Faithful Failure

Psalm 118.20-24

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Mark 8.27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.

The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down. 

But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.

Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?

“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”

“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”

“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”

“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”

Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?

Silence.

Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.

And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.” 

Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!

And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.

But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!

Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.

Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.

Dead wrong.

And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:

Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.

Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.

And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.

When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.

What wonderfully Good News!

Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.

They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.

Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.

The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!

Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.

Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus! 

Can you imagine anything worse?

Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!

And then he gets it wrong.

But that’s not the end of his wrongness. 

On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.

Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.

In the church, we call this grace.

It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s wild stuff.

Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.

We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be. 

Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.

Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?

Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down. 

Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.

We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds. 

But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.

And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!

Jesus was rejected by Peter!

The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.

Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”

The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.

But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.

He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.

He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.

At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.

Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.

And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.

The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.

There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.

But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.

Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in. 

One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in. 

The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”

To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?” 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

Between Love & Hate

Psalm 35.17-21

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

John 15.18-25

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Something happened.

It’s not altogether clear what the something is that happened, but something definitely happened.

We live in a very different world than we once did.

And I don’t just mean because of the pandemic.

There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that you would grow up, go to school, get married, have two kids, pay your taxes, and go to church.

That world no longer exists.

Whatever the something is that happened, it had a major impact on the church. For, it is no longer assumed that new people will keep streaming in through the sanctuary doors (back when we could have in-person services) nor will they willfully sit through an entire service from the comfort of their couches simply because that’s what people are supposed to do.

Church, now, is a choice. And it is a choice among a myriad of other choices regarding what we can do with our time. 

So, how has the church responded to this something that happened?

Well, in large part, we’ve decided that the best path forward is to convince people to love us because we’re a people of love.

Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad idea. God is love, after all. Jesus does tell us to love God and neighbor. Maybe, just maybe, love is all we need.

So we, as an institution, created banners proclaiming the necessity of love, we crafted sermon series about how God loves everyone just the way they are, we dropped the L word as often as we could when, frighteningly, we’re not entirely sure we know what we mean when we talk about love.

Here’s an example from a sermon I listened to recently: “God loves you just the way you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay just as you are.”

What in the world does that mean?

Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where love is the key to being the church and even if we don’t know what it means, or even what it looks like, we at least know that, in the end, we all want to be loved.

And yet, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following him means the world will hate us.

“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t an easy thing to hear from our Lord. 

Particularly when we’ve convinced ourselves the whole point of church is to love and be loved in return.

Here’s a brief thought-experiment – Let’s imagine, if we can, Jesus showing up today. What would he look like? With whom would he spend his time? What would he preach about?

Usually, when we picture Jesus, he’s this hippy-dippy character who throws up a peace sign every once in a while, he asks us to all get along, and above all he is nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. You don’t crucify someone for being nice.

If God just wanted us to be more loving, why did Jesus have to come to tell us that? 

If God is all about love, then why did God go through all the trouble of being this particular person, Jesus, at a particular time and a particular place?

Jesus knew that life wasn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be. He told stories about giving money away, he regularly ridiculed the rich, he belittled the religious authorities, he called into question all of the powers and principalities of his day.

And for that, and more, he was hated.

Take the whole Gospel in: the crowds grow and grow only to leave him abandoned in the end. 

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus?

If we can’t imagine being hated for our discipleship, we can, at the very least, recover how odd of a thing it is to be Christian. This whole proclamation we call the Gospel is an extraordinary adventure, and that’s not that same thing as wanting to be liked/loved by everyone.

Consider – Last week we looked at Jesus’ temptations from the Devil out in the wilderness. He doesn’t eat for forty days, he contends against the powers of Satan, and then he returns to call upon the first disciples. And, in our minds, we just kind of assume the earliest conversations went something like this: “Okay, so I’m God in the flesh. I’m the Messiah. And I finally figured out how to solve all the world’s problems… All we need is love. Now, go and tell everyone what I said.”

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

Because, again, if all Jesus came to do what push us in the direction of love, then why did everyone reject him. Why did the crowds, to use the language of our passages today, hate him?

Perhaps Jesus was hated because he refused to give the people what they wanted on their own terms. Remember – the Devil offered Jesus the power to institute feeding programs, the power over all earthly kingdoms, and even the power to instill faith in all people.

But Jesus refused.

Jesus refused because God’s kingdom cannot become manifest through the devil’s means.

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Messiah of apathy, laziness, or indifference.

Jesus is very political – in fact, he is an entirely new politic. But the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates through his life, death, and resurrection is one that comes through the transformation of the world’s understanding of how to get things to happen.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use violence in order to achieve peace.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use coercive measures in order to make the Kingdom come.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use the powers and principalities to do anything

Therefore, the offense, the thing people hate, is not that Jesus wanted his followers to be more loving – the offense is Jesus himself. 

Over and over again he talks about bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly because he’s in the business of rectification.

He talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked for no reason other than the fact that they’re hungry and naked.

He talks about dying in order to be raised so that the whole of the cosmos can be raised with him for FREE.

Is is then any wonder that the world wasn’t prepared to welcome this Messiah?

It is any wonder that people have hated Jesus and his followers since the beginning?

Jesus was ultimately put to death not because he thought that the world could use a little more love, though we certain could. Jesus was killed because he embodied and proclaimed an entirely different reality that threatens anyone with any power.

Put simply, Jesus was killed for telling the truth.

For us today, the problem with Jesus’ truth-telling is that we, and the world, are drunk with deception, we hoard half-truths, and we live by lies.

Telling the truth is no easy endeavor – it got Jesus killed and it can upturn everything about our lives. But contrary to how we often water-down the gospel, there’s nothing safe about Jesus, no matter what VeggieTales might tell us.

Jesus offers freedom from our anxieties by giving us, of all things, a yoke to wear around our necks.

Jesus shares the possibility of transformation here and now by inviting us into his death (baptism) so that we might rise into new life.

Jesus promises our resurrection from the dead not with a wave of a magic wand, but by making of members of his very body redeemed by his blood so that we can become a community that is an alternative to the world.

And for that, the world might just hate us.

Why? 

Jesus forms us into a people who live by strange ways and by strange means. We are a community who gathers (even virtually) with people we share nothing in common with except that Jesus binds us to one another.

We are a community who believe in the transformative power of praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless, and hoping against hope.

We are a community committed to the least of these even if (and when) the world tries to convince us to do otherwise.

God in Christ has knit us together to be a people of love in a world that runs by hate, which is a very dangerous way to live.

It might sound difficult or even frightening, but its at least an adventure. The Gospel is not merely one thing after another, it’s the only things that really matters – it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Despite our best efforts, and all of our best intentions, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. We couldn’t save ourselves and we couldn’t save the world even though we certainly tried. We convinced ourselves that if we just loved each other a little bit more that things would finally be set right. But things largely stayed the same.

So what did God do? Was God delighted to give us an A for effort but an F for execution and therefore closed the door of the kingdom right in our faces? 

Actually, in a wild act of humility (read: humiliation) God came down to us, became one with us.

We always thought that the whole purpose of this thing called faith, this thing called church, was so somehow get ourselves closer to God. And then God came down to us, down to the level of the cross, straight into the muck and the mire of this life, all the way down into the very depths of hell.

He who knew no sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.

Listen- This is not something that happened just for other people in other places – God still stoops down into your life and into mine. God has taken stock of all of our choices, the good and the bad, and still chooses to come and be God for us, with us, in spite of us. 

God loves you so much that God was willing to die.

Jesus died for you.

He lived his whole life as a refugee and amidst poverty, he endured reproaches and derision and abuse just so that you and I could escape death.

Jesus does this knowing full and well that we are the very people who would’ve shouted crucify.

Jesus is peculiarly obstinate.

And it is wonderful. 

Jesus does not need us, but we certainly need him. 

And that’s the scandal of the Gospel – Jesus, God in the flesh, chooses to live, die, and live again for us and we don’t deserve it one bit. 

No one does.

And we are now called to live in the light of that perplexing Good News. That light helps us to see ourselves and one another not according to the ways of the world where we measure everyone and everything by worth, but according to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

The world might hate us for it, but Jesus has overcome the world.

Something has happened. And things are not as they once were. But this is still good news, because the something that happened is called Jesus. Amen. 

Jesus Saves

Psalm 110

The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountain. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head. 

Luke 20.41-47

Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

A political movement turned radically violent.

The mob stormed gates, climbed walls, destroyed doors, and they shattered any assumptions of safety and sanctity. 

Anyone who stood in their way was attacked, beaten to the ground, and left behind. The insurrectionists used whatever they could to turn their feelings into signs of force, from flags to banners to fists.

Once inside, they searched methodically for those who represented what they came to destroy. They obliterated images and symbols that for centuries stood the test of time. 

And outside, while the crowds chanted with frightening vigor, a sign was held high above for all to see: 

“Jesus Saves”

Sadly, what took place in and around the Capitol at the beginning of January was not as unprecedented as some have claimed. Throughout history there have been countless examples of those who took matters into their own hands and did whatever they thought necessary to bring about a change. 

And, even sadder, has been the use of Christian images/words/symbols to encourage such destruction. 

Before they started throwing objects through windows, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, kneeled in the streets to pray in the name of Jesus.

Contemporary Christian music was played and performed in order to give a righteous feeling to a wholly unrighteous display of aggression.

Among the signs and shirts and slogans from the likes of QAnon, and the Confederate Flag, and Anti-Semitic fervor, there were an equal number of “Jesus 2020” and “The Armor of God” among the rioters. 

Even pastors were present in the crowd, yelling into bullhorns about the mission to “save the republic for Christ” all while the throngs screamed in response: “Jesus is Lord!”

The great cacophony of Christianity contains multitudes. There’s a reason there are more Christian denominations than we can keep track of because we cannot agree on what it means to keep the main thing, the main thing.

Part of this challenge stems from the fact that the Bible, what we take as an authority over what it means to follow Jesus, is so wild. 

Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from all sorts of different places: from Galilee to Galatia, Antioch to Rome, from tiny towns and massive metropolises, rural farms and seaside ports, prisons and palaces, and all from a wide range of times – 1,500 years!

The Bible contains just about every literary genre from law codes to genealogies to parables to poems, and it was put together by people we don’t know anything about!

And yet, despite all of that, we lift up this bewildering book and confess it to be God’s word for us. 

So we take it up and read. We open it right to the middle and come across a Psalm, and we find these words: “The Lord says my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sent out from Zion your mighty scepter… The Lord is at your right hand; he will scatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.”

Now, some Christians will respond to these words by taking up matters into their own hands to make their enemies their footstool. They will claim that God is on their side, and they are the righteous messengers of God’s judgment and justice.

Others, of course, will dismiss such a Psalm as being connected to the so-called “violent God of the Old Testament.” They will insist that their God just wants everybody to get along, and to let love rule.

But here’s the thing: The strange new world of the Bible tells the story of the God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bonds of creation in order to get what God wants.

And it’s not always pretty:

The God of scripture sends a flood to wipe out every living being (except for a few who fortunately catch a ride in a very large boat). God breaks down a tower in order to confuse the our speech and scatters humanity across the earth. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to then cast him and his riders into the sea. 

I could go on.

Thus, for centuries, people have embraced the violence of God for their own purposes, or they have rejected “that God” in order to embrace something they believe they can find in the hippy dippy lovely dovey God of the New Testament. 

But thats not actually how scripture works. 

For as righteously angry as God gets in the Old Testament, God is equally ridiculous in loving a people undeserving – God rains down manna from heaven to feed those who complain about God, God brings back a idolatrous nation after years in captivity, God remains faithful to the covenant that God’s people fail, again and again, to hold up.

And, for as much as God is love (revealed in Jesus) in the New Testament, God is equally filled with bitterness.

“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

“You have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers,” Jesus says after going off the deep end with his Temple tantrum.

“If any of you cause someone else to stumble,” Jesus says, “it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were dumped you into the ocean.”

Are we sure we want to worship this Jesus?

  Truthfully, though we confess Jesus as Lord with our lips, most of us live as if we are the lords of our lives. We do this because, whether we could articulate it or not, we generally believe that history is developing in an ongoing process of progress. That is, the world is better now than it once was and that we are all responsible for making it better for future generations. 

We believe in the power of humanity! With all of our enlightened sensibilities, we assume, sooner or later, we will finally get the chaos of the cosmos under control and we will set everything as it should be.

Which is why so many sermons end with a “lettuce” statement – let us now go forth to make the world a better place, or, frighteningly, let us go and save the republic for Christ.

But here’s the thing: if we could’ve made the world a better place, or even the best place, we would’ve done it long ago.

The challenge for those who wish to follow Jesus is the confession that even though certain things might appear to be better (whatever that might mean) we are still very much who we are: sinners in need of grace.

The question/answer period of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem ends after a whole bunch of controversy regarding authority with Jesus asking his own question. There is disagreement among the religious leaders about this would-be carpenter-Messiah who claims to be from the line of David. At the time, David-like dimensions of Messianic expectation were a dime a dozen – every time a new political leader garnered some power, it was assumed that, like David, he (because it was always a he) would take back the throne in Jerusalem. 

The Messiah, to the religious authorities, would be the one to save the people Israel through a new military regime that put the people of God back on top.

And for Jesus, this was not acceptable.

Therefore, being a good teacher, Jesus uses scripture to interpret the present circumstances. “How can it be,” Jesus asks, “for the Messiah to be David’s son? Don’t you all remember what David wrote in the psalms? ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ If David called him Lord, than how can he be David’s son?”

This might seem a trivial point of order, but for Jesus, on the basis of the Psalm, the Messiah is not merely from the line of David. In fact, the Messiah is the Lord of David. 

Jesus is then not just another revolutionary come to set the people free from tyrannical oppression, Jesus is God in the flesh come to dwell among the very people who will, in the end, betray him.

“Jesus is Lord” has been a confession of faith since the very beginning. Today, we Christian types often take that confession to mean something to the effect of Jesus being the Lord of my life. And, even though that’s true, it’s also so much more. For, to confess Jesus as Lord is also to confess that Jesus is God.

And Jesus, as God, is going to get what Jesus wants. Jesus will make his enemies his footstool, whether we like it or not.

Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus announces the imminent implementation of a new regime, but it’s not one the people of God were prepared for. 

They assumed a military victory, parades of power, and a new throne.

Instead, the were told about a kingdom in which the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be free, the blind would see, and the lame would walk.

Which, all things considered, wasn’t anything new! Those words come from the prophet Isaiah!

Do you see? God doesn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. There’s not some God of the Old Testament and a different God in the New. They are one and the same. They are Trinity. 

God, in Christ, puts the enemies of sin and death, the powers and the principles, squarely under the heel of the divine. 

But, of course, it happens not in the way anyone could’ve imagined.

A suffering Messiah who is enthroned at the right hand of God? The incarnate Lord dies on the cross only to be raised again? No one expected such a thing to happen.

A Lord who calls his followers to pray for their enemies, to sell their possessions in order to help the poor, to lose their lives in order to save them? Who wants to worship such a reckless God?

The Messiah, the Anointed One, God in the flesh, is always more than we think. In our limited and finite (and frankly foolish) notions of how things work, we assume that power is demonstrated in strength. But Jesus comes to show us how real power comes in weakness. 

We assume that our job is to make the world look more like us. But Jesus comes to conquer and overcome the world.

We assume that if we just work hard enough, we can set everything the way it is supposed to be. But then Jesus shows up to remind us that we are sinners, all of us.

Jesus is not just some ethical teacher who wants us to behave ourselves.

Jesus is not some political revolutionary whose words we can cherry pick to suit our needs.

Jesus is not a new David come to elevate us to the places of power and prestige.

Jesus is God!

In himself he is the new creation.

When we open up the strange new world of the Bible, when we read about the Lord in the Psalms, the Lord who brings victory, we are reading about Jesus. But his victory comes not how we or anyone could’ve predicted. Jesus takes our sins and our misery upon himself and away from us. He is able to do this because he is not only the Messiah, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you better than we know ourselves. 

Jesus brings the victory. 

Not you.

Not me.

Only Jesus saves. Amen.

Help!

Psalm 118.21-25

I thank you that you have answered and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Luke 20.9-19

He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and the chief priest realized that he had told this parables against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

Listen.

There was a man who planted a great vineyard. But it was too big for him to manage it all by himself so he leased it out to tenants and then decided to go on a little vacation. 

When the appointed season came, the landowner sent someone to the tenants in order to receive his share of the harvest.

But the tenants, they beat him up, insulted him, and sent him away with nothing.

The landowner, not one to give in easily, sent someone else, but this one was also wounded and tossed to the dirt. 

This pattern kept repeating itself until the landowner decided to send his son, his beloved son, the one with whom he was well pleased, but when the son arrived the tenants decided to murder him where he stood in order that they might receive his inheritance.

What do you think the landowner will do next?

Jesus’s parabolic stories are, as Robert Farrar Capon puts it, used not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings. 

This story, this parable of the so-called “wicked tenants” is, as we like to call it in the church, a parable of judgment. However, the parables of judgment don’t often function the way we think they’re supposed to work. Judgment, after all, is supposed to come down on all the evil-doers and the sinners and the riffraff with swift condemnation. 

And yet, Jesus presents divine judgment in all sorts of stories against the backdrop of an all-inclusive grace. That is, characters are completely included far before they are excluded – they are accepted before they are judged. 

Grace and mercy, rather than punishment and retribution, are the starting points.

Contrary to how the church so often functions, Jesus isn’t really trying to convince us, or the crowds, of anything. He simply stands to deliver story after story giving us glimpses behind the curtain of the cosmos and dares us to do nothing more than believe.

But, of course, that sounds too good to be true.

No matter how much we talk about God’s mercy, no matter how many times we talk about God as love, no matter how many times we sing Amazing Grace, we don’t really like it. Because, taken seriously, God’s grace is far too available. It throws parties for prodigal sons, it drags in undeserving people right off the street, it makes space for the last, least, lost, little, and dead and it doesn’t have much of anything to do for those who consider themselves “good” people. 

Therefore, the hearers of Jesus’ parables of judgment, including us, are those in need of help. We, too often, forget about God’s mercy for sinners. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that, by and large, we’re all perfectly fine (thank you very much). 

No need for forgiveness if you haven’t made any mistakes.

No need for absolution when you haven’t sinned.

The only problem with all this is the fact that we’re all sinners!

We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

But we like the church, part of God’s incarnate Kingdom, to be a little more orderly. 

We can take it from here God! We don’t need You mucking up our good thing. 

We assure people that God loves them, but we make it clear that they all need to fit into a certain mold before they will fit in with the rest of us. We want the kingdom of our own making rather than the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

And for that, we stand accused. 

But, it’s precisely here that the Gospel really comes into its own. Because, as the accused, we haven’t a change in hell of making an argument for ourselves. But then, wonder of wonders, Jesus as the judge and the jury stands not only to defend us, but also to take our sentence upon himself, seeing us free for no good reason except the Gospel!

Listen – Jesus’ authority has been called into question, yet again, and he responds with a parable: A man planted a vineyard. Vineyards, notably, are a favorite setting of Jesus’ and they echo throughout the scripture from Genesis, to Isaiah, to Jesus’ favorite playlist of all, the Psalms.

The man plants the vineyard and leases it out to tenants. But when he sends a messenger to collect his portion of the harvest, the tenants beat him and send him away. 

Jesus, throughout his ministry, tells a whole lot of strange tales, and this one is no different in it’s bizarreness. 

Consider – There is no good reason for the landowner to expect that the wicked tenants will do anything but murder his son just as they had done horrible things to his previous messengers. 

Equally crazy is the tenants thinking that by murdering the heir of the vineyard they, themselves, will inherit it. The only thing they’ll inherit is the unquenchable wrath of the landowner who will now bring down the hammer of righteousness. 

In the end, the problem with the tenants (in addition to their violent and murderous rampage) is that they, simply, can’t and don’t trust the landowner. Who, by the way, gave them land to till that they never would have had were it not for the landowner’s generosity!

The tenants trust only in themselves and look where it gets them.

Having thus parabolically flipped things on their head, Jesus dangles a question and answer for the authorities who called into question his authority – What will the landowner do next? He will come and destroy the tenants and give their land to other people.

“Heaven forbid!” they reply.

And then Jesus ties it all up with, of all things, a reference to the Psalms: “What do you think it means that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone?” 

“Don’t you see?” Jesus seems to say, “All of this is exactly what God has promised from long ago. The Messiah is not like you have imagined, the Messiah is not like the tenants who take matters into their own hands and use violence as the means by which they accomplish their goals. The Messiah is going to be rejected, murdered, and abandoned.”

The stone will be rejected by the builders, and will still become the chief cornerstone of God’s cosmic victory! 

It is precisely in rejection, in unacceptability, that the Messiah brings salvation. 

The world, in the end, isn’t saved through works, or in goodness, or in any other of our machinations – the world is, instead, saved through the rejection of the Jesus, in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

Now, that all sounds good, but in our heart of hearts we mutter, along with the authorities of Jesus’ day, “Heaven forbid!” 

We don’t really want the landowner’s son to come up to us and say that all has been forgiven. We think of ourselves as generally good people who do good things – for what then would we need forgiveness?

We don’t really like to consider the ramifications of the Good News and what it means for all of us. Because if the Good News is really for everyone, then God’s inviting to his party a whole lot of people we wouldn’t be caught dead with. 

We don’t really want this to be true, because we’ve been spoon fed a version of faith in which we think being well behaved, or pious, or holy, is more important than trusting God to do what God said God would do.

In the end, we want to be the ones in control. We, like the foolish tenants in the story, we try to stop the paradoxical power of grace that alone can save us, and instead we take refuge in a who lot of nonsense that only insures we will lose in the end.

We flock to the likes of Facebook and Twitter assuming that our self-righteousness will be enough to correct all the problems with other people.

We assume that if we just elect the right politicians everything will be perfect. 

We take matters into our own hands whenever possible believing we know what’s best for ourselves and for the world.

But, and here’s the truly Good News, we can’t stop the paradoxical power of grace that is Jesus Christ! Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him, even for the sin of believing in ourselves more than in the One who has come to save us.

For as bizarre as the parables are, perhaps the most confounding part of Jesus’ stories is that, having told all of them, he then goes and acts out what he’s been talking about from the beginning. Like the psalm pointing ahead to the rejection of the stone that will become the cornerstone, it’s in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that he makes manifest the mystery of the kingdom in which no one has to do anything to be saved except truth that someone has done it all for us. 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen. 

From The Mouth Of Babes

Psalm 8.1-5

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

Matthew 21.14-17

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. 

It was a busy Sunday morning.

The confirmands were getting confirmed.

The choir was trying out a new anthem.

The sermon was a sitting at a solid B-.

Nevertheless, I stood and addressed the people of God, all while constantly referring to the overstuffed bulletin in hopes that I wouldn’t, accidentally, skip over part of the service.

God gathered us. God spoke God’s word to us. And the time had come for us to respond. The confirmands were, finally, confirmed, and were therefore the first in line to receive communion. They, being the good and holy tweenagers they were, made silly faces at me when I offered the bread, doing their best to mess me up. I kept my cool, being all holy up at the front with my long robe and made a mental note to teach those kids some some respect after the service.

I kept distributing the bread with the solemnity required at such a moment. 

Eye contact.

Knowing head nods.

The subtle tap on the hand.

Until, the very end when the final person came forward to receive the body and the blood of our Lord. 

Owen. 

I confess I was momentarily surprised to see Owen standing before me and below me in the middle of the sanctuary because Owen was barely three years old, a child from our preschool, and his family had never been to church before.

I looked around for his mother, and father, and little sister and found them frantically rushing around the back of the church as if they had lost something.

The something they lost was standing right below me.

“It’s my turn pastor Taylor,” he said, “I want some Jesus please.” And he opened his mouth like a little baby bird and waited for me to drop a piece of bread in.

So I did.

I then, of course, picked him up and carried him to the back of the church where his family expressed their gratitude for the lost having been found, and then I sprinted down the center aisle to get us back on track.

As the big, grown-up, entirely responsible, never child-like adult that I am, I am quite good at making myself the center of all things.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m at a dinner party or standing up in a space like this on Sunday morning – I get used to things going a certain way, the ritual of it all, the comforting domestication of life. So much so that I, occasionally, forget to pay attention to the Spirit who insists on defying and upending expectations. 

God, bewilderingly, likes to drop road signs pointing us in the right direction, or smacking us in the face with stop sign to halt us dead in our tracks. 

God’s ways are not our ways.

One day, Jesus was walking with the disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. All of them, being good and faithful disciples, were frantically taking down notes so as to not miss any of the important details. 

But they were distracted.

One of them, perhaps Peter, interjected, “Lord, can’t something be done about all these kids who keep following us around? Shouldn’t we send them to the nursery, or children’s church, or maybe we could just put them down in front of an episode of Paw Patrol? They’re so distracting!”

And do you know what Jesus did? He plucked up the nearest kid and sat her down right in the middle of all of the disciples and said, “When you receive one such child… Surprise! You receive me also.”

One day Jesus was hanging out with his disciples in the Temple. Upturned tables littered the area and the money lenders grumbled in the corners. Meanwhile, the blind and lame came to Jesus and he cured them, he made them whole. But when the big whigs, the movers and the shakers, saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children singing out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became very angry with Jesus. 

They said to him, “Do you hear what they’re singing???” Jesus replied, “Of course I can hear them singing! Don’t you remember what it says in Psalm 81? Oh, you don’t remember that one? Well, let me refresh your memory: ‘O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is you name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.’”

And then Jesus left them standing there with the jaws on the floor.

Stanley Hauerwas is famous for saying: “Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his/her twelve-year old in a sermon. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some baloney.”

Though, when he says it, he uses a much saltier expression than baloney.

That he says it so often is indicative of his desire for sermons to be about God rather than about us. For, when someone like me stands in a place like this regaling people like you with stories of “Kids Say The Darndest Things” moments, it is worth wondering what, at all, that has to do with the Gospel.

We aren’t here to hear stories that make us chuckle about the whimsy of youth. 

We’re here to hear a Word from the Lord, from God almighty!

And yet, as Jesus so wonderfully reminds us today, the child sitting in the middle of the crowd, the kid who sneaks away from his parents in the middle of a worship service, the children singing in the courtyard of the temple, they are here to distract us from our big, serious, but utterly self-centered adult religion, all so that another kid, a baby actually, might get our attention about what’s really important.

How odd of God to chose a baby born to an unwed virgin to change the cosmos. 

How odd of God to chose the baby turned adult to speak greater truth than we could possibly bear. 

How off of God to chose children singing songs by the temple to shake up the religious sensibilities of those in charge then and now!

Notably, when Karl Barth (the great theologian of the 20th century) was asked to summarize the entirety of his theology he responded by singing: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”

Shortly before his wild temple tantrum, Jesus settled a dispute between his disciples about greatness by telling them, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!”

So, should there be any children paying extra close attention to the sermon today, the next time you hear an adult tell you to “act you age” you have pastoral permission to respond by saying, “Well Jesus says that unless you start acting like a kid you’ll never enter the kingdom!”

Of course, it’s not just about having a child-like faith. We’re not called to be naive about the world. But, at least according to this moment from Matthew, when Jesus spins a verse from his favorite playlist The Psalms, it has less to do with being small or unintelligent and more to do with the fact that even babies and children proclaim the goodness of God.

Consider, for a moment, what it is that the children are singing that day in the temple courtyard: “Hosanna to the Son of David.” 

Literally, “Save us, Son of David.”

The adults, the chiefs priests and elders, are all angry because they can’t stand the thought of Jesus being God, being the promised Messiah. They can’t stand to hear children confessing a truth that runs counter to everything they think they know. Perhaps they’re furious because they can’t imagine a world in which someone like Jesus, a wandering rabbi with a rag tag group of would-be disciples, could actually be the one to bring about the salvation of the cosmos.

But the kids… the kids that day see something more than the adults do, they hope for something more than the adults could wrap their heads around. 

In Jesus, they see God. 

They witness the abundant mercy of the Messiah who stoops to heal the sick, and the blind, and the lame. 

They encounter the power of the Anointed One who rids the temple of its economic disparity for a reality in which all are welcome to worship no matter the size of their wallet. 

They experience the King of kings who, in the end, rules from the hard wood of the cross and uses his final earthly breaths to declare, of all things, forgiveness.

Sometimes, kids get it better than we do.

It all began, the father starts his story, a few Christmases ago when my 4 year old daughter began asking questions about what the holiday meant.

So I began explaining to her that this was in celebrating the birth of Jesus and she wanted to know more about that so I went out and got a children’s Bible and we would read together at night. She loved it. She wanted to know everything about Jesus.

So we read a lot about his birth and his teachings and she would ask constantly about this one particular phrase and I would explain that it was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what it all meant.

One day we were driving past a big church and out front was this big crucifix and she asked, “Who’s that?!” And I guess I never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of fill the rest in. I told her that Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government and that his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities at the time that they came to the conclusion that he would have to die.

About a month later her preschool had the day off for Martin Luther King Day and I took off the day from work and we went out for lunch together. We were sitting and right on the table was the local newspaper with a giant picture of Dr. King on the front. And she said, “Who’s that?” I said, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. This is the day we celebrate his life.”

She said, “Well, who is he?” And I said, “He was a preacher.” She looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah he was. But there was another thing that he was famous for. He had a message. He said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.” 

She thought about that for a moment and then she said, “Well that’s what Jesus said.” 

I said, “I guess it is. I never thought about it that way but it is like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

And my daughter looked down at the table for a long time before she said, “Did they kill him too?”

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. Amen.

This Is Who We Are

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, Mark 1.21-28). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including South Park, betting on Jesus, Weird Methodist Twitter, prophetic preaching, Deus Dixit, online communion, bookcases, Thrice, social media dunking, Taco Bell, demons, and questions of authority. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: This Is Who We Are

Love Is All You Knead

Psalm 78.1-4

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. 

Matthew 13.33-35

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

To what may we compare the scriptures?

Or, perhaps more plainly, what’s the Bible like?

Well, the strange new world of the Bible is like a giant house that is full of locked rooms. And on the floor in front of every door there is a key. But there’s a catch: the key doesn’t fit the lock on the particular door. 

The challenge, then, is to gather up every single key and begin trying them out on each and every door until the proper key is found that will unlock each room.

So it is with the scriptures.

They are so obscure that the only way to understand them is by means of coming into contact with other passages containing different explanation that are dispersed throughout.

This is a parable about parables.

Consider – the Bible is full of just about every literary form. 

Genealogy. Poetry. Prose. Drama. Instruction. Reflection. And, of course, parables.

Take it up and read – you’re just as likely to find something familiar as you are to find something bizarre.

This is the challenge of this thing that we come back to over and over again, like fools wandering around through a house with a pocketful of keys having no idea where any of them go. 

So it is that we wander through the Bible while using the Bible to make sense of the Bible.

And, stretching the parable out a little more, we might hope and suppose that if any of the rooms in the house were already unlocked and opened, they would be Jesus’ parables. 

That we would so hope is due to the fact that parables are usually use to clarify something about something – they are stories that reveal truths that we would otherwise miss.

And yet, at least with Jesus, the opposite seems to be true.

We don’t walk away from the parables with exclamations of, “Oh that’s what he meant!”

Instead we often walk away only to say, “What in the world was that all about?”

The late great Robert Farrar Capon put it this way: The device of parabolic utterance is used NOT to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and understandings… Jesus’ parables are intentionally designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of those who receive them. 

Consider, briefly, the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Jesus tells his disciples that God is like a shepherd who, if one sheep among one hundred goes missing, will leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one who went astray. And, if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.

Okay. A lot of us love this parable. We’ve heard it since we were kids in Vacation Bible School and the idea that God will never leave us lost is, truly, a comforting thought.

But, here’s the problem: The only thing guaranteed about going after one lost sheep is that the ninety-nine will go missing too. Going off after one is straight up bad advice because it puts all the other sheep at risk. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found!

The parable of the lost sheep is, like all of Jesus’ parables, confounding and head-scratching Good News. It is a stark declaration that God saves losers and only losers. God finds the lost and only the lost. God raises the dead and only the dead.

The parables of Jesus, from the Lost Sheep, to the Prodigal Son, to the Good Samaritan, though they vary greatly in form and even function, they all point again and again to the fact that God is the one who acts first and God acts definitely without conditions. 

Well, there might be one little condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit that we are lost and without a hope in the world unless a crazy shepherd is willing to risk it all on us.

But to the passage at hand – Jesus, resting in the vibes of his favorite playlist, the Psalms, chooses to speak in parables and only in parables in order to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” 

This is the exclamation mark on a string of stories that include the sower who scatters seed indiscriminately, the weeds among the wheat (which must be left to grow together until the harvest), and the mustard seed.

All three of these brief parables point to the circuit-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry and kingdom. 

The Sower refuses to sow only where the seeds will bear fruit and is determined to rain down grace upon every type of soil.

No good gardener lets the weeds grow among the wheat, but in the Kingdom of God there is room for all to grow and flourish. 

And the mustard seed doesn’t do anyone any good until its buried deep into the soil, not unlike a first century carpenter turned rabbi who, after being buried in a tomb, was raised three days later.

But then Jesus decides to tie up all of these crazy stories with the parable of the leaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of flower until all of it was leavened.

In one sentence Jesus has fulfilled the promise and proclamation of the psalm: He has drawn the people in to hear the words from his mouth – he speaks a parable, utter dark sayings from old. They will not be hidden from children, and this story will be told to every coming generation describing the wonders that God has done.

But what’s so wonderful about a woman mixing yeast with flour?

Better yet, what in the world does that have to do with the kingdom of God?

For a moment, let us rest in the great and sadly controversial fact that the surrogate for God in this story is, in fact, a woman. Contrary to how it has been spread throughout the history of the church, all that patriarchal nonsense doesn’t have any foundation to rest on. In other places Jesus specifically compares himself to a mother hen, women are the only disciples who don’t abandon Jesus at the end, and without women preachers none of us would’ve heard about the resurrection from the dead!

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded it together with three measures of flower.

God, as the female baker, takes the yeast that is the kingdom of God, and mixes it thoroughly with the flour that is the world.

Now, think about this for a moment, the work of this baker isn’t just a nice little loaf for Sunday brunch. Jesus notes that she took three measures (SATA in Greek) of flour which is a bushel.

That’s 128 cups of flour!

When you’re done putting in the 42 cups of water necessary to get the bread going you’re left with over 100 pounds of dough.

But Jesus keeps going! That crazy 100 pound mass of dough is thoroughly mixed until all of it, ALL OF IT, was leavened.

The great, and at times terrible, part about baking bread is that once the yeast has been introduced it cannot be removed. It becomes hidden, it loses itself in order to become something else. It is a mysteriously wonderful thing to watch the yeast disappear into the mixture knowing that it will make something marvelous of something otherwise useless.

Which, parabolically, means that the kingdom of God, like leavened bread, has been with us from the very beginning and will always be with us. It is hidden in and among us doing it’s job and there’s nothing we can do to get rid to it.

No amount of badness, or even goodness, can do anything to the yeast that is already mixed with the flour and the water.

The baker has done her job and now the yeast will make something of the messy dough. The yeast works intimately and immediately and nothing can stop it. 

But we, as usual, scratch our heads like the disciples and all who have received the parables. We keep wandering around the house with many rooms, struggling to hold all of the keys, without having any idea about which door to try next. 

We wonder what, in the world, this parable has to do with us.

Well, perhaps this parable, this dark saying from of old, reminds us that the only thing we can do, other than admitting our need of Jesus, is wait for him to do his job.

Ask any baker, one of the worst things to do is throw the dough into the oven before it’s ready. And good bread, really good bread, is made when the yeast has the time to do what it needs to do without our mucking it up.

And, AND, when baking, the only way the yeast makes something of nothing is by, of all things, dying. When the yeast has finally mixed into the dough, and it is placed in the oven, it dies – and by dying it creates thousands of little pockets of air – it’s those pockets of air that makes the dough expand as its cooked.

Frankly, all of baking is a miracle. 

If you’ve ever had the pleasure, and the patience, to bake bread it’s nothing short of incredible.

And here’s the real kicker – the air created by the death of yeast, warm carbon dioxide, is the same thing we create every time we breathe. 

The whole of the Kingdom, Jesus seems to say, operates similarly by warm breath.

Remember: Jesus is the breathed Word of God, begotten not made, from the beginning of creation. God speaks creation into existence. God breathes the Spirit into Adam in the garden. That same Spirit, Ruah, breath, flows in and around all that we do giving life to the lifeless and possibility to countless impossibilities.

Remember: Jesus breathes out the Spirit after the resurrection onto his ragtag group of would be followers hiding in the Upper Room. Jesus speaks all of his parables only by use of a breath that was there before the foundation of the world.

Remember: The Spirit is blown on the day of Pentecost filling the newborn church with a mighty wind to go and share the Good News with the world. That same Spirit compels us, as the Psalm says, to tell the stories to the coming generations and declare the mighty works of our God.

Even me standing here and proclaiming the Word is only possible because of the warm breath that comes forth from my mouth. And, best of all, God is able to make something of my nothing every week that I stand to speak.

In the end, it’s all about warm air. Whether it’s in the bread backing in the oven, or the Spirit poured out on all flesh, or what all of us are doing right not simply to live.

Consider, for a moment, your own breath. From the time I started this sermon we’ve all, on average, breathed 150 times and we didn’t have to think about it at all for it to happen.

Just like the leavened bread, our breathing happens automatically. And when that leavened bread, the bread of life we call Jesus, is mixed definitively into our lives, it unfailingly expands and makes something miraculous of us.

The job, strangely and mysteriously, is already done. Finished and baked before the foundation of the world. Completed by the great baker who breathed out his life for us from the cross, forgave us with some of his final breaths, and forever prays on our behalf even when we can’t.

Which is all to say, whether or not we know what key matches with which door, we are as good and baked into salvation right here and right now. God, compelled by love, has kneaded us in with the holy baking trinity of flour, water, and yeast which will become something we never could on our own.

The only thing we have to do is listen to Jesus and trust that he has done and will forever do his yeasty work. And, in the end, when we start to small the fresh bread wafting in from the oven of the Kingdom, we will know that we are truly home, forever. Amen. 

Offensive

Psalm 82

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

John 10.31-39

The Jews took up stones agin to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped form their hands.

Two scenes.

Imagine, if you can, two separate courtroom dramas.

BUM BUM (a la the theme to Law & Order)!

In the first, God sits behind the judgment seat looking out over a room full to the brim with God’s people. They have all meandered in, carrying their own hopes and fears, sins and shames, on their sleeves. They have been elevated to the status of angels because they, unlike the rest of humanity, have received the Torah. And yet they have taken this privilege and squandered it with injustice.

God smacks the gavel and all those gathered sink even lower into their chairs.

God declares, “What is wrong with all of you? How long will you continue to make such a mess of things? All I ask is that you give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the weak and the needy. For once you were no people but now you are my people – start acting like it!”

But they don’t.

They are more concerned with themselves than with others. They do whatever they can to rise to the top and care not one bit about what it costs. They walk around like a people stuck in darkness and they have no hope.

God shakes the very foundations of the earth from God’s divine courtroom and proclaims the verdict: “You are gods, you are children of the Most High, all of you belong to me. Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” 

Justice is served.

In the second courtroom, the tables have turned (literally). Now it is God’s people who sit in the seat of judgment and Jesus, God in the flesh, is the one on trial. 

Jesus has given his whole pitch, proclaimed the kingdom parabolically, as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he ends the head-scratching discourse (Consider: what good does it do for the sheep for their shepherd to give his life away?) with a reoccurring connection between himself and the Father.

And now the gathered faithful surround the accused: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they demand. “How long are you going to annoy us with your stories and cheap parlor tricks? Just tell us who you really are!”

They are looking for some good old plain truth. 

But there is nothing plain about Jesus.

Born God in the flesh to an unwed virgin in Bethlehem.

Heals the sick and feeds the hungry.

Elevates the lowly and brings down the mighty.

There is nothing plain about the Messiah, about a God who speaks from a burning bush, about the One who makes a way where there is no way.

“Look,” Jesus begins, “I have told you again and again who I am, but you don’t believe me. Have you not seen the wonders wrought through these hands? Have you not received parables about the coming and present Kingdom? Have you not witnessed the Father’s work here and now?”

The crowds of judgment bicker among themselves.

“Well, he did feed those 5,000 people…”

“My cousin told me that his friend’s coworker saw him make a blind man see…”

“I heard he can cast out demons…”

Jesus interrupts their discussion, “It’s simple really. The Father and I are one.”

That’s enough for the judge, jury, and executioner! They all rush forward to put him to death but Jesus merely lifts his hands and says, “I have done so many good things for all of you. For which of them are you going to kill me?”

They answer in unison, “It’s not for a good work that we are going to stone you to death, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

“I seem to remember another courtroom of sorts in the Psalms,” Jesus says, “when the Lord called those who received the Word gods. So can you really call me a blasphemer even though I have been sanctified and sent into the world as God’s Son? If you don’t think I’m doing God’s work then fine, don’t believe me. But, at the very least, you can believe in the things I do and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

And they rush forward to enact justice against Jesus, to kill him where he stands, but he escapes, again.

Here’s the matter at hand from the strange new world of the Bible today – Jesus is in a standoff with the religious authorities. He has told them who he is, he has demonstrated who he is, and they still do not believe. The whole of it feels on edge, like a powder keg ready to go off.

The people are dismayed, confused, and downright angry. They want to know when the truth will be revealed. They want to get a glimpse behind the curtain. They want to know who Jesus really is.

But Jesus’ answer fills them not with satisfaction, but with rage.

The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.

Jesus has equated himself with the Lord and the gathered people don’t like it one bit.

And yet, they want to kill him for it?

It can all feel a little exaggerated when we encounter this story, particularly when the Jesus of our minds is the hippie-dippy Jesus who just wants people to get along, a little more love in the world, and would be an excellent guest on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. 

But that’s not who Jesus is, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.

Jesus was offensive.

Jesus was offensive to those who trusted in their own reason, in their own understandings of how things were supposed to go because he ran counter to just about everything they could think of.

Jesus was offensive to the practitioners of religious observance because he was forever eating dinner with outcasts, those deemed unclean.

Jesus was offensive to those who sat in the positions of power because with every passing parable and proclamation the calls for the first to be last and the last to be first sounded more like a threat and less like a theory.

But more than all of that, more than the taking people to task, more than upending all the expectations, more than dropping story after story that made things more confusing rather than more clear, the most offensive thing about Jesus to the crowds is that he equates himself with God.

Why should he, a nobody from a nobody town, be the Son of God?

Isn’t God supposed to be perfect, and clean, and morally pure, and removed, and distant, and holy, and hidden, and powerful?

And here’s this Jesus, who insists on spending time with the last, least, lost, little, and dead. He breaks bread with sinners, he dwells in and among the lowliest of the low, he reveals the secrets of the Kingdom, and he demonstrates his power, ultimately, through weakness.

What seems to disrupt and offend the crowds so much is the fact that Jesus points to a truth they can’t stand.

As my friend Kenneth Tanner put it this week: The poverty of God is the greatest wealth in the cosmos, the weakness of God in the human Jesus is the conversion of the world and stronger than any power visible or invisible.

And yet for the crowds, and even for us, that rubs the wrong way. We are a people who are drunk on the illusion of power than comes from human hands, from our own ways and means, but God comes in Christ to remind us that power, real power, comes not from a throne or from violence, but from the cross and from mercy.

And so the crowds rush forward to kill the One in whom they live and move and have their being and Jesus spins the scriptures right back in their faces – How can saying “I am the Son of God” be blasphemy if Psalm 82 does not hesitate to call “sons of God” those to whom the word of God came.

Apparently, even Jesus liked to proof-text every once in a while. 

Notably, the “gods” of Psalm 82 lose their divine-like status for failing to take serious the justice of God and here, in Jesus, the justice of God is made manifest to a people undeserving, namely all of us.

God is Jesus and Jesus is God.

God is at least as nice as Jesus, and at least as zealous as Jesus.

The hiddenness of God is revealed in the person of Christ. The incomprehensibility of God is made known through the life, the teaching, the parables, the miracles, the healings, the feedings, and ultimately the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Which, when you think about it, is rather confounding. Or, perhaps it would be better to call it offensive. 

It is all so offensive because while God in Christ is like us, God in Christ is also completely unlike us.

Consider – How does God in the flesh react to those who are hellbent on stoning him to death? 

Does Jesus respond with retribution and damnation and destruction? 

Does Jesus take up the sword to put people in their place? 

Does Jesus react the way we would?

No.

In the end, God in Christ responds to all that we do with, of all things, forgiveness.

And forgiveness can be the most offensive thing of all.

There’s this great YouTube channel I came across this week where they ask people to respond to a question in one minute or less. They’ve been interviewing theologians and pastors which makes the premise all the better because pastors and theologians aren’t known for their brevity.

Nevertheless, this week they asked Dr. Jane Williams where she finds hope in a time such as ours and her answer was perfect.

She said, “I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.”

The offensive nature of the gospel is both that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

It’s offensive, but it’s also the gospel. Amen. 

Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken