some reason, love to throw into VBS curricula  and it is easily summarized in a short song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.”

The song and the ways we often tell the story make Zacchaeus out to be this smaller than life character who just wanted a little vision of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation regarding money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zacchaeus was. He was a tax collector, a man who stole from his fellow Israelites whatever he wanted and kept a fair portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor and stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus. And Jesus picks this little good-for-nothing-horrible-excuse-for-a-man out from the tree and says, “Hey, lets eat.”

And in a way that could only happen in the gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even stranger proclamation. “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four times over.” And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks life! Lets have a party!”

It’s a strange story, and one that we often water down its strangeness. Zaccheaus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God. He has swindled good people out of their good money, and then Jesus rewards him with salvation? I mean seriously, what in the world?

But that’s kind of the whole thing. 

Salvation, the end all be all, is the way God transforms every area of our lives so that we become a part of God’s work in the world. Salvation changes everything by changing our hearts and the orientation of every part of our lives, including how we use our money. Salvation sets us free from the bondage to our own narrow self-interests and opens us up to the movements of the Spirit in the world.

Many of us today want a version of Christianity that doesn’t want anything from us. Like another notch in the long list of commodified aspects of life, we show up and leave with thoughts about what we got out of it, without ever daring to wonder what God got out of us. Which is strange. Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, put it this way: “There are three conversions necessary in the Christian life – a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind, and a conversion of the wallet.”

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Oh how we wish it were only the first two!

When Zaccheaus was met with the radical nature of God’s grace in the person of Jesus, he experienced a profound conversion – he was no longer the person who climbed up in the tree. His heart was converted in the realization that the Son of God could make something of his nothing. His mind was converted over a dinner table conversation about what really had value in this life. And his wallet was converted when he saw what he had and make the decision to give it away. 

But let us pause for a moment to get something crystal clear – Zaccheaus did not earn his salvation by giving all he gave with his newfound generosity. His generosity was simply a response to the extravagant generosity of God. 

God cares not at all how much money we put in the offering plate or how much money we send to our favorite charity or how much money we make every two weeks or how much money we have saved away for a rainy day. God cares only that we see and know and taste and touch the wondrous gift already given to us in Jesus. What happens next is a matter of faith.

And, lest the call to faithful giving and the witness of the theology of generosity isn’t enough, neuroscientists have proven over and over again that our brains get a happiness boost, we release endorphins, when we give and help other people. Doing good is a good deal for us.

We can give all we want if it makes us feel better, but ultimately as Christians we give because God first gave. The little jolt of happiness is just an awesome byproduct along the way. 

During the earliest days of Methodist, John Wesley desired to lead the people in his care to a healthier, more productive, and more deeply Christ-centered life. He did so by offering practical wisdom about the relationship between money and finances. The end goal of all of this stuff isn’t to make sure the church has more money, though that wouldn’t hurt, the whole thing is about becoming more like Jesus in every part of our lives but particularly in the way we handle our finances. 

In terms of faithful giving whether its to the church or to community projects or any other numbers of places, most of us follow a trajectory. We start off as tossers – we toss our gifts (however big they may be) into the offering plate or the salvation army bucket without giving much thought to what we are doing and we don’t necessarily even feel it when we do it.

Then, at some point, we might enter into the realm of what we might call tryers. Tryers are those among us who have a plan of moving from where they are to where they believe God would like them to be in terms of giving. Going from not giving at all, or even tossing, straight to tithing is a remarkably difficult venture. Our own current financial situations or debts make it very difficult to jump right into the deep end of the pool.

And then there are the tithers – those among us who see their 10% given to God as the baseline of a disciple’s stewardship. Many tithers can’t imagine a life without tithing because it has become completely connected with their way of being. Giving 10% back to God is a practice rooted in scripture, a call to return the first fruits back to the Lord. But tithing is not a duty nor is it an obligation – it is simply a gift given out of sheer gratitude for what God has given.

For me, the journey toward tithing was not one that happened over night and is still one that I struggle with and our family struggles with. I constantly have thoughts about other things I could be doing with the money I give to the church, I think about gifts I could buy for my son, or the dates I could take my wife on, or the frivolous material items I could buy for myself. I do this in my mind because I too fall prey to the insipid temptations of the world around me. I, just like anyone else, want to keep up with the Joneses. I, just like anyone else, want what I wear and what I drive to communicate something about my worth. 

And all of that stuff can’t hold a match to the fire that is God’s grace. 

It has been an act of faith to continually give back to God and it has been an act of trust. Regardless of the amount, whether we’re tossers, tryers, or tithers, putting something in the plate is a profound form of trust. It’s saying, with our wallets, that we believe God can do something incredible with what we give and we get to be part of it all.

Because, at the end of day, we give all we can because God gives all God can. God gives us more than we deserve and more than we realize. God gives us God’s Son every time we gather at the table as a reminder that God is in control. Our cups, whether we respond with generous hearts or not, will never really be empty because God will never stop giving. Ever. Amen. 

An Unacceptable Parable

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Joel 2.23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18, Luke 18.9-14). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the publican of the podcast, Reformation Sunday, what the Spirit can’t not do, emphasizing Creation, Zima confusion, Between Two Ferns, H2O, the gift of grace, and a golden Capon quote. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Unacceptable Parable

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The Culture of Now

Proverbs 13.11

Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!

Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.

Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue! 

So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.

On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.

And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.

Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.

Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.

But, and this is a really big but, for many of us the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare.

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Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.

There was a recent study that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances, more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.

Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.

$9,000! 

If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!

That’s craziness. 

The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Again and again and again.

Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.

Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can. 

It’s a lot easier to say than to do.

And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice. 

Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul. 

Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.

But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments. 

It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else. 

Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING. 

Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”

As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods. 

But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God. 

That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”

The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen. 

God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.

But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained. 

The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

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That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.

For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now. 

The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford. 

Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term. 

Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist. 

Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.

Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%. 

This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income. 

What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. 

There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs. 

And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?

But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.

And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM. 

But saving is God’s cup of tea.

Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.

God is all about the long-game.

Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence. 

God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks. 

But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is. 

For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.

Know Thy Vocation

Proverbs 10.4

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 

When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.

They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.

I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”

The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.

After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices: 

1. Public Speaker

2. High School English Teacher

3. Politician

We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter. 

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I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.

Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.

When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect. 

When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?

During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised. 

All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.

It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.

Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.

Everything about the story is wrong. 

We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.

Talk about being surprised.

But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.

Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.

And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”

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Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can. 

That’s not what they expected him to say. 

Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”

Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things. 

But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.

When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.

The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.

Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God. 

God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.

When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives. 

  His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…

Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.

Do not sleep or yawn over your work.

Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.

Spare no pains.

Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.

Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.

Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus. 

And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.

There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.

Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.

The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.

Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.

In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself. 

Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom. 

Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift. 

And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.

We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us. 

And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around. 

Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross. 

God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen. 

Seeking Welfare

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 17th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7, Psalm 66.1-12, 2 Timothy 2.8-15, Luke 17.11-19). Drew serves as the senior pastor at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the difference between lepers and leopards, Halloween costumes, The Christian Imagination, communion vs. colonialism, joyful hymns, Being Disciples, remembering Christ, going to the cross, preaching the whole Bible, and joining the party. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Seeking Welfare

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